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updated 8/21/2005 11:29:34 AM ET 2005-08-21T15:29:34


MR. DAVID GREGORY:  Our issues this Sunday:  The war in Iraq.  More violence as Iraqis struggle to draft a constitution before their new deadline tomorrow. And at home, war protesters hold vigils across the country as the debate over prolonged U.S. involvement rages.  Should there now be a target date for U.S. troops to come home?  Yes says potential Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential election, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.  No says former Senate majority leader and author of the new book, "Herding Cats:  A Life in Politics," Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi.  Senators Feingold and Lott exclusively on MEET THE PRESS.

Then what's at stake in Iraq for the Bush administration and the American people?  Differing viewing on how to secure Iraq and whether a stable, democratic government is even possible.  With us, Larry Diamond, author of "Squandered Victory:  The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq," and Reuel Marc Gerecht, former Middle Eastern specialist with the CIA and author of "The Islamic Paradox."

But first, on Thursday, Senator Feingold became the first senator to call for a specific withdrawal date from Iraq, and he joins us now for his first live interview.

Senator, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D-WI):  Good morning, David.

MR. GREGORY:  Explain why you've taken this step at this point.  Why set this target date?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, it's been a long time coming.  I didn't support the war in Iraq in the first place.  But once the country decided to go into Iraq, I felt it was very important that we do the best we can to success and support our troops.  The problem is is that we're not getting the leadership from the administration.  The president is not telling us what is the time frame, what are the benchmarks and what is the possible completion date for this mission. And what's happening is the American public is really despairing of the situation.

I tried first to simple offer a resolution a couple of months ago to ask the president to give us a sense of his own of how long this will take and give the world a sense of when we might finish what some people call an American occupation.  We didn't get any response from the president.  His last speech was just a bunch of the same slogans we hear all the time.  And, frankly, we got very little reaction from the members of the Senate.  So I felt it was time to at least put on the table an idea, get the discussion going, break the taboo and say, "Look, let's see if we can remove the troops after we succeed with a series of steps by the end of December 2006.  Let's see if we can have a target date that will work."

MR. GREGORY:  Do you think that target date is knowable, that a success date is knowable at this point and that the president is simply holding back?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, I think it's possible.  This is what I've noticed in the other times that we've done things well in Iraq.  This is what we've done. We've set a target date for the transfer of sovereignty, and we said it was a good thing that we did it a day early.  We set a target date for elections, in January 31, and some people said it would never happen.  When it happened, it was a good thing.  We set a target date for the constitution, and it's taking a few days more, but when that constitution is achieved, it's going to be a wonderful thing for the Iraqi people and a step forward.

Why wouldn't you want a vision, an idea of when we can measure success in terms of time and when the American people can know that our brave and courageous men and women can come home?  It seems better than just having a stay-the-course concept, which is what the president seems to have.

MR. GREGORY:  This target would be December 31 of next year of 2006, but you say it's not a deadline.

SEN. FEINGOLD:  No, it's not a deadline.  Just like the other things I just mentioned, it's a target.  Here's the problem.  If you don't have some kind of a target date, you lose the opportunity to get a number of advantages.  First of all, you can lose the support of the American people.  That's what I'm hearing.

I went to 17 town meetings in Wisconsin this month already in northern Wisconsin.  And people said, "You know, if we don't have an idea of how long this thing's going to last, let's just cut and run."  And the president has presented us with a false choice.  It's either stay the course and cut and run.  What I'm suggesting is we can have a middle course, a course that allows us for success in Iraq and allows us to return to the larger issue, which is the fight against terrorism all around the world.  Let me add also that it helps the Iraqi people feel ownership of this process.  It helps the authorities interact, the Iraqis be more credible, because it doesn't look like it's an American dominated operation.  And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps really take away the ability of these terrorists, al-Zarqawi and others, who say, "Hey, come to Iraq.  It's a permanent American occupation."  That's how they're recruiting people--and many experts, including military experts, have said that's a good way to get away from that.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, how do you define success in Iraq?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, I define success in Iraq as being what is most consistent with the security of the American people, in general, and that means whatever we do there should be consistent with the fight against these terrorists all around the world.  In other words, the people that have attacked us in London and Madrid, those who are upsetting the government in places like Mauritania, the problems in Thailand and all around the world--whatever we do in Iraq should be consistent with that.

One of the reasons I was opposed to the Iraq War in the first place is it wasn't even on the list that the president and the State Department put out of 45 countries where al-Qaeda was operating.  Now, of course, they're there. What we need to do right now is figure out a way to help the Iraqi government get on its feet and become stable, but also take away the presence of foreign troops as soon as is reasonable, because if we don't do that, they will be able to continue to recruit terrorists, who are then--let me just read what Porter Goss, the present director of the CIA, said in February:  "The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.  Those jihadists will survive and will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of terrorism.  They represent a pool of context to build trans-national terrorist cells, groups and networks all around the world."

So basically, we have to figure out a way to do as much as we can in a reasonable period of time, without doing too much, to allow these terrorists to promote and train people who are going to try to kill Americans.

