November 11, 2003 | Broadcast

News From CNN with Wolf Blitzer

Joining us now to talk about the rising violence in Iraq and whether White House strategy there is actually working, two guests, Peter Beinart is the editor of “The New Republic,” Cliff May is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Peter and Cliff, thanks very much for joining us.

Do you have a problem, Cliff, that the president doesn’t attend funerals of soldiers, troops, killed in action?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: No. I mean we’re at war, and it’s going to be a long war. And if you try to attend every funeral, first of all, it would take a tremendous burden on the time he should be spending on other things. And, secondly, I’m not sure it’s of benefit necessarily to the families. I don’t think FDR during World War II was able to attend every funeral. And I don’t think LBJ during Vietnam…

BLITZER: I don’t think anybody is suggesting he attend every funeral, but at least one or two.

MAY: You know, it’s hard to pick out which one you’re going to symbolically attend. I’m not sure that’s the thing to do. If you wanted to bring attention to the 40,000 people who die on America’s highways every year, would the president then go to a certain number of funerals of those who died in car crashes? I’m not sure that’s the way it should work.

BLITZER: You have a problem with that?

PETER BEINART, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”: Well, with all due respect, the highway analogy is not a good one. I mean, President Bush is not sending people out onto the highways and putting them in harm’s way.

I think that obviously it’s what the families want that’s most important. But I think a symbolic funeral or two for the president would be good, because it would show that we recognize as a country the agony that many families are going through in Iraq.

MAY: I do think everyone recognizes that that’s the case. The way the war is going now, this is what’s not understood, what we call low-intensity conflict. This is likely to be the face of war for much of this century, what we did in the first three weeks in Iraq that set peace kind of conventional warfare. Our enemies know they can’t beat us at that. So, they’re going to use unconventional warfare. That means terrorism in Baghdad, in New York, in Riyadh…

BLITZER: The argument that some of the Democrats, the critics of the war, the liberals are saying is, the president and his administration, they just want to show the positive. They don’t want people to focus in on the nearly daily death toll that’s going on. And going to a funeral or allowing coverage of caskets coming home would certainly underscore that to a concerned American public.

MAY: Well, for those who would like us to cut and run, there is no question if we focus just obsessively on the fact that people are being put in harm’s way, people are making tremendous sacrifices in order to fight this war, and that may make it more likely.

I think what we have to understand is we have to fight and win this war against the terrorists, against the Baathist regime that’s still — the remnants that are still around. And that’s going to be costly. That’s what people volunteer for when they go into the military.

BEINART: The problem is we haven’t prepared well to win this war. The Bush administration has gotten us into the most extraordinary nation-building effort ever. And yet, this was an administration that systematically undermined our ability to do nation-building. We don’t have the translators we need. We don’t have the military police we need. We don’t have the civil affairs units we need. And that’s part of the reason we’ve had so much trouble here.

MAY: If I can, Peter is absolutely right. But you have to have started that not just two years ago. You needed to have started that 10 years ago, 15 years ago…

BEINART: But they closed the nation-building — they closed the peacekeeping institute…

MAY: Let’s all…

BEINART: … when you’re going to go into Iraq.

MAY: Then let’s all agree — Democrats and Republicans alike — that we need to know how to build democratic institutions. We need to have good intelligence gathering. And for 20 years we haven’t given proper attention to this whole…

BLITZER: John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, has got a new ad that’s running, and we have a little snippet of it, and I want to show it to our viewers. The Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, is running this ad.


ANNOUNCER: Who can take on George Bush and change the direction of the nation? John Kerry, a leader on national security, a decorated combat veteran, served on the Intelligence Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee. John Kerry.


BLITZER: I want your feedback, but this is the first time that we see the president aboard the Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier, May 1, in a commercial. A lot of people thought the president at his reelection campaign would be showing that ad when he landed with a big sign, “mission accomplished,” that was up on a banner overlooking the aircraft carrier. But now we see John Kerry actually using that footage.

MAY: Yes, live by the photo-op; die by the photo-op. No question about it. Second, it does play to Kerry’s strengths, which is that he can compete with the president in terms of national security based on his past, although I think he’s stumbled. And he’s saying, by inference I think, that Howard Dean can’t. And third, come next year in, say, October, how will that ad look? Who knows?

BLITZER: So, you think that’s an ad that’s basically more going against Howard Dean, Peter, as opposed to going after George W. Bush?

