December 11, 2003 | Broadcast

Paula Zahn Now

Joining us now from Washington is Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. We’re also joined by Democratic strategist Julian Epstein. Welcome both of you.

Julian, I’m going to start with you this evening. Who is in charge here?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, that’s a good question. It looks confused and inept on the part of the administration. Remember, this foreign policy team was supposed to be the dream team. On the very day that Bush and James Baker are trying to build an international coalition to deal with the debt problem, you have Paul Wolfowitz, who represents the uber neocon inside the administration, acting like a bull in a china shop trying to settle an old score at this point. And in the process upsetting some of the progress that President Bush and James Baker were making.

The effect of this is to further fragment the good guys and to further isolate us. This is the type of isolationism, this kind of small-minded petty settling of the scores, that doesn’t help us in the long run.

ZAHN: Cliff, how embarrassing is this for a White House that takes such great pride in managing the message.

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR DEF. OF DEMOCRACIES: Not at all. I think this is being totally misunderstood and was entirely mischaracterized by my good friend Julian.

ZAHN: All right. But whats’ being misunderstood?

MAY: OK. What we’re doing here is showing some respect for the 63 nations that stood by us and stood by the Iraqi people, and favored their liberation, and have contributed to the reconstruction. Our reliable allies, as opposed to the nations that like to kick us in the shin.

Take France, for example, France was not in favor of the liberation of the people. They have not contributed a dollar to reconstruction. France haven’t forgiven the debts incurred by Saddam Hussein, as he bought weapons from France. And now France said, yes, but there are lucrative contracts to be had, why should we be excluded?

Look, take a look at your own Web site. You’ve got a poll there. I know it’s not scientific but I bet it’s accurate. By 2:1, people say, this is American taxpayers dollars, let’s have it go to those countries that are with us not those countries that are against us. By the way, since France wasn’t in favor of liberation, I don’t know how good they’ll be at the reconstruction. Most Americans would agree with this.

EPSTEIN: With due respect — I love Cliff’s French accent there, but it misses the point. Last night when it was discovered that Paul Wolfowitz, while Bush was trying to negotiate with the very countries whom Paul Wolfowitz was sticking his finger in the eye of, the White House let it be known that it was furious with what Wolfowitz had done. Today the Bush administration was backing up what Wolfowitz was saying.

So it looks — at a minimum it looks confused. This is like when Bush went to London, and said we’re not going to cut and run, and then Rumsfeld pulling troops out in June as the election approaches. This administration has more positions on these issues than a game of Twister and it makes it look like it is uncertain of itself.

MAY: Paula, there is not one person in the Bush administration on the record saying any of these things —

EPSTEIN: “The New York Times.”

MAY: “The New York Times” does not work for the Bush administration.

EPSTEIN: “The New York Times” quoted the Bush administration saying they were furious over it.

MAY: They didn’t quote anybody on the record. I worked for the “New York Times” for ten years. It’s possible “The New York Times” got things wrong. It’s possible somebody is grumbling for their own reason. Nobody resigned and nobody went on the record on this.

Let me tell you, this helps. James Baker — let me tell you why this helps, James Baker goes out and he says to the French, for example, we want you to forgive some of the debt Saddam Hussein incurred, and the French say yes, but we want some of these contracts, and they say let’s talk Turkey, let’s see if we can deal. This is how it’s done in the private sector. You don’t give away your bargaining chips before you start bargaining.

ZAHN: All right. Cliff —

Julian, take a look at the root of this argument that Cliff is making, Julian. There’s no prohibition against the Russians and the Germans and French coming into the action on some subcontracting level is there?

EPSTEIN: No, well, there are people that believe there’s an international legal issue. I don’t believe that, but that’s not the point. The point here right now is we have a fragmented international alliance that Bush in a belated way is now trying to repair with James Baker. In the process of doing that, Cliff says you don’t want to give away all your marbles in the beginning. They’re taking everything off the table and saying apriori, these countries will be disqualified from that.


ZAHN: Julian, finish your thought, and Cliff you’ll have ten seconds.

EPSTEIN: It’s a remarkable disorganization of this administration that says conflicting things on these matters. It’s further fragmenting the international line…

MAY: Let me have my ten seconds.

ZAHN: All right, you get the last 10 seconds, Cliff.

MAY: Not only can they subcontract, not only can they have other contracting baskets, but they can even get back into the action on this $18 billion. All they have to do is make some consessions and begin to work with us on this. The door is not closed. We can change our mind at any moment, and say: “You know what? The French have written down the debt, they made a contribution to the effort, we’re going to let them in too.”  But we don’t treat, right now, Britain and Australia the same way we treat France and Germany…


ZAHN: Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there. Time-out. We’ve got to move on. Cliff May we really like — you’ve got to work on your Peter Sellars imitation. Julian Eptstein, thanks for taking time.

MAY: Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup, Paula.

EPSTEIN: Good night.