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MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: civil war, a strategy?

This Sunday marks the anniversary of three years of U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. At the end of that three-year tunnel, there is not only no light; it's getting darker, many believe.

U.S. forces this week launched the biggest air assault since the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the ground, the carnage also worsened. The conflict has become a low-intensity civil war, with the Sunnis on one side and the Shi'ites on the other. The Sunnis this week killed more than 50 Shi'ites, including women and children. The Shi'ites killed over 100 Sunnis. Their bodies were found tied up, tortured and executed, 29 of them buried under a playing field used by children.

The Pentagon describes this as, quote-unquote, "sectarian violence," a studied way of saying civil war without saying it. And the secretary of Defense sees the conflict as more politics than policing.

DONALD RUMSFELD (secretary of Defense): (From videotape.) The situation, to the extent that it's fragile and tense, is as much a governance issue as it is a security issue.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mr. Rumsfeld says that governance demands that the people unite under an integral federal authority to --

SEC. RUMSFELD: (From videotape) -- come together to form a government of national unity --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: This, he explains, must happen in a, quote- unquote, "prompt fashion," spelling out the time frame.

SEC. RUMSFELD: (From videotape.) And they have a period of weeks to get that done.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: To recap Secretary Rumsfeld: One, Iraq is plagued with, quote-unquote, "sectarian violence"; two, Iraq can only combat this by forming a unified national government; three, the deadline for that government formation is a matter of weeks; four, otherwise civil war, Iraq-style.

SEC. RUMSFELD: (From videotape.) I don't think it'll look like the United States's civil war.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And what does Mr. Rumsfeld say the United States military will do about an Iraq civil war?

SEC. RUMSFELD: (From videotape.) Have the Iraqi security forces deal with it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Let's assume a full-fledged Iraq civil war breaks out and, as Mr. Rumsfeld says, Iraq security will deal with that civil war, not U.S. forces. Is that really our current strategy in the United States government -- that is, a strategy on how to get our servicemen and women out of Iraq -- an Iraq civil war, do you think, de facto, Pat Buchanan?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, I do not, John. I don't think an all-out civil war is a high probability for this reason. The Shi'as don't want it because they control the country and they want the whole thing. The Sunnis would lose everything. The Iranians don't want it because they would be drawn in and it would blow back into Iran. The Americans don't want it. Frankly, I don't think we could get out if it broke into an all-out civil war. I don't think we would get ourselves involved, but we wouldn't pull out.

The good thing about this, John, is that all the political forces and countries there, I can't think of a single one which believes it would benefit from a civil war. That's why Zarqawi and the terrorists and some of the Shi'ite extremists and some of the Sunni extremists are the only ones pushing for it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The threshold at which there is a civil war is, of course, quite subjective -- quite subjective. And therein lies room to maneuver, and that room to maneuver is on the part of the administration. They can simply declare, particularly in light of what we're going to say in a moment, that civil war exists in Iraq at that level that we can expect in Iraq, probably to a death toll; that would be one component.

MS. CLIFT: Well, if you're going to look at death tolls, in the month of February there were only some 50-odd U.S. servicemen who were killed, and the number of Iraqis was many times over that. And the number of American dead in February was by far the lowest of any month really since the beginning of the occupation.

So the U.S. troops are already standing down, getting out of the way, trying to let the Iraqi troops handle this. The fallacy, however, in this strategy is that the Iraqi troops and the police are more loyal to their ethnic groups. And maybe there is not broad-scale fighting going on, but the sectarian violence is such that we cannot put it down unless we put another 100,000 troops in, which we're not going to do.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Tony, let me flesh this out a little bit more and then turn to you for your wisdom, because I know the audience is waiting for this.

MR. BLANKLEY: (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, Baker to the rescue.

This week Congress took a rare step. A congressionally chartered blue ribbon commission, co-chaired by former secretary of State, Republican James A. Baker III, and former representative, Democrat Lee Hamilton, came into being this week, a 10-member bipartisan commission. The commission is composed of former government officials who, quote, "love their country more than their party," unquote. So says the commission's key congressional sponsor and architect, Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia.

The commissioners will review the U.S.'s Iraq policy in its totality. Instead of relying on administration witnesses, the commission members themselves will travel to Iraq to interview widely on the ground with military and civilians, assess the situation first- hand, and report to the nation.
Question: Is the true rationale of this congressional fact- finding panel to elbow Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney out of the action and give the action to Congress?

