October 12, 2004 | Broadcast

News from CNN with Wolf Blitzer

Thanks to both of you for joining us. Just a general overview right now, how close is this contest in your opinion? Who is ahead right now?

PETER BEINART, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”: It’s absolutely tied I think as far as one can tell. It’s very difficult to go through the battleground states. I think what we know is this. If George W. Bush wins Florida and Ohio, I think he wins. If John Kerry wins one of those two states and holds Pennsylvania, I think he wins. That’s, I think, the best we can say right now state by state.

BLITZER: What do you think?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: I absolutely agree with Peter. It’s very close. I think any little thing that shifted voters’ emotions or shifted voters along the way could change the election. I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to happen right now.

BLITZER: Speaking of shifting voters’ emotions. A big controversy brewing in the past few days. The Sinclair Broadcasting Company is about to air in the final days of this campaign a documentary that really slams Senator Kerry for his Vietnam war record, what he said coming back and POWs who were there at the time in Vietnam, speaking out bitterly against him.

It has caused a big uproar. I want you to listen to this exchange. Terry McAuliffe was on “AMERICAN MORNING” this morning here on CNN, Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney campaign was on, as well. Listen to this, what they said.


TERRY MCAULIFFE, DNC CHAIRMAN.: We have filed the FEC complaint. And as you know, yesterday, 18 United States Senators have now contacted the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, also with a complaint. I mean, this is extraordinary that someone can go out there and preempt regular television.

If people want to pay pay-per-view and watch documentaries, that’s all right. But to go out and preempt regular broadcasting to put on a 90-minute attack against a presidential candidate a week before the election is absolutely outrageous and it’s illegal.

KEN MEHLMAN, BUSH CAMPAIGN MANAGER: It’s a little bit interesting and amusing to me to hear this, having endured a CBS report based on false documents, having endured “Fahrenheit 9/11”, having endured the Kitty Kelley book that was entirely false. We’re not in the business of filing complaints against media organizations. And it’s interesting to me that the Democrats are.

Each campaign has to decide how they want to deal with a broadcast that they don’t like. In our case, we try to tell the truth. In their case, they apparently file a legal complaint.


BLITZER: All right. Let’s start with you, Peter, what do you think?

BEINART: I guess I would say this, and I would Cliff would agree with me. It seems to me the best thing that has happened in this campaign in the past few weeks is the two candidates have really been talking about Iraq, which I think both liberals and conservatives would agree is what this election should be fought about. It should not be fought on Vietnam.

This is ridiculous. I think there should be a moratorium. I think John Kerry should stop referring to his Vietnam War service. I think they should stop running ads about Bush’s National Guard record. They should not do this documentary. And for goodness sakes, what John Kerry or George W. Bush did in Vietnam is not relevant.

What’s relevant is Iraq. That should be the center of this debate in the last few weeks.

MAY: I agree with much of that. Let me make just a slightly separate point. There is an American industry in crisis, we should be reading about it on the front pages, but we won’t because that industry is the media. To a great extent, today’s media are partisan, one side or the other. There are exceptions. You’re one of them. You try to be straight and right down the middle, but to a great extent, it’s not just ideological, it’s a partisan media. And we’ve got a problem that the media doesn’t admit.

BLITZER: What about the economy and domestic issues? Why do you think, Peter, it should just be about Iraq?

BEINART: I think Iraq is the most important — look, the economy is not great. But we’re in the natural business cycle. I don’t think all of George W. Bush’s policies have been terrific, Americans are hurting. But I think Iraq is the issue that it will — that will haunt America for years and years and years. It is the single most important decision this president has made.

I think 9/11 does create an environment where national security is the most important. I think that’s more important this year than the health care or economic debates that we see every four years.

BLITZER: All right. So if Americans go to the voting booths and decide, I’m just going to look at Iraq, the war on terrorism, where should they come down?

BEINART: I think they should come down for John Kerry. I think that the war in Iraq has turned out to be an enormous cost to the United States in funding the war on terrorism. I think that John Kerry has accurately said it focused our resources away from al Qaeda when we had our best shot at getting many of the top leaders and Osama bin Laden himself in the mountains of Tora Bora. It has vastly increased anti-Americanism. It has sucked up a tremendous number of our resources…

BLITZER: The “New Republic,” as you well know, went into the war strongly supporting the war and urging members of Congress to vote to give the president the authority to go to war.

