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State of the Union

Obama Visits Iraq; Pirates Hold U.S. Captain Hostage; Will Obama Support Offshore Drilling?

Aired April 12, 2009 - 12:00   ET


KING: I'd like to welcome back our international viewer to our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, April 12.

President Obama visits U.S. troops in Baghdad and tells them it's time for the Iraqis to take control of their country, but will attacks in big cities like Mosul force a delay in the U.S. troop withdrawal timeline? Top U.S. commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno joins us for an exclusive interview.

A stand-off between pirates holding an American hostage captive as the U.S. Navy grows more intense. We'll get a live report on the drama unfolding in the Indian Ocean with CNN's Barbara Starr.

And many environmentalists oppose off-shore drilling for oil, but will the Obama administration support it as part of a broader energy plan? Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gets "The Last Word" from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. That's all ahead in this hour of STATE OF THE UNION.

An aerial view there of the Pentagon just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the home of the United States military. And during his visit to Iraq last Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged there's still much to be done to stabilize the country. But he emphasized he intends to keep his commitment to withdraw all troops by 2011.

A big test looms soon. American forces scheduled to withdraw by June 30th this year, that's just 11 weeks from now. And just as American troops are preparing to leave, violence is on the rise in the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Baqubah. Here to talk about the president's visit and the challenges in keeping with the withdrawal schedule is the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. He joins us from Camp Victory in Baghdad. Sir, happy Easter to you, and thank you for joining us. Let me start with the big challenge you face. In just 11 weeks you're supposed to have your troops out of Mosul, out of Baqubah, out of other major cities. And you have an uptick in violence in recent days. Will you meet the deadline or will you have to keep the troops there?

GEN. RAY ODIERNO, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, first, John, if I could, I would like to wish happy Easter to everyone back in the United States, especially to all of the family and friends of our service members who continue to serve over here. It's a real dedication to their great work that has helped our soldiers over here.

John, what I would tell you is overall violence remains at 2003 lows. However, as you have seen over the last week or so, there are still some elements here that are able still to conduct some very serious attacks.

So we will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move forwards the June 30th deadline. If we believe that we'll need troops to maintain a presence in some of the cities, we'll recommend that, but, ultimately, it will the decision of Prime Minister Maliki.

KING: And when the president was there, sir, just the other day, did you discuss this with him and did you, in fact, maybe ask him to pressure the Iraqi government? You know the political pressures, not only on our president here in the United States, but on Prime Minister Maliki.

Did you ask the president to say, look, if we need more time you need to nudge them to give it to us?

ODIERNO: Well, again, we did have good discussions. We went through all of the major issues facing Iraq now with the president. What we discussed is there is some diplomatic actions that have to be taken.

Listen, Prime Minister Maliki understands the tensions in Mosul. He understands there's an assessment that has to be made. I'm confident that we will make a joint assessment and then he will make a decision. We will tell him what we believe is the right thing to do but ultimately it will up to him to make that decision.

KING: I want to remind our viewers, as we have this conversation, about the timelines and the deadlines you face. June 30th of this year, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Baghdad and the other major Iraqi cities. It is August 31st, 2010, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq, leaving about 50,000 behind. And then by December 31st, 2011, all U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Sir, in your conversations with President Obama, how comfortable do you feel that if you go to him at any point, whether it's one of these interim deadlines or the bigger deadline in 2011, you say, sir, I need more time or, sir, I need more troops, that you will get what you need?

ODIERNO: Well, again, he understands, as he has stated, that there is still much work to be done here in Iraq. I believe he has given me the flexibility over the next 18 months in order to adjust the size of the force that I need in order to accomplish the mission. What we're trying to do is set the conditions for Iraq to take over and be able to secure themselves.

And so we'll continue to do that. And I have the flexibility to do that. The president has given that to me.

John, if I could make one correction. On August 31st, it is that we will have a change in mission here in Iraq and we will no longer conduct combat operations. It's not necessarily that all combat troops will be out of Iraq by that date.

KING: Thank you for the correction, sir. And it's well noted, because let me follow on that point. Are you concerned at all? The mission went off-track at the beginning, way back, six years ago when there weren't enough troops to do everything that needed to be done. Are you concerned, sir, when you get to that point, when you're looking at 50,000 troops or so that you will have too few troops to do what you need to do or are you confident that if you need more, you'll get them?

