June 27, 2004 | Broadcast

Meet the Press

Speaker Gingrich, you’re in London. How does the president maintain support of the war in Iraq?

MR. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I think first of all, when you realize that President Putin of Russia publicly said last week that he had personally warned President Bush on several occasions that the Iraqis were planning terrorist attacks against the United States, I think that it’s important to put in context that description you just read. The president of the United States had from a variety of sources reasons to worry about Iraq and, frankly, if today we had a attack that had biological weapons involved and we traced it back to Iraq, everybody would be screaming for the president’s head for not having, after 9/11, been aggressive.

The problem we have in Iraq is the same as the problem we have in Afghanistan, where yesterday the Taliban hijacked a bus and killed 16 out of 17 Afghans, apparently because they had a voting card. And I think the president has to say to the country the truth, which is this is going to be a long war. It’s a war between civilization and barbarism. The people who slit the throats and cut off the heads of television with happiness would kill millions of Americans. There’s an al-Qaeda Web site that says it will take at least four million American death for al-Qaeda to succeed. They mean it.

And I would say to the critics of the plan, and I personally have been critical of parts of it, I’m delighted we’re turning power over to the Iraqis. We should have done so a year ago, as we did in Afghanistan. But what is the alternative? If we’re not going to stick it out in Iraq, if we’re not going to stick it out in Afghanistan, then what was the lesson of 9/11?

MR. RUSSERT: Senator McConnell, the problem that the president faces is 54 percent of the American people now have said they are against the war in Iraq. They don’t think it was a good idea. Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz said this this week, that he had “underestimated the violent tenacity of an insurgency. ‘If you want to say what might have been underestimated, I think there was probably too great a willingness to believe that once we got the 55 people on the blacklist, the rest of those killers would stop fighting.'”

And George Casey, the general who’ll be in charge of the multinational force told Congress this on Thursday.

(Videotape, June 24, 2004):

GENERAL GEORGE CASEY: I think the insurgency is much stronger than I certainly would have anticipated. I think they’ve got support from external sources.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: So if the American people say, “Mr. President, there are no weapons of mass destruction as promised. We are not greeted as liberators. The insurgency is much more ferocious.” How long can the president go to the American people and ask them to stay the course?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R-KY): Well, you know, a more interesting poll really was the poll in The Washington Post Friday, an independent poll taken of Iraqi citizens, about how they feel about what’s happening. Sixty-eight percent of the Iraqis feel that the new government is credible. Four out of five of them feel that things will be better in the future. The new prime minister has a 73 percent approval rating, something an American politician would die for. And if that’s not good enough, the new president has an 84 percent approval rating.

My point is that people most directly affected by this at the moment are optimistic about their future, and the reason they are is because for 25 years they were slaughtered in large numbers by the government of that country. American public opinion ebbs and flows based upon our 24-hour news cycles. I think the challenge the president has in this election year is to step back and remind everybody of what has been accomplished since 9/11. Over 50 million people liberated, a new constitution in Afghanistan with elections coming in September, a new interim government, very popular in Iraq, with a new constitution to be drafted and elections to occur. And in Iraq all of this will occur within a thousand days, Tim. It took us 12 years in the United States to get from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.

It is challenging in an election environment, when polls go up and down, to deal with this situation. But I think what the president needs to do is to remind everybody of how successful we’ve been to date. The final point I would make, no one would have predicted on September the 12th of 2001 that we wouldn’t be attacked again here at home. And I think the fact that the president has gotten us on offense, has gone after the terrorists where they are, is the principal reason that we’ve suffered no additional attacks, at least to this point, here in the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: There have been a lot of second-guessing of the war by Democrats, Madam Secretary. But this is the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998. And here’s the language: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq…” Passed by Congress, signed by President Clinton. And here’s President Clinton in December 16 of 1998.

(Videotape, February 17, 1998):

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: What if he fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route, which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost his will–its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And someday, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: That was the president in February of ’98. That’s exactly the challenge that George Bush seemed to encounter. Wouldn’t President Clinton have also tried to eliminate Saddam Hussein the way President Bush did?

