CNN's Softball Cleland Interview, Bush with 'Blood on Hands'
On Friday's The Situation Room, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer gave former Democratic Senator Max Cleland a forum to rail against the Bush administration's Iraq policy, during which the former Georgia Senator charged that President Bush would be "signing in blood" his expected veto of the Democratic plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. While Blitzer did ask a few mildly challenging questions, the CNN anchor did not question some of Cleland's more dubious assertions, including his claim that half a million Iraqis had been killed, and that Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss had called Cleland "un-American" and "unpatriotic" in the past.
While the interview originally ran live during the 5 p.m. hour of The Situation Room, it was repeated during the 7 p.m. hour, which gave Blitzer the opportunity to plug the interview, quoting the former Democratic Senator's charge that Bush would be signing his veto "in blood." Blitzer: "Tonight, the former U.S. Senator, Max Cleland, charges Mr. Bush will be signing that veto in blood." Blitzer later plugged: "Vietnam War veteran and former Senator Max Cleland says President Bush could wind up with blood on his hands." (Transcript follows)
At about 5:26 p.m., and again at about 7:36 p.m., to his credit, Blitzer ran a story that featured an Iraqi general who "is appealing to the United States not to leave yet." The story, filed by correspondent Hugh Riminton, looked at the challenges of and progress in training the Iraqi Army, noting that in the past two years, the number of Iraqi divisions has increased from two to ten. After the report, Blitzer moved on to the Cleland interview and started off by inviting Cleland to express his "frustration" that the training is taking so long.
Cleland argued that the Iraq situation reminds him of Vietnam, but then bizarrely theorized that Iraqis would be more successful in defending their country if American troops leave, as if that worked for the South Vietnamese, as he contended that "it's not until we get out will they really take it upon themselves to defend themselves, particularly against al-Qaeda."
Blitzer then played a clip of President Bush promising to veto the Democratic troop withdrawal plan and asked for Cleland's response, which soon led to Cleland's "blood on the hands" charge. Cleland: "He may have his, he may have his day on this, but when he signs that veto early next week, he will sign it in blood because he's just guaranteeing the death of more Americans in Iraq."
Blitzer then moved on to quote Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who unseated Cleland in 2002, and quoted Chambliss as having said it is "almost un-American to come out and tell the enemy that they've won and lost," asking for a response from Cleland. The former Democratic Senator took the opportunity to repeat the canard that a controversial campaign ad by Chambliss from 2002 had challenged Cleland's "patriotism." Cleland: "I've been called un-American and unpatriotic by the Senator before. It wasn't true then, not true now." (Video of the ad can be viewed here on Youtube.)
Blitzer then asked two mildly challenging questions, one about the effect of the political debate on troop morale and one about General David Petraeus's "appeal for patience" to "see if this new strategy can work." During his response, Cleland cited a controversial estimate that "over half a million Iraqis have died," without any dispute from Blitzer. Notably, the very next day on the program CNN Saturday Morning, a story filed by Joshua Levs discussed the dispute between the United Nations and the Iraqi government over how many Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006. For that one year, the United Nations reported 35,000 while the government reported 12,000. Even the higher 35,000 figure in one year is inconsistent with a four-year estimate as high as 500,000. Page A18 of the Saturday April 28 Washington Post lists estimates of total Iraqi civilian deaths as ranging from a minimum of 62,570 to a high estimate of 655,000.
Below is a complete transcript of the interview with Cleland from the Friday April 27 The Situation Room, with critical portions in bold, including Blitzer's plugs from the 7 p.m. hour:
Wolf Blitzer, in opening teaser: "Also this hour, President Bush sticks to his guns about vetoing a troop withdrawal timetable. Tonight, the former U.S. Senator, Max Cleland, charges Mr. Bush will be signing that veto in blood. Cleland is our guest."
Blitzer, before commercial break: "Up ahead, a former U.S. Senator and wounded war veteran comes out firing."
Former Senator Max Cleland (D-GA): "Well, it reminds me of the Vietnam, quite frankly, the essence of what we're seeing in Iraq is what we saw in Vietnam."
Blitzer: "Max Cleland here in The Situation Room. Find out what he says to those who call opposition to the war 'un-American.'"