ODIERNO: Well, what has changed, John, is that the Iraqi security forces have matured significantly. They now have 250,000, army. They have over 400,000 police. They are continuing to improve in their competency. So that is helping significantly.

So it is not the same as it was in 2004 or 2005 or 2006. So part of the judgment will be how much can they do. They are proving every day that they are becoming more competent, so the decision will be made as how much of U.S. forces are needed in order to continue to support them to keep the stability that we're starting to see here in Iraq.

KING: And, sir, I've walked over to our map so can I show our viewers what has happened over the timeline of the past six years. Back in May 2003, a little over 142,000 troops. And if you follow the timeline over, you see here in October 2007 because of your surge strategy, 170,000 troops on the ground. And we're down now somewhere in the area of 140,000 troops on the ground.

In terms of the pace of operations, the last time I was there and out with troops in the field was a little more than a year ago. And I did a convoy run up from Camp Anaconda up to Baqubah. That was a pretty dicey time, about every other convoy was experiencing an IED attack.

In terms of the reports you get back from the daily operations of the troops, is it as bad as it was then or have things improved significantly?

ODIERNO: Yes, they've improved significantly. And I think you would be surprised if you were here again. Obviously, we still have some very serious incidents, based on one this week.

But, again, it's much safer. In March, our combat fatalities were the lowest they've been since the beginning of the war. The number of incidents in March was the lowest month of incidents we've had since really right back to June of 2003 before the insurgency started.

So there has been a clear improvement of security here. The issue is, can we maintain that -- can the Iraqis maintain it? And that is what we're working through now is we want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out.

And that is what we're assessing and constantly doing. I believe we're on track to do that. We have a schedule to reduce our forces. I have flexibility to change that within the next 18 months, and we'll continue to look at that very closely as we move forward.

KING: And you mentioned that March was a relatively good month. I want to, again, play a little timeline here so that our viewers can see it here. This is U.S. troops killed in Iraq and you see the numbers from 2003 moving forward. 2007 at the height of the surge was the highest year and 51 so far, I hesitate to say, only 51 so far in 2009. You mentioned that March was a good month, sir. That was nine Americans killed in March. But already we've hit the number nine 12 days into the month of April because of a few tragic events in recent days.

Why? Are you seeing that this -- is this just random events or are you seeing some coordination of increase in violence?

ODIERNO: Yes. What I see is there are some cells out there who are still capable of conducting suicide attacks. And, unfortunately, had a tragic attack in Mosul this past week of a suicide bomber who probably killed five of our soldiers. Tragic, tragic event.

They have that capacity still. It's much less than it has ever been. They are very small cells throughout Iraq. We continue to be aggressive at going after them with the Iraqi security forces.

But this is not a significant increase in overall lack of security. There just are still some suicide bombers and those who profess suicide attacks that are still very dangerous.

KING: And help those military families and other Americans watching on this Easter Sunday morning assess where you are now. We talked at the beginning about the potential that you might have to ask for a little bit more time in Mosul, in Baqubah, in other cities.

Is this in part because you're saving the worst, the hardest challenges for last, if you will? That al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that oppose your being there have concentrated in certain areas and these are the last fronts?

ODIERNO: Well, what we've done is we've driven them there, John, through our operations over the last two years. And we've continued to eliminate areas where they are no longer welcome by the Iraqi people. They are rejected. They are no longer able to conduct operations so they've moved to certain areas.

One is in the desert near Syria between Syria and the city of Mosul, and then inside of Mosul. So we now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some serious attacks.

The same in Baqubah. Although Baquba actually has been extremely safe, areas east of there towards the Iranian border still have some remnants of al Qaeda and other extremists that are still able to do some operations.

So we're in the process of routing them out with the Iraqi security forces. KING: You just mentioned there, sir, areas near the Syrian border, and areas near the Iranian border which begs the question for the past six years we've had these conversations about Syria letting people back and forth across the border, in fact, maybe even supporting some of them.

Iran letting people back and forth, letting weapons across the border, and in fact training some of the people who are trying to kill the men and women who serve under you, sir.

What is the status of Iran and Syria? Are they still as problematic as they were before or have we seen any improvement?

ODIERNO: Well, first, we've been able to significantly limit the ability of them to traffic foreign fighters in through Syria. We have done through that major operations. We made it extremely difficult. The Iraqis have helped significantly in closing their borders and making it more difficult for foreign fighters and suicide attackers to come across.

