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updated 5/9/2012 2:25:04 PM ET 2012-05-09T18:25:04

Guests: Andrea Mitchell, Chris Cillizza, Chuck Todd, Steve Clemons, Joe Williams, Major Garrett, Jim Moran, Jim VandeHei

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Obama at the front.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in Boston. Leading off tonight:
The president in Afghanistan. The news broke just before 3:00 o`clock
Eastern time President Obama had landed in Afghanistan to sign an agreement
on winding down the war.

The fact that Mr. Obama`s trip to Kabul landed on the one-year
anniversary of the bin Laden raid is lost on no one, least of all
Republicans like Mitt Romney, who had, until today, been accusing the
president of exploiting the anniversary.

At 7:30 Eastern time this evening, President Obama will address the
country, our country, on the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Lost in all the fuss of who should get credit for the bin Laden raid
is the decimation of al Qaeda under President Obama. Why isn`t anyone,
including the Obama administration, talking about this?

Also, sometime in the next hour, we expect to hear President Obama
talking to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. We`ll bring you that live -- that
address live as it occurs.

And a program note. We will have a live edition of HARDBALL in two
hours tonight. That`s at 7:00 o`clock Eastern time, and we will carry the
president`s speech then in its entirety.

We begin with the President Obama surprise trip to Afghanistan. Chuck
Todd is political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC
News. And Major Garrett covers the White House for "National Journal."

Let`s go to Chuck on his White House duties. Why was it kept so
secret? Is it obviously the question of security?

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIR./WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well,
number one, it`s absolutely security. It`s always done this way. Let`s
remember what happened to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta not very long ago,
just a few weeks ago. So that`s number one.

Number two, there was a decision make to make this -- that this is
being signed in such a way, this agreement -- the timing was chosen because
the president did want to address the American and explain this agreement
because you know, you`re going to read parts of this agreement, which
indicates that the United States is going to have a -- both a military,
security, economic relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2014, to 2024.

Well, explaining what that means is going to take time. And the White
House made the decision that the best place for the president to do that
was from Afghanistan, to explain exactly what this agreement means, but
also to send a signal to the Afghanis because part of he whole negotiation
on this is this idea that somehow, as the combat troops are getting
withdrawn, that meant the United States was out and they weren`t going to
get much support after that.

So by having the president there, it sends the message that the U.S.
wants to send to the Afghani government and the Afghan people, that, Hey,
it`s a total cut and run. But this is going to be a delicate political
dance for him to walk, Chris, because as you know, there is war fatigue.
And how long -- what kind of troops are going to be in Afghanistan? We
don`t know the answer to that question an we won`t know the answer to that
question even after tonight.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Major Garrett for more politics on that. It
seems to me -- maybe I`m -- mark me down as a Vietnam-era skeptic. Will
this look to the American left, who are squeamish about more war in
Afghanistan, like another 10-year extension of the American war in
Afghanistan?

MAJOR GARRETT, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": It might, Chris. And as Chuck
outlined, this agreement does commit the United States economically, to
some degree militarily, largely through a training and supervising role in
Afghanistan, for another 10 years.

And the agreement says -- it does not set a troop level and it does
not set an expectation of congressional funding. All that will be
negotiated. Well, look, presidents can propose future funding for
Afghanistan, but if Congress doesn`t want to provide it, it doesn`t get
provided.

This is going to be an ongoing conversation. And for those
Republicans -- and there haven`t been that many, at least so far on the
record today, at least in Congress, vociferously criticizing the president
-- there have been Republicans in the past who have said the president
simply has not talked about Afghanistan nearly often enough.

Well, in this one respect, the president`s saying, OK, I am now.
Complain about the bin Laden anniversary all you want, but this is an
agreement that`s going to fuse these two nations together for another 10
years past 2014, and now`s my opportunity to explain a little bit about the
details...

TODD: Hey, Chris...

GARRETT: ... underneath that agreement.

TODD: I think that`s an important political...

MATTHEWS: Yes. Yes, Chuck.

TODD: ... point because, you know, in particular, you know, the trio
of the most hawkish guys on Afghanistan -- Graham, McCain, Lieberman -- all
three of them have been critical of the president for not selling
Afghanistan enough to the American people, essentially, not making -- in
fact, John McCain just -- just today sent out a release praising that --
this agreement, hasn`t look at the details.

And so I think that Major hit on something I think is spot on, which
is this idea -- some may criticize and say, Why is he using bin Laden
anniversary? I think the White House will push back and say, Hey, you say
I don`t use high-profile enough events. I`m using the highest-profile
anniversary that you can have to make the case for why there`s a long-term
strategic relationship with Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this question of the good war and the
bad war. I want to go back to Obama`s record here. All during the 2008
campaign, when he was known as an enemy of the Iraq war, he always said
that Afghanistan was the good war, as he saw it. Is this a continuation of
that belief by him that there`s a worthy cause to be fought for in
Afghanistan, Chuck?

TODD: Well, let`s look at the facts -- a residual force for Iraq
wasn`t negotiated. A residual force with Afghanistan was this -- by the
way, this agreement is an agreement to negotiate an agreement about having
a residual force and the size of it. So just -- just so you know.

This agreement today is a political document between two countries,
not yet a -- so it`s a commitment of commitment. But it`s still an
important step forward.

