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updated 8/26/2007 12:30:44 PM ET 2007-08-26T16:30:44

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday, a new National Intelligence Estimate paints a grim picture of Iraq.  The senior GOP senator on the Armed Services Committee, just back from Iraq, has blunt advice for the president: start withdrawing some U.S. troops by December of this year.

(Videotape)

SENATOR JOHN WARNER (R-VA):  We simply cannot, as a nation, stand and put our troops at continuous risk for the loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody’s attention.

(End of videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our guest, Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia.

And a reality check from three reporters:  The New York Times’ Michael Gordon, author of “Cobra II:  The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq”; The Washington Post’s Tom Ricks, author of “Fiasco:  The American Military Adventure in Iraq”; and NBC’s war correspondent Richard Engel.

Then, in 1996, he was stricken with cancer.  Doctors gave him less than a 50 percent chance to live.  Three years later he dominated the world of cycling. Tomorrow he hosts a presidential forum on one issue, the fight against cancer. An exclusive interview with seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

But first, he is just back from Iraq, and he is here on MEET THE PRESS this morning to tell the American people what he saw and what he recommends.

Senator John Warner, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. WARNER:  Thank you very much.

MR. RUSSERT:  You came back from Iraq and suggested to the president that he begin to withdraw some troops by Christmas of this year.  What message were you trying to send to the president?

SEN. WARNER:  The exact words, said I, “Most respectfully, Mr. President, and I mean this, most respectfully suggest that you put some teeth behind your words.” You go back to the January 10th message when he instituted the surge, he said, “We will, in partnership with Maliki, we’ll do the military part and bring about a lessening of the severe security threats.  That will enable you to have,” and I quote him, “breathing space.” And now, Mr. Maliki, you do the political reconciliation.  And with the convergence of those two actions, we hope to bring about a greater stability for Iraq.  Our troops have performed magnificently under brilliant leadership and have done precisely as the president asked.  They have made measurable gains in bringing about a degree of stability in Baghdad and the environs.  But the government, under the leadership of Maliki and other Iraqi leaders, have totally failed to put the other part of that partnership in place, namely deliver greater security...

MR. RUSSERT:  Is the headline...

SEN. WARNER:  ...and reconciliation.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is the headline Warner to Bush:  Withdraw troops and get Maliki’s attention?

SEN. WARNER:  That’s correct.  I put this out as a suggestion and put it in the public domain.  It’s drawn a lot of controversy, I recognize that.  But this will help the American people better understand the complexity of the many issues that are going to be brought up to the president first by the ambassador, a very able man, coming back from Iraq; General Petraeus, the overall on-scene commander; General Jones, who is preparing a special report on the status of the security forces; and, indeed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is going to come forward with his views.  All this converges in the first 15 days of September.  And then under the law—I had a hand in writing that law—the president will advise the people of this country and the Congress on such changes in strategies as he, as the president, desires.

MR. RUSSERT:  A U.S. military commander in Iraq has offered a response to you.  He—in one of the most troubled areas, he said “that embracing John Warner’s call to begin troop withdrawals before the end of the year ‘would be a giant step backward.’” Army Major General Rick Lynch, commander of troops south of Baghdad said in such a scenario militants pushed from his sector in recent operations would quickly return.  “If coalition soldiers were to leave, having fought hard for what—that terrain, having denied the enemy their sanctuaries, what would happen is the enemy would come back.  He’d start building the bombs again, he’d start attacking the locals again, he’d start exporting that violence into Baghdad, and we would take a giant step backward.”

SEN. WARNER:  My first reply is I thank the general and all of the others in his command and all those throughout Iraq in uniform and, indeed, many civilians that are taking the risk to make the surge work.  But I draw to the general’s attention the fact that witnesses have come before the Armed Services Committee and the Congress time and time again, senior officers, and said there’s no military solution to this problem.

Listen to what Admiral Mullens said when he came up for clearance to be the next chairman.  Incoming Chairman Mullens stated, “Without political progress in Iraq, no amount of troops, no amount of time will make much of a difference.”

So with all respect to the general, what I’m trying to do, General, is to get the attention of our president, those making a decision and, indeed, the American public of the necessity to bring some type of decisive pressure upon this government to deliver on the reconciliation.  Reconciliation, General Lynch, can bring about a greater cessation, a greater stability, not only in your region but throughout Iraq, than all the bullets and the arms together.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe that the Iraqi armor is strong enough to secure the country by taking the lead role with their defense forces?

SEN. WARNER:  On this trip we learned, and it was somewhat to my surprise, that our commander said there’s been noticeable improvement in the ability of the Iraqi forces to take charge and do certain operations.  They still require a great deal of backup, particularly as it relates to logistics and heavy weapon and air power and intelligence from the coalition forces—principly the United States—but they are making progress.  But I want to wait until what General Jones and a team of very dedicated, some 20-odd retired individuals, who’ve gone over there on two occasions spent a lot of time, and they’re going to file their report on 4 September, and it’ll be made available to the public as soon as Congress hears from General Jones.  I anticipate that’ll be on the 6th of September.

