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updated 3/11/2007 1:48:19 PM ET 2007-03-11T17:48:19

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Yesterday, for the first time since the beginning of the Iraq war, diplomats from Iran, Syria, Iraq and the United States sat at the same table. What happened? Is there any hope for a diplomatic solution to the war? With us, an exclusive interview with the highest-ranking American in those meetings, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Then: Congress debates resolutions to withdraw all American troops by next year; continued outrage over the treatment of our wounded soldiers; and the fallout of the “Scooter” Libby verdict and its impact on Vice President Cheney. Insights and analysis from NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss; the assistant managing editor of Time magazine, Michael Duffy; Ted Koppel, whose special report, “Our Children’s Children’s War,” will air tonight on the Discovery Channel; and Dana Priest of The Washington Post.

But first, after his meeting with Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi officials yesterday, the American ambassador to Iraq talked to MEET THE PRESS.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome. Immediately after the meeting, you said the talks were constructive and positive. Could we strip away that diplomatic speak and tell the American people exactly what happened in this meeting?

MR. ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, the meeting focused on how to help Iraq deal with the problems that, that emanate from the neighborhoods and also facilitate reconciliation in Iraq. The exchanges were good. There was agreement that there will be working groups formed involving Iraq and its neighbors to deal with security, to deal with the issue of oil and electricity, and also with the refugees. So there were agreement on practical steps to move forward. We will see what happens on the ground. But I think, as a meeting goes, as a first step, it was—it was a good meeting.

MR. RUSSERT: Will the United States be part of those working group meetings?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, the, the working groups will be made up of the neighbors, but there is agreement that where we can play a positive role, where we can contribute, we’ll be invited to join and contribute.

MR. RUSSERT: Did you talk directly to the Iranians during the course of the day?

MR. KHALILZAD: I did talk to the Iranian across the table, and also I, I shook hands with them and talked for a couple—two minutes or so with him, but most of the exchanges were across the table dealing with Iraq issues.

MR. RUSSERT: The Iranian ambassador said, “There were no direct talks with the Americans.” Is he correct?

MR. KHALILZAD: I think he’s correct in the sense we did not have direct, bilateral, substantive talks other than shaking hands, saying some words about the, the—their interest in discussions with the United States, and—but no substantive, bilateral meeting. That is correct.

MR. RUSSERT: Our director of intelligence here in the United States, Mike McConnell, told Congress that the Iranians are providing roadside explosives and also training insurgents in Lebanon who are going into Iraq and killing American troops. Did you tell that to the Iranians? And did you tell them to stop?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, yes, I did specifically mention the role that the neighbors have played, particularly those that have provided arms, that have been negative, money, weapons, and also provocative statements. I did raise that with them, and we will see the impact of this meeting and future engagements on what they do in terms of the Iranian policy. Will they stop supplying the E.F.P.’s to the Iraqis? Will they stop supplying arms and training and money to militias and other unauthorized groups? What happens to their statements and—that they broadcast into Iraq? So we’ll be monitoring their behavior. That’s what ultimately will count. But as a meeting, this meeting and exchanges today were, were constructive.

MR. RUSSERT: Did the Iranians deny providing arms and training?

MR. KHALILZAD: They did, and they also raised some issues of concern on their part—the, the arrest of some of their officials—and I responded to that.

MR. RUSSERT: We have in custody five Iranian officials. Will we release those Iranian officials as a sign of good faith to continue these discussions?

MR. KHALILZAD: I said that those officials—they were saying that they are diplomats, and I said that neither the Iraqis nor ourselves have established that they’re diplomats, that they, they, they are Iranian officials associated with the Revolutionary Guards of, of Iran, and the Quds force is part of the Revolutionary Guards, and the Quds force has been providing some of the weapons that we have talked about, E.F.P.’s, that come into, into Iraq. But I did say that the Iraqi government has asked us to expedite our investigation and to complete the process, and that—we’re doing that. But there was no statement made, no promises made about any—anything with regard to a timeline.

MR. RUSSERT: Many people here in the United States are confused about this meeting because, just three weeks ago, this is what the president said about Iran:

(Videotape, February 14, 2007)

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve made it very clear to the Iranians that if they would like to have a dialogue with the United States, there needs to be a verifiable suspension of their program.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The Iranians have not suspended their nuclear program, and yet, you’re sitting down in a dialogue with the Iranians. Why have we changed policy?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, I think, as you have, have heard and as you know, that the president and the secretary of state have stated that a secretary of state level meeting with them and any discussion on nuclear issues will not take place until they verifiably suspend their enrichment and related nuclear programs. But I have had the authority for over a year from the president to talk to the Iranians about Iraq. We have waited to see if such an engagement and dialogue would be useful to have. So far we have not had a bilateral substantive meeting with them, although the authority has existed. But the meeting today was in a multilateral setting, and it was focused on Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. So this is, in my view, not a change in policy, but something that we have said we would do, and we have stated that repeatedly for some time.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that, ultimately, there must be a diplomatic, not a military solution to the war in Iraq?