But I think it absolutely -- you -- this is the policy going forward.
The issue of a residual force is to be -- is on the table, and frankly, is
expected to be negotiated and happen post-2014 in some form or another.

Now, in this agreement they outline certain things. The United States
is pledging they will not use any troops that based in Afghanistan post-
2014 to launch attacks on other countries. I underline "countries." That
doesn`t mean they would use forces to launch attacks inside of a, say,
Pakistan compound in Abbottabad that might have some sort of al Qaeda
operatives in it. You know, they`re not taking that off of the table.

So I think you see in this commitment where the president`s basically
saying he`s going to do what it takes to negotiate having forces stick
around in Afghanistan, something he did not do in Iraq.

MATTHEWS: Back to you, Major. A war of necessity -- is this
something that Obama believes in as a person, as a citizen of the United
States, apart from all the other politics, he believes we have a military
role down the road and perhaps in perpetuity in Afghanistan? This is
something he believes in?

GARRETT: Well, remember...

MATTHEWS: Remember, he fought with Joe Biden about this. Joe Biden,
his vice president, said...

GARRETT: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... Let`s just stay there as a counterterrorist force. He
says, No, we got to stay in this counterinsurgency fight. We got to stay
in there to fight for that nation.

GARRETT: Right. There was a surge in Afghanistan authorized by this
president after a tremendous amount of deliberation. And the president
said during the campaign, dating all the way back to 2007, that he would
engage both Pakistan and Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, defeat al Qaeda
and win the war where it started in the first place. That`s something that
then senator Obama talked about as early as 2007. And when you think about
bin Laden, he was criticized in 2007.

I have a piece at NationaelJournal.com sort of replaying all that.
Mitt Romney criticized him in 2007, saying that if he had actionable
intelligence, he would try to get bin Laden in Pakistan, even if then
President Musharraf objected. Hillary Clinton piled on in 2008. So did
John McCain.

So the president has a deep memory about this, a long memory, possibly
a short fuse when it comes to reminding people that he`s always been in
this one spot on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And think about it this way,
Chris. If he`s reelected, President Obama`s term will end in January of
2017. This agreement carries to January, or longer, 2024. So he`s
committing the next president and many, many congresses in the future to
economic, social and military arrangements with the Afghan government,
whoever is leading it.

MATTHEWS: Chuck...

TODD: Well, one of the things...

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the politics.

TODD: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Go ahead -- John McCain, you brought up his name. He`s a
very important man because he has a combat record. He served in Vietnam
nobly. He suffered as a POW. He`s got cred in the way that Romney doesn`t
have and President Obama doesn`t have as a citizen. Now he`s out there
saying this president ought to endorse, underline, embroider his support
for this war, even advertise it and promote it.

Is this going to take them off the dime they were on as recently as
yesterday, where you had McCain and the others attacking the president for
exploiting the bin Laden killing? Is this going to change the tone now of
the discussion for a while?

TODD: Honestly, I think it does. And I -- absolutely does. You
know, there was one other thing. You brought up the, quote, "Biden plan."
Well, guess what`s about to be implemented once 2014? When you look at
essentially what the United States is agreeing to and what the Afghan
government is open to, is now a form of what was known shorthand around
here as the Biden plan for counterterrorism. And what`s what`s going to be
militarily what they`re going to negotiate the ability to do, which is to
have counterterrorism forces ready to go, special forces in place,
sometimes on a rented base that doesn`t -- isn`t a U.S. permanent base --
might be a base owned by the Afghans but leased by the United States to --
launch operations like that.

But you talk about politically, I do think that this sort of tables
this for a while. Ironically, where the president would be politically
vulnerable in this agreement is with folks that have war fatigue. Well,
most of that is, frankly, with the middle. I mean, we always say it`s just
the left. Frankly, it`s a small sliver...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... of folks -- it`s a small minority of the population that is
saying, Let`s keep going, let`s stick around in Afghanistan. It is a more
broad cross-section of folks...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... on the left and in the middle who have this war fatigue.
And frankly, the right is split in two on this. You have neoconservatives
in one place, but you have sort of the old -- the Tea Party wing of the
party is not necessarily pro-Afghanistan war.

MATTHEWS: Give us an essay on this, Major, as to how the public`s
going to like this idea of a vaguely continuing perhaps counterterrorism
regime on our part going forward in Afghanistan, perhaps projecting our
strength into Pakistan as part of that.

GARRETT: Yes. Well, the facts on the ground are going to determine
the politics of this, Chris. Remember, just last month, among the most
sophisticated, if not the most sophisticated, well organized and
coordinated Taliban attacks on the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul, was
carried out. And it stunned and, to a certain degree, mortified both U.S.
and NATO commanders that the Taliban was, A, that well organized, that
audacious, and to a degree successful in carrying out this raid.

And we`ve also had fragging of NATO troops by Afghans aggrieved by the
burning, in inadvertent though it was, of the Korans, and all these other
things. That`s what is contributing and driving the sense of war fatigue
and war unease.

This agreement does lock these two nations together. Essentially,
we`re engaged to be engaged all the way to 2024. The country will take
that in stride, listen to the president tonight. But facts on the ground
and the trajectory of the success or lack thereof success for U.S. and NATO
forces I think is going to be more determinative than a 20 or 48-hour -- 24
or 48-hour assessment of this vague strategic agreement.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me throw that back to Chuck. One of the concerns
I`m going to raise at the end of this show tonight is not so much strategic
as day-to-day routine warfare fatigue.