MR. RUSSERT:  As you know, the Los Angeles Times reported that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, is going to recommend to the president that there be a significant withdrawal next year, perhaps more than half the troops in Iraq, perhaps over 100,000.  He said that that is a speculative report, but you’ve heard the testimony.  Can the United States keep 150,000 men and women in Iraq throughout 2008 without straining the military?

SEN. WARNER:  Clearly, the—all military advisers indicate that we’ve gone to this extreme of requiring our soldiers to stay 15 months in that intense heat and climate and all those risks.  You have to go beyond that 15 months if you tried to push them further into 2008.  What—now, I want to make it clear that I have checked out that report that’s in the Los Angeles Times.  The Pentagon at this time is not fully knocking it down nor verifying it, but you’ve got to give the chairman a chance to come forward himself.

This week I have learned the Department of Defense and our field commanders in Iraq, General Petraeus and another very able field commander, General Odierno, are going to sit down and communicate with the White House team and reconcile such difference of abuse and approaches as they have.  The team in Iraq wanted to stay there with the full force as long as they can, obviously.  The team back home are looking at the broader picture that it’s putting a stress on the military forces, which, in the words of General Casey, could jeopardize the all-volunteer force.  And secondly, if America is faced with other contingencies and has to resort to the utilization of our—particularly our ground forces quickly, will that contingency be able to be filled by trained and ready troops?

MR. RUSSERT:  And what’s the answer?

SEN. WARNER:  The answer is clearly we have a problem and we better solve it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Bottom line, Senator, we have no choice, by listening to you, than to have a significant withdrawal of troops from Iraq next year.

SEN. WARNER:  I’m going to leave that to the president to announce or address that issue on the 15th of September.

MR. RUSSERT:  The National Intelligence Estimate is out, and it talks about political reconciliation, saying that it is unlikely to emerge, assessing the current situation on the ground.  The Washington Post quoted Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki this way, that he “rebuked American politicians for threatening” “withdraw support from his government, suggesting while” he’s in Syria “that he could ‘find friends elsewhere’ if he was abandoned by the United States.” And, “‘No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government.’” Do you agree with that?

SEN. WARNER:  They’re a sovereign nation, Tim.  We established that sovereignty, and they have the earmarks of democracy.  Whether democracy as we understand it here in the West will eventually survive, I don’t know.  But it is essential, and I fully support the president’s view that this region is vital to our current and future national security interests, and, indeed, many other nations of the world, not only in relationship for maintaining a democracy in Israel, but how we go about resolving problems in Lebanon, in Palestine area, the serious situation between Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons.  We must maintain, as a nation, the United States, every ounce of credibility we can in that region.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Senator, we’ve lost nearly 4,000 men and women, 25,000 injured and wounded.  Do we not have a right and obligation to put timetables on the Iraqi government for performance or say, :If you don’t meet those, we will get out”?

SEN. WARNER:  That’s precisely what I said to the president.  I said, “Here is an option.  You can initiate a first withdrawal.  You pick the number, Mr. President.  And it would send a signal to the Iraqi government that matches your words.” His words being, “We’re not going to be there forever.” And Ambassador Crocker just recently said, “We’re not giving you a blank check.” So I think we’ve got to show our resolve in the face of the Iraqi government in action, and—but I want the president to make the decision, as he’s under the Constitution required, with regard to when the troops stay, when they leave, not the Congress trying to write and enforce that timetable.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you have, you have no problem for President Bush to give Prime Minister Maliki a timetable for performance?

SEN. WARNER:  All President Bush has got to say is back up his words “We’re not going to be there forever.” This is just one idea.  If there’s a better idea, put it on the table, I say to those who criticized it.  Put it on the table.  But the president has got to talk; I think put teeth in these comments that we’re not there forever.

MR. RUSSERT:  Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Shiite militias, Prime Minister Maliki told Richard Engel of the NBC News, who’ll be on the program later, that he and Sadr are from the same school and that he does not see Sadr as a threat to Iraq.  Do you agree?

SEN. WARNER:  That’s very troublesome.  Sadr has a very significant military force—we call it the private militias—under his command and control.  I say “under his.” Sometimes they deviate and are more militant, perhaps, than he would like.  Hakim also has, over here, the Badr corps, another military outfit.  They’re constantly fighting together.  The point is that I think Sadr is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s, it’s a force that you’ve got to be very careful of how you deal with.  But I think Maliki has failed in trying to eliminate those private militias.  Because they’re clearly receiving help, support and weapons from Iran.  We know that to be a fact.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is Sadr anti-American?

SEN. WARNER:  I think Sadr is looking out for Sadr’s interest.  This whole thing in Iraq, Tim, regrettably, is a struggle for power.  The Shia at the present time have the greater proportion.  The Sunnis want to get as much power back as they can, and this cleavage is what undercuts everything with all of this internecine warfare, this fighting between Shia, Sunni.  And the Kurds are sitting back, because they have a little more security up there where they are, and we gave them security in the early days, you know?  And they’re just hoping to try and get their piece.  But unless you get a unity government with Sunni, Shia and Kurds reconciled on what is their proportion of the government, what is their proportion of the natural resources, and what is their proportion of the funds that flow out of the government to the various parts of Iraq, you’re not going to get any peace.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the president on September 15th receives these reports but decides not to withdraw troops, decides to go forward with the surge, what do you do?

