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updated 9/16/2007 12:39:12 PM ET 2007-09-16T16:39:12

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  The president restates his belief in the war.

(Videotape)

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And he calls for an “enduring relationship” with Iraq that would keep American forces there “beyond my presidency.” What now?  With us, decorated Vietnam veteran, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry; and decorated Vietnam veteran, 2008 Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain.  Kerry and McCain square off.  A debate:  Should we leave or should we stay?

Then, the very latest on the 2008 race for the White House.  Insights and analysis from Chris Cillizza of washingtonpost.com; and Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News.

But first, the debate over the war in Iraq.  Front and center across the country in our nation’s capital yesterday as anti-war protesters and counterdemonstrations were held.  The debate is also front and center this morning right here on MEET THE PRESS.  We’re joined by two men who have seen war, who feel they should be president, and who have very strong but different views on the way forward in Iraq.  With us, Democrat John Kerry, Republican John McCain.

Welcome both.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R-AZ):  Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me start with you, Senator McCain.  What should be the U.S. strategy in Iraq for the next year?

SEN. McCAIN:  The U.S. strategy in Iraq should be to defeat al-Qaeda, to do everything we can to reverse the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq, and to achieve or move towards the goal of military security and a functioning government.

MR. RUSSERT:  General Petraeus was in Washington, and he testified and he agreed that in order to do that we will lose, on the average, two U.S. men or women per day...

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...15 will be wounded or injured per day...

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...at a cost of $300 million per day.  Is it worth it?

SEN. McCAIN:  Well, General Petraeus’ answer was pretty much the same as mine.  All of us are saddened and frustrated by the course of this war.  It was very badly mismanaged by the former secretary of defense and this administration.  I, late in 2003, said this strategy is doomed to failure, that we had to fix it, that we had to adopt the strategy that we’ve now adopted.  And it is now succeeding.  Are we heartbroken at the loss and sacrifice of these brave young Americans?  Of course.  But the point is that now that we are succeeding with this strategy—and that’s the opinion of most observers—and abandon it and go—either go back to the previous failed strategy, which some Democrats want to do, or set a date for pullout and indicate that we’re leaving the neighborhood, then there’s no doubt in my mind of the consequences.  And that’ll be genocide, chaos in the region and far worse than the situation we have today, which I believe can succeed if given sufficient time.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Kerry, your response.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA):  Well, the Bush-McCain strategy of escalating our troops in the middle of a civil war has no relationship directly to what you need to do to resolve the civil war.  So you can put additional troops in and secure a small area here or there, but everybody knows there are not enough troops to be able to secure all of the areas you need to secure and, most importantly, it does absolutely nothing to resolve the fundamental differences, Tim.  A policy of putting more troops in and staying is a policy for staying.  It is not a policy for winning or for changing the equation. And the fact is that over the last four and a half years, they’ve had ample opportunity to make any of the fundamental political decisions that really don’t relate to security. An oil revenue law does not take security to be passed.  A de-Baathification law does not take security to be passed.  It takes political will.  They haven’t shown the political will.  We have to change the fundamental equation and create leverage in our relationship.

Second major point, this is making us weaker in the war on terror.  It is emboldening Iran, empowering Iran, empowering Hamas, empowering Hezbollah. The United States has lost leverage in the region.  We need a better policy, and there is a better one.

MR. RUSSERT:  Which is?

SEN. KERRY:  The better policy is to re-establish that leverage, is to make it clear to the Iraqis that we are leaving over a period of time.

MR. RUSSERT:  How long?

SEN. KERRY:  That we’re transit—over a year.  That is what all of us have said.  Fifty-two votes, a majority of the United States Senate, has voted to do that.  And Republicans are, are, are obstructing our ability to be able to change the policy of the war.  The fact is that we have no leverage.  If the president says a year from now we’re going to have 130,000 troops there and we’re going to go back to where we were almost a year ago when the country almost fell apart, that is not putting pressure on the Iraqis.

MR. RUSSERT:  A phased withdrawal over the course of the next year?

SEN. McCAIN:  It depends on the situation on the ground.  In all due respect to the comments that John just made, he would think that we have pursued the same strategy for the last four years or so.  The fact is we have changed that strategy, albeit way too late; and in Anbar province, parts of Baghdad, the Kurdish areas, there are areas of secure environment.  There is significant political progress on the ground in the local environment.  I am convinced that the Maliki government, if they are told we are leaving, they have to stay in the neighborhood, and they will adjust to conditions in the neighborhood. That’s dealing—making deals with al-Qaeda and others.

This consequences of a set date for a withdrawal, in the view of many who opposed us going into the war in the first place—General Scowcroft, General Zinni, others—would be—including a piece by Dr. Kissinger in this morning’s Washington Post—all agree that setting a date for withdrawal would cause us to have severe national security problems in the future.  General Jim Jones’ commission testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that if we set a date for withdrawal, it will have severe national security implications not only in Iraq but the region.

Look at the region.  What do, what do the Saudis do when they feel they have to help the Sunni?  What happens when the Iranians gain further and further leverage in the region?  What happens as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan? The Syrians, who are now exporting suicide bombers into Iraq, the lethal explosives that’re coming in from Iran—all of that will accelerate, and we will be—have cause, unfortunately, to return.  And I understand, again, the frustration that people feel. But to somehow assert that we’ve been pursuing exactly the same tactic is simply not in keeping with what we have been doing on the ground.  And I’m proud of General Petraeus’ leadership, and I’m appalled by the attacks that’ve been made on him.

