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President Bush Reacts to ISG Report; Robert Gates Confirmed as New Defense Secretary; Interview with Iraq Study Group Member Vernon Jordan

Aired December 6, 2006 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.
Happening now, President Bush in a corner on Iraq, can he afford to ignore a bipartisan panel's recommendations or its stinging rebuke of his policies? Tonight, Iraq Study Group member Vernon Jordan on the plan and powerful new criticism of the report.

Also, many Democrats are embracing the Iraq Study Group's report and its call to set targets for a troop pullout. Is Senator Barack Obama tempted to say "I told you so"? I'll talk to the Illinois Democrat and possible presidential contender.

And the vice president's openly gay daughter throws a new curve into the culture wars. She's pregnant. Will that change Republicans' views on gay rights and family values or harden them?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Iraq Study Group warns it will take tremendous political will to make its recommendations a reality. President Bush says he's taking the report very seriously. But other than that, he isn't making any promises.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's some very good ideas in there. Not all of us around the table agree with every idea, but we do agree that it shows that bipartisan consensus on important issues is possible.


BLITZER: The report now in the president's hands avoids a strict timetable but it does urge the U.S. to set a target of early 2008 to withdraw most combat forces from Iraq. It says the status of U.S. military and other support for Iraq should be tied to certain milestones the President Nuri -- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government that is would have to meet. And the report calls for a new diplomatic offensive in the region by the end of this month, including talks with Iran and Syria with no conditions attached.

Let's begin with our chief national correspondent, John King -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is a sober stark assessment from the Iraq Study Group that says the president's policy in Iraq as it now is in place is failing. And it suggests that to get back on the right course the president needs to not only change his strategy in Iraq but a broader foreign policy that it says has undermined the U.S. interest in the Middle East and undermine the U.S. image around the world.


KING (voice-over): His is a foreign policy marked by clear lines.

PRES. BUSH: I will not wait on events while dangers gather.

KING: Articulated with a sharp tongue.

PRES. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.

KING: And anchored on the idea a new Iraq would transform the Middle East and more.

PRES. BUSH: So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

KING: Now, to embrace the gloomy verdict of the Iraq Study Group, Mr. Bush would have to concede he got just about all of it wrong.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: A White House that has prided itself on resolve and optimism and staying the course and believing that history was on its side is now being sobered in a way that's even tougher because of the level of confidence, verging on arrogance that has always been one of George Bush's characteristics as a politician.

KING: Wrong the report says to give Iraq an open-ended troop commitment, wrong to emphasize combat operations over training, wrong not to spend more time on the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, and wrong not to sit down with Iran and Syria in an effort to calm the insurgency and sectarian killings.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CO-CHAIRMAN: If you don't talk to them, we don't see much likelihood of progress being made.

KING: It is a rejection of what critics call Mr. Bush's no regrets cowboy diplomacy and his insistence for more than three years now that his Iraq strategy was working.

BRUCE BUCHANAN, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS: Particularly Karl Rove, who was a student of presidential history, has impressed upon President Bush the great importance of sticking to your guns as president and not becoming someone who is perceived as easily changed by either public opinion or political opposition.

KING: This highly critical Iraq report comes just after a month after midterm election voters also delivered a rebuke and some allies say the president has no choice at home and abroad to learn a lesson.

KEN DUBERSTEIN, FORMER REAGAN CHIEF OF STAFF: One of the things I think President Bush is about to understand is that compromise is not a four-letter word.


KING: Other loyalists, though, say that while some changes are certainly necessary now, they think 20 years or more from now, the president's stubborn streak that some critics are after and say the president has been too inflexible, will be looked on, Wolf, much more favorably by history, that that is not the president's most pressing challenges. He says he gives this report serious study. The report makes clear it believes that unless the president acts quickly, his Iraq policy is on the verge of catastrophic failure.

BLITZER: And they wanted to start this diplomatic initiative by the end of this month. John, thank you...


BLITZER: ... very much.