SEN. WARNER:  That’s his right to do that, and I will respect it.  But I would say, “Mr. President, in the absence of trying to do something like I’m suggesting to get the Iraq government motivated to begin to perform, Mr. President, what they committed to you circa January 10th of this year as a predicate, as a foundation, as a reason for starting the surge—namely, the coalition forces, notably the United States working with Iraqi forces, will give you the security, then prime minister and the government, you make national reconciliation.” Now, that hasn’t been filled, I would—I’m looking for, in that message of the 15th, what the president’s going to do to get this government jump-started to deliver on its commitment to our troops, “You fight and die, get the security, I will deliver Iraq as a reconciled unity government.”

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator, let me show you what you said 11 months ago.  You said, “In two or three months”—this is October of ‘06--“if this thing hasn’t come to fruition, and if this level of violence is not under control and this government” not “able to function, I think it’s the responsibility of our government, internally, to determine:  Is there a change of course that we should take?” Now it’s almost a year later.  If the president says, “Sorry, Warner, I’m not withdrawing troops.  It’s full speed ahead with the surge, do you sit by and accept status quo?”

SEN. WARNER:  Tim, let’s go back.  I did come back, as you say, 11 months, and I used that phrase.  I felt the thing in Iraq was drifting sideways, and a lot of anger was generated by that.  But, as a consequence of my statement, statements of other colleagues and other individuals, guess what?  The administration went to general quarters and studied this whole situation all during November, December and into January, and the president did react to what I had said, and he changed the strategy and enunciated with the concept of the surge beginning January 10th.  Now, I wasn’t fully supportive with all aspects of that surge.  I felt that he should call on the Iraqi soldiers to get in between this civil strife between Sunni and Shia as generated by religious differences and power grabs.  But anyway, I supported him, and I have constantly voted against efforts to set a timetable by Congress as opposed to the right of the president to set his own timetable with regard to withdrawal.  So the president did react to what I and others said in the fall.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the president does not set a timetable, do you reserve the right to break with him and begin supporting efforts to set a congressional timetable?

SEN. WARNER:  You know, this president, I know him pretty well.  It’s a privilege.  I remember this Memorial Day, he invited me to go to the ceremonies at Arlington.  My wife and I went up.  We drove up in the car with him and drove back.  And I sensed, as we passed those white crosses after he spoke up there and came back, he feels most sincerely the loss of our forces. No one wants them to come home more than the president of the United States and the first lady.  But I’m telling you, he’ll have to make that decision. Am I going to suddenly go breaking?  I’m going to have to evaluate it and then, as all other senators—we’re an independent branch of our government, co-equal in many respects with authority and responsibility—we’ll have to make our decision as to what we’ll do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mitch Mc...

SEN. WARNER:  I don’t say that as a threat, but I say that is an option we all have to consider.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans, said in May that if by year’s end this situation has not improved in terms of military and political reconciliation, if the president doesn’t change policy, Congress will do it for him.  Do you agree?

SEN. WARNER:  There is the opportunity for Congress to do it, but mind you, look at how they would have to do it.  They would have to vote, let’s say, some type of troop program, taking away from the president really his constitutional power to make those decisions, then that would have to go to the president.  He could veto it, then it comes back for 67 votes.  We saw this here recently.  Now, that’s a really an unwise way for our government to function.  I, I don’t think the president will, will be in any way overridden in his veto.  I don’t think...

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Senator...

SEN. WARNER:  ...33 senators are...

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator, you talk, you talk to your colleagues...

SEN. WARNER:  Yes, I understand.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...your fellow, your fellow Republicans.  Your comments, will they now have the cover to come out and begin to separate themselves from the president?  Are they worried about the war in Iraq and the 2008 elections?

SEN. WARNER:  Every one of those senators is worried.  I don’t use the word cover.  I think they believe this war in Iraq is the most serious issue that they have to address.  They have their own individual responsibilities, their own views.  Now, we will see, after we get back in September and we get together in groups and talk amongst each other, we’ll have a consensus.  But we should all wait until the, the president assesses testimony which will be given to the Congress prior to when this president speaks.  Petraeus and Crocker will come up and address the relevant committees of the Congress—we put this in the law—in the first week or so of September.  We’ll have access to many of the things that I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while it’s confidential, I’m sure he’ll share some thoughts.  Jones will share some thoughts.  Maybe others will speak out, as I have done, on options.  But we should wait till the president speaks.  After he speaks, then we’ll have to make our own assessment.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the president recommends continuation of the status quo, would that trigger a rebellion amongst the Republicans in the Senate?