MR. GREGORY:  There's a very important political process under way, the drafting of the constitution; a deadline tomorrow.  There is a violent insurgency that continues to rage.  There is even the underpinnings of civil war now in Iraq.  If by the end of December 31, 2006, the end of next year, these problems are not solved, the mission is not complete, do you still believe U.S. forces should come home?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I think that we have to make a tough assessment at that point, but I believe that the process is more likely to succeed if we have these guidebooks.  Look, we're not going to stay there till the very last insurgent is captured or killed.  That's impossible.  I mean, Don Rumsfeld says that would take 12 years; it might take longer.  That's not a job for the American military.  That's a job for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people. Our job is to provide security for a reasonable period of time.  I think by the end of next year, with flexibility, if a few more things have to be accomplished, we will have done about as much as we should do.

MR. GREGORY:  But you say "a tough assessment."  But if the mission is not complete, if your goals, if the administration's goals are not achieved, you still believe it's time for U.S. troops to come out?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  No, there could be flexibility.  There could be--look what we're doing with the constitution right now.

MR. GREGORY:  But what...

SEN. FEINGOLD:  It wasn't achieved by a particular date, so you add a little more time.  Look, let's say they have to train up a few more troops.  Let's say that the administration is open and tells us exactly what's going on and says, "Look, we think we need to stay there two more months"; so be it.  But without any sort of a time frame in place, we'll never even get to that point.

MR. GREGORY:  In making your announcement this week, you indicated that members of the Senate, particularly Democrats, are timid, that they are not stepping up to call for this kind of target date.  Not only has the president said that any kind of deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops is a mistake, but so have prominent members of your own party.  From Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader:  "...as far as setting a timeline, as we learned in the Balkans, that's not a wise decision because it only empowers those who don't want us there, and it doesn't work well to do that."

From Senator Joe Biden of the Foreign Relations Committee, of course, this summer:  "[Setting]...a deadline for pulling out...I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out.  ...I think you [will] find [Iraq] degenerate quickly into sectarian violence, every man for himself."

And finally, from Senator Hillary Clinton this February, the headline: "Hillary Rejects Deadline."  "I don't think we should be setting a deadline.  ...That just gives a green light to the insurgents and the terrorists, that if they just wait us out they can basically have the country. It's not in our interest, given the sacrifices we have made."

Senator, why give the insurgents any kind of road map of our intentions?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, of course, I haven't proposed a deadline.  But, you know, the Democrats are making the same mistake they made in 2002, to let the administration intimidate them into not opposing this war, when so many of us knew it wasn't a good idea.  And same thing with this taboo on talking about a timeline.  It doesn't make sense.  If the terrorists and the insurgents really thought that, why wouldn't they just stop blowing us up right now?  Why wouldn't they just let us leave and then take over?

More importantly, let me tell you the conversation I had in the Green Zone from one of the top generals in Iraq when I was there with Senator Clinton and Senator McCain.  I said, "Off the record, your own view, would it help if we had a timeline to let the world know that we're not staying here forever?" And this is what he said, verbatim.  He said, "Nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents more than having a timeline in place."  So this is a false argument.  It's a phony argument that doesn't really address the reality that we are actually causing more insurgents, more terrorism and more problems from all around the world coming into Iraq because we don't have a vision for success and completion of the mission.

MR. GREGORY:  But you yourself said just a couple of minutes ago that if we are not successful by the end of next year, you would agree to extend that deadline.

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I said for a limited period.  I don't think it's indefinite.

MR. GREGORY:  How long would that period be?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  It depends on the circumstance.

MR. GREGORY:  But it still goes to the bottom line point, which is if the goals are not achieved, if there is still an insurgency, if there is continued sectarian violence, the prospect of civil war, do you then still advocate bringing troops home before their success?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Potentially.  There are three different possibilities.  One is the success, the very strong success, then we can come home by that date. The second is we get close to success and then we have to have a little more time.  A third possibility is that the situation simply has become so inconsistent with our overall goal of fighting terrorists around the world that we may have to say, "Look, we have to come home anyway."  But I think we make that assessment in time.

MR. GREGORY:  Even if--even if it means effectively...

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Potentially.

MR. GREGORY:  ...admitting failure?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Yes, because the question here is do we succeed in the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremist elements around the world that are attacking us?  That's number one.  As important as the Iraqi democracy is and as wonderful as it is that we make progress in that regard, the most important thing is protecting the lives of Americans here and abroad, and if this Iraq operation is inconsistent with that, at some point, we may have to consider leaving.  And that's why I'm hoping that we can create a time frame for success and then bringing home our troops.

MR. GREGORY:  Given the American sacrifice in Iraq, the loss of life, do we not owe it to those who have lost their lives to see this mission through to its absolute successful conclusion?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  What we owe the brave men and women who have fought in Iraq, especially those, I think, from Wisconsin, is a good policy, a policy that is consistent with fighting the terrorists that attacked us on 9/11, 2001.  We owe them that.  They're doing their job.  We're not doing our job.  And they have a right to have a sound policy that has a reasonable proposal for an end date so they can come home and we can greet them with open arms for their bravery and their heroism.