MR. KHALILZAD: I believe that a solution to the problems of Iraq require a political settlement among Iraqis. But I also believe that success and stability in Iraq requires cooperation from the neighbors, that without that cooperation it would be harder and take longer to get Iraq to stand on its own feet and to be successful. But at the same time, Iraq’s success can be good for the region, and the region will not be stabilized without Iraq stabilizing. So I do think that a political settlement internally and a positive role from the regional players is important for Iraq’s success, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: We have been told by General Casey, who was the former commander on the ground there for the U.S., that we would know...

MR. KHALILZAD: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...by the end of the summer about the success of the so-called surge of more American troops. Now the new commander on the ground, General Petraeus...

MR. KHALILZAD: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...is saying it’s going to take more than the summer, that it’s open-ended.

MR. KHALILZAD: Right.

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Do you think the American people have the patience for that?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, I’m not a—the right person to ask on the patience of the American people. I do think, and I have stated that to the Iraqi leaders, and that has been a useful message in part, that the patience of the American people is running out, and that they need to make the compromises, the decisions that they need to make for Iraq to succeed, the political settlement that we talked about. And it’s a very tricky balance, on the one hand, to incentivize Iraqis, we need to do indicate to them that the patience of the American people is running out. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we don’t do this in a way that undermines their confidence that they can count on us to, to help them as they make those decisions. So they understand, and I have communicated that repeatedly and clearly, that the patience of the American people is running out.

MR. RUSSERT: Are they aware that it appears a majority of both the Senate and the House of Representatives will vote to withdraw all American troops by August 31st, 2008? Do the Iraqis understand that?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, I think the Iraqis follow the news in the United States very closely. They understand what happens in America is important for them. But, at the same time, they understand our system and that the president is the commander in chief and that he has his prerogative. Sometimes it is confusing for them, and I do have to explain it to them, but they, they, they watch the situation in America very closely.

MR. RUSSERT: Richard Engel, our NBC News correspondent, was in the field when there was an attack made, and American troops went and talked to a Sunni man who was there and asked for his help. And this is what the Sunni responded:

(Videotape from Wednesday)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

RICHARD ENGEL reporting:

‘The Americans are part of the problem,’ he says. ‘In four years, they brought assassinations and civil war. And we still don’t have gas or electricity. Why should I help them?’

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: That is very telling, isn’t it?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, there is no question that there are people here in Iraq who have a negative evaluation of our performance so far. And we do admit that we have made mistakes. But I believe that the majority of the leaders of Iraq, the political blocs, would like the Americans to stay at the present time. Even among Sunnis, there is a change in attitude. They see us now as playing a positive role in terms of controlling or trying to control the sectarian violence here. But there is no question that the majority of Iraqis ultimately would like us to leave, and there is a—there is a mixed evaluation of our overall performance here in the—in the course of the last several years.

MR. RUSSERT: The next meeting will take place in Turkey in April, and the secretary of state, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, will be present?

MR. KHALILZAD: Well, that’s a Turkish proposal, to host a meeting in April. The minister of foreign affairs of Iraq will consult with the other neighbors at the ministerial level, and, if he gets an agreement from them, such a meeting could take place or is likely to take place in April. But that’s subject to, to an agreement by the neighbors. That was not decided today, since the ministers were not there.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for sharing your views.

Coming next, our roundtable, Michael Beschloss, presidential historian;

Michael Duffy of Time magazine; Ted Koppel of the Discovery Channel; and Dana Priest of The Washington Post. They are all next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Insights and analysis from our roundtable after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome all.

Ted Koppel, the meeting in Iraq—the Iranians, Syrian, Iraqis, U.S—what should we think about it?

MR. TED KOPPEL: Had to happen. I, I, I made a little note here of something that Ambassador Khalilzad said to you a moment ago. He said the region will not be stable until Iraq is stabilized. It’s the one thing nobody talks about. Everyone is concerned about the United States being in the middle of a civil war inside Iraq, but they forget about the fact that, if U.S. troops were to pull out of Iraq, that civil war could become a regional war between the Sunnis and Shia. And the region, just in case anyone has forgotten, is the Persian Gulf, where we get most of our oil and, you and I have talked about his before, natural gas. So the idea of pulling out of there and letting the region—I mean, letting the national civil war expand into a regional civil war, something the United States cannot allow to happen.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss, we have a long history of presidents saying, “I will not talk to those people. I will not negotiate with those people, unless”—and now we see we’re sitting down with the Iranians, not talking about their nuclear program, but we’re having a dialogue with them.

