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Video: The Afghanistan War’s toll on troops; crisis in Sudan

updated 3/18/2012 1:50:57 PM ET 2012-03-18T17:50:57

MR. DAVID GREGORY:  This Sunday, what now in Afghanistan?  In this election year a new debate has erupted over when to withdraw U.S. forces from what has become the longest war in U.S. history.

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(Videotape)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  We're going to complete this mission and we're going to do it responsibility.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  My exclusive guest this morning the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain.  He'll also weigh in on the latest twists in the GOP race.  Can Romney outlast his rivals as another primary test looms in Illinois?

Then a special roundtable discussion as we learn more about the U.S. soldier allegedly behind the massacre of Afghan civilians.  What are out troops going through over multiple deployments in war zones, in Iraq and Afghanistan?  With us, Afghanistan war veteran and author Wes Moore; Iraq War veteran and now executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff; author of "Where Men Win Glory," about the death of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer; The Washington Post's Bob Woodward; and from The New York Times, White House correspondent Helene Cooper.

Finally this morning, my conversation with George Clooney on his fight to stop ethnic cleansing in Sudan and some politics as well.

Announcer:  From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.

MR. GREGORY:  Good morning.  Republicans in Puerto Rico go to the polls today and there are just 48 hours now to go until the big stakes Illinois primary. Fifty-four delegates on the line there.

(Videotape, yesterday)

FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA):  We're going to show on Tuesday that the conservative movement in Illinois is alive and well on election night on Tuesday.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  After a pair of third-place finished last week in Alabama and Mississippi, Mitt Romney is fighting hard now for a rebound in Illinois, trying to cement his delegate lead.  This is how it looks.  It stands at 423 delegates, Santorum's at 184, Gingrich and Paul farther back.

Here with us now to talk about the nomination fight here at home as well as the continuing fight abroad for security in Afghanistan and the toll it's taking on U.S. troops, Arizona Senator John McCain.

Senator, welcome back.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ):  Thank you, David.

MR. GREGORY:  I want to talk about Afghanistan, but I'd like to start with a little politics and where we are in this race.

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  You know, Rick Santorum was interviewed on the "Today" program this week and he made, I thought, a pretty strong point.  Watch it.

(Videotape, Monday)

FMR. SEN. SANTORUM:  ...general election.  If he can't with an overwhelming money advantage be able to deliver in any kind of knockout blow to other candidates?

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  The top of that got clipped off.  He's saying, "How is Romney going to be a general election candidate if he can't, you know, take care of these other guys?" How did we get to a point where the guy who's seen to be the favorite to win the nomination can't eliminate what seems to be weaker opponents?

SEN. McCAIN:  Well, I think there's several reasons and obviously, Mitt Romney will tell you, first of all, he's got to do a better job.  He's working on doing a better job.  He's got to focus more on the economy.  He's been giving major speeches on the economy and jobs and I think he is improving dramatically as a candidate.  But also the proportional distribution of the delegates.  To--any campaign before we had--we had winner take all.  If it was winner-take-all you would have seen those numbers significantly different. Also, the super PACs have played a key role, unfortunately, in my view, because most of them are negative ads.  They've driven up the unfavorables of all of the candidates and made it much more difficult, frankly, to win the election in November.

MR. GREGORY:  You're worried about tone.  I mean, you're worried about--you've been in some nasty fights yourself politically.  But you think this is having a toll.

SEN. McCAIN:  Yeah, yeah.  This is a nastiest.  This is the nastiest I have ever seen and again, when you have a Las Vegas casino mogul, by the way, who gets part of his money from Macao, pouring $20 million into one campaign and most of those are negative ads, obviously that drives up people's unfavorables.  So it's, it's, it's a result of the worst decision the United States Supreme Court has made in many years, the Citizens United decision, where out of naivete and sheer ignorance the majority of the Supreme Court just unloosened all money--released all money now.  There will be scandals, David.  There will be scandals and then maybe we'll reform again.

MR. GREGORY:  Let's talk about somebody you've known a long time and that's Newt Gingrich.  I mean, you look at this field, Gingrich looks like he's fading and yet he says, "I'm in this all the way."

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  "I'm tag-teaming Romney."

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  What do you do about that?

SEN. McCAIN:  Again, because of the super PACs and the ability to get these huge blocks of money, probably stay in as along as he has bus fare.  And I'm not telling him to get out, that's a decision that they have to make, but I think it's pretty clear that his chances of succeeding, getting the nomination are, are very slim.  But--and so the beat goes on.

MR. GREGORY:  How about the prospect of a contested or a brokered convention?

SEN. McCAIN:  I just don't think...

MR. GREGORY:  Is this beyond fantasy?  Is it real?

SEN. McCAIN:  I just don't think it's going to happen.  It's never happened. I think that Mitt is going to, going to win in Illinois on Tuesday.  And I think we have every chance of that.  And I, I think it's going to be OK.  But in my view it's gone way too long and it's gotten way, way to personal and attacks on character and all of that have been very unfortunate.  And again, who's benefited from it, President Obama.

MR. GREGORY:  Well,, let's talk about President Obama.

SEN. McCAIN:  Sure.

MR. GREGORY:  Because the battleground's going to be the economy.  That's the message that Governor Romney is bringing already to President Obama.

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  Vice President Biden is out on the trail and he's making a different point about a sense of economic optimism in the country.  This is what he said speaking this week.

(Videotape, Thursday)

VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN:  It's not just the automobile industry that's coming back, folks.  Manufacturing is coming back, the middle class is coming back, America is coming back.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Now even...