When we see situations develop, like a couple GIs get involved in
urinating on dead soldiers from the other side, or we see the burning,
inadvertent or whatever, of the Koran, and these carry such symbolic --
obviously, symbolic and perhaps intended power -- what`s to stop those
incidents from occurring on an irregular basis for the next 10 years, at
every point offering the opportunity to light a detonator, if you will, for
a real East-West fight?

TODD: One word, footprint. Our footprint is going to be smaller in
Afghanistan, period. So we have a couple things that are still -- that
we`re still on a specific timeline. Number one, combat troops are going to
transition from U.S. lead to an Afghan lead in the beginning of 2014, and
then actually start coming home by the end of 2014 themselves.

So the footprint of the United States is going to be much smaller
militarily. And so -- let`s just go by the numbers. The types of forces
we`re going to have there are going to be counterterrorism, more of the
elite group of folks, number one.

And number two, you`re just not going to see this -- this case where
it`s, you know, hundreds of United States troops over there on -- on duty
patrolling. This is going to be more of an operation that`s supposed to be
Afghan-led.

At least, that`s -- that`s the goal as far as what this agreement`s
supposed to begin to outline.

MATTHEWS: Well said. Thank you very much for this hot report, and it
couldn`t be hotter news, Chuck Todd and Major Garrett, on the president`s
surprise visit -- for all of us, I suppose, outside the inside the White
House -- to Afghanistan.

He`ll be speaking tonight. He`ll be speaking right on this program,
actually. Around 5:30, perhaps, we`ll have the audio. We expect to have
it. Then, of course, the big broadcast to us, the American people, at 7:30
Eastern tonight on our second edition of HARDBALL, which will be live.

Coming up, by the way, how the Obama administration has systematically
and quietly destroyed the leadership of al Qaeda, the big untold story from
that part of the world.

Plus, the political fight over the anniversary of the killing of bin
Laden continues. That fuse is always lit, the Republican opportunity to
blast the president for getting credit where credit, I believe, is due.

Anyway, this is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We now have that audio of President Obama talking to U.S.
troops at Bagram airfield from just moments ago. Let`s listen to the
president.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also have somebody
who is John`s partner on the civilian side and has made extraordinary
sacrifices first in Iraq, now in Afghanistan. Ambassador Ryan Crocker is
here. Please give him a big round of applause.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: All right! Now, let me just see if I`ve got this right.
We`ve got the 1st Infantry Division in the house?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We got the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We`ve got the Task Force Muleskinner!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We`ve got the 101st Army Field Sustainment Brigade!

We`ve got Task Force (INAUDIBLE) in the house.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And we`ve got Task Force Defender in the house. And we`ve got
me in the house.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: 82nd! 82nd in the house! 82nd in the house!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)


OBAMA: You know, somebody`s is going to be in trouble that they
didn`t have 82nd on here. Anybody else I`m missing? There you go. All
right. I love all of you.

Now, listen, I`m not going to give a long speech. I`m going to have
the opportunity to address the nation from Bagram just in a little bit, and
it`s going to be broadcast back home during primetime.

So all I want to do is just say thank you. You know, the sacrifices
all of you have made, the sacrifices your families make every single day,
are what make America free and what make America secure.

And I know that sometimes out here, when you`re in theater, it`s not
clear whether folks back home fully appreciate what`s going on. And let`s
face it, a lot of times, it`s easier to get bad news on the news than good
news.

But here`s the good news and here`s part of the reason that I`m here.
I just finished signing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan
that signals the transition in which we are going to be turning over
responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghans.

We`re not going to do it overnight. We`re not going to do it
irresponsibly. We`re going to make sure that the gains, the hard-fought
gains...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I love all of you. Now, listen, I`m not going to give a long
speech. I`m going to have the opportunity to address the nation from
Bagram just in a little bit, and it`s going to be broadcast back home
during primetime.

So all I want to do is just say thank you. You know, the sacrifices
all of you have made, the sacrifices your families make every single day,
are what make America free and what make America secure.

And I know that sometimes out here, when you`re in theater, it`s not
clear whether folks back home fully appreciate what`s going on. And let`s
face it, a lot of times, it`s easier to get bad news on the news than good
news.

But here`s the good news and here`s part of the reason that I`m here.
I just finished signing a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan
that signals the transition in which we are going to be turning over
responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghans.

We`re not going to do it overnight. We`re not going to do it
irresponsibly. We`re going to make sure that the gains, the hard-fought
gains that have been made are preserved.

But the reason we`re able to do that is because of you. The reason that
the Afghans have an opportunity for a new tomorrow is because of you. And
the reason America is safe is because of you.

We did not choose this war. This war came to us on 9/11. And there
are a whole bunch of folks here, I will bet, who signed up after 9/11.

(CHEERING)

OBAMA: We don`t go looking for a fight, but when we see our homeland
violated, when we see our fellow citizen killed, then we understand what we
have to do.

And because of the sacrifices now of a decade and a new greatest
generation, not only were we able to blunt the Taliban momentum. Not only
were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and
systemically, we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda.

