Russert Grills Dodd, Threw Softballs at Clinton

As NBC's "Meet the Press" continues its "Meet the Candidate" series leading up to the 2008 elections, it is infinitely clear that some guests will receive different treatment than others.

Such was unquestionably apparent Sunday when host Tim Russert mercilessly pounded Democrat presidential candidate Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on a number of issues including his vote in favor of the October 2002 Iraq War resolution.

Russert presented statement after statement made by Dodd in support of the war before he became a presidential candidate, and continued to probe why the Senator's position changed so dramatically actually asking if it was due to political expediency.

Yet, five weeks ago when Russert had Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) on as his guest, her ever-evolving position on this matter wasn't nearly exposed or explored. For instance, here's the text of Russert's Dodd interview concerning Iraq (video available here, relevant section begins at 6:30):

TIM RUSSERT, HOST: You mentioned October of 2002. Let me bring you back to that day, October 9th, specifically when you went to the Senate floor and spoke in favor of authorizing the war in Iraq.

SENATOR CHRIS DODD: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Here it is.

(Videotape)

SEN. DODD: There's no question that Iraq poses biological and chemical weapons, that's not in doubt, and that he seeks to acquire additional weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. That's not in debate. I also agree with President Bush that Saddam Hussein is a threat to peace and must be disarmed.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think when you watch those words?

SEN. DODD: Well, I read the whole speech, and I did last evening in preparation for coming here this morning. And I also cautioned there that we explore, let the, let the inspectors stay on the job here. And many of us, most of us believed, even Carl Levin for instance, who took a very different view than I did, acknowledged the fact that the weapons of mass destruction were there and the possibility of accumulating. We were all drawn into that. I regret that vote, obviously. Like to have it back. You can't. I've said as much. It was a mistake, in my view, here. But I also at that time and also in March of ‘03, strongly cautioned the administration not to aggressively pursue the military option without seeing whether or not we could actually prove that the weapons of mass destruction existed there.

Colin Powell said it well before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He said if this is about regime change, we should not go in. If it's about dealing with weapons of mass destruction, that's a cause for war. I agreed with him then. I agreed with him then. I think that was the appropriate way to approach the issue. And certainly we've learned painfully that that was not the issue. The weapons of mass destruction did not exist.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, your support for the war continued. Here you are in July of 2005, almost two years after you voted for the authorization. Here's Chris Dodd on MEET THE PRESS.

(Videotape)

SEN. DODD: We need to complete this job, which I support, by the way. We've got a lot of things we need to do.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: And then in February of ‘06, when asked specifically about a deadline for withdrawal of troops, here's Chris Dodd: "‘Senator Dodd, do you agree that setting a deadline would tip off the enemy so to speak?' Dodd: ‘Yeah, I'm opposed to deadlines.'"

SEN. DODD: Well, let me-just first of all, it was in-in September of ‘04, I said it was a mistake that we went in. Hartford Courant will report that, September 28th, 2004. What I talked about on the program here was we're there. We got in mistakenly. How do we complete this in a successful way? And certainly the idea-I initially did not like the idea of having deadlines. But, Tim, I've come to the conclusion, as many others have as well-and people on the ground conclude this as well-this was not going well at all here. This was-the issue that was raised by John Warner to General Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago, is America safer? That's the issue the American president has to answer. Are we keeping our country safe and secure? And I believe that our continued military presence in Iraq does not keep us safe and secure. I think we're far more vulnerable, I think we're far more isolated today than in any time in recent history, and that we need to change direction on this policy.

Our young men and women are doing an incredible job. I've been there many times, I have great respect for the work they're doing. But I think we're all coming to the conclusion that as long as we continue to be engaged in a military-civil war, rather, in the country, the ability for us to sort that out-just even recent articles will indicate here-we're arming Sunnis in Anbar province to kill Shias. And around Baghdad here, the Shias are keeping the Sunnis out of the police departments here. We're basically acting like a, a bouncer in a bar brawl in a sense, here, with both sides trying to keep them apart from each other. The Iraqis have to decide whether or not they want to be a nation-state or not. That's not a decision for us to make. We can create space for them, we can help them get there, but ultimately they have to make that decision. They're not making it. And I've come to the conclusion that the only way to possibly get them to move in that direction is to say with clarity that our military participation in your country is coming to a close.

