MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Serious about Syria.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We've recalled our ambassador, which
indicates that the relationship is not moving forward; that Syria is out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East; that democracy is on the move, and this is a country that isn't moving with the democratic

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The White House stopped just short of blaming Syria this week for the horrific car bomb murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 14 others, with 120 injured in the colossal blast.

Mr. Hariri was the leading figure in Beirut's post-civil war reconstruction. In recent months, he had become the most prominent opponent of Syria's military occupation of Lebanon. Like Mr. Hariri, Mr. Bush was vocal in his frustration with Syria before the bombing. After the Hariri bombing, the President took action to show his displeasure.

Item: U.S. Ambassador Recall. On Tuesday, the White
House ordered the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, to return to Washington.

Item: Exit Lebanon. Syria's 15,000 troops were urged by the White House to leave Lebanon immediately or run the risk of United Nations sanctions.

Item: Syrian Ambassador Expulsion? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is considering expelling Syria's ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, as reported by NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

Question: Is there a likelihood that the Iraq Pentagon hawks -- U.S. Pentagon -- will urge President Bush to use Hariri's death as a justification for military action against Syria?

MR. BUCHANAN: John, there clearly is. And whoever did this has dealt a card to the American hawks. And if Assad, Bashir Assad, the Syrian dictator, was behind this, he is the dumbest man on the planet. And the reason is, this thing has redounded horribly against Syria. It's destroyed his attempted rapprochement with the United States. It has brought him into collision with President Bush. It has isolated Syria. It has antagonized Saudi Arabia, which was a friend of Mr. Hariri's.

So it is a complete disaster for the Syrians, which leads me to believe it may be some kind of false-flag operation, because even though the Syrians have been capable of these things in the past, it just is inexplicable from the standpoint of Syrian national interest.


MS. CLIFT: We've played this game before. The administration, if pressed, will say they have no evidence linking Syria to this assassination, just as they had no evidence linking Saddam to 9/11. But they withdraw the ambassador. They leave the clear implication that Syria is to blame.

And you have to ask yourself -- they've been openly courting, looking for another country to attack. So far the voices of sanity have prevailed. There are no targets that are credible in Iran. We have no troops. So they smack around little Syria for a while. I don't think there's any military adventuresome on the immediate horizon. But from the administration's point of view, there's no down side to acting tough toward Syria right now.


MR. BLANKLEY: Well, it's not just the Bush administration that suspects it's Syria. Virtually every Lebanese in the street went after the Syrian targets. And everyone I've talked to in the Middle East -- and I've talked to several in the last few days -- think it's likely Syria.

But clearly they miscalculated. One person suggested to me that -- they pointed out that after the bombing, there was very few attacks, if any, in Iraq for a few days. And it may well have been that the Syrians thought they could do a tradeoff -- get rid of the opposition in Lebanon with the explosion and then pull back on their so-called insurgents in Iraq.

But we didn't take that bait. Instead we reacted very strongly -- what the State Department, by the way, calls the nuclear option, when you recall an ambassador. And now I think Syria is in a tough situation, but so is the Bush administration, because you don't have a lot of options.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: There's a difference between recall and withdrawal and downgrading of an ambassador. Have you taken that into consideration?


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm not sure that the recall is as bad as it sounds.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well according to some of the people in the Foreign Service today, they thought it was a pretty dramatic action.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hisham, I know this is a painful occasion for you because you have known Rafiq Hariri for years. How many years?

MR. HATFIELD: About 17 years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Seventeen years. And you just got back from Lebanon, what, 24 hours ago?

MR. HATFIELD: Absolutely, yeah. I was there when it happened.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's the situation on the ground? And is it a felt conclusion by consensus in Lebanon today that Syria is the culprit?

MR. MELHEM: The Lebanese were stunned. They felt that these incidents are buried in the past, in the 1970s and 1980s, but not now, and not directed against a man who has been moderate, who is a man of dialogue, who is not a radical, whose name was synonymous with the rebirth of Beirut. And that's why people were shocked.

There were a range of feelings, from fear and loathing to despair to raw anger. And the fingers were pointed to Syria. Nobody has any clue. Nobody has any evidence. But people felt that the Syrians may have seen Hariri as the emerging voice uniting the opposition.

They blamed him for the Resolution 1559, which was passed at the United Nations Security Council that was adopted by France, by Jacques Chirac, who was a personal friend of Rafiq Hariri and by the United States. So they may have felt that this is the thinking in Beirut, that the Syrians would be hurt by the growing opposition to their military presence in Lebanon.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hariri left the government by resignation after the constitution was extended to permit Emil Lahud, the president, to extend his term beyond the then constitutional limits.