SEN. WARNER:  I’m not going to bite on that one.  We’re going to be respectful of this constitutional process in our country.  As I say, I had a hand in writing the law requiring these various steps to take place.  I think, in due respect to the office of the president, let him make the decisions and then we’ll speak.

MR. RUSSERT:  You have served in the Senate for 28 distinguished years, you’re 80 years old, you’re up for re-election next year.  Are you going to run?

SEN. WARNER:  Well, what do you think I should do?

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, the...

SEN. WARNER:  Yeah, how about that?  Come on.  You put yourself up as the number one nation’s political pundit.

MR. RUSSERT:  Never do.

SEN. WARNER:  What would you do if you were 80 years old?

MR. RUSSERT:  I just ask the questions.

SEN. WARNER:  You do?  Well, I’ll give you the answer.  Wait till September.

MR. RUSSERT:  That’s five days away.

SEN. WARNER:  That’s all right.  Wait till September.

MR. RUSSERT:  The rich...

SEN. WARNER:  I made a commitment.  This is serious business.  You know, the Senate—I had the privilege—it’s been the greatest privilege I think a man or woman can have to serve in that marvelous institution.  Five terms, the people of Virginia have stood with me strongly.  Now I’ve got to go out and assess, and each day for six months, I’ve kept a little diary.  I feel this way—not physically, but mentally—should I stay, should I not.  But the Senate requires you to go full-bore six or seven days a week, tremendous energy.  Go to Iraq, jump in and out of helicopters, get on the cargo planes, no sleep. And that’s in different things we’ve got to do all around.  And I’ve got to assess at this age whether it is fair to Virginia to ask for a contract for another six years.

MR. RUSSERT:  That sounds like a lot to ask a man between the ages of 80 and 86.

SEN. WARNER:  That is correct.

MR. RUSSERT:  So...

SEN. WARNER:  But anyway, I’m going to make that decision, and I’m going to do what’s right for my state and my country in terms of running again.  I’m confident that I can run a good, strong campaign.  But then I’ve got to also say to Virginia, “On the eve of my 88th birthday, I’m still going seven days, seven nights with full steam.” I might be able to do it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Which way...

SEN. WARNER:  Stand by.

MR. RUSSERT:  Which way you leaning?

SEN. WARNER:  My dear friend, I’ll go back and make a little diary entry after this day, but I’ll keep that counsel to myself.

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

SEN. WARNER:  You bet.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, a hardheaded analysis of Iraq from three reporters who have been there and have written extensively about it.  Then Lance Armstrong, champion cyclist, cancer survivor turned political activist, on the issue of cancer.  He will ask the presidential candidates about that issue next only on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our journalist round table, then Lance Armstrong on the politics in the fight against cancer, after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we’re back.

Welcome, all.

Let me start, Tom Ricks, your paperback edition of “Fiasco” is out.  You wrote a postscript for this book in April, and I want to use it to frame our discussion.  It’s astonished—“It astonishes me that in early 2007 it appears” “the two most likely outcomes of the current turmoil in Iraq are either that the country will break up, or that Sadr—an anti-American ally of Hezbollah—will become the country’s ruler.  However, neither of those events is likely to end the violence, but rather simply to open a new and even more dangerous phase.” You still stand by that?

MR. THOMAS RICKS:  Yeah.  What strikes me is that all of the options carry bigger downsides than benefits, and things that look like solutions in the short term carry the prospect of long-term violence.  I think that’s true of every single policy option out there, and so I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that we—there are no good options.  All we have to now think about is what is the least bad option.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael Gordon, since you wrote “Cobra II:  The Inside Story of the Invasion And Occupation of Iraq,” what’s your current thinking about how it’s going to end?

MR. MICHAEL GORDON:  Well, I spent most of the summer in Iraq in Diyala province and then south of Baghdad, and really a lot has changed on the security front in Iraq.  And there’s been a very important development which has been the enabling of the Sunni tribes and some of the former insurgents. This is not just in Anbar.  And there’s a very delicate political game under way right now to try to find a way to connect these disparate Sunni groups who are working with the American military, with the Maliki government, and that’s a work in progress.  It’s really just in the early phases.

MR. RUSSERT:  If we, in fact, are arming the Sunnis and we’ve already armed the Shiites, are we arming both factions in a civil war?

MR. GORDON:  Well, we’re not arming these groups.  They’re not being given arms by the Americans, but you’re pointing to one of the very real risks.  I mean, the potential here is by organizing these Sunni groups in Baquba and...(unintelligible)...and...(unintelligible)...and all sorts of places in Iraq, we do have a mechanism to provide local security and really to drive out al-Qaeda of Iraq.  The downside is unless this becomes institutionalized and these people become either Iraqi police or somehow approved by the Iraqi government, we might be setting the stage for more intensified civil war.

MR. RUSSERT:  Richard Engel, I, I quoted your conversation with Prime Minister Maliki to Senator Warner, saying that Sadr, the leader of the Shiite militias, is of the same school.