You asked the question the other night at Dartmouth College here, of all of the candidates, will you commit that by the end of your first term in 2013 we'll have our troops out of there? I was stunned to hear three of the so-called leading candidates say they would not make that commitment. When you asked me the question, I said I will. In fact, I hope we have it completed by 2009, and you can do it safely and securely for our troops here. So, in the past, I have been reluctant to support time certains-deadlines, if you will. But I came to the conclusion almost a year ago-in fact, I was here, having just come back from, from Baghdad. We talked at this table. And I met with young soldiers over there who said this is just not working. We need to change this policy. I think we want some decisive action here, we want some clarity on this. We're not getting it. In my view, we should be changing the fundamental policy. That is not to walk away diplomatically from the region. There are many things we can do, Tim, to make a difference. But I think we're, we're deluding ourselves in believing that $10 billion a month, almost 4,000 lives lost, almost 29,000 injured, 80 to 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives, four million have left the country. Listen to the ground-troops on the ground. They will tell you over and over again, despite the fact their willingness to serve, this is not going well at all, and it's affecting us everywhere else in the world, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: You said the other day, "All that loss for what?" Do you believe that the troops have died in vain?

SEN. DODD: No, I don't. And I don't think it's a question of winning or losing. Baker-Hamilton, other reports have pointed out there was no military solution here. You can't win or lose where your goal was never to have a victory here. Our, our operation was to create the space for the Iraqis to be able to come to some reconciliation, both politically and religiously. The American president, the vice president, leading military figures, members of Congress have begged the Iraqi leadership to reconcile their differences. This past summer they took a month-long vacation after, once again, we plead with them to try and work things out and come together. I don't think we can arrange that for them any longer.

MR. RUSSERT: But answer that question. "All that loss for what?" What did they die for?

SEN. DODD: Well, listen. I don't think soldiers who do their job every day die in vain. They were asked to do a job here.

MR. RUSSERT: So what did they die for?

SEN. DODD: Well, hopefully to create some space in Iraq here for they-for them to come together, so the state should have a chance of succeeding.

MR. RUSSERT: You, you said in April something that you had not said before-and let me play it for you-from Southern New Hampshire University. Here's Chris Dodd.

(Videotape, April 20, 2007)

SEN. DODD: You're never going to convince me that the war in Iraq was exclusive about democracy and about Saddam Hussein. It was about oil. Don't have any doubts about it.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: "It was about oil. Don't have any doubts about it." You never mentioned oil until April of this year.

SEN. DODD: Well, not publicly. But certainly I think that was one of the major factors. Someone said to me in New Hampshire, in fact, that very state, some weeks before, if Iraq were growing turnips and not having oil, was there likely we'd have been there as strong as we were? And I suspect that's the case. Alan Greenspan said the same thing before.

MR. RUSSERT: But why didn't you say that back in ‘02?

SEN. DODD: Well, good question. I mean, that was one of the reasons I think we were there.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about your comments about how safe we are.

SEN. DODD: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe we are safer now, as a country, with Saddam gone?

SEN. DODD: I, I think we're better off without him there. But if that-if the question ends there, then it's not...

MR. RUSSERT: But are we safer?

SEN. DODD: Well, I don't think we're safer in the sense with all that's happened afterwards. If, if-you can't disregard what's happened afterwards here. The fact that we didn't-we weren't able to build the kind of society in Iraq, or at least help them achieve that result certainly has made us less safe. I think the answer that General Petraeus gave when John Warner asked him the very simple question "Are we safer?" And he said, "I don't know," I think he was being candid in that answer to that question. And frankly I don't think we are. That's my conclusion. When you raise your right hand on January 20th, 2009, you're going to be asked to swear to two things: that is protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and to protect our country from enemies both foreign and domestic, in effect keeping us safer. And, Tim, I don't think we are safer.

MR. RUSSERT: But in December of ‘03, again, Chris Dodd, "Of course, we're safer with Saddam gone."

SEN. DODD: Well, again, I think you could make a case then, but certainly we've learned since then. I mean, this is taking snapshots of a moment in time. Since then we've learned we're not-we're a lot less safer. We've turned Iraq into a petri dish for jihadists and terrorists that didn't exist in December of ‘03. It's become a more dangerous place in part, I think, because we failed to understand that the Iraqis were not going to jump to a political conclusion of reconciliation. And, as a result, we've become a lure, in a sense, attracting these elements that come into that country and pose additional risks.

MR. RUSSERT: But you voted for the war, you voted for funding for the war. You were against timetables for withdrawal of troops. Then you became a presidential candidate, and suddenly it was about oil and you were against the funding and you were for timetables.

SEN. DODD: No, Tim, that's...

MR. RUSSERT: Is that political expediency?

SEN. DODD: No, no, no, let's go back, as I've said earlier to you, in September of ‘04, I said I wish we had the vote back, it was a mistake, it was wrong.

MR. RUSSERT: But you kept voting for the funding.

