Panel on General Petraeus Taking over Afghanistan War; Relations With Russia

From lef to right: Steve Hayes, A.B. Stoddard, Charles Krauthammer and Bret Baier,(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we saw yesterday was a change in personnel, but not a change in policy.

Here is what we did not say last year. We did not say that starting July, 2011, suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan. We didn't say we'd switch off the light and close the door behind us.


BRET BAIER, "SPECIAL REPORT" HOST: President Obama today talking about the policy in Afghanistan after his decision to put General David Petraeus at the helm there on the ground.

Now here is how Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the change. He said that, "General Petraeus is absolutely behind the president's strategy. He agrees with the December review and he also agrees with the timeline to begin a drawdown," Gates said, "in July of 2011 that is conditions-based." That is a word that you did not hear from President Obama today.

What about all of this? Let's bring in the panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for the Weekly Standard, A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK, Steve, did you detect nuance here and how it was phrased about the July, 2011 drawdown?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. There was some. You still didn't have the president say it's all off. Everything we talked about before, the recommendation that came from the political team to have the July, 2011 withdrawal date is off. And it would have been great to hear that, because that's the most important thing the president could have said today.

Having said that, there were things I think in his statement today and also in his statement yesterday that indicate that he understands that there needs to be flexibility on that and that there will be changes that come in with David Petraeus. He said today, for instance, he said he is going to be insisting on the unity of purpose, on all branches of the U.S. government in such a way that reflects the dedication of the military. Now, who is he talking to there? He is clearly not talking to the military, not talking about Gates, not talking about Petraeus. My interpretation of that is he is talking about Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry the ambassador there, and that he is talking about Joe Biden, saying you need to get on the same page, you need to stop taking shots at one another. And David Petraeus is going to come in and change the culture here. And I think that's a very good thing. It's not a withdrawal date, but it's a good thing.

BAIER: He was asked specifically, A.B., if he would make other changes to personnel, basically, the Holbrookes, the Eikenberrys, those folks on the civilian side. He didn't really answer that question today.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE HILL: I think if he is going to make those changes he wouldn't give us indication of it today. It will come up as a surprise.

What is interesting is General Petraeus has a good relationship with everybody. He does with Holbrooke, Eikenberry, Clinton, with everybody. So that is just an interesting shift as he comes in. It doesn't mean that the president doesn't want to get rid of anybody else. I think what happens with the withdrawal date is I think it's implicit. I think when he brought in Petraeus and asked him to take the demotion and make a sacrifice for the mission, it was clear that David Petraeus won't be boxed in by any kind of withdrawal date he doesn't believe in that isn't conditions-based. And so the president realized these divisions are so poisonous and dangerous, the important thing is unity. Right now it's unity of rhetoric. Everyone means the same thing but they say we agree on the mission. They just don't want to use words "conditions-based" and make it sound like there is disagreement. So they're all talking about it in a strange way, but that is what I take away from yesterday and today.

BAIER: Charles, this is a general who ran the troop surge in Iraq successfully. We know Iraq is a different animal than Afghanistan, completely different. But here the president is empowering Petraeus to make the calls now. What about that?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Look, there was this remarkable success in Iraq and the fact that we have Petraeus in place is our best hope of repeating it.

But the biggest self-inflicted impediment and the biggest difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is in Iraq we have president famous and attacked for his stubbornness. He never spoke about exit strategy or date of withdrawal. He was in the surge unconditionally and he wanted to wait until it succeeded.

We got from this president, President Obama, announces a surge in Afghanistan and the next sentence in the speech he made on December 1 he says we will begin withdrawal, leaving in July, 2011.

You can do all the interpretation and parsing of words that Gates said, that the president is saying today, we're not going to leave, what did he say, and turn the lights out on that date. But look, we can do criminological interpretation.

Next week, the whole national security team will be standing on Lenin's tomb. And say Biden is standing closer to Obama than Petraeus is and that means 2011 is off.

All the president has to do is say, he doesn't have to withdraw the 2011 date, he just has to say the target is July, 2011, however, it will depend on conditions on the ground. Nine words, I think it is. Nine words.

And that will dispel the ambiguity. And the reason it's important is not that we understand or predict what is happening but it has an effect on Afghanistan today. From a president to a peasant in Afghanistan, if we have ambiguity, and we do, you are going to be really careful about siding and helping us.

BAIER: Because we are trying to interpret it, and we follow it every day.

Steve, last word. Does Vice President Biden come out on the low end here after that article, all the things said about him, his interpretation and strategy, tactics, going forward, and what the president said today?

