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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Wesley Clark; Interview With Congressmen Lantos, Pence

Aired September 16, 2007 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11 a.m. in Washington, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition." We'll get to our interview with senators Bayh and Cornyn in just a moment.
First, there's breaking news. We're following a horrible plane crash out in Thailand. Let's go to CNN's Alina Cho. She's at our "Late Edition" update desk in Atlanta with an update on what's going on. Alina, what do we know?

ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Watching this very closely, Wolf. Here's what we know right now. A passenger jet skidded off the runway and crashed while trying to land on the island of Phuket. Many of you have heard of this. That island a popular destination for foreign tourists.

Around 130 people were on board, and right now, Thai officials report at least 87 deaths and 43 survivors. Most of those survivors Europeans. At the time, no U.S. citizens are being listed as being on that plane.

No official cause yet, but the plane was trying to land in bad weather, heavy rain and high winds reported there. Officials with One-Two-GO Airline say the flight was en route from Bangkok.

The crash horrifying to those who saw it. Earlier in the CNN newsroom, we heard from one witness.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM HARDING, WITNESS: I saw the plane land. I never saw the plane in motion. I just saw the aftermath. And my guess was that it landed and kind of skidded up and smashed into that hill. And the exterior of the plane was, you know, it just kind of looked like a plane. But you could clearly see that the whole inside of the plane was, you know, absolutely engulfed in flames. On fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: William Harding was on a plane that landed just five minutes before the crash. Wolf, of course we are watching this story very, very closely. Because this is an American-made MD-80, it appears at this point that the NTSB and the FAA may be sending investigation teams. We're watching this very closely, Wolf. We'll get back to you as we get more information. BLITZER: Alina Cho on top of the breaking news for us. Thanks, Alina, for that.

It was a dramatic week here in Washington on Capitol Hill. Joining us now to discuss the fallout from the long-awaited testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are two key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Evan Bayh is a Democrat of Indiana, and John Cornyn is a Republican from Texas.

Senator Bayh, I'll start with you. I'm going to play a little clip of what the president told the nation Thursday night in his nationally televised address.

"Now because of the measure" -- I'm going to read it to you -- "now because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home. The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible for the first time in years for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."

Are you ready to come together and work with the president on his strategy?

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: We'd all like to be successful in Iraq, Wolf. And to achieve that success we do need to come together. But many of us have concluded that the president's strategy simply will not be successful. And that what it boils down to, after the surge troops are withdrawn, which was going to be inevitable anyway, is a limitless sacrifice of American blood and treasure to give the Iraqi political leaders an endless amount of time to get their act together.

BLITZER: So is there no common ground, Senator Bayh, that you see right now in taking the next steps as far as the war in Iraq is concerned?

BAYH: Well, there's not enough to get a compromise, Wolf. Unfortunately, the president is essentially saying, look, this is an open-ended commitment to allow the Iraqi political leaders to get their act together. There's no evidence really that that...

BLITZER: And you want a hard and fast time line to reduce almost all the troops from Iraq?

BAYH: I'm for saying to Iraqi political leaders, look, we stood by you for 4 1/2 years. You haven't done your part. Here's the things that need to be done, here's the time frame in which they need to be done. If you don't do them, then there are going to be some consequences to that, and you can't expect us to stand by you endlessly.

The bottom line on this, Wolf, is they're more afraid of looking their own supporters in the eye and telling them they need to compromise than they are afraid of the consequences of civil war. Until we get tough with them, they're never going to make those hard decisions. BLITZER: Senator Cornyn, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, himself a Vietnam war veteran, is introducing once again legislation that, in effect, would force the president's hand as far as a troop level in Iraq. His legislation says this: "No unit or member of the armed forces may be deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan unless the period of the deployment of the unit or member is equal to or longer than the period of such previous deployment."

In other words, if you send the soldiers for 15 months to Iraq, they have to be home for 15 months before they can be resent back to Iraq. Is that a good idea or a bad idea?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I'm concerned about the length of deployments, and that's why we need to grow the end strength of our military. But I think we all recognize that having failed to cut off funds for our efforts in Iraq and in the global war on terror, now there's a back- door strategy to try to tie the hands of commanders and to limit their flexibility in dealing with the threat. I think that's what the Webb amendment represents.

BLITZER: Well, you'll vote against it?

CORNYN: Well, I'm interested in the debate. And, obviously, I'm concerned about the deployments, the lengthy deployments, their impact on our soldiers and their families. But I'm not for, I'm against, any attempt of the attempt to tie the hands of our commanders or limit their flexibility on what is an improving security situation in Iraq. I don't know why the critics refuse to take yes and progress for an answer.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Senator Bayh. First of all, I assume you'll continue to support this Webb amendment?

BAYH: Yes, wolf, I will. It's because I support our military, and perhaps we did hear some common ground here. I agree with John. We need to increase the end strength of our military, and we should be concerned about the length of these doe deployments. We're running our military into the ground.

Look, this is not an optimal situation. We've seen it for several years now. No body armor, not the right kind of vehicles, not enough troops. We can't stand idly by while our guard, our reserve and our active military basically are depleted. We have to do something.

BLITZER: You have confidence, Senator Cornyn, in the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad in living up to the commitments he's made? Because so far on all of the key issues, like disarming the militia or passing oil legislation, having local elections, provincial elections, they failed on almost all of those commitments.

CORNYN: I don't have confidence in the prime minister, but that's a choice to be made by Iraqis and not by Americans. The fact of the matter is, the National Intelligence Estimate said if Maliki was removed, that it would further retard progress toward the reconciliation that we all want and which we're expecting to see.

But I wish the common ground that we would find is that critics of what's happening in Iraq would accept the fact that General Petraeus intends to return 5,700 troops home before Christmas and an additional 30,000 by next summer. I would think there would be -- they would be welcoming that with great joy.

BLITZER: All right, why aren't you welcoming that, Senator Bayh, with great joy?

BAYH: Well, I am welcoming that, Wolf, but we have to recognize that had to happen anyway. All the military told us we could not sustain the surge beyond next spring. So these troops are going to come home.

The question is, what happens to the 120 to 130,000 that will remains? Are they there forever, which essentially is the administration's strategy as long as the Iraqis don't get their act together? Or do we lay out a time frame in which we can gradually begin to withdraw them and say to the Iraqis, it's up to you. We can't do this for you. You have to do your part. I think that kind of pressure gives us the best chance that they will.

BLITZER: Here's how your colleague from Nebraska, Senator Cornyn, Senator Hagel, Chuck Hagel, announced this week he's not going to seek re-election. He was on Bill Maher's show on HBO, "Real Time with Bill Maher." Here's what he said Friday night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-NEB.: Well, it's not only a dirty trick, but it's dishonest, it's hypocritical, its dangerous and irresponsible. The fact is, this is not Petraeus's policy. It's Bush's policy.

And the military -- it's certainly very clear in the constitution -- is there subservient to the elected public officials of this country. And I think we all agree on that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, so he's saying that the president's strategy is, in his words, a dirty trick. Not only a dirty trick, but it's also dishonest. Those are strong words, especially coming from a fellow Republican.

CORNYN: Well, I disagree with Senator Hagel on his characterization. This is the Petraeus recommendation.

And what I think we ought to do is listen to our military leaders, not accuse them of treason as the liberal group MoveOn.org has in this ad they purchased last week.

I'm going to give my colleagues, Senator Bayh and others, a chance to separate themselves from that sort of rhetoric that I think dishonors the commitment of our military during the debate next week. A resolution -- hopefully we can all come together, find common ground, say we ought to support our troops, we ought to support the commanders in the field that are trying their very best to help us improve security in Iraq and draw down troops and to let Iraq govern and defend itself.

BLITZER: The ad was a full-page ad, as you well know, that was entitled "General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the Books for the White House." Is that -- was that ad fair, Senator Bayh?

BAYH: No, I don't believe it was, Wolf. I don't think it should have run. I think it's legitimate to question the general's conclusions and recommendations, even his judgment, but not his integrity. But to get back to what...

BLITZER: Some Democrats continue to accept funds, campaign contributions from MoveOn.org.

BAYH: Well, they're not from MoveOn.org. They're from millions of individuals, Americans around the country. Those are where the contributions come from.