Cleland: "Just ahead, who's to blame for the troubled U.S. mission in Iraq? Truth of the matter is there is no strategy that the President is telling the generals to do. You see, that's the problem."
Blitzer: "Vietnam War veteran and former Senator Max Cleland says President Bush could wind up with blood on his hands. Max Cleland, here on The Situation Room."
Blitzer: "The death toll mounts for U.S. troops in Iraq, and one of Iraq's top generals says his country will never forget the sacrifices of coalition forces and their families. But he is appealing to the United States not to leave yet. CNN's Hugh Riminton visited an Iraqi Army training ground center. Hugh?"
Hugh Riminton: "Wolf, the question is: Are the Iraqi security forces ready to stand up so that coalition forces can stand down? The answer is no, no and no. No from the Iraqi government, no from the top reaches of the Iraqi Army and no from the U.S. general who most closely watches the training of Iraqi troops. While America debates troop withdrawal, the men with the most intimate knowledge of Iraq's ability to secure itself are on this helicopter. The commander of the coalition's Iraq Assistance Group, Brigadier General Dana Pittard, has joined the head of Iraqi ground forces, General Ali Ghidan-Majeed, to visit a dusty base north of Baghdad. They have come to see this. Under the eye of Americans, these men are learning how to survive and prevail in a dirty war. By the end of this week, these men and 1,500 others will be deployed in Baghdad. What is the standard of these guys by the time they leave here for the job ahead?"
Captain Mark Tomola, U.S. Army: "The standard is, obviously, we don't hold them to quite the same standard I would hold an American unit to."
Riminton: "The training attempts to give the Iraqi soldiers real answers in fighting an insidious enemy. They train on this range for the sorts of conditions that Iraqi Army soldiers will meet every day. There is a highway just over here, and that is for convoy training. As they pass a village, a typical rural setting in Iraq. Suddenly, there are the men with the guns. There are the men with the rocket-propelled grenades. General Ali says Iraq still needs help, but he acknowledges the price. 'The sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and the families of soldiers, it's incredible,' he says. 'In Iraq, we will never forget them.' General Pittard says progress is being made. There were just two Iraqi divisions two years ago. Now, he says, there are 10."
Brigadier General Dana Pittard, Iraq Assistance Group: "We cannot leave Iraq in disarray. I mean, we came here in 2003. We cannot leave here, leave this nation as a failed state in disarray."
Riminton: "A direct appeal to the politicians thousands of miles away. Hugh Riminton, CNN, Besmia (sp?), Iraq."
Blitzer: "And all of this comes as the battle over Iraq continues here in Washington, funding for the war and a timeline for withdrawal raging here in Washington, that debate with Congress and the White House at an impasse. Joining us now, the Vietnam War veteran, the former Democratic Senator, Max Cleland. Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Let me get your quick reaction to that piece we just heard. It's been, what, four years. The U.S. has been training thousands of Iraqi troops, but they're still not ready. How frustrated are you that it's taking so long to get these Iraqi troops ready to defend their own country?"
Former Senator Max Cleland (D-GA): "Well, it reminds me of the Vietnam, quite frankly. The essence of what we're seeing in Iraq is what we saw in Vietnam, that unless you have the political support of the people there, they're not going to support really fighting for their own country. It's not until we get out will they really take it upon themselves to defend themselves, particularly against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is just now using them and coming in and attacking Americans, as they did when they killed those nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. So, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution. That's why, after five years of war, it's painfully obvious that there is no strategy to win. There is no strategy to end this war. And so the war is essentially unwinnable and untenable militarily. And that's why we have to get out. But the Iraqis must ultimately take care of their own country. And that's what we need to leave them to do."
Blitzer: "Here's what the President said today about the Democrats' desires to include a timeline for withdrawal in the war funding bill. Listen to the President."
George W. Bush clip #1: "If the Congress wants to test my will as to whether or not I'll accept a timetable for withdrawal, I won't accept one. I just don't think it's in the interests of our troops."
Bush clip #2: "I really think it's a mistake for Congress to try to tell generals, our military experts, how to conduct a war."
Blitzer: "All right. What do you say to the President?"