MR. RICHARD ENGEL:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  Joe Klein in Time magazine wrote this, that “US Ambassador Ryan Crocker” said, “‘The fall of the Maliki government, when it happens, might be a good thing.’” And then Klein asks, “But replace it with what?” Half of Maliki’s Cabinet has abandoned his government.  Are his days numbered?

MR. ENGEL:  His days are certainly numbered.  This government is going to collapse.  The problem is, it’s going to take several months to form a new government.  And there’s a very likely and real possibility that you could have a series of unstable governments that come and then collapse, sort of like a parliamentary system you may have had in Italy in the 1980s.  And that weak political structure is not one that is suitable for Iraq’s problems.  I think we need to totally change the, the rules of the game and change the political structure in such that the president or the prime minister has much more authority.  This idea of a power-sharing government, while it may be the pinnacle of democracy, is not one that is strong enough to get the—help Iraq get over its very real problems.

MR. RUSSERT:  How do you find a leader who would be Shiite, who can maintain strength within his own community and support with the—his own Shiite community and still capable of reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds?

MR. ENGEL:  I think you need to accept that they—the blue finger day was a disaster, and you need to have new elections.  Probably a good idea to have new elections in Iraq right now while the troop surge is still in place. Then, after that happens, you would have a new leader emerge, hopefully with some enhanced powers, and then really change the rules of the game.

I was listening to this debate, pulling back 5,000 troops or 10,000 troops to send a message to Maliki.  I don’t think it’s going to have any, any impact on Maliki at all.  He would like to have more authority.  Iran wants American troops to be out of the country right now.  If the country breaks down into more chaos and more civil disobedience, then the, the Shiites will ultimately win and people like Maliki will end up on top.  I think you need to change the, the rules of the game, not just try and move around the, the chess pieces.  We need to be playing a different game.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tom Ricks and Michael Gordon, you cover the Pentagon, both in an extraordinary way.  You’ve heard all the testimony, all the reports that the military is being strained terribly by the war in Iraq.  Do you expect that there will be significant troop withdrawals recommended by the leadership in the Pentagon for 2008?

MR. RICKS:  Yes.  If things go beautifully, better than expected, you’ll see troop drawdowns beginning by April of next year.  If things go horribly, you know, much worse than they are now, you’re going to see troop drawdowns beginning in April of next year.  They’re going to come down by about one brigade, say about 5,000 troops a month, from April to October of next year. The question is, after October, how far—how much further do you go below 130,000?  And then what becomes the mission of the troops that remain?

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael:

MR. GORDON:  Well, the natural life of the surge, if you were to do nothing and just let it run its course, would be around March or April.  Because at that point the troop levels in Iraq need to—will decrease unless they extend the tours further, which they’re—have already ruled out doing, going beyond 15 months.  So force levels will begin to recede, and indeed, that’s anticipated by General Petraeus’ two-year campaign plan which he’s projected out for the summer.

But there’s really—in the latest N.I.E., people are focused on the message that there’s not political reconciliation at the national level.  But there was a second message in the N.I.E., and the N.I.E.  said that a large-scale withdrawal of American forces and a change of the mission from fighting counterinsurgency to advising the Iraqis and just going after al-Qaeda would erase the security gains that were made over the summer so far.  So that’s something that also has to be taken into account in this upcoming congressional debate.

MR. RUSSERT:  So what do you do?  If, in fact, you stop the surge, you could erase some of the gains you’ve made.  And yet, we do not have the capacity to continue the surge because of the strain on our military.

MR. GORDON:  Well, the surge will run its course, and then, as Tom said, we’ll begin to reduce our forces.  There’s no question we’re going to reduce our forces, and it’s going to be more than 5,000 next year.  The issues is at what pace these forces are reduced, what their mission is—no one likes to talk about the mission, they simply talk about the numbers game—and how this is connected up with the politics of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Richard Engel, is an all-out civil war inevitable in Iraq?

MR. ENGEL:  Absolutely.  It is going on right now, but it’s just contained. You have so many American forces that are keeping the lid on this civil war, but Iraqis are, are fighting.  And you pull them back, it’s just going to come right up to the forefront.

And going back to, to their points, if you pull back the troops, the troops themselves are going to be furious.  They have done so much and worked so hard and sacrificed so much that if you start pulling them back because of political debates and domestic pressure in the United States, they’re going to be livid.  They’re not going to thank the Americans, and they’re probably going to end up blaming Democrats, who said, “We never got a chance to complete the mission and all of our hard work hasn’t been accomplished.” So I think there’s a real risk if you draw them—draw the troops down and don’t give them a new mission that they’re going to feel that they were just used and, and, and manipulated.

MR. RUSSERT:  A new mission.  Tom Ricks, you write this:  “If Iraq does” not “descend into a full-out civil war”—“If Iraq does descend into a full-out civil war, U.S. government efforts may turn to shaping a new policy of containment that seeks to prevent the country’s conflict from flaring into a regional one.  The question then, perhaps to be debated later this year but certainly by the 2008 presidential election, will be whether the Americans are taking on yet another open-ended and ultimately impossible mission.”

