Welcome to "Russert Watch" for Sunday, March 26, 2006. I'm your guest host, Rachel Sklar, sitting in for Arianna (but not even trying to attempt a Downward Facing Dog). Today on "Meet The Press," Tim scored a big, juicy sitdown with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who claims not to want the top job at either the NFL or the U.S. government, though she seems a mite less certain on that last one. But, we will get to that in due time. First up: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and special guest star in the pantheon of possible Iraq-war scapegoats, old-school geopolitical nemesis Russia! Plus a roundtable with press pundits, and their picks for a shuffled White House lineup and March Madness. Today was a biggie! Watch here, read the transcript here, or just sit back and feel like you're watching it again for the very first time.
We begin: Condi Rice, in the first stop on her whirlwind Sunday-morning TV tour. Tim notes that Condi's visit is timed with the beginning of the fourth year of the Iraq war, but doesn't see the need to dwell. More exciting stuff to address here: could it be all Russia's fault? Tim wants to know, citing yesterday's WaPo article stating that Russia passed detailed intel on U.S. troop movements to Saddam Hussein (NB: The Russians deny the charge). Condi carefully says that they're looking into it. Tim wants answers, dammit, and proceeds to assume the role of bad cop, ratcheting up the hypotheticals, giving Condi plenty of opportunities to sound cautious and reasonable. Consider the following exchange:
RUSSERT: Could it have been deliberate misinformation?Here my notes say: "WOW. He's really pushing this." Russert has gone from allegations to extrapolations in the blink of an eye, freeing Condi to demur ("Tim, we have to get to the bottom of the facts of this"). Note that this discussion is very much about reassigning blame for events at the beginning of the war, leaving aside blame for the current mess. The cynic in me can't help but note how useful a distraction the Russia news is, and how this "study" just happened to be released now, even though surely the information contained in the 210-page report worked its way upstairs some time ago.
RICE: I don't know. I think we really have to take a look at the documents. We're finding thousands and thousands and thousands of documents. And we're going to find some, some important and surprising things in these documents. I think we have to step back, take a hard look at the documents, but I--definitely we will raise it with the Russian government.
RUSSERT: When we first went into Iraq, we had some unexpected encounters with Fedayeen and we lost dozens of American men. The Russians may have been responsible for American deaths.
But anyway, Tim's got other fish to fry. "Why won't the Russians help us get sanctions in the United Nations against Iran and try to stop them from developing nuclear weapons?" he asks her, leaving behind the question of whether the President still has a clear view into Putin's soul. Condi notes that the Russians aren't exactly hankering for a nuclear Iran themselves, and that "we and the Russians, the Chinese, and certainly the Europeans, have the same view of what is, what is to be prevented" (note passive voice). Condi goes on to say that the U.S. might get together with the P5 and Germany to form a plan, saying: "Iran cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. That is the view of the international community, not just the United States." Russert cites an NYT article that suggests that "dragging Iran in front of the United Nations Security Council may prove an exercise in futility," but it's not futile if you're looking to escalate the diplomatic process. See below:
RICE: Chapter 7 resolution essentially gives the U.N., or the Security Council, the ability to compel a state to act. It can say that there would be consequences if actions are not taken.Condi has unwittingly hit it on the scary, scary head. The last time. Establishing the threat. Convincing the U.N. "Consequences if actions are not taken." Options on the table. This all sounds very, very familiar.
RUSSERT: Including military?
RICE: Well, no one ever takes anything off the table, but I believe we're a long way from, from that...there are a lot of options once you're in the Security Council. (snip)
RUSSERT: Do you believe if the president chose to embark on military action with Iran, he would go to Congress for authorization first?
RICE: I'm not going to speculate on that. The president is clear that he keeps all of his options on the table. But, Tim, I think speculating about how we might set up military action isn't helpful at a time when we really are concentrating on the diplomacy. But I want to be very clear...
RUSSERT: But you wouldn't go to Congress?
RICE: Well, Tim, of course the administration went to Congress the last time. (Emphasis added.)
At this point, I take a moment to feel a little afraid. Amazingly, comfort is on the way. Its unlikely source: Tim Russert.
Yes, Russert Watch gives genuine props to Russert on this next segment, where he confronts Condi with the "grim statistics" of Iraq war casualties and actually calls the administration on its linkage of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. I KNOW. I was surprised, too.
Tim asks Condi if they had ever anticipated the number of casualties (2,316 U.S. troops killed; 17,271wounded; an estimated 30,000 Iraqis killed. Wow.). Condi says of course not, but "nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice." What's on your feet there, Condi? Whee, pretty shoes! Undeterred by my shouting at the TV screen, Condi goes on:
RICE: Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat. Now that the...Er, perhaps "never said" is a bit too strong.
RUSSERT: But, but Saddam was not related to flying airplanes into buildings.
RICE: No, and we have never said that Saddam--Saddam was not related to the events of 9/11.
To his credit, Russert continues to smack it down, reminding Condi that (a) there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the U.S. had intelligence to that effect prior to going to war; (b) the Americans were not, in fact, greeted as liberators; (c) the pricetag is over $350 billion and counting, as opposed to the originally-budgeted $50 billion and (d) the insurgency is not, in fact, "in its last throes." As Russert said, "Each judgment has proven to be wrong." Condi defines "wrong" as "right about the fact that the Middle East was messed up before we got there": "It was that Middle East, the malignancy of the Middle East, that we "disturbed" that led directly to the 9/11 event." This gestalt theory of anti-American sentiment fomenting in a troubled, violent region is of course correct, but beside the point: the facts remain as Russert calls them, and no amount of spin can change that.
Whew! Long interview, and we're almost finished. Batting cleanup, Russert asks Condi about religious freedom in Afghanistan and she makes the point that "this is a young democracy that is working with a constitution that, like many constitutions when they're first born, [have] conflicts [to be worked out]." She points out that she's 51 but "it's in my lifetime that black Americans were guaranteed the right to vote. Who are we to be so, so insistent that people must do this overnight?" Which is a very fair point -- as the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day, or, for that matter, a 24-hour news cycle.
Russert also asks Condi about Bush's assertion that "future presidents" will oversee withdrawal from Iraq; Condi responds with a prediction that's already making headlines: that "it's entirely probable that we will see a significant draw-down of American forces over the next year." Does Russert know this will be the big takeaway from his interview? (And this one, natch.) He doesn't really follow up. He does, however, show a series of clips wherein Rice proclaims her desire to be NFL Commish. As it turns out, Condi gives that job the Heismann and says it's not in her game plan. And so ends our ability to make sports puns. She also says that Cheney's doing a heck of a job and that she's not planning to run in 2008. No, really. Says Russert, echoing: "Will not happen"...says Condi, modifying: "I don't think it's going to happen." I believe in the NFL they call that a punt.
Commercial break: The second of two Eliot Spitzer commercials (apparently he is both passionate and effective) and Paul McCartney shilling for Fidelity. Sacrilege.
And we're back! Our Condi-Tim precis was semi-exhaustive so this time we're going to be all about the bullet points. Here we go!
Look at that. Politics, football and basketball -- three of America's favorite sports. A hat trick! Fantastic. See you next week -- because if it's Sunday, it's Russert Watch.
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