Let's get some more now on the hard choices facing President Bush when it comes to Iraq and the hard knocks he's getting from the Iraq Study Group. For that we'll bring in our White House correspondent Ed Henry. A lot of people think, Ed that this report is a real slap in the president's face.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean there's no other way to read it than as a rebuke of the president's policy. Very clearly this bipartisan group of 10 leading Democrats and Republicans saying that basically the status quo policy has not worked, that as John King was saying, there needs to not only be a change, but a dramatic change and quickly.

And that's why the president is in a bit of a bind. And what John was talking about, about critics and flexibility or inflexibility. Very interesting that this afternoon very quickly after getting this bipartisan report, the president invited a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers to discuss the contents of this report and then we're told that afterwards the president pulled aside Senator John McCain, a formal rival of course that has now become a friend, for a one-on-one chat. That's not something the president has done, one-on-one chats with Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill, but he's clearly now trying at least to reach out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House, thanks very much. We'll see how this bipartisanship continues in the coming days.

Meanwhile, amidst all of this, a U.S. military spokesman says 10 more American soldiers were killed in four separate incidents in Iraq today, and that brings the total U.S. death toll in Iraq to 2,920 since the war began three and a half years ago.

Also in Iraq, news of the report was largely drowned out by the unrelenting violence. But there are strong feelings about this report among many Iraqis. CNN's Ben Wedeman has been gauging reaction in Baghdad.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Iraq's nightmare goes on.


WEDEMAN: A woman finds her brother among the dead. The bodies showing signs of torture brought to the morgue in the town of Baquba north of Baghdad.


WEDEMAN: The victims of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sectarian death squads. In Baghdad, mortars rain down on one of the northern neighborhoods, more dead, more wounded. But what was once breaking news is now barely news. Baghdad residents met the release of the Iraq Study Group's results with a shrug, largely indifferent to the buzz in Washington, consumed, as they are, by the mind-numbing daily harvest of death in their battered land. The brief period of optimism that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime is now a distant and fading memory.


WEDEMAN: When the Americans came, I was happy, says store owner Salem Mehdi (ph), but as time passed we haven't seen anything positive come out of it, just killing and destruction. For that reason, I no longer trust them.

Many Iraqis now believe the U.S. mission in Iraq has failed. But some aren't sure who, if anyone, has won.

MA'AN AL-OBEIDI, PROFESSOR, AL-NAHRAIN UNIVERSITY (through translator): They are defeated in Iraq, so they are trying to look for an outlet to get out of their plight in Iraq, and I think the outlet will be at the expense of the Iraqi people.

WEDEMAN (on camera): The Iraq Study Group is aimed at finding that way out of Iraq for the Americans and ending the Iraqi nightmare, two things, at least, that most Iraqis and Americans would agree upon.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Baghdad.


BLITZER: From Baghdad, we'll go to New York. Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Robert Gates, Wolf, is in. The senate voted to confirm the former CIA director as the new secretary of defense. The vote was 95-2 in favor. It came eight hours after -- only eight hours of hearings and a confirmation process that took less than a month. Gates will be sworn in on December 18.

So what does this all mean for the outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of the war in Iraq? You may remember a couple of years back President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three people key to his Iraq policy, former CIA Director George Tenet, retired General Tommy Franks and the former Iraq administrator, Paul Bremer.

When Mr. Bush presented these men with the nation's highest civilian honor, he said they had played quote, "pivotal roles in great events", unquote. So here is the question.

Should President Bush give the outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the Medal of Freedom? E-mail your thoughts to or go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You say that trying to keep a straight face, Jack. I could see you're struggling there.

CAFFERTY: I'm making it though. I managed barely.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. Jack Cafferty, we'll get back to you soon.

Coming up, I'll ask Senator Barack Obama what Democrats should do if President Bush doesn't green light the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

Also, intense training for U.S. troops as they prepare to help Iraqi troops take charge of their country's security. We're going to take you behind the scenes for a gripping look at what's happening right now.

And a new grandchild is on the way for Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney and that's creating new debate over gay rights, same-sex marriage and family values.

Stay with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Tonight, some of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations are coming under fire. We're going to speak momentarily with Vernon Jordan, a member of that group who's on the defensive, but first though, CNN's State Department correspondent Zain Verjee with a key and controversial recommendation in this report -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one clear message from the Iraq Study Group, talk to your enemies.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else.