MR. MELHEM: Right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Does that mean that he had -- and since then he's been talking about getting back into politics.

MR. MELHEM: (He was ready?) for the parliamentary elections in May.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, do you think there are other enemies of Rafiq Hariri besides Syria? Because he wanted the Syrians out, but that was not his consistent position. I interviewed him in the year 2000 and he said to me emphatically he wanted the Syrians there. Lahud said the same thing. But he changed over the years, did he not?

MR. MELHEM: Of course, a lot of people change over the years, because the Syrians and the Lebanese accepted the so-called Taif agreement, which ended the civil war in Lebanon. The Syrians were supposed to, under this agreement, withdraw to the Bekaa, and then after that negotiate with the Lebanese government in Beirut a timetable for a total withdrawal.

The Syrians did not deliver on that item in the agreement, which is to withdraw from Lebanon.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, what about my question --

MR. MELHEM: And their involvement in domestic Lebanese politics became too much for most Lebanese.


MR. MELHEM: The Israelis withdrew from South Lebanon.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I want to know --

MR. MELHEM: And then the military reasons for their presence in Lebanon is no longer applicable. And that's why Hariri and others, including friends of Syria, wanted the Syrians to withdraw and to have a healthy relationship based on equality.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you know that the factions over there are notorious. They have been since Gemayel and through Amin since the '80s. We saw how it tore that country apart and that city was just God-awful. Do those factions still exist? And don't the Syrian troops exert a controlling influence on the factions?

MR. MELHEM: If the Syrians are there to prevent the Lebanese from slaughtering each other, nobody's slaughtering each other. There were no sectarian --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But would they revert to an earlier style?

MR. MELHEM: No. Most of the militias were disarmed, with the exception of Hezbollah. Nobody's talking about the country being on the verge of civil war.


MS. CLIFT: Well, the Syrians --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: One more question, please. Does Rafiq Hariri have any other enemies besides Syrians, who theoretically want him to stay in? You believe the Syrians really did want to maintain their presence, despite what Bashir Assad of Syria is saying. He says, "We have no particular desire to keep our 13,000 troops there."

MR. MELHEM: What is clear is that the Syrians forced Hariri to accept the extension of the terms of President Lahud. He was summoned by the chief Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon. He was summoned. He was given a dressing-down. And he was told that he should approve the extension of Emil Lahud. Hariri, who said he would not do that before, backtracked, changed his mind, and then he resigned.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that a cause for killing him?

MR. MELHEM: I don't know.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, there's a question. I believe it's Qui Bono: Who benefits from the murder of this man? You've got to take a look at that.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, if he --

MR. BUCHANAN: He was pro-Saudi. And the very fact that he was massacred in this fashion has put the United States in a confrontation with Syria. It is a horrendous blow to the Syrians. Now, in the past they have engaged in stupid and brutal acts without regard to the consequences. And there's a possibility they did this one, although it's not the style of Bashir Assad, even though his father would be more likely to have done it.

So my guess is there was someone who said, "He's being taken out because of his connections to the Saudis." The real beneficiary of this is al Qaeda. If they can get the United States involved in an attack with Syria, an attack with Iran --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let's talk a little bit about --

MR. BUCHANAN: -- and spread this war, that's their objective.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, we know that Hariri, who was a billionaire, made most of his money by paving roads, et cetera, in Saudi Arabia. True?

MR. MELHEM: Building hotels and infrastructure, yes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Correct. Now, was he doing that while he was prime minister, and did he return to doing it after he left the ministry in October?

MS. CLIFT: He had business enemies, and that is another possibility that could be the motivation for this assassination. But you have to --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean, he was out of government and was back into --

MS. CLIFT: He had a lot of enemies in business as well. But when the Syrians went into Lebanon 20 years ago, they were applauded. They stopped the civil war. They have overstayed their welcome, yes. But what is the goal of U.S. rhetoric and policy right now? To get the Syrians out of Lebanon? Is that that important to this administration?

MR. BUCHANAN: (Inaudible.)

MS. CLIFT: Or are they trying -- right. Or are they trying to set the stage for a wider war against Iran?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay. A common front. Embattled Syria this week turned to Iran for help. Jointly, the two countries, Iran and Syria, declared that they would create "a common front" to face threats, including threats from the United States.

Question: Should we be concerned about this common front? What do Syria and Iran share in common? Hisham.