SEN. KERRY:  Tim, let me, let me answer that, if I may, because it’s a very important distinction that’s got to be drawn here.  John keeps using the word “withdrawal,” that, that, you know, a, a fixed date withdrawal is somehow going to abandon Iraq.  We’re not talking about abandoning Iraq.  We’re talking about changing the mission and adjusting the mission so that the bulkier combat troops are withdrawn, ultimately, within a year, but that you are continuing to provide the basic backstop support necessary to finish the training, so they stand up on their own, and you are continuing to chase al-Qaeda.

Now, I think John and others have a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship of al-Qaeda to Iraq.  Number one, it wasn’t there.  I thought one of the starkest things that General Petraeus said, “Did this have anything to do with al-Qaeda?  Was al-Qaeda in Iraq before we attacked?” “No, it wasn’t,” he said.  There was no al-Qaeda there.  So we are in Iraq today on false pretenses, in the middle of a civil war, expending our troops while Iraqi politicians use us as cover for their own games.  And the only way you will change that is to change this equation.  When the president says to them, “We’ll stay as long as it takes,” they can make the decision to take as long as they want to make any decision necessary.  You wouldn’t negotiate the sale of your home the way we’re negotiating in Iraq.  There’s no leverage.  We’ve said we’re there.  You have to create uncertainty.  You have to create leverage.  And the only way to do that is to say to them, “This mission is transitioning.  You have to take responsibility for this security over the course of the next year, and we’re going to take a different position.”

Now, there’s one other ingredient to that, and it’s been missing.  You have to surge the diplomacy here, not the troops.  There is such a stunning absence of real diplomacy in this effort.  Where’s Condi Rice?  Where is the effort of this administration to be engaged in a standing summit and conference, where you go into a room and the president gives the instructions, “You don’t leave here until you know one of three things:  They’re either willing to have pluralism and settle these differences and do the passing of these laws, or they’re going to live in some kind of a semi-partitioned, you know, form where Sunni can’t go kill Shia and Shia can’t kill Sunni, or it’s impossible.” A president ought to be demanding those answers.  And I believe that, you know, what we’re doing today—no young American ought to give their life or be grievously wounded so Iraqi politicians can delay making fundamental decisions that they haven’t made over four and a half years, and their constituencies won’t let them make them.

SEN. McCAIN:  You know what John is advocating is to go back to the failed tactic of before.  And whether al-Qaeda was there before or not, al-Qaeda is there now.  Al-Qaeda is there now.  Who blew up the mosque in Samarra?  Who just went in the northern part of Iraq and killed 500 innocent impoverished people?  Who is it that continues to set off most of these suicide bombs to try to increase the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia?  It’s al-Qaeda. It’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is the problem...

SEN. McCAIN:  Now, now—let me...

SEN. KERRY:  But, John, you’re just ignoring what I said.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...could I just finish—could I just finish what I’m saying please, and then be—and General Petraeus has said, and I take his word for it, Iraq is now the central front in the war against al-Qaeda.  Now, John and his friends don’t believe that.  I believe the compelling evidence on the ground indicates that clearly, and to, and to say we’re going to have a date for withdrawal in, in, in complete ignorance of the facts on the ground, in my view, is a recipe for failure and disaster.

SEN. KERRY:  Let me, let me speak to that also.  I read and listened to the testimony of John McCain questioning General Petraeus.  And John McCain...

SEN. McCAIN:  Good.

SEN. KERRY:  ...asked him about—John McCain asked him about being a central front.  And he said, “How do you know it’s a central front?” And he said, “Because I talked to the head of the national intelligence and another general, and they tell me al-Qaeda says it is their central front.” Now, al-Qaeda can choose to make it their central front, but we’re not leaving al-Qaeda to that front.  Everything in the Democratic proposal that has 52 votes, a majority of the Senate, says we will leave troops to continue to chase al-Qaeda.  That’s number one.

Number two, Tim, al-Qaeda views Shia as apostates.  They are not legitimate Muslims.  The fact is you’re better off as a Christian or as a Jew than as a Shia in the eyes of al-Qaeda.  And Iran, linked as it is already to Maliki, who was in Iran a month ago, holding hands with the leader of Iraq, they’re already linked.  The Shia will never allow al-Qaeda to take over Iraq.  The Kurds will never allow al-Qaeda to take over Iraq.  That’s 80 to 85 percent of the country.  And the Sunni in Anbar have now decided they don’t want al-Qaeda.  We are the attraction for al-Qaeda.  And if we begin to reduce our footprint, as the Iraq Study Group has said we should do, as General Jones said we should do, as those seven soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, two of whom were just recently killed, wrote in The New York Times the other day, as we should do, then al-Qaeda, believe me, will be driven out by the Iraqis themselves.

SEN. McCAIN:  Surely you don’t believe that General Petraeus reaches his conclusions by talking to somebody.  He lives and works there.

SEN. KERRY:  I’m quoting what General Petraeus said.

SEN. McCAIN:  Gen-oh please.

SEN. KERRY:  I’m quoting what he said to you, John.

SEN. McCAIN:  General Petraeus, General Petraeus has said hundreds of times that it is the central front in the war against terror in al-Qaeda...

