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Roundtable: Craig, the Iraq War

FOX News Special Report With Brit Hume

HUME: Some thoughts from Fred Barnes, Executive Editor for The Weekly Standard, Nina Easton, Washington Bureau Chief of "Fortune Magazine," and the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, FOX News contributors, all.

Before we move on to the gulf coast and Katrina and the second anniversary of the hurricane down there, the Larry Craig story continues to advance. Three Republicans are now saying he ought to quit. Can he possibly survive this scandal--Fred?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Not a chance. He will resign within days.

HUME: Nina?

NINA EASTON, WASHINGTON BUREUA CHIEF OF FORTUNE MAGAZINE: He made it worse yesterday. Not a lot of defenders coming to the floor. I think he is gone.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: He can't plead guilty and then retroactively say, you are innocent. He's finished.

HUME: OK, now the president was down in New Orleans today. He said the federal commitment to rebuild down there and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast continues apace. There are critics on the left that say it has never been what it should be. It is an issue that, obviously, damaged the president and the Republican Party seriously when it all happened.

What about that? Should this federal commitment to New Orleans and to try to restore that city--we saw tonight how bad the crime is there--should it continue?

BARNES: It depends what you are paying for. Obviously, the administration and the federal government have an obligation to restore the levee system and expand it, and improve it, and they're spending billions of dollars on that.

The president said that will be finished in a couple years, about 2011, so there is an enormous amount there.

There are housing grants, there are all kinds of other things. But there is a huge problem here in rebuilding New Orleans, and that is the system in New Orleans.

Look at what we have there. We have a completely dysfunctional political system. You have a crime wave with a corrupt police force, and law enforcement system. You have schools that are horrible, you have the almost total absence of competent public officials. You have a stagnant economy that has been that way for years, a declining port.

And yet, the people in New Orleans, the newspapers, the political officials, all they do is demand money, more and more money.

And for instance, today, the New Orleans Times Picayune, when the president got down there, had an editorial saying, it is terrible. Mississippi is getting proportionately more money than Louisiana and New Orleans, though they did not have as much damage as New Orleans did.

There's a reason for this. Mississippi has gotten its act together. Just a month or tow ago, when you compare--just one more fact--when you compare the number of grants of housing, the people who become eligible and certified to get housing grants from the government, there were something like 9,000 in the Mississippi and about 20 in the Louisiana.

EASTON: It has been slow and bureaucratic, as the Democratic candidates charge. But, actually, I think the reason it has been that way is because George Bush let too much power stay in the hands of the local and state governments.

This is a place where there is a state agency assigned to dole out HUD funds to uninsured homeowners that had to be bypassed because of fear of endemic corruption.

I would add to Fred's list, this is a city that cannot even fluoridate its water. George Bush two years ago stood up, and we watched that speech where he said this will be a reconstruction project the world will watch. And that whole speech was like a conservative war on poverty, and he acted like this was going to be a major federal effort.

Well, he appointed Don Evans as the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Coordinator, who does not have a lot of power, who is mostly out there. He has got the bully pulpit, and mostly is refereeing between local governments.

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, there is a question of principle here. We all agree that the federal government has a role as the fireman in the emergency and in the aftermath, but it is a matter of scale. The city can't handle a disaster of this size.

But it is a question whether the federal government, meaning the taxpayers of the rest of the country funneling the money through Washington, are responsible to rebuild the city that is, as we heard, dysfunctional, and also six feet below sea level?

And I think it is not at all something that we ought to assume. Clinton and Obama and Edwards all assume that somehow the rest of America has a role, has a duty, to actually rebuild a city where 1/3 of the residents have not returned.

Why shouldn't New Orleans be smaller, rather than return to the New Orleans of old? And that would apply to hurricanes or earthquakes or floods elsewhere in the country. If you live in a disaster area, I don't think you have a claim on the wallets of the rest of America in rebuilding as before.

HUME: Can that idea that you just identified, Charles, take hold politically, now, for this administration, and these Republicans?

BARNES: Not with Democrats, and not with the press.

HUME: What about the Republicans, though? The have taken such a black eye on this, can they possibly say well, we should not be doing this?

BARNES: They could say that, but they aren't. They would rather just say we are dedicated to the city, and so on.

But, look, these Democrats that are so mad, and Charles mentioned, including Hillary Clinton, who is so mad at the president, why don't they do something with their Democratic officials?

It is a Democratic governor, it is a Democratic mayor. Why don't they get them to start reforming the system there? One of the reasons the federal government had not been able to do more is for the reason that Nina said. They have been impeded by the mayor and the governor in particular, who has been very critical of the federal role, and wants to give up none of the responsibility.