MR. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And, you know, one thing that struck me about your interview with Ambassador Khalilzad was when you were—when, when he made the point that “I’ve been authorized by the president to talk to Iranians for at least a year.” You know, George Bush, as you remember just after the Iran Study Group reported in, one of the things they said was, “Let’s talk to Iranians, others in the area.” He made a big point of suggesting to Americans, “interesting report, but I’m not going to change in response to Baker and Hamilton.” In a way, that’s happening now, but the president and the ambassador are still making the point, “We’re doing this on our own. We’re not doing this in response to what someone else said.”

MR. RUSSERT: Dana Priest, you talked to folks in our military, folks in our intelligence communities. What do they tell you about Iraq, and what do they think we should be doing and where it’s going?

MS. DANA PRIEST: Well, most of the generals, I think, welcome this sort of engagement with the neighbors. They’re the first to say, always, and it’s as if we don’t listen to them, “You cannot get out of this just by the military. You need a political solution.” Well, the political solution can only come with, with neighbors involved. And I think this is the plan B that people keep saying is not there militarily. This is the plan B. And so I think there’s a welcoming. Of course, you have the issue of Iran’s involvement with supplying explosives and training, but that’s part—and I—it’s not unusual that you will see them putting heat on Iran right now for that issue, because that is important to get rid of that and to get their cooperation. And I think the administration will be both pulling them in but also hammering them in the—in any way they can to make sure that they stay in.

Mr. RUSSERT: Was this a political necessity as well as a diplomatic necessity?

MR. MICHAEL DUFFY: Those are the two factors, exactly. Since the Iraq Study Group came out, Tim, public support for the administration’s approach in Iraq has continued to fall. At the same time, Washington’s allies have signaled in every way they can, “We’re out of here.” The Brits have begun a partial pullout. Our moderate Arab friends have said, “You must engage on all fronts.” And so on both of those pressures, you know, about two weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice went to Capitol Hill, and someone had pointed out to all these different diplomatic initiatives they’re making with North Korea and now with—now with Iran, and someone said, “Congratulations, that’s great,” And she said, “Well, we are listening.” And I thought that was—just the three words, “We are listening.”

Mr. RUSSERT: A profound change.

MR. DUFFY: A profound—a huge course correction just in about six, seven weeks.

MR. RUSSERT: Tom Friedman wrote a column Wednesday, and he wrote it this way: “From the start, the Bush team has tried to keep the Iraq war ‘off the books’ both financially and emotionally. As Larry Diamond of Stanford’s Hoover Institution said to me,” America’s “‘not at war. The U.S.’” Army’s “‘at war.’ The rest of us are just watching, or just ignoring, while the whole fight is carried on by 150,000 soldiers and their families.”

Michael Beschloss, one, do you agree with that? And, two, how does that compare with other wars that we’ve been involved with, certainly, in this century?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I think it is true, and it’s like the wars the presidents have fought, really, since World War II. You know, Tim, one thing that, really, I feel strongly about, presidents these days, when they want to fight a war, they don’t do what the Constitution tells them to. They don’t go to Congress and say, “Give me a declaration of war.” No president has done that since F.D.R. in 1941. And, in the meantime, we’ve had an awful lot of wars, including Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. And I think the result has been that presidents have been able to keep the noise level down. We often don’t have a full debate before the war begins. And the result is, I think, these wars are not fought as well as they would be if a president did what the Constitution says, which is go to Congress, have a big debate, let the public understand what this might mean, what it might cost them. And the result, I think, would be that wars are fought more effectively and the public would be more willing to be with a president over the long run.

MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, you are tonight airing on the Discovery Channel a special called “Our Children’s Children’s War.” “The long war,” as you called—call it repeatedly, that this war on terror is much more than just Iraq, and it’s going to go on for a long time.

MR. TED KOPPEL: It could go on—I mean, General Abizaid, with whom I spoke, talks in terms of generations. And if you think about two things, that’s not so hard to imagine. Number one, the Cold War, after all, lasted 50 years. We didn’t know it when we began it. We didn’t know it—we didn’t know how long it was going to be when we were in the middle of it, but it lasted half a century.

If you look back at the elements of the war against terrorism, that war was going on and has been going on for the past 24 years. We just didn’t connect the dots. Twenty-four years ago, the, the precursors of Hezbollah blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. That was 1983, 241 Americans killed. In the interim, between then and now, you had two attacks on the World Trade Center, you had the blowing up of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, you had the attempt to blow up the, the U.S.S. Cole, you had the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa. This war’s already been going on for 24 years. We were just a little bit slow to recognize it.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you an exchange you had with General Abizaid. He was then the head of the U.S. Central Command, now retired, and he talks about something about—which is fascinating to me—how the—that long war will be fought after we are done with Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s watch.

(Videotape of “Our Children’s Children’s War”)

MR. KOPPEL: The model of U.S. troops training indigenous forces in north Africa and then sending small units of Americans trained in special operations to fight alongside them in places like Somalia...