MR. MELHEM: I wouldn't be concerned about that. All this talk about a front actually was downgraded later on in the following day or two after that meeting. Already Syria and Iran have very good relationship. Whatever Syria has by way of influence in the region is derivative from its relationship with Iran and its relationship with Hezbollah and Lebanon.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They have a common border, sizable --

MR. MELHEM: No, they don't have a common border.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Iran has a border with Syria.

MR. MELHEM: No, no, no.


MR. MELHEM: Iraq's in the middle. That's another problem for the Syrians and the Iranians, because they have Iraq in the middle. And Iraq now, after the elections and the new government, is going to go a different way.

MR. BLANKLEY: Damascus has been the point between where the Iranians send aid to Hezbollah through Damascus, so it's been a connecting point. And Iran and Syria have had a working relationship, both in Lebanon and with Hezbollah, for many years. So the idea of a new front is not true. It's always been there.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They have a common border with Iraq.

MR. MELHEM: Yeah, sure. Iraq is in the middle.

MR. BLANKLEY: Along the other side.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What does that tell you, anything?

MR. MELHEM: Excuse me?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What does that tell you?

MR. MELHEM: What, about the border?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, Iraq is turning out to be a real problem for both countries.

MR. BUCHANAN: If we attack Syria, John --

MR. MELHEM: Iraq is going to go a different way than both Iran and Syria.

MS. CLIFT: You can't just dismiss Hezbollah as only a terrorist organization. As Hisham will tell you, they have seats in the parliament. They function as a political party. They provide a lot of services. And they have to be taken into account.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Great hospitals and great schools.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, if we attack Syria --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But they have -- would you call that a fringe military wing?

MR. MELHEM: No, no. They have a vibrant military wing, but they have also grassroots support.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: A terrorist wing?

MR. MELHEM: Lebanese don't call it that. The government of Lebanon --

MR. BUCHANAN: If we hit Syria --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you call it that way? You don't call it that way.

MR. MELHEM: No, no. In the past, they did engage in acts that you and I should call terrorism. But when they were fighting the Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil, that was not terrorism.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are we talking about the murder of the Jews in Argentina, in Buenos Aires?

MR. MELHEM: If they were culpable in that, yes, that's terrorism, of course.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, if we hit Syria and you hit Iran, as some people suggest, the United States will be at war from the Mediterranean all the way to the western border of Pakistan, an enormous area with all that inflamed. It'll inflame the oil situation. It'll inflame the whole region.

MS. CLIFT: Whose boots will be on the ground?

MR. MELHEM: The military option is not a solution. I mean, the military option against Syria -- American military option against Syria is not the solution. And you're absolutely right, that would backfire.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me --

MR. MELHEM: And they're already bogged down in Iraq.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me make a suggestion, that one option we have with Syria is to put some pressure on Syria's fear of their own people. We could do mass pamphlet-dropping and make them feel the need to consolidate their lines, and then they might pull their troops out of Lebanon because of concerns that I understand are growing concerns that the Syrian government has against its own people. So you don't have to jump right to the military --

MR. BUCHANAN: Tony, what happens to Assad? What happens to Assad if he pulls those 15,000 troops out of Lebanon, gives up his leverage, gives up his claim to Lebanon? Doesn't that make him, in effect, a traitor to his own bosses inside his own country?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, it also costs him a fortune, because Lebanon is a cash cow.

MR. MELHEM: For sure --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let Hisham talk.

MR. MELHEM: -- Syria's influence will shrink in the region. Syria's influence will shrink in the region, and they will lose whatever leverage they might with Hezbollah vis-…-vis Israel. And it will become extremely difficult for them to regain the Golan.

MR. BLANKLEY: And the other reason --

MS. CLIFT: The faction --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let him go and then you, Eleanor.

MR. BLANKLEY: The other reason it's going to be hard to get Syria out is Lebanon is a cash cow for the elite in Syria. And they're making a ton of money out of there personally, and so they're going to be very resistant to pulling out.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question --

MS. CLIFT: There's a faction in Lebanon that regards Lebanon as part of greater Syria. And maybe it's a cash cow, but they also need the access to the ports. Otherwise Syria is land-locked. So there's self-interest as a nation.

MR. MELHEM: Syria is not land-locked. Syria is not land-locked.


MR. MELHEM: And there are some Lebanese who would like to have a strong relationship with Syria. I think most Lebanese would like to have that, as long as it is based on reciprocity and respect. I think Tony is correct in the sense that this regime is not popular there, and he's also correct about the special interests who are benefiting from Lebanon. To them, Lebanon is a rich cow and they have been milking it with the collaboration of some Lebanese politicians, some Lebanese factions. It's true.