MS. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, we did call for regime change, but in a completely different way. There was no idea of a ground invasion. And if you remember, Tim, there was very heavy bombing in the no-fly zones and the sanctions in place and pressure internationally to get Saddam Hussein to comply. I think that President Bush won a great victory in the United Nations when he got the inspectors back in. The thing that went wrong is that he did not allow those inspectors to do his job. And part of what’s going on here is the administration is believing itself. So all this happy talk about what is happening in Iraq, I think, does not really reflect the reality of what Tom Brokaw has been talking about it, and what we’ve all seen, which is that–to use a diplomatic term of art–it’s a mess.

There is a completely chaotic situation there, and I think that everybody wants there to be success. I think that has to be absolutely clear. All Americans, Democrats and Republicans, want to see a success in Iraq. And what we have to do is to deal with the reality and not with what we would like to see happening. And on the 30th, from as far as I can see, we are going to be turning something over to somebody, but every day that we get news, it’s a little unclear.

And I hope, Senator McConnell, that the prime minister of Iraq doesn’t have to die for his high ratings, because there have been threats against him already. And he has a very, very difficult job ahead. And I think we should all try to be supportive of the new Iraqi government, and understand the fact that our troops are going to have to stay there, and that we do not as yet have enough international support to do the huge job that will come about of supporting Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s a possibility we could in effect “lose Iraq” and it could become a haven for terrorism the way Afghanistan did?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, I sure hope not, because it would be even worse than what’s happening in Afghanistan, given the location in the Middle East and the possibility of the spread of various terrorist networks out of Iraq and using that as a base. So I never did believe that there was a connection between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and 9/11. But I now do think that Iraq has become a magnet and a gathering ground for terrorists. And the idea, and you raised this, that Iraqis are now going to have to sort out who’s who among the Iraqis. And Prime Minister Allawi in an op-ed today talks about how he wants to provide some amnesty for the good Iraqis vs. the bad ones, and it’s a very, very hard job ahead for all of us.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Podesta, you were Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Madame Secretary Albright described this as a mess. But isn’t it a bipartisan mess? Congress voted overwhelmingly to support the president.

This was Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York, the former first lady, back in October of 2002: “It’s clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological, chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well, affects American security. This much is undisputed.” And she voted for, in effect, the war.

John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, stood on the floor of the Senate October 9, 2002, and said this.

(Videotape, October 9, 2002):

SENATOR JOHN KERRY, (D-MA): Mr. President, when I vote to give the president of the United States the authority to use force if necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein, because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat and a grave threat to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: John Kerry, Hillary Clinton both supported the war.

MR. JOHN PODESTA: Look, I think Democrats and Republicans wanted the president to have the authority to confront Saddam Hussein. They thought he was a dangerous character operating there. But I think that the question is: How was this matter prosecuted? They politicized the intelligence. They didn’t listen to the people who had the greatest expertise, like Rick Shinseki, who said we needed a bigger force going in and to deal with the aftermath of Iraq. I think the reconstruction effort has been one of letting big contracts to U.S. contractors rather than trying to put people back to work. I think one of the most important and wrong decisions of the war was the decision to essentially send the entire Iraqi army home with their guns and disband it without any plan for reconstitution.

We now have an army in Iraq where 2,800 people have been trained, as against a goal of 40,000. We have 75,000 Iraqi police on the payroll, but only 2,800 of whom have been fully trained, according to the CPA reports. And, you know, when they get into a confrontation, they put their guns down, they go home. So that’s where we are.

Do people–do Americans across the political spectrum want this to be a success? I think the answer is: Of course. I think that, as the secretary mentioned, if this descends into chaos, it’s bad for the people of Iraq, it’s bad for the region, it’s bad for the country and it’s bad for the world. But the question is: How did we get there and what do we do now?

MR. RUSSERT: When you say the intelligence was politicized, former President Clinton, as you heard, said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Hillary Clinton: weapons of mass destruction. John Kerry: weapons of mass destruction. Were they duped?

MR. PODESTA: I think that the–I think what ended up happening, what continues to this day, is evidence was cherry-picked, it was pushed up, it was–they were–the case was made to the American people that we had to go in right now. Don’t let the weapons inspectors do their job, get in there and build the kind of international support that we needed. So the multilateral coalition that we could have had, I think, had the weapons inspectors been able to finish their job, wasn’t there. But, as I said, we are where we are today.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator McConnell, that’s a strong charge: politicized intelligence, cherry-picked.

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, even the French, the Russians and the Germans and Secretary Albright believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Everybody believed it. That was the one thing everybody seemed to agree on before the war.

