Russert listed Steele's contradictory comments on Iraq, then failed to challenge him on them; AP ignored his shifting positions entirely

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

During a debate between Maryland Senate candidates, Tim Russert read conflicting comments about the war in Iraq made by GOP candidate Michael Steele, but he failed to prompt Steele to explain the contradictory statements. An Associated Press story about the debate did not note the conflicting comments that Russert read, nor did it mention Steele's assertion that he believes the war has been "worth it."

On the October 29 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert commenced a debate between the U.S. Senate candidates from Maryland by reciting seemingly contradictory positions on the Iraq war taken by Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the GOP candidate, in recent months. But after reading the list, Russert simply allowed Steele to assert that he currently views Iraq as "a mess that we need to fix," without asking him to reconcile that statement with his view, articulated as recently as August, that the Iraq war has been successful, and, in June, his statement that he believes in "staying the course."

In turn, an October 29 Associated Press article on the debate noted only Steele's description of the war as a "mess" and his assessment that the Department of Defense is largely to blame for the current situation in Iraq. Absent from the article was any mention of the inconsistent statements listed by Russert. Furthermore, the AP ignored Steele's assertion on Russert's show that he believes the conflict has been "worth it" and that -- knowing what we know today -- he would have still supported "prosecut[ing]" the war in 2002.

At the start of the debate, Russert told Steele that he had "been reading everything you've been saying about" the war in Iraq and then noted the following statements:

  • "So for me, staying the course, yes." (WJLA's Capital Sunday, 6/9/06)
  • "It didn't work. ... We didn't prepare for the peace. ... Let's call it what it is. We thought this was going to be a different kind of engagement." (The Washington Post, 7/26/06)
  • "Asked if [he] agreed with the Bush administration's management of the war in Iraq ... Mr. Steele replied ... 'By and large, absolutely, yeah.' Has the Iraq war been successful? Mr. Steele argues it has." (Frederick News Post, 8/11/06)
  • "The situation is not going well on the ground. ... We are getting deeper and deeper into a mess." (WOLB's Larry Young Show, as reported by the Baltimore Sun, 10/19/06)

Although Russert did note Steele's numerous conflicting statements on Iraq, he did not challenge Steele to explain them. Steele simply responded to the litany by asserting his current views of the situation. Steele's response could have provoked any one of the following questions, none of which was asked by Russert:

  • How do you reconcile your shifting assessments? What caused you to go from saying in July that the U.S. strategy in Iraq "didn't work," to saying in August that the war has been "[b]y and large" a success? Can you point to any disclosures or developments on the ground that led you to change your view of the war so drastically?
  • What caused you to go from calling the war effort a success in August to describing the situation there as a "mess" in October? Can you point to any disclosures or developments on the ground that led you to again change your view of the war?

But rather than press Steele on this front, Russert went on to probe Steele's current position on the war, never challenging him to reconcile his previous positions or defend his credibility on the subject.

In reporting on the debate in her October 29 article, AP writer Kristen Wyatt ignored Steele's contradictory statements on Iraq altogether. Wyatt merely reported that Steele had called the war a "mess" and placed the blame for the deteriorating situation there on the Pentagon, rather than President Bush. But absent from her article was any mention of the shifting positions listed by Russert and their significance. From her October 29 article:

Rivals in Maryland's closely watched Senate race sparred over Iraq, abortion and stem cell research on Sunday, with the Republican saying the war is "a mess" and states should decide abortion rights.

Michael Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor, said the situation in Iraq was not President Bush's fault and he faulted the Pentagon for poor planning.

"There's not a great deal of confidence on the ground that we can get this thing done," Steele said. "The Department of Defense did not give the president the kind of strategy to win this war." Asked where the war stood now, he replied, "I think the war in Iraq stands with a mess we have to fix."

By contrast, the Post article on the debate noted that Russert had presented "a litany of Steele's shifting statements on the war." Further, the Post highlighted two significant elements of Steele's current position on Iraq overlooked by Wyatt: that he believes the war has been "worth it" and that -- knowing what we know today -- he would still have supported "prosecut[ing]" the war in 2002.

From the October 30 article by Post staff writers Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow:

The debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" put on display the stark differences between Steele and Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin as they enter their final week of campaigning.

The two spent half the debate clashing on the war in Iraq -- with Steele saying the conflict "has been worth it to the extent that what we're trying to establish there is a beachhead of democracy." Cardin called it a "tragedy" and urged a gradual pullout of troops.

[...]

Russert opened the show with a litany of Steele's shifting statements on the war and later asked Cardin to defend his suggestion that he would consider cutting off money for the war to force President Bush to withdraw troops.

