Kristol Astounds Lauer: Rejects Media Touting of Warner, Negative NIE Presumption

Matching the theme of NBC Nightly News from the evening before, the Today show on Friday morning portrayed Republican Senator John Warner's call for 5,000 troops to return home by Christmas as “a major defection” and “sharp rebuke” to President Bush, but to the astonishment of co-host Matt Lauer, who described Warner as “a pretty heavy domino” falling against Bush, guest Bill Kristol rejected the media's presumptions about the importance of Warner's stand. On Thursday, NBC anchor Brian Williams had hailed a possible “turning point in the debate over America's involvement in Iraq” because of “a major defection from President Bush's camp.” (NB rundown of Thursday night hype of Warner) Friday morning, Andrea Mitchell echoed Williams as she trumpeted “a major defection from the most authoritative Republican Senator on all things military. It is a sharp rebuke to the President” from “the Senate's most influential Republican on the Armed Services Committee.”

When Kristol made clear he didn't think Warner's comments were such a big deal since he remains opposed to a pull-out timetable, Lauer argued: “What about the signal it sends to moderate Republicans in Congress? You know everybody talks about some sort of large scale defection. Isn't John Warner a pretty heavy domino?” Kristol countered: “No, because it hasn't fallen. He's not going to vote against the President in September, that's the more important thing.” Turning to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, which Mitchell had described as “grim,” Kristol highlighted positive findings about defeating al-Qaeda, prompting an incredulous Lauer to wonder: “Are they looking at the same country that you just saw?” Lauer soon insisted: “It paints a much more pessimistic picture than you just painted for me.”

The MRC's freshest news analyst, Kyle Drennen, provided a transcript of the coverage on the August 24 Today show on NBC:
MATT LAUER, 7am tease: On the way out. The out-going Chairman of the Joint Chiefs will reportedly urge President Bush to cut the number of U.S. Forces by almost half, a day after a key Republican Senator said it is time to start bringing troops home from Iraq.

MATT LAUER, 7:06am: Now though to the War in Iraq and storm clouds on the horizon for President Bush. There is a new report out today that says the President's top military man will ask him to bring nearly half of U.S. troops home from Iraq in about the next year. NBC's Andrea Mitchell has more on that. Andrea good morning to you.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Good morning Matt. It could be a triple dose of bad news for the President's Iraq strategy. Today's Los Angeles Times says the outgoing Chairman, Peter Pace, may recommend a major troop cut in Iraq next year because the military is so strained. This on top of a grim forecast from the nation's intelligence agencies and a major defection from the most authoritative Republican Senator on all things military. It is a sharp rebuke to the President, who has refused all calls for a timetable to get out. John Warner, the Senate's most influential Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and just back from Baghdad, says the President should order at least 5,000 troops home by Christmas.

SENATOR JOHN WARNER: We simply cannot as a nation stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody's attention.

MITCHELL: Warner says Iraq's government has failed the U.S. troops. Criticism that matches the new U.S. intelligence report, which says despite "uneven improvements in Iraq's security situation" since the surge began, "the level of overall violence remains high. Sectarian groups remain unreconciled. Al-Qaeda in Iraq retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks" and "the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next 6 to 12 months." Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, have said Prime Minister Maliki should go. But Barack Obama said that won't solve the problem.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: We could have one, two, three, four replacements for Maliki, but if the underlying political dynamic has not changed, then we are not going to see progress.

MITCHELL: All this while Iraq's parliament continues to vacation for the whole month, prompting anger in official Washington and sharp satire from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

SOLDIER IN PARODY: Hey parliament, I wish you were here. No seriously, I really wish you were here.

SECOND SOLDIER IN PARODY: You guys enjoy your vacation.

THIRD SOLDIER IN PARODY: Yeah. We will keep fighting for your country for you.

FOURTH SOLDIER IN PARODY: Take the time off. I am sure it is well deserved. You get to see your family. You probably only get to see them, you know, 3 or 4 times a week.

FIFTH SOLDIER IN PARODY: Do not forget to bring to bring me back a souvenir.

SIXTH SOLDIER IN PARODY: You go on enjoy yourself. You Know, ride the little jet skis. Do what you got to do. And I will be here, you know, taking care of your country until you get back. Have a good one.