VERJEE (voice-over): The message, if you want to stop the bloodshed in Iraq, pay attention to other hotspots in the Middle East, like the crisis in Lebanon and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.


VERJEE: The Baker/Hamilton Commission says the U.S. should spearhead a new diplomatic offensive in the region, get an international group together and include Iraq's neighbors accused of meddling in Iraq. Push ahead with a comprehensive Arab/Israeli peace deal. The key it says, engage U.S. foes, Syria and Iran. The U.S. accuses Syria of turning a blind eye to insurgents slipping through the border to fight in Iraq. The panel says to stop it, it's time to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's some strong indications that they would be in a position, if we were able to enter into a constructive dialogue with them, that they would be in a position to help us.

VERJEE: The report says Iran has the most leverage in Iraq. It's accused of backing Shia militias there, so it's important to talk. But the panel wasn't counting on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't get the feeling that Iran is chomping at the bit to come to the table with us to talk about Iraq.

VERJEE: The Iraqi government says this regional approach could douse the flames in the Middle East.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It would empower the moderates and take away power from the extremists.


VERJEE: The Bush administration says it wants to solve conflicts in the region, but diplomacy on Iraq is the job of Iraqis.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We do think that it is very encouraging and important that the Iraqis themselves have taken the reins on their diplomatic effort with respect to how they relate to their neighbors.


VERJEE: Now that the report is out, the question is, will President Bush heed its advice? Senior U.S. officials tells CNN that they believe that the calls to engage Iran and Syria are overplayed and an ongoing review of Iraq policies likely to conclude that there aren't enough benefits to reaching out to those countries this time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The 10 members of the panel want this new diplomatic initiative to begin, Zain, as you know, by the end of this month. We'll see what happens on that diplomatic front. Thanks for that.

And just a short while ago, I spoke about all of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations with a key member of that panel. Vernon Jordan is a well-known Washington lawyer and power broker. And I asked him about some of the reaction coming into the report.


BLITZER: John McCain not necessarily all that happy about some of your recommendations, including your recommendation in effect to link progress on the Israeli/Palestinian front to what's going on in Iraq. He just emerged from a meeting with some other lawmakers at the White House with the president. Listen to this little clip.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Recommendations on the issue of the Israeli/Palestine conference or peace talks, we all want peace in the area, but it's very hard for the Israelis or anyone to negotiate with...

BLITZER: What was the theory behind linking progress on the Israeli/Palestinian front to what's happening to U.S. troops, the U.S. strategy in Iraq?

VERNON JORDAN, IRAQ STUDY GROUP MEMBER: Well, you cannot separate Iraq from the Middle East. You cannot separate the Israeli/Arab conflict from Iraq. They're all interconnected and interdependent...


BLITZER: Are you suggesting...

JORDAN: No, no, what I'm suggesting is that the report says to negotiate. We did not say that Israel has to do this or has to do that. We want a conference where it can all be negotiated.

BLITZER: Well you did say -- and I pointed this out to Larry Eagleburger and Leon Panetta -- that the Israelis should be willing to give up the Golan Heights.

JORDAN: Not give up. Give up by getting something. One of those is that a promise of security by the U.S. that this is a give- and-take process. It's a negotiating process...

BLITZER: Are you comfortable with that?

JORDAN: I'm comfortable with negotiating that, absolutely...


BLITZER: But are you comfortable...

JORDAN: Wait a minute. And I'm uncomfortable with the fact that this administration has not done very much in the last few years about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And I think that if you put the Middle East in context, that that has to be dealt with. BLITZER: So you think that if there were peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians...

JORDAN: I didn't say that.

BLITZER: I'm asking this question.


BLITZER: If there were peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, two-state solution, everybody walking around happy, relatively happy, that would result in peace in Iraq?

JORDAN: I'm not saying that. I am saying that there's a cause and effect in that region and that if we can get one settled, we have a chance of doing something about the other.

BLITZER: Here is what John Murtha, one of the toughest Democratic critics of the current strategy in Iraq said reacting in part to today's Iraq Study Group. The Iraq Study Group recommended that we begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops by early 2008, depending on conditions on the ground. This is no different than the current policy. He's not very happy either.