MR. GREGORY:  Do you believe that the United States is better or worse off with Saddam Hussein out of power?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Well, it's much better to have Saddam Hussein out of power, but we are actually weaker rather than stronger because of the way in which this Iraq operation has been conducted.  We have given the terrorists an opportunity--and this is what Porter Goss has said--to train and recruit terrorists who he says are being exported all around the world.  In other words, to some extent, we have played into the hands of the very people who attacked us on 9/11.  We need to reverse that in Iraq; success for Iraq, but most importantly, safety for the American people.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, will you be a candidate for the presidency in 2008?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  You know, I'm really focusing on these issues right now.  This war in Iraq and the need to get us back to the fight against terrorism are the things that are really affecting me personally, as well as in my job.  The health-care demands of the American people, the fact that we have a terrible health-care system that needs to be fixed; the loss of jobs overseas, the fact that we don't have an energy policy that gives us independence from foreign oil--I'm focusing on that now, and I am also working on the fact that we have one party domination of our country in both houses and the presidency, and I have traveled to red states, as they call them--Alabama and Florida and Tennessee--to try to help Democrats in those states know that we want to work with them and that we want to get a majority in the House or the Senate.  And, yes, I'm going to work real hard to try to get a progressive Democrat in 2008. But whether or not I'd be a part of that process, I'm not going to think about it for quite some time.

MR. GREGORY:  What you're outlining, though, is a potential platform.  Is it something that you're considering?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I'm considering the platform for whoever runs.  Whether or not I would run...

MR. GREGORY:  Right, but for yourself?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  ...whether or not I run or not, I'm going to think about later.

MR. GREGORY:  Final question:  Can an anti-war Democrat be successful in 2008?

SEN. FEINGOLD:  I think a Democrat who cares about national security, who gets this right, a Democrat who says, "Look, this administration has lost its way and gotten away from going after those who attacked us on 9/11" and who is willing to say that the Iraq invasion had some problems and that what's going on now is a problem, I think all of that can be part of a winning candidate. But we do have to be strong on national security.  We do have to show the American people that Democrats care deeply about protecting American lives. And without that, no, I don't think we can win.

MR. GREGORY:  Senator Feingold, thanks very much...

SEN. FEINGOLD:  Thank you.

MR. GREGORY:  ...for your views this morning.

And coming next, the former Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, weighs in on Iraq and talks about his candid new book, "Herding Cats:  A Life in Politics."  Then analysis on the war and the chances for a secure and democratic Iraq.  Authors Larry Diamond and Reuel Marc Gerecht, all coming up on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  Former Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And we're back.

Senator Trent Lott, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. TRENT LOTT, (R-MS):  Glad to be back, David.

MR. GREGORY:  Are we winning in Iraq?

SEN. LOTT:  Yes, we are winning in Iraq.  When you look at the reports on a daily basis, you can be concerned or disappointed , but we have had a plan there.  We are still working on it.  It's one you have to change.  I mean, when you're involved in a situation like Iraq, which is war, you have to be prepared to acknowledge you've made some mistakes and move to a different approach.  But when you look at the fact that Saddam Hussein is out of there, they have had elections--I mean, will we ever forget the purple fingers and millions of Iraqis took a chance, went to the polls and voted?  They have leadership.  They're working on a constitution.  Police are being trained. Soldiers are being trained.  Do we have a way to go?  Absolutely.  But we are winning, and we have to continue to push forward.

We have made such a huge commitment and sacrifice in treasure and more importantly, in casualties and human life.  We have got to make sure that that investment pays the dividends that we are looking for, for the American people, not just the Iraqi people.

MR. GREGORY:  You heard Senator Feingold talk about not a deadline, he says, but a target date for withdrawal by the end of next year.  Is he right that it's important to tell the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government that American forces are not there for good, that they do have to stand up on their own and stop the violence?

SEN. LOTT:  Let me first say that I certainly respect the sincerity of Russ Feingold, and I know he's reflecting what he's hearing from some people around the country.  I hear it even in my state.  People want to know:  "What's the plan?  What's the exit strategy?  How long is this going to be?"  There are 4,700 Army Reservists and Guardsmen from my state there right now, and they're asking those legitimate questions.  But I think that the reverse is true.  If you say, "Look, here's a schedule, here's a deadline or even here's a plan to be out of there by a certain date," it's more than telling the American people or telling the Iraqi government is you're telling the insurgents, "Just be calm.  Just wait.  We'll be out of here, and then, you know, you can have your civil war and chaos can ensue."

Here's what I think we should do.  And I talked in my own state this past week about the need for an exit strategy, a plan.  I used to talk to President Clinton about that with regard to Bosnia and Kosovo, and by the way, we're still there.  A lot of people forget it, but we're there with a course of coalition force, but we have U.S. troops in both of those places till this day.  But it should be based on conditions, not on a calendar.  Are we doing what we set out to do?  Are we taking out the insurgents?  Are they making economic progress?  Are their schools and their infrastructure being rebuilt? Are they moving forward with a constitution and elections?  Are the police capable with the soldiers of doing the job?  There's 171,000 of them now.  So I think it should be based on conditions that you see and the progress that you're making that you plan to eventually turn it over to the Iraqis.

