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updated 1/21/2007 2:10:42 PM ET 2007-01-21T19:10:42

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: the war in Iraq. Should Congress support President Bush’s plan to send more American troops to Iraq? Yes, says the leading advocate for a troop increase.

(Videotape)

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): These moves will give the Iraqis and America the best chance of success.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

No says the leading opponent of a troop surge.

(Videotape)

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D-MA): Escalation would be a policy of desperation built on denial and fantasy.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

McCain and Kennedy, two key senators with very different views on the war, only on MEET THE PRESS.

But first, the decision by the president to send more American troops to Iraq, it sent off a heated debate in the U.S. Senate. Twenty more American troops killed yesterday, one of the bloodiest days of the war. With us now, Senator John McCain.

Senator, welcome. I want to raise first The Economist magazine, this is The Economist’s intelligence unit. They say this: “Unless their mission is very well-defined, 20,000 troops are probably too few to make a significant difference - and may be too few under any circumstances. ... Adding around 20,000 to the 132,000 currently there will increase U.S. capabilities, but not enough to stabilize the country.” You agree with that?

SEN. McCAIN: I am concerned about it, whether it is sufficient numbers or not. I would have like to have seen more. I looked General Petraeus in the eye and said, “Is that sufficient for you to do the job?” He assured me that he thought it was and that he had been told that if he needed more he would receive them. I have great confidence in General Petraeus. I think he’s one of the finest generals that our military’s ever produced, and he has a proven record on that. He wrote the new Army counterinsurgency manual. But do I believe that if it had been up to me would there have been more? Yes, but one of the keys to this is get them over there quickly rather than feed them in piecemeal as some in the Pentagon would like to do today.

MR. RUSSERT: You are a veteran of Vietnam, and you understand when public opinion slips away from support of a war. Here’s the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out this morning. And we asked, if Congress passes a resolution against the president’s position on more troops, should President Bush proceed? Yes, 30; no, 65 percent. Two out of three Americans, senator. And look at this breakdown by party. Democrats, 85 percent say no. Independents, voters you know well, 71 percent say no, do not proceed. And now 33 percent, one third of Republicans, say listen to Congress more than the president. Why should the American people, after they voted the midterm elections and have a Congress that says no to the president, why shouldn’t they be listened to?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I understand their frustration and sometimes anger over the lack of success and lack of progress, particularly coupled with optimistic statements made time after time when things were not going well and deteriorating. At the time of the first Gulf War, only 15 percent of the American people thought we ought to go to Kuwait and get rid of Saddam Hussein there. If it was as clear-cut as someone described, Tim, Joe Lieberman would not have been re-elected in the state of Connecticut.

Americans are frustrated, they are angry, and they are fed up. And what we need to do is show them a path to success. Because I think—and also I think we need to make them more aware of the consequences of failure, which would be chaos in the region. And sooner or later, I think Americans might have to return. So I understand their frustration, I believe that President Bush now has the right strategy. I’ve been deeply disappointed in the strategy in the past, as is well known, and I think this is our last chance. Will it succeed? I can’t guarantee that. I think we have a good chance of it, but I guarantee the catastrophic results of failure.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the things the American people do remember, September 11th, 2001, the Taliban had harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and then they read this from the Baltimore Sun: “A U.S. Army infantry battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks in order to deploy to Iraq. According to Army Brigadier General Anthony Tata and other senior U.S. commanders [there], that will happen just as the Taliban is expected to unleash a major campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar.” Should we be moving troops from Afghanistan, at this delicate stage in that war, to Iraq?

SEN. McCAIN: I’m not aware of that, and on its face I would be very concerned. A recent trip that we made to Afghanistan, it’s clear to one and all that the Taliban has been reconstituted, particularly in safe area in Pakistan just across the Afghan border, and there will be increased attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. So, as I say, I’ve—had not seen the report, but I would be concerned about it.

We have, we have a military of 1.4 million. It seems to me that we could come up with 20,000 troops without the great difficulty that apparently the Pentagon feels it is.

MR. RUSSERT: So you would prefer not to take troops out of Afghanistan?

SEN. McCAIN: I would prefer not to take troops out of Afghanistan. I think that the new policy of expanding the Marine Corps and the Army is vital, because we are going to have difficulties throughout the world, and we’re going to have increasing difficulties in Afghanistan, which is—the situation is exacerbated by the deteriorating relations between President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Musharraf of Pakistan. It’s a very serious situation there. But the good news is we have allies who are in there with us who are committed and are also making similar sacrifices.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, we heard President Bush, throughout the last four years of the war, saying “Whatever the commanders tell me about troop levels, that’s what I’ll do.” This is what General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq said on January 2: “The longer we in the U.S. forces continue to bear the main burden of Iraq’s security, it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to make the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias. And the other thing is that they can continue to blame us for all of Iraq’s problems, which are at base their problems.” President Bush disagreed with General Casey, so he’s removed. Why didn’t the president listen to his generals when they advised no more troops?