BLITZER: But those members of MoveOn.org who obviously are politically active and generate a lot of campaign funds for a lot of Democrats.

BAYH: That's different than an ad. And, look, our discussion here is illustrative of where we need to go. And I was watching another show as I was getting read to come down here.

There was about a two-minute discussion of what substantively we needed to do about Iraq and a 15-minute discussion about what should Hillary have said, what about the Giuliani ad? What about playing to the bases of both parties?

We don't need that kind of political insider baseball stuff. We've got to drill down and figure out what we're going to do to stabilize Iraq.

BLITZER: But do you believe that General Petraeus gave his best assessment or was he just giving political spin based on what the White House wanted to hear?

BAYH: I think he was giving us his honest opinion. The question is whether that's correct or not? We heard previously from General Casey, from General Myers, from General Pace, all of them telling us, "Look, things are getting better, we're making progress. If we just give it a little more time, this will work out well."

They're all honorable, honest men but their assessment did not turn out to be accurate. So you have to have a little skepticism when you hear testimony and ask yourself, "Is this how it's going to go or not?"

That's what a democracy is all about. And you should do that without questioning people's integrity but also insisting that we try and chart a better course in Iraq and not just blindly accept what we're being told.

BLITZER: Senator Cornyn, you don't have a problem with that, do you?

CORNYN: No, I think a little skepticism is important. But rather than the armchair generals in Washington, I would like to listen to the people who are in the battlefield fighting the fights, the military commanders and others, tell us what they see in an objective and impartial sort of way so we can make the judgments we have to make at home.

That's where I think General Petraeus was doing. That's why I think the attempt to undermine his credibility by MoveOn.org and the people associated with that group was so reprehensible. They didn't want to listen to what he had to say. They already made up their minds and they were going to undermine his credibility any way they could.

BLITZER: All right, Senators, stand by because we're going to continue this conversation. The former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, is just out with a new book that blasts the Bush administration's fiscal policies. We'll talk about that and a lot more with these two U.S. senators.

And later, the ailing Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, claimed this week that Americans have been lied to about 9/11, that there was no plane that crashed into the Pentagon. A top Cuban official in Havana will tell us what Castro meant by his remarks.

"Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're continuing our conversation with two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republican John Cornyn is in Austin, Texas. Democrat Evan Bayh is here in Washington. There's a hot new book. It's only going to be in the bookstores tomorrow, we're told, but it's already generating lots of controversy out there, the former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan's book, "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World."

Senator Cornyn, he really blasts Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration for failure to deal with fiscal policy with budget restraints during these first six-and-a-half years or so of this administration.

"I am saddened," he also goes on to say, "that it's politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." We're going to get to both of these issues first.

But listen to what the defense secretary, Bob Gates, said specifically about the charge that this war in Iraq is all about oil.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT M. GATES: I wasn't here for the decision-making process that initiated -- that started the war. I know the same allegation was made about the Gulf War in 1991. And I just don't believe it's true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Senator Cornyn, a lot of people do believe that this whole war is all about oil, making sure the United States has access to Iraqi oil and other oil coming from the Persian Gulf. What's your response?

CORNYN: Wolf, I don't believe that 77 United States senators on a broad, bipartisan basis would have authorized the use of force. People like -- to include my friend Evan Bayh, wouldn't have voted for it if it was only about oil. This is about our national security and not just about oil.

BLITZER: What do you think, Senator Bayh?

BAYH: It's always possible, Wolf, that this was in the back of the minds of someone like Dick Cheney or people in his circle. But as John was saying, for the members of Congress who voted at that time, it was about a belief that there were weapons of mass destruction that Saddam was seeking. That turned out to just simply not be the case. But that was what was motivating most of our thinking.

BLITZER: You were on the Intelligence Committee -- correct me if I'm wrong -- at that time, and had access to the most sensitive information. Did anyone say to you, "This war is really about oil as opposed to weapons of mass destruction?"

BAYH: No.

BLITZER: None of the briefers that came before you?

BAYH: No.

BLITZER: The other explosive charge, Senator Cornyn, is that -- and it goes after you and other Republicans in the Senate and the House, that you were just fiscally irresponsible over these years and letting what you obtained from the Clinton administration, budget surpluses, become into budget deficits, as all of us know right now.

Greenspan writes this -- and he himself is a Republican -- "The Republicans in Congress lost their way. They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose," referring to the elections in 2006. You agree with the former chairman?

CORNYN: I agree that Republicans have, unfortunately, been guilty of too much spending in Washington, wasteful Washington spending and we need to do better. I try to do that with my votes. But, ultimately, we need the president to begin to veto some of the excessive spending bills that will be landing on his desk over the next few months. I hope he does that. BLITZER: He didn't veto anything when the Republicans, Senator Cornyn, were the majority. And Alan Greenspan goes after Dennis Hastert, who was the speaker, Tom DeLay, who was the House majority leader, your fellow Texan, in saying the president should have vetoed a lot of those spending bills rather than sign them into law.

CORNYN: I'm with Mr. Greenspan. He's right. The president should have. And I hope he does here in the coming months, when we see some of these bloated spending bills appear on his desk.

BLITZER: It will be a lot easier, Senator Bayh, for the president to veto Democratic -- bills that come from a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, spending bills, than bills that came from a Republican majority in the House and Senate.

BAYH: Well, it will be easier, Wolf, but the important thing is to do what's right, whether it's easier or not. You know, I was governor of my state. I had to veto the state budget one year that had been passed by Democrats in my House of Representatives. That's not an easy thing to do.

But when you believe it's the fiscally responsible thing, it's what you have to do. So the chairman was right. Deficits do matter, regardless of what Dick Cheney and some others say. And this spend and borrow from China just is not good for our country.

BLITZER: Do you believe deficits do matter, Senator Cornyn?

CORNYN: Of course they do. And I'm glad to see it's been coming down because of the volume of money coming into the treasury because of the pro-growth policies we've had the last few years. But you've got to deal with both sides of it, Wolf. You've got to deal with the tax side, and you have to deal with the spending side. I hope we do on the spending side.

BLITZER: How much longer, Senator Cornyn, should the U.S. be spending $2 billion, maybe even $3 billion a week on the war in Iraq?

CORNYN: Well, we all want it to come down as fast as we can. But it's a question not only of money, it's about security. I think what we all ought to hopefully agree upon in a bipartisan, nonpartisan basis is, that's the issue, what makes us safer here at home. And I think that's the ultimate question. And I think the answer is, whatever it takes to make us safe is what we ought to be doing.

BLITZER: The Iranian president, Senator Bayh, said this week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he said this. He said, "We can help solve many problems in Iraq. We can help secure Iraq. We can help the attackers leave Iraq if the American government and British government correct themselves."

What do you think about a comment like that?

BAYH: Well, he's a pretty unstable fellow, and you never know what to make of what he has to say. But I will say this, Wolf. Our current approach in Iraq is actually working to Iran's benefit. In the short run, they want us bogged down there so they can bleed us so we can't serve as a credible deterrent to them.

In the long run, they fear a sectarian civil war where the Shia would be on the losing side because they're a minority in the Islamic world. So, by laying out a credible path for disengaging from Iraq, we take away what the Iranians like, in the short term, our presence there, and we confront them with what they fear in the long run, which is a civil war, and maybe get them to behave more responsibly.

BLITZER: A lot of analysts, Senator Cornyn, have suggested the Iranians, the government of President Ahmadinejad got exactly it wanted in Iraq: A Shiite-led government, closely aligned to Iran, the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which is obviously dominated by Shia.

CORNYN: Well, I don't think they got exactly what they want. What they want to do is to take over Iraq and grow their influence in the region. That's one reason why it's in our national security interest for us to leave Iraq as soon as we can, but not before they're able to govern and defend themselves.

BLITZER: Should a military option be considered to deal with Iran's nuclear program, Senator Cornyn?

CORNYN: I think it's always the last choice, but it has to be an option in our national security interest. But no one is suggesting we're at that point yet. But Iran is not our friend. And I wouldn't take advice from President Ahmadinejad on any day.

BLITZER: I'll give you the last word, Senator Bayh. A military option with Iran's nuclear program?