MR. RUSSERT: What happened?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, they haven’t been found yet. But, I mean, the point is, if the president was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, everybody else was wrong about it, because everybody felt that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. And, of course, we knew that he had used them in the past against his own people and against the Iranians, so it was reasonable to make this assumption. And the intelligence agencies of all of these countries must have been wrong as well.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to show you an interview Andrea Mitchell did with someone called “Anonymous.” He’s a 22-year veteran of the CIA. He’s written a book called “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism.” This was on Wednesday. Let’s listen.

(Videotape, Wednesday):

“ANONYMOUS” CIA ANALYST: Bin Laden, I think, and al-Qaeda and other of America’s enemies in the Islamic world certainly saw the invasion of Iraq as, if you would, a Christmas gift they always wanted and never expected to get. It validated what they all said about American aggressiveness against Islam. It made us the occupiers of the second holiest place for Muslims in the world.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Speaker Gingrich, that’s a much larger view by a 22-year veteran of the CIA who believes that we, in effect, have given Osama bin Laden a gift by radicalizing a part of the world in even a more extreme form prior than it had been to the invasion of Iraq.

MR. GINGRICH: Well, let me say first of all that that view, if you read his book, is much more complicated than just that quote. He basically suggests that unless we’re willing to give up the oil fields, we’re willing to abandon Israel, we’re willing to abandon every major government in the Arab world that we are in a total war with bin Ladin, that we have to either win or die. If you read the whole book, he says this is harder–and I think this is the key point that you were driving at a minute ago, Tim. This is a mess, but somebody has to stand up and say, “You know, this a real war.” This is not just some game on television where the good guys get to go in and clean out the bad guys and it’s all done in 30 minutes and we all go home and have a beer.

This is a real war with real enemies who genuinely want to kill us. They want to kill us in Saudi Arabia where they’re working. They want to kill us in Turkey. They want to kill us in Pakistan. They want to kill us in Afghanistan. They want to kill us in Iraq. And as they proved on 9/11, if they can find a way to get here, they’re going to try to kill us in the United States.

Now, in a real war from 1861 to ’64, it was a mess. From 1939 to 1944, it was a mess. The other side gets to be on offense, too. And I think if the president has any specific need right now, it is to look the American people in the face and say, “Every time you watch somebody having their head sawn off on television, remember that the lesson of 9/11 is we have to stick this out and win.”

And I would say back to friends on the other side: Would we really be safer today if Saddam was still in power? Would we really have a better world if Saddam were still in power? I don’t think so. And that doesn’t mean I agree with everything we’ve done in the last year, but it is in general in the right direction. And we had better hope that both in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia and Iraq that the forces of civilization defeat the forces of barbarism.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to show you a graphic from the book that the speaker’s referring to Anonymous “Imperial Hubris” where he talks about this worldwide Islamic insurgency and here’s the graphic. “US leaders refused to accept the obvious. We are fighting a worldwide Islamic insurgency–not criminality or terrorism–and our policy and procedures have failed to make more than a modest dent in enemy forces. … In the period since 11 September, the United States has dealt lethal blows to Al Qaeda’s leadership and–if official claims are true–have captured 3,000 Al Qaeda foot soldiers. At the same time, we have waged two failed half-wars and, in doing so, left Afghanistan and Iraq seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of Al Qaeda and kindred groups.”

Secretary Albright, should it be recognized as a war in effect, as he says, “an Islamic insurgency that must be put down”?

MS. ALBRIGHT: I don’t think I would see it that way. I think we clearly do not understand Islam completely and we have to figure out distinctions between those who also are victims of extremism and Islamic fundamentalism, jihadism. And what needs to happen here is that we have to try to get some of the Islamic countries to help us in this, which requires not only help within Iraq but also in other parts of the world. We cannot see this as a war of civilizations or civilization. It is being attacked clearly by barbaric aspects, but I don’t think that we can see this fully in that way of just totally anti-Islam. I think we do not understand everything that’s going on, and the thing that bothers me is it is clear that we have been capturing al-Qaeda terrorists but we do not know how many more are being created as a result of the activities.

And I’m very glad to see Saddam Hussein gone. That is good. But I’m not sure we’re safer today than we were before. I think there are many aspects–homeland security has been working, but there’s still a lot of holes in that. And I would say that the situation emanating from Iraq is more dangerous in terms of the number of terrorists that are out there and Afghanistan is half-finished job. We diverted our attention from Afghanistan to do a war of choice, not of necessity, in Iraq. The thing is now it is a necessity and not a choice to get it right in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator McConnell, are we safer now?