SEN. McCAIN: Because it was clearly a failed policy. From the beginning, many of us knew that it was a failed strategy. It was based on the mistaken belief that the Iraqi army and police would be able to take over the responsibilities far more quickly than they were able to. And after the bombing of the Shia mosque, the, the crisis accelerated, and we saw and are seeing a steady deterioration of the situation. And if we continue it as we are, within months we would see a total breakdown in Iraq. We cannot afford it, in my view, as I said.

Baghdad is a city of six million people—two million Sunnis, four million Shia. We would see a bloodletting in Baghdad of—that would make Srebrenica look like a Sunday school picnic. We can’t expect Americans to sit outside Baghdad or outside the borders and watch such a thing go on. It was a failed policy; it was pursued too long. We now have a new strategy headed by one of the finest military people we have, and I believe we can succeed. But I believe that there’s no doubt, in retrospect and at the time, that the policy that was pursued wasn’t going to work.

MR. RUSSERT: Failed policy. General Casey now is returning back to the United States. He’s been nominated to be the chief of staff of the Army. Will you support and vote for his confirmation?

SEN. McCAIN: I have very serious concerns about General Casey’s nomination. I’m concerned about failed leadership, the message that sends to the rest of the military. I have hard questions to ask him, and I—I’m very skeptical about it.

MR. RUSSERT: As of today, you’re leaning no.

SEN. McCAIN: Yes. Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask about Prime Minister Maliki. Front page of The Washington Post today said that when Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq met with President Bush in Jordan on November 30th of last year, he had a power point presentation in which he said to the president “no more American troops.” If the Iraqis didn’t want more troops, why are we sending them?

SEN. McCAIN: I think we’re send—I think we’ve convinced Prime Minister Maliki then, as the situation continues to deteriorate, that we need to do that. I am very, very—one of my very serious concerns, and I think many others’ concerns is whether Prime Minister Maliki will be steadfast in this effort. There’s been actions that he’s taken in the past which are very disturbing, such as removing a blockade around Sadr City after we were trying to rescue an American soldier who had been kidnapped. His statements and a couple of his actions in recent days have given me a little more confidence, but there’s no doubt that this is a slender reed that we are leaning on here in the form of Maliki and his government.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with Secretary of State Rice that Mr. Maliki’s government is on borrowed time?

SEN. McCAIN: I think the whole situation in Iraq is on borrowed time, because of the continued deterioration of the security situation, particularly in Baghdad and Anbar province. You cannot have this kind of situation exist in a capital of any nation. But also, by the way, we need—as far as Maliki is concerned—we need unity of command in Baghdad. Americans have to be in charge. The operational decisions of sending troops to Baghdad by the Maliki government is fine, but General Petraeus has to be in charge. Unity of command equates to unity of effort.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you have confidence that Mr. Maliki is someone who would truly be an ally on the war on terror? He has refused to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and has refused to denounce Hezbollah for their activities in Lebanon.

SEN. McCAIN: I, I, as I said, I am concerned about the steadfastness and the commitment of the Maliki government. I am encouraged by statements recently. Sometimes in some countries politicians make statements for local consumption, as, as we all know. Also I think it’s important to note if any government thought that their protectors or their supporters, in this case American military, were leaving, they have to remain in the neighborhood, and they would want to make accommodation so that they could survive in that neighborhood. I’m hoping with this new strategy that it will stiffen Maliki’s spine and that of his government so that we can really prevail here and bring about his goal and ours, and that’s a peaceful situation where we can clear and hold, not just clear and leave, as we did in the past, thereby allowing the economic and political process to move forward and thereby having a nation that can at least have some prospects for a brighter future.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to bring you to an interview January 13th in The Washington Post when you were talking about your frustrations, and you chose some interesting words. You said “One of the most frustrating things that’s ever happened in my political life,” [McCain] said, “is watching this train wreck.” Why is Iraq a train wreck?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, it’s been a train wreck because, from the beginning, when the looting was allowed and then the army was dissolved and the so-called de-Baathif—there was a series of events which led to a steadily deteriorating situation. Look, it’s been well chronicled in books like “Fiasco” by Tom Ricks and “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and General Trainor. It’s, it’s well chronicled, the descent that we’ve been on, and so many people knew that this was a failed strategy. And that’s why I think that this is our chance now, our last chance, to, to have a new strategy which will give us a chance to prevail. But it was—it was a saddening thing to watch, and, of course, the tragedy is that the loss of young Americans.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, Democrats are now referring to the increase in American troops, the so-called surge, as the McCain doctrine. Do you accept that?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, there’s a McCain principle, and that is that when you raise your hand and you vote to send young Americans into harm’s way that you will commit yourself and your efforts to completing that mission successfully. I don’t know how lightly others may take that vote, but that’s the principle that I’ve operated under, and—but not everybody gets a doctrine named after them.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, senator, Iraq is a very divisive issue across the country, front and center in the already-begun 2008 presidential campaign. The liberal Democratic group MoveOn.org has on the airwaves with an ad directed at you. Let’s watch it and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape of MoveOn.org advertisement)