SEN. McCAIN:  Nice tan.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  He did look tan there, didn't he?  Governor Romney said the economy's improving, that we are in recovery.  Look, you know the big rap against you in 2008 going up against Obama is that he had a better economic message, connected better on the economy.  How does Romney, with this kind of optimism in the economy and improvements, take on the president and say, "No, really, we could have recovered faster"?  Is that really the message that he can take to voters?

SEN. McCAIN:  No.  Well, facts are stubborn things.  When we passed the stimulus package--by the way, we've gone from $10 trillion in debt to $15 trillion in debt.  We used to say we're mortgaging out grandchildren's future and then our children's.  Now we're mortgaging ours, thanks to this incredible view that the president of the United States has that government creates jobs. That's how you get Solyndra, half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money, give to a mature industry which is just crazy because it's got to do with his philosophy, which is that, that government creates jobs.  Mitt Romney believes that business creates jobs.  He's had that background and he backed businesses that succeeded, he backed businesses that failed.  Five million dollars in a warehouse and now you have Staples.  So that's what this, this campaign's going to be all about.  And if Joe Biden and the president are happy with 8.3 percent unemployment then run on that.  We'll be glad to see you run on that.

MR. GREGORY:  Are you, are you concerned at all to see a focus with certain elements of the Republican Party on social issues?  In your own state of Arizona there is this contraception bill that even the governor has said would put women in an uncomfortable position where they'd have to say to their employers why they wanted contraception and how--why it should be covered.  Is that a bad road?

SEN. McCAIN:  I am--I am confident that that legislation will not reach the governor's desk.  And if it did it would be vetoed.

MR. GREGORY:  It's the wrong legislation.

SEN. McCAIN:  Well, I mean, look, it certainly doesn't reflect, in my view, the majority view of the people of Arizona.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think that there is something of a war on women among Republicans?

SEN. McCAIN:  I think we have to fix that.  I think that there is a perception out there because of the way that this whole contraception issue played out.  We need to get off of that issue in my view.  I think we ought to respect the right of women to make choices in their lives and make that clear and get back on to what the American people really care about:  jobs and the economy.  Jobs and the economy and something that we're going to be talking about here pretty quick and that is obviously this long involvement and long and difficult struggle in Afghanistan.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and that's exactly where I wanted to go next.  We're learning more about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who allegedly committed a massacre of civilians in Afghanistan.  Multiple tours.  This is a picture where he's been identified.  As we learn more about him, father of two, apparently was having financial problems, you know, was behind on his mortgage, was quite disappointed to learn of a fourth tour between Iraq and Afghanistan.  What are your thoughts about him and what we're learning about him?

SEN. McCAIN:  That's right.  It's a great tragedy.  It's a great tragedy and can I say that I am proud of the treatment of our veterans by the American people and our government and the president of the United States and the first lady.  And I am very proud of all of that.  Tragedies ensue in lore--in wars and we've seen it in every war.  That's why those who have known war hate it the most.  And all I can say is that we will continue to do everything we can to try to bring about as much treatment and care of those who have suffered the wounds of war, both visible and invisible.  And let me say that the irony here as far as Afghanistan is concerned, General Allen's plan is succeeding. We have succeeded on the ground.  We have made dramatic gains.  The, the, the fact that, that Karzai is acting like he is we can go into a little more.

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

SEN. McCAIN:  But on a pure military tactical standpoint, we are winning, but what the president keeps talking about is how quick we're going to withdraw. So put yourself in President Karzai's place.  You see in the front page of The New York Times says debate in the administration, you know, about how quick to withdraw, how speedy the withdrawal's going to be.  Well, President Karzai has ambitions to stay there.  One of his predecessors ended up being hung from a lamp post in Kabul.

So instead of saying we're going to win this war, what President Obama said in 2008, it was the quote "good war that we must win," instead, all we hear about is plans for withdrawal, plans for withdrawal, how quick the withdrawal will be.  How about a commitment to victory.  The American people understandably are terribly war-weary and I understand that.  But it requires a leader who can explain to the American people why this can succeed.  Three times the president has gone against the recommendations of his military advisers.  The first one was, of course, was when he announced that we would have 30,000 in a surge instead of 40,000.  So what I think we've got to do is understand how tough this is, convince Karzai that we are there to win, and we still have intractable problems, such as corruption and the Pakistanis.

MR. GREGORY:  But this is, this is what always trips me up on this question of, of how we define victory.  I mean, to be fair to the president...

SEN. McCAIN:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  ...he came in here after other--you and others criticized the Bush policy for really hamstringing the effort in terms of what we had to actually do in Afghanistan.  He surges up forces.

SEN. McCAIN:  Yes.

MR. GREGORY:  And now gets to the point where the American people are saying, 60 percent, it's not worth it.  And at least he's saying, look, we surged up. Don't we have to be a little more clear-eyed about what we can actually accomplish and what we cannot accomplish as, as we get out of Afghanistan?

SEN. McCAIN:  I think we have to be clear-eyed about what the goal is.  And that the, and that the president keeps saying, "Well, we're going to withdraw." If he'd given the, the military leaders, the ones he appointed, 40,000 troops instead of the 30,000 and hadn't said we're going to withdraw early, perhaps we could've done what was necessary in eastern Afghanistan and things would be a lot better than they are today.

MR. GREGORY:  But can I ask...

SEN. McCAIN:  But I can also tell you that American presidents lead.  The same reason why the president won't lead on Syria.  Where President Clinton would lead on Bosnia and Kosovo, this president won't lead while people are being massacred in Syria.  And that does not mean America goes it alone.  But it means that America should lead, which the president refuses to do.

