45 days and counting... So while we have two presidents -- or none, in Barney Frank's joke -- Berger, Huffington and Conason discuss the Clinton/Gates appointments, what they mean for actual policy, as well as whether the Big Three might become the Big One and whether Rove can tarnish Obama's mandate.
GREEN: You famously told Condi Rice during the 2000 transition that terrorism would be her top priority. How has the Bush administration done on terrorism?
SANDY BERGER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think we're somewhat safer, but I don't think that we've escaped the threat of terrorism. There's obviously been a great deal of money that's been spent over the last eight years on security, although there are gaping holes. For example, in our port system. As we see in Mumbai over the last tragic days that this is an undiminished threat. Our security is better than the Indians', but that this could be launched shows us that the Jihadists' movement is still very virulent.
GREEN: What's your evaluation of the national security team that Obama announced this week?
BERGER: I think it's an extraordinarily strong team, Mark, and a great statement about President Obama wanting to bring strong people into his administration. These are all high powered people with enormous intellectual firepower. They're pragmatists, but have a view that America needs to lead in the world in an energetic way, which we have not been doing over the last eight years.
GREEN: You know Sen. Clinton very well and advised her in her '08 primary campaign. Christopher Hitchens stated earlier this week that she's a terrible pick because she can only promote herself, and not work for her president. What's your view of his personal attack?
BERGER: Hillary has, first of all, a clear sense of what her responsibilities are as secretary of state. She's seen this from the White House and understands that the President leads the team. She will be a strong voice in shaping policy and then a20strong voice in carrying out that policy. She's not going to have her own agenda.
GREEN: What will Obama do regarding Guantanamo, bearing in mind that certain national security types and "Bushies" now claim that he can't just shut down Guantanamo so quickly, that there have to be exceptions to torture. Will he live up to the language he used as a candidate in denouncing Guantanamo and torture?
BERGER: Well, I certainly hope he'll live up to the language he used as a candidate, and I expect that he will. And I believe that we'll take action to deal with Guantanamo in a clear way. He'll make clear in deed and in law that we're not going to engage in torture. That we're going to live by international law with respect of detentions and interrogations. I think that will go a long way in the early days in helping to restore America's moral leadership and authority in the world. And make clear to the world that there's a new day in America.
GREEN: You travel a lot around the world. What will be the sheer impact of the Obama winning the presidency on the now low esteem of America around the world, even before he attempts any policy changes?
BERGER: There's been a stunning reaction around the world, Mark. I don't think that most people in the world believed that we would elect an African-American president. It suggests that the preconceptions that most of the world had about the United States and that have been reinforced over the last eight years are not true. And I think in many ways America is going to have a second chance.
GREEN: With Joe Biden as a VP with real foreign policy cred, could there be future conflicts with a Secretary of State like Hillary Clinton?
BERGER: I have enormous respect for Joe Biden and I don't think we can ever be wrong in having strong people in government at a time of enormous challenge. President-elect Obama has already demonstrated that he's in command. This is going to be his foreign policy. You know, just like in a football game, you like to have multiple weapons to deploy in the offense. I think we have lots of weapons here, and I think it's terrific.
You can find interview audio at Airamerica.com
SEVEN DAYS Panel Discussion with Arianna Huffington, Joe Conason & Mark Green, Dec. 6, 2008
GREEN: Obama was clear in the campaign about ending torture, shuttering Guantanamo and withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. Based on his appointments of largely centrists to his national security team, do progressives have reason to worry that he might flinch on these big ticket issues?
JOE CONASON: I think that on major issues there's actually much less disagreement between Obama and the people he's brought on to the national security team, than the "team of rivals" nomenclature would make people think. First of all, I think Hillary Clinton and, I suspect, Bob Gates, probably agree that closing Guantanamo is a good idea. I know that Gates is very sensitive to the image of the United States around the world. He's not a mindless militarist at all. Talks a lot about soft power, and understands what we need to do to restore our prestige and influence...and I actually suspect he's against invading countries preemptively. He was brought in as a representative of the older Bush's point of view, which was that the Iraq invasion was a bad idea, executed even worse than the way they originally conceived it and that, in fact, in order to deal with the threats and challenges the country has, we needed to approach things with a much broader array of methods and instruments than just military force.