The problem with Tony's argument, throwing leaflets to the Syrians, is that although this regime is not popular, the United States also in the region is not popular. That's the problem, and that's the crux of the problem.

MR. BLANKLEY: There's Syrian opposition.

MR. MELHEM: It's very weak.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, it's growing.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We've got to get out. Over the years there have been hundreds of assassinations that have been undiscoverable as to who killed the (party?). You know that.

MR. MELHEM: Absolutely.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: In this particular one, it's probable that most evidence will have been vaporized.

MR. MELHEM: I have no doubt that we will not know from the Lebanese government --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, now, wait a minute. It is concluded that this is a state operation because of the sophistication --

MR. MELHEM: Extremely sophisticated.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and size. We also had a bombing of the barracks in 1983 in Beirut. That was a big bomb. We lost 283?

MR. BUCHANAN: Two hundred forty-one.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Two hundred forty-one soldiers -- big bomb, big truck bomb, maybe even bigger than the one that went off there.

MR. MELHEM: Absolutely.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You don't think that was a state bomb, do you?

MR. MELHEM: No, no. I think Hezbollah did it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hezbollah did it.

MR. MELHEM: I think Hezbollah did it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, if Hezbollah did that --

MR. MELHEM: It was not sophisticated. It was not sophisticated.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If Hezbollah or a group did that --

MR. MELHEM: You had somebody who was willing to die driving a truck laden with bombs, killing 241.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So a group could have done this. So that doesn't automatically conclude that Syria did it.

MR. MELHEM: No, no. I didn't say Syria did it. What I'm saying is that it does not look like a rival businessman to Hariri. This has been a sophisticated operation that had intelligence, logistics, communication and preparation.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We really have to get out. Exit question, multiple choice. The president of Syria, Bashir Assad, authorized the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Is that proposition, A, extremely likely; B, probably likely; C, barely likely; D, somewhat unlikely; E, most unlikely to the point of being preposterous? Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: I think it is unlikely Bashir authorized it, but I would not be surprised if it was elements of the Syrian government.


MS. CLIFT: Yeah, I'd put it between D and E. Definitely it did not serve the interests of the Syrian government.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So it's either --

MS. CLIFT: It's either very unlikely or preposterous.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- very unlikely or preposterous. Yes.

MR. BLANKLEY: I think it's A. And I've heard that it may be his brother-in-law who may, in fact, have been involved in running this. And he went to his brother, the president, for permission before doing it.

MR. MELHEM: Somewhat likely. Look, I doubt that, in these kinds of regimes, people will do operations like this. This is casus belli. This could lead to war. And you would have to be totally nuts, if you are the head of an intelligence service, to do something like that and drag your country into war without getting a nod of some sort.

There are many ways of saying, "Let's get rid of this so-and-so" without writing it. There's no executive order. That kind of a regime is not run the way we run business here.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you know what the family is saying. The family feels it's rogue intelligence agents. I share that view. I think it's preposterous to think that Bashir authorized this. He has nothing to gain and he has an immense amount to lose.

Issue Four: A Czar Is Born.

PRESIDENT BUSH: (From videotape.) John will make sure that those whose duty it is to defend America have the information we need to make the right decisions.

JOHN NEGROPONTE (NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR-DESIGNATE): (From videotape.) I appreciate your confidence in choosing me for what will no doubt be the most challenging assignment I have
undertaken in more than 40 years of government service.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The "challenging assignment" Ambassador Negroponte has been nominated for is that of national intelligence director, the new post created by Congress as part
of its overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community on the recommendation of the September 11th national commission.

The new intelligence czar will oversee and coordinate the communications of 15 disparate intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA. For the past seven months, Negroponte has been U.S. ambassador to Iraq, taking office after Paul Bremer's exit. Before that, he was U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the Philippines, Mexico and Honduras.

Question: Is Negroponte a shoo-in for the job? Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: I think Negroponte is a shoo-in for the job. He's an outstanding civil servant, John. He's got a tremendous career behind him, and I think he's enormously well-respected.

I do believe, and I will say again, this czar idea to me is one of the worst ideas I've seen. You're putting this man between the CIA director and the president of the United States. He's got to get cross-wise with DIA and with Rumsfeld. Putting him in the middle of this thing, it seemed to me, was a terrible mistake.

MS. CLIFT: He's supplanting Porter Goss at CIA, which is maybe why Porter Goss testified this week that the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists and is a recruiting ground, which is not exactly on the administration's song sheet.

MR. MELHEM: On his watch. (Laughter.) I think he's a Teflon appointee. Nothing will stick to him. And he will pass, because when he was appointed to the United Nations and to Iraq, all his history in Honduras did not stick. He will sail through. And I think the president likes him personally, and he probably supplants Goss.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, you're a United States citizen, right?