MR. GREGORY:  But how--but Senator, how do you get a reset of our, our foreign policy and our national security policy that has some realism to it and understands the, the, the boundaries of what we can actually accomplish? I mean, isn't Afghanistan a perfect example of al-Qaeda's not there, you have a corrupt central government that is likely to fall, we fought there for so long thinking we were going to defeat the Taliban when the Taliban is going to have to run the country in some way or form, despite our concerns about women and girls in that country.  Don't you have to have a leader who says we, we can't do this forever, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve and then bring most of our folks back?

SEN. McCAIN:  First of all, the Taliban has been basically decimated to a large degree, so it's not necessarily true that they have to quote "run the country." In fact, if there's anything good about this breakdown of the, the negotiations with the Taliban, we're not going to free up five hardened Taliban individuals from Guantanamo who would then re-enter the fight in the view of, of most of us.  But the important point is that we have succeeded on the ground, there's been a thousand acts of kindness, which I meant to mention at the beginning on the part of American troops.  The relationship between American troops and Afghanistan is wonderful.  And when these things happen, then it just really sets back everything a great deal.  But we have succeeded on the ground in Afghanistan.  We have control of key parts of the country. If the president won't accelerate the withdrawal for the 68,000 as continues to be bandied about in the media, we can withdraw with a stable government in Kabul.  And when you say that if the Taliban take over again, there's one thing that history shows us that the al-Qaeda will be back with the Taliban and that's the place where 2001, 9/11 began.

MR. GREGORY:  But don't you--don't we have to be realistic as a country, as well, to kind of your point...

SEN. McCAIN:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  ...which is our interests, our national security interests are so entangled, entangled there, we are going to have to have some presence to make sure the government does not fall...

SEN. McCAIN:  Perhaps the...

MR. GREGORY:  ...for decades, for decades.

SEN. McCAIN:  Yeah.  And what was--and what was lost, David, in this, unfortunately in this tragedy of the sergeant...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

SEN. McCAIN:  ...was that we concluded half of a very important strategic partnership agreement, which by the way Senator Lindsey Graham was a key element in.  There were two sticking points.  One was detainees and the other is night raids.  We got half of it done.  We could conclude a strategic partnership with--agreement with Afghanistan, which would send a message to the bad guys that we are not leaving and is very important.  And I am pleased to note that the administration is working very hard on that.  If we could get that with Karzai, I think it could change the environment to a more optimistic one.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  But I, I, I left something hanging out there.

SEN. McCAIN:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you agree that we have to have some presence there for perhaps as long as decades if we're really going to achieve some of these goals?

SEN. McCAIN:  We have, we have left troops in Korea.  We have left troops in Japan.  We have troops in Germany.  We have troops all over the world, in countries all over the world.  Why is it OK with the American people?  Because we don't have casualties there.  If we can have a peaceful environment and a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, in a peaceful Afghanistan, the American people wouldn't mind that.  What they mind is, obviously, the continuous casualties and tragedies such as we've just seen.

MR. GREGORY:  Why is it too much?  Or why isn't it too much to push ahead with what you're talking about in Syria when we're committed the way we are in Afghanistan?

SEN. McCAIN:  The same reason why the United States of America has intervened in other times, in other places.  President Bill Clinton at the time of Bosnia said there are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic, strategic interests.  First of all, General Mattis testified that if Iran--if Syria went, that would be the greatest blow to Iran in 25 years.  But the important thing is, people are being slaughtered and massacred in an unfair fight.  The--Assad is being supplied by the Russians.  Iranians are, are on the ground.  They're being massacred and there's now estimates as high as, as 10,000.  Working with other counties and no boots on the ground and no unilateral action, we could join with others and lead and bring about the end of one of the most brutal dictators on Earth.

MR. GREGORY:  Before you go, to switch gears a little bit, just...

SEN. McCAIN:  We've covered a lot of territory, my friend.

MR. GREGORY:  We've covered a lot of territory.  This is your 64th appearance on this program.  I was joking, you've been on this show more than I have, over the years and we've got some of the pictures of you over the years here where you've come here and you, you, you've talked about politics and national security and you've done it on this platform, which we appreciate very much. And I just wonder, as you reflect, as you think about--you've run for president, you've been in the Senate a long time, you've served in the House, how do you think you've evolved in your public life?  And where--what's most important to you now?

SEN. McCAIN:  Well, I--without getting into a psych session, I, I hope that I have become more informed.  I hope that I have become more tolerant.  I hope that I have been a person who is more respectful of the views of others.  And especially on issues such as this, as we're just talking about, about life and death.  And, and I've been frankly privileged to be on this program as many times I have because it's my opportunity to talk with to American people and I'm grateful.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, thank you very much.

SEN. McCAIN:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  Appreciate it, as always.

Coming up, what now in Afghanistan and what about the lasting toll war's taking on our troops.  We're going to continue on this special roundtable discussion next.

A little bit later on, George Clooney talks about politics.  Keep it here.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And coming up here, a special roundtable discussion on the costs of war.  Joining me, Helene Cooper, Bob Woodward, Jon Krakauer, Wes Moore and Paul Rieckhoff.  It's up next after this brief break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  We're back with our roundtable.  Joining me, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; associate editor for The Washington Post, Bob Woodward; Afghanistan war veteran and author of "The Other Wes Moore," this Wes Moore; author of "Where Men Win Glory" about the death of Pat Tillman, the best-selling author Jon Krakauer; and Iraq War veteran and executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff.