JORDAN: Well, he is not very happy, and I can understand his unhappiness. This group spent the last eight months working on this. We've come to this conclusion based in part on advice and counsel from the military. And we're comfortable with that.


BLITZER: Vernon Jordan speaking with me earlier right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And still to come, are Democrats using the Iraq Study Group's report as a weapon against the White House? I'll ask Senator and presidential prospect Barack Obama for his take on the plan and whether Mr. Bush will carry it out.

And a crash course for U.S. troops, facing the challenge of helping Iraqi troops get control of their own country. We'll go into the trenches, see what's going on.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. First, let's turn to Carol Costello in New York for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, some developing news. I'm just listening to a news conference right now out of Oregon, and it's detailing that sad end to a heroic search. The body of a missing San Francisco man, James Kim, found today in the Oregon wilderness. Kim had left his stranded family on a remote road on Saturday to find help. His wife and two small children were rescued Monday and has since then released from the hospital. They're now in seclusion. Oregon authorities say that he walked a total distance of seven miles. I'm going to continue to monitor that in a little bit to give you more information later.

In Milwaukee investigators suspect a huge propane tank may be the source of a massive explosion in a downtown industrial complex. At least three people are dead. Nearly 50 others are injured. The blast happened this morning as the building was being evacuated because of a propane leak. The fire chief says there would be more casualties if the evacuation hadn't already begun.

Police say six people including two officers were hurt when a massive brawl broke out just before a European Cup basketball game in Belgrade, Serbia today. Some of the hundreds who mixed it up threw flares (UNINTELLIGIBLE). According to police, one fan suffered serious injuries. The game pitting Belgrade's team against a visiting team from Greece was delayed by a half an hour.

Could there be life on Mars? Scientists are getting excited once more over some NASA images who suggest the presence of water on Mars. They unveiled a photo showing changes over the past seven years and the gullies on the Martian surface. Now they wonder if that means water currently flows on the red planet, which would be amazing. It is a commonly held belief that water is a basic ingredient for primitive life. I'm going to go monitor the news conference now, Wolf -- back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Good. Thanks very much, Carol, for that. They certainly take their basketball seriously in Belgrade. We'll watch that story as well.

Just ahead, my interview with Senator Barack Obama, a possible presidential contender in 2008. What does he make of the Iraq Study Group's report that was released today? I'll ask him.

Plus, pregnant politics, the vice president's openly gay daughter Mary Cheney expecting a baby with her partner.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, one is on his way in. The other is on his way out. The Senate has confirmed Robert Gates to be the next secretary of defense. Senators approved him by a vote of 95-2. Gates will replace Donald Rumsfeld who resigned last month. Gates will be sworn in on December 18.

Also, the situation in Iraq is grave, deteriorating and possibly sliding into all-out chaos. That's how the Iraq Study Group describes Iraq. The long awaited report is out. Coming up, I'll speak with Democratic Senator Barack Obama about it.

And she's expecting. Vice President Cheney's openly gay daughter is pregnant. We're going to tell you how the Cheney family is reacting.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, President Bush is weighing the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and promising he'll act on them in a timely fashion. Let's take a closer look now at the plan's most critical points.

We'll bring in our senior national correspondent, John Roberts -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NAT'L CORRESPONDENT: Wolf thanks very much. You know the ground here in Washington shifted earlier today with the release of this report. After all of the rosy pronouncements and all of the spin, it's pretty much accepted now that Iraq is in chaos and heading for catastrophe.



ROBERTS (voice-over): If there were any lingering doubts about how bad things are in Iraq, they were pretty much erased today.

JIM BAKER, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CO-CHAIR: We believe that the situation in Iraq today is very, very serious. We do not know if it can be turned around.

ROBERTS: The Iraq Study Group in perhaps the most anticipated report since the 9/11 Commission, issued a harsh critique of administration policy.

BAKER: We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable.

ROBERTS: Instead, the ten-member bipartisan committee offered up some alternatives, 79 in fact. One of the top recommendations is a version of what the White House ridiculed as "cut and run", to pull back most U.S. combat troops by early 2008 and instead, focus on accelerated training for Iraqi forces.