SEN. DODD: Well, did vote for funding along the way because the argument was we were trying to get this-get a decent conclusion to this here. And then a year ago when I was there and came back, drew the conclusion, as many others have along the way here, that this is just not working here. And my view was, at that point and is today, that Congress has one responsibility. If the policy has failed and it's not working, that we ought to terminate the funding for it here. Clearly the administration doesn't want to do that, not likely to do it, so it's up to the Congress to achieve that result.

MR. RUSSERT: And no political expediency?

SEN. DODD: No, none at all, Tim. I think this is a process here you go through as you make decisions what you think is right on this thing here. I-early on, look, from the very beginning, even in October of ‘02, recognized there were maybe better ways of dealing with this. Certainly in March said the same thing. Pointed out the problems with the funding, the lack of oversight, all the way through the process. Made the point that I thought we should have had more troops on the ground going in than we did. Tried four different occasions to get decent body armor with votes on the floor of the United States Senate. There's been a pattern here of expressing my growing concern about how this has been conducted, along with many others, not exclusively so, and have reached the conclusion at this point that the best way for us to deal with this is to terminate that funding, paid for with a safe redeployment of our forces out of, out of Iraq. That to me-ultimately we're going to do it, Tim. At some point we will. How many more lives have to be lost, how much more damage to our country do we have to go through before we arrive at that conclusion? Ultimately we will. I think we ought to do it now rather than wait till later.

Pretty impressive grilling, wouldn't you agree? Wouldn't you love to see Hillary so questioned?

Well, Russert had an opportunity to do so on September 23, and didn't come close (video available here, relevant section begins at 1:00):

TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Senator Clinton, you told Newsweek magazine that the war in Iraq was the most important vote you cast in the U.S. Senate. I'd like to begin there. You spoke to a labor union this week, and this is what you said. Let's watch.

(Videotape)

SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: I have voted against funding this war, and I will vote against funding this war as long as it takes.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, you voted to authorize the war, voted to fund the war at least 10 times. Are you now saying that you will not vote one more penny for the war in Iraq?

SEN. CLINTON: Tim, I am saying that, and, you know, I've been guided by what I believe is the principle that should govern any decisions that a member of the Senate or anyone in public life makes, and that is I try to do what I think is best for my country and for the troops who serve it. And I have seen no evidence that this administration is willing to change course in any significant way. We're now nearly at 3800 dead, we have more than 30,000 injured. The Iraqi government has failed to fulfill its part of the bargain to deal with the political issues that all of us know have to be addressed. I don't think the Bush administration has pursued the diplomatic agenda the way that it needed to be pursued. And there is no military solution. And these extraordinary, brave young men and women should begin to come home out of refereeing this sectarian civil war.

I voted against funding last spring. I understand that we're going to have a vote shortly about funding, and I will vote against it because I think that it's the only way that we can demonstrate clearly that we have to change direction. The president has not been willing to do that, and he still has enough support among the Republicans in the Senate that he doesn't have to. And so, on occasion after occasion, I have made it clear that if the president does not begin to extricate us from Iraq before he leaves office, which apparently, based on what he himself has said, he will not, when I am president, I will immediately ask my secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my security advisers, to tell me exactly what the state of play is. I don't believe we even know everything we need to know about what the plans for withdrawal are, how best to implement that. And I will end our involvement at the level that we've seen that has not proven to be successful.

MR. RUSSERT: The Daily News, your home paper in New York, said that your positions on Iraq remain a tangle of contradictory and shifting elements, and I want to go through those and see if we can sort it through for the viewers and the voters. A new brochure that you've passed out to the voters in New Hampshire says this: "Hillary will begin immediate phased withdrawal with a definite timetable to bring our troops home."

When you were last on MEET THE PRESS, I asked you specifically about a definite timetable to bring troops home, and this is what you said. "I think that would be a mistake." So don't-"We don't want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists that we're going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain. I think that would be like a green light to go ahead and just bide your time."

And then in December of ‘06: "I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit."

And a year ago in September of ‘06: "I've taken a lot of heat from my friends who've said, ‘Please, just, you know, throw in the towel and" "let's get out by a date certain.' I don't think that's responsible."

You've changed your mind.

