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President Bush Speaks at Convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars

Aired August 22, 2007 - 11:24   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We have been listening into the president of the United States, obviously. He was addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars' national convention.
This is happening in Kansas City today, talking about all kinds of different things, but really seemed to narrow that focus on the wars of this country and the history of those wars and different conflicts that the United States has been involved in. Particularly making those interesting comparisons between what is happening in Iraq and what happened in Vietnam, but in a different way than we have heard before.

Our congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is joining us now live from Capitol Hill with more on all of this.

Jessica, what does the Democratic leadership have to say about the president's latest comments on Iraq, with particular attention to this Vietnam example and parallel that he made?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, not surprisingly, they are not reacting warmly to the president's comments. They take issue, especially with the parallel he draws to Vietnam.

They say that the U.S. was led into war in Iraq under false pretenses, in the words of Harry Reid. And they also say the president is just giving America more of the same.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "While the president continues to stay the course with his failed strategy in Iraq, American lives are being lost and there is still no political solution within the Iraqi government. It is time to change direction in Iraq, and Congress will again work to do so in the fall."

Now, Democrats are putting a fine point on this question of political reconciliation in Iraq. One Democratic leadership aide said to me that the whole point of the surge was to find breathing room for a political solution. Without that, the surge is not a success.

COLLINS: OK, Jessica. Quickly, I think what we want to do is go back to the president. We want to hear more about Nuri al-Maliki regarding some comments that the president made about him and his leadership yesterday. Let's listen for a moment.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It will be a friend of the United States, and it's going to be an important ally in this ideological struggle of the 21st century


Prevailing in this struggle is essential to the future of our nation. And the question now becomes before us is this: Will today's generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?

The journey is not going to be easy. And the veterans fully understand.

At the outset of the war in the Pacific, there were those who argued that freedom had seen its day and that the future belonged to the hard man in Tokyo. A year and a half before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan's foreign minister gave a hint of things to come during an interview with a New York newspaper. He said, "In the battle between democracy and totalitarianism, the latter adversary will, without question, win and will control the world. The era of democracy is finished. The democratic system is bankrupt."

COLLINS: All right. Let's quickly go back to something that was said and made mention of just a few moments ago by the president yesterday regarding Nuri al-Maliki.

You heard him make some comments there, we believe, in reaction to that. Let's listen to exactly what he said yesterday and we'll talk with Jessica Yellin once again on the back side.


BUSH: Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man, with a difficult job. And I support him. And it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.


COLLINS: Jessica Yellin joining us now, our congressional correspondent.

And Jessica, really, I think, the portion that we wanted to hear from yesterday's comments went a little bit more like this. He said something like, the fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people? If the government does not respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government.

Again, those were comments he made yesterday. And today we were expecting him to sort of get behind Nuri al-Maliki, perhaps thinking that those comments he made yesterday were taken the wrong way. Or what are you hearing there?

YELLIN: Well, the president, it would seem, is trying to buck up the man he calls an important ally in Iraq after Senator Carl Levin here, the head of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, said that it's time for Maliki to be replaced, that they don't have faith here in Maliki's operating the Iraqi government. And it goes to this larger issue that the Democrats really want to focus attention on the fact that there is no political reconciliation. And that's what this was all intended to do.

The surge was intended to give Maliki space to solve some of his own problems in running Iraq. So, it's really a standoff you are seeing between the Democrats and the president. And they are using Maliki in the middle of all of it, but it's really about the success of this surge and its overall goals in the last few months.

COLLINS: Did I just hear you say that there is something political going on here, Jessica?

YELLIN: Shocking.

COLLINS: It is shocking.

Jessica Yellin, our congressional correspondent.

Thanks so much.

YELLIN: Good to see you.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: So what do President Bush's latest comments on Iraq mean for the U.S. military?

Let's go live to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we heard the president say that he will continue to listen to the generals and that this administration will give its soldiers what they need. But it looks like the soldiers won't have an important vehicle, at least in the numbers hoped, to help keep them safe.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Tony. In fact, the Pentagon, just a little while ago, acknowledged to reporters one of Secretary of Defense's Robert Gates' key programs, a new series of armored vehicles they are urgently trying to ship to Iraq -- that is one of gates top priorities to protect soldiers against IEDs -- that program is falling behind now.

Maybe half, if they're lucky, of the number of vehicles they wanted to get to Iraq by the end of the year are actually going to show up. They're having production problems with them. That's really been the story all the way along with some of the armor programs.

But in terms of General Petraeus and what the military may be hearing out of this speech, every indication is General Petraeus next month is going to recommend the surge reach its natural end, if you will, some time around April of next year. They won't have enough troops to keep it up after that. They are going to have to begin to draw down gradually in order to keep the rotation basically going and to keep soldiers from having to serve too long on the frontlines.