Another big idea, launch an intense diplomatic mission to find a political solution, including unconditional talks with Iran and Syria.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CO-CHAIR: You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with.

ROBERTS: It's a notion that President Bush has rejected, but one his father's former secretary of state suggests he should embrace for the sake of trying to save Iraq.

BAKER: For 40 years we talked to the Soviet Union during a time when they were committed to wiping us off the face of the earth. So you talk to your enemies, not just your friends.

ROBERTS: The study group acknowledged their plans aren't perfect, but in another apparent shot at the White House's Iraq policy, insisted there is a better way forward.

BAKER: If we do what we recommend in this report, it will certainly improve our chances for success.

ROBERTS: While there's nothing to suggest the president will adopt any of the recommendations, the Iraq Study Group cautioned him against cherry-picking the report. If Iraq is to be pulled back from the brink of failure, they said, it needs a comprehensive rescue mission and one with bipartisan political support here at home.

LEON PANETTA, IRAQ STUDY GROUP MEMBER: We have made a terrible commitment in Iraq, in terms of our blood and our treasure. And I think we owe it to them to try to take one last chance at making Iraq work, and more importantly, to take one last chance at unifying this country on this war.


ROBERTS (on camera): As much as the Iraq Study Group disagreed with current administration policy on Iraq, there was common ground on one important issue, no immediate withdrawal of U.S. groups from Iraq.

As Lee Hamilton put it bluntly when he was talking about it, he said the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces would likely result, Wolf, in a bloodbath.

BLITZER: All right.

John, thanks very much.

A short while ago, I spoke about the Iraq Study Group with Democratic Senator Barack Obama.


Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

As you know, several of your Democratic colleagues already think the situation in Iraq is over, for all practical purposes. John Murtha, the U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania, basically concludes the U.S. has already lost.

Former Senator Max Cleland, here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, said it's already over, bring those men and women home now before U.S. -- more U.S. troops have to die.

What do you say?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Well, as you know, I thought that this was a poorly conceived war in the first place and I wish we had not gone in.

What I've tried to do is to suggest that we need to be as cautious getting out as we were careless getting in. And I thought that the Iraq Study Group did a terrific job of providing, for the first time, in a bipartisan fashion, a realistic assessment of what's taking place there.

And I -- many of the recommendations that they put forward mirrored recommendations that I made in a speech in Chicago three weeks ago.

So I think that their basic framework was correct. And this now gives us an opportunity, as Democrats and Republicans, and as Americans, to come together and say what are the tasks and objectives that we can set for ourselves that will lead to a more acceptable outcome?

I think that James Baker was right when he said that there are no great options here. Robert Gates was right -- there are no new ideas. But we can make some good judgment calls and I think the one thing I would like to see is for us to start initiating a phased withdrawal to send a strong signal to the Iraqi government, as well as to neighbors in the region, that we're serious about changing course.

BLITZER: Because in the -- one of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations is by the first quarter of 2008, a little more than a year from now, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.

That kind of benchmark, you support that?

OBAMA: I do. I mean I framed it somewhat differently. What I said was in four to six months, we should have begun-the phased withdrawal. They come at it from the back end and say that by 2008 we could have gotten all combat troops out.

But the basic principle is sound, which is we cannot have our brave young men and women, who are doing a wonderful job, trying to arbitrate in what has effectively become a sectarian civil war.

BLITZER: What...

OBAMA: The Iraqi government has to make a decision and all the parties involved have to make a decision that they are willing to arrive at a political settlement. And unless and until we have said we are not going to continue to offer our troops up as fodder in that process, I don't think they're going to get serious about it.

BLITZER: What should the Democratic majority in the Senate and the House do if President Bush and his administration reject these recommendations and continue to go along as is?

OBAMA: Well, I don't want to speculate on that right now. The fact of the matter is the president is the commander-in-chief. As much as we object to what he is doing, ultimately we are expecting leadership from the White House on this issue.