Imagine that: "You've changed your mind." Not even an inquiry, actually, but a statement. Some difference from the interrogation Dodd got, wouldn't you agree? But I digress:

SEN. CLINTON: Well, the circumstances on the ground have certainly compelled me to continue to evaluate what is in the best interest of our country and our troops. And it became unfortunately clear to me that if we were to maintain the failed policy of this president, we will be entangled in Iraq with many more deaths, with very little to show for it, Tim. I have the highest admiration for General Petraeus and for his officers and the men and women on the ground in Iraq. But there is no military solution, and the failure of the Iraqi government and of the Bush administration to deal on either the political or the diplomatic front has put our young men and women at risk. There is no doubt that they can fulfill whatever military mission they're given; they have. They were asked to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqis the security for fair and free elections and they did. And they were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time to start making these very difficult political decisions. Our military did everything it was asked to do. Unfortunately, I don't think that the Iraqi government or the Bush administration has done what only they can do. And the only way to begin to keep faith with the men and women who are serving us is to begin to bring them home, and that is what I think we have to do now.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me bring you back to October 10th of 2002 when you stood on the floor of the United States Senate and voted to give George Bush the authority to go into Iraq. Let's listen.

(Videotape, October 10, 2002)

SEN. CLINTON: Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members. Any vote that might lead to war should be hard, but I cast it with conviction. So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: As we sit here this morning, Saddam rebuilding a nuclear weapons program, just not true; giving aid and sanctuary to al-Qaeda, debatable. Your vote in the best interests of the nation. Do you believe that your vote was in the best interest of the nation?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I cast a sincere vote based on my assessment at the time, and I take responsibility for that vote. I also said on the floor that day that this was not a vote for pre-emptive war. I thought it made sense to put inspectors back in. As you recall, Saddam had driven out the UN inspectors in 1998 and the situation in Iraq was opaque, hard to determine, and I thought that it made sense to put inspectors back in. Now, obviously, if I had known then what I know now about what the president would do with the authority that was given him, I would not have voted the way that I did.

But the real question before us today is what do we do going forward? We are continuing to lose Americans in Iraq. We are continuing to see the failure of the Iraqi government. We see no change in real policy that moves us toward a political resolution from our own administration because I think even they have to admit that the tactical success that we've seen in al Anbar province and dealing with al-Qaeda in Iraq is not going to resolve the ongoing sectarian civil war that is besetting Iraq. So I think, Tim, that, obviously, from my perspective what I'm focused on is what to do now, and I take that as seriously as I can, which is why I've said I will not vote for additional funding unless it is part of an overall policy to begin to deal with these other problems that we face in Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, besides the vote to authorize, there are three other important votes during that time period. Here's how Congressional Quarterly wrote about it: "A Byrd amendment to assert Congress' right to declare war was rejected," you voted against that. The amendment by Senator Durbin "that would have require Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program to be an ‘imminent' rather than a ‘continuing' threat," you said no to that. And an amendment by Carl Levin "that would allow Congress to vote on authorizing force only after President Bush had exhausted all options with the United Nations," more diplomacy, you voted no on that. You seem very determined at that time to march to war.

Once again, a statement setting up Hillary to respond to rather than an interrogative question. Big difference, wouldn't you agree? She replied:

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I also voted, Tim, to limit the president's authority to a year. That was another one of Senator Byrd's amendments which I strongly supported. It was not successful. I have seen, obviously now, what has occurred by this president's use of the authority that he was given, and I regret the way that he used authority. But I think it's important to recognize that the United Nations is a very important tool in international diplomacy, in peacekeeping to bring the world together. But I do not want to give the United Nations a veto over actions taken by any president.

I believe you have to work with the United Nations. And I saw my husband, when he believed it imperative to take action in Bosnia and Kosovo, unable to get congressional authority to act, unable to pull together the United Nations, but working with NATO to take action against ethnic cleansing. Every situation is different. At the time, I thought it did make sense to go back to the United Nations to put inspectors on the ground. But I don't believe it's in the best interests of our country to give the United Nations what amounts to a veto over presidential action. I think that the Congress and the president should determine what presidential action should be.

MR. RUSSERT: Is it fair to say that the most important vote you cast in the Senate, in your own words, on authorizing the war in Iraq, was wrong?

SEN. CLINTON: It's fair to say that the president misused the authority that he was given, and if I had the opportunity to act now based on what I know now, I never would've voted that way. But I think it's important to take responsibility and then to try to deal with the situation that we face today. You know, we can talk about 2002 or we can look forward to what is a continuing involvement in a sectarian civil war with no end in sight, and I believe it's imperative that we try to create a political consensus to move the president and the Republicans in Congress to extricating us from this civil war. And I've said many times that if the president does not do it before he leaves office, when I am president I will.

Add it up, and Russert posed at least ten interrogative questions to Dodd concerning his changing views of the Iraq war. By contrast, Hillary received three.

Furthermore, Russert twice asked Dodd if his altering views were political expediency. This term, or anything similar, was never posed to Hillary.

Who do you think got more grilled on this issue which could be the most important to Democrat voters in twelve-plus months?

Maybe Russert should change the name of this series to "Meet the Candidates...Except the One We Support!"

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.