MSNBC: Last night the president talked about some successes. He didn’t talk about the failures, but the Democrats did. Can we say whether or not the U.S. is doing anything but treading water in Iraq?
Tim Russert: Well, the president will say that in the Anbar province that is the case, but whether or not there will be a national reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shiites, we don’t know. And that is the real challenge in Iraq, sectarian violence.
Without that kind of reconciliation the country will not grow, will not prosper, and will not be safe.
I think the most important thing that happened last night is that George Bush said to the country, “The majority of the Congress may be against this war, that the majority of the people are against this war, but I think it is the right thing and it’s going forward. I started it, but I’m not going to finish it. I am going to pass it on to the next president.”
MSNBC: The 5,700 coming home by Christmas, the 23,000 home by next summer, is this, by any reckoning, a victory by the anti-war or the anti-Bush crowd?
Russert: Well, they will say no because the president will still have more troops in Iraq in July of ‘08, then he had before the surge.
Here’s what I think happened Thursday night. The president said, “The majority of congress may be against the war. The majority of the American people may be against it. But I think it’s the right thing to do. I started it; I’m not going to finish it. It is so important that I’m going to pass it on to the next president.”
And if you would crunch these numbers, there will be 160,000 on the ground in January of ‘08, 140,000 in July of ’08. In January of
09 when the new president puts his or her hand on the bible and says, “So help me God”, there will be 100,000 Americans on the ground. We will be there for a long time.
MSNBC: Now Democrats wasted no time by sounding off both before the speech and afterwards in a form of an official response by Senator Jack Reed. The more they sound off, but really don’t change anything; don’t they risk seeming inconsequential?
Russert: Sure, and that’s what happened with the 2006 election, many Democrats voted as a referendum on the war, thinking they would influence, effect, shape, stop the war.
Last night, Reed said they were going to change the face of the war. Many Democrats are saying how?
You can set guidelines or goals or artificial timelines, and the president is going to say, “Thanks very much. I’m commander in chief. I’m going to do what I want to do.”
The only way the Democrats could possibly stop this war, is to close down the government and stop the funding. But they don’t see that as politically viable and so it’s not going to happen.
MSNBC: What about talk, even by some on the end-the-war side, that some American presence will be needed there for a long time.
Russert: It’s going to be an interesting debate. If you get out too quickly, what will happen, in terms of chaos and in terms of genocide? That is the kind of debate we are going to have over the next year.
Last night, in the Democratic response, Sen. Jack Reed said, “We are going to change the course of the war, it’s our constitutional duty.”
Well, Congress can try to have goals or timetables, but the president is going to say, “Thanks very much for your input, but the war goes on.”
So the war goes on. I do believe next September or October, both the Democratic and a Republican candidate will sharing one thing – each will have a plan for withdrawal from Iraq.
MSNBC: Are you surprised that none of the Democratic presidential contenders have, so far, called into question MoveOn.org ad which called General Petraeus “General Betray-us”?
I had Sen. Joe Biden on Meet the Press last Sunday and showed him an advance copy and he said it was over the top.
I think it is interesting that what the ad did was start its own debate. So rather than discuss the merits of the Petraeus plan or the merits of the Bush proposal, Democrats and Republicans were debating the appropriateness of a newspaper ad.
MSNBC: Who will we see with you this Sunday on Meet the Press?
Russert: Well we thought a lot about it, and this is what we decided. Two men who are decorated war veterans - who would like to be president – will debate: should we stay or should we get out? We’ve got Republican Sen. John McCain versus Democratic Sen. John Kerry. McCain and Kerry, face to face, at the table Sunday: What should we do about Iraq?