They are still able to come across in very small numbers. There's still some of a facilitation network that still is in Syria.

In terms of Iran, Iran, although I would -- the support is a bit less than it was, there still reports that training, funding, and the providing of weapons still goes on, although at it's at a smaller level, it's still very sophisticated and is still trying to impact the stability situation here in Iraq.


KING: More of our conversation with General Ray Odierno in just a moment.

And, later, also, is President Obama the most polarizing president of recent times? We'll debate that question and more with two of our top political strategists. Our STATE OF THE UNION report will be right back.



KING: We're back with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

And, General, I want to ask you a bit about what I find fascinating. That is, your relationship with the new commander-in- chief, someone who was so vigorously opposed to the war effort you now lead.

And I want to show our viewers a bit of a timeline here. It was back in October of 2002 when then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, not even in the United States Senate yet, declared he was against the war in Iraq. And then in January of 2007, Senator Barack Obama, United States senator at this point, and candidate for the presidency of the United States, spoke out strongly against the surge policy that General Odierno pushed for.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, THEN U.S. SENATOR: The responsible course of action of the United States for Iraq and for our troops is to oppose this reckless escalation and to pursue a new policy.


KING: But since winning the election and becoming commander-in- chief, a decidedly different tone from President Obama when it comes to the war in Iraq, including his visit to Baghdad just this past Tuesday.


OBAMA: Every mission that has been assigned from getting rid of Saddam to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement and, for that, you have the thanks of the American people.


KING: General Odierno, you are the father of the surge strategy. You pushed for it when even many of your commanders wanted to get troops out of Iraq. How hard is it to develop a rapport with the president of the United States who thought your strategy was a reckless escalation?

ODIERNO: Well, first off, he's our commander-in-chief, and as the commander-in-chief, we take direction from him.

He has -- in all of the meetings I've had with him, he's very attentive, he is very -- he listens, he is incredibly intelligent, he talks through the issues and we discuss it. He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions, and that's all you can expect out of your commander-in-chief.

And he's -- and I've been very pleased with the interaction that I've been able to have with him.

KING: Has he ever said, hey, General, you know, Ray, you were right, I was wrong about the surge?

ODIERNO: I don't think we've talked about that ever.

KING: Let me ask you -- let me move back to a more serious question, the idea that in the previous administration and in your service prior to this administration, you were very clear that you thought these decisions should not be based on political timelines, they should be based on conditions on the ground.

I understand you're executing the orders of the commander-in- chief, I just want to get a sense of are you concerned at all that the bad guys, the enemy, knows the timeline, too, and they are going into hiding, hoarding their resources, gathering their weapons, and waiting for you to leave?

ODIERNO: There's always that potential, but, again, let me remind everyone what change was in December when the United States and the government of Iraq signed an agreement, a bilateral agreement that put the timeline in place that said we would withdraw all our forces by 31 December, 2011.

In my mind that was historic. It allowed Iraq to prove that it has its own sovereignty. It allows them now to move forward and take control, which was always -- it has always been our goal is that they can control the stability in their country.

So, I think I feel comfortable with that timeline. I did back in December, I do now. We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline so that they are able to maintain stability once we leave.

I still believe we're on track with that as we talk about this today.

KING: You say you're comfortable with that timeline, sir. I want you to expound on that a little bit, because back in -- I'm holding up a copy of Tom Ricks' book "The Gamble." It's a fascinating book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist about the war effort in Iraq.

And you told him in that book, this is -- he's quoting you in that book: "When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2014, well after Obama's first term, Odierno said, I would like to see a force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000 with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies."

Now certainly this was before the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated, I want to make that clear when you made those remarks. But you have to implement this strategy because it is a signed agreement between a government, Iraq, and the United States of America.

But do you personally think it would be best that for the foreseeable future to leave 30,000 or so behind?

ODIERNO: Well, again, what I would tell you is, it really has always been about Iraqis securing their own country. So, the issue becomes, do we think they will be able to do that?

As they continue to improve in the operations they've been able to conduct, I believe that they will be able to do that by the end of 2011. And so the most important thing for us is to help them now, to reduce the risk that will be left with them once we depart at the end of 2011.

We will continue to train and advise. We will continue to assist. We'll continue to conduct combat operations when we believe it's necessary. And I do believe now that it is probably the right time frame.

