Bush and Iraqi Officials Defend Current Conditions in Iraq in Face of Criticism

This is a partial transcript from "The Beltway Boys", August 25, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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FRED BARNES, FOX CO-HOST: Coming up on "The Beltway Boys", a key GOP senator says President Bush should start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by Christmas. We'll have the fallout.

JEFF BIRNBAUM, FOX GUEST CO-HOST: Iraq's prime minister under big- time fire for lack of his political progress in his country, so how long should the country stand by its man?

BARNES: The U.S. military surge shows signs of progress. We'll tell you how Democrats are adjusting their message.

BIRNBAUM: And both sides are gearing up for the debate when they return. We'll tell you how.

BARNES: "The Beltway Boys" are next, right after headlines.


BARNES: I'm Fred Barnes.

BIRNBAUM: And I'm Jeff Birnbaum in for Mort Kondracke. And tonight, we're "The Beltway Boys".

BARNES: Tonight's hot story: Sweet and sour. I'm talking about Iraq. And I'll start with the sweet. And that is, the report of the national intelligence estimate, which is the compilation of what all the 18 American government intelligence agencies think, and what it says and what I think is important is, that basically the surge, you know, that new counter-insurgency surge with more troops in Iraq, is actually working. It's curbing the violence, it's pummeling Al Qaeda and it's securing some parts of Baghdad and its surroundings. It didn't say Iraq had become a wonderful sweet suburb and city, but it was very adamant about one point, and that is that the surge should continue for at least six months to 12 months.

Now, that was this week. The sour, of course, is the government, the Iraqi government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And I think I can safely say that the NIE said his government is dysfunctional or nonfunctional and has particularly failed in producing political reconciliation with the Iraqi factions and the Sunni and the Shia.

It's significant that Carl Levin, a senator from Michigan, a Democrat, who was a critic of the war, and Pete Hoekstra, also from Michigan, a Republican Congressman who is very influential on these matters, both came to the same conclusion in this past week, that Maliki ought to go, that somebody else needs to lead the Iraqi government. And President Bush came close but — at least was very critical of Nouri al-Maliki and took his words back the next day. But I think the president is very disappointed in al-Maliki and furious at his inaction. And I have to see that al-Maliki responded in the most politically clumsy way:

"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people. We care for our people and our Constitution and can find friends elsewhere."

BARNES: Good luck.

BIRNBAUM: And I can't agree with you more about the reaction by al- Maliki and what the NIE had to say about him. It was clear in this report that all of the intelligence agencies believe that his government will fall by its own weight in the next six to 12 months.

I have to, though, disagree about your assessment of the NIE in general. I think it was relentlessly grim, including on the military side. Not only did it not say it was not a suburb, Iraq, but a very dangerous war zone that would only get modestly better. And that was the word they used, modestly better, over the next 6 to 12 months, only if the U.S. stayed there. The U.S. had to stay there or everything would go to pot. It was a depressing document, very short. And it had some very severe implications and the implications are what's important here. What does it matter what the 18 agencies have to say?

There will be a huge fight come September, once again, over whether the Democrats will be able to successfully legislate a withdrawal from Iraq. And for the longest time, I thought the Democrats were actually losing that debate. Democrats, along with Republicans, who were coming back from visiting Iraq, were saying there was some progress. But the NIE said the progress is very little. And Democrats are switching their argument because of some military improvement, and saying so bad is the political outlook for the Maliki government that it's not worth Americans' lives to continue to push there. And the Democrats had a very new — maybe not to new, but an important new — an important ally. Let's watch.


SEN. JOHN WARNER, (R), VIRGINIA: Take into consideration the need to send a sharp and clear message throughout the region, to the United States, and one that people can understand. I think no clearer form of that, than if the president were to announce on the 15th that in consultation with our senior military commanders he has decided to initiate the first step in a withdrawal of our forces.


BARNES: You know, the media jumped all over John Warner's statement as if he had suddenly become a critic of the war and is now repudiating President Bush. Far from it. That's not true. He has been against the surge from the beginning. Not like the Democrats have, but he's been critical of it. But after a two-day visit to Iraq, he came back and said he too said the surge was producing positive results. There's a war going on there, but the war is going in the right direction, and that's not the Al Qaeda and Sunni direction.

And what's most important about Warner is the tactical decision he made. And that is, he said he will not join Democrats and vote for any of their amendments to set a timetable for withdrawal. He thinks if there's going to be a withdrawal it has to be done by the president. And that, among other things, means that what's going to happen is the Democratic efforts will be thwarted once again and the surge will continue at least into 2008.

BIRNBAUM: I think it will be a close call. There have been a lot of close votes, and this is going to be a closer one in my view. In part, because this time there will be the ad wars on both sides of the issues. Let's watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MARINE: I would go back to Iraq, if I could. It's that important. Because if Iraq isn't stable, it will be a breeding ground for terrorists. I'm proud to have been a Marine, to hear Congress talk about surrendering makes me angry.