HUME: Next up with the all stars, has the radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had a change of heart? He says he is dialing back his militia. We will talk about the meaning of that when we come back.


HUME: Back with the panel.

The radical cleric, as he is called, Muqtada al-Sadr has announced that his militia, the Mahdi Army, as we are now pronouncing it, is going to stand down, be disbanded in effect, for at least the next six months.

A question about that--does he have control of it? Is this good news? Or is this a minor development? Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: This is good news.

He has been a danger to the United States and the Iraqi state, and he is getting squeezed. There were clashes in the south with the rival militia last night and the night before. He is getting squeezed by other Shiite elements. He is getting squeezed by locals, as we heard in the earlier report, who don't like his gangs running in the neighborhoods.

And he is getting squeezed, thirdly, by the U.S. military. As the surge is succeeding in getting Sunnis to work with the United States, abandoning the insurgency, and attack al Qaeda, it frees up us to turn our guns against the Mahdi Army and the extremists on the Shiite side.

There are raids every night into those areas of Baghdad, and they are extremely effective.

I think he using these events last night, these riots and clashes, as an excuse to, essentially, hold up a white flag, at least over the next six months. And it shows you how we are succeeding in the two main objectives of our war in Iraq--against the al Qaeda elements at the extreme on the Sunnis, and the Mahdi Army and the extreme on the Shiites.

And that, I think, is progress. It would be something you would not want to see stopped in the middle of this progress.

EASTON: We have to hope it is good news. The Mahdi Army, of course, was declared by the Pentagon as the most dangerous accelerant of the sectarian violence in Iraq over al Qaeda. And it is considered a very, very dangerous force.

It could be a good thing, but I think we do not know, because we do not know whether he actually has control over his forces. There are some people who think he is distancing himself, he cannot control the militants that, basically, operate like gangs on the fringes of this army.

And he issued that statement today, calling for self-restraint. But I think it remains to be seen whether we will see that.

BARNES: The good news is, one time, it did look like he was going to force his way onto the stage to be a major leader in the country. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was afraid to do anything about him. Remember when he barred American troops from going into Sadr City? I don't know how many months ago that was.

HUME: That was some time ago. That was the way the matter stood, basically, before the surge began.

BARNES: But, now, that has all changed, as Charles--

HUME: And lifting the restrictions is one of the things that the Maliki government has done.

BARNES: Maliki has basically turned against Sadr completely, doesn't want to have anything to do with him, wants to crush him. I wouldn't say Sadr is exactly marginalized, but he is certainly weakened tremendously.

Remember when he withdrew legislators loyal to him from the parliament? Well, they have gone back. As they say, he is a much-weakened figure, and that fact, alone, is encouraging.

KRAUTHAMMER: What is interesting is if there is a reduction in the number of Shiite attacks--remember, 3/4 of the attacks on American troops in July were Shiite attacks and not Sunni attacks. If there is a reduction, it will show that Sadr has control of his Mahdi Army. If the numbers remain the same, it will show that it has become a chaotic group of criminal gangs, which in one sense is good, because it is not a threat to the country as a whole.

On the other hand, it is a danger because it means it is out of control and much harder to defeat.

HUME: In light of this other news--there was a report today-- disputed, I might add, by the Pentagon--The Washington Post carried it, that the president wants another $50 billion on top of all the other money that has been appropriated for this war and the conflict in Afghanistan.

But if you propose such a thing, in light of what we're expecting to hear from Petraeus, in light of this news and other news, will he get it?

EASTON: It will be a big battle zone, won't it, in Congress?

Let's go back Larry Lindsey, the White House Aide, who predicted that this war would cost $200 billion, and had to go through the exit door shortly thereafter. It has since multiplied a few times since that. It reminds me of the S&L crisis that everybody underestimated in the '80s.

He will go back--

KRAUTHAMMER: If the president wants it, he will get it.

HUME: What do you think, Fred?

BARNES: I think he probably will. I am not sure he will ask for that, but he'll get it.

Look, the one thing that is clear now is if there is enough momentum with the surge, and bottom up reconciliation, coming mainly from the Sunnis in Iraq, that the surge is going to be able to go its full length.

It was never a permanent thing, but it needs--it is going to take a year, and it will be around for another--how long has it been on? They have been fully staffed since in June. They will go through the end of next Spring.

HUME: Like an eight months--

BARNES: The surge will be fully tested, and the results look good so far.

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