On Troop Withdrawal, Matt Lauer Demands: 'If Not Now, When?'
Picking up where last night's Nightly News left off, NBC's Today show continued the "tipping point" line of attack on pushing for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Opening this morning's Today show, NBC's Matt Lauer greeted viewers with the following question: "Good morning, if not now, when? The White House says it's not considering pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq right now but with sinking approval ratings and defections from his own party is it just a matter of time before the President changes course?" Then, teasing an interview with White House press secretary Tony Snow, Lauer all but declared defeat:
Ann Curry: "Today marks the six month anniversary since the President announced a surge of nearly 30,000 troops into Iraq and Afghanistan."
Lauer: "You remember it was the President's attempt to gain control of a very unpopular war. On Monday, the White House said that a troop withdrawal was not in the cards right now. This, despite a steady drip of defections from members of his own party. And according to the Associated Press this morning, a new progress report out this week will find that Iraqi government officials have failed to meet any of the key benchmarks that were put in place as part of that surge. So how long can the President ignore calls to bring the troops home? We'll talk to White House press secretary Tony Snow about that coming up in a couple of minutes."
Right before the Snow interview, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, in her set-up piece, continued the drumbeat of defeat as she decided: "If there were any doubt about the surge it ended with the continuing death toll from Iraq. The country is weary of the war and angry, according to all polls...You can call it redeployment or phased withdrawal but the question no longer seems to be whether but when."
After the Mitchell piece it was time for Lauer to lay into Snow. While Snow insisted the surge had just begun and pointed out there were already successes, Lauer wasn't having any of it, as virtually all of his questions to the press secretary were geared towards getting the troops out of Iraq. The following is the full transcript of the exchange as it occurred on the July 10th Today show:
Matt Lauer: "Tony Snow is the White House press secretary. Good to see you, good morning."
Tony Snow: "Good morning, Matt."
Lauer: "There was a front page story in the New York Times, yesterday, that basically said this, that there is intense debate going on, right now, within the White House over ideas of bringing the troops home or some troops home from Iraq right now. You were asked about it at your briefing yesterday and you said the following, quote, 'There is no debate right now on withdrawing forces, right now, from Iraq,' end quote. And I'm curious as to why. Why isn't there debate at the White House right now on every possible scenario on an almost daily basis?"
Snow: "Well there are debates, Matt, there are a lot of discussions about everything but what's interesting is we are now two weeks into having the surge operational. The first thing we want to see is whether it is working. Just a couple of months ago, Congress passed a law, said, 'Okay we're gonna approve of a surge. In July we want a snapshot at the starting line. We're at the starting line, right now, Matt. And in September we want another snapshot that gives us a sense of whether we're succeeding, how we're succeeding and asks for recommendations on what to do next."
Lauer: "Yeah but Tony, this isn't just members of the press who are, who are running off saying this isn't working. You've got some stalwarts of the Republican Party, Voinovich, Domenici, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, saying, 'No, Mr. President it's time, right now, not in September, right now to think about changing the plan.' Why are they wrong?"
Snow: "Actually, actually. Well I think you're misconstruing some of their comments. What you had with Richard Lugar is somebody who says, 'Look we,' I think Richard Lugar first says, to the idea of withdrawing right away, 'No.' To the idea of withdrawing finances-'"
Lauer: "Not right away, but-"
Snow: "-he says no. He talks about the importance of getting into the position that we've been talking about since January. I think what's frustrating for us, Matt, is that we have been talking since January of trying to get American forces into a position that's a lot like what Andrea Mitchell is describing and all of a sudden people are saying, 'It's a new, different way of looking at things!' No, it's not. It's what we've been talking about for a very long time."
Lauer: "But what are the signs, Tony?"
Snow: "And all of a sudden it's getting spun up into, suddenly, a radical shift. We need to give our forces time to show what they're doing."
Lauer: "But what are the signs we're getting to that position?"
Snow: "Well some of the signs are pretty clear. Number one, you take a look at Anbar province and, by the way, I'd encourage people, also, to listen the briefings that come out of Baghdad. Because what you're hearing is that, for instance, Sunni tribal chiefs have decided they've had it with al Qaeda in Iraq and they have been fighting, effectively, against them. That is now beginning to happen in other provinces as well. We are starting to see within Baghdad, the government asserting its own might and leverage against the Shia militias. In other words, the kinds of stuff that we've been talking about, is beginning to take place. Is it perfect? Of course not. We are at the very beginning stages of an effort to try to create the space so the Iraqis can stand up for themselves."
Lauer: "When the President, six months ago, announced this surge in, in, in addition to the surge of troops there were these benchmarks. They've been talked about, actually, for years with the Iraqi government. But that they had to meet certain benchmarks so that the U.S. commitment would continue. An AP report this morning says quote, 'A progress report on Iraq will conclude that the U.S. backed government in Baghdad has not met any of its targets for political, economic and other reforms.' Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said in an interview in the New York Times this morning, 'The longer I'm here, the more I'm persuaded Iraq cannot be analyzed by these kind of discrete benchmarks.' So as we start to hear from the President on Sunday, is that an attempt by Mr. Crocker, Ambassador Crocker, to downplay or lower expectations on those benchmarks?"
Snow: "No, because what you're going to see, Matt, is that the Iraqis and the U.S. forces have met some benchmarks and they haven't met others, at the starting point here. I think what Ambassador Crocker say is he's gonna try to find even more nuanced ways of trying to measure success. But, on the other hand, you know, the impression from the AP story is, all is doom and failure. It's not the case and when people see the report, they'll figure that out."
Lauer: "John McCain, just got back from Iraq. He's set to speak about what he saw there in terms of the surge, I think on the floor of the Senate, maybe tomorrow, a speech later in the week. Have you had any advance notice from John McCain or his people as to what he's gonna say about the surge?"
Snow: "No, don't know what he's gonna say."
Lauer: "Are you curious about it?"
Snow: "Of course. We were curious, we were curious when Joe Lieberman came back and said it was a success. We were curious when he heard Jack Reed say that he saw some signs of success, even though he takes a different view of the matter than we do. What's interesting, Matt, is that people who have come back recently will, at least, concede that some of the military operations have been proving successful. They also know we got a long way to go."
Lauer: "If, if and you hate hypotheticals, I know, so hate me later. But, but, if a John McCain comes back and joins the ranks of some of those other key Republicans who say, 'It's time to rethink this strategy,' how big a blow is that to the President, considering how supportive John McCain has been to the strategy?"
Snow: "You've got to understand that for the President, although politics is clearly important in building public support, succeeding is the most important thing of all. The, if we fail in Iraq and this is something Ryan Crocker was pointing out as well. If you have failure in Iraq you are gonna see consequences that are gonna be extraordinarily dire in the region, throughout the world and for the United States."
Lauer: "And real quickly, Tony, about a year ago there was a lot of debate and to be honest we found ourselves in the middle of it here at NBC, over what to call what's going on the ground in Iraq right now. We called it a civil war, you disagreed with me on the air. What's it called now? Is it a civil war or something else?"
Snow: "I don't think it's a civil war. Again, what you're not seeing, is you're not seeing Sunni, Shia armies massing up. As Baker-Hamilton said, in some cases you have things that appear to have characteristics of a civil war. But the sectarian violence has gone down in recent months."
Lauer: "Tony Snow at the White House. Tony, thanks for your time this morning."
Snow: "Thanks Matt."