BAYH: Well, obviously you don't take any options off the table. But I think we need to exhaust everything else first, financial pressure, economic pressure. You know, they import most of their gasoline. That would have a real impact on them. They get most of their revenue from exporting oil. If we could get other nations to band together to perhaps take a look at that, we could bring them economically to their knees, which would be better than resorting to military action.

BLITZER: Senator Bayh, thanks for coming in. And Senator Cornyn, thanks to you as well.

CORNYN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, the former NATO supreme allied commander, Wesley Clark. He's just endorsed one of the Democratic front-runners. You're going to find out who he thinks would make the best commander in chief.

And speaking of the candidates for president, we'll take a closer look at where some of them are campaigning over the next few weeks in our "on the campaign trail" segment. "Late Edition" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Let's take a closer look now at where some of the U.S. presidential candidates will be spending time over the next few days on the campaign trail. Senator Biden will join five of his Democratic opponents in Washington, D.C. tomorrow at the Action Conference of the Service Employees International Union. Also on Monday, Congressman Duncan Hunter and four other Republican candidates will hold a debate before "values voters" in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich will be opening his campaign headquarters in Las Vegas on Sunday -- that's today -- followed by an address to the Amalgamated Transit Union. Also today and tomorrow, Senator John McCain will continue his "no surrender" bus tour through South Carolina.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will be one of the candidates to show up in Chicago on Monday to speak to the Laborers' International Union. And former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be fund raising in New York and Florida today and tomorrow, capping Monday off with an "Ask Mitt Anything" event on the Internet. On the campaign trail with some of the presidential candidates.

Coming up next here on "Late Edition," the former NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark. He's been a vocal critic of the president's current course in Iraq. We'll ask him what his military and diplomatic plans would be when we come back. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When General David Petraeus was getting drilled on Capitol Hill this week, my next guest must have known how he felt. After all, he's been there as well. Wesley Clark is a retired four- star general. He was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander during the Kosovo crisis. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination back in 2004. He's just published a new book entitled, "A Time to Lead."

General Clark, welcome back to "Late Edition."

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Wolf. And, yes, I did know how he felt because I would sit there and I'd look up at the senators and, of course, the roles were reversed because I was serving during a Democratic administration and there were the Republicans very skeptical, very cynical about the Balkans and Kosovo and Bosnia.

BLITZER: But no one ever said to you something like "General Betray Us," that MoveOn.org ad that caused so much -- questioned...

CLARK: Absolutely not. No, no, no.

BLITZER: ... your patriotism or what your motives were. None of the Republican -- correct me if I'm wrong.

CLARK: I wish that the MoveOn people had talked to me in advance. You know, when a general's put there, he serves under the commander in chief. He's like -- you put the quarterback in halfway through the fourth period and you say, "Kid, get in there and pass the ball and win this game for us."

The quarterback's not going to come out after the first series of downs and say, "Coach, they're too big, the ball's too slippery, and take me out." I mean, his job is to produce success. It's the responsibility of the president to have the right strategy. And so this is President Bush's war. It is not General Petraeus' war.

BLITZER: But you know General Petraeus.

CLARK: I do know him.

BLITZER: Do you believe he tailored his comments to please the commander in chief, the president, the secretary of defense, or do you believe he's an honest man who actually believed what he told the Senate and the House?

CLARK: I don't think General Petraeus is going to say anything he didn't believe, but I think that any time you're in a position of command and your responsibility is to produce a success, what you see is colored by what your mission is.

And so it's up to others to bring out all those facts and to have the reasoned debate. That's why this dialogue in Congress is so important. If we had this kind of dialogue before we went into Iraq, maybe we would have made better decisions.

BLITZER: So you can disagree with General Petraeus without hurling -- calling him names.

CLARK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: Or questioning his integrity.

CLARK: Look, he's a guy with tremendous responsibilities. He's got 170,000 troops there. He's responsible for the lives and welfare of all those troops. He's worried about the families, the army, and, of course, he's worried about working for his boss.

BLITZER: So you admire him and you respect him, you just disagree with him?

CLARK: Well, I'm not even sure I disagree with him. He doesn't have his hand on the...

BLITZER: This operation -- he says this operation in Iraq can succeed.

CLARK: It could succeed depending on how you define success and depending on what else you bring to the mission. In other words, I don't think you're going to convert Iraq into a constitutional democracy with a picture of George Washington on the wall, no matter what Dave Petraeus does.

But I do think that if the administration went through the pattern of regional dialogue that I've been advocating for four years and actually sat down and talked with people -- I'm not talking about calling a guy in a room and saying, "Hey, we're going to knock your block off if you don't stop sending the weapons in."

That's not diplomacy. I'm talking about real diplomacy based on a set of principles. If we did that, maybe we could pull something out.

BLITZER: I want to get to that in a moment. But you made some news over this weekend by endorsing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

CLARK: I did.

BLITZER: Why do you think she would be the best president?

CLARK: I think the next president of the United States is inheriting a crisis right at the get go. And if you look at the record of the American presidency over the last 50 years, almost every president confronts an immediate foreign policy crisis as soon as they're in office.

You need someone with experience. You need someone with character. You need someone who does their homework, who doesn't just operate on slogans. And I think Hillary Clinton is the right person.

BLITZER: I assume you looked at Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson...

CLARK: Certainly.

BLITZER: ... all the other Democratic...

CLARK: I know them all.

BLITZER: And what did you like about her more than about the others? What did she bring that they didn't bring?

CLARK: She brings character. Boy, she's solid.

BLITZER: Barack Obama doesn't have character?

CLARK: She has been through it, not only in the politics of the American political cauldron, but she's been through it inside the White House. She knows about how decisions are made. She knows about the kinds of pressures. And she knows what it's like to get up the next day, after you've had to make some really tough decisions.

She was there. She came to the Balkans in the mid '90s. She was there right after we won the war In Kosovo. I mean, she's very, very experienced and I think she's very courageous personally and very solid. I think she's the kind of president we need at this time in this country.

BLITZER: You were talking about dialogue with regional players out there. Here's what you write in your new book, "A Time to Leave": "We must find a way out that preserves and protects those in the region that have relied on and supported us that minimizes the likelihood of a widened conflict in the aftermath and that undercuts the possibility of a terrorist haven arising in parts of Iraq. This will require a broadened and sustained dialogue with nations in the nation, including Iran and Syria."

At what level should that dialogue with Iran and Syria take place?

CLARK: Well, you can't go over there as president and commander in chief and knock on Ahmadinejad's door and say, "Come out and talk to me." But you can reach them. There are sporadic, low-level contacts now through former members of government with former members of the Iranian government.

You've got to find a network of contacts, and I'd like to see it done the way we did shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans. You put someone in charge like Richard Holbrooke was in charge. He had the presence and authority. You bring an interagency team from Defense and the military and State over there, and you work the region until you've sorted out the issues.

BLITZER: You worked with Ambassador Holbrooke on that mission.

CLARK: Right, we were on that mission. We started with a statement of principles and with some blandishments and threats. If you do this, you could get this. If you don't do this, this is going to happen.

BLITZER: Because you were, I believe, a three-star general at the time, is that right?

CLARK: That's right. That's right.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I remember. Now, here's what Hillary Clinton -- she and Barack Obama got into a dispute when at that CNN-YouTube debate. They were asked whether in the first year of a new presidency they would meet personally at the highest levels with the leaders of Syria and Iran. And Senator Clinton disagreed with Senator Obama. Here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, D-N.Y.: I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: She was responding to Senator Obama...

CLARK: She's exactly right.

BLITZER: ... who said he would meet at the highest levels with the leaders in that first year to try to get that dialogue going, which is what you want, a dialogue with the neighbors. CLARK: But I think that Senator Clinton is exactly right. You don't go to these summit meetings at the head of state level without knowing what's going to happen there. You always have some deliverables when you have a meeting like that.

You don't run out as president of the United States and start shaking hands with people and say, "Gee, what can we talk about?" These things are worked intensively behind the scenes because each one of these meetings carries consequences. And you want to make sure you get the right consequences.

BLITZER: A lot of people say there's nothing to talk about with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and that was sort of reinforced by words he told the ITN in Britain this week. He said this about Israel: "We think Israel is an invader and is cruel and it hasn't gotten the united public. All other countries, neighboring countries, are against it. It cannot continue its life."

Now, a country like that, a leader that says Israel shouldn't even exist, what are you going to talk to him about?