Unidentified Soldier #1: What are some things that went right?

Unidentified Soldier #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MR. KOPPEL: That’s the model that General John Abizaid likes best for the long war.

General JOHN ABIZAID: The best way to win the war is to train troops that are indigenous forces, that are capable forces, to have counterterrorist forces in small numbers available, to help them with targets that are beyond their capacity to deal with. And I think, ultimately, you need to get away from these very, very large number of occupation forces in the region, but, of course, you can’t do that until you stabilize both Iraq and Afghanistan.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Sounds like a lot of American advisers around the world.

MR. KOPPEL: There are a lot of American advisers. That video that was shot was shot in Ethiopia. There is a—there’s a base, a U.S. base, in an old Foreign Legion post in Djibouti, it’s called Camp Lemonier. Seventeen hundred Americans there, most of them military, some of them intelligence, some of them diplomats, some of them U.S.A.I.D., and they are there operating in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, in Ethiopia, and, yes, as we discovered just a few weeks after that video was shot, in Somalia. Those troops that we shot there ended up, just three weeks later, fighting in Somalia with U.S. special operations forces on the ground with them and with U.S. air support overhead.

MR. RUSSERT: You also mention that the—besides providing military assistance, health care for cattle and goats.

MR. KOPPEL: Well, the idea is—and, and they talk about, you know, in the old days, in, in Vietnam, they used to refer to it as winning hearts and minds. These days they talk about conquering human terrain. And the way they do that—and again, the, the, the notion is to use as few troops as you possibly can. You have those troops on the ground, they’re digging wells for people, they’re inoculating sheep and goats, they are building health clinics, they’re helping to build schools. And in the—in the course of that, they’re gaining intelligence, they’re winning over allies, they believe, to the United States, and they’re denying terrorists the ability to gain a foothold.

MR. RUSSERT: Is the military more comfortable with that kind of war than the occupational wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

MS. PRIEST: Well, they are, but the track record is not great on this. I mean, I wrote a book about this in, in, in 2003 where the military Special Forces were all over the globe trying to do exactly the same thing. They’re, they’re going to—they’re going to continue doing this. They’ve created a new command for Africa so that they can divide that from Europe and send more concentrated effort into Africa. But their—their record in, in Somalia has not been good. They had a whole—a whole MEU, a whole marine expeditionary unit, off the Horn of Africa to stop terrorists coming into Somalia, and, and then we turn around and see that the, the guys that we didn’t want in power have now really gained a lot of power.

One reason we rely on the military is because we don’t have the diplomatic corps and we don’t have the agriculturalist and the—and the engineers and the doctors and the educators that should really be doing this job. There’s a great saying in the Army, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And the military’s the first to tell you that they are not the best at a lot of this—I’ll call it counterinsurgency, they would call it hearts and minds. It’s really the really difficult part of turning a population away from the alternative of terrorism.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Duffy, as we speak, the president has been touring South America, Central America. Is there a change in the way this president is conducting foreign policy in terms of attitude towards reaching out to the world? Or is it still very much this, this is what America stands for, and we’re, we’re asking you to come along with us?

MR. DUFFY: Well, it looks like, in the last couple of, of months, they have begun to, to make, essentially, a quiet U-turn. They haven’t advertised it, they aren’t talking about it, but, starting with negotiations in North Korea, they have—they’ve inked a pact there with a country that was once a member of the “axis of evil.” As you noted, they’re talking to Iran both multilaterally, as we saw in the tape, but they’ve also opened the door to bilateral. I’m sorry—yeah, bilateral conversations hasn’t happened, but they have actually opened that door. And it, it looks to a lot of people that they are beginning to walk back from the “my way or the highway” approach that they had for so long. I think it’s partly because of the polls, it’s partly because of the allies, it’s partly because it wasn’t working and that they needed to make a change, and finally, it’s because they’re running out of time. It’s very difficult for a president to do anything in his last year in office diplomatically because you don’t have the same support at home, the focus changes. And, of course, your interlocutors overseas say, “I’ll wait for the next guy.” So you’ve got to—if you’re going to make a change, if you’re going to walk back from what you have accomplished and try to change it, you’ve got to do it now, and that’s what’s going on. The clock is part of the deal.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss, people in Washington spend a lot of time reading these tea leaves—who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down. And the storyline now is that, with the resignation of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, that the Rumsfeld/Cheney access in terms of influence on the president’s in decline and that Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, more of a pragmatist, is in ascension. Are we reading too much into that, or what are you seeing?

MR. BESCHLOSS: No, I think it fits exactly with what Michael Duffy was just talking about, which is that you’ve got a president who sees that this is very much in his interest. Don Rumsfeld was essentially fired after the last election because the Democrats won Congress. There’s some talk, as you know, about Vice President Cheney stepping aside, resigning. I can’t imagine that that would possibly happen because George Bush knows that there was only one other vice president in history who resigned, which was Spiro Agnew, who did so to essentially avoid going to prison. I don’t think he wants to feel for his legacy that his vice president is in that kind of company.

MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, what do you see?

MR. KOPPEL: I see a lot of wishful thinking going on here in Washington right now. I mean, when Congress talks about, first of all, setting these, these milestones—and the irony is if the Iraqis successfully meet the milestones, the implication is we stay. If they fail to meet the milestones, we leave. It doesn’t make any sense at all. It ought to be the other way around. If they fail, we stay because they need us; if they succeed, we can start to pull out again. So I, I have this feeling that, on the one hand, the Democrats are making a great deal of hay out of—out of saying, “We have to get of Iraq,” and, indeed, we do at some point or another, but the notion that the war will be over when we pull out of Iraq and even after we pull out of Afghanistan, you heard what General Abizaid had to say, it’s not going to be over. It’s going to be a different war, but the war continues.

MR. RUSSERT: Our children’s children’s war.

MR. KOPPEL: Exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: Dana Priest, you wrote an extraordinary story a few weeks ago in The Washington Post about the care of our wounded and injured soldiers at Walter Reed. What has been the response in terms of people who’ve been contacting you?

MS. PRIEST: Oh. Well, I have to empty my voice mail every 40 minutes.

MR. KOPPEL: Hm.

MS. PRIEST: I mean, it’s been—it’s been unbelievable. I’ve been in journalism for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. People who want to call in with tips, people who want to call in with their personal sagas of trying to deal with the Veterans Administration hospital system—hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. I mean, obviously this problem of care of veterans is not—is, is not isolated to Walter Reed and—but because the political process has really come—really come up after this story came out and gave legitimacy, in a way, to the—to the allegations and to the stories of the—of the men and women who were not being treated right, I think I—I’ve just—we’ve just seen a flood—a flood of people saying, “Help us, help our hospital,” you know, “can’t you look here, can’t you look there?” And I don’t think it’s going to end with—you know, there are three commissions now that have been set up to deal with Walter Reed. The Army has its own—it’s brought in its own new brigade leaders, some combat veterans. This was one of the concerns...

MR. RUSSERT: The secretary of Army has resigned.

MS. PRIEST: Secretary—and, and other people. The commander of Walter Reed was, was relieved of command. Other—I think there will be other people relieved as well. So it’s not ending anytime soon. And, fundamentally, though, I think it will change the situation. Already there were troops in their—in their new barracks—they’ve been moved out of this terrible barracks, Building 18, put in a newly renovated one—calling to say that they were getting knocks on the door at 1 in the morning because they wanted to install the cable TV that night. So some things are improving, and I think that they will tackle the bigger problem of bureaucracy. Whether they’ll reach into the VA hospital system and really make improvements, there is a really tough one that requires a lot of commitment.

MR. RUSSERT: And, Michael Duffy, there has been a Washington response to this. This is a note from The Washington Post on Thursday. “Consider what the White House and the Pentagon have done after learning of substandard care for injured veterans at Walter Reed: They’ve created no fewer than eight overlapping investigations, commissions, task forces and study groups to respond.” It’s going—it’s going to take more than that.

MR. DUFFY: It is. And normally commissions’ proposals take years after they complete working them up to actually get them, you know, enacted. That’s true of the 9/11 commission; it’s been true of the Iraq Study Group. I—the other thing on the table with Walter Reed and, and the medical care for the veterans is a larger question of whether the Army is just broken at its core across the board.

You mentioned the comment the other day, I mean, from the person who said this is all about the Army and none of the other military arms. You, you have a situation where the Army is stressed at all levels—about equipment, about men, recruiting retention, and, and now medical care and family support. So there’s a—and I think General Schoomaker said just before he left in the fall that we are getting to the point where the Army is breaking. That’s not the exact quote, but it’s close. And, and, and so the question will become very soon of how long the Army can actually take this level of—this tempo without changing its—either going under or changing its, its—the whole way we fund it, how big it is, and how it’s led.

MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, no matter how people feel about the war, there was a real outrage about this condition at Walter Reed...

MR. KOPPEL: No question.

MR. RUSSERT: ...that, that we believe that our country has a compact with these young men and women, that if they go and fight and they get injured, they get taken care of when they come home.

MR. KOPPEL: But it’s a phony compact. I mean, the fact of the matter is, it’s never been true. They always get terrific medical care on the battlefield. They always get terrific medical care when they go—when they’re flown out to Germany and, then, initially, when they come back here. And then they tend to be forgotten. That was true of the men who served in Korea, that was true of those who served in Vietnam, and it’s true again now. In that respect, I don’t think it’s a new story at all.