MR. BLANKLEY: First let me just go back to your opening quote with Rumsfeld. I could be mistaken, but I think he said leave it up to the Iraqi forces to the extent that they can, or something like that. So I do not believe they're looking for an exit strategy.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think the combination of the quotes there and other quotes of Rumsfeld make it very clear that there's no way we can involve ourselves in an Iraq civil war.

MR. BLANKLEY: I disagree. But let me --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What are you going to do, take a side, one side or the other? You know what that leads to.

MR. BLANKLEY: I believe that it's -- if I were betting, it'd be more likely than not that we would support the elected government, which would be the Shi'a-Kurd side of a civil war, if it came to it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's a Shi'a government. You know that.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, but let me --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You've got the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shi'as.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me tell you, I think we're more likely to do that than to go to an exit strategy.

Let me go to the Jim Baker thing, because I think this has been underreported and underdiscussed. I think this was the congressional Republicans bridling the thought that they were simply going to, between now and the election --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean, alarmed.

MR. BLANKLEY: Alarmed -- that they were simply going to accept repeating the talking points of the White House on Iraq and they were looking for something. And this was -- you know, it couldn't be held back anymore by the Republican leadership and they went forward with it.
The White House, as I understand it, accepted Baker as an acceptable Republican in the co-chair, along with Hamilton -- Baker, of course, being Bush's father's consiglieri and secretary of State and Treasury and chief of staff.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And settling the notorious 2000 issue down in Florida.

MR. BLANKLEY: And -- yes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's Baker to the rescue.

MR. BLANKLEY: And also he's been hesitant about this war from before the war started. So he's got a very delicate role to play in coming up with whatever they're going to come up with.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think his instructions are to protect the dynasty from the ruin that's being --

MR. BLANKLEY: I don't know. But I don't think this was -- I know this wasn't a White House effort to get an excuse to get out. This was congressionally driven from the bottom up, demand to do something other than simply repeat White House talking points.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: James Baker, as you know, is a distinguished, wise man, universally regarded as such, an extremely good diplomat, and he's very close to the Bush clan. So what do you -- do you want to refer to the second part or the first part? But I'll leave you free to address this question. And welcome.

MS. DANIEL: I think what's interesting on the bipartisan commission is also it says something about the Democrats. The Democrats want this commission as much as the

Republicans do on the Hill, because they don't have a clear strategy right now either.

This week you had the former national security adviser to President Carter accusing the Democrats of political desertion on this issue. That's a fairly strong statement. So I think the Democrats -- what seems to me is that they're willing to embrace this commission as well and put very high-level people on it, as well as the Republicans.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did he say that with approval, the desertion?

MS. DANIEL: No, he was saying it based upon --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, desertion in not taking a position against it.

MS. DANIEL: Exactly. He's accusing them of evasion and not embracing Iraq as an issue, not challenging some of the assumptions that Bush keeps putting out there. Again, what we've seen this week is Bush has had yet another effort to try and defend the Iraq war with a series of speeches. He started on Monday.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If the commission came back and said it's quite clear that what we should do is get out of Iraq right away, as soon as possible, because we're destabilizing the nation and we are destabilizing the region -- it's become counterproductive -- if that happens, everybody gets cover. Is that right?

MS. DANIEL: I think it's going to be very hard to ignore this commission, given the status of it. But you've already seen Bush trying to get towards a bipartisan position since the beginning of the year. He invited lots of former secretaries of State into the White House.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The most interesting thing about this commission is James Baker brought it into being. Correct?

MR. BUCHANAN: It's more than that, John. Not only Baker is there, but, look, this commission is going to come down very close to where George Bush is at right now and Cheney, and where the country is at, which is that we ought to find a way as quickly as possible, without having a total collapse, to move the American forces out of there. We are part of the cause of the insurgency and we ought to get out. And the sooner they can take it over, the better.

MS. CLIFT: The president set, for the first time, a benchmark that by the end of this year the Iraqi forces would control 70 percent or more of the territory in Iraq. It's kind of a phony figure, but nonetheless, he is creating his escape route.


MS. CLIFT: And that is that he will declare the Iraqis able to take care of the security of the country.

MR. BLANKLEY: Let me make a point. When you say will something give cover, I don't think Bush or the Republicans or the Democrats can find cover on the Iraq war. What they say and do and how the war plays out is going to be "unhideable." And this idea that there's going to be some clever scheme from either side to cover their political embarrassments is not going to play out.