Welcome to all of you.  I wish we didn't have to have this focus on this conversation.  You have a tragedy in Afghanistan with the death of Afghan civilians, and you have the tragedy of, of our forces, some of whom are put in a situation where the cost of war is so high that it's, it's affecting them in the theater of war, a war that goes on and on.  We see the photo of Robert Bales, more is being learned about him.  And a couple of the headlines that have come out in the last couple of days about what may have been behind this rampage is also striking.  Bales was a soldier strained by deployments, as I mentioned with Senator McCain, his fourth deployment between Iraq and Afghanistan.  And this caught my eye this week as we think about this question of what was behind this, also where maybe military institutions are failing our soldiers.  Retired Major General Robert Scales, wrote this in The Washington Post and I wanted to put a portion of it up on the screen.  "Before we get too involved in attacking institutions, perhaps it may be right and proper to suggest that the underlying issue here is not the failure of our Army.  Could the issue perhaps be that no institutional effort can make up for trying over the past 10 years to fight too many wars with too few soldiers?"

Paul Rieckhoff, policymakers I talk to are just--regular people I talk to said after this we have just got to get out of there.

MR. PAUL RIECKHOFF:  Well, let's break that apart.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  I think what, what is absolutely true is that our troops are being asked to do an unprecedented amount of work.  Nobody has been asked to do so much for so long, such a small group of people, less than one-half of 1 percent of the American public.  And we don't know a lot of the facts on the ground about the situation, they continue to unfold, but what we do know is that our troops are under tremendous strain.  But there's not necessarily a connection with, for example, traumatic brain injury or PTSD and murderous rampage behavior like this.  This is the exception.  This is not what our troops are made of.  They are honorable, they are courageous, and we all as Americans have to take a deep breath to make sure that we don't let this man represent so many who have done so much for this country while most folks really haven't been paying attention.  So if this is what it took for our country to have this conversation about, about the inequality of what we're asking our folks to do, then that's a good thing.  But let's make sure that we understand that coincidence doesn't necessarily equal causality here.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, Jon, let's also talk about it from the other side here, from the Afghan side, you know, which is the scale of this tragedy.  We were talking last night about some folks you'd been in touch with over there who are trying to put this, this loss of life in perspective in terms of our overall efforts there.

MR. JON KRAKAUER:  Right.  I mean, the, the--we, we don't understand why the Afghans are so upset over accidentally burning some Qurans, an isolated but horrible incident.  Talking to an Afghan friend, he was saying, "You guys don't know what it's like to have--it's not just these civilians, you know, it's been 10 years of, of deaths.  How would you feel if, if, you know, an Afghan was in your country, had, had killed 16 people?" And, you know, this, this, this--the whole counterinsurgency idea seemed doomed before it started. You're asking these soldiers to--you know, they're trained to fight, they're not trained to be the Peace Corps, you're asking them to do two things that are--you can't reconcile.  I mean, that's, that's part of the problem is that you're fighting an enemy.  At the same time, any time there's any collateral damage, any casualties, the whole country's going to erupt, and you've just negated all the good work you--you've done.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. KRAKAUER:  And that, for some reason, was never taken in consideration when this counterinsurgency strategy was...

MR. GREGORY:  Was first adopted.

MR. KRAKAUER:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  Helene, there's still this question now--you heard Senator McCain talk about we've got to be committed to victory.  Well, how are we defining that?

MS. HELENE COOPER:  That's, I think, the fundamental question because Senator McCain, when he was talking about being committed to victory...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  ...was again talking about a counterinsurgery--a counterinsurgency strategy.  And you just heard Jon talking about how hard a counterinsurgency strategy is.  I think nothing--when President Obama decided to do his hybrid, you know, "I'm going to do a little bit of counterterrorism, I'm going to do counterinsurgency," but he never gave it--the American people were never going to dedicate...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  ...10, 20 years to--that you need to dedicate to a counterinsurgency strategy.  This decision came out at a point where we were already eight years into this war, so there was no way that this, this whole idea of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, this strategy could possibly work unless we're really in there for--in it for the long time.  And I was talking to somebody at the White House right after this massacre and they said there's nothing more that could drive a stake into the heart of counterinsurgency than this because this whole idea that the population is not safe from our, our troops.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

MS. COOPER:  At that point you have to ask what are we doing there?

MR. GREGORY:  Go ahead, Bob.

MR. BOB WOODWARD:  I, I mean, the question is--I'm not sure it's doomed at all and if you talk to people in the Army, I mean there are a couple of facts, and the first is this is not a broken Army, they are over there brave and doing their job.  I think the question is, is it right for a country or for a commander in chief, the president, to ask so much of these people?  I mean, armies get used up in war always.  In this--particularly do they get used up in long wars, and this war has been so long.  Now you talk to the generals and you talk to the people involved in this and they think if they can keep the troop level high, they have a strategy, they can make it kind of like Iraq where we have a phased withdrawal.  Is it a victory, is it a, a stalemate, you know, we don't know yet in Iraq, but it's, it's not something that's hopeless.

MR. GREGORY:  Right.  Let me...

MR. KRAKAUER:  Afghanistan is very different than Iraq.  I mean, the outcome...

Offscreen Voice:  Right.

MR. KRAKAUER:  ...is not going to be like Iraq.  I, I, I think you can't compare them.

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, you just don't know because if you know all...

MR. KRAKAUER:  Oh, you know, you know certain things, you certainly...

MR. WOODWARD:  No, you don't, because look at Iraq, everyone was running around saying it's, it's never going to work.

MR. KRAKAUER:  Well, we don't know that it is going to work.  Iraq is no...