BEINART: That’s right. And unfortunately, we and many others had our hopes for this betrayed by an administration that did not plan for the postwar and has allowed a real disaster in postwar Iraq, one that has actually created a terrorist haven in the center of the Middle East where there was none before.

BLITZER: I suspect the bipartisan agreement is about to end. Cliff, why do you believe, and you’re smiling right now, that Peter is totally wrong?

MAY: I’m smiling because I subscribe to the old, “New Republic” view. And maybe this is what the election is about. Is the war in Iraq the frontlines in the war on terrorism? I do believe that after 9/11, it was necessary for the U.S. to look upon Saddam Hussein and other terrorist masters, which is what he was, in a different light than they had before 9/11.

I do think, along with the “New Republic,” they helped persuade me, that it was absolutely right that we topple Saddam Hussein and that we not allow him to do what we now know from the Duelfer Report he intended to do, become an emperor of the Middle East, nuclear- armed, oil wealthy. That couldn’t happen.

And whatever else you say, right now we have to win in Iraq, there is no substitute. We cannot fail and be defeated there. The consequences of our defeat in Vietnam we got over pretty well. Not the people of Southeast Asia, but we did. The consequences of defeat in Iraq are calamitous. I think you know that.

BEINART: Of course. And John Kerry himself has said we have to win in Iraq. There is no question about that. But you can believe that we have to win now, believe that Iraq now is a centerpiece of a terrorist haven in the Middle East and believe, as the 9/11 Commission Report said, that there was no operational relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

So to say that Saddam Hussein was the center of the war on terrorism when he had no operational relationship with al Qaeda when we know that the Saudis did, that the Pakistanis did, that we knew that al Qaeda had a huge presence in Afghanistan, still, it seems to me ridiculous to say that Saddam should have been the center of the war on terrorism before we attacked.

MAY: It’s like saying, why do we fight Germany after Pearl Harbor.

BEINART: Oh, that’s a ridiculous analogy!

MAY: Hitler had nothing to with it. Look…

BEINART: They were close allies — they were sworn allies, Germany and Japan, Saddam and al Qaeda were not!

MAY: Zarqawi…

BEINART: Read the 9/11 Commission report!

MAY: Zarqawi was in Iraq before we got there and he was planning missions against our ambassadors and other terrorist missions. Lawrence Foley was one of those he had assassinated while he was working in Baghdad. There was Abu Nidal, there was Abu Abbas, there was Salman Pak, which is a terrorist training camp, there was Ansar al-Islam. This is — here’s the distinction…

BEINART: Al Qaeda was in 60 countries.

MAY: And Iraq was one of them. I don’t understand why you don’t understand this.

BEINART: And there was no collaborative relationship — yes, but we did not invade all 60 countries! The 9/11 Commission Report said there was no collaborative relationship between Saddam and Iraq.

MAY: You want to let him get off on a technicality.

BEINART: On a technicality? It is the 9/11 Commission Report.

MAY: Right. What we have to understand is, and this is a misnomer, this is not really a war against terrorism, this is not really a war against al Qaeda, this is a war against movements and ideologies that are jihadist, that are Islamofascists, that aim to destroy the Western world. Saddam Hussein was part of that, al Qaeda is part of that, there are many other organizations that were part of that. Until we understand this problem correctly, we are not going to be able to win this battle.

BEINART: Again. Saddam Hussein, as horrible a leader as he was, was a secular leader who had a very hostile relationship, by and large, with Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom he had killed. The idea of calling Saddam the center of a war against Islamofascism, which I agree is what we’re fighting, is absurd. Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, Pakistan was much closer to that nexus than Iraq, which was a horrible, but secular government.

MAY: Maybe it wasn’t entirely secular for the past 20 years. He built mosques faster than anybody else. He had religious inscriptions put on the flag. He knew what he was doing. By the way, because we’re in Iraq we have also managed to disarm Libya now. We have also broken up the Khan network. A lot of good things have happened.

BEINART: Because we went into Iraq we stopped the Khan network?

MAY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BEINART: That is a real stretch.

MAY: No, it’s not.