So really the clock is ticking here bigtime, no matter what the president says. He is facing, come April, having to begin to draw down troops to those pre-surge levels, and that is something that they're going to have to deal with. Congress is going to clearly want to see even more of a drawdown than that, and that's something the White House is going to resist -- Tony.

HARRIS: OK. CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, appreciate it. Thank you.

COLLINS: We have heard Iraq compared to Vietnam before. But just a few minutes ago it was President Bush making the comparison this time. He invoked Vietnam to argue against pulling out of Iraq.

David Gergen served as counselor to four presidents. He's joining us this morning from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

David, it's nice to see you again.


COLLINS: If you were able to listen into the president, it was kind of an interesting speech, a history lesson, different conflicts that this country has been involved in. What's your take on his comparison of the Iraq War to Vietnam?

GERGEN: Well, he may well have stirred a hornet's nest among historians, because there are so many differences between this struggle and what we faced in past, and I think by just invoking Vietnam, something he has tried not to do. He's tried all along to say this is not Vietnam. By invoking Vietnam he raised the automatic question, well, if you've learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you ever get us involved in another quagmire? Why didn't you learn up front about the perils of Vietnam and what we faced there?

And Vietnam and Korea, of course, were not victories for America. Korea ended in a draw and Vietnam ended in a loss. So it's surprising to me he would go back to that to make -- and I think he's going to get a lot of criticism, or a lot of critiques, that will disagree with him and point out differences.

But I think the larger point of the speech was that this president is continuing to hang very tough. This is not a man who's talking about compromises. This is not a man who's talking about a plan B. This is not a man who is talking about, you know, let's reconfigure our forces in Iraq the way our Iraq Study Group did. This is a man saying, I'm hanging tough, and, by the way, what you may have heard yesterday from Maliki is not my true position; I'm still with him. Despite not only what Democrats are saying, but despite what his own ambassador has said in the last 48 hours, Mr. Crocker, who has really distanced the United States from Maliki.

COLLINS: All right, well, certainly all of this coming out in light of the report that will be expected from General Petraeus and from Ambassador Crocker coming up in September, so no question there as to why we are seeing some of these speeches. I'm sure that there will be another one or two before that September report. Buy quickly, David, I want to get back to the Vietnam issue, because I think it's something that will be talked about further today, if not tomorrow, as well.


COLLINS: He did say exactly this -- we listened carefully -- he said the real problem was America's presence, and that if we would just withdraw then the killing would end. Three decades later, though, there is one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam, and that is the price of America's withdrawal paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms, like boat people, re-education camps and killing fields.

Is he not making a comparison not about why we got into the war, but about whether or not the United States should withdraw?

GERGEN: Yes, he is. And there are a couple of issues there. He's right, that initially when we pulled back in Vietnam there were massive killings. I think he's wrong to say that Cambodia only occurred because we pulled back. There are many who believed had we not have gone into Cambodia ourselves, this country might have been more stable.

But there are a couple of things about it. Everybody, including General Petraeus under his plan to let the surge diminish here in the spring, and the Iraq Study Group is to pull back off the streets, I think everybody understands that when we start doing that there are going to be a lot of killings in Iraq, too.

We're not going to stay there forever to prevent killings. When we start pulling back there is likely to be a bloodbath in Iraq, too.

But here's the other point, that if you look at Vietnam today, you have to say that Vietnam at the end, after 30 years, has actually become quite a driving country. It's a very strong economy.

So there are those who say, yes, when we pull back there were bloodbaths in the immediate aftermath, but after that the Vietnamese started putting their country together. Is that not what we want Iraq to do over the long term?

COLLINS: Yes, In fact, the president said the Iraq war will show an advance of freedom, just like that in Japan and Korea, if we're looking at the other Asian countries. Do you agree with that?

GERGEN: Well, I think that's right. But the other issue and why it's dangerous territory for him to go into Vietnam and the Vietnam analogy is reason we lost Vietnam in part was because we had no strategy. And the problem we've got now in Iraq, what is the strategy for victory? If the strategy for victory is let our troops give the Maliki government enough time to get everything solved, and the Maliki government is going nowhere, as everybody now admits, you know, what strategy are we facing? What strategy do we have to win in Iraq? It's not clear we have a winning strategy in Iraq. And that's what cost us Vietnam, and that's why we eventually withdrew under humiliating circumstances.

I do think that what the Democrats are coming around to and what many Republicans will support is some sort of gradual pullback from the cities in Iraq, but keep a significant American presence in Iraq. Not to pull a full withdrawal.