SEN. KERRY:  I’m just quoting what he said to you.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...because of the conditions, because of the conditions on the ground and you are quoting him incorrectly, and...

SEN. KERRY:  No, I’m quoting him absolutely correctly.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...selectively.  No.

SEN. KERRY:  And moreover, you’re not answering the fundamental issue.

SEN. McCAIN:  But the fact is, but the fact is when, when, when Senator Kerry says that we will just take care of al-Qaeda, then you go into a place where they’re fighting.  “Excuse me, sir.  Are you al-Qaeda or Sunni or Shia?” Please.  We’ve got to have sufficient—and General Jones did say if we set a date for withdrawal, and it’s on the record, if we set a date of—for withdrawal...

SEN. KERRY:  Yes it is.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...then the United States security interests will be negatively impacted and harmed in the area, as well as Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  Once again, you use the words withdrawal.

SEN. McCAIN:  So please don’t misquote General Jones again, please.

SEN. KERRY:  We will have troops in Iraq.

SEN. McCAIN:  You are setting a date for withdrawal.

SEN. KERRY:  We have all acknowledged that there will be some troops there to finish the training, finish standing them up.

MR. RUSSERT:  How many?

SEN. KERRY:  To chase al-Qaeda.

MR. RUSSERT:  How many American troops?

SEN. KERRY:  I can’t tell you precisely, Tim.  That does depend on what happens on the ground. But I know this, that if you don’t begin to change the equation where Iraqis have the ability now just to rest on American presence and make no decisions, nothing is going to happen.  And the fact is, you have to change it.  Moreover, we are—you know, what John and others who talk about surrender and talk about, you know, withdrawal and leaving it to these disasters, they hold up a specter of the disaster, but then they do nothing to mitigate the potential of that disaster happening.  The fact is Iran loves our being bogged down in Iraq.  Al-Qaeda loves our being bogged down in Iraq.  We are, as our own National Intelligence Estimate said, attracting more terrorists because we are in Iraq.  We need to get out of Iraq in order to be stronger to deal with Iran, in order to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, to regain our credibility in the region.  And I believe, very deeply, they understand power.  If we were to announce that we’re changing the equation—yes, we’ll be there to protect our interests; yes, we’ll be there to prevent chaos and genocide; yes, we’ll be there to protect Iran from actually coming into the country.  There are plenty of ways to create a new security arrangement.  General Tony Zinni and others have laid out those ways, but we’re not pursuing them today.  We have one strategy.  We’ve gone back now to stay the course, and the American people rejected stay the course.

MR. RUSSERT:  What’s wrong with that?

SEN. McCAIN:  I hope, I hope that next week you’ll take 60 seconds and get the quotes from General Jones, who said if we set a date for withdrawal, it will harm the United States’ national security...

SEN. KERRY:  I’m not arguing that.  He did say that.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...interest in the region; and General Petraeus, his comments as to why he believes that al-Qaeda is now the central Iraqi...

MR. RUSSERT:  General Jones did say that, but he said something else, and let me start with that...

SEN. McCAIN:  Sure.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...Senator McCain.  “Although the administration has said repeatedly that security improvements will create ‘breathing space’ for Iraqi sectarian and political forces to move” towards “national reconciliation, the Jones commission turns that equation on its head, saying that long-term security advances are impossible without political progress.  Despite all that remains to be done on the military front,” the Jones commission “says, ‘the single most important event that could immediately and favorably affect Iraq’s direction and security is political reconciliation.  Sustained progress within the Iraqi Security Forces depends on such’” an “‘agreement.’” So the president’s strategy has been...

SEN. McCAIN:  Now, now wait a minute.  First of all, that’s a Washington Post story interpretation of General Jones’ report.

MR. RUSSERT:  He was on this program last week and acknowledged that’s exactly...

SEN. McCAIN:  Yes.  And he acknowledged exactly that.  And he also acknowledged that without the, the military security situation, it was also impossible for...

MR. RUSSERT:  But...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...the political situation...

MR. RUSSERT:  But what he said was...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...to move forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...the current administration...

SEN. McCAIN:  And he also said that...

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me just finish, because he said the current administration’s thinking is that you cannot have political reconciliation without first having security.  He says it’s the opposite, that you cannot have security...

SEN. McCAIN:  He doesn’t say it’s the opposite.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...unless you have political reconciliation.

SEN. McCAIN:  Tim, I’ve known Jim Jones for 30 years.  It’s not what he’s saying.  What he’s saying is we have to have now political progress; and he, like all of us, are very frustrated by the lack of political progress, that the Maliki government has not done the things we want them to do.  And we have every right to expect it and, unless there is political progress, that we are not going to succeed in Iraq.  We all understand that.  We all comprehend that.  But you—any counterinsurgency expert will tell you that you have to have a military security environment on the ground, and then the other aspects of it move forward.  And I think it is moving forward, but it’s hard, and it’s tough, and it’s long, and it’s full of disappointments.  And to say that somehow with a few troops that we can handle this situation of Iranian further incursion into southern Iraq, the—of the Syrians continuing their dislocation in the region in support of Hezbollah and Hamas, I think is a basic misreading of the security situation we face when we, “withdraw,” as is what the Democrats and John Kerry wants us to do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Lindsey Graham, a close friend and colleague of yours, said that if we do not have progress, reconciliation within the next 90 days, Iraq very well could be considered a failed state.  Do you...