MS. CLIFT: The country has come to the conclusion that this is a failure.

MR. BLANKLEY: Don't speak for the country yet.

MS. CLIFT: Well, I think that's evident in the polls.

MR. BLANKLEY: You've been losing elections for decades.

MS. CLIFT: That's evident in the polls.

MS. DANIEL: I think what's interesting is this week you've had Iran coming in again. For the first time you've got --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Iran doing what?

MS. DANIEL: This shows you how concerned the Bush administration is right now.

MR. BUCHANAN: Stepped in --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You'd better give a little background. What's Iran doing?

MS. DANIEL: What's happening now is this week, for the first time, you've had the Bush administration willing to talk to Iran about how they could help resolve the situation in Iraq.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Who initiated the move?

MR. BUCHANAN: Here's why Iran -- this is important, John. The Iranians are scared to death not only of civil war but of an American strategy which is basically maybe to break Iran apart. Only 50 percent of the Iranians are Persians. You have a civil war in Iraq. You've got Baluchis in there, you've got Arabs in there and you've got Kurds, all in Iran. They can desperately not want to have a civil war because they've won the game.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, so you're saying that, for reasons of a unitary government and nation and the preservation of that, Iran is showing this movement.

MR. BUCHANAN: The best news is that the United States and Iran have identical interests in not having Iraq collapse in civil war.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Talk about --

MS. CLIFT: And the U.S. needs Iran.

MR. BUCHANAN: Exactly.

MS. CLIFT: Iraq is in such dire straits, they're going to have to buy electricity from Iran. The grid is in worse shape since when we first destroyed it when we first went in there. I mean, it's abysmal conditions.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Saddam Hussein is on trial. Saddam Hussein is the personification of the Sunni downfall. The timing couldn't be worse if you're trying to get Sunnis into the government. You understand that.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, no, I don't think Saddam -- Saddam has some diehard support, but I think the Sunnis have moved on. Most of them realize now, look, they're like the whites in South Africa. "We're not going to run this place anymore.
The question is, are we going to play a major role?"

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So you're telling me there's going to be a unified government in Iraq --

MR. BUCHANAN: I think there's going to be a government --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and a functioning parliament?

MR. BUCHANAN: I'm telling you that the forces for union there are very, very strong on all sides. There's tough forces for disunion --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Before we leave this --

MR. BUCHANAN: -- but I don't think you need despair yet.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Before we leave the subject of Iraq, USA Today poll was intriguing and frightening. USA Today's poll this week on Iraq: Nine out of 10 have prayed for those affected by the war; 50 percent have cried because of the war -- 50 percent of Americans; three to one, Americans say that the war's effect on the United States has been negative; 50 percent say that the war has not been morally justified; 60 percent say that the war has not been, quote-unquote, "worth it."

Exit question: Will the Baker-Hamilton commission conclude that our presence in Iraq is destabilizing Iraq and the region and recommend a speedy military exit? Yes or no?

MR. BUCHANAN: I think, by and large, yes, because I think Mr. Bush and the administration have come to the same conclusion. I think all Americans are moving to a consensus on this war.


MS. CLIFT: I agree with that. I think the time is for a cold, hard judgment as to whether our presence there is helping or hurting, and it's not worth the cost. And I think the commission will codify what the American people have come to believe.


MR. BLANKLEY: I don't know, obviously, what they'll conclude. But if it ends up reflecting broadly Bush's view, I don't think Bush is looking for a quick exit until it's a satisfactory condition; so, no, not a quick exit, in and of itself.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's your conjecture? What are they going to come back with -- a speedy exit?

MS. CLIFT: A year from now.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, I said not a premature exit.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But an exit.

MR. BUCHANAN: All deliberate speed.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, no, no --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are they going to say it's destabilizing Iraq?

MR. BLANKLEY: It's not what you want. It's not what --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you mean, what I want?

MR. BLANKLEY: You've been --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What the universal public expectation --

MR. BLANKLEY: You've been predicting a speedy exit since 2003.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I've been pretty good on some of this stuff, though, Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: You've been completely wrong on the speedy exit. And I've been right on --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, what's speedy? I said July 4th we're going to see a substantial -- what did I say, way back, way, way back? I said they were going to lose the House of Representatives, the Republicans, about eight months ago. I mean, what am I supposed to do, defend my forecasting record?