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You've been here for about 20 years.

MR. MELHEM: '72. Studied here undergraduate, graduate school; go back and forth. But I'm --

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let me finish this. So you remember the contra --

MR. MELHEM: Sure. I reported --

MR. BUCHANAN: Iran-contra.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The Iran-contra situation. But the Sandinista-contra situation.

MR. MELHEM: Sure, sure.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And you know that the epicenter of the action, all kinds of action, whether diplomatic, when he was ambassador in Honduras --


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And you know the CIA operated out of that, and you know the CIA had to handle the contras. You know all of that.


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So, therefore, he brings a knowledge of how public policy applies to covert action. He's tailor-made for this job. If anyone can do it, he can do it. Right?

MR. MELHEM: That's why he will sail through.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's also strong.

MR. MELHEM: And nothing stuck to him before. And he's very strong. You're right. I hear that he's a good administrator.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me add, you're right about Honduras. That's why the CIA institutionally trusts him. He did the same job in Mexico when there was a marxist uprising in the Yucatan, and he managed the CIA operation over that. So he is exactly the right man to have the confidence of the CIA. And Hayden, the number two --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The general.

MR. BLANKLEY: -- lieutenant general --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Head of the NSA, National Security Agency.

MR. BLANKLEY: -- is trusted by military intelligence. So you have at the top now two men who are trusted by the two major wings of the intelligence community. It's an excellent choice.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Granted, you don't approve of the whole idea and this restructuring. Neither do I. Nevertheless, if you had to give advice to Negroponte, what would you tell him to do?

MR. BUCHANAN: Get an office in the West Wing. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Get an office in the West Wing. Take Henry's office and Condi's office.

MR. BUCHANAN: You're not going to get Henry's office.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Take that office of the National Security --

MR. BUCHANAN: Take Buchanan's office. It's good enough.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You weren't in the West Wing. You were in the Old Executive Office Building.

MR. BUCHANAN: Reagan White House -- West Wing, John. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's a great idea. Go ahead.

MS. CLIFT: He's not going to get an office in the West Wing. But he is tremendously able and he's ruthless. He is part-thug, which is actually helpful in this job. He demonstrated that in Honduras.

MR. MELHEM: (Inaudible.)

MS. CLIFT: Exactly.

MR. BLANKLEY: He's probably going to get offices on the seventh floor at Langley, right down the hall from Porter.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He'll have that now.

MR. BLANKLEY: Those offices have been cleared out.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. What's your advice to him? You're a lawyer. Quickly.

MR. MELHEM: Lay low. (Laughs.)


MR. MELHEM: Yeah, because there will be sparks, I mean, between him and Rumsfeld and others.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: My advice to him is don't do what Tony said and hole up in the seventh floor of the CIA headquarters over there near Buchanan in Langley. Get at least five offices, one at the FBI with strong staff, one at the NSA, National Security Agency, with strong staff, one at the -- what's Rumsfeld's operation? The Defense Intelligence --




MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Then he's got to get two more. What two more? He's got to get the West Wing office and he's got to have a staff, and he's got to move around to control this monstrosity that he's been put in charge of.

Issue Three: Numbers Count.

New polls, most important issue: Iraq, 24 percent; Social Security and Medicare, 13 percent; economy, 12 percent. What do these numbers tell you? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, they tell us that Iraq is very much on the front burner for all the American people.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we know that. But what else do they tell you?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, they also tell us the president of the United States has been campaigning extremely hard to put Social Security up there, and he has not managed to get it up to the attention of the American people.


MR. BLANKLEY: That's not entirely true. The poll before that had it at 5 percent Social Security. He's gone from 5 percent saying it's the most important issue to 13 percent over a period of a couple of months. So he's had some effect. But obviously the most important thing facing us is Iraq and the war, and the people are being rational.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony, he's lost the momentum on the issue. And he knows it, because he's talking about a new tax base --

MR. BLANKLEY: He never had any momentum.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- which means a higher tax, even though not a higher rate.

Okay, President Bush's approval rating: Approve, 49 percent; disapprove, 48 percent. Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: It tells you the country remains as divided as it was before the election, as though the election never happened. He never got much of a bounce or a honeymoon from winning re-election.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What are you going to tell your readers about these polls over there in Lebanon?

MR. MELHEM: That he had a limited bounce because of the Iraq elections.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Nine seconds -- one prediction. Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: Bush opening up the tax issue has imperiled Social Security reform.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Excellent. Happy President's Day. Bye bye.