'Special Report' Panel on Importance of Obama's Decision About Afghanistan

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from September 21, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we will figure out how to resource it. We are not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we're automatically going to make Americans safe.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: In my view, the president must soon explain to the American people his reasons either for accepting the McChrystal plan or, if he chooses an alternative, explain why he believes the alternative is better.


BAIER: There's the back and forth. As you see the newest FOX Opinion dynamics poll, do you support or oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, there you see the breakdown, 50 percent opposed, 41 percent support.

This as the top U.S. commander on the ground in Afghanistan has put out a report, and it was leaked. He hasn't officially released it to the press, but it was in "The Washington Post," General Stanley McChrystal. In it, it says "With inadequate resources we will likely fail."

What about Afghanistan and the decision that lies ahead for the president? Let's bring in our panel, Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of "The Weekly Standard," Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer — Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, I think what's really important here are two dates. The first is August 30. That's when the McChrystal report was sent to Washington. That is three weeks ago. Obama has not had single meeting since then.

He says he hasn't reached a conclusion, I suppose because he is spending all his time preparing for Letterman and speeches to schoolchildren to focus on a war in which our soldiers are in the field getting shot at and, as the president himself is saying, without a strategy.

Now, the other date is the 27th of March, when Obama gave a speech in the White House flanked by his Secretaries of Defense and State, in which he said, and I will read you this, because it is as if it never happened, "Today I'm announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

So we for six months have been living under the new Obama strategy, of which he says today we have none. And his next sentence is, again in March, "This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review," not the beginning, the end of the policy review.

So it has been his policy, and now he tells us we don't have a cart and we don't have a horse.

What's happening here is he announced the strategy of counterinsurgency in March. He said at the time that we cannot afford an Afghanistan that slides into chaos. He said "My message to the terrorists who oppose us, we will defeat you," And now he's not sure he wants to defeat them.

BAIER: Now, Mara, we have been told by sources that the number is from 30,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops from McChrystal's request. However, we're also being told that he has been told not to send that official request to Washington. What about that?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: The president was asked about that this weekend. He said no, no, I am not telling them to hold off. But we want to figure out the strategy first. I think that the number...

BAIER: Where is the disconnect there?

LIASSON: The disconnect is that the president isn't ready to get the request. Now, he's not — at some point he's going to have to get it. And the other thing is that we now know a lot. This has been an extraordinary weekend. This is an extraordinary leak. Everyone knows now what the generals want. Now, maybe in the end, McChrystal will give him a kind of Chinese menu. You can have the deluxe version for 45,000 troops and we can still do a lot of this for 30,000, but I can still do something for you for 20,000. But the president did think he was going to ramp up in Afghanistan, and then a lot of things happened. Number one, his party doesn't want to send more troops. Number two, the election there is now contested. That makes this hugely more complicated. He has a corrupt government that he's going to be backing, in effect, if he's going in there with more troops. So I think this is a tough decision. I would say one thing to Charles. I agree it seems like it's been a long time since he announced his new strategy. The president doesn't have to decide now. He has to decide soon, but no troops are going to go till the first of the year anyway. So he has a little bit of time to get this right, and one of the things he has to do is explain to his own party in very strong, clear terms why he is doing this, and he is going to have to bring them along.

BAIER: Late this afternoon, Fred, there was an A.P. story about a U.S. official, not quoting, but citing a U.S. official saying the administration was looking at stepping up drones and the use of drones along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It seemed like a trial balloon to many of us here. But what about this decision-making process?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, it isn't unusual. I think the normal procedure would be when the commander in the field sends in his report, what he wants you to do, and in this case, send 30,000 or 40,000 more troops, that's a part of it.

There had to be a decision not to send that in as part of that, and my understanding is that the White House told him don't send in that troop request yet, and so he hasn't yet. General McChrystal, look, we have to remember something about General McChrystal. He is Obama's guy. They fired his predecessor, General McKiernan because they didn't think he was doing a good job, so they brought in McChrystal. What is McChrystal's background? I was talking to Charles about this before the show, and he reminded me McChrystal was the ultimate search and destroy guy in Iraq.

BAIER: Special operations.

BARNES: Special operations — you have your troops, you send them out on missions every day and bring them back into the post in the evening.

It is the opposite of counterinsurgency, but counterinsurgency was not McChrystal's thing. It was search and destroy, which was failing in Iraq. And then the policy was changed and they brought in counterinsurgency, the protection of the population. It worked. For General McChrystal, McChrystal in particular, to come now and say the solution here is a counterinsurgency strategy that is bigger and stronger than the one that the president had decided on back in March is quite a change. For McChrystal to believe that, it means that — I mean, I think that just adds so much emphasis and credibility to his request.

BAIER: How long does it take before this stalling of the actual request becomes a political problem for this administration?

KRAUTHAMMER: I'm not sure it's a political problem. I think it's a problem of what it does to the morale of the military and of the commanders in the field.