MR. WOODWARD:  I agree, I agree.

MR. KRAKAUER:  I mean...

MR. WOODWARD:  But there's a kind of stalemate, let's be realistic about it. That's factual.

MR. WES MOORE:  But, but there's also a couple different structural differences between Afghanistan and Iraq.  And you're absolutely right, I mean this is not a broken Army.  I mean, the, the troopers that are coming back now, they are, they are, they are courageous and daring and entrepreneurial and fearless.  I mean, they have all the qualities that every employer in America wants to see in their employees.  But there is a fact here, is that going forward, everyone knows that there needs to be some type of negotiated, negotiated conversation between the Taliban and between the Karzai government. If there's one group of people that the Karzai government trusts less than, than the, the--than the American forces, it's actually going to be the Taliban.  And the same thing for the Taliban.  There's one group that they trust less than the Americans, it's the Karzai government.  The only way that we're going to have any type of stability going forward is if there's some type of negotiation.  And, and that's where, I think, a lot of, a lot of American forces and my friends are seeing, where they feel like they're stuck in the middle between these two forces and that's...(unintelligible).

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Can I--I want to get back to some of the tough policy questions in just a minute, but I do want to continue on this topic of just what's going on with our troops and some statistics here that are really alarming.  You talk about traumatic brain injuries in the military since 2001, it's nearly 200,000.  Post traumatic stress disorder cases, almost 100,000. Military suicides, just since 2008 when they started counting was 1,000. Soldiers deployed three or more times since September 11th, 2001, is over 100,000.  It, it's, it's pretty striking and it's part of a context that we are going to be dealing with a cost of war while we're in it and after we're in it that pose huge moral questions, financial questions about support for them as we move forward.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  Yeah.  I mean, war is incredibly tough and, and it's painful and it's also expensive.  And it doesn't go away after we pull out of Iraq or we pull out of Afghanistan.  The toll that it's going to take on our troops and their families and the Afghans and the Iraqis will go on for decades. And, and when you think about our troops coming home, most of them are doing it well, but, but a percentage are not.  Hundreds of thousands are coming home with, with definite issues.  The suicide rate for the past previous months has been higher than, than the casualty rates.  That should alarm everyone.  Now that's just Army, that's just active duty.  There's no way in this country to even track the number of suicides for veterans when they leave the military. Unemployment, also a huge issue.  We've seen in the membership at IAVA about a 17 percent unemployment rate.  So we've really got to ask ourselves, if we care so much about our troops and veterans, what are we doing to, to, to, to scale against that?  Are we putting our money where our mouth is?  This country has been disconnected at an unprecedented level and if this forces them to really take note of that and get involved and do something about it, well, then that's a good thing.

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  Let's have that conversation.

MR. GREGORY:  So I guess, Helene, you know, from the McCain point of view, should the president take the knocks that he's sort of now rushing for the exits because of concerns about your point, Bob, about how much we're asking of our troops, and is he hurting the policy because he just wants to, you know, find a way to get the glide path out?

MS. COOPER:  I think that will certainly be Senator McCain's argument.  But when you hear President Obama talk about it, he consistently, he always, even in the State of the Union, talks about how he feels when he sees these troops coming back.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  When he was talking during all the, the noise about Israel and Iran and a strike, he brought up again, you know, when I order military force, I'm looking into the eyes of these, these people that I'm sending over there. And I think Paul made a really good point just now.  We've been at war for 10 years, but is it really us who've been at war for 10 years?

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MS. COOPER:  No, it's 500,000 military members who've been at war.  We've been so much--we've been insulated from it, by and large, the American people have been going to, you know, the grocery store and maybe we might know somebody who's like going to war.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  But at the end of the day, it's not the--I don't think the country really feels in a personal way that they have been in it.  And I think at that--I think that's part of the dialogue that we need to be having is how much we ask of such a small group of people.

MR. WOODWARD:  Yes.  And what do we owe them?  We owe those people who are doing that work everything.  And I think President Obama understands that and if, and if he were here on sodium pentathol, truth serum, and we say, "How do you really feel about this," I think he would say, "I just feel stuck.  War is ugly.  There's no simple way out." The military experts are telling him, you know, keep 68,000 troops there through the fighting season next year and we can extract ourselves in a way.  Now, you know, is that going to work?  We don't know.  But I think the agony of command really falls on him.  And I think he--I think he emotionally understands that.

MR. GREGORY:  And you know, and the stuck part, Jon, is in part because we've seen the history of, you know, just turning our back on this region before. So in your fantastic book "Where Men Win Glory" about Pat Tillman, you wrote something in a postscript that I went back and read and decided to show a portion to our viewers here because I thought it says a lot of where we may be going.  "If staying in Afghanistan is looking more and more like a no-win prospect for the U.S., so, too, does pulling out.  Both options are fraught with uncertainty, although the strife in South Asia is so incendiary, and so thoroughly entangled with American security interests, that American soldiers are apt to be engaged in Afghanistan for years to come, if not decades.  And if recent events are any indication, Americans are likely to be fighting and dying in Pakistan as well." Now that was in 2009.

MR. KRAKAUER:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  Does that hold true for you now?

MR. KRAKAUER:  Oh, yeah.  It was clear then and it's as clear now.  I mean, the problem is, I mean, Pakistan is meddling--Afghanistan blames Pakistan for their problems for good reason.  But Pakistan, you have to think about what Pakistan is concerned with.  It's concerned about India.  Until you, you reach--make some sort of peace between India and Pakistan, over Kashmir, over nuclear weapons, the, the problem in Afghanistan is, is going to be there for decades.  It's going to be this long simmering war.  It's just, you know, you've got to--you can't act unilaterally.  You have to consider all these, you know, very complex motives and interests in each of these other countries. And I think...