Announcer: John McCain has done more than just embrace George Bush’s failed policy in Iraq. It’s actually his idea to escalate the war there. It’s John McCain’s idea to send tens of thousands more soldiers to Iraq and to keep them there with no timeline for bringing them home. The McCain plan to escalate, going from bad to worse.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think?

SEN. McCAIN: I like the shot with the sunglasses. Look, this is—this is part of the American political dialogue today. These are the 527s, which many of us have tried to get rid of, not for this particular reason but because of the unlimited funding that goes into it. But this is a—I’ll be glad to have this debate and this discussion here in—on this program and, and across America. I’m trying to, to convince my fellow citizens in Arizona that this strategy can succeed and it can prevent chaos in the region. I really believe that those who oppose this policy have some obligation to propose an alternative strategy besides withdrawal in four to six months. That’s not a strategy; that’s a retreat.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Hillary Clinton, who’s running for president as of yesterday, said last week that we should not cut off funding for American troops, but cut off funding for the security for Iraqi government officials and cut off funding for the Iraqi army because they simply have not measured up. Would you support her in that effort?

SEN. McCAIN: I don’t see any place in the Constitution where that kind of authority is granted to the Congress. The Congress can cut off funding. And if my colleagues believe that they’re going to send young Americans to die in an unwinnable situation, it seems to me that their conscience would dictate that they cut off the funding for the entire effort. And the—this resolution is basically a vote of no confidence in the men and women we are sending over there. We’re saying, “We’re sending you—we’re not going to stop you from going there, but we don’t believe you can succeed and we’re not willing to support that.” I don’t think the troops would find that an expression of support. And to accuse the president of the United States of, quote, “rushing troops over there” is beneath, frankly, the behavior level that I think is appropriate for members of Congress.

So I hope we can engage—we will be engaging in this debate and discussion. I hope we can make our case. I believe that it’s very necessary, and I understand the frustration that Americans feel. Only 15 percent of Americans supported the first Gulf War at the beginning. But if we can show them a path to success, I think you will see increasing support. But I think it’s going to be long and hard and difficult, and I’m very disturbed when administration officials start talking about quick withdrawals. That’s not going to work.

MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, this is fourth year of the war. And now the number of Americans who support it in the 30s. Isn’t this—or could this not be perceived not as a vote of no confidence in the American troops, but a vote by Congress, a vote of no confidence in the commander in chief?

SEN. McCAIN: I, I think we are all responsible, including me. But I believe that it is a frustration that Americans feel that we have not succeeded. We raised their expectations with comments like “stuff happens” and “last throes” and all of that rhetoric that went on, including predictions by our military commanders over there that things were going well. But I believe, again, and I—I’m sorry to be repetitious, but I think we have now a strategy that can succeed. We’ve got a military commander that I hope we would give him a chance to succeed over there with his outstanding leadership, and I believe we can show them a path to success, and I think we can turn those numbers around.

But I want to emphasize again, if we leave and Iraq descends into chaos and you see this ethnic cleansing going on in places like Baghdad, the Sunnis will play, the Iranian—the Sunnis in the region will have to try to support Sunnis, the Iranians will support Shias, the Turks will become very nervous about Kurdish, a Kurdish state. This is—there’s a tremendous amount at stake here, and I think we who support this change in strategy have to paint the big picture in a more compelling fashion to the American people. There’s no doubt.

When we left Vietnam, Tim, and came home, the Vietnamese didn’t want to follow us. If we leave Iraq, I am convinced that al-Qaeda and terrorist organizations will want to follow us home.

MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, if, in fact, in six months, nine months, the situation in Iraq does not improve, it is not stable, would you then say we gave it our best shot, it’s time to come home?