And a year ago, we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to
justice.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: That could have only happened because each and every one of
you in your own way were doing your jobs.

Each and every one of you, without a lot of fanfare, without a lot of
fuss, you did your jobs. No matter how small or how big, you were faithful
to the oath that you took to protect this nation. And your families did
their job, supporting you and loving you and remembering you and being
there for you.

And so, together, you guys represent what is best in America. And
you`re part of a long line of those who have worn this uniform to make sure
that we are free and secure, to make sure that those of us at home have the
capacity to live our lives.

And when you`re missing a birthday, or you`re missing a soccer game,
or when you`re missing an anniversary, and those of us back home are able
to enjoy it, it`s because of you. And I`m here to tell you, everybody in
America knows that. And everybody in America appreciates it. And
everybody in America honors it.

When the final chapter of this war is written, historians will look
back and say, not only was this the greatest fighting force in the history
of the world, but all of you also represented the values of America in an
exemplary way.

I could not be prouder of you. And I want you to understand, I know
it`s still tough. I know the battle is not yet over. Some of your buddies
are going to get injured. And some of your buddies may get killed. And
there`s going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead.

But there`s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you have
made. And that`s the reason why, for Michelle and me, nothing is more
important than looking after your families while you`re here. And I want
everybody here to know that, when you get home, we are going to be there
for you when you`re in uniform, and we will stay there for you when you`re
out of uniform, because you have earned it.

You have earned a special place in our hearts, and I could not be
prouder to be your commander in chief.

God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Now I want to shake some hands.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Well, that`s great stuff.

I was so proud of the president there, I must say. This has nothing
to do with partisanship. This is a commander in chief meeting with the
troops, as it was right out of "Henry V," actually, a touch of Barry in
this case in the night for those soldiers risking their lives over there.

Congressman Jim Moran of course is a Democrat from Virginia, and Jim
VandeHei is executive editor of Politico.

Congressman Moran, I was so proud of him there, because I imagine
being a soldier over there, this is what you want to hear, that the troops
are backed up by the people at home, and there you had your commander in
chief there with you personally. It`s great stuff.

REP. JIM MORAN (D), VIRGINIA: He is. He is our commander in chief,
and not just by claiming to be, but by acting as a commander in chief
should act.

This was a commander in chief`s speech. It was not political. It was
motivational. It was just exactly what the troops need to hear, and, as
important, what their families need to hear back home.

I do think, from the perspective of hardball politics, Chris, this
takes national security and foreign policy off the table as a campaign
issue. You can`t accuse the Democratic candidate of being weak on defense.

President Obama is leading in the proper way. And instead of gloating
over the killing of bin Laden a year ago, this is exactly where he should
be and doing what he should be doing. Now, in terms of responding to the
concern about this war, I wouldn`t be surprised if he doesn`t accelerate a
troop withdrawal.

But it`s not going to happen before the election. And it`s going to
happen only as he can responsibly withdraw troops. So you`re not going to
hear much about this issue, because I don`t see where he`s left any room on
the left or the right for it to be a campaign issue , Chris.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

Jim VandeHei, here`s an example, I suppose, of a president, a
commander in chief`s ability to shift the backdrop rather dramatically from
a kerfuffle, a fuss over who gets credit or should get credit for the
killing of bin Laden to, hey, we`re still fighting a war over here and we
have got a commander in chief who is at post here.

JIM VANDEHEI, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, POLITICO: Right.

I mean, politically, there is no danger ever appearing with the
troops, and I think the one thing both parties could probably agree on is
that when the public is focused that we still have so many troops over
there and have such a big interest in what happens in that country, that is
a good thing.

For the most part, people have ignored the war in Afghanistan. And
most of the attention, at least politically, has been on domestic issues.
So it`s not a bad thing. Has the president politicized this? Well, sure.
I mean, presidents politicize everything. People drink in bars. People
gamble in casinos. People practice politics in politics.

And so this idea -- I saw the White House today was putting out that
it`s coincidence that it just happens to be on the anniversary that he`s in
Afghanistan. That strikes me as a little bit laughable. I don`t think
there`s any coincidences in -- in politics. It how you spin...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think -- I think he acknowledged that, Jim, somewhere in
those comments with the troops, that this was a year later after we have
done what we have done.

VANDEHEI: Right.

MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Congressman Moran about this whole
political thing here.

You know, I have to tell you, I look at John McCain`s career, and I
have nothing but pride in it as an American. I think he did a great job as
a soldier, as a flyer, a combat pilot. He got shot down. He suffered as a
POW those seven years. He came back to America. He was elected to
Congress based on that wonderful service record.

He was elected to the Senate on that service record and was nominated
for president to a large extent on what he had done for his country. Why
is it wrong for then -- for this president to get some credit for his role
as commander in chief? I don`t get it. I don`t get it.

MORAN: Well, it certainly is...

MATTHEWS: It`s consistent.

MORAN: Yes, absolutely.

It`s not wrong. We all have roles to play. The vast majority of
Americans today have not served in uniform. They certainly support the
troops. But the question is, do we support them in a tangible way or just
by standing up and saluting them at ball games and so on?

I think President Obama is responding to the needs of the troops, just
as he should be doing. The fact is, with all of the fiscal constraints,
he`s put more money into helping out veterans getting jobs, traumatic brain
injury, helping their families.