MR. GREGORY:  And I asked you about redeployments.  We were, we were talking about that and you know, you were there with guys who would be, you know, deployed for, for a year and then what would happen when they've get there or...

MR. KRAKAUER:  Oh, yeah.  Like, like I agree the Army isn't broken.  But those guys are so stressed.  I was in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007 when the 371 Cav and the 10th Mountain Division learned that they--their 12-month tour had been extended to three months.  To see, you know, the, the--your reaction from the guys was crushing.  Some of those guys went back to Fort Drum, New York, they were in New York when they learned that they had to go back.  They weren't allowed to see their families, they just had to get back on the plane and go to Afghanistan.  That, that like, that was just--and that's just one unit.  I mean, this happened...

MR. RIECKHOFF:  The military may not be broken, but it's tired.

MR. KRAKAUER:  Yeah.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  And I think we have to ask ourselves as Americans if it's fair to send people back for four tours, five tours.  We know folks who've done six, seven tours.  And we've always said, you know what, the all volunteer military is, is good for fighting and it's good for our military conflicts.  But is it good for America to have such a cleavage that exists between our population who serves and everyone else?  This is really unprecedented and it's about time we started having this discussion.  And the commander in chief is the man to lead on that.  He, he has to go out in front and ask the American people if this is how we want to run our country, not just our wars.

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  Because you know, you look at somebody like John McCain, when he served, everyone had a personal connection.  In World War II, it was close to 12 percent of the population.  Now you can, you know, we can note them by name.  We know about Pat Tillman, you know about Wes Moore, because so few of them have served and that's a real question we've got to ask ourselves.

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MR. MOORE:  And it's not--it's not--in addition to be stretched, it's all so uncertain.  I mean, you've got, you've got so many men and women who are just waiting on orders to go into a mission, go in an operation, but they still have no clue what the overall arching objectives are.  I mean, and if you look at the surge, I mean, the surge in many ways actually accomplished a lot of the objectives that are set out to accomplish.  Large swathes of the population of Afghanistan are actually being controlled by Afghanis, by Afghans right now.  We have close to 180,000 Afghan national army forces who are now trained.  We can walk out with our heads held high.  We can walk and say we have accomplished a great deal.  But to think about the continued cost of $120 billion a year being put towards Afghan expenditures and also the casualties and the--and the wounded that come back, we have to really think about this whole operation going forward and the timeline, which was actually put together not by U.S. forces, not by NATO forces, but by President Karzai. President Karzai initially came up with the date of 2014.  We should think about, is that in our best interests as well.

MR. GREGORY:  Helene...

MR. WOODWARD:  But...

MR. GREGORY:  Go ahead, Bob.

MR. WOODWARD:  I mean, real quickly, the decider here is President Obama.  If you go back two and a half years when he decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, there's a lot of agony in that and General Lute, his adviser in the White House, had one of these moments of let me tell you what I really think, and he said to the president, he said, "This is a calculated risk.  In fact, the risks are cumulative, so it amounts to a gamble." And I think that's the most realistic assessment even now.  It is a gamble.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  Well, and we're gambling with Karzai who calls our troops demons, literally.

MR. MOORE:  Mm-hmm.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  I mean, he said that we're demons.  We are not demons and our troops are over there, you know, despite this incident, they're trying to save Afghan people and they're trying to protect the Afghan people.  And we've got to push back against those stereotypes.  We're not demons any more than the Afghan people can be connected with the behavior of the Taliban.  We've got to push back against those stereotypes and those generalizations...

MR. MOORE:  Yeah.

MR. RIECKHOFF:  ...that seem to be happening across the board.

MR. GREGORY:  And I, you know, I want to talk a little presidential politics and part of that, Helene, is U.S. influence around the world, U.S. role in the world.  And what is a reset of our foreign policy and our national security look like in the face of, you know, emerging threats, Iran, ongoing threats, Pakistan, Syria?  But to Paul's point, if the Army is so tired, if our troops are so tired, so is the country and war weary.  The idea that we can keep meeting sort of obligations in these leadership tests, I mean, it just strains at kind of reasonable, reasonable outlook about, you know, political politics and presidential leadership.

MS. COOPER:  You see that again and again and again now when you see the foreign policy chair--the national security challenges that we're facing right now.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  You see, unlike Iraq now with the Iran situation, Iran's nuclear program, you see much more discussion about what would happen on day two after an American military strike, if there was ever one on an Iraq--Iranian installation.  With Syria, you heard Senator McCain talking about the need for leadership on Syria.  But at the end of the day, the reality is the Obama administration does not want to do any sort of military action in Syria because it's so complicated.

MR. GREGORY:  Hm.

MS. COOPER:  And we have to take into account the, the entire load that this entire American military apparatus has been under and the strain that it's under for 10 years.  And the Obama--President Obama talks a lot about sharing the burden and he talks a lot about multilateral and he talks a lot about the, the United States should have a leadership role around the world but at the same time, it should be in conjunction with other countries.  So you kind of see like, it's almost as if these tectonic plates are starting to move now...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MS. COOPER:  ...and I'm not--you know, I'm not entirely sure where we come out.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me, let me look at our political trend tracker, some of the top stories that people are following this morning.  We've been talking about U.S. soldier ID'd behind the, the killings allegedly in Afghanistan.  Now we've got the Illinois primary and the Puerto Rico primary today.