Cleland: "Well, this is not a test of the President's will, you know? And Congress is not trying to tell the generals what to do. The truth of the matter is, there is no strategy that the President is telling the generals to do. You see, that's the problem. I mean, more and more, generals are coming out of the military, particularly the Army, and saying the war is unwinnable militarily. It is essentially a political war that we're going into. And we're on the wrong side of it. We're trying to occupy a nation that doesn't want us there. Secondly, we're going after the wrong enemy here. Al-Qaeda is morphing around the world. They morphed most recently into North Africa. And George Tenet's book just coming out in the next few days says his concern is still about al-Qaeda in the United States. So, we need to withdraw from Iraq, withdraw our ground forces from there, because we are not part of the problem, I mean solution. We're part of the problem there. And this is not a test of the President's, this is not a test of the President's will. He may have his, he may have his day on this, but when he signs that veto early next week, he will sign it in blood because he's just guaranteeing the death of more Americans in Iraq."
Blitzer: "Saxby Chambliss, the man who beat you in your run for re-election the last time around in Georgia, he says, and I'm quoting now, 'It's almost un-American, un-American to come out and tell the enemy that they've won and lost.' Listen to this little clip of what he said on the Senate floor yesterday. Listen to this."
Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA): "Men and women of the 3rd ID simply don't agree with the Democrats who want to tuck tail and run. Georgians don't want to do that, the military does not want to do that."
Blitzer: "All right. He says Democrats are almost un-American for what they're trying to do. What do you say to Senator Chambliss?"
Cleland: "Well, first of all, I've been called un-American and unpatriotic by the Senator before. It wasn't true then, not true now. And secondly, I don't take my advice on war from somebody, Mr. Chambliss, who tucked his tail and ran from the war of his generation. He got out of going to Vietnam with a trick knee. So I'm not going to follow anybody's advice on that, and I'm certainly not going to back off my view that it's time to protect Americans, it's time to bring our young Americans home, and it is time to set a timetable. That's what the Congress is voting on, and has voted successfully on. It is now time to change strategy, change policy. If the President won't change, ultimately we will see more Americans die, and ultimately we will get out of Iraq, but after he's gone."
Blitzer: "You fought in Vietnam at a time of serious debate here in the United States over what U.S. troops were doing there in Vietnam. You know the impact on morale to fighting men and women. What about the impact on the battlefield right now in Iraq as a result of this very serious debate under way here in the United States?"
Cleland: "Well, you feel like, a young French lieutenant in the French Indochina War in Vietnam said it felt like he was shot in the stomach and kicked in the rear end. And I'm sure that members of the armed forces in Iraq feel that way. I know that's the way I felt in Vietnam when the massive unrest in the United States broke out in '67 and '68. But the worst morale problem is to commit young Americans to a cause that is not winnable and is ultimately untenable and unsupported by the United States people, people in America. So, the best thing we can do is to make sure we have as good an exit as possible. And the President, if he vetoes this bill, will give up the last opportunity he has to make a bipartisan exit from Iraq. Ultimately, it's going to be ultimately on his head and shoulders, and he'll be signing that veto pen in blood because more young Americans are going to die when he vetoes this bill."
Blitzer: "Senator Cleland, the current U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has been in Washington all week. He's appealing to everyone for patience, to give him some time, to see if this new strategy can work, at least through September or so. He says at that point, he and the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, would have a better sense of whether or not it's working. He promises that if it's not working, he'll tell the American people the truth. Why not give the general some more time to see if he can make it, make it better?"
Cleland: "Time? This is the fifth year of this war. As a matter of fact, next Tuesday is the anniversary of President Bush standing up on an aircraft carrier, playing dress-up with his flight suit, which he never wore in combat, trying to be the war hero he never was, and saying major combat over, mission accomplished. And later on he said, 'Bring 'em on.' Well, they came on, surprise, surprise, and have killed over 3,300 young Americans and wounded over 30,000, and over half a million Iraqis have died. I don't want that kind of patience. It's five years into this thing now. It's time to end it, and it's time to move on and worry about al-Qaeda. That's the real threat to this country."
Blitzer: "We're going to leave it there. Senator Cleland, as usual, thanks for joining us here in The Situation Room."
Cleland: "Thank you."