But let me go back for a moment to what you were quoting from Tom Friedman. The fact of the matter is this administration has made two points which are totally inconsistent with one another. On the one hand, they say the war we’re engaged in is an existential war, that if we don’t fight it with everything at our—that we have in our capacity, it’s going to result, potentially, in a drastic change to who we are and what we are and how this nation functions. On the other hand, the only people who are bearing the burden of this war are the military, their families and their friends. You and I, who don’t need it, have gotten tax breaks over the last few years. Why aren’t we paying more money rather than less money to support the military? You know, as Michael said, it’s—you know, the, the military is overstressed to the breaking point. You’ve got these young men and women going in for their second, their third, their fourth tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the things we cover in that special tonight is the role of private contractors, not just to do jobs that were traditionally done by the military in the past like laundry and cooking and driving trucks, but also quasi-military jobs.

MR. RUSSERT: Black water.

MR. KOPPEL: We have 100,000 private contractors in Iraq. They have sustained over 800 casualties. When I say casualties, I mean KIA, killed, 2200 military, 800 civilian contractors. They are a major part of what is going on right now, and yet, the Congress knows very little about what they’re doing, the American public knows next to nothing about what they’re doing. And it has to be that all this emphasis is put on contractors because we don’t have the troops.

MR. RUSSERT: Used to be a simple rule: You don’t just send an army to war, you take a country to war.

MR. KOPPEL: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: And that seems to be lacking.

Let me turn to another issue confronting us, and that is the Scooter Libby conviction, a trial I—which I was involved in, regrettably. The headlines have been all over of—the papers. This is the one late from The New York Times: “No Calm After Libby Verdict, With To and Fro on a Pardon.”

“‘Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct,’ declared Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader, taking a stance echoed by other congressional Democrats, some editorial writers and bloggers on the left.

“From the right” “an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which thundered” “‘the time for a pardon is now,’ a point of view shared by The Weekly Standard, National Review and conservative admirers and friends of Mr. Libby. Many of the calls for his pardon demanded immediate action, instead of a wait for appeals to wend their way through the courts.”

Michael Beschloss, the history of presidential pardons, in recent memory, here’s just a few: Richard Nixon, obviously pardoned by Gerald Ford; Caspar Weinberger, the former of secretary of defense; the national security adviser Robert McFarlane; and the—Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, all pardoned by George Herbert Walker Bush with the—because of their role in Iran-Contra. Dan Rostenkowski, former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, former CIA director John Deutch pardoned by Bill Clinton. Pardon of political appointees or political associates, is not rare.

MR. BESCHLOSS: It does happen. There are others we could mention. And maybe the most germane one is Caspar Weinberger. George H.W. Bush, when he was running against Bill Clinton, 1992, he felt the Friday before that election he was coming, and he was coming, about even with Clinton in the polls. He, to this day, feels that probably the biggest thing that defeated him was the issuance of the indictment of Caspar Weinberger, the Reagan defense secretary for the Iran-Contra scandal. And, if you look at the numbers, Bush began to sink through that weekend, and, of course, lost to Clinton on Tuesday. A month later he pardoned Weinberger, feeling that the process had been unfair, unfair and that Weinberger deserved it. George W. Bush, in many ways, has tried to separate himself from his father on all sorts of things, but it may well be that he may take a lead from his father here.

MR. RUSSERT: It is interesting about Scooter Libby. Michael Isikoff in Newsweek wrote this, that “Scooter Libby’s Pardon Problem,” he calls it, “There’s one significant roadblock on the path to Libby’s salvation: Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff does not quality to even be considered for a presidential pardon under Justice Department guidelines. From the day he took office, Bush seems to have followed those guidelines religiously. ... [The] regulations, which are discussed on the Justice” Department’s “Web site ... ‘require a petitioner to wait a period of at least five years after conviction or release from confinement (whichever is later) before filing a pardon application.’”

Dana Priest, the pressure is on President Bush to do something now. Supporters of Libby fear that he may be sentenced as early as June, perhaps forced to start serving time pending appeal. And even if that’s not the case, the appeal could be over within a year, well before George Bush would be leaving office.

MS. PRIEST: You know, and guidelines are guidelines. And this administration has shown its willingness to take those and do whatever it wants with them. So I don’t think that’s going to be an impediment. And the other issue is, why wouldn’t he do it? I mean, he, he believes in Scooter Libby, and as you—as you showed, he would not be alone in the crowd to pardon people. So I don’t think this would be a big surprise.

MR. RUSSERT: Would there be a political price to pay?

MR. DUFFY: Depends on when he does it, obviously. If this were at the end of a first term, obviously, it might be different. But at the end of a second, there are usually lots of pardons coming from presidents. I think both sides are going to be disappointed, Tim. I don’t think the left is going to get the president to forswear a pardon at all. I think, like Ronald Reagan said about Ollie North, he probably—if he ever comments on this, it’ll let the judicial process continue. On the other hand, I don’t think the conservatives are going to get their instant pardon either. So these things tend to come much later. There is a prospect that the, the judicial appeals and, and, and motions could carry well into 2008 and even past the election, just as that’s possibility. And then pardons tend to come much more easily, regulations or no regulations.