And the question becomes for the president, he talks black and white -- victory or withdrawal, Those are the two options. And Democrats and Republicans are saying, Mr. President, there is a third option here, and that is a partial pullback. Stay there, try to prevent a civil war, try to prevent al Qaeda from gaining too much ground. Is he willing to recognize that as a third option? Is he willing to bargain? today there was no indication that he as willing to do that.

COLLINS: The age-old point, I think, is even clear today. Every conflict is so vastly different, and every enemy different, too.

David Gergen, nice to talk to you.

GERGEN: Thank you so much. Take care.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: And Hurricane Dean continues to roar in the Bay of Campeche, category-two storm with maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour.

And coming up, I'll let you know where it's headed and how long it's going to last, right here on CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

HARRIS: Let's talk about too much water. Ohio gets soaked by a relentless storm system. And it is still raining today.

COLLINS: Disappeared centuries ago, said to still be alive. Our Christiane Amanpour on a quest to discover the hidden imam. A preview of tonight's special "God's Warriors," coming up next.


HARRIS: OK, let's go to Michael Ware. He in Baghdad.

Michael, I take it you heard the president a few moments ago, correct?


HARRIS: OK, Michael. Let's start with the support, lack of support, however we're defining the support, from the president for the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Here's a bite from the president a short time ago.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRES. OF THE UNITED STATES: Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him. And it's not up to the politicians in Washington D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship.


HARRIS: Michael, do you want to start on this? Do you need a question, or do you just want to respond?

WARE: Well, what I can tell you, Tony, is it is rather striking that the president says this today about Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki, because everyone from the president to the U.S. ambassador of late has been prodding and criticizing the prime minister of Iraq. So this seems to be a very rapid turnaround.

I mean, the fundamental problem is that what the U.S. senators have said about Prime Minister Maliki, that he's not delivering, is quite simply true. But the answer is simple. Why? The prime minister has no power. America has invested everything in a guy who has absolutely no real control over what's happening within his government. Of his 37-member cabinet, 17 are boycotting his government or just not showing up. And in a government where power vests in those who control militia forces, this is a man without a militia. So really, Maliki can't deliver.

HARRIS: Michael, this goes nowhere, this surge goes nowhere if you can't get some kind of political reconciliation. It goes nowhere, whether it's 162,000, whether it's 180,000. It goes nowhere.

WARE: Right. Remember this, if America pulls out then the moral burden on America as a nation will be enormous for the bloodletting that will follow and for the destabilization of this entire region and the strengthening of al Qaeda and other Islamists.

But nonetheless, there are those here -- no one questions that democracy as a model is something to pursue. But what U.S. commanders and diplomats here on the ground are saying is that maybe we have bungled the execution of that mission so badly that now we need to stop and reconsider whether Malaki or his entire government are really the way to go.

Because, to be honest, Iran has much more influence of this government than America does, that's for sure. So really, a lot of people are finding it much harder to support the Maliki government.

HARRIS: CNN's Michael Ware for us in Baghdad. Michael, appreciate it. Thank you.

COLLINS: Double trouble for Mexico. Hurricane Dean growing stronger as it drives toward a second landfall today. Live coverage from the Mexican Gulf Coast and the CNN hurricane center. CNN, your hurricane quarters.


COLLINS: A double dose of Dean. Moments ago upgraded to a category 2 hurricane, its winds now up to 100 miles per hour. And, boy, it's hard to keep up with this one. The storm is moving fast through the Bay of Campeche in the southern Gulf of Mexico. Dean's on track to make landfall again later today on Mexico's east coast. Dean slammed the Yucatan Peninsula as a rare category-5 hurricane yesterday with 165 mile-an-hour winds. Thousands of people, including tourists, went to shelters to wait out the storm.

So far no deaths reported. But officials are trying to reach isolated jungle villages. The storm is blamed for at least nine deaths in its sweep through the eastern Caribbean.


HARRIS: Heartbreak in the heartlands this morning. Incessant rains have been inundating the Midwest and the Plains. Twenty-two people are dead, dozens of homes lost. In northern Ohio, one official describes it as the worst flooding in 30 years. Hundreds fled as homes filled with water, cars became submerged along highways, and main streets and crops already damaged by drought now dealt a new and serious blow. There was no mail delivery in Mansfield, Ohio. Postal trucks flooded. Now fears the receding waters could fill up flood basins, causing even more problems in parts of Wisconsin.

A little letup in the storms that started over the weekend. Some folks who were evacuated got a brief break. They made their way home on streets filled with debris only to find possessions covered in mud. Hundreds of homes are complete losses. More trouble may be in store. Rivers and creeks are still rising and more rain could be on the way.

