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Special Report

'Special Report' Panel on President Obama's Afghanistan Strategy

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from December 1, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: In the end, the Afghans have to b e responsible for providing their own security. That's what is important. The president will talk about the fact that this is not nation-building and it is not an open-ended commitment.

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN, D-MASS.: The cost of the escalation will be enormous both in terms o f blood and treasure. At a time of great economic crisis here in the United States, I would respectfully suggest that rather than nation-building in Afghanistan, we should do a little more nation-building here at home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, HOST: The president according to White House officials later tonight will announce that some 30,000 more U.S. troops will head to Afghanistan within six months.

He also say this, according to excerpts just released by the White House, quote:

"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.

"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."

Let's bring in our panel: Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard; A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Charles, "conditions on the ground" sounds very familiar.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it does have the sound and the structure of the surge in Iraq in 2007. It is a surge. Our commanders have a reasonable confidence in its success. They're not 100 percent confident, but then again in Iraq, it was also a chancy deal.

The real difference here, and I think the troubling element here and probably the most important element is how much the commander-in-chief is committed to success in this war.

With Bush, there was no question. I went back, I had a look at the speech he gave in announcing the surge. There were no timelines, no essential conditions other than the Iraqis supporting us in the surge and not restricting our movement. No talk of withdrawal or timetables.

With Obama, what you are getting is a call to war with an uncertain trumpet. When you announce that in 18 months we are beginning our withdrawal, what are you signaling to our allies in Afghanistan, our allies in NATO, and those on the ground in the field who are wavering, that in 18 months, the Americans are going to start to leave, and you will be left naked against the Taliban who will be angry if you help the Americans during the 18 months?

BAIER: A.B., the politics for the president are pretty tough. On his left, you are getting a lot of push. Moveon.org just sent out a big email saying this is wrong. Here is the latest Gallup poll on the president handling of the Afghanistan situation — November, 35 percent approve, disapprove, 55 percent. There you see the change from September. How much does politics factor into this speech?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE HILL: It has to. I don't think we can accuse him of making a decision over the last 90 days based on politics because this is going to be a political loser for him.

But in his speech tonight, it will play a role. He has to overcome this contradiction, which is he is trying to sell an accelerated escalation that will lead to exit ramps and our departure. He wants to assure Americans we are leaving while assuring the Afghans that we are staying. It is just too hard to accept by the public that is increasingly opposed to this war.

But if you look at the political forces that he is dealing with in his party, a very loud and disappointed liberal left of his party, it is going to be a very tough time for him. It will have an impact on its domestic policy agenda as well. I still think ultimately he has the votes to get any kind of troop increase funded in the Congress, leaving the liberals behind. He still can corral enough support in his party mixed with Republicans. But he is still trying to speak on many levels publicly to his own party, to the government in Kabul, and many other places are on the world as he makes this speech. And he has to thread many, many needles.

BAIER: There are a couple of turnarounds, Steve. One is Senator Obama was vehemently opposed to the Iraq War surge and gave a speech saying that the worst thing we could do is increase the number of troops to take the pressure off the Iraqi government. So there is that contradiction. Then the Karzai question and how his administration has essentially come out against Karzai and are now they're embracing him. What about these contradictions? Can he sell all of this in one speech?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: There are other contradictions. I think the Karzai one is a good one to focus on. In his meeting with Congressional leader today, he apparently told them that he intends to get in his face, speaking of Karzai.

So it is sort of a half-embrace out of necessity because, on one hand, he can't be seen as publicly trashing the person that he is seeing as a partner in Afghanistan on the governance side.

There is another contradiction, though, on the broad question of whether we are building up or whether we are pulling back. And apparently in the same meeting with congressional leaders he actually used the phrase "the trajectory of a drawdown," that this announcement gets us on the trajectory of a drawdown. I do not know if he is going to use that in his speech tonight.

And I will say that on policy, I'm glad he made the decision he made. I think it is important to send these troops in this number with the strategy that he is employing.

But to say that, to say that this starts the drawdown, and then to propose the specific date of July, 2011, I think sends not even a mixed message. It is worse than a mixed message.

BAIER: Again, the administration says that's a start for the transfer. This is not an end date for the troops being out. That is what they said.

HAYES: Yes, but then it's totally meaningless, because what they say is we are going to start the withdrawal in July of 2011, but it will be conditions-based. So what if the conditions in 2011 don't allow us to start the withdrawal?

(CROSSTALK)

HAYES: It's a meaningless thing. It is meaningless.

KRAUTHAMMER: I think 2011 is a signal to his left. It's a way to placate his left and a way to say, "Hold on. Give me a year-and-a-half, and I will get us out of here."

The problem is this: Not only is his heart not in it, but if he cannot give a speech without placating his left early on, before the spike in casualty's, which we know is going to happen, and before the going gets really rough, if he is already conceding and sending a signal of weakness in order to hold his own left, what is he going to do in six months or a year when the going, as in Baghdad, that surge, got very tough?