SEN. McCAIN:  I think...

MR. RUSSERT:  ...agree with that?

SEN. McCAIN:  I think it’s a dysfunctional state.  I think we all realize that.  And that’s also what Lindsey Graham said.  And I don’t know if it’s 90 days or not, but we certainly have to see progress.  But to tell them, “Hey, we’re getting out of here, and you’ve got to stay in the neighborhood,” they’re going to accommodate to the neighborhood.

MR. RUSSERT:  If we don’t see progress in 90 days, in six months, in nine months, what do we do?

SEN. McCAIN:  Well, then, we have to examine the options.  If we continue to see success and see military progress and political progress and other progress, then what do we do?  Then we can withdraw, and then we can have less of a presence of the United States military troops on the ground, a reduction of casualties, and we’ll maybe have troops there.  We’ve had—we’ve got troops in the Balkans, we’ve got troops in South Korea, we’ve got troops in Okinawa. It’s a matter of whether Americans are being sacrificed and under—and being wounded as to whether Americans will be satisfied with the continued American presence there.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why not continue the surge, continue to try to make political progress, and then withdraw troops after those have been achieved?

SEN. KERRY:  Tim, the surge, to, to promise the Iraqis that next summer we’re going to have 130,000 plus troops there, which is exactly where we were a year ago when the country almost fell apart, is not to change the fundamental equation.  If you’re a Shia and the leader there, and you want a Shia Islamic state, the reason they’re not compromising is not because they’re not—they can’t sit down in a room to do it, it’s because their constituencies don’t want to do it.  The Shia want a Shia Islamic state.  The Sunni want to return to power and, and believe they’re born to the right to run Iraq.  Now, unless you resolve the fundamental differences between those two in some way, either through the pluralistic democratic government, which they don’t seem capable of doing, or through some kind of loose federalism where they’re OK to live apart, which they’re proving they may need to do, unless you do that, nothing is going to happen.  No surge, no amount of troops will resolve that.

How many times do we have to hear President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Condi Rice, General Casey, General Abizaid, General Petraeus, all say there is no military solution?  Well, if there is no military solution, where is the political solution?

You know, let me read you—these are seven troops.  They wrote it in The New York Times, 82nd Airborne.  They’ve been there the whole tour.  And they wrote, “To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is farfetched.  As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent past coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable.” And they go on to say it, two of them, Sergeant Mora and Sergeant Gray were killed the other day, one wounded—and another one wounded.  These, you know, you got to listen to these people.

The, the Iraqis have fundamental differences that will not be resolved by a surge.  It is not dependent on the security.  And as General Jones said, the, you know, what happened in Anbar was a—General Jones didn’t say this, but what happened in Anbar was a political decision first.  The political leaders said, “We’re going to fight al-Qaeda,” and then they joined with the Americans.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator, this—your views may be all well and good, and the Democrats may be fine, and you may have 52 votes.  But the president has said, “I’m sorry.  I’ve heard you, I’ve heard General Petraeus, I’m going with General Petraeus.” What do the Democrats do now?  If you want to stop the war, you have but one choice, and that is, in effect, stop the funding.  Close down the...

SEN. KERRY:  Well, actually...

MR. RUSSERT:  Close down the government and say, “Not one more penny for the war in Iraq, Mr. President.” Otherwise, the war will go forward as President Bush intends it to.

SEN. KERRY:  Well, actually, we don’t have that choice because everything depends on having 60 votes or 67 votes to override a veto.  So any law that we pass, the president has the power, through a pen, to be able to negate.  So what we need today is a change of attitude by some Republicans who, who, who shouldn’t be content to stand up and give a strong speech condemning what’s happening or accurately describing what I’ve described, but then not voting to put it into place.

And that is what the 2008 election will be significantly about:  How do you make America stronger?  I believe the president’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of those who talk about surrender and who talk about the, the Democrats choosing to lose is insulting and incorrect.  We’re choosing to win for America.  We’re choosing to strengthen our country.  We’re choosing to be able to have a policy that reasserts American moral authority and puts us in a position to leverage peace in the Middle East, to deal with Hamas, Hezbollah, to deal with Lebanon, to deal with Iraq and Iran.  And right now, Iran loves what’s happening.  We’re playing right into their hands, and the national...

MR. RUSSERT:  But will you...

SEN. KERRY:  ...(unintelligible).

MR. RUSSERT:  ...will you vote to cut off funding for the war?

SEN. KERRY:  I will vote to change the funding to a different mission.  I will fund the troops to protect the national security interests of America, to accomplish a mission that, that increases our national security and protects the troops themselves.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator, if a, if a majority of the Congress wants a different policy, if the majority of the American people want a different policy, can you sustain a war without their support?

SEN. McCAIN:  Not forever.  The majority of Americans were opposed to and wanted to us out of Korea.  Thanks to a very brave president named Harry Truman, Korea is now—at least South Korea is now free today.