SEN. McCAIN: I think it would depend on the situation on the ground at the time, Tim. I hope that we can set up some benchmarks so that we can know whether we’re achieving some success. But look, it’s taken us nearly four years to get to this desperate situation we’re in today. So to think that within three or four months or a short period of time that we could retrieve the situation, I think is, is just foolishness.

MR. RUSSERT: You said something to Todd Purdham in Vanity Fair that I want to share with our viewers and ask you about. “‘I do believe that this issue isn’t going to be around in 2008. I think it’s going to either tip into a civil war...’ [McCain] breaks off, as if not wanting to rehearse the handful of other unattractive possibilities.” Finish that statement. It’s either going to tip into civil war or...?

SEN. McCAIN: I think we’re, we’re going to see some success and some measurable success over a long period of time, or we will see failure, is what I—is basically what I—what I said and what I’ve been saying in response to your questions.

MR. RUSSERT: Is the administration considering a policy of rather than cut and run, cut and blame? Where they say to the Iraqis, “It’s time for you to step up. Well, you didn’t do it, we now have to leave”?

SEN. McCAIN: If we do, it, it will be simply rhetoric. We, we are very, very dependent upon Iraqi cooperation, both from their government leadership side, but also to their—the military side and they—that they get sufficient forces into Baghdad, and we continue the training, etc. But I promise you, if we fail here, there’ll be plenty enough blame to go around to everyone, including to me.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to your 2008 presidential race. Are, are you prepared to formally announce, not just an exploratory committee, but a full announcement of candidacy?

SEN. McCAIN: As is obvious, we’ve been tied up very much in this Iraq issue, which is far more important than any political campaign, but we’re making all the preparations to move forward.

MR. RUSSERT: And when will that be?

SEN. McCAIN: We have, have not decided.

MR. RUSSERT: James Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family, outspoken in, in Christian right circles, said this the other day, “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances...and I pray that we won’t get stuck with him.” You responded, “I’m obviously disappointed and I’d like to continue and have a dialogue with Dr. Dobson and other members of the community.” Are you going to reach out to Dr. Dobson?

SEN. McCAIN: No. It’s a free country, and Dr. Dobson is very much entitled to his opinion. I meant I will continue to dialogue with everybody in America that would like to have a dialogue with me, including on this issue of the war in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: But not with Dr. Dobson?

SEN. McCAIN: If, if—of course, if Dr. Dobson would like to have a conversation, I’d be glad to have a conversation with anyone.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the things that Dr. Dobson was most concerned about was your support of a, a legislation which would demand that organizations provide their fundraising lists when they were doing grassroots lobbying. This was the Hill newspaper the other day: “McCain does about-face on grassroots reform bill. Senator gets onto same page as base, conservative groups.” You flipped, senator. You were very much in favor of that kind of transparency, and then you voted against it on the floor. Why have you flipped on a legislation that Dr. Dobson cared about, conservative groups cared about? Is it because you’re trying to win their favor in your race for president?

SEN. McCAIN: I, I hate to keep referring to Dr. Dobson, but his—among his many other objections to me was his view of my commitment to the sanctity of marriage. But I—as—over a year ago, I had changed my position on this issue because I believe that it was too big a bite to take. I believe that there’s ambiguities concerning it, and so I believe that it was better to move forward with the reforms that we can make, and so that’s a position that I took well over a year ago.

MR. RUSSERT: But it also helps you politically.

SEN. McCAIN: I don’t—I don’t know how it—how it helps me politically.

MR. RUSSERT: Incurring favor with conservative groups that were very much opposed to your original legislation.

SEN. McCAIN: There are as—there are as many liberal groups who were opposed to the legislation as well, as I—as I understand it. Some of these grassroots organizations are very legitimate organizations. As we found out during the Abramoff investigations, some are not. We should be able to find out and discriminate between the two.

MR. RUSSERT: Here’s the latest poll from Newsweek magazine out this morning. Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidate, 48; John McCain, Republican candidate 47. Hillary Clinton in the race. How would you assess her as a candidate for president?

SEN. McCAIN: I think she would be a very formidable candidate.

MR. RUSSERT: And—and someone who could actually win.

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I think to underestimate anyone who is the nominee of the party—I think one of the mistakes we made in 1992 was underestimating her husband’s potential.

MR. RUSSERT: Back in February of ‘05, you told me that she would make a good president, even though you would never vote for her, she would make a good president. You stand by those words?

SEN. McCAIN: I’m convinced that she would be a very serious president, that we would have strong philosophical differences, as is well known, but certainly I respect her views. And I think that her—but would I—would I pursue the policies and initiate initiatives that she would? Certainly not, because I’m a conservative Republican.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, as always, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views.