MR. RICKS:  I think probably where we’ll wind up is with what one recent think tank study called the three nos:  moving to goals of basically no genocide; no safe haven for al-Qaeda; and no regional war, no expansion of the war outside of Iraq.  Much less ambitious than the Bush administration’s original goals of liberation and democratizing the Middle East, but still a considerable mission that would have us with many, many troops in Iraq and the region for many years.

MR. RUSSERT:  And tolerating a civil war, in effect.

MR. ENGEL:  That’s the problem.  The troops are going to be sitting on their bases, no longer patrolling as much, and they’re going to be watching massacres happening right off the base, and they’re going to be really angry about it, because they’re going to feel responsible.  Now they’re out on patrol.  The only thing that gets them going is they see one particular neighborhood, they can help an old woman or a family and effect change.  If they’re just told “Stay in your bases to be a tripwire so that Iran doesn’t take over, but don’t listen to all of the civil war going on around you,” it’s going to be a very uncomfortable position for them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael:

MR. GORDON:  Just going back to my original point.  The most important initiative going on in Iraq now is this effort to build reconciliation, as it were, from the ground up, instead of the top down, to enable these Sunni groups and try to get them to work with the government.  That’s become really, I think, the centerpiece of the plan, more so than these benchmarks, which are more discussed in Washington than in Baghdad.  And I think the success or failure of that over the next three or four months will determine the shape of the war in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Can a prime minister, Maliki or his successor, work with those Sunni groups that you’re describing and still maintain an allegiance or rapport with the Shiite militia leader Sadr?

MR. GORDON:  Well, they already are working with these groups, because there’s a government of Iraq reconciliation committee that’s working with a panel established by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and they’ve sort of accepted these groups in Anbar, they’ve approved some names for the Abu Ghraib region.  The question is, the closer this comes to Baghdad, the more nervous the government becomes about these Sunni groups, and they see them not only as a means of proposing security, but as a potential threat to a Shiite-dominated government.  So there’s institutions to work with these groups.  The question is will this really be a general alliance, a genuine alliance between the government and these groups?

MR. RUSSERT:  What do you think?

MR. GORDON:  Well, I, I, I just did a magazine article for The New York Times on this for next week, and I think it’s beginning to—I think the effort with the groups is pretty impressive, but I think that I actually don’t know what’s going to happen.  I know, I know that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are staking a lot on this.  I think it’s in the early phases.  I think it’s too soon to write it off.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tom Ricks, you write this, and we’ll end on a literary note. “Shakespeare’s tragedies have five acts, and I fear we have not yet seen the beginning of Act IV.” What’s Act IV and V?

MR. RICKS:  Well, Act III is the Petraeus phase.  Act IV, I think, would be the spreading of the war, the next phase, maybe the post-American phase.  And Act V will be the regional consequences.  I think the point is Iraq, I think, is going to be much more difficult for this country than the Vietnam War was.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why?

MR. RICKS:  Because we could walk away from Vietnam.  And it was bad for the Cambodians, bad for many Vietnamese, but we could wash our hands of it.  I think Iraq is not going to be so easy to get out of.  We have stepped into something in the middle of a economically vital region for the entire world.

MR. RUSSERT:  Richard Engel, you wrote a book called “Fist in the Hornet’s Nest,” describing the invasion of Iraq.  What do you see as Act V?

MR. ENGEL:  I think, ultimately, they’re—if they—if we stay on this current plan, you’re going to have a series of governments, eventually American troops are going to get pulled back to bases.  They’ll be left there.  There’ll be a civil war going on with the—in the country.  It will divide naturally up into these three to five mini states, and the American troops will be mostly forgotten about.  Because if they’re sitting around on the bases, the debate won’t be so intense here in the U.S., and I think they’ll be there for 10, 15 years.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael Gordon:

MR. GORDON:  I think we’ll have a substantial number of forces in Iraq through the life of the Bush administration.  And I agree with the point that Iraq is more difficult and more complicated than Vietnam because, unlike Vietnam, we have no one to lose to, so to speak.  There’s no North Vietnamese government that can come in and establish control of that region and, “OK, we’re out of there, but the place is, is orderly and, and controlled.” If we leave the chaotic situation and it becomes much more chaotic and the civil war intensifies, then that’s really the dilemma for the United States.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tom Ricks, is there any good solution?

MR. RICKS:  No, I think that’s the beginning of where we should be in the debate now is to understand there are no good solutions, and if we can all come together and discuss and say, “Yes, there are bad risks associated with every possible policy; let’s get beyond that and talk together as a nation about how we can at least minimize or mitigate the damage done.”

MR. RUSSERT:  It’s tough to do during a presidential campaign.

MR. ENGEL:  I think there’s always been solutions, by the way.  And it should have done—taken place the day after Baghdad fell.  Iran was scared to death. The army that Iran had fought, Saddam Hussein’s army, was obliterated in three weeks.  They would have talked.  We didn’t want to talk.  We told them, “Shut up or you’re next,” and it was the wrong message.  And I still think there’s an opportunity to talk, to rearrange the, the political situation on the ground.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  Richard Engel, be safe on your return to Iraq.  Michael Gordon, “Cobra II.” Tom Ricks, “Fiasco.” Thank you both.