The one power that we have in Congress is the power of the purse. I see no appetite, and certainly I would not support, actually restricting funds that we need to make sure that our troops are protected and successful. But I think the interesting thing, Wolf, is that you're going to see at least as much pressure, if not more pressure, from within the president's own party, to take these recommendations seriously, because I think they recognize that not only is America paying a price for misguided policies, but the Republican Party is paying a political price, as well.

BLITZER: Because the report says, as we know, nearly 3,000 American troops already dead; another 21,000 wounded, many of them severely.

This war costing U.S. taxpayers about $2 billion a week -- a week; $400 billion so far. They say if it goes on, it could be $2 trillion. Think about it, Senator, what you could be doing for the American public with those kinds of sums, $2 billion a week.

OBAMA: Well, absolutely. Look, the costs have been enormous. And one of the frustrations I've had is when I hear the president say effectively that as long as we are resolved, we don't lost heart, we can win.

The American people have been enormously resolved in this process and I think that all of us are willing to make sacrifices and pick up arms ourselves, in terms of defending our country.

What we can't continue to do is to spend the amount of money that we're spending more grievously to see young men and women, 18 and 19 and 20 year olds, suffer the way they're suffering and end up with an outcome that is making us less safe and is encouraging terrorist activity.

That is an unacceptable option and I think that the Baker- Hamilton Commission did an excellent job in terms of getting us all to focus on the reality of the situation right now.

BLITZER: Here's how the former vice president, Al Gore, summarized this Iraq situation on "The Today Show" earlier today.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is an utter disaster. This was the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States. And now, we as a nation have to find a way, in George Mitchell's words, to manage a disaster.

BLITZER: The worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States.

The former president, Jimmy Carter, were here in THE SITUATION ROOM last week basically saying this is a huge disaster, rivaling Vietnam.

First of all, do you agree with the vice president?

OBAMA: I think it is hard not to make the assessment that this has been a misconceived mission from the start, not just in execution, but in conception. In fact, actually, the military has performed brilliantly. The problem was the way we conceived the mission was based on ideology. It was not based on facts on the ground.

But the fact is, is that what I'm not interested in doing is re- litigating the decision to get in. I think that what the Iraq Study Group provides us an opportunity to do is to start looking forward on a bipartisan basis, to try to figure out how can we make the best of a bad situation?

It is still possible for us to arrive at a situation in which there is stability in Iraq, that it has not become a nest of terrorist activity, that we're not seeing wholesale slaughter.

Those modest objectives can potentially still be achieved, but we don't have any time to lose here.

BLITZER: And we're almost out of time. But a quick answer.

Do you support the notion of bringing Iran and Syria into some sort of regional international conference without any preconditions?

OBAMA: Yes. And I said so three weeks ago. I think that we -- if we can talk to the Kremlin when they've got nuclear weapons pointed at us for 50 years, then we can talk to Iran and Syria.

BLITZER: I'll leave you with a quick political question, Senator Obama.

Joe Biden, your colleague from Delaware, said the other day, he said, "I'll be a little surprised if he actually does run. Obama is on everyone's number two list."

I guess that's a back-handed compliment.

You want to be president or you want to be vice president?

OBAMA: Well, you don't run-for vice president.

BLITZER: So what does that mean? You want to be pres -- you want run for president?

OBAMA: The -- I answered the question, Wolf.

I've got to go vote.

BLITZER: We'll leave it there. I know you're considering it and we'll consider it along with you.

Thanks very much, Senator.

OBAMA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

OBAMA: Bye-bye.

BLITZER: Bye-bye.


BLITZER: And still ahead, tonight, strong reaction coming into the big news for the Cheney family. The vice president's openly gay daughter, Mary Cheney, is pregnant.

Plus U.S. troops undergoing intense training as they prepare to help Iraqi forces step up. Our Brian Todd is going to show us what those troops are going through right now. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: While the Iraq Study Group recommends a gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, it calls for more U.S. forces to get involved in training Iraqi soldiers. Troops are preparing for that role right now over at Fort Riley in Kansas. CNN's Brian Todd has a first-hand look -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if Iraqi forces are going to be trained and up for speed for that combat, this is where that training begins, here at Fort Riley, an intensive course for U.S. military advisers to get their Iraqi counterparts up to speed.