GREEN: Actually, now that the Iraqi government itself has set a date for withdrawal, although it is in 2011, hasn't the Iraq war begun to end?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. In many ways. Not the least significant, at least symbolically, being the President's interview with Charlie Gibson, which was absolutely stunning in the backtracking that went on. I mean right down to the President's answer to the question: "If you knew there were no WMD, would you have invaded"? Instead of categorically saying "yes", which is what they've been saying for years, he actually said: "Well, that's a hard one to answer"... can't do a do-over on this." He was giving an answer that was completely contrary to the neo-con ideology that they've been espousing for years.
GREEN: On the subject then of exit interviews, what do you think of Laura Bush's answer that people keep coming up to them thanking them for keeping them "safe." Do you think W has kept us safe?
HUFFINGTON: That's a very absurd way of putting it -- you can't say that because we went and invaded Iraq and destroyed American reputation abroad and the goodwill towards America that was so deep after 9/11, that we're safer because the homeland hasn't been invaded. While, in fact, there's been so many unintended consequences that have been very destructive to the long term security of the country.
GREEN: Allow me an old joke here about confusing cause and effect: An old guy is hitting a stick on the pavement on DuPont Circle in Washington. When people ask him "why are you hitting a stick on the pavement?", he answers, "well, I'm keeping the elephants away." People then tell him, "but there are no elephants at DuPont circle!" And he says: "See!"
CONASON: Nobody knows the reason why we haven't been hit by al Qaida again, except perhaps the people in the deepest, deepest bowels of the intelligence apparatus. Some people actually believe that 9/11 was, in fact, a lucky shot by them. And it was kind of an unexpected hit from an unexpected place, and that it would be very hard for them to repeat something like that again. You know, in a lot of places there's excellent anti-terrorist work that has very little to do with the White House, such as in New York City where the police commissioner has a fantastic anti-terrorist apparatus. The truth is, though, if Obama gets through 4 or 8 years without us being hit by al Qaida, he too will get credit for that.
GREEN: On the subject of mandate theft, Karl Rove said Obama didn't win by all that much, and that he won because he spent a quarter of a billion dollars more than John McCain. Your view?
CONASON: I don't remember the Republicans ever forfeiting the mandate that they would get every time they spent twice as much as the Democrats. If that's the standard, then we have to go and erase all of their mandates over the years when they always had more money. Karl will say anything that he thinks will fly -- and usually there are enough people around who are gullible enough to believe him. But, that's absurd. Obama's ability to raise that much money was representative of his mandate, every bit as much as the votes he ended up getting, because they were small donations that came in a tsunami of revulsion against Republican rule. And if that doesn't represent a mandate, then nothing does. They not only stepped out on one day to mark a ballot, but they gave for months and months at a time where it was hard to give money.
GREEN: Isn't Obama in a politically enviable situation for a newly elected Democratic president -- the opposite of Clinton in '92 -- considering there almost isn't anyone who's against more spending as long as it's termed "stimulus"?
HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. In fact, one of the things we're dealing with is really the fact that many of these old arguments and categories are now completely obsolete. You can no longer really argue in terms of deficit hawks vs. tax-and-spend Democrats. The truth is that nearly nobody is now opposed to what would've been considered an irresponsibly large stimulus package at any other time.
GREEN: The American auto industry is begging for the life-saver of a loan. Will they get it from Congress or from TARP funds?
CONASON: Well, the treasury secretary says they can't get it from the TARP funds. So I think it would be hard for them to get him to release those funds as long as he's treasury secretary. I fear that they may not get it time because there's a lot of public opposition to it. People are angry, and understandably so, at the management of the auto companies. But it's a huge mistake for the public to try to punish the jerks who've been running the automobile industry by destroying the jobs of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.