Coming next, cancer survivor Lance Armstrong wants to know what the presidential candidates will do about one issue:  fighting cancer.  He’s our guest next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Lance Armstrong, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

MR. LANCE ARMSTRONG:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  The numbers are staggering.  As I prepared to talk to you, one out of three Americans will be diagnosed sometime in their lifetime with cancer.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  One point three million people this year alone.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  We have 1500 deaths a day of cancer, dead of cancer in this country.  It...

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Every day.

MR. RUSSERT:  It’s staggering.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  9/11 every two days.

MR. RUSSERT:  Tomorrow and Tuesday in Iowa, Cedar Rapids, you are doing what?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  We’re hosting, really, the first ever Livestrong Cancer Forum for, for all the potential candidates, or all the potential presidents, to, to discuss the number one killer in this country, and that’s cancer.

MR. RUSSERT:  If you look at the list of the candidates and how they have been affected by cancer, it’s really striking.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator, has survived melanoma; Hillary Clinton, her mother-in-law died of breast cancer; John Edwards, we know his wife, Elizabeth, battling breast cancer; Rudy Giuliani survived prostate cancer; Mike Huckabee, his wife survived a spinal cancer; John McCain survived melanoma; Barack Obama’s mom died of ovarian cancer; Senator Fred Thompson survived lymphoma.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  That’s right.  And, and there you’re talking about either direct experience or, or, or a family member or, or a wife or a husband.  If you just—if you just go a little broader and you talk about a friend, a neighbor or a classmate, a co-worker it’s 100 percent of the population. This, this touches everybody.  And so—and again, the numbers indicate that, the numbers back that up, and it’s pervasive.  I mean, that’s the only way to really describe it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator McCain, Mayor Giuliani, Senator Thompson, all having survived cancer, they’re not participating.  Did they say why?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  I spoke to most of them personally.  Either scheduling conflicts or family time.  You know, for me, listen, I’m not going to sugar-coat it, it’s a disappointment.  When you—when you can’t show up or you, for whatever reason, won’t show up and discuss such a devastating illness, it is a disappointment, especially when you have a close personal history.

MR. RUSSERT:  So far, the Democrats that have accepted are Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Everybody was invited, of course, and I spoke to almost all of them personally.  It’s our desire and our, and our hope that they—you know, that they would all be there and some still come.  Because, again, the issue is so devastating, and we are really facing an epidemic, and it’s, in fact, going to get worse as the population ages.  That meets a time where we’re cutting funding, cutting resources, cutting morale at the N.C.I.  I think the future commander in chief needs to show up and talk about what kills 600,000 Americans a year.

MR. RUSSERT:  How much money are we spending now on cancer research?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Well, through the government, we’re spending about six billion a year.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is that enough, in your mind?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Just to give you an example, I mean, we are, you know, young scientists, the best researchers are actually going outside of this country now to do their job because there’s a lack of funding, which therefore means a lack of morale.  One out of 10 research projects and grants gets funded, one out of 10.  So just 10 percent.  So with more money could you, could you do more?  Obviously.  You have to also consider that, that big pharm also spends money.  But, no, I mean, $6 billion a year sounds like a lot of money, but when you consider other expenses and other issues, I, I don’t think it’s enough.

MR. RUSSERT:  If you were made cancer czar and could wave a wand...

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...and achieve one thing...

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...for the U.S. and its fight against cancer, what would it be?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Ooh.  I do think we need a cancer czar, first, first of all.

MR. RUSSERT:  Would you like the job?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  I don’t know that I’m the best person for the job.  I could pick somebody that would be very—but I don’t know that I’m the best person. I would certainly support that person.  Very difficult.  I mean, you have to consider the, the disease is complex, so you have to go all the way from what we call the cancer continuum.  So you have to start at prevention.  So let’s just make sure that nobody gets cancer.  So we have to control the things that give people cancer.  So if that’s the environment, if that’s tobacco, if that’s the sun, if—all these things, let’s not, let’s not let anybody get the disease.  And then when they do, let’s make sure that they’re screened in time.  I mean, I could say, if I was the cancer czar, let’s spend, you know, $10 million a year and screen everybody in this country for colon cancer, I’d save 50,000 lives right there.  Done.  And then you go on into the other aspects of it.  And, and people slip through these cracks.  And then they’re in the poor communities of America and they’re not being treated.  So let’s treat everybody with the highest level of care that we all—that, that people in—where you and I live, Tim, let’s say, would get that type of care.  Let’s treat them.  There’s your 200,000 lives.  And then you go on into, you know, more complicated stuff, more complicated types of scientific research, and then, and then, you know, on and on and on.  So it’s, it’s a complicated issue, and, and we can’t get around the fact that it is.