Bob Woodward, the reality is that Mitt Romney is a weak front-runner.  And he can't put away what a lot of people think is a weak field.  And you hear from Senator McCain, his concerns about the accumulating toll on Romney as a candidate, on the party by the time they get to the general election.  What are you, what are you expecting the next week?

MR. WOODWARD:  Well, it's not just the week, it's what the campaign's going to be about.  There will be a Republican running against Obama and Senator McCain said under the Supreme Court decision all of the new 21st century robber barons, let's call them what they are, can put tens of millions of dollars into the campaign.  It's negative, it's poison, it's venom, and we, NBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, the people in the media, are going to be under--I think we're going to be tested to say can we present a clear-eyed view of who the candidates are...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. WOODWARD:  ...and not just have this negative atmosphere, I mean that is--I've never seen anything like it.  And during the Nixon era they had a slush fund of $700,000.  Now the slush fund is probably going to be $100 million.  My God, what they're going to do.

MR. GREGORY:  And, Jon Krakauer, you look at the president's job approval right now, he's hovering around a place where he's like to hover and stay hovering and that's 50 percent in terms of his own approval.  Thank goodness you're outside the beltway in Washington, out there in Boulder, Colorado. What's your view of how strong or how weak President Obama is at this point as you look at this Republican field?

MR. KRAKAUER:  I don't, I don't know how strong or weak he is except the Republican field is in such disarray that he's got to be very happy.  I mean, you know, Colorado is an interesting state.  It's, it's largely conservative, but places like Boulder, Denver are these islands of--they call it the People's Republic of Boulder for a reason, you know.  So, you know, so you don't--I don't have--you're in this beltway, I'm in my own little beltway.

MR. GREGORY:  You're own little...

MR. KRAKAUER:  So I do like it.

MS. COOPER:  But, Jon, you're at ground zero for the Obama re-election campaign because Colorado is a state that he really needs.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah, yeah.

MS. COOPER:  And they are really banking and so this whole part is really key to his whole Western strategy.

MR. KRAKAUER:  Well, I think when it comes down to it, it's going to be the economy.  I mean, you know, Coloradans are concerned about many things, but, you know, your pocketbook is what--you know, if the economy keeps improving even slightly, he's in good shape.  If it doesn't, if it's any--you know, all bets are off, even with this really unimpressive Republican field.

MR. GREGORY:  Wes, quick point.  Yeah.

MR. MOORE:  Yeah, and I'd say, and actually, this point about Citizens United, I think one of the most dangerous things about the decision isn't necessarily that they're keeping more candidates in the race than need to be in the race, it's a question of access, it's the question if your campaign is essentially being, being funded and bankrolled...

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.

MR. MOORE:  ...by one or two people, they're the ones who you're always going to pick up the phone when they call.  That's the problem with the process.

MR. GREGORY:  All right, I got...

MR. WOODWARD:  Like I said, it's going to be a scandal, it is a scandal.

MR. GREGORY:  Yeah.  We're going to leave it there.  Thank you all very much. Important conversation, particularly about the war, which we'll keep going.

Coming up, my interview with actor George Clooney about a cause that later got him arrested during a planned protest outside of the Embassy of Sudan in Washington this week.

(Videotape)

MR. GEORGE CLOONEY:  I'm going to stand here together with my father and so that at one moment in time when people ask you where were you, or where did you stand, I want to say I was standing on the right side of history.

(End videotape)

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And we're back now.  George Clooney made a lot of headlines this week, not for his acting but for his activism.  He met with President Obama and testified on Capitol Hill about Sudan's humanitarian crisis and the government there's airstrikes against their own people.  On Friday he was arrested outside the Embassy of Sudan during a planned protest.

MR. CLOONEY:  It is my first arrest, thanks for asking.

MR. GREGORY:  Clooney and his colleague John Prendergast of the Enough Project recently made an eight-day trip to the war-torn region.  I sat down with both of them earlier this week and asked them what they saw.

MR. CLOONEY:  We went up into the Nuba Mountains, which is one of the areas that is still not settled after the--after the north/south became the--south became the newest country in the world.  And there's some rebel fighting obviously.  We went up a road that was pretty rough.  It's--they go back and forth.  There's some--a lot of dead bodies on the road.  But as we got further up into the mountains, what you see are burned out villages, burned farms. The Nubian people have had to move into caves because every day they are indiscriminately bombed by Antonov planes.  We were there as a--as those Chinese 302-mm rockets came over and we had--we, we saw three of them.  So we saw a lot.  You know, we got a good view of what the, what the move is and the move basically is to hurt them if you can.  And they're not that accurate. Terrify them for the most part and starve them to death.  And...

MR. GREGORY:  This is ethnic cleansing.

MR. CLOONEY:  There's no question about it.  And there's--and there is virtually no one that would dispute that, except, of course, the government of Sudan.

MR. GREGORY:  So what's at stake now?

MR. JOHN PRENDERGAST:  Well, the worst-case scenario is that the war inside Sudan heats up, the civil war, and a war resumes between Sudan and South Sudan.  So if that war resumes then this will be by far the largest war on the face of the Earth.  So the stakes are very high in terms of human life.  And so we think that unless there's that kind of crisis diplomacy that needs to be interjected now that the worst-case scenario could come to pass.

