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Special Report Roundtable - November 29

FOX News Special Report With Brit Hume

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My questions to him will be: what do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: That was President Bush outlining questions he planned to ask Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki starting tonight, but then plans changed. Here to discuss that, Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call; Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio; and the syndicated columnist, Charles Krauthammer -- FOX NEWS contributors all.

Well, as I said, the president hoped to ask Prime Minister Maliki those questions starting tonight, but as we've said, Maliki then cancelled the first session of their summit.

Charles, what do you make of that?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it tells you a lot about the way this man, Maliki, operates. On the one hand he had al Sadr, the militia leader back home, threatening to leave the government and to destroy it if Maliki went and met with Bush. Sadr's very anti-American. On the other hand, he can't completely offend the president of the United States; otherwise he cuts off his other lifeline. So what does he do? He splits the difference. He's supposed to have two meetings. He cancels the first, as a nod to al-Sadr and, of course, will show up tomorrow as a nod to the president.

But it shows you how infective he is. This is a man who's trying to reconcile complete opposites in irreconcilables, Sadr and the U.S. He is a government that cannot act. He's beholden to al Sadr and us, and that's why the Hadley memo, which we spoke about earlier, about him either being either incapable or unwilling to act, is exactly right.

The government that he leads is a failure, and I think Hadley is wrong in thinking that America can strengthen him, build him up. He's got to go. He has to be replaced with another less sectarian government.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Wow. I mean, we've done this before. He was the replacement. He was the one that we put -- the U.S. put al their faith in. And that's.

WALLACE: But more importantly, he's the one that emerged from the democratic process of the...

(CROSSTALK)

KRAUTHAMMER: He was not our choice. He was elected.

LIASSON: Right. But we thought that he was going to be a lot better than the first president. Look, what Charles is saying assumes that there is somebody who somehow can force the Shiites and Sunnis to actually share power and come together in some kind of a reconciliation government. Maybe the reason he's either unable or unwilling to do this is because the Shiites and the Sunnis do not want to do what you have to do in order to get...

WALLACE: But Mort -- I want to get to the news of the day. I mean, here we have the president of the United States flying to Amman to have a meeting with Maliki. We got 140,000-plus troops there. Everybody knows that the American public is really wearing of this war and Maliki doesn't meet with the president his first night there? I mean, that can't send a good signal to the American people.

MORT KONDRACKE, ROLL CALL: Well, the Iraqis are telling people that the reason that they can't -- that they decided not to do this is that Maliki does not want to discuss U.S.-Iraqi affairs with Abdullah, there.

Now, Abdullah is a Sunni, and he met last week, I believe it was, with the head of the Association of Islamic Scholars in Iraq, which is a Sunni front group -- Sunni insurgent front group. And there could be a lot of suspicion on the part of Maliki that if it ever comes to a civil war, that the Jordanians will be in there on the side of the Sunnis.

WALLACE: Isn't this something he could have decided before the president arrived Amman?

KONDRACKE: I -- you know, I -- frankly, I think that -- look, Sadr threatened to take down the government if Maliki went to meet with the president. Maliki is meeting with the president anyway. So I don't -- you know, I think that that's sort of an indication that, at least to that extent -- and I don't think it's a great extent -- Maliki's willing to stand up to Sadr. What Maliki needs to do, what we should have done years ago, was to take down Sadr. I don't know that Sadr is take-downable anymore.

Now, as to this memo, I think this is a devastating memo. This is like you're a football team and you're going into a.

WALLACE: Now, let's make it clear. This is a memo, a classified memo that national security advisor, Steven Hadley, sent to the president and other top officials after meeting with Maliki, in which he raised serious doubts about Maliki's ability, willingness, and/or ability to do the job he needs to do.

KONDRACKE: Yeah, and it's sort of like you're heading into a playoff game and the offensive coordinator's playbook gets, you know, published in the newspaper. It's all about, you know, what do we think of Maliki, can we trust him, do we -- is he capable, should we bribe some people, maybe, some moderates to help him out? All this kind of stuff, it's our playbook for these negotiations, and it's -- whoever did it, you know, is totally disloyal to the president for sure, and maybe disloyal to the country.

WALLACE: It may be too clever, but I mean, to give you a sense how Byzantine the thinking is here, Charles, some people think that the White House leaked it to send a message to Maliki.

KRAUTHAMMER: It's a little too clever, by half. In Washington the rule is never assume extreme cleverness, assume bumbling, if you have to make a choice. I think it was probably leak by an opponent of our policy.