On this issue of bringing up men and women who are serving and how they feel about the war, look, I hear from them all the time.  I lament the loss of those brave, young—two young Americans who wrote that piece.  I hear from hundreds of them every day, just like in Vietnam, despite what the, the—what was accepted, Americans wanted to win in Vietnam, they want to win here.  I hear from these men and women, hundreds of them, all the time.  They want us to win.  And to go back to the same failed strategy of before and somehow say that everything’s going to be fine in the Middle East if we draw—if we announce that we’re leaving, I think does not comport with the reality or history.  And we’ve been through these fights before as to whether the United States should direct its influence throughout the world, and I believe that this is some way a repeat of that.  But the fact is that we are succeeding militarily.  We are succeeding in a new tactic, and that is succeeding.  And in Anbar province,by the way, I asked General Petraeus, he said the reason why we had that success in Anbar province is we had the extra 4,000 Marines to send there.  And that was—solidified that position.  We all want to see progress.  We are seeing progress.  To pull the plug at this particular time, I believe, would be disastrous for the future of this country.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you say win, how do you define win?

SEN. McCAIN:  The same way you, you succeed in any counterinsurgency.  The government functions effectively, there’s an environment of security, there’s probably long-term conflicts within the country, as there has been with other insurgency.  But, basically, you continue to progress and to bring a free and open and democratic society and fight back.  Look, this is an evil, this is an evil influence.  They think they’re winning.  Maybe John doesn’t.  But if you listen to bin Laden, Zarqawi and all that they say they drove us out of Beirut, they drove us out of Mogadishu, they hit the U.S.S.  Cole, they attacked our embassies, and they’re saying, “We’ll drive them out of Iraq, and we will succeed.” And so you listen to what he...

SEN. KERRY:  And where is he saying that?  He’s saying that from the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

SEN. McCAIN:  And he’s able to reach, and he’s, and he’s able to reach every corner of the world.

SEN. KERRY:  Yeah, and he’s able to do it because this administration took their eye off of him and chose to go to war in a place that had nothing to do with the war on terror.  And the fact is, as I said before, al-Qaeda loves our being in Iraq.  If you want to put al-Qaeda off balance...

SEN. McCAIN:  Al-Qaeda...(unintelligible)...in Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  ...then change the equation.  And Iran loves the fact that we’re in Iraq.

SEN. McCAIN:  And Iran loves to be in Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  And Iran is getting stronger.  Excuse me?

SEN. McCAIN:  And Iran loves to be in Iraq, and they are in Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  Well, Iran is in Iraq.

SEN. McCAIN:  And al-Qaeda is in Iraq.

SEN. KERRY:  Iran has thousands...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...and al-Qaeda is—if we don’t continue to beat them back, will be a major influence...

SEN. KERRY:  John...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...and have training bases, and they will have...

SEN. KERRY:  ...you’re debating with yourself...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...and they will...

SEN. KERRY:  ...because we...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...No, I’m...

SEN. KERRY:  Yes you are, because we’ve said we’re going to continue to fight al-Qaeda.

SEN. McCAIN:  You are asking to go back to a failed strategy that had failed for nearly four years that many of us pointed out...

SEN. KERRY:  And you’re asking...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...that you voted for, by the way.  So I hope...

MR. RUSSERT:  John...

SEN. McCAIN:  ...I hope that we will have the patience and the understanding on the part of the American people that they’ve made great sacrifice and all of us are saddened by it.  But I hope we can also point out the consequences of failure, which is what the Democrats are proposing now.

SEN. KERRY:  Listen to that.  You just said the Democrats are proposing failure.  We’ve had...

SEN. McCAIN:  Yeah.  (Unintelligible)...failure.

SEN. KERRY:  ...four and a half years of failure.  The Republicans stood up and cheered for Rumsfeld, who had a policy of not enough troops.  To his credit, John at least said he needs more troops.  But the fact is they’ve supported every step of this president, misleading America about the course of this war.  Last January the president stood up to Americans.  You know what he said, Tim?  He said, “We will hold them accountable to their benchmarks.” They’re not holding them accountable.  They have no means of holding them accountable because they’ve said we’re going to stay there with 130,000 troops into next summer.  They have no leverage.

We are not proposing failure, as John loves to assert and Republicans loves to assert.  We are proposing a way to strengthen America in the region.  We’re proposing a way to, in fact, make Iraq successful to the degree that it can be by playing to the real undercurrents of their, of their cultural and historical divisions.  Nothing in the surge addresses the question of Shia, Sunni divide.  Nothing in the surge is going to resolve the fundamental reluctance of Iraqi politicians to make a decision, Tim.

Now, we’re not talking about abandoning the place.  Why do the Republicans have a complete inability to envision a foreign policy, as we used to have, Republican and Democrat alike, which plays to our strengths and builds alliances with other countries?  Bring the United Nations back in.  Bring the neighbors into this.  Have a standing summit in a standing conference where we resolve these differences as best as can be.  The United States can’t do it alone.  And we have to change the equation so we regain leverage and initiative.  That’s not walking away, that’s walking forward and putting us in a stronger posture.

SEN. McCAIN:  In the—in my study of military history, I never heard of a withdrawal and a reduction of military presence as being a winning strategy. The fact is that we are succeeding.  That’s the thing that the Democrats won’t realize.  And of course I’m saying it’s a, it’s a recipe for failure.  Of course history teaches me and others, including virtually every other expert on national security that if we announce withdrawal, we will, we will fail and we will see catastrophic consequences.

I, of course, not only said we needed more troops, I said we needed a new strategy, and the strategy that’s being employed now, which has only been in effect for some six months.  And of course Americans are frustrated, and they’re saddened.  But to somehow allege that we can affect events on the ground with less troops and less presence when the surge is what has changed the equation on the ground, defies real depiction of the facts on the ground.