This is what they need. And I think that you`re going to see -- you
can see on the face of the troops right now, you know, they`re happy this
guy is their leader. He`s responding to what`s in their mind. They are
concerned they`re going to lose their -- probably as concerned about losing
their buddies as losing their own life.

But he recognizes their sacrifice. I think he speaks for all of us.
So, you know, you can call it political. Everything he does is political,
but there are some political things that need to be done and need to be
done in the right way. This speech was perfect. He`s just where he ought
to be. And he`s the kind of commander in chief that the troops need.

MATTHEWS: Let`s come back to Jim VandeHei.

You edit Politico, so we`re talking politics, as well as national
security here. How will this play out, do you believe, although it`s very
early, the news to the American left, center and right that we`re in
Afghanistan, perhaps for the foreseeable future, in some role, we`re not
going to roll up our sleeves -- I mean, roll up the blankets and pull out
of the bunks and head home; we`re going to stay there in some capacity?

Is that going to rub a war-fatigued country the wrong way, Jim
VandeHei?

VANDEHEI: I think it does. I just don`t think, to be blunt, that
it`s a top issue, if you talk to most voters.

Most of them are focused on the economy. I think where it does become
a big issue is the duration of the war, can we have success in the war, and
the cost of the war. So, politically, I think I agree with the
congressman, that if you think of national security and the liability that
national security has been for Democrats historically, it`s just not as big
of a liability for President Obama.

He gets pretty high grades, if you look at the polls, on his
stewardship of the foreign policy, of the wars, of the fight against
terrorism. And on many of these policies, he`s acted just like I think
George Bush would have, and in some areas maybe even been more aggressive.
If you think of the use of drones to assassinate terrorists or suspected
terrorists, he`s been extremely aggressive.

MORAN: And, Chris, if I could...

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, let`s take a look at the politics of the bin
Laden anniversary. It played out again today.

Here`s what Mitt Romney said today in response to a question about the
raid that killed bin Laden. He`s changing his message generally every day
now. Let`s listen to the Republican presumed nominee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Of course I would have
ordered taking out Osama bin Laden, of course. This is a person who had
done terrible harm to America and who represented a continuing threat to
civilized people throughout the world. And had I been president of the
United States, I would have made the same decision the president made,
which was to remove him.

And I acknowledged actually a year ago when this was announced that
the president deserved credit for the decision he made. I continue to
believe that and certainly would have taken that action myself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Who teaches these candidates to say the phrase "of course"
when it`s obviously 180 from what they have been saying?

Back in 2007, the last time he was running, Mitt Romney was dismissive
of then candidate Obama`s comments that he would strike bin Laden even if
had actionable intelligence in Pakistan, even if it meant crossing into
border -- across the border.

Here`s Romney, the candidate, before today. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I do not concur, in the words of Barack Obama, in a plan
enter an ally of ours and their country in a manner complete with bombing
and so forth. I don`t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to
draw more friends to our effort,

QUESTION: You disagree with the suggestion of sending troops in to...

ROMNEY: I think his comments were ill-timed and ill-considered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, here`s some more of this and so forth.

Also in 2007, at a debate, Romney disagreed with his opponent, by the
way, the same Rudy Giuliani standing next to him right there today, about
unilaterally going into Pakistan, the very thing that the president did.

Let`s watch this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: I would take that
action if I thought there was no other way to crush al Qaeda, no other way
to crush the Taliban, and no other way to be able to capture bin Laden.

I think Pakistan has, unfortunately, not been making the efforts that
they should be making.

QUESTION: Governor Romney?

ROMNEY: Yes, I think Barack Obama is confused as to who are our
friends and who are our enemies.

He wants to unilaterally go in and potentially bomb a nation which is
our friend. We`re trying to strengthen Musharraf.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Congressman Moran, I think when you and I were growing up
in those old cowboy and Indian movies, this guy was speaking with a forked
tongue. This is exactly the opposite of what he was saying before. Now
today, given the change in circumstances, he`s totally with the president.

MORAN: Well, he`s also made comments, Chris, that he wouldn`t go all
around the world after one single man.

Well, of course this was the guy that directed the bombing. So he has
changed his position. But the reality is that he supported a president
that for seven years was never able to get bin Laden. Now that President
Obama has done so and has -- and really has decimated al Qaeda as a major
threat certainly in South Asia, now it`s -- he`s got a different position
and he`s saying, well, me, too, I would have done the same thing.

I don`t know whether he would have not -- would have not -- and he
doesn`t know what he would have done under the circumstances. The point
is, what will he do in the future? President Obama is showing what he will
do in the future.

Now, I do think we`re going to have a much smaller military presence,
and the fact is, we`re engaged all over the world, Chris. There is no way
we`re going to leave South Asia, Afghanistan or Pakistan. We`re engaged
still in Korea. We have got thousands of troops in Germany.

I mean, we have a global presence. The question is, how many of our
troops should there in any particular place and with what kind of lethal
force? We`re going to be training Afghanistan. We`re going to try to help
them get in at least in the 20th century, if not the 21st.

We`re going to be doing the things that will stabilize that region.
We recognize that Pakistan, which Mitt Romney refers to as such an ally,
that`s where the real threat is. That`s where the real problem is.
They`re the ones with nuclear weapons.