ANNOUNCER: Congress voted to start bringing the troops home, but the president vetoed the bill. He was wrong then, and he's wrong now. It's the will of one nation versus the stubbornness of one man. Mr. President, you can veto a bill, but you can't veto the truth.


BARNES: You know, we're going to see a lot of those ads. I think $15 million is being spent on the pro-Iraq ads. But the whole Iraq debate has not brought out the best in all politicians. Democrats are changing the goal post. What matters now is al-Maliki and not the surge.

And then there was Hillary Rodham Clinton the Senator from New York. Here's what Hillary told great van Susteren back in January and what she said just this week.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I opposed it based on what I knew about the situation before I went. And I'm even more strongly against it now because I think the chances for success are limited, at best.

We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and particularly in al-Anbar Province. It's working. We're just years too late in changing our tactics.


BARNES: You notice the difference there, right? First, she was against the surge and now the surge is working, but that's not the last word. She was attacked by the lefties for saying that the surge was working, even in specific areas in Iraq. So Clinton then clarified the remarks in a statement the next day. And she said, quote, "I have said many times before, there is not a military solution in Iraq but progress will only come from political reconciliation and compromise from the Iraqis themselves. Given that reality, the president's escalation strategy is not succeeding."

BARNES: You know, OK, she's against it. She's for it. She's against it.

BIRNBAUM: Sort of Kerry identify-esque, I would say. I think they're scrambling on both sides. We're getting mixed messages from leaders of both parties here. I think the basic outlines are very much the same. The Democrats are determined to try to legislate an end to this war. And the Republicans are, for the most part, backing the president. What we haven't heard yet is what General Petraeus has to say. That will be in September, and that will be the pivotal moments. Not anything we're talking about in the dog days of August.

BARNES: There's one thing different, and everyone agrees on it, and you said so, the surge is more or less working, and that helps the side who wants to keep it going.

BIRNBAUM: More less than more, Fred.

BARNES: Coming up, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke survives his first big test. For now, at least.

And what's with Vladimir Putin? He's making some strange news lately. We'll tell you what he might be up to.


BARNES: Welcome back to "The Beltway Boys." Let's check out our "Ups and Downs" for the week. Up: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. He is soothing nervous markets by increasing liquidity and signaling he might be willing to cut interest rates.

BIRNBAUM: He had a good week. It was a calm week in the stock market. It had an up-tick at the end after he surprised a lot of people by getting a little bit more aggressive. They called him Helicopter Ben, the idea he might just drop in and not do very much. But he flew a few very serious sorties by opening the discount window, the place where banks borrow money. And he cut the rate there. And that instilled a lot of confidence. And he was working hand-in-glove with Hank Paulson. We had not heard a local from Paulson, but he was actually instrumental in getting four major banks to go to that discount window and borrow a whole bunch of money that they really didn't need, but to show there was confidence in the marketplace. And it made a big difference.

I think Ben Bernanke has been in the job a little bit. And this is clearly his first big test. He's maybe a little late to the party, but he is weathering it very well. And I think he'll take the next step come September, when the fed meets again. He'll cut the more important federal funds rate. I don't know how much, nobody does, but that will give more confidence and keep the market steady despite the huge credit crunch.

BARNES: That's the rate that will drive down interest rates.

BIRNBAUM: Including mortgage rates.

BARNES: Including mortgage rates. I thought both Bernanke and Paulson have acted impressively. And you're right, Paulson doesn't have quite all the tools that the Federal Reserve has and then Ben Bernanke has. Ben Bernanke started slow and came in with a bang at the discount window and a small federal funds rate cut. I think he's headed in the right direction.

BIRNBAUM: That's right.

Up: Russian President Vladimir Putin, upset with U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe and he is flexing the country's political muscle.

BARNES: Wait a minute. Let me say something about that. He is certainly flexing his muscles and responding to all the oil and gas revenues that are pouring into his coffers. You could almost say he is drunk on petrol dollars, because he thinks he can now re-create the Russian empire like the Soviet empire. He's intimidating the old republics and threatening the U.S. for reprisals if some radar stations are put in Poland and Czechoslovakia. And he thinks he can do this and still maintain good relations with the industrial democracies in the G-8. He can't do all those things. I think he's cruising for a bruising, and it will happen if oil prices drop.

BIRNBAUM: The question of the week, Fred, is it buff or bluff? That's the question. We have a picture of him without his shirt on. I don't know if we should keep it up too terribly long. He is flexing his political and military muscles. I think it's mostly bluff, however. Russia is not the ancient Russia. It's not the Soviet Union anymore. And gas and oil prices go up and down. They're up now. But he may not have as much money to push the other countries around.