SEN. KERRY:  Wait a minute, wait a minute.

SEN. McCAIN:  And the facts on the ground are that we are seeing military success, and almost everybody acknowledges that.

SEN. KERRY:  Where’s the, where’s the less...

SEN. McCAIN:  There’s significant military success.

SEN. KERRY:  Supposedly, we’re training Iraqi troops, Tim.

SEN. McCAIN:  And they’re doing much better.

SEN. KERRY:  Supposedly, there are supposed to be enough troops—the Iraqi prime minister said they can stand up with their own security by this November.  We’re talking about a transition policy that goes into next spring. Are you telling me that after five and a half years of war, which is what it will be next spring, Iraqis can’t have people capable of walking their streets with a gun and keeping peace?  Please.

SEN. McCAIN:  I’m telling you...

SEN. KERRY:  How can they assert that after all of these years of—you train an American recruit and in four or five months you can have them on a battlefield.

SEN. McCAIN:  I’m telling you there were colossal failures in the training of the Iraqis under former Secretary Rumsfeld, and I’m telling...

SEN. KERRY:  And General Petraeus, who was in charge of it.

SEN. McCAIN:  I’m telling you right now that Iraqi and American soldiers and Marines are fighting together in neighborhoods in Baghdad and Anbar and other places, and we are proud of the work that the Iraqi military is doing, and they’re getting better every day.  And I’m convinced that, in a relatively short period of time, they will take over more and more of those responsibilities as they were.  And I think it’s wrong to denigrate the sacrifices that Iraqi soldiers are making right now on behalf of their country...

SEN. KERRY:  Nobody denigrated them.

SEN. McCAIN:  That—you’re saying they’re ineffective.  They are effective, and they’re fighting alongside of Americans, and I’m proud of them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator McCain...

SEN. KERRY:  I never used the word “ineffective.”

SEN. McCAIN:  And I’m proud of them.

SEN. KERRY:  What I said is they are not standing up at the levels that they should be...

SEN. McCAIN:  They are standing up well.  They are standing up well.

SEN. KERRY:  ...after four and a half years of training.  We were told by Secretary Rice at our committee earlier this year that 120,000 were trained and ready to go.  General Petraeus, when I visited with him in Iraq, told me he would have a hundred and some thousand ready to go two years ago.  Now, how many times do they get to change the goal posts and change the policy and move it to a different place?  Where is the accountability for the benchmarks? The—no young American soldier should give their life or limb in order to have Iraqi politicians continue to delay making fundamental decisions.  That’s what this is about.

MR. RUSSERT:  President Bush said we will have an enduring relationship with Iraq and that there’ll be troops in Iraq after his presidency.  Do you agree?

SEN. KERRY:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  To both?

SEN. KERRY:  We should have an enduring relationship, hopefully with an Iraq that is able to stand up and define itself in the way that I said.  The question is how do you get there, Tim?  And what treasure do you expend in getting there?  I believe we will, obviously, providing that there hasn’t been a complete implosion and we’re not asked to leave.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will this be...

SEN. KERRY:  Seventy percent of the...

MR. RUSSERT:  Will this be the central issue of the 2008 presidential campaign?

SEN. KERRY:  If the—if it is where it is today, yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you agree with that?

SEN. McCAIN:  Probably, but it won’t be where it is today.  You will see continued success.  And if we—if the—Senator Kerry succeeds in implementing what he wants, then you will see catastrophe, and you will see a lot more loss of American blood and treasure.

MR. RUSSERT:  I gave him the first, but I’ll give you the last word.

SEN. KERRY:  Well, Tim, John keeps avoiding the—and the administration keeps avoiding the need to have the second component here, which is real diplomacy. Nothing that we’ve proposed is proposed in a vacuum.  We’re not saying just change the mission; we’re saying use American leverage, work with our allies, work with the neighbors with a real diplomatic surge that brings the United Nations back and, in effect, creates a structure where it’s not just American treasure and American lives that are on the line.  President the other day talked about 36 allies.  I’ll lay odds John McCain can’t name 36 allies.  I can’t.  That’s an insult to American intelligence.  How much are they contributing to the budget?  I believe you need diplomacy, real diplomacy. It’s been absent.  We deserve a president who’s going to lead us and provide that.  And together, with the change in the dynamics on the ground, we can save American lives.  I think John and I agree 100 percent in, in the quality of the service of our troops, the unbelievable sacrifice they’re making.  We all support them, we’re proud of them, and we want them to get home safely.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Kerry, John McCain, two sailors, two men of the Navy, two U.S. senators, we thank you very much for sharing your views.

SEN. McCAIN:  Thanks very much.

MR. RUSSERT:  John McCain, John Kerry.

SEN. KERRY:  Great to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, clashing over this newspaper ad. And Senator Clinton’s fund-raiser Norman Hsu is arraigned.  And how has Fred Thompson’s late entry affected the presidential race?  Our political roundtable—Chuck Todd, Chris Cillizza—next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and more—our political roundtable next on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we’re back with the political dynamic duo.