They are the -- they have far more extremists and more al Qaeda
members. Bear in mind, that`s where al Qaeda -- where bin Laden was. So I
even take question -- take issue with Romney`s description of Pakistan as
this close ally. There are many allies in Pakistan.

MATTHEWS: Right.

MORAN: But Pakistan is still -- still a trouble spot.

So, again, he needs to take a -- I think a broader and deeper
perspective of foreign policy.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MORAN: And until he does, he probably ought to keep his mouth shut.

MATTHEWS: Well, Congressman, I think you have given it a lot more
thought than he ever did. I don`t think he ever gave it a second thought,
except he happens to be running for president and has to be briefed on the
subject.

Anyway, thank you, U.S. Congressman Jim Moran or Virginia.

Thank you, Jim VandeHei...

VANDEHEI: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... one of the great leaders of Politico.

And a reminder: Join us at 7:00 Eastern tonight for a special live
edition of HARDBALL. We are going to have full coverage of President
Obama`s address to our country from Afghanistan, a very formal, important
address tonight.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Remember the 2008 election, all that criticism and fear from the
right, that Barack Obama would be weak and indecisive on national security?
Well, certainly, it`s hard to argue that these days.

Last year`s raid to kill Osama bin Laden was the most profile action
he`s taken. But throughout his presidency, Obama has pursued an aggressive
counterterrorism approach, killing dozens of senior al Qaeda leaders and
increasing the use of drone strikes from his predecessor.

At a press conference in December, when asked about Republican
criticism that he has appeased our enemies, listen to what the president
said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ask Osama bin Laden
and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field
whether I engage in appeasement or whoever is left out there. Ask them
about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Or has ever left out there. Wow.

And yesterday, a new Obama campaign web video touted some of his
major successes in national security. Let`s take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over the last two years, we`ve seen a depletion
of the senior bench for al Qaeda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Another huge victory in the war on terror.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Andrea Mitchell, of course, NBC`s chief foreign affairs
correspondent, and Steve Clemons is Washington editor-at-large for "The
Atlantic" -- great two people to have on.

Andrea, thank you so much for this.

I think we do a good job at NBC News and at MSNBC covering this war
on terrorism. But there is sort of an accumulated story here perhaps we
haven`t given enough emphasis too. Ands that is what the president just
called a few moments ago in that audio and the videotape from Kabul, the
decimation of al Qaeda. Tell us how that proceeded.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well,
I think it`s very clear that there has been a real downgrading of the
ability of al Qaeda and certainly the intelligence that was gleaned from
Obama`s lair made that point. He had aspirations to assassinate President
Obama, to go after General Petraeus, the then leader of Afghan troops, the
commander of the troops there. But neither of those achievements, if you
will, those goals of al Qaeda could be accomplished. His own people were
telling him, according to the intelligence briefings that we all have, his
own people were telling, you know, leader, we cannot do that.

They really have been decimated by the drone attacks. And it was
very interesting that John Brennan decided, on the president`s orders,
yesterday to acknowledge what has been very well known, that the drone
attacks, that covert war is taking place.

MATTHEWS: Why don`t we take a look at Mr. Brennan right now, what he
had to say about this? Here he is. Take a look at what President Obama`s
counter-terrorism adviser should say, John Brennan said, in fact, just
yesterday, about the president`s record in going after al Qaeda. Let`s
watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BRENNAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNTER-TERRORISM ADVISER: Along with
allies and partners, we have been unrelenting. And when we assess that al
Qaeda of 2012, I think it is fair to say that as a result of our efforts,
the United States is more secure and the American people are safer. Today,
it is increasingly clear that compared to 9/11, the core of al Qaeda
leadership is a shadow of its former self. Al Qaeda has been left with
just a handful of capable leaders and operatives and, with continued
pressure, is on the path to its destruction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Steve Clemons, tell us about that. It`s always a
dangerous thing to tell us we`re safer because, of course, anything can
happen. But give us your assessment.

STEVE CLEMONS, THE ATLANTIC: Well, I think what`s important to
understand is that John Brennan is one of six people who have been meeting
with the president of the United States every morning, keeping a very, very
laser focus on this question of what to do with the outstanding terrorists
that surrounded Osama bin Laden and what was the most symbolically
significant terror network that has challenged this United States. And
they have, since the raid on the Abbottabad compound, worked with the
intelligence they have and, as you said, gone one by one and knocked out
people.

Had they not done that, the bin Laden raid would have ultimately been
a failure. What`s very unfortunate to look back now with hindsight is that
the last administration, the Bush-Cheney administration`s decision to
distract a lot of resources towards Iraq, and I mean -- I`ve talked to CIA
officials and FBI officials who at various times doubted bin Laden was
still around because he had so effectively sealed himself off.

And one of the decisions that I think President Obama and his team
made was to come back up and pump up those resources, and while they were
encouraging the surge in Afghanistan, something I wasn`t particularly
supportive of, they also doubled down on basically taking out the mother
ship of al Qaeda. During the time of that distraction, you had al Qaeda
metastasized around in other parts of the world, in the Maghreb, in Yemen,
down in Africa, of groups that have self-selected and were inspired by bin
Laden because he wasn`t taken out soon enough.