If you are in the middle of a war and you have an urgent request — this is not just a general but an urgent request — and the logic here, it is all spelled out in a sentence or two. It is not a difficult proposition. The logic is we're in a downward spiral. The enemy is gaining. We can stop them with American troops. Once they are stopped and the spiral is reversed, as happened in Iraq as a result of the surge, then the Afghan army can, in principle, at least, take over, as happened in Iraq. That's the idea. You either can act on that or not, it's not a complicated idea. Obama is not stalling because he's studying all this. Obama is stalling because, a, he doesn't know, and b, he doesn't want to go politically against his own party. BAIER: Five seconds — does he do it in the end?

KONDRAKE: I think in the end he commits more troops. I don't know if he gives them 45,000. I cannot imagine a Democratic president with no national security experience saying no to his generals.

BARNES: I don't think he will. Here he is going to back to re-decide what the objectives are in Afghanistan. We know what the objective is. It is to keep Al Qaeda out. And then decide the methods and then the resources, the troops, it will take a long time. It will be a big stall. I think he will say no.

BAIER: It looks as though the president will press ahead with investigations into CIA interrogations despite warnings that this will help our enemies. We'll get the panel's take on that, next.



OBAMA: I continue to believe that nobody is above the law, and I want to make sure that as president of the United States that I'm not asserting in some way that my decisions overrule the decisions of prosecutors who are — dare to uphold the law.

MIKE ROGERS, (R-MI) HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: You can't play like you're not involved. The president is involved. And it is sending a very horrible message to the people who are doing some pretty hard and dangerous work for the United States.


BAIER: Well, two days after seven former CIA directors asked the president to kill a potential investigation into alleged interrogation abuse by interrogators, he declined. And now Attorney General Eric Holder is moving forward, and the president is not stepping in. We're back with the panel. Fred, what about this?

BARNES: You notice those seven didn't ask the attorney general to back down. They asked the president to back down, because this is so obviously a presidential decision.

This decision is basically, are you going to prosecute the prior administration for one of the central policies of its national security policy, and that was strong interrogation of Al Qaeda terrorists who were captured to find out other plans they had. And they were successful. I mean, the president's excuse was I don't want to second-guess prosecutors. Well, we have already had prosecutors look into this case and found that it shouldn't be prosecuted. That was back under the Bush administration. But I mean this is so fundamentally a presidential decision. There is a piece by David Petraeus in a London paper last week where he was talking about Afghanistan saying it's hard in Afghanistan what we're doing, and it's hard all the time. That's what the presidency is like. It's hard and it's hard all the time, but the president has to step forward and make tough decisions like this, or he's abdicating his responsibility.

BAIER: Mara, the president says he doesn't want to step into this and overstep prosecutors. However, the attorney general did just that when he decided to move forward, as Fred mentioned, over what the eastern district prosecutors decided not to move forward. Now there's a story that Attorney General Holder didn't personally read the declinations, as they're called, of these lawyers who decided not to move forward with the prosecution.

LIASSON: I think even if he had read them he would have moved forward with this.

And I think that it's important for this administration to have its own prosecutors look at this independently, freshly. And I think the best political outcome would be for them to come to the same conclusion that the Bush prosecutors.

The base of the Democratic Party wanted an investigation of this. I think they're going to get that. I think the big question is will this prosecutor do what other prosecutors have in the past and kind of follow this wherever it leads him, or will he stay confined into this very narrow set of cases that he is looking at and come to the same conclusion that his predecessors did, that no prosecutions are warranted.

And I think that would be the best thing and that would comport with the president's style to look forward and not backwards.

BAIER: But that rarely happens.

LIASSON: It hasn't happened in the past.

KRAUTHAMMER: I agree with Mara that it is a decision meant to placate the left wing of his party. So it's political. It's not about national security or about justice.

This letter was signed by every living CIA director with one exception, Gates, who is now in the cabinet, so he couldn't sign it, and one other exception, Leon Panetta, who we know opposes these prosecutions and is in the Obama cabinet.

So what you have in total is eight of whom half were appointed by Democrats, and they all oppose it.

And what does Obama say when asked about this letter? He said yesterday "I can understand how these men would want to look after the agencies which they helped to build."

He doesn't even credit them with looking after the nation using their experience in these agencies, but, as always, he impugns a personal and parochial motive to anybody who opposes him and only he stands above it and speaks with truth and justice.

It's the way he does business. He can at least acknowledge that these men who were acting in the name of the nation and not in protecting agencies that they once had a stake in.

BAIER: Fred, quickly, how does this end?

BARNES: I think it will end the way Mara says, without prosecutions.

But go back to President Ford and what he did. Now, he stepped forward and pardoned President Nixon knowing it was going to hurt him politically but because he thought it was the right thing for the nation.

And now, what are we now, 35 years later, and most people agree he made the right decision, but it was a tough one.

BAIER: That's it for the panel, but stay tuned for the back story on the two words that received a lot of coverage last week.

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