I think it is a signal of weakness that is extremely troubling.

BAIER: A.B., quickly, I interviewed senior adviser David Axelrod. He would not answer the question of whether the president supports a tax increase or surcharge to pay for these additional forces, as is being discussed on Capitol Hill.

He wouldn't answer Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is saying we should use the unexpended stimulus funds to help pay for this increase. What about the possibilities of that passage in this environment, this economy?

STODDARD: You really hear — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer today was asked the straight question whether or not he supports a surtax; he says he supports the idea of it, but he is not supporting it at this time. He thinks it ultimately would hit people hard in a bad economy and be a job killer. That is what it will be painted as.

I think as to unused new stimulus money, that's going to put Democrats in a very tough corner, and that debate will continue.

BAIER: No chance there?

STODDARD: I don't think so.

BAIER: Senators are so serious about their health care reform bill they say they will work weekends. We will update the debate after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER DAVID AXELROD: I'm not going to prejudge. Obviously, we have a great interest in holding the costs down, but also in getting the job done so that people can get affordable health coverage.

And there are a couple of different approaches here, and I'm not going to prejudge where it all ends up. The president had very kind words about the Senate bill. He thought there were strong features in the House bill, and we will see where it ends up.

But I think we are heading toward a very positive result here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: Senior adviser David Axelrod, asked a question about the Congressional Budget Office's assessment of the Senate bill. In part, depending on how you read it, it says that premiums for many people will actually go up and that costs will not be driven down. The White House says that's not true.

So what is the truth? We are back with the panel as the debate continues in the Senate. Steve?

HAYES: I think the CBO report actually says both. It says some premiums will go up, and in other cases, costs will be contained.

What matters at this point is not yet another CBO report, really. It may matter to people inside the beltway, but we have a settled issue here. People across the country in poll after poll after poll have told people conducting the surveys that they believe their costs will go up by, like, a three to one margin, and that they believe cost overall will rise.

So if you are talking about what's likely to lead to passage and what is likely to influence legislators, they may be looking at CBO reports for some political cover, but it is certainly not going to reflect what people are feeling and the leaving across the country.

BAIER: A.B., what is, in your mind, the biggest roadblock potentially for the Senate bill or the bill in general? There are a bunch of them.

STODDARD: It's still the public plan, it's still a government health care program and whether or not that will be included in the end. Liberals, of course, threatening to vote against any package that does not have one, and centrists and conservatives Democrats worrying about supporting one.

So they are trying to find ways in the backrooms of watering one down so it could still be in a package but be supported by these senators from the South and the Rust Belt and other places who do not want to support it.

But to Steve's point about this study about savings: Savings are in the eye of the beholder, and actually, I think, on balance, there are things for the Republicans and Democrats to crow about in the report. But on balance, it does help Democrats because Evan Bayh of Indiana said his concerns were assuaged by the report.

And literally at this point you are just looking at four or five people that could bring it down, and every time you bring one back in, you are pretty happy.

It does not mean he is going to vote on the abortion-restriction language, it doesn't mean he is going to vote on a public health care plan. But he was concerned about costs, and they need to assuage him.

BAIER: But Charles, you have the Senate bill at least starts the spending four years later. It takes up the so-called doctor fix, which is more than $200 billion. The president says he still wants to keep it on or under $900 billion. Currently, that is not where it is.

KRAUTHAMMER: As you say, it is done with trickery. It is under $900 billion if the benefits are only going to be offered for about half of the decade.

But over a normal decade, if you start in 2014, cost of the cost of the Senate proposal will be between $1.8 trillion and $2.5 trillion, depending on how you count it, which is just monstrous at a time when we are doubling our deficit outside of health care in the next five years and tripling in over the next 10.

I think that is the real reason why there is this public concern. It is not only in how it will affect the individual. It is also a sense that this is a huge entitlement. We knew the history of health care entitlements. They're always outrun projections by a factor of 10 or 20 or 30.

And this is going to be absolutely destructive at a time when the boomers are aging, health care costs are exploding, and already in the absence of all of this, it is ruining our budget.

BAIER: Steve, quickly, do you sense momentum either way up on Capitol Hill when you talk to people there, how they are feeling about getting something through or blocking something?

HAYES: I think both sides are confident. I would say Democrats seem more confident in just talking to them about what they think will be the likely outcome a month from now. But I think it is not inconceivable that Republicans could still kill this depending on how all of these important debates over these four or five tough issues pan out.

BAIER: A.B., 10 seconds.

STODDARD: I think they are going to get something. They have to pass something. It just depends how strong it is and how much they can defend it in midterm elections next year. But they are going to have to push something through.

BAIER: That was nine.

(LAUGHTER)

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