'Special Report' Panel on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from October 27, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are finally getting Afghan policy right after lo ng years of drift.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: The events of the last couple of days, I believe, lend some urgency to this process, and so I hope that the president will make the decision as rapidly as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET B AIER, HOST: More U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan and there you see the numbers adding up — October, 55 deaths. This is now the deadliest month in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war in 2001.

And there you see 2009, 277 [deaths] so far. We're not even through November and December, as the president decides on whether he will answer the request of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander on the ground in Afghanistan.

Let's bring in the panel: Jeff Birnbaum, managing editor digital of The Washington Times; A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Charles, this decision, as we've talked about, has been portrayed by the White House as thoughtful and not making the wrong decision at the wrong time to rush it. However, when days like today add up, you hear Senator John McCain and others speaking out.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It does, of course, impress us with the urgency of the matter and how it has to be decided.

But I want to point out one thing about what Obama had said when he talked about the long years of drift. There is something truly disgusting about the way he cannot refrain from attacking Bush when he is being defensive about himself. I mean, it is beyond disgraceful here.

He won election a year ago. He became commander in chief two months later. He announced his own strategy, not the Bush strategy, his strategy six months ago, and it wasn't offhanded. It was in a major address with the secretary of defense and the secretary of state standing with him. And now he is still talking about the drift in the Bush years.

What is happening today is not as a result of the drift so-called in the Bush years. It is because of the drift in his years. It is because of the flaws in his own strategy, which is what he is now reexamining.

He has every right as commander in chief to reexamine his own strategy, but he ought to be honest, forthright and courageous enough as the president to simply say I'm rethinking the strategy I adopted six months ago and not, once again, in a child-like way, attack his predecessor.

BAIER: A.B., I talked to General Bob Scales earlier in the show about the effect on military families who, some of them, have now been through five, six, even seven deployments. We are not just talking about a war-weary public but a war-weary military.

A.B. STODDARD, THE HILL: And a military that wants to give their soldiers more time off, a military that is depleted and strained and really may not be up to 44,000 or more troops in Afghanistan and additional commitments elsewhere and we don't know what could pop up.

But there is a very compelling case to not escalate in Afghanistan and increase our troop presence there, and there is a very compelling case for why we have to do so.

President Obama is going to make a decision. He is not going — it won't be an easy one. He will try to split the loaf, I believe. I believe that he is going to come out in early November, and I think he is going to make that troop request.

But I think he is going to try to make it somehow a new strategy by presenting some sort of end game. The left is demanding an end game. Everyone — the public is demanding an end game.

I think he is going to fulfill the recommendation of General McChrystal, but I think he is going to come out with something that looks slightly different and try to assuage Americans so concerned, from the military families to the members of his party to members of Congress in both parties, everyone across the spectrum, by saying we are going to see the end of this tunnel.

BAIER: Jeff, military folks — commanders, soldiers — they all say once the president comes out with a decision, they're going to obviously fall in line and they can handle anything that they're given. They just don't like the uncertainty.

Is this military a little different than it was three to four years ago when the Iraq surge first started?

JEFF BIRNBAUM, MANAGING EDITOR DIGITAL, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: That's right. And that is the way military people live, that is their credo, and it is important for them to follow their commander in chief.

If you speak though privately or off in a corner with military leaders in the Pentagon, you can hear the anguish. They are upset that the president is not moving quickly enough and they worry that the delay is really giving the president time to reduce the request that the commander that he put on the ground in Afghanistan, McChrystal, may not be fulfilled.

And also, interviews with rank and file soldiers from Afghanistan reveals more unease than we're used to hearing from military officials — military troops. That is, they are saying that they are worried that unless the president comes through that their actions and sacrifice may be in vain, and that is a very serious word.

BAIER: In fact, Charles, the front page of The Washington Post today had an article about a former Marine captain, Matthew Hough. He joined the foreign service earlier this year. He was actually stationed in a Taliban hotbed.

And here is what he said: "I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan." He wrote this in a letter. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation," he resigned from his post, "is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end?"

And in this article, Charles, I was surprised to see officials like Richard Holbrooke says that letter really is affecting the internal debate, at least somewhat.

KRAUTHAMMER: And in fact, according to The Post, Holbrooke tried to recruit him to work on his staff.

And this is a man obviously of principle and courage, who's really sacrificed a lot. He has a perspective on Afghanistan, which is a significant one — he's been there; he was also in Iraq. And I can understand why Holbrooke would want someone like that on his team, with a lot of skepticism.

But if the skepticism is about why, I'm not sure that that is as mysterious as the how. "How" is the really difficult issue. The why is rather obvious: It is in the neighborhood with a nuclear Pakistan. If Afghanistan goes the fight is going to be in Pakistan. The stakes are going to be enormous. And Al Qaeda will be resurgent and their allies might get their hands on nukes. That is a strategic catastrophe. That's the why.