TODD (voice-over): A mission to kill. U.S. troops storm a mock Iraqi village at Fort Riley, Kansas, kicking down doors, taking out one insurgent at the top of the stairs and then turning to face a hostage taker.

SGT. SAMUEL SISTARE, U.S. ARMY: You make the call or the guy behind the weapon has to make the call.

TODD: A call tough enough for an American, even tougher for a soldier fighting on his own turf.

MAJ. GEN. CARTER HAM, U.S. ARMY: To help that Iraqi, help that Afghan leader help him make those decisions, instead of the American making the decision.

TODD: This unit training how to help Iraqis deal with a common danger.

This drill is called mounted combat patrol. In this convoy of humvees advisers are taught how to train their Iraqi counterparts to watch out for roadside bombs and hostile fire and how to respond if they're attacked.

Keep your bearings!

TODD: These soldiers badly wounded. Their buddies criticized for leaving them exposed. But how do you escape a disabled vehicle?

This is called the humvee assistance trainer, essentially how to get out of a humvee that's hit by an IED and rolls over and catches fire or goes into the water. I'm going to take a run at it. Flipped over, debris flying around inside. I need help, I might not have survived. That was the toughest part, finding the latch when you're upside down.


TODD: This program has only been in place since June, but it's very ambitious. Each team goes through 60 days of training, then 11 members of each team are embedded with a battalion of about 500 Iraqis. Those are the Iraqis that are going to be on the front lines of this war. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting from Fort Riley, thank you.

Let's go to New York, Paula Zahn standing by for what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Paula?

PAUL ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf, thanks so much. We're going to be going in depth on the Iraq Study Group's urgent call for a change of course. We're going to look at the problems from all sides, including live reports from the Pentagon and from Baghdad.

Then we're going to move on tonight's top health story. Thousands of people go to Mexico every year to save some big money on cosmetic surgery. We're going to show you why some of them will regret that decision for the rest of their lives. A starting CNN investigation coming up in just about 13 minutes from now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Paula, thank you.

And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the vice president's daughter having a baby with her long-term partner. Find out why she's challenging conservatives on the meaning of family values.

And Donald Rumsfeld is about to be out of a job, so should President Bush give him a medal of freedom on his way out the door? That's Jack Cafferty's question. He's taking your e-mails, stick around.


BLITZER: A growing number of same-sex couples are having children, but few will make headlines the way this one is. Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of the vice president, is pregnant and expecting a baby with her partner, Heather Poe. CNN's Mary Snow is live in New York with details -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, news that Mary Cheney's first child was on the way was barely out before friends and foes of gay and lesbian families started weighing in. And it, once again, exposed the divide between Mary Cheney's personal life and the public policies of the Bush administration where her father is number two.


SNOW (voice-over): It is a pregnancy that is sure to bear political implications. A spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney confirms that Mary Cheney, the vice president's gay daughter is pregnant. She and long-time partner Heather Poe prepare for the next big step in their lives as parents, a spokeswoman says Mr. Cheney says the vice president and that Mrs. Cheney are looking forward with eager anticipation to the arrival of their sixth grandchild.

That arrival is already sparking widespread interest, especially among gay rights advocates.

JENNIFER CHRISLER, FAMILY PRIDE: It really makes real how aggressive the right and fundamentalalists have been about attacking gay and lesbian families. And here, the vice president's own daughter is about to become a part of that in an even bigger way than she already is.

SNOW: And has been since 2004, when Mary Cheney served as an aide to her father's campaign. She's seen here with her partner at the Republican convention.

Gay rights activists criticized her for not speaking out in support of same-sex marriage since President Bush was in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban it.

This past spring in a new book, she publicly broke ranks with the administration.

MARY CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER: The notion of amending the constitution and writing, basically writing discrimination into the constitution of the United States is fundamentally wrong.

SNOW: This November, Cheney supported a campaign to fight a sam- sex marriage ban in the state of Virginia where she lives with her partner, but the ban was approved. Gay family advocates say Virginia has strict limits on parental rights for gay couples.

CHRISLER: Mary's partner will have no legal relationship to this child at all.