HAYES: I don't think there is any question he does. It's hard if you go back and you read the literature and reportage on Afghanistan going back since they came to office. It's hard to find something, a point at which president Obama has taken Joe Biden's advice really on anything with respect to Afghanistan.

And that makes it so frustrating for the president and those who believe in his policy that there is so much talk about what Joe Biden believes in, what advice he is giving in what's happening.

BAIER: Up next, Russia wants U.S. technology and is apparently willing to make a deal. So what is in it for the U.S.?



OBAMA: When I came in office, the relationship between the United States and Russia had drifted perhaps to its lowest point since the cold war.

By any measure we have made significant progress and achieved concrete results. Our two countries continue to disagree on certain issues such as Georgia, and we address those differences candidly. But on the areas we do agree we have succeeded in resetting our relationship, which benefits regional and global security.


BAIER: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev got the best buddy treatment today from President Obama and they even took a ride in the limo to Ray's Hellburger. They shared French fries there, we're told.

The relationship, according to the White House, has changed dramatically. Russians want membership in the World Trade Organization and the president says he will help with that. What does the U.S. get for all of this? We're back with the panel. Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: That really is the question. The president speaks about the rosy new relationship and he speaks in a disparaging way about how low relationships were when he came into office as if George Bush had some kind of genetic aversion to Russians, or he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. The reason our relations with Russia were low is because Russia invaded Georgia, a friend of ours, an ally, a small country, and detached two of its provinces against international law, which Obama incidentally says he believes in.

Now, the reason relations were cold is we wanted the Russians to pay a price. Now we weren't going to send soldiers, but we froze our relations and denied them certain advantages.

Obama has no conception of making anybody pay a price. As you heard in that little address, he said we disagree on Georgia as if it's some incidental issue, dismisses it and says otherwise. What does he do? He gives the Russians a victory in Eastern Europe when he cancels the missile defense system -- again no price, a freebie.

The Russians are delighted with this relationship. It's all take, and no give. And Obama thinks somehow that this is a great advance for the United States.

BAIER: That is the question, I guess, is the U.S. getting rolled in this whole deal?

STODDARD: I see the reason why getting Russia to the table on Iran sanctions and getting the START treaty signed becomes a big enough accomplishment for the president to trumpet as his greatest foreign policy success.

IN 17 months you have to look at the frayed alliances, the state of our relationship with Britain, Mexico, even Turkey, look at the strain we have now with relations with China, the state of the U.S.-Israel relations. He doesn't really have a lot going on, going well.

He heads the G20 meeting, pretty isolated with a lot of nations in Europe, scared from the Greek debt crisis, planning lots of cuts that he is trying to discourage, and trying to encourage more stimulus.

If he did not bring Russia to the table on Iran sanctions or arms control he would have been criticized by us by us at this table for it. He will take copious amounts of credit for it because it's the crown jewel of his foreign policy at this point.

BAIER: Steve?

HAYES: There was one point in the speech in which he talked about this new warm relationship. He pointed to evidence public polling in Russia about their attitudes toward the United States, saying this is evidence that this is a much better relationship.

If you look at what Charles is saying, and I agree with the assessment of it, no wonder. We have basically given and given and given. They have taken, taken, taken. Of course they like us better. They must think of us as very generous.

But it's not a smart thing for him to have done to refer to public polling in a foreign country to judge the state of the relationship in our foreign policy. If you look at Egypt, for instance, 27 to 17, a decline, India, a decline, Mexico, a decline. If that's how we judge relations with the other countries, it's not all rosy.

BAIER: A quick other statement he made that caught some folks' ears. He was talking about the Russian students that came to U.S. and he brought them to the White House. Listen.


OBAMA: They represented the hope for the future that brings our countries together. Those were the same hopes of another generation of Americans and Russians, the generation that stood together as allies in the Second World War, the Great Patriotic War in which the Russian people suffered and sacrificed so much.


BAIER: Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: When I heard the phrase "The Great Patriotic War," I was stunned. The tone of this relationship if you watch the press conference, it was Obama, the United States as the supplicant, as if the Russians were the super power.

The great patriotic war is the word that Stalin invented for the Second World War after Hitler betrayed him on the Hitler-Stalin pact which had been an agreement for Russia, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to divide Europe between them. It's like calling the leader of Iran the supreme leader or referring to it as the Islamic Republic. Obama does that as a way to ingratiate himself. You have to ask yourself, why?