BEINART: Yes. A lot of Democrats are going to be saying, look, Howard Dean can’t go toe to toe with George W. Bush on national security. John Kerry’s problem is he has undermined his national security credentials by not having a really coherent position on the war in Iraq, and particularly by opposing the 87 billion, which is particularly bizarre if he supported the war. So, I don’t think he is necessarily in such a strong position.

BLITZER: All right, Nathan in Texas has a question. Nathan, go ahead.

CALLER: Well, it’s a comment. The U.S. has, in my opinion, shown far too much restraint in dealing with the insolence and arrogance of the Arab militancy. I think we ought to be putting a focus on Main Street USA and not what they think on the Arab street. That’s my comment.

BLITZER: Peter, what do you think?

BEINART: Well, the problem is it’s only by communicating with the Arab street that we can change public opinion there, and we have to change public opinion there if we’re going to get the help of the Arab people we need in fighting terrorism. One of the problems is, I think, in the Iraqi occupation we’ve had very poor communication with the Iraqis. We have very few people who can speak Arabic. And that has undermined our ability to win their hearts and minds.

MAY: And I agree with Peter that I think our communication overseas has not been good. It needs to be so much better, although we’re getting some assistance from an odd source: bin Laden. I mean, when bin Laden goes and blows up Arabs and Muslims in Riyadh, that makes a good point for us. And similarly, when you see in Iraq that Iraqi policemen are getting killed by the Baathist remnants and the foreign jihadists, that also makes our point a lot more effectively than we’ve been able to make it.

BLITZER: Here’s an e-mail from Robert: “So many people seem to be missing the point when it comes to Iraq. We are already bogged down in Iraq as we were in Vietnam. If we stay there, our soldiers will continue to die. If we leave the country, everything will collapse.”

MAY: You know, Jeff Jacoby today, who is a “Boston Globe” columnist, looked up some of the things that were being written during the occupation of Germany post-World War II, and you have the same kind of things being written: “It’s worse now than it was under Hitler, said ‘The Saturday Evening Post.'” This is not true. This has got to be a difficult time, but we can win this battle on the ground, and we can help develop democratic institutions.

BEINART: Well, we can’t…

BLITZER: Do you want to say something about the Vietnam analogy?

MAY: It’s wrong.

BEINART: The Vietnam analogy is wrong. But, look, so is the Germany analogy. We are in a much more difficult situation than we were in Germany, a developed country which had a history of democratic institutions, unlike Iraq. And we’re going to have to stay there a long time, and we need some of the international expertise that we don’t have now. We need to get the NGOs back. We need to get the U.N. in at least in a civilian capacity, because they have done nation-building more successfully than the U.S. has.

MAY: We’re not keeping them out. They’re keeping themselves out. They are saying in a sense, in essence, under Saddam Hussein it was safe for us if not for Iraqis. We liked it better that way. That’s a terrible posture for the U.N. to adopt.

BEINART: Well, we also have to help them take some responsibility for security. I mean, we’re the occupying force there.

MAY: We’re willing to. We’ve agreed to. They were the ones who said we don’t want American help with security. OK, then bring in blue helmets…

BLITZER: But, you know, if the U.N. is attacked, if Red Cross officials are attacked, you can’t blame these organizations for wanting to pick up and leave.

MAY: But when the U.N. is attacked, when the Red Cross is attacked, what does that tell you about the enemy? Help the Americans beat that enemy that kills Red Cross workers and U.N. civil servants.

BLITZER: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation. More with Peter Beinart and Cliff May — that’s coming up in just a moment.


BLITZER: This Veterans Day, U.S. soldiers in Iraq and other troops are on the president’s mind and the minds of many Americans in the United States and indeed around the world. They may be asking a question, simply this: The question is whether the cost of keeping the peace is proving to be too high.

My guests, Peter Beinart, the editor of “The New Republic,” Cliff May, the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

We have an e-mail, Peter. Let me read it to you. This is from Chris: “What if Iraq democratically elects a fundamentalist government hostile to the U.S.? Would we allow it? Or is the push for democratization a subterfuge for control?”

BEINART: It’s a good question. I think what you want to do is you want to try to put a procedure in place, a constitution that protects minority rights and protects the rule of law. Then you can have a free election, and whoever wins, wins. But you have to do it within a framework to protect minorities in the rule of law, and you can’t allow a theocracy to be elected.