BLITZER: We’re going to take a break because we have a lot more to talk about. So I’m going to keep both of you here. We have another segment coming. But I want you to think about this. Is the CIA certain, certain because I’ve read a lot about this, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, terrorist No. 1 in Iraq today, had a collaborative relationship with Saddam Hussein before the war? Think about that. We’ll get into that, get into a lot more with Peter and Cliff right after this break.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Showdown in Arizona, we’re talking about tomorrow’s third and final presidential debate, among other subjects, with our two guests: Peter Beinart, he’s the editor of the “New Republic”; Cliff May is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The president, Cliff, the vice president, other top administration officials, when they talk about Saddam Hussein’s relationship with al Qaeda, they always bring up the name of the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Are you sure that there was a collaborative relationship between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein before the war?

MAY: Well, we’re not sure of almost anything because our intelligence has not been very good and the reporting is very difficult to do on such things. But I don’t believe that someone like Zarqawi could live in Baghdad, organize terrorist missions around the world without Saddam knowing about it. That’s — it was a police state. I think it’s just obvious.

And we do know we fought him in Afghanistan prior to him coming to Baghdad. And we also know that Zarqawi moved back and forth freely from Baghdad to the Ansar al-Islam terrorist training camp, associated with al Qaeda, which was in the northeast of the country…

BLITZER: But did Saddam control Ansar al-Islam?

MAY: Yes. He controlled access…


MAY: Yes and no. He controlled — you couldn’t have gotten up to it, but nobody controlled it, essentially. On the other hand, it couldn’t have existed. He could have closed up the passages into it if he had wanted to, and he didn’t want to. And we know at Salman Pak, we do know this, and this is in the Duelfer Report, that Saddam Hussein was training terrorists, not just Iraqis, but Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, all sorts of terrorists were trained in Salman Pak, which is one of the reasons it is part of the war on terrorism.

BLITZER: What we know for a fact is that Saddam Hussein, Peter, did give Abu Nidal, the notorious Palestinian terrorist, refuge in Baghdad.

BEINART: No. On the question of Palestinian terrorism against Israel, I don’t think there is any doubt. Saddam Hussein was helping to sponsor terrorism against Israel. And I’m very glad that he is no long able to do that. But as a question of American national security, I still think when you step back from all this, and I think Pete Coors, actually, the Republican senator (sic) from Colorado said this, if we had known that Saddam Hussein did not have a nuclear program and we had known, as the 9/11 Commission said, that he had no operational relationship with al Qaeda, we never would have had a serious debate about war in Iraq. That is the basic fact. We can do it — now we can say we have to win, of course we do. But it would have never been a serious topic of conversation in Washington.

MAY: I would suggest, by the way, we need better intelligence, even if you buy that, but you cannot blame that on any party or any candidate.

BEINART: Of course you can. You can blame it on this administration which didn’t want good intelligence because we know that inside this administration that they had warnings about the aluminum tubes, right? We know they had warnings about the uranium in Niger, and they ignored them. So we can blame this administration.

MAY: Look, this president took over the intelligence apparatus, George Tenet, Richard Clarke, that President Clinton had. And President Clinton also had bad intelligence. Surely, if he knew that tens of thousands of terrorists were being trained to kill Americans, Clinton would have done something about it. But he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

By the way, at Salman Pak, we also know, it has been on public TV, that Saddam himself said to the graduating terrorists, your key target should be Americans, Americans, Israelis too, but Americans.

BLITZER: Let’s move on. You raise the issue of Israel. There is a very fascinating case in Iraq itself, an Iraqi aide to Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition leader, I guess you could call him that right now, went to Israel, met with some Israeli counter-terrorism officials at a sort of an academic seminar in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

He went back to Iraq, he has now been virtually arrested and he’s being charged with meeting with the, quote, “Zionist enemy” under old Baathist party laws, in Israel. What does this say about the state of democracy, the new Iraq that supposedly is going to move in the direction of Jordan and Egypt, both of which have formal diplomatic relations with Israel?

MAY: Well, it certainly sends a very bad message. Now I don’t know that the prime minister knows anything about this at this point. I think that the chances are that because this guy is part of the INC, part of Chalabi’s group, they’re looking for anything they can use to get him which is not a new practice in various parts of the world. But my guess is that once Allawi understands the situation that’s going on here, he’ll make sure that this guy does not suffer as a result of the attending a conference on terrorism in any country in the world.

BLITZER: You believe that?

BEINART: Well, I think the larger point is that one can’t confuse democracy with policies that we like. The truth is that Iraq has turned out to be a much more Islamicized society than we had realized. It is not surprising that there is a great deal of anti- Israel — anti-Zionist feeling there. And Democracy is a roll of the dice. Democracy is saying the Iraqis will be able to run their own show and we don’t know what policies.