COLLINS: He is called the hidden Imam, a ninth century cleric whose return as a messiah is eagerly awaited by many Shiite Muslims. In her documentary series "God's Warriors" Christiane Amanpour investigates this holy man worshipped by millions.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: To find out more about the mysterious hidden Imam, I travelled to the holy city of Qom Iran's center of religious power. Before going into interview some of those conservative clerics I had been warned to make sure that I wore the strictly traditional head scarf, head covering.

So, I'm now going to remove the one I traditionally have to wear here and I'm going to -- out here in the car quickly, put this very tight-fitting covering over my head. I can't do it. So I went to this Islamic dress shop for some professional advice. So, this lady is helping me because it's rather difficult to organize.

There is an elastic band around the back of my head holding all this in place. Can you believe women have to do this every day? By the time I was deemed sufficiently covered, the head of the Bright Future Institute studying the hidden Imam wouldn't look at me anyway, nor would he shake my hand because I'm a woman.

My name is Christiane Amanpour from CNN, and we've come to find out about the Bright Future, and how you see it.

H.I. ALI LARI. THE BRIGHT FUTURE INSTITUTE (Translator): You are welcome here and we are at your disposal. AMANPOUR: I discovered that the hidden Imam mysteriously disappeared centuries ago and that God has kept him alive since then so that he can return one day and usher in a new era of peace and Islamic justice. This center is waiting to welcome him and it's abuzz with activity.

Clerics pour over religious text and people even call in to ask exactly when the hidden imam is coming back. Right now, clerics tell me, the Imam is hiding like the sun on a cloudy day. That's the message they are sending even to children all over the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to go to a far away land and I want us to go on the journey together to ride on the clouds and go to the land of dreams, the land of wishes, to the end of the world.

AMANPOUR: What are the conditions, what has there to be in the world for the hidden Imam to come?

H.O ABDOLLAH REZAIE, THE BRIGHT FUTURE INSTITUTE (Translator): All the world's ideologies will falter. Communism came and went, and liberal democracy will also fail. And, when nobody can provide a solution, that's when the hidden Imam will appear saying, I'm the answer, and he'll save the world.


COLLINS: "God's Muslim Warriors" airs tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

HARRIS: Let's take you to the New York Stock Exchange, check out the markets. The big board as you can see, the Dow having a good morning session of 111 points. We understand the NASDAQ up 25 as well. Susan Lisovicz in the NEWSROOM all afternoon long checking the markets for you.

COLLINS: Oh what a difference a decimal point can make. Customers drive away with 29-cent gas. Sounds terrific. Cheap fill- ups, happy customers, but yes -- there is a but.

HARRIS: Love when it works out for us.

COLLINS: Sort of.

HARRIS: A wedding ring down the toilet.


Unidentified Male: The butterflies are like, what is she going to say? And right now she is pregnant so every little thing kind of sets her off.


HARRIS: Doc, why did you take it off your finger man?

COLLINS: Well, he got her pregnant. HARRIS: It was a joint effort.


HARRIS: Right. Ahead, a true test of marriage in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: All right, ball to the highest bidder. The baseball Barry Bonds hit to become the home run king will be auctioned off. The lucky fan who caught it says he doesn't much have a choice in the matter. Matt Murphy was told he would be taxed on the souvenir even if he held on to it. The ball could bring at least -- $500,000. He will give about half his take to a friend who was at the game with him. The online auction begins next week.

COLLINS: Fill up for just a few bucks. It happened at this Pennsylvania gas station. An attendant accidentally misplaced a decimal point in the computer. So, instead of costing 2.90 a gallon gas went to 29 cents. The station lost about $700 in five hours. Some customers who got the great deal will get a reality check. Those drivers whose use credit cards will be charged the correct amount.

Harris: Wedding ring in the toilet. A marriage down the tubes. Well, not for this Ohio man. Jonathan Henderson's band of gold. (Inaudible) well fell into a porta potty. He had taken it off to wash his hands. Why did you do that, man? His wife wasn't happy.


JONATHAN HENDERSON, LOST RING IN A PORTA POTTY: And that shows how much you care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's exactly what she said?

HENDERSON: Exactly, she really let me have it.

HARRIS: I guess I understand that. Yes, he should have been given the riot act. What are you taking it off -- you don't take it off. You don't take it off. But all is well, a worker for the porta potty company managed to retrieve the ring.


HARRIS: Yummy? Using a can. Wow. And apparently he got it on the first scoop we're told.

COLLINS: Oh good, because we really wanted more detail on that. Hey, quickly seriously before we go our director, Michael Fleisch (ph) -- thank you Michael 25-year anniversary.

HARRIS: Really?


HARRIS: Well, that's about 24 years too long. Anyway -- COLLINS: No, I think he started here when he was about 12. I'm not sure. 25th year at CNN, obviously. Did that sound like a marriage anniversary? Sorry. Here at CNN. Thanks, Michael. CNN NEWSROOM continues one hour from now.