MR. BUCHANAN: It's indefensible, John. Move on.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: When you say that "Brokeback Mountain" is going to win the Oscars? (Laughter.)

MS. DANIEL: I think they will say it's destabilizing. I think even George Bush is now accepting that some of the way that the American troops have handled provocations in Iraq have been more damaging for the situation. That's something he talked about even in his speech on Monday.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you mean?

MS. DANIEL: Well, for example, he talked about after the bombing of the mosque recently --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The golden mosque.

MS. DANIEL: -- it was the Iraqi troops who actually helped to tamp the situation down because they understand the cultural problems and (niceties?) of some of the people who are sort of rioting and trying to cause unrest, rather than the American troops who didn't speak the language and didn't understand how to deal with sensitive situations.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We didn't understand the magnitude of the provocation of that mosque being bombed.

MS. DANIEL: I think they understood. I think everyone understood the magnitude of the provocation. I mean, that's what George Bush says. And for the first time in a speech this week, he talked about civil war.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think any of us can appreciate it unless you're living in that culture and you have that religion and that culture, the real extent of what that mosque has done --

MR. BUCHANAN: You could see it by the reaction, John.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and whether the Sunnis and the Shi'as, who really know in their heart and really want a unitary government with the Kurds, whether or not they've moved so far away from us because of the mosque that they might not be able to fulfill what are their deeper longings.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, I think you can tell from the reaction to what happened. It was almost on the verge of civil war, and we talked about it, and they pulled back from it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well-stated, Pat.

Issue Two: Hey, Big Spender.

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): (From videotape.) When are we going to get serious about what's happening to our country? We are plunging deeper and deeper into debt, and increasingly it is financed by foreigners. The debt is the threat.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Despite the protestations of many senators, the majority of them Democrats, the Senate this week raised the debt ceiling of the United States by $781 billion. Nine trillion dollars is what the total national debt will balloon to with this $781 billion add-on.

The vote was 52-48. The U.S. government is in the red, big-time. In September 2000, the national debt clock in New York's Times Square, which records the uptick in government borrowing, was actually stopped. Why? No new debt. The federal budget was running a surplus, in fact, whereas now, under President Bush, for the fourth time, that ceiling has been lifted.

It's scary. The run-up in debt has economists, Wall Street analysts, academics and Congress nearly at a state of nervous breakdown. In economic terms, we have never experienced the impact and danger of such a debt load before -- no markers, no reference points. It's terra incognita -- unknown terrain.

The rule of thumb is that debt should not exceed 60 percent of gross domestic product. But the $9 trillion in U.S. debt is 70 percent of our $12.7 trillion GDP. To underwrite this colossal number, the U.S. relies on foreign banks and foreign investors, and the catastrophic bloat will only get bigger with the current-accounts deficit add-on expected this year to rise to over $1 trillion.

If Asian central bank reserves, notably China's, and Arab petro dollars are moved away from dollars and into euros, U.S. interest rates will skyrocket and the economy will nosedive.

Question: How much of the national debt is currently held by foreigners? Caroline Daniel.

MS. DANIEL: I think about 40 percent of the national debt is held by foreigners.

So you have to be worried about how far the Chinese or the Japanese are going to continue to lend money to the U.S. and to invest in U.S. assets.

But I think what's as worrying about the fact that foreigners own a lot of U.S. debt is how much debt consumers have in this country. That's also about $11 trillion of debt is held by U.S. consumers, and that's gone up by 27 percent over the last few years. And what's even worse is that we have a negative savings rate for the first time since 1933 in America.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, the American public doesn't give a rat's rear about the national debt. You know that.

MS. DANIEL: I know that. They're too worried about their own debt.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They don't see this translating into the activity of the street.

MS. DANIEL: It doesn't directly translate, but what it could translate into is when you have -- if it leads to higher interest rates. At the moment, actually, the level of national debt is actually manageable. I don't think we're seeing a nervous breakdown on Wall Street right now.

MR. BUCHANAN: It's only 70 percent of GDP. And after World War II, John, it was well over 100 percent. It's over 100 percent in Japan. The problem is this --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Are you, as a conservative, countenancing and encouraging the national debt?

MR. BUCHANAN: The problem is the deficit is between 3 and 4 percent of GDP, but when the baby boomers hit Social Security and Medicare, it explodes, and there's no way to stop it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, and the tax revenues will be lower because they will be, to a great extent, retiring.