But I do think that some of the alliances he's making here could be dangerous. They need to be looked at. He's supplying some nuclear equipment for supposedly peaceful uses in Iran. That's a problem. And he's cozying up to China. Russia is not the weak post-Soviet nation that it had been five years ago, but also not the muscle-bound really strong nation that Putin imagines it to be.

BARNES: I think of him as a little guy with a big chip on his soldiers. He has told Americans, like Condoleezza Rice and President Bush, "You all and the Europeans took advantage of us in the '90s when we were weak. But now we're going to show you what big, tough strong guys we are." And I think he's playing a stronger game than the actual cards he has. Those oil and gas revenues help a lot. That's for sure.

BIRNBAUM: Lots of money.

BARNES: Coming up, a Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana gets slimmed in a new TV ad. We'll tell what you all the fuss is about.


BARNES: Welcome back to "The Beltway Boys." We're continuing our look at this week's "Ups and Downs." Down: Louisiana state Democratic Party. They're playing dirty in the gubernatorial race, characterizing Republican front runner Bobby Jindal as anti-Protestant in a new TV ad.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has referred to Protestant religions as scandals, depraved, selfish and heretical. In this article, Bobby Jindal doubts the morals, and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions.


BARNES: You know, the Louisiana Democrats have done something like this before in the case of Bobby Jindal. That was four years ago. They ran some ads that made him look darker. He's an Indian-American born in the U.S. He's from Baton Rouge. And in, they made his skin look darker. And it was aimed at the bubba vote, and it worked. And he lost that race. This is another smear attack on Jindal, who is way ahead and is still likely to be elected governor.

I know Bobby Jindal. He is in no way a religious bigot. He is a practicing Catholic. He is not bigoted against Protestants.

BIRNBAUM: That's right. And if you read these articles, it's quite clear that he's talking historically. The quotes are taken way out of context. This is a very capable fellow, a Rhodes Scholar and an able character. And anybody that talks to him knows that this is just a smear. It has no basis in fact.

BARNES: And I hope it doesn't have much effect on the campaign. But you never know. Stranger things have happened.

BIRNBAUM: Down: California Democratic Congressman Bob Filner. He's facing assault charges after allegedly scuffling with an airline worker because his luggage was delayed. And it's not the first time he's had an issue with anger management. Back in 2003, he was accused of trying to bully his way into a detention center to speak to a Pakistani detainee and he was — and there was an immigration official who tried to stop him, and he tried to push that person around to get to the detainee. No charges were filed back then. But he does have a problem with anger management. And he probably has a political problem, as well, this San Diego Democrat. But he — then again, Fred, he's not the only Congressman to have this kind of difficulty.

BARNES: You reminded me of that case of Congressman Patrick Kennedy from Rhode island, who got in trouble, as others have, with officials at airports when you're trying to get your luggage through and so on. Watch what happened to him when he tried to get a bag through as a carry-on bag.

BIRNBAUM: We're taking a look at it now, and he's trying to get this gigantic bag through there.

BARNES: Do you think it's going to make it? Don't get your hopes up.

And he ran into trouble with the guards there, and others have. I would say, if you had a list of the things that enrage Americans the most, and I don't mean to excuse Congressman Filner at all, but enrages them the most is lost luggage.

BIRNBAUM: Or members of Congress who think they're above it all, I think that's also true.

BARNES: That's true, as well.

All right, hang on to your seats. ""The Buzz"" is up next.


BARNES: Here's "The Buzz", Jeff. I'm sure you've seen Jon Voight in many movies, and he's the star of "September Dawn," which opened this week. And this is an unusual movie, something that happened 150 years ago in Utah when a group of covered wagons, people moving from Arkansas to California, were massacred by Mormons. And this is the subject of the movie.

Now, Jon Voight says this is a movie about religious fanaticism. And it is a metaphor for the kind of religious fanaticism we see today that's carried out by Islamic Jihadists and those who did the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

He said it's not about the Mormon Church today and has nothing to say about the campaign for the presidency of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is a Mormon and the first Mormon to run. And I don't think it's going to affect Romney's campaign. He has completely ignored this movie.

What's interesting is in watching it, is whether this — whether you see it as a metaphor. Does it occur to you that you see this religious fanaticism — does it make you think about the Jihadists today? The answer is yes. The metaphor works. It's an amazing movie.

BIRNBAUM: Mitt Romney certainly hopes so.

My buzz is that there will be a huge fight over tax increases in the fall. We know that Jim Oberstar, the congressman from Minnesota, will be pushing hard for a gas tax increase to help pay for reconstruction of bridges. I don't think he'll get it. There could be an increase of taxes on managers of private equity funds, not a very popular group. So watch that. The president may be overridden on a veto.

BARNES: That's all for "The Beltway Boys" this week. Join us next week when the boys and Mort will be back in town.

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