MR. GREGORY:  But your view is, as the president has stated, that we need to effectively stay the course, let the political process move forward and not withdraw until the mission is complete.  Is that your view?

SEN. LOTT:  That is my view.  And I let--you know, I question myself.  I question the experts.  I even question the men and women that are on the ground, the soldiers who are doing a great job.  I was speaking on Friday night to a Bronze Star Army, non-com, and I asked him specifically about what he did, how did he feel about it, was it worthwhile, are we making progress, and he said yes.

MR. GREGORY:  Despite those views, this is something that you said this week. Let's put it up for you and our viewers to see.  In your words, "At some point, Lott said, the United States will have to tell the Iraqi people, `we disposed of Saddam Hussein.  We've given you a chance to be free and democratic and worship as you see fit.  ...  Bring all the difference religions and sects in your country together and rule and govern yourselves, or you can go on killing each other like you have (in the Middle East) for 2,000 years, but you've got to make the choice.'"

Does that sound like a senator who believes that we have to stick with this till the very end?

SEN. LOTT:  I believe it does, but I don't think we're there in perpetuity. We are being helpful.  We're assisting them as they move toward a constitution and a free and democratic process.  We're trying to help them train their people, but I do think that they need to know--and in fact, they do know--that we cannot do this for them forever.  In the end, what we're seeing is freedom and democracy for them, and a part of true freedom and democracy is to govern yourself and to be able to protect and defend yourself.  It does, David, raise the specter of:  Are we doing enough?  Are we making progress?  I am responding to the questions of my own constituents who, by the way, are, you know, very pro-military and very strong red state.  They still believe very strongly in President Bush.  But they have a right to ask their elected officials, you know, "What is the plan?"  And I think we've got to be prepared to give them a serious, thoughtful, coherent answer.

MR. GREGORY:  The question really for the president is whether he's done that. Has he effectively communicated to the people of Mississippi the strategy and the challenges?

SEN. LOTT:  I don't want this to be interpreted as a criticism, because always we can do a better job, and I think he, based on the atmosphere now and the questions that I was hearing myself, he needs to get out there and lay it out more.  And I think he plans to do that.  He started with his radio address this past Saturday.  He's going to be around the country talking to different groups, to units that have been there from Idaho and to the VFW.

I remember when we were getting ready to go to Iraq, just about this time, I made a call to the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, and I said, "Mr. Vice President, I think I see what we're getting ready to go.  The predicate has not been laid.  You-all have got to get out there, you and the president and Secretary Colin Powell, go to the United Nations, explain what's going on, make the case."  I think that we're at sort of a juncture of that type now.  I do think we, the president, all of us, need to do a better job, do more.

MR. GREGORY:  Of explaining to the American people...

SEN. LOTT:  Yes.

MR. GREGORY:  ...why a prolonged U.S. presence may be necessary?

SEN. LOTT:  Of why we have made this commitment, what is being done now, what we do expect in the process, and yes, why it's going to take more time.

MR. GREGORY:  The vice president said in a speech this week that--when speaking about a drawdown, he said that we will hunt down the insurgents, "one at a time if necessary."  General Casey, America's top commander on the ground in Iraq, however, said this week that the average life span of insurgencies in history is nine years.  Must the United States and U.S. troops, 138,000 strong, remain on the ground in Iraq until the insurgency is defeated?

SEN. LOTT:  Well, I don't guess we could plan on staying there till every last one is dealt with, but I do, again, repeat what I said at the beginning. I think it should be condition-based, circumstances-based, not calendar-based. How much progress have we made?  Are they better able to defend themselves?  I think we've got to be committed to see this through.  I've heard the term used the last couple of days, including this morning, about "cut and run."  You know, we can't do that.  And I can remember, again, talking to President Clinton about, "OK, what's the exit strategy?  What's the plan?  What's the date?"  And I remember him saying back, "We can't do that."  He was right then, and for the most part, I was supportive of that.  The worst thing you could do is say, "All right, by X date, we're out of there, regardless."  It will depend on the circumstances.

MR. GREGORY:  You hear our ambassador, widely respected, in Iraq now, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has told Newsweek this week that, "Indeed, there is a danger that if we don't build Iraq, we're going to have a civil war."  Do you believe, and what leads you to believe this, that democracy is possible in Iraq?

SEN. LOTT:  I believe democracy is possible anyway.  It is--I think it's a visceral thing with people that want to be free and democratic and to be able to participate in a system where they elect their leaders and where their leaders represent them.  It can be in different forms.  But whether it's, you know, in Georgia, Bulgaria, you know, in the Middle East, in the narrower sense, or even in Iraq, and, I believe, someday in Iran, that people do want to have democracy and that people are willing to make sacrifices for that.