MR. RUSSERT: It is interesting, two jurors have spoken publicly, and both said that they’d be comfortable with a pardon, even though they believe that he should have been convicted.

MR. DUFFY: They, they liked Libby even though he didn’t actually testify. They heard him in grand jury tapes. And I—several of them said—the two that talked said that they felt that he was someone who was standing in for other people who had, perhaps, had a, a large roll that they don’t understand in the case, and that he was just the fall guy.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Anyone you have in mind, Michael?

MR. DUFFY: Well, there is—Scooter Libby was not just any White House aide. He was, you know, the chief of staff to the vice president. He held more hats than any chief of staff in that job has ever held. He was his—Vice President Cheney’s domestic policy adviser and his national security adviser and an assistant to the president. He only reported to two people—the president and the vice president.

MR. RUSSERT: The cover of your magazine this week, “The Verdict on Cheney.” And you write, Michael Duffy, “Cheney has become the Administration’s enemy within, the man whose single-minded pursuit of ideological goals, creaking political instincts and love of secrecy produced an independent operation inside the White House that has done more harm than good. ... More Republicans with each passing week have acknowledged privately what is felt across Washington when it comes to the Vice President: his time has passed.” And yet, vice president—the vice president is still an enormous ally and voice with the president.

MR. DUFFY: And very influential, still. He—particularly—you saw him go to Pakistan just a few weeks ago and read the riot act to General Musharraf. He’s one of the leading spokesmen when it comes to taking more invasive action with respect to Iran. But, when you talk to senior officials and ask what has changed, they say that, for the first time, the vice president is losing arguments when it comes to—he isn’t winning—he isn’t losing them all, but he’s losing more than he has before. And that’s one of the reasons we see these course corrections we’re talking about overseas.

MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, pardon, role of Cheney?

MR. KOPPEL: Somebody’s a—somebody’s an old Al Capp fan. Look at that...

MR. DUFFY: Yes...(unintelligible).

MR. KOPPEL: ...look at that cover again.

MR. DUFFY: Well, I can’t remember the character’s name...

MR. KOPPEL: No, no, no, it was that—it was something like Bafluflula.

MR. DUFFY: Yeah, right. Only...

MR. KOPPEL: I mean, the, the dark cloud over, over Vice President Cheney.

Look, I think it’s a question of how you want to interpret the, the president’s ratings. When you’re down at 29 or 30 percent approval rating, how much worse can it get? Or, or can you afford to do anything as potentially provocative as an early pardon? My...

MR. RUSSERT: But those 29 or 30 percent seem to be the hard-core conservative Republican base, which is pushing pretty hard for the pardon.

MR. KOPPEL: Yes. That’s—it’s a—it’s, it’s a puzzlement, isn’t it?MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss?

MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, you’re exactly right. It may actually help his numbers a little bit by making that base even more happy with him. But I think, in general, you know, this is a president who presumably wants to help his successor be a Republican in 2008, and you can’t help but imagine that his political handlers, George Bush’s political handlers, are telling him, “Yes, you may want to do a pardon now. You may feel that this was unfair, but you’re going to burden the Republican nominee in 2008 with this, so why do it?”

MR. RUSSERT: 2008, we—Wall Street Journal/NBC was doing some polling, and let me show this first question to you, which surprised me, I must tell you. “How closely are you following the 2008 presidential race”? Seventy-three percent of Americans say they are following it closely. This is March of 2007. Twenty-seven not closely.

Ted Koppel, you surprised by that?

MR. KOPPEL: Yeah, I am surprised by that. And yet, it’s, it’s fascinating. I mean, we’ve got this wide open field right now. We’re talking about potentially the, the two nominees having spent, what, like a billion dollars, 500 million dollars each by the time we get through with this? So these early stages are terribly important. And you’ve got some awfully interesting characters there. I mean, you’ve got, you know, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and, and, and John McCain and...

MR. RUSSERT: Rudy Giuliani...

MR. KOPPEL: Rudy Giuliani.

MR. RUSSERT: ...Mitt Romney, John Edwards.

MR. KOPPEL: Yeah, it’s interesting.

MR. RUSSERT: Sixteen candidates. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska’s thinking about running tomorrow. He’s senator from Nebraska, the most supportive senator of George W. Bush except he has broken with him on the war.

MR. DUFFY: And that’s what—that would distinguish him, particularly in the Republican field. The Republican who has become opposed to the president on the war, particularly the surge, would create a whole new, you know, category on that side of the race. And even well—he would be able to have appeal across party lines, which may be what Chuck Hagel is thinking. Try it for a while as a Republican and if it doesn’t work necessarily as a—as, as a potential nominee, there’s a possibility here if the Democrats do not nominate someone who was against the war from the start, for a third-party candidate, someone who is clearly against the war going back or going forward.