CLARK: Well, there's a lot to talk about and I think he's certainly willing to talk. If he's not, other people are. Iran is in a deep hole economically. They don't have their oil industry in order. Their finances are being constrained. Their neighbors are opposed to them.

They're surrounded on four sides by either American troops, American forces or the potential of American military intervention. They have regional ambitions but they have a limited time.

BLITZER: So you're saying that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is only one voice there. There are other voices in Iran.

General Petraeus testified, Ambassador Crocker testified that Iranians were helping to kill American soldiers and Marines in Iraq. And others are now saying that Iranians are doing the same thing in Afghanistan, trying to send in their improvised explosive devices, et cetera. Does that affect your thinking about having a dialogue with Iraq?

CLARK: Absolutely. It makes it much more imperative that we talk because there's no question Iran is fighting back. From the time we went into Iraq, the Iranians' understanding was they were somewhere two or three or four down the hit list.

So as soon as we could digest the problem of Iraq, we would knock off Syria, take over Lebanon and come after Iran. That was the sort of loose talk around Washington and, of course, they understood that.

So their first line of defense has been to -- and it's not just military aid inside Iraq, by the way.

It's political engagement. It's economic support. It's medical support. It's education support. It's a continuous dialogue of people. This is their nearest neighbor, and they have a vital interest in Iraq. And so, yes, they're engaged. And we need to talk to them. That doesn't mean negotiating anything away. What it means is real, hard-headed dialogue about what their aims are, what our interest and aims are, and see if there's any common interest at all.

BLITZER: Here's a quote from the book, your new book, "A Time to Lead." And you write this: " 'Here's the paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defense outlining the strategy. We're going to take out seven countries in five years!' And he named them, starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran. It was straight out of Paul Wolfowitz's 1991 play book, dressed up as the search for weapons of mass destruction and the global war on terror."

Now, that jumped out at me. Explain to our viewers what you're referring to when you make a very serious charge like that, that this whole war in Iraq was basically built on a lie.

CLARK: Well, not exactly a lie. But a theory about how to deal with terrorism. It was the "drain the swamp" theory that emerged after 9/11 and people talked about it. But before that, in 1991, I remember being in Secretary Wolfowitz's office when he was the number three guy in the Pentagon.

And he said, yeah, the Gulf war, well, we didn't get rid of Saddam, but what we did learn is we can use military power to clean up these old client states. We've got maybe five or ten years to clean them up, Syria, Iran, the rest of them, before the next superpower comes along.

I said, five or ten years? You mean, China and -- the discussion sort of wandered off. But it was one of those nuggets you remember. And then I'm in the office with this senior general in the Pentagon, and he says, well, he says, sir, I just -- this is after I'm retired. Sir, I just got this memo down from the office upstairs. He's pointing upstairs. And they're on the second floor, and the civilians are on the third floor.

And he says, seven countries. I said, is that classified? And he read the countries. I said, is that classified? Stop. He was going to show it to me. I said, don't show that to me. I don't want to see that. And so it wasn't a plan. Maybe it was a think piece. Maybe it was a sort of notional concept, but what it was was the kind of indication of dialogue around this town in official circles, just like unofficial circles, that has poisoned the atmosphere and made it very difficult for this administration to achieve any success in the region.

BLITZER: The book is entitled "A Time to Lead, for Duty, Honor, and Country." The author, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. Thanks for coming in, General Clark.

CLARK: Wolf, thank you very much.

BLITZER: Up next, Fidel Castro made some stunning comments about 9/11 this week. A top Cuban leader is going to explain what Castro meant when he said Americans don't know the truth about what happened on 9/11. "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Fidel Castro this week wrote a somewhat rambling article about 9/11, alleging among other things that the Pentagon was actually struck by a missile, not by an airplane, and that there were 200 tons of gold bars in the basements of the World Trade Center towers.

I spoke about that and more with Cuba's third-highest ranking official, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon this week in "The Situation Room." I started by asking Mr. Alarcon if he really believes there is a conspiracy regarding the 9/11 attacks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICARDO ALARCON, PRESIDENT, CUBAN NATIONAL ASSEMBLY: Well, President Castro was referring to various allegations by scientists, by journalists that suggest contradictions between the data that has been published about those events. The fact is that a thorough investigation on that event, as far as I know, didn't take place. Immediately after 9/11, the attention was diverted towards the international arena, unfortunately...

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt, President Alarcon. Let me interrupt because they did find the bodies -- the DNA of the passengers from American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon. They did find wreckage of that American Airlines flight. That was all widely reported.

And by even suggesting that there was a projectile or some sort of bomb, it's raising questions about President Fidel Castro and his -- and if you're standing by your president on this, it's raising questions, at least in the minds of a lot of people around the world, including some who are friendly with Cuba, what's going on over there?

ALARCON: Well, again, he was referring to comments, analyses made by others that have -- are a fact, that now are being discussed even in your country. The best answer to that would be a thorough investigation and presentation of every detail and every individual that may have been responsible by act or by omission of what happened.

BLITZER: Because even Osama bin Laden in this most recent videotape that just came out the other day, he takes credit for 9/11. He says, we did it. We sent those 19 hijackers there. They've got all those martyr videotapes they've released. Are you suggesting -- and let me be precise. Is President Fidel Castro suggesting that Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden are not responsible for what happened on 9/11?

ALARCON: No, no, no. He didn't say that. He didn't suggest that. It appears that this guy, Mr. bin Laden, has recognized -- has said not only in this last tape, not in one area, that they were involved. But that was -- he was referring, if I am not wrong, specifically, Mr. bin Laden, to the twin towers action or the destruction of these towers. It appears that they had recognized this group. We don't have any link with them, then we don't have a way to confirm such information. But it appears, according to the tapes that have been produced or presented.

BLITZER: Because this is going to raise questions about whether or not President Fidel Castro is really in touch with reality. But let me move on and talk about his health right now. As you know, there have been a lot of rumors over these past few weeks, especially in Miami and south Florida, that he's already dead. What was the last time you personally saw President Castro?

ALARCON: The last time I was in touch with him personally was more than a week ago because I traveled to Montreal, and we just returned from that city.

But I was in touch with him yesterday because he was working on that long article that was published today.

BLITZER: So you can say for sure that he is alive. Is he making progress in his recovery? Because, as you know, we haven't seen him in a long time. How's his health right now?

ALARCON: Well, my information is that he's doing pretty well. I am not a physician, but I understand that he's still going through his recovery process in the way that is normal.

BLITZER: Well, why not take a -- let us see him? Why not let the world get some pictures of him? What's wrong with that?

ALARCON: That's a very private matter. If you want to be photographed or you want to appear in front of lights and so on, or if you are forced to follow a certain discipline of rehabilitation exercising and so on, for that situation it's better to spend more time reading and writing as he's doing.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some political comments that President Castro made recently. He said this -- he said: "The word today is that an apparently unbeatable ticket could be Hillary for president and Obama as her running mate."

Does he believe that that is likely, that Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination and pick Barack Obama as her running mate?

ALARCON: You will have to ask him. I don't know if he believes that. He referred to a hypothesis, and a possibility that obviously exists. You have a number of pre-candidates now, and any two of them could be the ticket in the final result of the Democratic Party.

BLITZER: Do you like either one more, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Both have been making statements about U.S./Cuban relations in recent weeks, Barack Obama suggesting that he would change the relationship, he would grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit their family, send remittances back to the island.

Hillary Clinton saying on August 21, "Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new Cuban government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba."

I wonder if you want to respond to these two Democratic presidential candidates.

ALARCON: Well, I understand that during the electoral campaigns in your country, candidates sometimes are prepared to say what they think is -- agreement to give them a place. But whether -- I would just say this: People have a right, as individuals, family rights. The Cuban-Americans have a right to visit their relatives, have a right to communicate with them.

And no government should take for himself the authority to redefine family or to deprive family members of the very fundamental human right, which is to connect with your mother or your grandmother, et cetera.

And it's a pity that the Cuban-Americans are trapped now as a hostage of political maneuvering in your country. Every country should say all Cuban-Americans should be free to travel to their country. Why not? Why not Americans?