KING: And on a scale of 1 to 10, sir, how confident are you, 10 being fully confident, that you will meet that deadline? That all U.S. troops will be gone at the end of 2011?

ODIERNO: As you ask me today, I believe it is a 10 that we'll be gone by 2011.

KING: That's a bold statement.

I want is to ask you a little bit about your current work, because a lot of what you're doing requires the Iraqi security forces to get up to speed, and that, of course, is part of your mission, but the other part of the equation is the Iraqi political environment.

And in that environment, you are finding yourself, I'm told, in some meetings that you would prefer that the lead person be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and you don't have a U.S. ambassador at the moment.

The nomination of Chris Hill is held up at the moment in the United States Senate. Does that hurt the U.S. effort in Iraq, not having an ambassador on the ground?

ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I believe it's important to have an ambassador here. It's important to have an ambassador in all of our key countries. And Iraq is a very important country in our national strategy. So, of course, it would be much better to have our ambassador here. We have a process that we have to go through to get our ambassadors confirmed. We're going through that process. Hopefully we'll have an ambassador out here very soon. It would certainly help to have an ambassador here as quickly as possible.

KING: You work now in an administration that doesn't like the term war on terror. The Bush administration used that term quite frequently. Does that matter to you? The men and women who are risking their lives every day, are they fighting the war on terror in General Odierno's view or something else?

ODIERNO: Well, what they are doing is fighting for the security of United States. So it doesn't matter what you call it. We're here to ensure that we better secure the -- all of the people of our country and that by doing that, by defeating terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, we're here to accomplish what we believe is important to maintain security for our country.

KING: I want to ask you, sir, as a general and as a parent of someone who was hurt in Iraq, your son suffered a devastating injury, but, thank God, was not hurt any further than that in Iraq. We have a new policy where they have opened Dover and allowed media coverage of the returning bodies, the caskets of those who suffer the ultimate sacrifice overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you support that policy? Do you think it helps the American people better understand the price those young men and women are paying, or do you think it's too much?

ODIERNO: I think the most important piece of that was that you give the families the choice. What we care about is the families have their choice. We want to respect the families. So it always comes down to that. So I'm very pleased the families gets to choose whether that coverage happens or not and I think that's the right thing.

KING: General, one other thing I wanted to mention. I'm sorry, before I do let you go. I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy and thought I had a friend in Ray Odierno on the show but I understand you have launched Facebook site so that you can better communicate with folks back here in the United States and we're showing it on our monitors before we let you go.

I just want you to know my resistance to Facebook has now crumbled thanks to Ray Odierno. Explain why you think this is important.

ODIERNO: Well, I want to -- I think it's important that people can reach out and ask questions and maybe educate them a little bit more on what is going on here in Iraq. And get to know us a little bit better. This is new for me. This is new ground so we'll see how it goes but I'm actually pretty excited about it.

KING: Well, we'll see how many people are watching today by how many friends you get in the next few hours. Again, general, Happy Easter to you and the men and women serving in Iraq and take care, sir.

ODIERNO: Thanks, John. I appreciate it very much.

KING: All right, general. Take care.


KING: And huge factors in getting the U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule are the abilities of Iraq's military and police forces to step up major security challenges and the willingness of Iraq's political leaders to set aside sectarian and other rivalries.

Up next, we discuss those challenges with Iraq's national security adviser.



OBAMA: It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.


KING: President Obama there addressing U.S. troops in Iraq during a quick visit to the country this past Tuesday. We just heard from General Odierno. Now let's get the Iraqi view of where things stand. In our Baghdad bureau, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al Rubaie. Sir, let me start with the basic premise. President Obama said it's time for Iraq to take over. Are you ready?

MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQI NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, before I answer your question, let me, through your program, say Happy Easter to all Christians all over the world.

And, number two, I would like to express my gratitude and the big thank you from the Iraqi people and the government of Iraq to the United States of America for things they have done in this country, bringing down the dictatorship and sustaining the security of this country and building, helping us in building our Iraqi security forces and to reach to this level now to a considerable reduction in violence and this security, we believe it's sustainable and we are -- we, the government of Iraq and the security forces in Iraq are much more suited now for this fight.

And we believe that now we are leading and we are planning and cutting out most of the combat operations in the country and the United States forces are moving or transitioning to a more support role, more training, more providing more logistical support, rather than engaging in a huge military or kinetic combat operations.