But you have o give them credit for basically taking out almost
entirely those folks that were the key commanders of al Qaeda, the plot
integrators of al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri is still at large. And so, we
need to remember that, that there are still significant players. But it is
nothing like it was before and it`s a real credit that every morning, these
group of people has, with the president of the United States directly
involved, has zeroed in on what the intelligence has led them to do.

And while the cameras haven`t been on it, they had really nailed
dozens of folks that were involved with attacking not only the United
States but its allies in Europe and also other places in the Middle East.

MITCHELL: But let me just pick up a quick thread to what Steve just
said -- which is that it has metastasized. And that`s the other shoe that
could always drop.

Al Qaeda has been, I think, pretty much decimated. There may be lone
actors or Zawahiri may be able to order something, but they are much less
operational. That is indeed true.

But you do have the threat in Yemen. You do have the threat in the
Maghreb. And you have the Haqqani network. You have threats to Americans,
to American troops, to contractors, to Afghans right in Afghanistan where
we still have so many troops. So you have --

MATTHEWS: Are they capable of big operations, Andrea?

MITCHELL: Well, they certainly, yes.

MATTHEWS: Are they capable of those macro operations like we saw in
9/11? Can they do the big ones?

MITCHELL: Not against the homeland. I think the homeland is much,
much safer. But they certainly are able to get American installations
abroad, and we`ve seen that even with getting to the heart and soul of
Kabul to our embassies, to our facilities, to our allies.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look, however, going after the main force
there in Pakistan. Drone strikes under President George W. Bush, began to
him, but President Obama sharply increased their use when he came into
office. Take a look at these figures compiled by the New American
Foundation.

Drone strikes jumped by a total of nine between 2004 and 2007, to 53
in President Obama`s first year in office, 2009. They peaked in 2010 last
year and there was a slight decrease due to the tension between Pakistan
and the U.S. over the bin Laden raid. However, we have seen a presence
here pretty story.

Steve, we`ll go back to Andrea on this very point, I want the same
point to close with. People around the president, and they have to very
careful, they`ll tell you, they`ll get the idea that this guy is some sort
of liberal on war, that he`s not quite an aggressive warrior, that he is a
warrior. Your sense of being able to calibrate that, Steve -- you and
Andrea.

CLEMONS: I think that he has demonstrated and really robbed from the
mantel of the GOP the notion that Americans used to feel safe only with
Republicans during times of crisis, in times of challenge. And I think
Barack Obama has shown that he can be very tough and smart.

At the same time, what we`re not talking about much in the media is
he`s also shown a lot of strategic restraint.

The only quick thing I would add about those drones since I was --
I`m very involved with the New America Foundation, is that there`s a double
story in those drone attacks. Many of those drone attacks have disrupted
active terror campaigns, no doubt. They have taken out a lot of the most
nefarious terrorists this world has seen.

But they have created -- there`s also been a lot of mistakes and a
lot of civilian casualties, which New America has also documented. And
that, I think, has caused a lot of the blowback of various countries that
we`ve been, you know, sort of implicitly cooperating with in the drones.

MITCHELL: And in fact that --

MATTHEWS: Andrea, the same question to you about -- I want to get
the same -- Andrea, I just want to get your sense because you`re so good at
both sides and knowing what`s going on. The sense that this guy is not
some dove.

MITCHELL: I think that he is really protected by the bin Laden raid
and by the increased tempo of the drone attacks, by -- initially by the
surge Afghanistan protected by those sort of Republican attacks. We`ve
seen today, in fact, that Mitt Romney and his surrogates have pulled back
from their initial decision to go after President Obama for allegedly
politicizing the bin Laden anniversary. They`ve really, really dialed that
down because I think they realize he`s pretty much, in the political sense,
bulletproof on that issue.

MATTHEWS: Boy, that was an abrupt change you caught there today. I
caught it too. Boy, that was one of the rare changes in politics where a
tune had been memorized and they stopped playing it right away.

Thank you so much, Andrea Mitchell. It`s always great to be on with
you.

And Steve Clemons, sir, thank you for joining us.

Much more on President Obama`s surprise trip to Afghanistan when we
come back. This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Obama has made a stirring trip to Afghanistan. He spoke to
the troops at Bagram Airfield just a few moments ago. Let`s listen to
something of what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I could not be any
prouder of you. I want you to understand, I know it`s still tough. I know
the battle`s not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured.
And some of your buddies may get killed. And there`s going to be
heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there`s a light on the
horizon, because of the sacrifices you`ve made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Chris Cillizza is an MSNBC political analyst. He`s also
managing editor of PostPolitics.com, and Joe Williams is White House
reporter for "Politico".

Gentlemen, thank you. I don`t know if you were as stirred as I was,
but there was a commander-in-chief meeting with the troops who were in the
terrible situation, some of them, on post. It`s scary situations every
night, and during the day. And there he is telling them the countries
behind them. Whether that`s true or not, I can only imagine, Chris, that`s
the one thing they want it hear.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I mean, look, you know,
Chris, the commander-in-chief role I think is often downplayed in election
times, particularly election times where the economy is so front and
center. But I would say it`s the most basic hurdle you have to clear.