BLITZER: So do you want to say which one you like better, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

ALARCON: No, I am just watching them from afar. Other candidates have been more clear, more consistent on that issue, but I'm not going to say that I will vote for -- or support any of them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ricardo Alarcon, the third most powerful official in Havana joining us from Cuba this week in "The Situation Room." He's the president of the Cuban National Assembly.

Up next, a new White House report says the Iraqis have still failed to meet several critical benchmarks. So what's going on? We'll ask two key Congressmen on the Foreign Affairs Committee. "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's much more ahead on "Late Edition." A new book by Alan Greenspan blisters the Bush administration. We'll talk about that and more. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now because of the measure of success we're seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Some troops will be leaving Iraq, but most of them will stay. We'll talk about what's next in Iraq with two key members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the chairman, Tom Lantos of California and Republican Mike Pence of Indiana. They'll also weigh in on an explosive new book by the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: We don't need another "mission accomplished" moment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDOLPH GIULIANI, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hillary Clinton is attacking the integrity of a commanding general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The war in Iraq is front and center on the campaign trail. We'll talk about that and much more with three of the best political team on television, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, and senior political analyst Bill Schneider. The second hour of "Late Edition" starts right now.

Welcome back. Coming up we'll speak to two top members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But first, we're following some breaking news, a tragic plane crash in Thailand. Alina Cho is at the update desk at the CNN Center with more. What's going on, Alina?

CHO: A lot going on, Wolf. At least 87 people are dead in today's fiery crash of a Thai airliner. It happened on the resort island of Phuket. Amazingly, more than 40 people survived. Five are said to be in critical condition.

The plane, loaded with foreign tourists, skidded off a runway and caught fire while trying to land in some very bad weather. It is still very early, but there are no indications at this point that any U.S. citizens were aboard that flight. Here is one survivor's account of what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNKNOWN: As the plane was landing, you could tell it was in trouble because it kind of landed, came up again, the second time smashed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Incredible. That from a survivor today. The plane that crashed, by the way, was an American-made MD-80. Meanwhile, Wolf, all flights from Phuket at this point, which is the country's second- busiest airport have been canceled. We are watching this story very closely. But for now, that is the very latest. Wolf, back to you in Washington.

BLITZER: All right. We'll check back with you, Alina. Thanks very much.

President Bush announced there will be a drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, but at least 130,000 or so will still be there next summer, about as many as were in Iraq before the so-called surge began earlier this year. Let's talk about what happened here in Washington this week and where we all go from here.

We're joined by key members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee chairman, Tom Lantos, is joining us from San Francisco. And with us here in Washington, Republican member Mike Pence of Indiana. Congressmen, thanks to both of you for coming in.

Mr. Chairman, I'll start with you, and I'm going to play a little clip of what you said this week in introducing Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and General David Petraeus, the overall commander in Iraq. I'm going to play your words back to you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM LANTOS (D), CALIFORNIA: The fact remains, gentlemen, that the administration has sent you here today to convince the members of the two committees and the Congress that victory is at hand. With all due respect to you, I must say, I don't buy it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, within moments of your saying that, Mr. Chairman, General Petraeus said this in his opening remarks. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARMY GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. COMMANDER OF FORCES IN IRAQ: I wrote this statement myself and did not clear it with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Chairman, tell us what you meant when you said, "With all due respect, I must say I don't buy it," because the implication, as you know, was that he was just doing the bidding of the White House.

LANTOS: Well, let me say first, I have the highest regard for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. They are among our finest public servants with a remarkably distinguished military and diplomatic record.

What I don't buy is the continued insistence of this administration that things are going well, and that clearly was the essence of the testimony. This administration is attempting to unscramble the omelet. Mistakes made four years ago, three years ago, two years ago cannot be undone. This war has been mismanaged from the very beginning. We all know what the factors are, inadequate troops and unwillingness to nip the military activities by the terrorists early on. And four and a half into this -- four and a half years into this war, the notion that things can be turned around is very difficult.

BLITZER: But Mr. Chairman, let me interrupt and just -- I want to make it clear. Were you questioning the integrity of these two career professionals, a career diplomat in the name of Ryan Crocker and a career soldier, General Petraeus?

LANTOS: Of course not. I have the highest regard for both of them.

BLITZER: All right. What about that, Congressman Pence? What do you think?

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: Well, I have the highest regard for Chairman Lantos, but I do take exception to comments that he made at the hearing on a couple fronts. Number one is, Mr. Lantos said that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker had been sent to the committee. In fact, they'd been summoned by the Congress to come and to provide an independent assessment from our lead diplomatic and military men downrange about the situation on the ground. And they did that.

And on the second point, I clarified this again with General Petraeus in my question and answers, Wolf. He was quite emphatic that neither the Pentagon nor the White House had even seen or participated in the creation of this document.

BLITZER: All right. Let me let...

PENCE: The American people had an independent assessment, and that's what the Congress asked them to give them.

BLITZER: Let me ask Congressman Lantos to respond. The law did require that both these gentlemen appear before the Congress, and presumably they're going to come back in March and testify how things are going then? Is that right, Mr. Chairman?

LANTOS: Yes, it is. And I look forward to their testimony next spring. The fact remains that this administration is attempting to put forward two credible men, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, to defend a discredited policy.

The fact that they wrote their own testimony, I certainly accept, but that their testimony is clearly attempting to support the administration's policy is not in doubt. Anybody who watched the hearing could see it very, very clearly.

BLITZER: You want to respond?

PENCE: Well, I really do. Because I really think what the American people got here was an independent assessment from our military and diplomatic leaders down range. They came to the Congress and they said despite the lack of political progress, the military surge is working. And it's working to such an extent that we're going to be able to substantially reduce our forces even by the summer of next year.

BLITZER: When you say substantially reduce, it's going to go down to where it was in January and February of this year, back to 130,000, 135,000 level.

PENCE: Well, that's exactly right. But Chairman Lantos, for instance, in his opening statement said that to remove a brigade would be a whisper. And just moments later, General Petraeus announced that he was removing five brigades from Iraq.

BLITZER: Between now and next summer.

PENCE: And as Secretary Gates has suggested, Wolf, conditions on the ground may make it possible for us to even remove more troops. But again, as the president said, it's return on success. The surge is working.

BLITZER: I'm going to get to all of that, but I'm going to let Chairman Lantos respond. Go ahead, Mr. Chairman.

LANTOS: Well, in the first place, the administration doesn't have much choice. The number of troops available to this administration is very limited, and unless they further extend the service of our men and women on the ground, they have to withdraw these forces which were sent in for the so-called surge.

I also think it's very important to bear in mind that the surge is not a goal in itself. The surge was designed by this administration to provide the Iraqi government with the political space to work out reconciliation, and they clearly failed in that.

BLITZER: And here's what Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican, said during the hearing that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had on Tuesday. Congressman Pence, listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAGEL: The president said let's buy time. Buy time? For what? Every report I've seen, and I assume both of you agree with this, there's been little, if any, political process that is the ultimate core issue, political reconciliation in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, do you disagree with him on that? Because the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to meet almost all of the so-called benchmarks that you and the administration have been demanding.

PENCE: Right. Well, I don't entirely disagree with Senator Hagel or the comments that Chairman Lantos made at the hearing. I'm frustrated that the national government in Iraq has not been able to move forward on a whole range of legislative initiatives that will bring about reconciliation, revenue oil sharing, de-Baathification.

But what we heard in the testimony from Ambassador Crocker and the general is that what they're not able to do in the central government in Baghdad seems to be beginning to happen -- de- Baathification, de facto de-Baathification -- at the local level. And we're starting to see revenues flow out of Baghdad into Anbar province even without a national agreement.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman Lantos, what do you think?

LANTOS: Well, I think the administration is pursuing two fundamentally contradictory policies. On the one hand, they are attempting to create an Iraqi national government with national policies, but since it is not working, they are also cooperating with regional groups, most recently with the Sunnis in Anbar province.

Now, these two goals cannot be pursued simultaneously because they are at cross purposes, and if one looks ahead, it is perfectly possible that we are training both sides in an impending religiously- based civil war.

BLITZER: Here's some very disturbing, Congressman Pence, poll numbers that were conducted by ABC News, the BBC, NHK, and they were released this week. Among Iraqis -- they went out and asked Iraqis all over the country these questions.