MITCHELL: That reflects what many in Washington won't say out loud, but Senator Warner's defection does send a strong signal to other Republicans, and of course to the White House, that it's now alright to oppose the President. Matt.

MATT LAUER: Alright Andrea, thanks very much. Andrea Mitchell in Washington for us this morning. Bill Kristol is the Editor of the Weekly Standard and a long time supporter of President Bush's Iraq strategy. Bill good to see you, good morning.

BILL KRISTOL: Hi Matt, how are you?

LAUER: From what I, I am fine thanks. From what I am hearing, you do not think that the John Warner statement is such a big deal, such a huge negative, for the President. Why?

KRISTOL: He said he would vote against Democratic efforts to impose a timetable or impose troop limits. He'd prefer if the President began to draw some troops out by Christmas, I don't think that is based on serious military analysis. He wants to send a signal to the Iraqi government. I think the Iraqi government knows that we're impatient with their progress. I don't think it's a real defection.

LAUER: But In terms of sending signals, what about the signal it sends to moderate Republicans in Congress? You know everybody talks about some sort of large scale defection. Isn't John Warner a pretty heavy domino?

KRISTOL: No, because it hasn't fallen. He's not going to vote against the President in September, that's the more important thing. If you had told me three months ago, and I'm a supporter of the President, that John Warner's, the sum of John Warner's great rebellion, would be that he would prefer that the President at his discretion pull out a few thousand troops by Christmas, I would have said that's fine. The fact is the surge is making progress. The great rebellion that was supposed to happen in September is not going to happen and the President is going to prevail for now.

LAUER: But you just came back from Iraq. I know you were there recently and you did come back thinking that the surge is starting to work and making progress. Give me one or two key points to make your case on that Bill.

KRISTOL: Well there's no question that security is better in much of the country and there is no question that from the ground up, there's political progress. The flip in Anbar Province where the Sunni tribes have joined us and have basically expelled al-Qaeda, from what was their stronghold, is impressive. We're defeating al-Qaeda. The Shi'ite militia are a bigger problem. The national political situation is a big problem. But it can only be addressed as security continues to improve. And as the NIE released yesterday says, it can't be addressed, the political situation, if we start to withdraw.

LAUER: Well, and that's true. And I want to talk about this National Intelligence Estimate and I want to start by saying, because I think you are very right to point out they say: we can see more chaos if we pull troops out now. But they do seem to differ with you on a couple of key points. Very little hope for reconciliation among the feuding factions within Iraq. Overall violence remains at a very high level. The Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next 6 to 12 months. They say that Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively. And they say al-Qaeda in Iraq retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks. Are they looking at the same country that you just saw?

KRISTOL: Sure. They say they al-Qaeda is weaker than it was. The national political leadership is really challenged. If we can provide continued increased security, they will have to step up to the plate. But the only way to get them to improve, maybe Maliki will be removed by the parliamentary, in the parliamentary system that Iraq has. But the only way that we can have a peaceful transition over there and actually achieve political progress is by continuing to provide more security. I think that's what the National Intelligence Estimate says.

LAUER: But I mean it paints a much more pessimistic picture than you just painted for me.

KRISTOL: I don't agree with that. People should read the estimate. It's a 4-page summary of declassified findings. And frankly, the reporting on it has been misleading. People can go online and read the estimate for themselves. I urge them to do so.

LAUER: So you think most people if they read the entire estimate they're going to come away thinking things are going better in Iraq?

KRISTOL: Things are going better enough that we should sustain the current strategy which is working. Look at everyone's predictions in January: Oh the surge, how ridiculous, you can't improve security. Anbar Province, that was supposed to be lost. You can't get the Sunnis to cooperate. Parts of Baghdad that were in terrible shape, you can't improve the situation there. It is improving. No one really doubts that. Is it improving fast enough? We can debate that, but I think the President has an awfully strong case to say give me 6 more months. Basically continue Patraeus's strategy, let's see where we are in the spring.

LAUER: Bill Kristol. Bill thanks for your time this morning.

KRISTOL: My pleasure Matt.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center