'Special Report' Panel on White House vs. Pentagon on Afghanistan

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Bret Baier" from October 20, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT (via translator): I call upon our nation to change this to an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination to move this country forward and participate in the new round of elections.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Karzai, as well as the other candidates, I think, have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart.


BRET BAIER, HOST: Well, President Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to praise him for agreeing to a runoff in the disputed presidential election.

It comes as there appears to be disputes inside this administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is speaking out on the road saying, "We're not just going to sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul before coming up with a troop strategy."

This comes after the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel essentially said exactly the opposite on the Sunday talk shows.

What about all of this? Let's bring in our panel: Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Bill, you first alerted to us to this fracture, if you will, between the Pentagon and White House as to whether there would be troop levels determined before the Afghan government is stabilized. It appears that the defense secretary wasn't too happy about those comments.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, I don't think the defense secretary or General Petraeus or General McChrystal or Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff participating in this big interagency review trying to figure out and to help President Obama make his decision.

Suddenly the White House chief of staff and the White House political adviser, David Axelrod, go out on the Sunday shows and say hey, we can't do anything until — it would be reckless to do something until we have a stable Afghan partner, and suddenly Robert Gibbs and the White House is saying the same thing.

The White House staff tried to hijack this decision, in my view, maybe with the president's blessing, maybe not, because they do not want President Obama to commit fully to the war in Afghanistan.

It is very clear: Rahm Emanuel has been talking about Vietnam, handing out books about the Vietnam process. This is the last big reforming Democratic presidency was killed in Vietnam. They don't want to make the commitment that President Obama basically said he would make to this war a couple of months ago.

I believe there is a pretty big rift now between the White House staff and the Defense Department from top to bottom, civilian and military and most of the foreign policy professionals who don't think we can afford to make a half-baked commitment to Afghanistan or pull out.

I think President Obama will overrule his White House staff and go with Secretary Gates and the uniform military.

BAIER: So you think Defense Secretary Gates stands with General McChrystal in his request?

KRISTOL: Totally. There is a uniformity up and down the chain. There is no split in the military on this one.

And the military is offended. McChrystal was sent over there by Gates. They replaced a four star. The president made a commitment. They did a five-week review with a lot of civilian advisers. They gave the president their best judgment, saying this is the troops we need to fight this war in the way that you have asked us to fight it.

And suddenly a bunch of political guys in the White House are saying, oh, the polls are a little shaky, let's send half the number of troops.

The military really thinks this is not the way to make policy.

BAIER: Mort?

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: You know, this looks like an attempt to satisfy the international community and not solve the problem of Afghanistan.

I mean, the election was fraudulent. OK, so we're going to have runoff. One, the runoff will be November 7 when a lot of the polling places will be — won't be open, for one thing. It will take a lot of U.S. troop strength in order to protect the election, a lot of people are going to get killed by the Taliban.

The day afterwards, OK, suppose Karzai wins: Is he any more legitimate then after an election? Only in the eyes of the international community. His brother, A. W. Karzai is still down there in southeast Afghanistan selling drugs — is the big drug lord of the country. And, you know, and the governance is no better.

Obama has got to make this decision and he's got to make it on the basis of are we going to go for a victory in Afghanistan or are we going to do something less than that? And it shouldn't depend on the outcome. Gates is absolutely right and the military is absolutely right.

BAIER: Charles, there have been numerous stories in a number of different papers and other different outlets that I'm hearing privately from military commanders that there is real concern about this decision process and even in the sense of what it looks like.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it's not just the process of White House appearing to preempt or overrule the military, and the White House not exactly having the background and expertise that the military does.

It's also the substance and the logic of it. What Gates was saying is this is preposterous that you have to wait until after the election to decide on the troop level. After all, look, there are three things that we can say with the confidence about what the government of Afghanistan will look like after this election: It's going to be weak; it is going to be pro-American, and it's going to be corrupt.

That's how it was yesterday, and that's how it will be tomorrow. More or less corrupt and more or less weak, but that's how it will be, and that's how it was a year ago. So it's not going to depend on the outcome of the election.

That's the card that we're dealt in Afghanistan, and that's going to be. Now, the best outcome would be if you had a coalition so you wouldn't have to have a runoff on all of the complications that are talked about. But even so that's going to be in place, and we know that today, so why would you hold off and delay a critical decision on the strength of our troops because you don't know the exact composition of the Cabinet?

It's nonsense, and I think Gates shot it down pretty strongly today.

KONDRACKE: Yes, you know, one half suspects that this is all domestic politics — that the White House knows that it's going to have to give up the public option on health care sometime in November and make the left furious at that.

And then it's going to have to make a decision on troop withdrawal — or more troops in Afghanistan. That is going to make the left angry and they want to push it off as far as they can until toward Thanksgiving.

BAIER: Fox News is not the only organization that the White House has targeted. We will talk about what it is doing to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after we do a little commerce of our own.



OBAMA: Over in the last 10 years, the chamber spent nearly half a billion dollars on lobbyists — half a billion dollars.

R. BRUCE JOSTEN, U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: But it seems that groups have been invited in. Those that have cut a deal are OK. Those that did not agree to the deal as presented from the side of the table of the White House seem to be the recipients of vilification and invectives very quickly from the White House attacking them.