On Iraqis who think the U.S. forces should leave now, in November 2005, only 26 percent said yes, American troops should get out. In March of this year, went up to 35 percent. In August of this year, last month, 47 percent, almost half of the Iraqis questioned, said it's time for the United States forces to leave Iraq.

And then they were asked this question, whether security in Iraq over the last six months has gotten better, wore or the same. Only 11 percent of Iraqis said the security situation is better, 61 percent said it's actually gotten worse over the past six months, 28 percent said it's stayed the same.

These numbers are not very encouraging based on what the United States is trying to achieve. The Iraqis themselves by and large are saying get out.

PENCE: Well, it's not surprising, though. In one of my first trips to Iraq, I remember asking an Iraqi leader in Basra what the opinion was about U.S. troops and he said Iraqis want American forces to leave and Iraqis want American forces to stay. They're of two minds about that.

And I think that the security situation on the ground -- not polling data, but the reality on the ground which, according to General Petraeus and other independent assessments, even The Brookings Institute, we've seen a significant decline in civilian deaths.

We've seen the security situation on the ground in Baghdad improve. And Al Anbar, despite the tragic loss of a courageous leader in Sheik Sattar earlier this week, the Anbar awakening has literally driven Al Qaida out of that region.

BLITZER: But you know what the response to that is, that if you take a look at what's happened on the ground in Iraq, Congressman Pence, over the past four-and-a-half years, you've 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country, a million basically to Syria, a million to Jordan.

Another 2 million have been displaced internally. They've left their Shia areas or their Sunni areas. They're living out. They're just trying to survive. And hundreds of thousands have been killed over the past four-and-a-half years. And who knows how many have been injured.

So the reduction over the past few weeks or months in some of the numbers -- and it's unclear whether there actually has been a reduction -- is in part the result that there are fewer people there, 10 or 20 percent of the country is gone.

PENCE: Well, I challenge people to take a look at what General Petraeus put forward. It was very accessible testimony, very accessible grasp, but also look at sources like the more liberal- leaning Brookings Institute that came out with very encouraging numbers as well.

Civilian deaths are down. The military surge is working. That's creating an environment where we're going to be able to start to bring our troops home even before the end of the year. And -- but all the choices are bad. Ambassador Crocker said that. All the choices going forward are bad, but they're still not as bad as the results of a rapid withdrawal.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to ask both of these congressman to stand by. We have much more to talk about right after this. We're also going to talk about the former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. He's famous for his complex, hard to understand statements when he was the chairman.

His comments now in a brand new book are very clear. They're very critical of the Bush administration. We're going to talk about that, a lot more with these two Congressman.

Also, later, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani had some tough words for the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Who won? Some of the members of our best political team are standing by to weigh in on that and a lot more. Much more "Late Edition" after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We're continuing our conversation with two key members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the chairman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, and Republican member Mike Pence of Indiana.

Alan Greenspan has a new book that has just come out, Chairman Lantos, entitled, "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World," in which he makes a very, very sharp charge about the war in Iraq.

I'll read it to you: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows. The Iraq war is largely about oil." Do you agree with him?

LANTOS: To a very large extent I agree with him, and I think it is very remarkable that it took Alan Greenspan all these many years and being out of office for stating the obvious. It is self-evident that this administration would not have taken the position it has had it not been for the oil issue.

BLITZER: A lot of oil reserves in Iraq, as you know, Congressman Pence. Do you agree with Alan Greenspan?

PENCE: Well, I really don't, and I don't -- I was never in meetings where the chairman of the Federal Reserve was present during the run-up to the war. I was in many meetings where we discussed the 16 different U.N. resolutions that have been flouted by the Iraqi regime, the unwillingness to open up to U.N. weapons inspectors, the record on human rights.

BLITZER: Because you know a lot of people believe that the whole weapons of mass destruction was a charade. The real reason was oil.

PENCE: Right. I mean, but in point of fact, Saddam Hussein did have chemical weapons of mass destruction. He used them against the population of Kurdistan.

BLITZER: But that was in the '80s. That was in the '80s...

PENCE: It was, but...

BLITZER: ... before the first Gulf War.

PENCE: ... I don't think anyone really doubts today, Wolf, that if the government of Saddam Hussein was in place with everything that Iran is doing with the nuclear weapons program, that there would be a nuclear weapons arms race going on between those two countries.

BLITZER: Well, that raises a fair question to the chairman. Congressman Lantos, would the U.S. be better off right now had it never gone into Iraq and Saddam Hussein were still ruling that country? LANTOS: Well, Saddam Hussein ruling that country was a nightmare for the Iraqi people. But clearly, this was not the only way of removing Saddam Hussein.

Had this war -- even though it was based on a false premise, namely the existence of weapons of mass destruction, had it been conducted appropriately with sufficient forces, with a determination to put down the uprising early on, we would be in a very different situation.

What we have is a double dilemma. The administration created a set of false facts on which to justify the war and then conducted it with unbelievable incompetence. BLITZER: Let me get back to the book from Alan Greenspan, Congressman Pence. He really blasts the Bush administration, the president specifically, for failing, when the Republicans were in the majority of the House and Senate until the election of last year, to veto any spending bill.

"Congress and the president," Greenspan writes, "viewed budgetary restraint as inhibiting the legislation they wanted. 'Deficits don't matter,' to my chagrin, "became part of Republicans' rhetoric." And he goes on to say they deserve, the Republicans, to lose the majorities in the House and Senate because they were spending so wildly.

PENCE: Well, I think you know that I would strongly agree with him on that, Wolf. I said after the 2006 elections that Republicans didn't lose their majority. We lost our way.

And it was in the commitment and the practice of principles of limited government, expanding education spending, creating new entitlements, the earmark culture. I welcome Chairman Greenspan's voice on this. Could have used it during some of those debates, but it's welcome going forward as the Republican Party is in the process of hewing back to those roots of fiscal discipline and reform.

BLITZER: And now that the Democrats, Congressman Lantos, the Democrats are the majority in the House and Senate, it's going to be a lot easier politically for the president to start vetoing some of your spending bills.

LANTOS: Well, if I may comment on Mike Pence's observation, he's a very good friend of mine. The problem is not that we are spending too much money on education. The problem has been the pathological opposition of this administration to taxing corporations and wealthy individuals whose tax burden has been diminished dramatically during this administration.

Education spending is not driving us to bankruptcy. It's the unwillingness of this administration to have those who are capable of carrying the tax load to be exempt. That is the fundamental economic dilemma of this country.

BLITZER: The other argument, Congressman Pence, is that $2 billion or $3 billion, $100 billion a year, $150 billion a year spent on the war in Iraq, that's taxing the American taxpayer.

PENCE: Well, there's no question that the financial obligations of war always tax a nation. They did all the way back in the Lincoln administration. But I want to agree -- and I haven't read the book yet and I intend to read it -- I agree with the supposition that -- I don't think the American people so much chose the Democrat Party's big government agenda as that I don't think they hired them so much as they fired us. And Chairman Greenspan's challenge that my party return to its roots of fiscal discipline and reform is welcome.

BLITZER: Congressman Pence, thanks for coming in. Chairman Lantos, thanks to you as well. Up next, some tough talk from the man on the front line, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, in our best of "The Situation Room" from this week. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. You're watching "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Now the best of "The Situation Room." Straight from the hot seat on Capitol Hill, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, joined me to discuss the future of Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The word democratic, a real democracy in Iraq, what are we talking about? Six months, six years, generations? How long is it going to take? Because the American people are nervous. As you understandably know, they're frustrated. How long will it take to achieve a secure, stable democratic Iraq?

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: An end state that is of a country that is stable, secure and democratic, is probably years in the making. Now, that does not, by any means, imply that we're going to have to have significant numbers of troops on the ground to sustain security while they work through these things, but this is a long-term project.

BLITZER: Because the U.S., as you know, after World War II, stayed in Germany, still in Germany, still in Japan. Are we talking generations that there will have to be a U.S. military presence in Iraq?

CROCKER: Certainly not in anything like the current numbers or in the current -- with the current mission role, but it is noteworthy that Iraq's leaders at the end of august in a declaration that they produced on areas where they had agreement, also agreed that all five of them, representing Iraq's three principal communities, wanted to have a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S.