MR. CLOONEY:  What we're really looking for, we were talking about the--what, what, what the United States needs to do is it needs to do what we do really well which is diplomacy.  That we've done.  We know how to do that.  And that means getting China involved.  China has a $20 billion infrastructure built in for oil and they take 6 percent of their oil from the Sudan or their import. And South Sudan turned off the oil in, in a fight with the North because the--they pump all their oil to the North and then the North was keeping the money, basically.  So they shut it off.  So that investment to China is no longer good.  They're not getting any money.  And, and so they're going out on the, on the rest of the market like everyone to try and get that 6 percent made up.  And it's costing them more money and it's costing us more money at the pump.  So we have a unique moment where if we got involved from a presidential level, we're meeting with the president to talk with President Hu, for that matter, and say, "Listen, this--we're not appealing to anyone's better angels, we're not looking for humanitarian causes," I've done that before, it doesn't work.  This is economically important for you and can be helpful.  We can work together and it would be beneficial for both of us to, to make sure that we help orchestrate peace.

MR. GREGORY:  Has, in some ways, this Kony video changed the paradigm in terms of social action, political action, diplomatic action, that a, a force for social justice can come and can arise a little bit more organically?

MR. PRENDERGAST:  Now that it's, it's--this kind of communication has, has, has taken a quantum leap, the, the young people who put together the Kony 2012 video tapped into a, a vein of interest and concern and compassion that I think most people just didn't know existed.  But we've seen it a lot.  I mean you go around to campuses and to synagogues and to churches all over the country, people care about these things, they just don't know about them.  And if you tell somebody, "Hey, this is what's going on, this is what you can do to make a little bit of a difference there," most people respond to that.

MR. GREGORY:  George, if Bono was able to put disease on the continent of Africa, particularly AIDS, and prevention on the map in a way that the largest economies in the world confronted this...

MR. CLOONEY:  Mm-hmm.

MR. GREGORY:  ...and he lauded President Bush...

MR. CLOONEY:  Sure.

MR. GREGORY:  ...above the other companies for launching this effort, why is it so difficult to do the same for the slaughter of innocent people?

MR. CLOONEY:  Well, because there's a big difference in how you handle it. You know, the slaughter of innocent people oftentimes means you--we're talking about military intervention...

MR. GREGORY:  Mm.

MR. CLOONEY:  ...either through NATO or through--unilaterally, I mean it depends.  But the truth is we're not going to do that, you know.  NATO's not going to go in there right now.  The Security Council will always have someone that will veto that.  The United States isn't going to; it's going to be very hard to put some sort of a coalition together to go in and create a no-fly zone around the Nuba Mountains, that's probably not going to happen.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you ever look at a problem like this and think maybe if I ran for public office I could have more impact on this than just being George Clooney the actor?

MR. CLOONEY:  Well, I think I actually have a lot more influence on it here. You know, I don't have--there's--no super PAC has given me money, I haven't had--there is no outside influence for me.  I can actually have an opinion and it may not fit what the U.N. wants and it may not fit what other people want, and I can say, "This is what I think is right" and stand by it.  And so I think it's a lot easier than running for office.  I don't have any interest in that.

MR. GREGORY:  What about the guy who does have interest in being re-elected? Your--there are some who believe that he's now heading into calmer waters for re-election and that he looks pretty good.  Do you see that as a danger sign? Do you think President Obama looks good to be re-elected?

MR. CLOONEY:  I think he--I think he's always looked good to be re-elected even before the, the, the field--and we're still looking to find out what the field is--because I happen to believe that Democrats are just very poor in general at explaining what it is when they accomplish something.  I think they're pretty bad at it.  Republicans are very good at it.  If I was a Republican and if Obama was a Republican, I would be selling all of the, you know, he has saved the auto industry and you got Osama bin Laden and you passed a health care bill that nobody could pass, if that was a Republican issue.  I would be able to sell his presidency as a very successful one.  But Democrats are bad at that, we like to pick each other apart, that's, that's our thing, you know.  So I think it's going to be an interesting time, you know.  Listen, the worst thing you could do is feel in any way safe or cocky about it because you will always lose.

MR. GREGORY:  I mean, your friend Matt Damon's been critical of the president...

MR. CLOONEY:  Sure.

MR. GREGORY:  ...saying that he's disappointed.  Do you share disappointment?

MR. CLOONEY:  Not, not in the least.  But, you know, Matt and I are really dear friends, and that's what makes the world go around, you know, is that we will disagree on things.  Matt's issues in a lot of it were about teaching, you know, and he has some--and education is a--it's a very important part for him.  I on the other hand, the issues that I believe in and the, the, the president that I voted for, I'm very proud of.

MR. GREGORY:  I'm going to ask you one artistic question just because I'll kick myself if I don't.

MR. CLOONEY:  Go.

MR. GREGORY:  Where would you like to stretch next, where would you like to challenge yourself as an actor next?

MR. CLOONEY:  I'm thinking dance, David.  I'm thinking a musical, and I know, you know, maybe combining what we're doing here, sort of a war crime musical, that's what I've been thinking about lately.

MR. GREGORY:  With rebel leaders.

MR. CLOONEY:  I might even, I might even play a certain rebel leader right now.  I might even do that.  I tell you, I don't know what to do.  I, I just try to find jobs that I would like to see movies of, you know, and that's sort of--that's what I like to do.  So I'm, I'm enjoying--I'm in a good spot in my career right now, it's a good time for me.  And I also am, you know, I'm a, a student of what it is I do for a living and understand that, that good time in your career is always very temporary, so I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.

MR. GREGORY:  And back to his activism, Clooney said he's made his fair share of mistakes, he's learned from that as an advocate and activist.  You can see him talk about that, the full interview with George Clooney in which you, you can see on our blog, and that's presspass.msnbc.com.

That is all for today here.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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