Now, if you live for hundreds of thousands of years under oppression, dictatorship, communism, you're uncertain about what does this mean.  Look at what's going on in the Soviet Union and in Russia.  And when you talk to the Russians or their leaders and their people, they're still laboring with, you know, private property rights and who owns the mineral rights and, you know, how much should the government do for us or to us.  It's not easy, but I believe that, frankly, the president is right, that the magic, the appeal, of freedom and democracy is very strong.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me turn to something that you wrote in your book about Iraq and put it on the screen:  "In the summer of 2002...the president began lobbying for an open-ended resolution empowering him to wage war on Iraq.... Bush had made clear his intentions to wage war on Iraq in several of our private meetings."

What are you speaking about precisely, Senator?

SEN. LOTT:  Well, beginning in August that year and into the fall--in fact, beginning not too long after 9/11--as we had leadership meetings at breakfast with the president, he would go around the world and talk about what was going on, where the threats were, where the dangers were, and even in private discussions, it was clear to me that he thought Iraq was a destabilizing force, was a danger and a growing danger, and that we were going to have to deal with that problem.

MR. GREGORY:  He has described going to war in Iraq as the last resort that was a war of necessity.  Are you suggesting here that, in fact, before much of the diplomacy had begun, that the president thought or believed in his mind that war was an inevitability?

SEN. LOTT:  How can I say what was in his mind?  But I..

MR. GREGORY:  Based on your conversations.

SEN. LOTT:  I think he was very much concerned about Saddam Hussein and the--what he was doing to his people and to his neighbors and the threat of, you know, weapons of mass destruction.  And, by the way, the intelligence that he was getting, I was getting much of the same.  So if there were errors there, we should look to the--you know, where that intelligence came from. But I--but the short answer to your question--I think that he felt like we were going to have to deal with the problem before some of the diplomatic efforts occurred, and I don't mean that critically.  But it was my impression.

MR. GREGORY:  Was there a singular focus on weapons of mass destruction in all of your conversations?

SEN. LOTT:  It was clearly a part of the discussions, you know, both in leadership meetings and intelligence briefings and in meetings with the president.  We had every reason to believe that they had weapons of mass destruction.  There were other factors.  I mean, we did feel like, and he felt like, they were being counterproductive, certainly, you know, destructive in the Middle East, when he's giving awards to suicide murderers, you know, they're killing innocent men, women and children in the Middle East and Israel and Palestine.  Some...

MR. GREGORY:  But it's clear that the focus of the lobbying of you and others had to do with weapons of mass destruction and not terrorism or not the goal of democracy.

SEN. LOTT:  I think that there are--obviously those other things were discussed, the concern that terrorism would be fed directly or indirectly over a period of time by Iraq and Saddam Hussein.  But weapons of mass destruction clearly was a focus, not in lobbying, but intelligence.  The briefings we had- -and I remember from the CIA and from the administration officials, we looked at evidence that we had.  We were concerned about a number of things. And it wasn't just that you would do it on the basis of this, evidence of that.  The collage was extremely scary, frankly.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me turn to another issue in your book, your controversial involvement and remarks that eventually led to your resignation as majority leader in December of 2002.  The scene was this:  the 100th birthday party celebration for Strom Thurmond at the Capitol.  This was December 5, 2002. And these were the remarks that you made that created such a controversy.

"I want to say this about my state.  When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him, we're proud of it, and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

What ensued, as you well know, was a political firestorm.  You said that this was intended as an off-the- cuff remark.  What did you mean by that?

SEN. LOTT:  It wasn't intended, because it went in my prepared remarks.  It was really intended just to make a 100-year-old man at his birthday party, a party that was sort of a mini roast, to try to make him feel good.  We had joked over the years about the need--that he, you know, should have been a good president, would have been a good president.  It was innocent, but it was insensitive and, frankly, indefensible.  I shouldn't have done it, and I've obviously apologized for it and feel badly about it.

But remember, I didn't vote for him.  I was six or seven years old.  When I got to the Senate or when I knew him as a House member, he was already an older man.  But what I saw was a man that was very strong on national defense, was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that was very strong on how--that deficit spending was not a good idea; we should move toward balanced budgets and surpluses, which we did in the late '90s.  And I say in the book, working with President Clinton, you can't take that fact away.  And a man that took to the floor of the Senate and talked about the need to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities and talked about how horrible crime was against all people, particularly those people that were poor and living in oppressive areas.

That's what I saw.  And when, you know, you think of a man that you want to be president, you want somebody strong on national defense, strong on fiscal matters, strong on, you know, trying to help people lift up in education.  So, you know, that's what I really saw in him, a man that had changed from what he apparently was like in the '40s and was very much reconciled.

MR. GREGORY:  You indicated during various incarnations of an apology and during an interview on BET that your hope was that this was a wake-up call and this was an opportunity...

SEN. LOTT:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...for you to do a positive thing...

SEN. LOTT:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  ...to really turn things around.  In the three years since, what have you done?