Welcome.  Let’s go right to it.  A big debate in politics about this newspaper ad taken out by MoveOn.org.  There it is, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us:  Cooking the Books for the White House.” All the Democratic candidates were asked about it.  Joe Biden, on this program last week, said that he doesn’t buy it.  He thought that General Petraeus was a man of honor.  We had John Kerry, said it was over the top and inappropriate.  Hillary Clinton was asked about it by Charlie Rose, and she said, “I think we should focus on what the problem is here,” not responding directly to the ad.  This is what Hillary Clinton did say in her hearing with General Petraeus.  Let’s watch.

(Videotape, Tuesday)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY):  I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, Republicans seized on that and continued asking the candidates and others what they thought about General Petraeus and the ad. Elizabeth Edwards, whose own father was a military man, wife of John Edwards, says, “Someone who’s spent their life in the military doesn’t deserve ‘General Betray Us.’”

So then Rudy Giuliani decided that he was going to jump in the fray.  He took out a newspaper ad which said this, “Who should America listen to, a decorated soldier’s commitment to defending America or Hillary Clinton’s commitment to defending MoveOn.org?  These times call for statesmanship, not politicians spewing political venom.” Then Rudy upped the ante and took a webcast ad which says this:

(Videotape of webcast ad)

TEXT:

In 2002, Hillary Clinton voted to authorize military action in Iraq...

...because she believed it was the right thing to do.

SEN. CLINTON:  (2002) If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.

AD ANNOUNCER:  Now that she’s running for president, Hillary Clinton has changed her position, even joining with the radical group MoveOn.org in attacking American General Petraeus.  Clinton stood silently by when MoveOn.org ran this venomous ad in The New York Times.

Senator Clinton, do the right thing.  Apologize for your comments and condemn the MoveOn.org ad.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  The Clinton campaign responded this way.  “Rudy Giuliani is dropping in the polls and is unable to defend his own support for George Bush’s failed war.”

And now word from MoveOn.org.  They’re going after Rudy Giuliani, and this script will be put in form of a television ad.  “When Giuliani had” a “chance to actually do something about the war, he went AWOL”—absent without leave. “After skipping important meetings of the Iraq Study Group, he quit.  And gave speeches.  For money.  Republican voters should ask:  ‘Giuliani, where were you when it counted?’ Rudy Giuliani.  A betrayal of trust.”

Chuck Todd...

MR. CHUCK TODD:  Whew!

MR. RUSSERT:  What does it all mean?

MR. TODD:  Well, this is Rudy Giuliani trying to establish himself as the Republican standard-bearer against Hillary Clinton.  I mean, it was—what was amazing about this whole week, Betray Us, Petraeus week, you knew it was going to be about Petraeus and about Iraq.  Politically, on the campaign trail, as far as the Republican nomination was concerned, I thought this was going to be a week where John McCain was going to be in the spotlight, showing him sort of in command of this issue.  And instead, Giuliani politically stole the week from McCain, and I think just by doing these little things, creating a, you know, creating a straw man in MoveOn a little bit, taking more an advantage of it than any of the Republican—other Republican candidates shows—I mean, we were just talking, you were saying, you know, Mitt Romney was like, “Wow, good move by Rudy Giuliani to do something like this in New York Times.” I mean, it was a very effective week for, for Rudy politically.  Whether it did anything positive or negative on Clinton, I don’t think we know yet.  But as far as Rudy Giuliani’s concerned, it was tactically very smooth.

MR. CHRIS CILLIZZA:  I was just going to say, I talked to a Republican insider who said, “Look, this is the unholy trinity.” It’s MoveOn.org, The New York Times and Hillary Clinton.  You know, Rudy Giuliani would have been crazy to pass up the opportunity to take those three boogeymen of the Republican conservative movement without taking them on, that this was a ripe opportunity, he stepped into it.  And like Chuck said, Giuliani’s strongest argument, I think, is “I’m the electable one.  I’m the candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton.” And I think the more it’s Rudy vs. Hillary, the better it winds up for him, both in the Republican nomination and moving forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  But Joe Biden, John Kerry, Elizabeth Edwards distanced themselves from the MoveOn.org advertised.  Should Hillary Clinton have said some things critical about that ad?

MR. CILLIZZA:  I, I think she had an opportunity to.  I think what she did was, was somewhat savvy, in that she didn’t make the mistake that I believe MoveOn made, which was taking their eye off of turning this war into President Bush—a referendum on President Bush, by making it a referendum on General Petraeus.  I did a quick look, if you look at General Petraeus’ favorability/unfavorability ratings, it’s a lot better than President Bush’s. I think Hillary Clinton was wary of letting it descend into is this a referendum on General Petraeus or is this a referendum on President Bush and his war?  So I think that’s why you saw that.  She had an opportunity to do so.  But, don’t forget, not doing so doesn’t hurt her in the liberal left, that base of the party that she’s still trying to heal relationships with after her 2002 vote for the use of force resolution.

MR. TODD:  I think it’s interesting.  MoveOn is sort of like this old friend of the Democratic Party.  It’s as if it’s, you know, your, your teen—your—a friend of yours from high school, and you don’t mind hanging out with them back in high school, and then they keep showing up at your parties, and they get a little drunk and obnoxious, but you’ll still—you’re afraid to criticize them because they know too much about you or something.  Clinton’s afraid to, to criticize MoveOn because I think the anti-war left is just ready to pop. They’re mad, they’re angry, they don’t understand why Congress won’t do more things.  You asked Senator Kerry, “Are you going to defund this thing?  Are you going to vote to defund this thing?” And, you know, he won’t do it.  That just is making the anti-war left just boil over.  And I think that that’s why Clinton’s afraid to do this.