SEN. McCAIN: Thank you for having me.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, a very different view from the leading opponent to more troops in Iraq. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is here on MEET THE PRESS, next.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Ted Kennedy, the war in Iraq, the 2008 presidential race, the entrance of Hillary Clinton and more after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Senator Ted Kennedy, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. KENNEDY: Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT: You just heard John McCain say that a Senate resolution against President Bush increasing troops in Iraq, or your legislation to cap the number of troops in Iraq, is, in effect, a vote of no confidence in the American troops.

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, of course, first of all, I have enormous respect for John McCain. I serve with him on the Armed Services Committee. I’ve worked with him on immigration and on health care. And he’s a great American hero, great American patriot. He’s given more to this country than anyone could’ve asked. And I always take his views seriously, certainly on issues of national security. But on this issue, I differ with him.

The question that you just asked is, are we really being more loyal to our troops putting them in the midst of a civil war? That’s effectively what’s happening. That’s what we see day after day. That is what our generals understand. Colin Powell has described it that way, General Nash. So many of the generals that have been over there describe that that way. The American people never voted to authorize to send American troops in the midst of a civil war. They authorized it to look after weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there, to look after the issues of the association, the operational association between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. They looked at the violations of the UN resolution, but not a civil war. Today we have a civil war.

And the issue that is before the Senate of the United States, the issue that is before the American people is the issue of whether we are going to have another surge. We’ve had four surges in Iraq, none of them have been successful. And I, I suggest that the president has the responsibility to demonstrate and prove to the American people that the surge will work. This is because the surges in the past—when we were in Najaf—Najib in 2004, were not successful. In Fallujah, they weren’t successful. In Baghdad this last year, they haven’t been successful, 2005 not successful.

The burden is on the president to prove to the American people that it will work, because this is an administration that has had failure after failure after failure after failure. And generally, in baseball, when you have three strikes, then you’re out. What is that in regards to this policy? We, we ought to require that the president of the United States come to the Congress and convince the Congress and the American people that the surge is the right way to go. And we ought to—that’s what our legislation does. It says if the president should come to the Congress and be able to demonstrate to the Congress that we need the increased troops, the increased resources with a new authorization. And if—otherwise we have a cap in the number of troops that are there, and we don’t have the resources to send additional troops there.

MR. RUSSERT: But the president has already begun to send troops to Iraq. Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker, said, quote, “The president knows that because the troops are in harm’s way that we won’t cut off the resources. That’s why he’s moving so quickly to put them in harm’s way.” You agree with her?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, first of all, Nancy Pelosi’s had an extraordinary week. She has just been a spectacular speaker with all of the actions that have been taken with the increase in minimum wage and stem cell research and...

MR. RUSSERT: But is she right about the president?

SEN. KENNEDY: She, she is right about the president, the fact that the president has taken two months, two months to make his judgment and decision, hasn’t he? He has taken from the time of the election till just a week ago to make the judgment decision about, about the surge. It does seem that the Congress ought to be able to have two weeks to make a judgment on this.

Now, the facts remain that the—these troops are going to be phased in over a period of time. If we’re able to take action before the end of this month, there is no issue which is more important to the American people than the issue of war and peace, the issue of Iraq. We ought to have that on the agenda in the House of Representatives, on the Senate. We ought to debate these issues. And I think we will see, at the end of that time, that the—that there, there is going to be opposition to the surge, that that opposition was initially reflected, as you pointed out earlier in the program, by the generals themselves. There’s increasing opposition by the Republicans. And I must say, if we have a president that is going to effectively defy the American people, going to defy the generals, defy the majority of the Congress of the United States in Republicans and Democrats, then we, I think, have a responsibility to, to end the funding for that—for the war.

MR. RUSSERT: Cut off the funding?

SEN. KENNEDY: If that is going to be the case. I hope that that is not the case. But if that is going to be the case, if the president is going to defy the military leaders, the American public, and a bipartisan is going to be contemptuous of those actions, I think we have a constitutional duty, a constitutional duty to take those steps. Now...

MR. RUSSERT: Is he doing that now?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I’d say we’ll have the opportunity now, won’t we, to judge. He initially invited the Congress to come on in and be a part of this. Then he indicated that he is not going to take this judgment. But we have to take that judgment with the—you can take it with a nonbinding, and then we will have an opportunity—we’ve gotten the assurances of Harry Reid in the Senate that we will—those of us who believe in, in a—in a resolution that is actually going to be binding, we’ll have an opportunity to vote on it. Then we’ll find out what the president is going to do.

MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, if in two or three months there are 20,000 new American troops on the ground in Iraq, will you then say, “Let’s cut off funding”?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, let me just say, I hope that’s not the case. What I expect is that we’re going to have either the non—what you call the nonbinding and then binding resolutions, we’re going to find out what the attitude of the president, because I think it’s going to be very clear. As I mentioned before, you’re going to have the generals, the American people and others that are going to be opposed. But at the end of the day, we can—we are a constitutional democracy. All power is not just with the executive. We have a power in the Congress as well. And if this president’s going to defy the military, the public and a bipartisan majority in the Congress, then we have a responsibility at that time to have what—let me just mention this, because it’s been so abused, the statements about what—what would happen. We would have an orderly departure. We would set a time and have an orderly departure. We would make sure that our troops had the armor and had the bullets, not like the administration has when we went in, when we didn’t have the armor, we didn’t have the bullets, we didn’t have the up-armored humvees. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but we have to be prepared to do it.

MR. RUSSERT: “The Iraqis seem to be asking for one last chance. The Iraqi government’s need for American troops would ‘dramatically go down’ in three to six months if the United States accelerated the process of equipping and arming Iraq’s security forces, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.” And Maliki went on to say that “Iraqi security forces this week had detained 400 Shiite militiamen affiliated with Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose followers constitute part of Maliki’s political base.” The Iraqis saying give us one last chance. Why not help them?

SEN. KENNEDY: We should help them. And the best way to help them is to de-escalate. I’ve listened to my friend and colleague, Senator McCain, say “Well, we don’t—the Democrats don’t have a policy.” We haven’t tried a policy of de-escalation. They all say, “Look, let’s just have escalation, let’s have surge, let’s increase. Because if we don’t, we haven’t got a policy.” The fact remains, as we heard from General Abizaid before the Armed Services Committee, after consultation with the General Dempsey and military officials, that they didn’t believe that they had any additional troops. They thought that this would increase the cycle of violence. They point out that we’re a further crutch for the Iraqi government. Let’s have a—the policy that we haven’t tried, which is de-escalation. That’s a policy which I believe then will require the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for their security, rather than now sending additional troops which will be an additional crutch for the Iraqi government in delaying their judgment decision in order to take the security.

Look, our servicemen have been over there for four years. We had the best military in the world at the start of this conflict in the war. They’ve been over there for four years. They have fought and won every kind of battle. They have been over there longer than we’ve served in World War II. They have done everything that any serviceman or woman could possibly been asked, and they’ve done it courageously, they’ve done it valiantly. And what we owe them is a policy that is as good as their valor and their bravery, not sending them into the conflict of a civil war. That is what this policy is all about. And it is a disaster, and it’s going to be a continued disaster for these servicemen. The best way you can serve their interests is not put them in harm’s way. And you ought to re—we ought to require this president, who’s been wrong on every important decision on Iraq, to come to the Congress and the American people to get approval to go in that direction.

MR. RUSSERT: With the lack of security that exists in Iraq and the lack of the capability of the Iraqi army, to withdraw American troops now, in the estimation of the intelligence community, would put Iraq into total chaos and anarchy. Are you for that?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well—no!  I’m not for, for that. That’s the—that is the line that is given from the, the administration. What we have been, been for is certainly an orderly kind of redeployment, the training of, of Iraqis, the supply of the equipment. They can have a continued training program. Diplomacy in that region, which is nonexistent, nonexistent, a refusal to talk to the countries that have a direct interest in this. None of this is tried. So we have a choice of either a continuation of a bankrupt policy that is going to put Americans in the midst of a civil war over there, or an alternative policy that has the real opportunities for success. We know that policy is going to be a policy for disaster, and we think that the American people don’t want to be sending Americans into the midst of this civil war...

MR. RUSSERT: The director of national intelligence appeared before Congress about two weeks ago, was asked a very direct question about troop withdrawal. Let’s watch that question and answer.

(Videotape, January 11, 2007, congressional meeting)

SEN. KIT BOND (R-MO): What would happen in—if we pulled out now from Iraq?

MR. JOHN NEGROPONTE (Director of National Intelligence): We’ve looked at that question, and we’ve, we’ve tried to assess it, senator, and I, I think the, the view pretty much across the community is that a precipitate withdrawal could lead to a, a collapse of, of the government of, of that country and a collapse of their security forces, because we simply don’t think that they are ready to take over to assume full control for—of their security responsibilities.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: If we pulled out, the Maliki government would collapse and we would create a situation some say analogous to Afghanistan where terrorists would live there as a haven and plot the destruction of the United States and other countries around the world.