SEN. LOTT:  Well, first of all, I went back to work.  And I prayed about it, meditated on it, and then I concluded, look, the people of my state elected me to do a job as a senator.  You don't have to be the leader to be a constructive force.  I have worked with our leadership team.  I've worked with Majority Leader Bill Frist.  I've worked with President Bush.  I have tried to do some positive things for minorities in my own state, to help them have, you know, better access to quality education and better infrastructure and more jobs and better paying jobs.

I have supported an effort to make sure that when we go back and try to bring justice to cases that were mishandled back in the '60s, that they have the information and professionalism they need to do the job.  And I do still believe that you have to have an aggressive, proactive, yes, affirmative action, try to find good people of all kinds of backgrounds, races, religions, nationalities, and bring them into the process.  It takes an affirmative action to do it.  You have to work at it.  Particularly, you know, to attract minorities to the Republican Party, you have to find men and women that are willing to work with you and willing to help you.

MR. GREGORY:  You say you've done more in the three years to address the needs and the concerns of African-Americans and other minorities...

SEN. LOTT:  Right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...in your state.  This is a headline from your hometown paper from this summer.  The headline:  "Our senators missed a chance to speak for racial reconciliation."  It says the following, "...Trent Lott had an ideal opportunity to make a statement on behalf of a new day of racial reconciliation in Mississippi, and [he] blew it.  ...the U.S. Senate adopted a bipartisan resolution apologizing for that body's refusal, largely because of filibusters by Southern senators to enact anti-lynching bills during the 1930s, '40s and even the '50s.  But adoption of the formal apology to lynching victims and their descendents came without the votes of Mississippi's two senators. ... When the Senate apology measure came up, Lott simply got out of Dodge...  Finally, cornered for a comment, Lott made some banal statement, `Where do we end all of this?  Are we going to apologize for not doing the right thing on Social Security?'"

Senator, isn't this the kind of remark that earned so much criticism and got you in so much trouble three years ago?

SEN. LOTT:  First of all, we didn't vote against it.  Any one senator could have blocked that action.  Because you don't co-sponsor a bill doesn't mean that you are opposed to it.  It could mean--in fact, I don't sponsor most bills that I do work on, which I have a direct involvement in or come out of my committee.

You know, again, my effort, my attention is to try to, instead of passing a memorial, which I supported, I didn't oppose it, I didn't co-sponsor it, I went on legislation where I could actually help us do something about what happened back then by the cold case bill that Senator Cochran both are on.  I generally don't go into supporting these resolutions that go back and apologize for things--mistakes, by the way, I don't mean to leave any impression other than the fact that was a horrible thing.  That's murder in any words.  You're a--you know, we should all be opposed to that for any reason at any time.  But what I'm trying to do to make up for the past mistakes that we have made in our state and our nation by doing something about people's lives and their conditions today, and I work on that, and I'm accessible to people of all backgrounds and races and religions to do that.

MR. GREGORY:  Wouldn't this have been a simple but powerful symbol and message to send by signing on to this?

SEN. LOTT:  Perhaps it would have been, and--but I tried to send an even more powerful system--signal by doing something about it with the cold case legislation.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me turn to the White House role back in 2002 when you ultimately stepped down as majority leader.  You had indicated that there was a sense that you picked up from your staff that essentially the White House was trying to undermine you and that they wanted you out as majority leader. And then on December 12, the president, speaking in Philadelphia, said the following:

(Videotape, December 12, 2002):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country.  He has apologized, and rightly so.  Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Senator, do you believe the president was responsible for you losing your leadership position?

SEN. LOTT:  I do not.  As a matter of fact, I knew what he was going to say, and I had specifically said to Andy Card, "That sounds fair to me."  Look, I was disappointed in how it evolved, but in the end, I shouldn't really be blaming anybody else.  I was disappointed, obviously, in how it played out, but I caused this.  And the thing for me to do, like all of us do in life when we make a mistake, is to apologize where it's due, brush off yourself and get back up and try to do some good things for your state and for the people in this country.  Like I said, you...

MR. GREGORY:  But you don't blame the president?

SEN. LOTT:  No, no, no, I don't.  And in fact, I said to him specifically, while I was disappointed and that, you know, I thought they could have helped me more than they did, in the end, what we're trying to do for our country is more important than any one man, me or the president, and the cause is bigger than who is leader.  And if you become a negative, you've got to confront that.

MR. GREGORY:  But you were resolute at the time and since in saying that you would have survived, as Senate majority leader, had this gone on a little bit longer, if this was beginning, in your words, "to burn out.  " And you write in your book about a conversation.  The president called you, concerned...

SEN. LOTT:  Right, right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...about the rumors that he was trying to undermine you...

SEN. LOTT:  Right, right.

MR. GREGORY:  ...and you write the following, and you said to him, "Thank you, Mr. President, but the rumors did hurt me..."

SEN. LOTT:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  "...and you didn't help me when you could have."  Sounds like you recognized then and now that had been the president been a little bit more supportive, you would still be majority leader.