BLITZER: So are we talking eight to ten years where there would be a robust military presence, at least 50,000 or maybe even 100,000 U.S. troops? Is that realistic, something Americans should assume is the case? CROCKER: I don't think so. General Petraeus in his testimony noted that he could make plans through to next summer, July 2008, and that it's just too hard at this point, with all the uncertainty, to look much beyond that. I think we're going to have to take this as it comes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ambassador Ryan Crocker joining me in "The Situation Room" earlier in the week. Coming up next here on "Late Edition," General Betray Us? Did this ad by the liberal group moveon.org go too far? Did it backfire against Democrats?

Our political panel standing by to analyze this and a lot more. And later, the latest decisions on troop withdrawals. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, spoke out this morning. We'll bring it to you in our "in case you missed it" segment. Much more "Late Edition" coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going to go right back to CNN's Alina Cho at the CNN Center. She's following this story involving O.J. Simpson and sports memorabilia.

There has been apparently, Alina, a major development. What is happening?

CHO: That's right. We want to bring our viewers up to date, Wolf. In Las Vegas, there is word of an arrest in the case involving O.J. Simpson and that alleged armed robbery.

And just in the past few minutes we got word courtesy of The Associated Press that two firearms have been seized. O.J. Simpson had told our very own Ted Rowlands that no guns were involved in that incident. Of course, that will have to be reconciled now.

The Las Vegas Review Journal says police arrested a man -- not Simpson, but a man they believe was with Simpson during the incident in a casino hotel room. Simpson says he entered the room to try to retrieve some sports items that he believed had been stolen from him.

Again, there's been an arrest in this case, Wolf. We're watching it very closely. And courtesy of The Associated Press, two firearms reportedly seized as well. We'll have much more for you in the next hour.

BLITZER: And The Associated Press, Alina, also reporting as many as five other suspects may be arrested as well. All right. We'll watch the story together with you, Alina Cho, joining us from the CNN Center.

Strategy about politics this week as General David Petraeus faced congressional questions on Capitol Hill. So it's only right that we have reporters from both CNN's military and political beats on this week's panel.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is here in Washington. Our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is out on the campaign trail in Iowa. And our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is here in Washington as well.

And Bill, let me start with you. Clearly, General Petraeus succeeded in buying some more time for President Bush to continue his strategy in Iraq. But politically speaking, is that going to come back to haunt the Republicans, assuming that there's no major change in the situation on the ground, let's say, six months from now or nine months from now.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: What he did is helped President Bush in his strategy of keeping the Republican firewall in place. Basically, the whole intention here was to make sure Republicans don't waiver, that they stand with the president on this policy.

And the most amazing story of the summer is that Republicans, not just in the Senate, but rank and file Republican voters, have continued to support this policy. And I think the Petraeus testimony, Crocker, the president's speech, were all meant at bolstering that base because as long as the Republicans in the Senate stand fast, the Democrats cannot force the president to change.

So I think that was where General Petraeus really had some impact. Not among Democrats, not among independents and not among the public at large.

BLITZER: And, Candy, you're out in Iowa, watching all these politicians as they deal with this. There's some suggestion from Republicans I've spoken to that have put forward this notion, be careful what you wish for, because continuing the military operations in Iraq, continuing, presumably, to see American casualties, a lot of expenditures, billions and billions of dollars, that could hurt Republican candidates whether presidential candidates or congressional candidates, in November of next year.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely. I mean, the problem is, the war is already a drag on Republicans. They're looking, as of this moment, at a very bad 2008. When you look at some of the districts that are currently Republican, the races there, very early on, but look close, there are a lot of Senate seats that appear in jeopardy, including some retirements as well as those Republicans that are just in Democratic-leaning states.

So if these Republicans hang on until July, they almost have run out of time to split themselves from George Bush. And that's really the problem for some of these rank and file Republicans, because the idea -- and many thought that come this next year, they would begin to try to put some distance between themselves and president who, obviously, is quite unpopular.

But with the war, which is the overriding issue of this campaign, if it's difficult for them to break away in July, it's going to be difficult for them, at that point, to go forward with the election and have any chance, a minimal chance, of hanging on to their seats.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, you had a chance to sit down with General Petraeus this week and ask him some serious, important questions. And at one point, he said something that dealt emotionally with the strain on U.S. troops. And I want to play that clip for our viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETRAEUS: They're at a stage in life where they're trying to start families. I mean, some are trying to find a wife or a husband to have children, to start to build families and so forth. And it's awfully tough to do that, to state the obvious, if one is deployed at such a high rate.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: The question is, can they continue this strategy for much longer, given the strain on the -- especially the Army and the Marine Corps?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is -- you know that old phrase, this is the elephant in the room. The stress and strain on the military, the stress and strain on families -- this is what senior commanders are very worried about right now. The force isn't going to break. It's not going to break anytime soon. They're looking ahead five years.

Troops are already on their fourth rotation. Young wives, mothers, families, they don't necessarily want the troops going back for the fourth, fifth and sixth rotation. They have to fix this before the troops -- long before the troops start voting with their feet and getting out.

It is a major concern. If the public face of this past week was about the war in Iraq, what General Petraeus said about his and other commanders' concerns about the young troops is really the reality that is bubbling up right behind that public face, Wolf.

BLITZER: Even before he uttered a word, Bill Schneider, there was the full page ad in The New York Times last Monday morning, "General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the Books for the White House." a serious charge against this four-star general. But did that ad, when all the dust settled this week, come back to haunt the Democrats, hurt them more than help them?

SCHNEIDER: I don't think in any lasting way. It was really a distraction from the main issue, which is the testimony about the war. It was an unnecessary distraction. Republicans found a talking point there, a good rallying point.

It probably contributed to the affect that I described earlier, which is that Republicans were expected to rally behind the president. This probably gave them a little more fire.

And as you indicated and as Candy said, that could be very damaging to Republicans in the long run because they feel like they're forced to stick with this president and this policy and the political damage could be catastrophic.

BLITZER: Candy, Rudy Giuliani, the Republican presidential candidate, responded with his own ad in Friday's New York Times. Among other things he asked, "Who should America listen to? A decorated soldier's commitment to defending America or Hillary Clinton's commitment to defending MoveOn.org?" What about that? What about the charge that these Democratic candidates are having a tough time distancing themselves from this controversial ad?

CROWLEY: Well, what you hear from these Democratic candidates so far, certainly from Hillary Clinton and others, is that they respect the military, that they honor General Petraeus' service, that sort of thing. The condemnation of MoveOn.org, obviously, is a much harder thing for any of them to do. MoveOn.org has become quite a force within the Democratic Party.

The Giuliani ad was really interesting, simply because one of his selling points, in addition to his credentials as the 9/11 mayor of New York City, is that he's the one that can challenge Hillary Clinton.

So it is absolutely not a coincidence that he took on just Hillary Clinton over this issue, because Giuliani argues that he's the only one that can be appealing in states like Florida, even in New York, where he believes he can challenge Hillary Clinton better than anyone else. So that he took on Hillary Clinton certainly is no surprise.

BLITZER: Barbara, how did the general deal with the personal criticism of him? He's used to sniping on the battlefield, if you will, but the political ordeal here in Washington he went through is probably different than anything else he's ever experienced in his career.

STARR: You know, by the end of the week, he was quietly saying to some of his aides, "Let's go back to Baghdad. It's easier there than it is in Washington."

I think seriously, General Petraeus knew he would be facing some type of withering criticism this week, no matter where it came from.

He knew that the statistics, you know, this number of dead, that number of dead, would be open to endless political debate. So when he got up in front of the first Congressional panel to give his testimony, he prepped his own battlefield, if you will.

He said, I wrote this testimony myself. It wasn't reviewed by anybody. It didn't go through the White House political machine. This is what I believe. And he put that out there, and he stuck to that all week long, Wolf.

SCHNEIDER: The big problem for Americans, you know, before he even testified, before this ad appeared, most Americans said they thought his testimony would be biased, that he would be there to sell the administration's policy. That's what they suspected.

He was really being asked to provide an independent evaluation of his own performance. He's in charge of the troop buildup. To a lot of people, how many Americans, how many people get a chance to evaluate their own performance? That strikes a lot of people as not an independent evaluation.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have all of you stand by. We have a lot more to talk about, including Alan Greenspan's new book. It's a bombshell. It's got some blistering criticism of the Bush administration, some glorious praise for the former president, Bill Clinton. Alan Greenspan's book and more coming up.