BLITZER: Do you want to weigh in on that?

MAY: Well, I agree with Peter. Elections, as Bernard Lewis has pointed out, are the culmination of the creation of democratic institutions, not the precursor for it. The idea is that you can lose an election and go on to another day. And a constitution also should provide minority rights. The Kurds particularly will not want such…

BLITZER: All right, Charles — I think Charles is in Texas. Are you there, Charles?


BLITZER: Go ahead with your question.

CALLER: I’m one of the soldiers that came back from Iraq wounded. I’ve been in both wars. I came back wounded, and I’ve seen soldiers in Germany and I’ve seen soldiers back here in my unit. But the coverage of the people who has been wounded is hardly ever on the TV. And I just was curious how come that is? Because I’m not putting down any of the soldiers that’s been killed, because, you know, that wouldn’t be right. But I’m just asking.

BLITZER: All right.

CALLER: There are a lot of soldiers that’s been injured that’s not on the news.

BLITZER: That’s a good question. I was out at the Bethesda Naval Hospital outside of Washington, D.C., the Walter Reed Hospital. There are a lot of wounded U.S. troops. Nearly 400 have been killed in hostile and non-hostile action. But several thousand have been injured; many of them very seriously.

Do you think we’re ignoring this part of the story, Cliff?

MAY: I think you know better than I that the press of daily news makes it hard to cover that sort of thing. Over the weekend, we also had a story on the front page of “The Washington Post” that as many as 300,000 people were probably executed and dumped into mass graves. I haven’t seen that story covered much on the TV news.

Is that a criticism of TV news? Yes, in a way. But, you know, the dailyness of it pushes those stories back.

BLITZER: There’s been a lot of coverage of one wounded U.S. soldier; namely, Private Jessica Lynch.

BEINART: That’s right. You know, I think “The New Republic” actually did do a big story from Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed. And I think one of the points it made is that, because military medicine has gotten so much better, maybe people who in past wars would have died now have been saved, which is a wonderful thing. But it means the ratio of wounded to dead is much higher in this war than it has been in past wars. And so when you look at the toll it’s taking on the U.S. military, you have to include the wounded and not just the dead, because the ratio is much higher.

BLITZER: Here’s an e-mail from Zoe in Washington, Cliff. Why don’t you handle this one?

“Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, recently described the situation in Iraq as a bit unstable. How much more does it take to consider the situation really unstable? How many more American soldiers should die daily and how many more Iraqis must suffer from a lack of food, security and the basics of life in exchange for Bush- style democracy?”

MAY: Well, the first — let’s start with the end of that. In terms of life in Iraq today, it is so much better than it was under Saddam Hussein by every possible measure. Whether there is freedom of the press or food or schools opening or electrical or water, big progress has been made.

But progress isn’t made not during a peacekeeping exercise, which is the way it’s sometimes talked about. I think you did in your introduction. But while a war is being fought, this is the way wars are going to look in the 21st century. We have to understand that this is the face of war, and it’s not pretty.

BLITZER: You want to weigh in on that?

BEINART: Well, I think Iraqis are mixed about whether their lives are better or not. The polling shows a mix there.

MAY: Not a 50-50 mix. Not by any means.

BEINART: The problem I think is that the area that right now is fairly stable, seems fairly stable, the south, may not remain stable. That’s where the U.S. could get into real problems if we start to see uprisings among the Shia in the south. And it’s quite possible, I’m afraid.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by for a minute, guys.

There was a very shocking — very surprising almost shocking verdict in the Robert Durst trial in Texas that we’ve been covering. Mike Ramsey is at microphones now . He was a defense attorney. Let’s listen in…

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go back to our guests, Peter Beinart and Cliff May. Obviously, that took away from our discussion.

Let me just briefly wrap up right now. On this Veterans Day, if we take a look a year from now, Cliff, the election about to happen one year from now. If the country is in the same place, how vulnerable is President Bush in getting re-elected?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Oh, I think its vital that people have a sense that we’re making real progress in the war against terrorism, the major front of which is Iraq. A year from now we can’t be in the same place. There’s no question.


PETER BEINART, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”: If we still have the same number of troops in Iraq dying at the same rate, George W. Bush will be in a lot of trouble.

BLITZER: All right. Peter Beinart, we’re going to have to leave it right there. Cliff May, both of you, always good to have you on our program. Thanks very much.

MAY: Thank you.