BAIER: And this is from White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett to The Politico in an article called "White House plan, neuter the Chamber... We prefer the approach, particularly in this climate, where the actual people who are on the frontlines running businesses trying to create jobs come and advice us on policy.

We are seeing very prominent members resigning from the Chamber. So our question is then does it then still represent the communities' interests?"

We are back with the panel about the White House's versus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: It is one thing for the government, the administration to attack opponents, institutions, media. It is another to go out and try and delegitimize them and destroy them.

I thought it was sort of repulsive audacity on the part of the administration to go out and to declare Fox is not a real news organization, particularly when there might be big companies out there who might think twice about having an ad on Fox or other news media who might think twice about following a Fox story because it might incur the displeasure of the administration.

Similarly, to go after the Chamber of Commerce — you can argue against it, defend yourself on the arguments — but to try to induce defections as a way to destroy it is a new level. It's Chicago-level politics.

Look, there is nothing illegal about it. It is not unconstitutional. But it is outside the Democratic norms of our society, which is Madisonian.

Our idea is that you have as a way to protect against tyranny in government is to have the growth, the interaction, and the clash of what Madison called "factions" — but what we call "interests," special and otherwise, and you argue interact and you clash. But you don't undermine, delegitimize and destroy.

That is the Madisonian way and we are getting, instead, is the Chicago way.

KONDRACKE: Obama came to office promising that he would unify the country. And first it was the insurance companies, now it's Fox News, and now it's the Chamber of Commerce. And what they are indulging in is demonization. It is a complete violation of what he said he was going to do and it's stupid.

What you do in Washington is if you have a foe today and he may be your ally tomorrow. And indeed, the Chamber of Commerce helped get the stimulus bill passed. It was in favor of the "cash for clunkers" program.

And now it is against the public option in health care. It is against the Waxman-Markey bill on climate change, but it is not against climate change legislation across the board.

This administration insists on making enemies when it ought to be figuring out how to co-opt people.

BAIER: There is a book bill called "The Thumpin" which describes the Democrats taking over Congress and quotes Rahm Emanuel, now chief of staff, then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — he said about the chamber quote, "The thing that scares the expletive out of me is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce."

Add Emanuel, he says "I can beat the NRCC," the National Republican Congressional Committee, "and our individual candidates can be beat their individual candidates, but what the chamber is trying to do is what I'm trying to do, take the combative races and alter them."

And here is a quick graphic. In 2008, the chamber spent roughly $35 million on campaign spending. There are people inside the chamber saying they could spend anywhere from $70 million to $100 million on the 2010 race.

Could this just be about taking down the chamber a notch before the 2010 race?

KRISTOL: What happened in 2006? The chamber spent a ton of money. I seem to recall the Democrats won Congress. What happened in 2008? Did the chamber's expenditures help Republicans? They are overrated.

I don't want to defend the Obama administration. What they are doing is inappropriate. The chamber represents big business. They will sell out, frankly, at the drop of a hat. They were for the stimulus package. That was great, lots of money for big businesses. They were for the bailouts, big businesses.

I don't see them complaining when big business benefits from big government programs.

Look, having said, that I'm glad the chamber is fighting on health care. I'm glad they got the right position, sort of, partly on cap-and-trade, and they don't deserve to be demonized. They are an association. People can join or leave as they wish.

But it is crazy if the Obama administration thinks and Rahm thinks the chamber is their problem. Their problem is the American public. The chamber didn't convince the public that the health care plan is a bad idea. The public rose up against it the more they learned about it.

So let them fight all the big business groups and let the small businesses and the citizenry fight the Obama administration.

BAIER: From a political tactic, a strategy, is this the right one for this White House to be taken?

KRAUTHAMMER: It is short-term gain but long-term loss, because when you have a style of politics which is search and destroy, you might win a victory here and there.

But when the persona of the president and the presidency is a man who said there are no red states or blue states and he would be a transcender, a man who unites and who has a style that should bring America together indulges in Chicago-style gutter politics, search and destroy, it undoes the image and the positive element in the Obama presidency, and I think in the long term it brings him down a notch. I don't see how it helps him, and it's Emanuel-type politics. You might win today, but it will cost you tomorrow.

BAIER: Mort.

KONDRACKE: I completely agree with that. There is that complete difference between the politics as Rahm Emanuel practiced it back when he was in Congress — that is to destroy the enemy — and what Obama said he was going to do, try to unify the country.

Now, they're attacking what they think are, you know, demons — the insurance companies are unpopular, Fox News is right wing, allegedly, and now the Chamber of Commerce is a big bad big business lobby, but who is next? They look for enemies everywhere.

BAIER: Any comment on the Fox News battle — Bill?

KRISTOL: I do have a comment on that. The chamber can defend itself. They have a ton of money and I don't think we should cry too much for them. And I don't think Republicans should complain, oh, they're attacking the Chamber of Commerce or they're attacking the insurance companies.

Republicans should speak for small businesses in the country and let those big businesses which will cut a million deals with government and the Obama administration, let them speak for themselves.


KRAUTHAMMER: It isn't a question of defending the chamber. It is a question of being offended by a certain style of politics. And that's what I think is the problem here.

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