Steele acknowledged that the war has "frustrated the American people" but said that even knowing what he knows today, "I would think we'd still prosecute the war."

From the October 29 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Voters in Maryland, all across the country, say the big issue for them this year is Iraq. Mr. Steele, let me start with you. I've been reading everything you've been saying about the issue -- back in July you said, quote, "So, for me, staying the course, yes."

STEELE: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: Two weeks later, you said to a group of reporters, "It didn't work. ... We didn't prepare for the peace. ... Let's call it what it is. We thought this was going to be a different kind of engagement."

And then two weeks after that: "Asked if [he] agreed with the Bush administration's management of the war in Iraq ... Mr. Steele replied ... 'By and large, absolutely, yeah.' Has the Iraq war been successful? Mr. Steele argues it has."

And then, now this, just about 10 days ago: "The situation is not going well on the ground. ... We are getting deeper and deeper into a mess."

STEELE: Mm-hmm.

RUSSERT: Where are you on Iraq? Do you believe the war in Iraq has been worth the cost in lives and money?

STEELE: I think the war in Iraq right now stands with a mess that we need to fix, absolutely. We are at a point right now where there is no clear strategy or clear direction on the ground. You hear it -- you hear it from the generals, you hear it from the personnel on the ground, and I think that the focus has to be, going forward, is: What -- what is the strategy? And for me, it's very straightforward: Put in place the benchmarks, put the pressure on the Iraqi government to lay out very clearly and very forcefully that they're committed to the -- to democracy and the pursuit of that democracy that they voted for three times.

So, this has been an evolutionary process. I mean -- and you can see it in the polls, you can see it in the way this -- this war has tracked itself, but here we are at this moment, we're looking at a situation where there's not a great deal of confidence on the ground that we can get this done. The administration has to step up, put the pressure where I believe it belongs -- that's on the Iraqi government -- to decide once and for all whether they're going to go forward with this and pursue it themselves so our footprint can lessen, or, like Senator [John] Warner [R-VA] says, we have to get to the point where we say, "Look, this is not -- if this is not what you want to do, we're not going to commit one more soldier to a cause you don't believe in."

RUSSERT: You said it's a mess. Did the Bush administration help create this mess?

STEELE: I think that the Defense Department did not give the president the kind of strategy that he needed to prosecute this war. From the beginning, we didn't have enough troops on the ground. From the beginning, there was no clear decision to -- to win the peace here. We are, right now, Tim, in a situation where we're putting up conventional forces against a counterinsurgency, and that, in -- just, in strategic terms, is a mismatch. So, we need to step back and evaluate and make it very clear: What is the strategy going to be on the ground? That's what frustrates the American people right now. They don't have a clear sense of that, and we're looking now to Iraq to say, "Help us finish this. It is on you. You voted for this, you wanted this, we're here to bear with you, so that now we can begin to move back as you begin to move forward."

RUSSERT: Should Secretary Rumsfeld resign?

STEELE: Well, let's put it this way: He wouldn't be my secretary of defense. And ultimately, that's going to be a decision that the president of the United States makes.

RUSSERT: Do you believe the war has been worth the price we've paid in lives and costs?

STEELE: I think the war has been worth it to the extent that what we're trying to establish there is a beachhead of democracy. We want -- when we walk out of Iraq, when we -- when the last soldier leaves -- and this is the question everyone needs to ask themselves -- what do we want? Do we want an Iraq that's an ally of the United States, or do we want an Iraq that is an enemy of the United States? And I think we want an -- want an ally, so it's been worth it to us to establish this beachhead of democracy and, and an allow -- ally in an area where we've had some trouble in the past.

RUSSERT: Knowing what you know today, that Saddam Hussein did not have the stockpile of weapons of mass destruction we had been told, would you still vote to authorize the war?

STEELE: Well, that, you know -- that's "woulda, coulda, shoulda," that's kind of past. In my view, that's looking backwards. I wasn't a member of Congress; I didn't have access to the intelligence on all the information that the congressmen have and so many others who voted to go into war.

RUSSERT: But you said you would have voted for it.

STEELE: But I -- given what I knew -- given what I knew -- what was presented to me on the outside --

RUSSERT: But what you -- but what you know today, would you vote for it?

STEELE: I think -- I would think we'd still prosecute the war. And -- and -- but what I would do, if we're going to do it, let's make sure we have the right complement of personnel on the ground and that we are looking forward in this and not looking backwards. And that's where I am right now: What are we going to do? What is our strategy to begin to move our soldiers home and have Iraqi government and leadership move forward and keeping what they want in Iraq?

Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Tim Russert
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Meet the Press
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2006 Elections
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