However, I think it would be in our interest for the Maliki government to fall. It's a dead end. It's dependent on Sadr, it's not going to act. And if it weakens him, so be it. It doesn't guarantee, Mara, that we're going to have a successor who'll be the right answer. But at least there might be a chance if you reconfigure the government, change the composition of the coalition, eliminate Sadr, have a Kurds secular Shiites, some Sunnis and some of the more lenient, if you like, religious Shiites, you might have a new government that would actually act in the national interest.

It was almost created after the election earlier in the year and it fell slightly short of a majority.

WALLACE: All right, we have to take a break here. But when we come back, when is it a civil war and when isn't it? And what difference do those words make anyway? Our panel takes that on right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, TODAY SHOW: After careful consideration, NBC News has decided to change in terminology is warranted that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: So, from the macro viewpoint, the parts of a civil war, as I understand it, are not definable in today's environment. But that's really energy not well spent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: That was NBC's announcement, Monday, it will now call the conflict in Iraq a civil war, though others, like Chairman of the Joints Chiefs, General Peter Pace, don't agree. And we're back with Mort, Mara and Charles.

Well, let's talk about this debate over what's happening in Iraq and whether it's a civil war or not, and let's deal, first of all, Mort, with the merits. Is it a civil war or isn't it?

KONDRACKE: Well, on the merits, I think you'd call it a low-grade civil war, maybe, or you'd say that there is sectarian warfare going on. I mean it is not a full-blown civil war in the, you know, antedum (ph) sense of the word, with -- and it could get worse, and you might want to save the term "civil war" for, you know, something that would happen down the line.

But, you know, that's not all that's involved here. The correct determination of it, a lot of it is -- it's freighted politically. Some people want to say gotcha with this. Every time anybody mentions the word "civil war," the Democratic National Committee sends out a trumpeting email, you know, "Aha, somebody else called it a civil war" and I'm sure that they're going to do it tomorrow after Colin Powell called it that today. That, you know, underlies it.

And I think the networks and the Los Angeles Times are all sort of trying to play Walter Cronkite, famously in 1968...

WALLACE: In fairness, it's only one network, it's only NBC.

KONDRACKE: OK, one network.

WALLACE: CBS and ABC haven't gone there. Let me ask you, about that, Mara, because clearly one of the things that started the new discussion this week was NBC's announcement on Monday that it is now officially calling this a civil war. As Mort brings up, some people are suggesting this is the Walter Cronkite moment. They're going to declare the war a failure and sort of lose -- or kill public support.

Do you think that's a fair criticism? Is NBC's decision a legitimate decision by a news organization, particularly after the bloodshed over Thanksgiving or is it a pursuit of a political agenda?

LIASSON: I think it's a legitimate decision, but it matters a lot less than when Walter Cronkite did what he did. I mean, times have changed. Not many networks are following their lead. I can say that if you look up in the dictionary, the definition of a civil war, it does sort of resembles what's happening there, people from the same country, on different sides of an armed conflict, different factions. No, it's not set piece battles with groups in uniform.

But I think it doesn't matter a whole lot in terms of the politics of this, and I'll tell you why. Things look so bad over there. They're so chaotic and they look completely uncontrollable. Whether you call it a civil war or just chaotic sectarian conflict, I don't if that's going to American's opinions. But what I do think is significant is that when the White House resists and gets involved in these semantic battles so vigorously, you have to wonder whether they are trying to either hide something or don't really understand the situation there. That's the big.

WALLACE: Well, or, Charles, I mean, it does have political implications, because I think everyone agrees that the sort of statement "we're in the middle of a civil war" is a prescription for we need to get out.

KRAUTHAMMER: Exactly. It's very heavily political, that kind of designation. And the immediate instinct is why should Americans be in the middle of somebody else's civil war. In fact, it's an illogical implication because Afghanistan was a civil war when we invaded in 2001 and yet, it was the right thing to do. It remains a civil war today. So that doesn't give a reason why we ought to leave.

The Korean War was a civil war. We were right to stay and to defend one segment of Korea and create a democracy. So the idea that if it's a civil war, America ought to leave, I think is a false one. But that, I think, is the intention of those who want to use the word. I think in fact it's been a civil war, and I've used that word in my columns, for over two years.

The Sunnis have taken up arms against the new Shia-led Iraq, and that is a civil war. It's also other things. It's also an insurgency of al Qaeda and a lot of the sectarian violence. But, yes, it is a civil war, but to make an ostentatious announcement of a change in terminology on a network is a political act and had political intent.

WALLACE: So, 15 seconds left, should the White House just say it's a civil war and it doesn't matter, we're going to fight it?

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, I think it is a semantic issue. I wouldn't argue over it. However, I can understand how it would demoralize a lot of our friends in Iraq if we admitted it. So, I understand the administration's motives.

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