KING: And so, sir, with that progress or despite that progress maybe, you just heard General Odierno. If he comes to you in three or four weeks or six or eight weeks and says, Mr. National Security Adviser, Mr. Prime Minister, I know I have this June 30th deadline to get out of the cities but in Mosul, in Baqubah there are still some problems, I need a little bit more time, I may actually have to send more U.S. troops in in the short term.

Would he get the permission of the Iraqi government to do that if he believes it's necessary?

AL-RUBAIE: See, we're continuing monitoring the situation jointly with the multi-national forces and we're consulting the multi- national forces on a military and we are on daily coordination and cooperation and assessing the situation on daily basis. So I don't think we should answer this hypothetical question now.

KING: OK. I understand that point. And I bring it up because in the past, sir, you say you're ready or you will be ready by the deadlines. In the past you have been optimistic and that optimism has turned out not to be so well-founded. I want to bring up something you told "The Washington Post" back in June 2006, that's almost three years ago.

You said, "We envision the U.S. troop presence by year's end to be under 100,000 with most of the remaining troops to return home by the end of 2007."

It is now, of course, 2009 and there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Why should we believe your optimism now, to put it bluntly, when you were on the record some time ago saying you thought this day would come a lot sooner?

AL-RUBAIE: Well, we are all much more intelligent with hindsight and I believe we have now very, very competent and very well trained and equipped, the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi security forces are leading and doing most of the combat operation now. What we are requiring. Only the high-end very specialized counterterrorism operation and some logistical support, some air fire support, some navy support, that is what we are requiring. And we are building these as we go along and in the next year or so, we will be in a position to take all -- to take over all of our country. All the security, all over the country.

KING: Mr. al-Rubaie, let me ask you this question. The White House says when President Obama was there and he had the meetings with your political leaders, he delivered a stern message that the differences between the Kurds and the Shia need to be resolved. Other sectarian issues.

Essentially a push and nudge for the politics of Iraq to become more peaceful and more stable to build confidence going forward. What was the strongest or the most different message you found from President Obama in these meetings?

AL-RUBAIE: See, what we have, we have agreed, the three communities. The three major communities have agreed on a one-term reference and that is the Constitution. And millions of Iraqis have ratified this Constitution. We formed a national unity government according to that Constitution. The Sunni, Kurds, the Shia are all in that government. And we are -- if we have any differences, if we have any dispute, we should go back to the Constitution and refer to the one document we have agreed on and that is the Constitution. There's nothing else, other than the Constitution.

KING: Mowaffak al-Rubaie is the national security adviser of Iraq. Sir, we thank you for your time and your insights this morning.

AL-RUBAIE: Thank you for having me.


KING: If you'd like to get more insight and analysis on foreign policy in the Middle East, be sure to watch "FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS." That's at 1 p.m. Eastern. This week, Fareed speaks with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: If the United States were to call a peace conference between Syria and Israel next week, you would be willing to attend and you would be willing to initiate land for peace if Israel gave back the Golan in the course of those negotiations?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Because you are asking me a hypothetical question about what might happen next week, I will tell you let me first consult with my government. Most possibly they will tell me, yes, we will attend. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: For more, stay tuned to "Fareed Zakaria: GPS," coming up at the top of the hour, only here on CNN.

Up next, our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the latest on the Somali pirate stand off. She's been talking to a top naval commander in the region. STATE OF THE UNION will be right back.


KING: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. The "Associated Press" is reporting hostage negotiations between United States and Somali pirates have broken down. Armed pirates have been holding a U.S. ship captain in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean for four days now. A Somali official is saying Somali elders negotiating with the American officials objected to U.S. demands that the pirates be arrested.

Christians around the world are celebrating Easter today. Pope Benedict celebrated Easter mass before thousands at the Vatican. The pontiff appealed for peace in Africa and the Middle East and he delivered Easter blessings in 63 different languages.

And the White House is getting a new resident. The Obamas have chosen a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog to be the first pet. The puppy will move in on Tuesday. The Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, named the dog Bo. Follow the connection here, the first lady's father was nicknamed Diddley. Those are the headlines on STATE OF THE UNION.