MR. RUSSERT: And, Dana Priest, every Democratic candidate has now endorsed legislation which sets a firm deadline of August 31st, 2008 to withdraw all troops. Senator Clinton, who had resisted a firm timetable, now says, “Well that’s a goal, and I can accept it.” The fact is that this presidential race is driving the Democratic view on the war.

MS. PRIEST: Well, absolutely, and, and you saw that Clinton is having such a hard time not apologizing for her vote, and I think this was a way for her to not make a second issue, not be, you know, have any wiggle room on what her view on Iraq may be. But I have to say, part of what I think is so fascinating about this—and I cannot believe that I’m actually saying this—is the personal issues involved here. I mean, what will, as Giuliani called it this week, “blended marriages,” what is that going to be in terms of a character issue? You’ve got—most of the candidates have been married more than once. So does that mean it’s going to—we’re going to have more skeletons of a personal nature come out? Or does it mean that that is going to equalize and not be an issue as much as it has in the past? So I think on all levels, from Iraq to marriage, it’s a fascinating time.

MR. RUSSERT: The leading Democratic candidates have been married once, the leading Republican candidates several, which his quite interesting in terms of discussions of values and cultural and societal mores and things like that.

MR. DUFFY: It complicates it, particularly for the Republicans, because I think it was Richard Land, one of the officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, said this week that multiple marriages is a—is a deal-killer with evangelical Christians. And we have a couple of those on the Republican side. That—it’s another reason why Hagel probably sees a good reason, perhaps, an opportunity to get in. That race is going to have, you know, trouble coalescing—the base is going to have trouble coalescing around a candidate. And it may be down to 30 percent for the president, but that group is not clear about where it’s going yet.

MR. RUSSERT: Here are the latest numbers with the Democrats. We have Clinton at 40; Obama at 28; Edwards, 15; Richardson, 5. But when we pushed the voters and said, “OK, if it was just between Clinton, Obama, what would you do,” 47-39. Pretty close for this stage of the race.

The Republicans, they list their top favorites as the following: Giuliani 38;

McCain, 24; Gingrich is not in the race at 10; Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, 8. Again, if you take the top two and push people, Giuliani a sizable lead, 55-34.

Ted Koppel, Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, married three times. But the, the Republicans seem to also say, “All right, but he was there on September 11th. He’s a strong leader.”

MR. KOPPEL: You know, anytime that you look at numbers like that, two years in advance, you’ve got to say someone has his head in a terribly uncomfortable position. You know, I mean, this, this is—this is not where the numbers are going to be six months from now. This is not where the numbers are going to be a year from now.

MR. RUSSERT: Where are they going to be?

MR. KOPPEL: Who in heaven’s name knows? But, you know, language means something. You said something a moment ago about it is the Democrats’ goal to have all the troops out of Iraq by August of 2008. Sometimes goals are met, sometimes goals are not met. The Democrats are going to find themselves in a terribly uncomfortable position when this becomes their war. And believe me, George Bush is going to hold onto it and pass it off to them. They’re not just going to be able to, you know, say, “Well, it was his war, and it’s all over, and we’re pulling out now.” This is going to be an issue a year from now, two years from now, three years from now. It’s not going to be all that easy to get out.

MR. RUSSERT: In the debates in October of 2008, every Democratic candidate—well, Republicans---will have to answer in January of ‘09...

MR. KOPPEL: That’s right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...what’re you going to do?

MR. KOPPEL: Exactly, exactly.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss, how do you see this race unfolding?

MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, on the—on the Democratic side, you know, Hillary Clinton is oddly in this position of being the establishment candidate, which was sure not her husband’s position in 1992, and those people do not usually have a great time in the Democratic primary process. Look at an Edmund Muskie in 1972 or Walter Mondale in 1984, who finally won, but had a very hard time with the insurgent, Gary Hart. Anti-war insurgents do very well in Democratic primary processes, and I think we’re seeing that here.

On the Republican side, you know, as Ted was talking, first it’ll be about Giuliani. Go back to 1952. Americans felt very frustrated by the Korean war. They figured, you know, we had just won World War II seven years ago, “Why are we mired down in Korea; it’s not working. Why can’t President Truman do something?” And they turned to Dwight Eisenhower, who was a very different person from Giuliani, but they felt that he had that same strong leadership, that ability to do things like 9/11 with Giuliani, cleaning up New York of crime, as he did. Eisenhower was asked by one of his handlers, “Do you think you could do something about Korea?” And his reply was, “I don’t run no bad wars.”

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. Michael Beschloss, Michael Duffy, Dana Priest. Ted Koppel, tonight, 9 PM, Discovery Channel, “Our Children’s Children’s War.”

MR. KOPPEL: Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Thank you all. We’ll be right back.

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