MR. RUSSERT:  There was also exchange within the Democratic Party.  Barack Obama gave a speech about the war, and this is what he said.

(Videotape)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL):  Despite or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and fail to ask the hard questions.  Too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, Chris Cillizza, you wrote this:  “Make no mistake, that line was a direct shot at Clinton and her argument that” “alone in the field has”—“she alone in the field has the experience to change the course of Iraq policy.  What Obama is hoping to do is take Clinton’s greatest strength—the image among voters that she has the experience to be president—and use it against her.  For all of her experience, Obama and his supporters argue, Clinton got the most important vote in the past five years wrong.  Obama (at the time a state Senator in Illinois) got it right.  Judgment trumps experience, argues the Obama team.”

MR. CILLIZZA:  I, I think that’s the fundamental argument that you’re going to see that dynamic play out is they’ve realized—I think the Obama campaign may have suspected or thought that this use of force resolution vote was going to be more damaging to this point than it has been to Senator Clinton.  It hasn’t really been.  Her refusal to apologize was an issue very early in the campaign but hasn’t been now.  I think what they see is they see the polling that we all see, too.  It shows most people who, who are supportive of Hillary Clinton, and even those who aren’t, are because they believe she’s the most experienced candidate.  To use that, to turn that experience against her is what this is about.  It’s about saying, “I was a state senator, but I had the judgment.  And, in the end, isn’t judgment more important than Washington experience?” I think that’s the argument you’re going to see Obama and his campaign make as we move forward to dry—try and draw that contrast with Senator Clinton.

MR. RUSSERT:  Barack Obama also undercame—underwent some scrutiny.  Here it is, Chuck Todd.  “Some anti-war Democrats have raised questions about the depth of Obama’s opposition, taking aim at one of the signature arguments for his candidacy—that” he’s “the only leading Democratic candidate who opposed the war from the beginning.  They say that while Obama did argue against the war as a Senate candidate, he tempered his rhetoric and his opposition once he arrived in the Capitol, rejecting timetables for withdrawal and” blocking “war funding bills.  He returned to a sharper position, they say, when he started running for president.”

MR. TODD:  As a Clinton supporter said to me over the weekend that’s a real profile in courage there of Obama, that, you know, he’s, he’s cherry-picking his own language.  But see, that’s the problem Obama has, you know.  He wanted to make that vote of hers and her speech on the Senate floor supporting that resolution basically the referendum on her.  And it hasn’t happened.  And instead what’s happened is that, because of Edwards and because of the anti-war left, it’s sort of a “Who cares what she said in ‘02?  What are you doing right now?” And instead, what happened, you had Obama and Clinton as the last two senators to vote on whether to authorize some funding.  They’re not leading, and that’s the chief criticism of both Clinton and Obama.  And as far as the Clinton campaign’s concerned, that’s fine.  If they’re lumped together as not leading on this issue in the Senate, that’s a win—de facto win for Clinton.

MR. CILLIZZA:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the Republicans quickly.  Fred Thompson, late entry into the race, has been to New Hampshire, been to Iowa, been to Florida. A lot of the national punditry, columns have been criticizing him.  Is that fair criticism?  How is he doing?  How has it shaped the race?

MR. CILLIZZA:  I think what he did is, he built a lot of excitement early on in the spring when he said he was going to run, but then he didn’t announce he was running until after Labor Day.  The problem is that leaves you out in the open for quite a bit of time where people can look at you.  He didn’t help his cause by a lot of staff departures, questions about what role his wife had, was it an appropriate role.  And I still think, even though polling has shown him running almost even now with Rudy Giuliani—not terribly surprising given the bump that he would get from all the television coverage of his announcement—I still think the question is, is there “there” there, with Fred Thompson?  Does he have the heart to do it?  Does he have the organization to do it in places like Iowa and New Hampshire?  It’s hard for me to imagine that he comes in third or fourth in Iowa, second or third in New Hampshire and all of a sudden the South Carolina poll numbers that we see, where he’s running well, stay solid.  This is a fluid process.  It’s hard for me to imagine that he stays in that and makes it South Carolina, Florida and beyond as his winning strategy.  We’ll see.

MR. TODD:  You know, I worry that we, we here in the Beltway are going to have a disconnect on Thompson because, for all intents and purposes, he’s been terrible even on the trail this week. Didn’t know that Terri—said he didn’t have enough information on the Terri Schiavo stuff to, to really comment on it seriously.  But he immediately, according to our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, coalesced a group of Republicans that make up the core Republican primary voter—older, more conservative, older men—and if he holds that group, you know, he could be the nominee and that’s—you know, maybe this will all falter and all of his missteps will catch up with him on the trail.  But right now I’d worry that we have a disconnect.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  Chuck Todd, Chris Cillizza, thanks very much. We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Join our political team for MSNBC’s Super Tuesday.  Nonstop political coverage all day this Tuesday.  We’ll be back next week with an exclusive Sunday morning interview with the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, right here on MEET THE PRESS, because if it’s Sunday, it is MEET THE PRESS.

Go Boston College Eagles.  Matty Ryan, Heisman Trophy.

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