Picture there of Richard Phillips. He has become known around the world as the American captain, ship captain, now held hostage by Somali pirates. And the U.S. navy is locked in an increasingly tense standoff with those pirates who are holding Captain Phillips hostage for four days now.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us from Manama, Bahrain, where she spoke with a top naval commander about this crisis. Barbara, help us put this into context because I know and you know it's not this simple. But many Americans see we have the most powerful navy in the world, how could a bunch of thugs in a life boat be still holding this man hostage?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: You know, that's the question, John. What are we in, day four, day five? Four pirates with AK-47 rifles holding this man hostage in terrible circumstances, very tough circumstances. And holding the United States Navy at bay.

Now, of course, what U.S. officials tell us, their absolute primary goal is to get Captain Phillips released safely. That is what they are working towards so they are moving very cautiously.

But make no mistake, a senior U.S. official told us just a short time ago, all options remain on the table. They are not going to let these pirates take Captain Phillips back into Somalia. They will stop them from doing that, but the negotiations continue. The goal now, make these pirates realize they have no options that they have to give up. John?

KING: Barbara, what type of resources in terms of naval vessels, naval vessels, naval personnel are we talking about in this particular standoff?

STARR: Well, standing about 200 yards as we understand it from the life boat is the USS Bainbridge. This is a U.S. Navy warship. There are a number of other warships of further distance away. They've established essentially a cordon, making sure no other pirates can come into the vicinity.

The Bainbridge has a variety of weapons. It has naval forces. They will make sure, according to their strategy, that this life boat does not move closer to the shore of Somalia. That there is no chance Captain Phillips is taken into Somalia. There are military helicopters from a number of countries in the region. They can patrol the coastline. They can fire from the air.

No one is exactly saying this, John, but let's be clear. Four or five days into this, the U.S. military certainly has moved any covert assets it has into the immediate region on standby, ready to go with any kind of rescue attempt if, if it came to that and President Obama ordered that. They're hoping it doesn't, they're hoping the pirates just give up. John?

KING: And Barbara, more broadly to the overall strategy, this is not a new issue. It is just the first time an American captain has been held hostage. Does the military have any good options on the table for preventing, discouraging these things in the future?

STARR: Well you know when we came to Bahrain and exclusively interviewed Vice Admiral William Gortney, the top naval commander in this region for both the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, he says, no. You know, the problem is this, this is a piece of water out here. As we have said repeatedly, about four times the size of Texas. Hundreds and hundreds of cargo ships move through these waters every year, all year long. Cargo going from Asia, the Far East, Africa, to Europe, to the United States. This is an absolute vital waterway, there aren't enough warships on Earth to keep everyone safe out here.

KING: Tough options facing the military, Barbara Starr, on the ground for us in Bahrain, helping to keep on top of this story. Barbara, thank you so much.

And up next, we turn back to the problems facing this country, including the economy. With so much of the country still struggling, was it the right time for President Obama to say, we're beginning to see glimmers of hope.

And on a lighter note, we have some details on the Obama family's new dog. We'll talk abut it all with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden. Stay with us.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KING: A picture of the White House there on a beautiful Sunday -- Easter Sunday here in Washington. After weeks of warnings that things could get worse before they got better, President Obama is suddenly speaking in a considerably more hopeful tone. For insight into the president's change and message, we turn to two seasoned political veterans: Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Welcome, happy Easter to both of you. Previous times on the program, we talked about the president saying it's going to get worst before it gets better. This past week he is out there urging Americans to refinance, saying, get in the refi business, you can save the family a few bucks on the budget.

And also sounding much more optimistic, let's listen to the president.


OBAMA: What you're starting to see is glimmers of hope across the economy. Now, we have always been very cautious about prognosticating and that's not going to change just because it's Easter.


KING: Smart to be more upbeat?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I believe he's responding to some of the good news, consumer confidence up just a little bit, the housing market, people are going back in, refinancing, buying up some of the foreclosed properties.

Clearly the credit markets are thawing so the president is just expressing what I'm sure his advisers told him, look, there's a bright sign out there.

But, look, John, until we can, you know, get jobs back in the communities, until we can provide people with health care, I still believe that we're still in the thick of this recession.

KING: Is it risky -- if maybe a lagging indicator, but if unemployment is still on the way up, to have this president saying, I see glimmers of hope and then next month the unemployment rate edges up toward 9 percent, maybe even goes higher than that, does he risk being seen as President Bush was, as out of touch?

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, that is the great peril here, that he does risk seeming to be talking in very flowery terms when people are still struggling. There is still a great deal of anxiety out there amongst the America public. And we are going to see a lot more job losses before things get better.