SEN. KENNEDY: This is a precipitous withdrawal without the kind of framework which I and other Democrats have described. You can ask that question, if they all were getting on a train this afternoon or a bus or something out of that. That isn’t—we’re talk—we’re talking about an orderly redeployment over a period...

MR. RUSSERT: How long—how long would you take for withdrawal?

SEN. KENNEDY: It take—I think it’s—what? A year for that period of time, an orderly, where you’d continue the training and you’d work at the diplomatic. But look, look, look...

MR. RUSSERT: But would you leave any—would you leave any troops behind?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, it, it, it would depend on the circumstances at the very end. But the principal point is the Amer—we would have a major difference in policy. The administration says, “Look, we’re going in this direction, and we don’t care what the generals say or what the American people say.” That’s what the president says on this part. He ought to come to Congress. He ought to come to Congress. The burden is on him. That—this administration has made mistake after mistake after mistake. Every, every prediction that they have made has been wrong, starting off, number one. Every time they have made, including Mr. Negroponte, he’s been wrong every time, number one. And number two, we are offering at least an alternative policy. They don’t have an alternative policy. The president wants to go ahead with his policy. Come to the American people and go to the Congress and win that kind of support. Go to—and get accountability for this president and the members of the Congress and Senate that want a surge, that policy, and send sons and daughters and soldiers into a civil war. That is what the conflict is. We have an alternative. We have an alternative which will provide some training and provide diplomacy, which has been nonexistent in this.

Finally, I would just say, this administration has taken its eye off completely of the conflict of—in Afghanistan with all the deterioration. That is the home of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and we see a continued escalation and, and a focus on that. They have made us weaker in terms of our ability to deal with Iran on this. This is a—they—this is a administration that is an enhancement of—or a failure in terms of American security interests throughout the world.

MR. RUSSERT: If we withdrew over the course of a year, and we saw Iran moving into southern Iraq, you saw the Saudis helping their fellow Sunnis in the Baghdad area of the Sunni triangle, you saw the Kurds and the Turks going at it up north, do we sit back and watch?

SEN. KENNEDY: We, we will have to take this and wait and see. Look, I heard this, I believe in that, that riddle of what, what is Iraq. And that is the forces in that region do not want us to win, but they also don’t want us to lose. They don’t want us to lose. Who in that region wants complete chaos? What efforts do we make to try to weave together countries in that area that might be willing to work with the United States, if we were prepared to have a real diplomatic offensive and initiative? That hasn’t been tried. That hasn’t been initiated. All that we do is a continued escalation of the war.

MR. RUSSERT: You were one of the few Democrats who voted against the war in the U.S. Senate. Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Joe Biden, Senator John Edwards, Senator John Kerry all voted for the war. Should they now, considering running for president of the United States, step forward and say “I made a mistake”?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, there—some of them have already made that statement and, and comment. I think what is important is that virtually every one of those has an alternative and a virtually unified position and opposition to the continued escalation. I didn’t hear one that favors a continued escalation. I didn’t hear one that you mentioned that favors a surge. The Democrats are united, virtually, with some exceptions, in terms of the surge movement of this administration. And that is...

MR. RUSSERT: But you said—you said it was the most important vote you ever cast...

SEN. KENNEDY: That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...in the—in the United States Senate.

SEN. KENNEDY: Yes. Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: And, in your mind, they were wrong on that vote.

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, that’s, that’s—they, they chose to go a different way.

That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: But that’s a fundamental misjudgment, in your mind.

SEN. KENNEDY: It’s a decision that they made which I differed with, and I think it was a very, very important judgment on it. I do think that they are so far ahead of where the administration is and where Republicans are, in terms of the future of, of, of Iraq, I don’t have hesitancy in certainly supporting them for the—for the presidency of the United States. We are, I think, with—for the Democrats are uniquely, in a unique position of—have such extraordinary—and and it’s an extraordinary bench, extraordinary talent coming into this presidential election.

MR. RUSSERT: What happens if, in fact, they try the surge, it doesn’t work, and there’s a troop withdrawal and Iraq falls into total chaos and anarchy?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, we have—you can mention all, “What happens if the—Afghanistan collapses?” I mean, what happens then, in terms of the Iranian—we’re going to have to look at any of these. What we are certain of, at this time, is that the administration believes in the surge. That has been—we’ve tried surge on four different times, and it’s been a failure, that the leading generals, before they were shunned, before they were shut out, before they were set aside, also opposed the surge. So we have tried that policy, we have listened to the generals who rejected that policy. The increasing number of Republicans are rejecting that policy. The American people have fundamentally rejected the policy last fall. And this president wants to go it alone. Effectively he’s saying, “I have made the judgment; it’s my decision.” I don’t know where he gets “It’s my decision, my decision.” I mean, he has to read that Constitution again in terms of the responsibilities that we have. We have a responsibility under the Constitution to do the people’s will, and we will do the people’s will, I think.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you—do you think there’ll be a time when Republican senators will go see President Bush and say, “It’s over.”