MR. RUSSERT:  How about a no smoking country?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  This entire country today should be smoke free.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think there is a cure for cancer and we really will find one?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Interesting question.  First and foremost, cancer is about 200 diseases.  So I’m sitting here today as an 11-year cancer survivor.  I like to think I’m cured.  You know, meanwhile, half a mile down the street there’s, there’s going to be a 45-year-old mother of three that dies of breast cancer.  It’s a different disease.  They’re treated differently, monitored differently, researched differently.  So we have to look at every little...(unintelligible)...within that disease.  And so—but yeah, there’s a cure.  Of course.  But it comes with, with, with the proper things being put in place and the proper leadership and the proper funding and all of these critical and important things.

MR. RUSSERT:  Talk about yourself.  You were 25 years old, diagnosed with cancer...

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...and told that you had about a 50 percent chance of survival.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Hm.

MR. RUSSERT:  What did you go through, and what did you learn from it?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Well, you know, it was an interesting time because we didn’t have the tools that we have now.  For example, we didn’t have the Internet. You didn’t have a livestrong.org.  You didn’t have a Google that you could go to and type in “cancer” and all of these answers come up.  So we really scrambled.  And then all—and all the while you’re being told that it—you have a coin-flip chance of living, and, and it, it was a, it was a difficult time.  But ultimately we found the best care.  We asked hard questions, I mean, just like we’ll do in these forums, we’ll ask hard questions.  With my doctors, we asked hard questions.  We sought second opinions, third opinions, fourth opinions.  We weren’t going to be content with just sort of the corner oncology shop.  And, and I think that’s the attitude that people have to have with their own disease, but also that’s the attitude that we have to have as a nation.

MR. RUSSERT:  You gave an interesting interview with Forbes magazine, and I want to share with our viewers.  You wrote this:  “Without cancer, I never would have won a single Tour de France.  Cancer taught me a plan for more purposeful living, and that in turn taught me how to train and to win more purposefully.  It taught me that pain has a reason, and that sometimes the experience of losing things—whether health or a car or an old sense of self—has its own value in the scheme of life.  Pain and loss are great enhancers.”

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Right.  So it, I mean, it was a—wake-up call wouldn’t even begin to describe it.  It was—it just gave me a sense of perspective.  So, as I came back, and, and I mean, I had that sense of—new sense of perspective with my sport.  I have that new sense of perspective as a father.  I have that new sense of perspective here as a—as an activist.  It made my life very—it—I mean, the, the things that you thought were major before are incredibly minor now.

MR. RUSSERT:  Seven Tour de Frances.  You do not believe you could have won one of those but for the fact that you battled cancer.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  No.  No way.  I was, I was set into a rut there as a, as a, as a—what we would say?--a one-day cyclist or a one-day classics rider before, and I never would have changed.  I mean, the disease came along, and it released all of the—I mean, when I came back, nobody had any expectations, so I was free and able to go out and, and try the most challenging thing that I could without, without any risk.  It was all upside.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is, is this forum in itself a message to people who are battling cancer today, that there can be a life beyond that?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Well, the easiest way to say that is it’s one thing to survive cancer, but it’s another thing to thrive after cancer.  And I deal with, with thousands of cancer survivors throughout the year, and most people have the same perspective.  I mean, they come back as, as better people, more obsessed with what they’re doing, more committed to what they’re doing, more passionate about what they’re doing.  So, I mean, I think most of us would, would agree that the disease was a blessing.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there a political career in the future of Lance Armstrong?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Well, this is pretty political, I think.  But, but in terms of if you’re asking me will I, will I ever run for office, I mean, my answer is always the same, never say never.  Right now I think that my role as a, as a—as an apolitical activist is, is, is more beneficial and important.  It, it could be—there could, could come a time where I say, “You know what?  I need to step in.” But right now I have three small kids, I have a great life, I’m sort of enjoying myself.  So the answer now is no, but never say never.

MR. RUSSERT:  Might you endorse a candidate based on the answers they give you at the forum?

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Again, the, the issue, my issue, what I’m fighting for, so a cure for cancer, is apolitical.  It’s bipartisan.  It strikes both sides.  It would be very risky to endorse a candidate.  I mean, let’s just say, for example, I picked one side or the other, and then all the sudden the other side were to win, it would be difficult to go on in the future with the—have a good working relationship there.  So right now the only thing that I’m interested in supporting and endorsing is a cure for cancer.  I’m not, I’m not interested in picking a side.  Obviously I will go and vote for a side, but—which I’m not going to divulge—but right now all I’m interested in is a cure here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Lance Armstrong, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views.  Once again, the presidential forum in Iowa Monday and Tuesday.  Good luck.

MR. ARMSTRONG:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  And we’ll have much more of our conversation with Lance Armstrong about his foundation, his future and the future of the sport of cycling all on our Take Two Web Extra this afternoon on our Web site, mtp.msnbc.com.

That’s all for today.  Join me Tuesday on MSNBC and msnbc.com, all day political coverage of 2008, Super Tuesday.  We’ll be back next week.  If it’s Sunday, it is MEET THE PRESS. 

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