MR. BUCHANAN: A lot of the most affluent workers in America will be moving out and consuming savings.


MS. CLIFT: Well, there is a sense that we're living on borrowed time here and that there is going to be some sort of a crunch or a crash at some point.

What I don't get is all of the conservatives, principally, are so worried about our national sovereignty -- they're even worried about being part of the U.N. -- and that they let Asian bankers control, basically, our economy. You can't afford to offend your creditors. And I think --




MR. BLANKLEY: -- what all of you have said is right. But let me talk about the deficit just for a second, as opposed to the debt. Today the deficit is 20 percent of GDP. Under the Reagan years that I served and Pat served in the White House, it was 22 percent of GDP -- the deficit, the one-year deficit, not the debt.

Now, except for the few post-year wars (sic) after the end of communism and we were cutting military spending drastically, and when, briefly, under the leadership of my old boss, Newt Gingrich, we got a balanced budget, other than that, the level of deficit spending now is, in fact, a little bit less than it was in the Reagan years and about what it was in the Carter years.

So the year-to-year deficits are not disproportionate historically, although I'd like to see less spending.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue Three: Hail to Madame Commander in Chief.

When will the day dawn that Americans address their leader as "Madame President"? It could be sooner than you think. Ninety-two percent of Americans polled would vote for a qualified woman for president. And it's not only women who can see a woman in the White House. Sixty percent of men, a practical consensus, say America is now ready for a woman president, compared to 51 percent of women polled; so a kind of gender gap in reverse.

Currently women rule in Chile, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Bangladesh, Liberia, Mozambique, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, among other states of the world, including, by the way, Jamaica.

Question: Is there a catch in these polls, or is a woman president a true shoo-in? I ask you, Eleanor Clift.

MS. CLIFT: Well, no president is a true shoo-in. The catch is "qualified," and I do think that people say yes, they'll vote for a woman, because it's politically correct. I think there may be a bigger hurdle here for any woman. But we now no longer are just talking about this theoretically. We have two real-life people who we can imagine as president in Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. And so I think it is just -- (laughs) -- Tony, you looked like you were just going to have a heart attack when I --

MR. BUCHANAN: He can't imagine that, Eleanor. (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You saw him wince? He winced.

MS. CLIFT: He winced. He winced. He winced.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, let's move on because we have a limited amount of time. What's the principal objection, do you think, unstated, about having a woman commander-in-chief?

MR. BLANKLEY: I mean, I can repeat all the cliches -- you know, whether they're emotional, whether they're tough enough. It's nonsense.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about --

MR. BLANKLEY: From Elizabeth I to Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi to Maggie Thatcher, the right kind of woman can lead a country.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about military action and having control of the bomb?

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, well, that's all part of the --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do they think that there is enough experience? Isn't that the main hurdle in the --

MR. BLANKLEY: That's always been the main problem. But the right -- as I say, a qualified woman, as Eleanor says, I don't think it's a problem. But the trouble is, there's a smaller pool of qualified women than there are qualified men because women haven't advanced up proportionately in governorships and senatorships.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What was it about Maggie Thatcher that enabled her to go into the Falklands and act like a five-star general?

MS. DANIEL: She was always a hard-line conservative. She came up from hard-scrabble roots and she was a tough woman to get to the top of the Conservative Party. But what we've seen with Angela Merkel is a good case in point. No one thought she'd be as successful as she was, and yet now she's one of the most popular politicians ever in German history.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So there's a lesson for the United States here?

MS. DANIEL: Things can change very quickly in terms of perceptions of how far people are acceptable as women leaders.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions. Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: The next president of Mexico is the populist Obrador -- bad news for America.


MS. CLIFT: Another shoe will drop in the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame scandal. Stay tuned.


MR. BLANKLEY: September will be the month our government decides whether or not to bomb Iran.


MS. DANIEL: Tony Blair will stand down as Britain's prime minister by the end of the year.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think Tony Blair is going to be in office by the end of the year? You don't think he's going to resign?

MS. DANIEL: That's what I'm saying. He's going to resign by the end of the year.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, is he?


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That shows my level of attention to you, lovely Caroline.

Tony Soprano is not dead.

Next week, as the bird flu ravages the poultry population of Israel, we scramble over here to stay ahead of the dreaded virus. Will we succeed?

Happy St. Patrick's weekend. Bye-bye.