Also, John McCain speaking out about Iraq this morning. We're going to bring you what he had to say in our "in case you missed it" segment. Much more "Late Edition" right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our correspondent Ted Rowlands has just gotten off the phone with O.J. Simpson out in Las Vegas. This in the aftermath of now an arrest and firearms apparently being picked up by local authorities. Ted, tell our viewers what's going on and what O.J. Simpson said.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, according to a source with intimate knowledge of the investigation here, a gentleman by the name of Walter Alexander was arrested on his way to the airport here in Las Vegas last night. And authorities say that he is facing some very major charges, including two counts of robbery with a deadly weapon, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, a count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

He was one of the gentleman that was allegedly with O.J. Simpson when they allegedly went into a hotel room and took possessions out at gunpoint. O.J. Simpson is aware of this arrest. I talked to him on the phone just a few minutes ago. He said, quote, "I don't know why they arrested him," referring to Alexander. I asked him if he was nervous that he was going to be arrested.

He said he was in contact with the police here and that, quote, "The truth will come out." And he is not changing his schedule here. He is moving on as normal and says that he has been completely cooperative, has nothing to hide. He maintains there were no guns involved in what happened in this hotel room and it's being blown out of proportion, but clearly, the Metro Police Department with Las Vegas is pursuing this with vigor.

They say they have served multiple search warrants and they, according to a source, have recovered both guns that they believe were involved in this armed robbery.

BLITZER: And so there's clearly a difference there. Has O.J. Simpson, Ted, acknowledged that he is in possession right now of that sports memorabilia?

ROWLANDS: Yes. He has acknowledged he went into that hotel room with a group of friends to retrieve what he says was his property, which included sports memorabilia. He has also acknowledged he took out of that room some things that were not his, and he is trying to get those back to their rightful owners, but says this is all something that has been blown out of proportion.

He went to get things that he has been missing for some 12 years, since he lived in Los Angeles on Rockingham there. He says these are photographs of his family, of himself, photographs taken by his late ex-wife Nicole, and that he went there to get his stuff, and that's what he did. There were no guns involved, he claims, but it appears as though the Las Vegas Police Department are thinking otherwise if they are charging Walter Alexander with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and two counts of armed robbery.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens next this drama. Ted Rowlands, stand by because we're going to be coming back to you later here on CNN. We'll take a quick break. When we come back, more of our political panel and Alan Greenspan's bombshell new book, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the best political team on television: Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, our senior political analyst Bill Schneider and out in Iowa, our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley.

Candy, Alan Greenspan in his new book entitled "The Age of Turbulence" says this about the Republicans: "The Republicans in Congress lost their way. They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserve to lose." This was the spending that went on during the first six and a half years or so, six years of the Bush administration. The president didn't veto any of that spending bill. How's this going to play out on the campaign trail, the fact that Alan Greenspan's so critical of Republicans?

CROWLEY: Well, look, the fact of the matter is, Wolf, this is already playing out on the campaign trail. From the very beginning, conservatives from before the 2006 elections through now have really been a depressed sort of crowd. And in large part, it's because of the deficit spending of the Bush administration.

When you talk to voters, Republican voters, they don't say it's the war in Iraq. They say, listen, they totally lost sight, the Bush administration, of conservative values. This does not come as news to the conservative core of the Republican Party because they have always believed that the Bush administration left behind fiscal conservatism.

BLITZER: And, you know, Bill, the book also has Alan Greenspan, his own book, not only going after Republicans but praising Bill Clinton and his two terms: "Clinton was often criticized for inconsistency and for a tendency to take all sides in a debate," Greenspan writes, "but that was never true about his economic policy. A consistent, disciplined focus on long-term economic growth became a hallmark of his presidency."

Enormous praise for Bill Clinton, enormous criticism of his fellow Republican.

SCHNEIDER: Clinton surplus, Bush deficit. That's what Alan Greenspan cares about, the deficit. And he believes it's very damaging to America, and that's why he praised Bill Clinton. And the Democrats are certainly going to remind voters in the presidential race that under Clinton's presidency, not only was the economy good, but there was a budget surplus, which they believe the Bush administration has blown. The Bush White House will say it was because of 9/11 and the necessity for defense spending. But still, that's a big issue, particularly if, God forbid, a recession starts. Then the Democrats will really have a very powerful issue, and this argument will contribute to it.

BLITZER: And he also has another bombshell in the book, that the whole war in Iraq, Barbara, is simply about oil.

STARR: That's what he appears to say in the book. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been asked about that, and Secretary Gates, of course, wasn't there at the beginning when the war was planned and the strategy put into place, says nonetheless he doesn't think that's true.

He doesn't think that's about oil, that the war was about oil. But clearly, many Americans still believe that. I think Bill would agree there's no question about that. And many people in the Middle East region still believe it's all about oil.

SCHNEIDER: If you go on the street, people will come up to me and say, isn't this war all about oil? Because Saddam Hussein had no links to 9/11, they didn't find the weapons of mass destruction. That's the only reason it makes sense to people. Bush is an oil man, Cheney's an oil man. It all adds up.

BLITZER: It's one thing, Candy, for conspiratorial theorists to suggest it's about oil. It's another thing for the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, who's been in the government for so many years, for him to say it's all about oil.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And it obviously, as Bill alludes to, has given Democrats a lot of talking points. Alan Greenspan is a much- respected man in Washington and elsewhere because he's presided so long over the Federal Reserve.

The fact of the matter is, this definitely does not help the Republican Party because they're still trying to get themselves together. Republicans on Capitol Hill, the conservative ones, have said ever since the election in 2006, we have to get back to our basic values. The problem is, as Bill says, if you hand Democrats another issue besides the war, the economy, this is very problematic for Republicans.

BLITZER: Here are the latest poll numbers we have, Bill, in our latest CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll. On the Democratic side, very consistent. Hillary Clinton nationwide among registered Democrats remains atop with 46 percent, Barack Obama at 23 percent, John Edwards 16 percent, everybody else in single digits.

But look at this. On the Republican side, registered Republicans. Giuliani at 28 percent, Fred Thompson at 27 percent, McCain 15, Romney 11, everybody else in single digits. Fred Thompson, a newcomer to this race, statistically a dead heat.

SCHNEIDER: That's right, and the Republican race looks more tangled up than ever, while the Democratic race looks pretty stable. Well, I don't think anybody's really grabbed the Republican mantle. Republicans are still looking for someone to save the party. Newt Gingrich made an interesting comment about that.

They're looking for someone who could have a compelling vision of the future and probably someone who can break cleanly with President Bush. Because for the reasons we talked about, Alan Greenspan talked about, a lot of Republicans want to break with Bush. If not for the war, at least for spending. And they're looking for someone who has a vision for the future, and they're not sure they see anyone in this field, even Fred Thompson, because the excitement about him isn't nearly what it was a few months ago.

BLITZER: We're going to leave it right there, guys. Thanks to all of you for coming in. Bill Schneider, Barbara Starr, Candy Crowley, three of the best political team on television. Barbara, get back to the Pentagon. We need you there.

We'll be back with a final word in a moment. And if you'd like a recap of today's program, get our new and improved "Late Edition" podcast. Simply go to cnn.com/podcast. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take a look and see what's on the cover of this week's major newsmagazines here in the United States. Time magazine takes a look at "The Running Mates," the new breed of presidential spouses. Newsweek tells us what "The World according to Greenspan" is like. Exclusive excerpts from his brand-new book. And U.S. News and World Report has the "Voices of World War II."

Let's go to some of your e-mail here to "Late Edition." Muriel from California writes, "I am tired of the war in Iraq and of the Democrats prolonging it by encouraging the insurgents. A house divided against itself shall surely fall."

James from Indiana writes, "Our military is strong and ready to do anything, but politicians only use the military for political reasons. Today's partisan politics only divide America and accomplish nothing." We always welcome your comments. Our e-mail address is lateedition@cnn.com.

And that is your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, September 16th. Please be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at 11 a.m. Eastern for two hours of the last word in Sunday talk.

We're in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. For our international viewers, stand by for world news. For those of you in North America, "This Week at War" with Tom Foreman starts right now.

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