I think the real question is how and I'm not sure that Obama or his team have an answer to that yet.

BAIER: We will take a look at how next week's election is shaping up and what it means for President Obama when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Opportunity in every corner of Virginia, that's what matters to Creigh Deeds. That's what he will keep fighting for, for the people of Virginia, if you give him a chance.

LARRY SABATO, POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think the Obama visit today is going to make the slightest difference. I think it's pretty much perfunctory. The White House has all but written-off Creigh Deeds.

And to be blunt about it, and I never like to call races before the voters do it on election day, but I suspect this will be not just a Republican victory but a Republican landslide.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: A big statement from Larry Sabato one week from election day, 2009. We will focus on a couple of races here with the panel.

First, as you heard there, the Virginia race. The latest polls, The Washington Post has the race at 55 percent for Republican Bob McDonnell and 44 percent for Creigh Deeds. Then you take the Real Clear Politics average and it is 50.8 to 40 — that's the average of all the polls on Real Clear Politics.

We're back with the panel, first about Virginia — A.B.?

STODDARD: You can see it in the candidate's face today in the open race in Virginia as the president came to try to give an 11th-hour boost. The White House last Friday in The Washington Post wrote this race off in what can only be called a "pre-mortem" descriptions of why —

BAIER: Anonymous officials quoted...

STODDARD: Exactly. No one went on the record, but they certainly gave their analysis of why Creigh Deeds made a mistake in not taking their recommendations about the kind of campaign that Barack Obama was able to wage in Virginia, turning it Democratic for the first time in a presidential race since 1964, and how he excited northern Virginia, got out the black vote.

Creigh Deeds is from rural Virginia and has failed to make inroads in rural communities in addition to exciting the liberal base in northern Virginia. He has run a poor campaign. It is very unusual for the White House to come out this early and dump him before the race. He is 11 points or more, as you pointed out, behind. You could just see it in his face for a while. Even two weeks ago, Deeds gave an interview describing why the national environment made it so tough for him. And I think they have known for some time it was over.

BIRNBAUM: That leak and others like it, statements, that's damage control from the White House because they know a defeat of Deeds in a state that Obama won notably last year will reflect badly on Obama and the Democrats, because the gubernatorial election in Virginia and also in New Jersey are kind of referendums on Obama. That's the way they will be looked at.

And so Deeds' loss will be Obama's loss and so the White House is trying to distance themselves from Deeds.

BAIER: Let's turn to the other big race, the governor's race in New Jersey. Take a listen to the two candidates there:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JON CORZINE, D-N.J.: Well, I think it's very helpful that a popular president believes that I can be a better partner with him than the other candidates in the race.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN N.J. GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: It is great to have the president here and the former president here, but in the end, it's me or Jon Corzine, and with his failed record as governor, I think people will turn and vote for me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: Here is one of the latest polls, the Suffolk University poll. This has Jon Corzine up 42-33 percent over Republican Chris Christie. And there you see the independent Chris Daggett is at 7 percent.

Again, there are a number of other polls, the Real Clear Politics average includes a Rasmussen poll that shows Chris Christie ahead, but this is the average, Corzine up just slightly.

What about this race — Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: I think the wild difference, even in the latest polls, as you say, this one from Suffolk showing a 9-point lead for Corzine, the last two on Real Clear Politics showing that Christie is surging into the lead, is because no one knows what is really happening with Daggett, which is the third party vote.

If he polls high, the presumption is that it pulls away from the Republicans, and the Democrats win. But usually what happens when you have a third party, people will tell a pollster, I support him, but in the booth when it is about electing a governor and not stating a protest, the numbers will shrink.

And since nobody knows how that will end up, this is extremely hard to call.

BAIER: Speaking of third party candidates, A.B., you have New York's 23, the congressional race. And as this stacks up, the Republican Dede Scozzafava looks like she is trailing now Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party. The polls are all over the place, the Democrats up in one. Doug Hoffman is up in a couple lately.

Now you have the Democratic Campaign Committee coming out and saying this race, they believe, is a vote of confidence or would be a vote of confidence for President Obama and somehow a referendum, which is never what the White House says in these off-year elections.

STODDARD: I think they are ahead of themselves on this one, but certainly a Republican has held that territory since something like 1870. And if Bill Owens, the Democrat, pulls this out, you will hear much leaping up and down from the Democrats about why it was a referendum and a big stamp of approval for President Obama.

It might happen for Bill Owens if there is enough vote-splitting between the two Republican or conservative candidates.

But this race is a real trend to watch for next year, because it shows that if the establishment loses, that you can get — like Doug Hoffman has done as an outsider candidate — you can go to national party leaders like Governor Pawlenty and Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Fred Thompson and everyone, get their endorsements and take over.

BIRNBAUM: I think that's right. This could show a real problem for the GOP. Hoffman says he is fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. He may actually be pulling out the heart of the Republican Party.

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