November 19, 2003 | Broadcast

American Morning

Good morning to you, Cliff. Nice to see you.

CLIFF MAY, FMR. RNC COMM. DIR.: Good morning, Soledad.

O’BRIEN: Julian Epstein, he is a Democratic strategist.

Julian, good morning, it’s nice to see you as well, filling in for us this morning. We sure appreciate it.

Cliff, let’s begin with you. Just weigh in for me, what did you think of the speech?

MAY: I thought it was a remarkably good speech. Bush was almost as eloquent as Tony Blair. It must be something in the British water or the tea. I think it was one of the most important speeches of his career.

Basically, I think what you have to say, is this was bad news for the neoisolationist right and for the post-humanitarian left. Bush said I’m essentially, I’m a Wilsonian conservative. He hearkened back to a Democratic president who defended democracy, and he also invoked implicitly Ronald Reagan and his attacks on communism. He said there’s no retreat in Iraq. He said we’re a country that believes in freedom and believes that freedom is the predicate for peace. He calmed for a muscular, I would say, multilateralism. I think this is very important. And the three pillars he set out. That’s going to be the subject of quite a bit of debate for a long time to come, whether that will be the policy not just of the U.S., but of Britain and others who see themselves as our allies.

O’BRIEN: Julian, the speech lasted about 45 minutes. It certainly covered a lot of ground. Before the speech, it had been billed by the folks at the White House as being an important speech. Do you think it fit the bill?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It was a very important speech, and I have to say I think it was a very good speech. Certainly in its central thesis, which was the best antidote to terrorism is more liberty and freedom, particularly in the Middle East.

I think, however, that Mr. Bush does not have exactly the Clinton-like ability to convince the unconvinced, and particularly a bad place to start on that is to warn people about their irrelevance if they don’t follow his way.

The biggest problem right now is what’s actually going on on the ground. While Mr. Bush is in the United Kingdom talking about the need to strengthen one’s resolve, his secretary of defense is actually talking about pulling troops back in Iraq, when I think what is absolutely needed and what most experts tell us is we need more troops there, not fewer troops.

I think what we’ve seen with Paul Bremer coming back to the United States last week in kind of a panicked meeting with the president after the attacks on the helicopters is now this kind of impulse to turn over decisionmaking and control to the Iraqis, and in a way that I think will be premature. They’re talking about this in a matter of months right now. I think that, again, that expresses essentially a kind of a panic on the part of this administration, which was very effective in waging the war, but in the aftermath, I think all of the indicators seem to show that it was a little bit in over its head. It didn’t plan on the troop strength. It didn’t have a game plan together on the ground. And so I think what you actually see happening on the ground is a little bit in contrast to what Mr. Bush’s speech was presenting.

O’BRIEN: Cliff, let’s pick up one thing that Julian said, he talked about irrelevance, and this is what the president said in his speech, he said that Great Britain and the U.S. will keep the U.N. from solemnly choosing its own irrelevance. Many people, especially folks overseas, have said you really want to send a good message, calling the U.N. irrelevant is not the way to do it. Sort of opening your arms and embracing the U.N. would have been a better strategy? Do you agree with that? Do you think that was a mistake?

MAY: No, I think he has to challenge the U.N. not to go the way of the League of Nations. If the U.N. simply issues resolutions that have no meaning coming out of the Security Council that are never backed up, if the U.N. has resolutions instead of resolve, to use the president’s word, then it’s not going to be a relevant institution. The U.N. is supposed to address threats to peace. It has done so only through words, only through rhetoric, and the fact that Kofi Annan and the Security Council, although they passed a resolution 1441, that said either Saddam discloses everything and he complies with the Security Council resolutions, or there will be serious consequences, but refuse to say yes, we approve of those serious consequences.

The fact that nations like France refuse to help with the reconstruction of Iraq and to help make it a democratic country, refuse to help put down the Baathists and the Jihadists with us there, that’s a big problem. And I think it is important that President Bush says we want a multilateralism, but that doesn’t mean the U.N. becomes the world government when we know it doesn’t have the resolve to do anything about tyrannies. Libya is the head of the Human Rights Commission. Syria is on the Security Council. Again, the U.N. needs to make a decision: are democracies better than dictatorships?

EPSTEIN: The problem with that, Soledad, is that I think this president and this administration has been a very Johnny-come-lately when it comes to multilateralism. Bush One was able to build an international coalition. Clinton was able to build an international coalition in the Balkans. This administration was not able to do that. I think that has effectively isolated this country and made our soldiers now and the administration has recognized this belatedly, has made our soldiers in the effort more vulnerable in Iraq.

And I think that one of the reasons why that has happened, one of the reasons that we have been isolated in the international community, rather than the leader of an international community is, in part, because of the rhetoric. And I think you put your finger on the point when you asked the question of Cliff, when you talk about is this kind of finger wagging, is this poking your finger in the eye of the United Nations an effective way to begin? And I think probably not.

O’BRIEN; That will be our final word this morning. Cliff, we’re going to have to wait for you for next time to jump in on that one. Thanks, guys. We’re out of time. Appreciate it, guys.