You know, I grew up in the city and it was always very easy to see the green sprouting from bricks and bricks of concrete, and I think that is what is happening here, is that President Obama is trying to point to the signs of life in a very -- you know, in a very barren economy right now in an effort to encourage the markets.

The markets right now don't need somebody who is a -- you know, a chief executive who is out there talking down the economy. So this is much more geared towards encouraging many of those in the private sector to keep moving in the right direction as the economy starts to improve.

KING: I want you both to...


BRAZILE: ... has to rebuild trust in the system. And most Americans are not trust -- we don't trust the banks. We don't trust the system.

KING: I want to bring you to both of your thoughts on an essay written by Michael Gerson. He worked for the former President Bush, thoughtful guy, outside of working in the Bush White House. And he says this about Barack Obama, quite interesting, he says: "Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush? No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama. Obama has been unifier, of sorts. He has united Democrats and united Republicans against each other."

BRAZILE: You know, Mr. Gerson made two mistakes. One, he didn't point out that this is part of a long-term trend and that's something the Pew poll talked about. This trend goes back for 30 years. And the second thing is that the Republican Party itself really has shrunken over the last four years.

In 2004, 33 percent of the American people identified with the Republican Party. Today it's 27 percent. So there has been a 6 percent drop. And so this is part of a long-term trend and has nothing to do with President Obama.

KING: Nothing to do with President Obama, but the numbers don't lie, among Democrats Obama has an 88 percent approval rating, among Republicans, a 27 percent approval rating.

MADDEN: You know, a lot of Republicans seized on this poll this week as evidence that -- you know, of -- reasons to criticize President Obama. And I think it has less to do with polarization and more to do with failed expectations.

President Obama ran, during this last campaign, as somebody who was going to change the tone and tenor of Washington, who was going to challenge the status quo. And I think with both his policies and his rhetoric, he has done neither. And that's why we've seen.

The biggest problem for President Obama here is the fact that independents have dropped about 13 points since the Inauguration, and he had sizable levels of Republican support, close to 40 percent at the Inauguration. And that has now eroded to a record low.

And I think that is a troubling sign, I think, for President Obama if he is going to try and forge an agenda around unity and bipartisanship for his...


KING: Going to put you both on the spot. No, time out, time out, we've got about 20 seconds left. I want to put you both on the spot on the day's biggest breaking news. The first puppy makes a big splash. Bo will be coming to the White House. Sasha and Malia have named their new dog Bo who will be there on Tuesday.

BRAZILE: That should clearly improve his ratings among independents and Republicans.


BRAZILE: I mean, what's not to like about this dog? He's cute. He's adorable. But I hope he's potty-trained.

KING: You hope he's potty-trained.


KING: Is this silly season or does it matter how a president and his new young family go about their business?

MADDEN: You know, I think one of things that has happened with this president is that Washington, D.C., has become not only the financial and political capital of the world, but the cultural capital of the world.

What they eat, what they wear, the kind of pets that they have, that has really, I think, influenced a lot of Americans. Americans are watching in a new -- Washington in a new way that they haven't before.

I mean, I know that this is going to create problems in the Madden household because when the debate comes up about getting a dog, now it's both, you know, Sasha and Malia can have one, how come Riley (ph) and Colin (ph) can't?


KING: I had a little conversation with Hannah (ph) King yesterday, and let me just say, I share your pain.


KING: Kevin Madden, Donna Brazile, thanks so much for coming in today.


During the last campaign, it was Republicans who were clamoring for more oil drilling offshore. But is it something the Democratic Obama administration is now willing to consider? We'll go out on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to get the answer. STATE OF THE UNION will be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: You hear a lot of talk these days about the green economy. You might remember just a few weeks back we went to a factory just outside of Philadelphia where they're making those giant wind turbines. The goal, to help reduce the dependence of the United States on foreign oil. But foreign oil will be with us for quite some time. One way to reduce that dependence is to find more domestic sources. And look at the map here. This is off shore oil. They believe there are 10.5 billion barrels offshore in the Pacific, 41 billion in the Western Gulf of Mexico, 3.8 billion here. So we went off shore with the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to talk about this and other energy and environment debates and from an oil rig right here in the Gulf of Mexico, Secretary Salazar gets "The Last Word."


KING: How much of a part of the future is this?

KEN SALAZAR, INTERIOR SECRETARY: It's a very huge part of the future. The outer shelf has 1.57 billion acres, that's a massive plate.