SEN. LOTT:  I think that's probably true, but not necessarily so and I've come to terms with that.  We've talked about all that, and I've talked to others that were at the White House and I've talked to my colleagues in the Senate.  I've come to terms with it.  I have, you know, thought it through, and I've tried to turn my efforts into a positive vein.  I mean, I think the record would show that I've continued to work aggressively to help this president in his own re-election.  Some of my own people said, "Well, why would do you that?"  And I said, "Because I think he's a good president and I think he'll do the right thing for our country."

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask...

SEN. LOTT:  So I put all that behind me.  But I did feel--I wanted to tell the story of the--about the experiences I had and show the instances where, throughout my lifetime, I have reached out to people.  But also, the other part of this book is to show what I have seen and witnessed through 37 years in Washington, as a staff member with the Democrats, as a congressman, as a leadersh--leader in the House, and in the Senate.  And for those people that are interested in the history of what actually happened on the impeachment trial, what actually happened on our efforts to get a balanced budget and why tax cuts mattered, I think they'll enjoy this perspective.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you briefly about the man who replaced you as majority leader...

SEN. LOTT:  Yeah.

MR. GREGORY:  ...Senator Frist.  And he, of course, ascended to that position after you resigned.  You write this in the book:  "I considered [Sen. Bill] Frist's power grab a personal betrayal.  When he entered the Senate in 1995, I had taken him under my wing ...  He was my protege, and I helped him get plum assignments and committee positions.  ...  When I learned of his move, I felt, and still feel, that he was one of the main manipulators of the whole scenario.  No other senior senator with stature would have run against me.  ... If Frist had not announced exactly when he did, as the fire was about to burn out, I would still be majority leader of the Senate today.  But Bill Frist did not even have the courtesy to call and tell me personally that he was going to run."

According to reports, initially in the book, before its final publication, you had described Frist as an ingrate.

SEN. LOTT:  That may have been in there way back, but it was not in any of the later revisions and certainly not in the final version.  Again, obviously I did feel betrayed by that, but Senator Frist and I have talked that through. He was considerate of trying to help me get into positions where I could still be, you know, involved and helpful.  I think he would say, as he has said, that I've tried to be supportive and make suggestions and be helpful to him. I don't think we should dwell on how he got where he is or where I got where I am.  The important thing is he's the leader, we've got a job to do for our states and for our country, and we got to find a way to work together.  And I must say right at the end of the session when we produced a highway bill, an energy bill, a trade bill and some tort reform, pretty good production, and I think it deserves some credit for that.

MR. GREGORY:  Without dwelling on that, you write about it in your book.  Let me ask you this:  Do you believe that Senator Frist has the character to be president?

SEN. LOTT:  I think I'd have to think about that.  I haven't made a decision on who I'm going to support for the nomination.  There are a lot of good people out there.  I probably would lean towards some of the others.  Let me just put it that way.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you finally about your own future.  Do you think after the period of time that's passed, you're prepared to try to regain your post as majority leader of the Senate?

SEN. LOTT:  You've always got to keep your options open.  You never know what will happen.  I doubt that would happen, partially because the people that are working to be in those leadership positions are good friends and capable people.  And, generally speaking, I run for different positions when I feel like maybe I could do more or have something to offer than the other candidates.  I think we've got good people looking for office, and I'm not inclined to do that, but there is speculation because I stay involved.  People say, "Well, why is he working on these different things unless he's got an ulterior motive?"

I must say, having been in Washington for years and, you know, seeing how it's like to try to herd cats, I kind of enjoy the process of being involved.  And speculation sometimes gives you even, you know, more ability to affect the result.  But my ultimate goal, David, is to try to do my job for my state, help my state and help our country and my party.

MR. GREGORY:  We'll leave it there.  Senator Lott, thank you very much.

SEN. LOTT:  All right.  Thank you, David.

MR. GREGORY:  And coming next, insight and analysis on the war in Iraq and the political factions that are trying to agree on a constitution by tomorrow's deadline.  Authors and experts Larry Diamond and Reuel Marc Gerecht are coming up on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  And we're back and joined by former Middle East specialist for the CIA, Reuel Marc Gerecht, and former adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Larry Diamond.

Welcome to you both.  This is a critical time in Iraq.  The new deadline, tomorrow, for a constitution.  And against that backdrop, a violent insurgency and now what appears to be state-sanctioned violence in Iraq as reported on by The Washington Post this morning.  Let's put it on our screen.  "Shiite and Kurdish militias, often operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along ethnic and sectarian lines.  While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, the militias, and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them, are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments."  Larry Diamond, are you concerned that civil war in some fashion has already begun in Iraq?

MR. LARRY DIAMOND:  Well, this was the question John Byrnes asked in The New York Times about six weeks ago, and yes, I am.  I think there are signs of a creeping movement toward a Lebanon-style civil war, not the kind with fixed military positions, but the kind with rising levels of assassination, militia and warlord action.  I don't think we're at civil war yet, but I think this is a very disturbing development.  And let me say, we were very worried about the prospect of it 18 months ago when I was in the Coalition Provisional Authority.

MR. GREGORY:  Mr. Gerecht, do you agree with that?  Do you think that civil war is a possibility?