SEN. McCONNELL: Absolutely. Let’s take a look at the new government in Iraq. We’re talking about the old government with Saddam Hussein. The new government out of 33 ministers, six are women, 17 are PhDs. The Iraqi ambassador of the United States, a woman, was in my office the other day. She is extremely optimistic about the future of her country. How in the world could anybody argue that we’re not better off now than we were around 9/11 and right after that?

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Podesta, this is a political year, as we well know, as Senator McConnell mentioned the discussion is taking part in a political environment. How would John Kerry be any different than George Bush in dealing with Iraq right now, not a year ago but right now?

MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that Senator Kerry laid that out over the last couple of weeks, which is to say that he would stay there. I think he would try to finish this job. I think he would try to move the Iraqis into a position where they are having real elections and sovereignty is taking place. But I think that, you know, to say right now vs. a year ago is to miss something important, which is that John Kerry has, I think, a very different strategy, a very different outlook about the world, about the role of the United States, about trying to strengthen our alliances around the world in attacking this very real problem, which the excerpt from the book you put up on the board indicates, which is how are we going to manage a problem that spans across many nations where this terrorist threat is rising again, to put it down? Do you do it by unilateral approach? Do you do it by ignore your alliances and your allies, or do you do it by trying to take the advantage, which quite frankly we had in the wake of 9/11, where people were sympathetic to the United States and try to build a coalition including moderate Muslim, countries against the forces of chaos.

MR. RUSSERT: But would John Kerry do anything differently than George Bush right now, because that’s the choice the American people have?

MR. PODESTA: Well, I think that you know, right now the president seems to be coming to John Kerry’s position rather than Senator Kerry trying to define a new position. You saw Speaker Gingrich several months ago attacking people in the State Department. Now, we’re embracing the people in the State Department. We’ve gone to the U.N. and gotten a Security Council resolution. The president is at the NATO summit trying to do something that John Kerry suggested four or five months ago which is to get NATO in trying to do the things that NATO can do, which is including training of the police and training of the security forces. So I think that the president is actually moving towards the Kerry position on this. But, you know, I think it’s a difficult situation. We need to kind of manage it as we go forward.

MR. RUSSERT: Speaker Gingrich, I’ll give you the last word, but does Mr. Podesta have a point? If you look at the Bush position, it is now embracing the international community much more actively. We had a representative from the United Nations in charge of negotiations who said some very blatant anti-Israeli things. We have embraced former members of the Saddam Hussein military and Ba’ath regime. We’re negotiating with radical Islamics on the ground. Hasn’t the Bush administration’s position changed on Iraq?

MR. GINGRICH: I think it’s evolved, and I think it should have evolved. I think things that they thought would work a year ago didn’t work, and I think they would have been pretty stupid not to evolve. But let me go back to the core of this decision. Niney-five percent of the Muslim world is with us in the broadest sense. They do not in the end want to live in dictatorships. They don’t want to live in a world where women have no rights and are totally repressed. They don’t want to have religious extremists dominating them. But 5 percent willing to use bombs, willing to use knives and willing to use rifles can dominate the 95.

The question for the American people is are we prepared to stand with the moderate and traditional Muslims and defeat this worldwide insurgency? And if so, how can we do it best? I think while we’re evolving these policies, you have to give President Bush a lot of credit for having had a lot of courage when everybody else had talked for a long time and nobody had done anything. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, he’s acted, and I think in the long run, we’re safer because of it.

MR. RUSSERT: I’ll give you the last word, Madam Secretary. So we give George Bush a lot of credit, as Speaker Gingrich said?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think he has been resolute. But the bottom line is did we need the Iraq War at this time when we have not finished the war in Afghanistan, which I think was a legitimate response to what happened on 9/11, and I think there is a real question as to whether America is safer today than before. It’s great that Saddam Hussein is gone, but we are seeing our forces under threat and people being beheaded. So I think there is a genuine question about the direction this is taking. And I wish the interim government of Iraq the very best, and we need to support it in every way we can because they are the hope and the future here.

MR. RUSSERT: To continued. Madeleine Albright, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, John Podesta, thank you all.