SNOW: Will the vice president's new grandchild soften conservative staunch opposition to gay marriage? At least one conservative says, it will make a difference and questions family values in this case.

ROBERT KNIGHT, CULTURE AND MEDIA INSTITUTE: Where is the father? There's a decided lack of curiosity about how this blessed event is occurring.


SNOW: And as for the question of who the father is, the vice president's office did not offer any details on the circumstances of the pregnancy. The Washington Post reports the baby is due this spring -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you very much. And there's more reaction to this story. The group Concerned Women for america put out a statement calling Mary Cheney, and I'm quoting now, "the face of the tragic and burgeoning trend of women who don't want a father in the picture."

We talked about it with Paul Begala and Terry Jeffery in our "Strategy Session."


BLITZER: Is this going to have an impact on the whole debate right now over gay marriage, gay adoption, gay parenting?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think it will. And in that sense, I'm very happy, of course, for Ms. Cheney and Ms. Poe, but it's a lot of pressure to put on one couple and to put on one family, and I sort of regret that. But that's the nature of being the vice president's daughter, I suppose.

I think it blows a hole in the right wing argument that somehow gay equality is an attack on the American family. Here's a wonderful American family, committed for 15 years to eachother, which is better than most of us straight people can do. And now they're going to bring a child into this world. The bible says a child is a gift from god. And I believe that. And I think it's just a wonderful thing. And I think it will hopefully do away with the prejudice that some of our friends on the right have.


TERRY JEFFREY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I agree with Focus on the Family. I think people have to look at this from the perspective of the child. And the fundamental question is, does a child have a god-given right to a mother and a father? I think we all recognize when a father impregnates a woman and walks away and doesn't take care of the child, that father has done something wrong to the child. So when you take two people of the same sex, and you artificially insert into that relationship a child, you are depriving that child of a fundamental god-given right that every person born in this world has.


BLITZER: And this footnote, there are no exact numbers on how many children are being raised in same-sex households in the United States.

Still ahead, should President Bush give Donald Rumsfeld the Medal of Freedom? Jack, next, with your "Cafferty File."


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack for the "Cafferty File." Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: With tongue only partially in cheek, Wolf, the question is, "should President Bush give the outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the Medal of Freedom?"

Rick writes, "why not give the medal of Freedom? And while he's at it, Michael Brown and Michael Chertoff as well for their great service to the country."

Charles in Sharon, Connecticut, "apparently, the Medal of Freedom is his favorite reward for gross mismanagement. Therefore, we could expect it to be given to Rumsfeld."

John in Texas sticks up for the outgoing secretary, "Don Rumsfeld deserves the medal for his years and years of dedication to this country, regardless of how I personally feel about him. He's done his job whether we agree on how well. Give him the medal."

Jose in Steamboat, Nevada, "Jack, there are known knowns and known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. Will Rumsfeld get the medal, I don't know"

Judy in Exeter, California, "you can't be serious."

David in Carey, North Carolina, "giving Rumsfeld the presidential medal of freedom is like giving Michael Jackson the good parenting award."

Randall in California, "do we have a quagimre medal?"

And Clay in Waycross, Georgia, "sure, give Rumsfeld the medal. Just don't ask me where he should put it."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to And read some more of them online.

We've got some pretty funny stuff.

BLITZER: It's the nation's highest civilian honor that the president -- he gave three other key officials who were intimately involved in creating this policy the medal of freedom.

CAFFERTY: Yeah, well, good for him. That's just one in a long string of things that he's done that people are writing reports about now.

BLITZER: You know, it's hard to believe, when you think about it, $2 billions a week, a week -- think about what that money could be used for.

CAFFERTY: Well, you know, war is expensive and everybody understands that. But the sin as far as I'm concerned is what are we getting? We're getting no bang for the buck, pardon the play on words. $2 billion a week and we're pouring it down a rat hole. If we were making progress and could see our way clear to a democratic government and peace in that country, maybe it's worth the money. But that's nowhere on the horizon.

BLITZER: Jack, see you tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much. That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Let's go to New York. "PAULA ZAHN NOW" and Paula -- Paula.


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