MR. REUEL MARC GERECHT:  Well, I think it's a possibility.  I still think it's pretty unlikely.  I mean, what's striking about Iraq is the extent to which you haven't seen, really, massive revenge killings.  I mean, given the Sunni jihadism, the awfulness of the suicide bombing, given the barbarism of Saddam Hussein's rule and how many Shia and Kurds were slaughtered, you would have anticipated to see more revenge killings.  We really haven't seen that. And the two organizations that The Washington Post piece talks about, the Badr organization and the radical Sadr, behind the young man Muqtada al-Sadr--these organizations really still are loyal to the traditional clergy in Iraq, and the traditional clergy in Iraq is holding the ground.  And as long as the Shiite center holds, I don't think this is going to go out of control.

MR. GREGORY:  What's important now about this constitutional process? There's a new deadline tomorrow.  Will it be met?  And what stage is the drafting at of this constitution?

MR. DIAMOND:  Well, all we know is what we read in the newspapers, but I think two things are important.  One is that the process move forward and get done so we can get to elections, first the referendum and then general elections for a new government.  But, David, let me emphasize that no constitution is not as bad an outcome for now as a bad constitution.  And a bad constitution could be a profoundly illiberal one that abridges the rights of women or more secular Iraqis, or it could be a constitution that leaves out a section of the country.  And the Sunnis are aggrieved now.  They feel they are not in the inner circle of the negotiations.  They feel they may be left out of this deal, that a radical federation, not just a federation, may be forced upon them, and this could lead to a really terrific showdown in the referendum with a section of the country trying to defeat the constitution in a referendum.

MR. GREGORY:  Mr. Gerecht, there's a lot of talk about federalism, which in the case of Iraq would mean some kind of skeletal, central government, but a lot more power distributed between the Kurds, the Shiites and, the United States hopes, the Sunnis, whose participation in the constitutional process has been limited but is growing.  Does that indicate to you that, as the administration says, there is a singular national ambition in Iraq?

MR. GERECHT:  Well, I think with the exception of the Kurds, I mean, the Kurds are the odd men out here, but certainly when it comes to the Arab-Sunnis and the Arab-Shia, I mean, there is a pretty profound national identity.  And even with the Kurds, I think they understand that it's going to be very difficult for them to go on their own.  I mean, one has to look at the negotiations that have been going on.  It certainly seems clear that the Shia and the Kurds are trying sincerely to find a compromise with the Sunnis.  I suspect they will just because the Sunnis really don't have any place else to go.  They could run over the cliff, but I think they themselves are perhaps becoming a little bit scared of the violence, the nature of the Sunni jihadists, how awful it's become, and really would prefer to find some compromise.

MR. GREGORY:  The role of Islam, of course, is a critical issue.  And Tim Russert, during an interview with President Bush, asked him about this in February of last year.  Let's watch that.

(Videotape, February 8, 2004):

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  If the Iraqis choose, however, an Islamic extremist regime, would you accept that, and would that be better for the United States than Saddam Hussein?

PRES. BUSH:  They're not going to develop that.  And the reason I can say that is because I am very aware of this basic law they're writing.  They're not going to develop that, because right here in the Oval Office, I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people from different parts of the country that have made the firm commitment that they want a constitution eventually written that recognizes minority rights and freedom of religion.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY:  Fast forward to this morning.  Gentlemen, we put this on the screen from The New York Times.  "[American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay] Khalilzad had backed language [in the constitution] that would have given clerics sole authority in settling marriage and family disputes.  That gave rise to concerns that women's rights, as they are annunciated in Iraq's existing laws, could be curtailed. ... [The[ arrangement, coupled with the expansive language for Islam, prompted accusations from [a Kurdish leader] that the Americans were helping in the formation of an Islamic state."

Mr. Diamond, is that a change of position?

MR. DIAMOND:  It would be, I think, a substantial change if it's true.  We need to wait and see what exactly is true.  All of these are just reports. Let me say, I don't think we have--and I think Reuel would agree with this--we don't have the power anymore to foreclose this, to veto this.  We're not a veto player there anymore.  But neither do I think the United States should be endorsing it.  And I think our clear stand should be in favor of individual rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, as vigorously as possible. So I hope the ambassador on the ground is standing up for that principle.

MR. GREGORY:  Mr. Gerecht, the consequences of this?

MR. GERECHT:  Actually, I'm not terribly worried about this.  I mean, one hopes that the Iraqis protect women's social rights as much as possible.  It certainly seems clear that in protecting the political rights, there's no discussion of women not having the right to vote.  I think it's important to remember that in the year 1900, for example, in the United States, it was a democracy then.  In 1900, women did not have the right to vote.  If Iraqis could develop a democracy that resembled America in the 1900s, I think we'd all be thrilled.  I mean, women's social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy.  We hope they're there.  I think they will be there. But I think we need to put this into perspective.

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  We're going to have to leave it there.  Gentlemen, thank you.  Reuel Marc Gerecht and Larry Diamond, we're going to leave it there.  Thanks to you both.

And we will be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. GREGORY:  That is all for today.  Tim Russert will be back right here next week, because if it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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