KING: A lot of your friends, people who support your political coalition who don't like this. They think it's dangerous for the environment, they think it's risky the environment.

SALAZAR: We need a comprehensive energy plan. We need to do more with efficiency and we need to do a lot with alternative fuels and renewable energies. We move forward with the mass technologies, but in the meantime, we need to make sure that we're also developing our oil and gas resources so we break our dependence on foreign oil.

KING: But we will be reliant on oil for how long?

SALAZAR: You know, for the foreseeable future. There is no way that we are going to replace the oil and gas that we're using today, John, in a matter of four, five, 10 years. We'll continue to depend on oil and gas as we transition over to higher efficiency and to alternative fuel.

KING: And based on this, if you were to have a conversation with the governor of California or the governor of Florida, whose citizens are very wary of this, they don't want it off their shores, what would you tell them?

SALAZAR: I would tell them to make sure they're making informed decisions. I think there might be something to be said about the placement of where these rigs actually go.

So it's actually the further you are from sharp.

Today we're standing some 75 miles away from the shoreline and it has a different impact on the coast than if we were actually in the marshes or right next to the coastline. So, I think some of it has to do with where the resources are located. Some of it has to do with the technology that has been developed. I think the technology has come a long ways. There was a time, I think, when there was a lot of pollution that actually occurred from these rigs. I think now they'll tell you that there is very little pollution that actually occurs.

Have you had any spills since you've been here?

KING: It sounds like you're saying they should at least open their minds to thinking about this more.

SALAZAR: President Obama has said that the outer continental shelf should be on the table, as part of a comprehensive energy package. So, how exactly that will happen is something that we will be deciding over the next several months. And at the end of the day, we are going to have production. We are pro-production, but we also are going to transform our energy economy from an oil-based, carbon- based economy over to a new energy economy of renewables and the vast technologies. KING: And as this debate has started in the new administration, your critics and Republicans in Congress -- and not all Republicans and some people outside the Congress say what you want to do in terms of greenhouse gases, cap and trade, is essentially a carbon tax on hard-working America.

SALAZAR: You know, they are wrong. I think it's a false choice that is being set up by those who are in opposition to us addressing the issue of carbon emissions.

Here's where the point of transaction occurs, right here.

KING: Could that mean though to deal with it that American households, American families might have to pay more?

SALAZAR: I think what it will mean is that we're going to have to change what we're doing now. So I think there may be changes in the lifestyles of Americans. As we look at the country in ten years of now, it will probably be different in terms of how our homes are constructed, the kinds of vehicles that we drive and other kind of efficiencies we use.

KING: If you turn on a television, the different parties, the different interest in this debate often fight it out with television ads, just like politicians do. Big ads running now say there are no such things as clean coal. Shows a family choking in their house. Is there clean coal?

SALAZAR: There can be clean coal technologies and there is clean coal technologies. But part of what has happened is there has been a failure to move forward in the investment to find out how we can sequester the carbon. You know, coal is to the United States what oil is to Saudi Arabia. The problem is, when you burn it, you have such high emissions of CO2. We could capture CO2 and we could sequester it in geologic formations, but that technology is something that has to be developed. And one of the things that President Obama and the stimulus package has invested a significant amount of money in, to see how we can burn coal in a clean way.

KING: And what do you say to those who look at the new administration, even some who support the goals of the new administration, say the president is trying to do too much. And when you're trying to do too much, too fast, everything gets a little scatter shot.

SALAZAR: I know Barack Obama well, but I know about him is that he is effective in what he is doing. And when you have the kind of crises that we face today as a nation, it requires somebody to do a lot.

So, what President Obama is doing now, he's tackling a whole host of issues, frankly because we were in a crisis time. This is a transformational time. November was a transformational election and the issues that we're dealing with from the economy to health care to energy are issues that cannot wait. We can't wait to get moving on these issues for three or four years. And so that's why he's working so hard every day to try to deliver on the promise of change that he made to America.


KING: Our thanks to Secretary Salazar for taking us along. It was a fascinating trip. And remember, we will be here again next Sunday and every Sunday 9 a.m. Eastern for the first and last word in Sunday talk. If you missed any part of our program, tune in tonight 8 p.m. Eastern. We'll showcase the best of today's STATE OF THE UNION. Until then, I'm John King in Washington. Have a great Easter Sunday.

For our international viewers, "African Voices" is next. For everyone else, "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" starts right now.