SEN. KENNEDY: I think they’ll probably, the politics of it, probably they’ll say it’s going to be a very hard slog in terms of a—in a senatorial and congressional election.

MR. RUSSERT: George Casey is going to return home, nominated by the president to be the chief of the staff of the Army. You heard Senator McCain come out against his nomination. Are you for or against him?

SEN. KENNEDY: I, my, my basic feeling at this time is probably leaning for him. I’m going to attend the hearings; I’ll listen to it. I think I’ve a lot of respect for these, these, these officers. They—they’re not the ones that’ve made the policy, judgment decisions. They’ve been trying to deal with it under tough circumstances. And I’ll, I’ll have a chance to listen to the—Casey when he comes back. But my basic sense is to probably lean towards in, in favor of it, but I’ll be listening.

MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she is running for president yesterday. Here’s the latest Washington Post poll. We’ll put it on the screen. Amongst Democrats, Hillary Clinton, 41 percent; Barack Obama, senator from Illinois, 17; John Edwards, V.P. candidate in ‘04, 11 percent; Al Gore, the former V.P., 10 percent; John Kerry, your fellow Bay Stater, 8 percent. What does that tell you?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, it tells me that Senator Clinton is in a very strong position for the nomination. I’ve—our family’s had a good personal relationship with the Clintons for the time that he was the president. And she’s been on—I’ve worked with her on our committee on health and education issues. She’s a very competent person and has a lot of ability, and I have a lot of respect for her. And I know all of the other candidates. I know them well and have worked all well with them...

MR. RUSSERT: Are you going to endorse any of them?

SEN. KENNEDY: I—John Kerry will probably make his judgment decision, I expect, soon. I’m going to support, support John. I’ve worked with him in the United States Senate, I—he’s my colleague, he’s a friend, he’s an authentic war hero. I think he’s got a great wealth of information on national security. And I know there are people that think that John would have an uphill battle. Well, he had that the last time, as well, when he went for the nomination. And I think all of these—but he did superbly well. So he’s going to have to make up his own mind. I think it’ll be done in the next very few weeks. I think all of the...

MR. RUSSERT: Are you, are you going to encourage him to run?

SEN. KENNEDY: I’ll—I’ve had long talks with him. It’s a very—at this time, it’s a very personal decision, a judgment that he has—that he has to make.

MR. RUSSERT: But, but, senator, he was the nominee in 2004, and there you see he’s at 8 percent amongst Democrats.

SEN. KENNEDY: That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: What’s the problem?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I think it’s, it’s a question—I think these go up and vary—these polls go up and—up and down. The fact is, no matter where you are, as one who’s had some practical experience with this, you have to go back out to that countryside. You have to get out to Iowa and get to New Hampshire homes and get out to the Iowa countryside, and you have to sort of win that nomination. These polls are interesting for a time, but that’s, that’s where this is decided. And that’s for each and every one of them. That’s, that’s what is going to decide. As we all know, that’ll be entirely different in four, five months from now. And each of these people have a lot of—and some others that aren’t on that list—have some good, good talent.

You know, it’s amazing, the Democratic Party, for the nomination this time, for the candidates for the presidency, really reflect the country in terms of the, the nation itself, the—with the candidates that we have. That’s an extraordinary sense of progress, and I think it’s a reflection of the party itself. I think that’s a very healthy sign. No one knows quite still what’s going to happen. They’re going to have to, to win it. But it’s a very hopeful and good sign for our party.

MR. RUSSERT: One of John McCain’s primary opponents for the Republican nomination is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. How would you assess Governor Romney as a presidential candidate?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I don’t—wouldn’t underestimate Mitt. I didn’t agree with him on a lot of things, but I don’t think he should be underestimated. He’s going to—I’m not an expert on the Republican nomination, but ...

MR. RUSSERT: Has he changed his views?

SEN. KENNEDY: It appears that he’s adjusted some of those views. I’ll let others get to it. That campaign was a long time ago. It’s past. It worked out OK for me. I’ll, I’ll, I’ll let it lie there.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Ted Kennedy, we thank you as always for joining us and sharing your views.

SEN. KENNEDY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: And we’ll be right back on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

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