Remember, Barack Obama, after becoming Democratic nominee in 2008,
went to Europe to show that on a world stage, he could be a commanding
presence and he had kind of the right experience to do so. I think if you
don`t get beyond that initial hurdle to be able to give those speeches, to
give remarks like you just heard with credibility, and with gravity, all
the other stuff doesn`t matter. It`s kind of a sine qua non. You know,
you have to check that box.

And Mitt Romney, someone who has not as much foreign policy
experience as some past Republican nominees, is going to have to check that
box.

MATTHEWS: You know, it`s amazing, Joe, to me to see the president of
the United States with our troops, who do represent so much diversity in
our society. You know, the many faces of Benetton, if you will. I mean,
there he is moving these people, the smiles on the faces of these people,
it`s real. Look at it. It`s just -- I`m watching a picture of these guys
with their cameras. They`re just greedy for some face time with this
fella, who is their president and their commander-in-chief.

JOE WILLIAMS, POLITICO: Well, and it`s also interesting that a
commander-in-chief in war time, in a long, long war, that`s been drawn out
for such a long time that so many people have made such great sacrifices
that he talked about, is greeted warmly and not with the kind of resentment
you might expect from a group of soldiers, airmen and airwomen, who have
been over there for such a long time and seen such horrific things.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WILLIAMS: And back to Chris` point, when you`re talking about
gravitas, and talking about being able to make a statement and being able
to inspire confidence on the world stage, remember, President Obama had to
answer that kind of criticism during the 2008 primary from Hillary Clinton.
We all remember the 3:00 a.m. phone call ad that resonated so much with
voters for Hillary Clinton. He`s answered that call and then some.

So this is another moment to burnish those credentials ahead of a
campaign and an opponent who attacks the very nature of that leadership.

MATTHEWS: Well, the wonderful thing you didn`t mention is that if
there`s a 3:00 a.m. phone call right now, they`d both be on the line, of
course. They are talking to each other at 3:00 in the morning on this kind
of stuff.

Chris, let`s get back to the politics for a minute --

CILLIZZA: Yes, sure.

MATTHEWS: -- because I think maybe there are Republicans who are --
they are certainly as smart as Democrats and never noticed an I.Q.
difference in my life, but they must not have anticipated the fact that at
any moment the president could simply revert to his role as commander-in-
chief, give up the arguments as to who`s responsible or who deserves credit
for catching and killing bin Laden and focus on the fact that he is
commander-in-chief.

CILLIZZA: Well, yes.

MATTHEWS: He is the incumbent president, not just a dart board for
everything that goes wrong with the economy. But the vivid commander-in-
chief of our troops as well, that comes with the territory also.

CILLIZZA: Well, and I would say, and I`m not suggesting that the
president went over to Afghanistan to politicize it and -- but the point
is, everything that happens, particularly everything that happens in May of
an election year, fits into a political story to tell. Look, this is the
advantage of being an incumbent president of the United States. You can do
things like this.

And I would just say, just very quickly, Chris, on the criticism of
President Obama and politicizing it. Look, Republicans want this to be a
referendum on President Obama, this 2012 election. That works on their
favor, on the economy. You can argue it works on their favor on the
stimulus, it works on their favor on the healthcare.

You can`t take the good of a referendum and resist the politically
bad from the Republicans` perspective, which is the fact that President
Obama authorized a mission that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. If it
is a referendum, it`s a referendum. You take the good and bad of it. You
can`t argue. It will only take it when it works in our political favor.

WILLIAMS: Well, you can argue but it won`t be effective and people
won`t listen to it.

CILLIZZA: Right, right.

MATTHEWS: Joe, this is what we call in baseball a gopher pitch.
This is a high one down the middle for you.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: What do you think the Republicans would have said if the
9/11 had occurred on a Democrats` watch? Do you think the Republicans
would have blamed the Democrats of being weak and therefore inviting an
attack? You think they might have done that? Just asking you.

WILLIAMS: Maybe just a tiny bit they might have gone there. But we
all know that they are very generous and whole-hearted in their love of
country thing. I mean, in politics, we had a guest earlier that talked
about it`s a blood sport. You go for your opponent`s weaknesses.

In the Republicans` case, in the last several campaigns, they did a
political jujitsu, of turning their opponent`s weakness -- strength rather,
into a weakness and using that against them.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WILLIAMS: And that tried to come to the fore here in President
Obama, and that he made decisions that did very well for the economy and
they are trying to maintain that that was -- those were decisions that in
fact wrecked the economy. This is one of the situations where the strength
of the opponent is nothing that can`t be countered. You have Air Force
One. Everywhere it goes, it creates a stir. He lands anywhere in the
world, and people will pay attention to that and that`s something that the
Republican Party can`t compete with.

MATTHEWS: We go to go.

Joe, I like the way you think. I like thinking about judo and those
kinds of things in politics, because these metaphors work brilliantly, the
way you describe them. I read (ph) a whole on this stuff. But thank you.
I want to hear more you from on this, about the theories of politics.
Thank you so much, Joe Williams, from "Politico."

WILLIAMS: My pleasure.

MATTHEWS: Where he belongs.

And thank you, Cillizza. You`re the best at what you do. We`ll talk
about that.

Join us again in one hour, at 7:00 a.m. Eastern, for a special live
edition of HARDBALL and President Obama`s address to our country from
Afghanistan at 7:30 Eastern.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

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