On Morning Joe, Russert mischaracterized Democrats' Iraq positions, his own debate question

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

On Morning Joe, Tim Russert asserted, "I remember I asked the candidates in a debate last fall whether they would pledge to have all troops out within their first four years. None of them would make the pledge. By the last debate in Cleveland, both [Sens. Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton were saying, 'Oh no, we'll have them out by '09.' " In fact, neither candidate said during the Cleveland debate that he or she would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2009. During the "debate last fall," they talked about beginning withdrawal as soon as possible, while leaving troops to perform certain functions after the withdrawal is complete, and Russert himself stated during the Cleveland debate that both candidates have said they would "keep a residual force" in Iraq.

On the April 7 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert -- discussing the September 26, 2007, and February 26 MSNBC Democratic presidential debates, which he co-moderated -- asserted, "I remember I asked the candidates in a debate last fall whether they would pledge to have all troops out within their first four years. None of them would make the pledge. By the last debate in Cleveland, both [Sens. Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton were saying, 'Oh no, we'll have them out by '09.' " In fact, Russert mischaracterized the candidates' statements; neither candidate said during the February 26 debate that he or she would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2009. Indeed, during the February 26 debate, Russert opened the discussion of the candidates' Iraq withdrawal proposals by stating: "You both have pledged the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. You both have said you'd keep a residual force there to protect our embassy, to seek out Al Qaeda, to neutralize Iran."

During the September 26, 2007, debate, the candidates also talked about beginning to withdraw troops from Iraq, while leaving some troops to perform specific functions, as Media Matters for America documented. Russert asked Obama whether he would "pledge that, by January 2013, the end of your first term, more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq." Obama replied, "I think it's hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don't know what contingency will be out there." Obama went on to state: "What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office ... then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians, and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there." Clinton stated, "[I]t is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term. But I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting." Later in the debate, Clinton added that "there may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at Al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, special operations forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out."

Russert's mischaracterization of Clinton's and Obama's statements on Iraq during the February 26 debate echoed his misrepresentations of the Iraq positions of Clinton, Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards during postdebate coverage of the January 15 MSNBC debate, which Russert also co-moderated.

On Morning Joe, Russert also asserted: "And I asked a simple question: 'What if you start withdrawing troops and all hell breaks loose, and a slaughter begins to go forward. Do you then retain the right as an American president to reinsert troops back into Iraq?' And some of the response was, 'Well, that's a hypothetical question.' I mean, it's reality." But in suggesting that the candidates had evaded a "simple question" based on a scenario in which "you start withdrawing troops," Russert misrepresented his question, which was not "simple" and did not represent the "reality" of the candidates' plans for withdrawal. He actually asked the candidates multi-level hypothetical questions based on a scenario in which A) the Iraqi government responded to a planned U.S. withdrawal that would leave a residual force behind by demanding that the U.S. removes all troops; and B) after a full U.S. withdrawal in response to the Iraqi government's hypothetical demands, "Al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell."

During the February 26 debate, Russert first asked a hypothetical question of Obama and Clinton, which both candidates answered, about what would happen if the Iraqi government responded to the withdrawal of some troops in Iraq by saying "Get out now":

RUSSERT: Let me talk about the future -- let me talk about the future about Iraq, because this is important, I think, to Democratic voters particularly. You both have pledged the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. You both have said you'd keep a residual force there to protect our embassy, to seek out Al Qaeda, to neutralize Iran. If the Iraqi government said, President Clinton or President Obama, you're pulling out your troops this quickly? You're going to be gone in a year, but you're going to leave a residual force behind? No. Get out, get out now. If you don't want to stay and protect us, we're a sovereign nation, go home now. Will you leave?

OBAMA: Well, if the Iraqi government says that we should not be there, then we cannot be there. This is a sovereign government, as George Bush continually reminds us.

Now, I think that we can be in a partnership with Iraq to ensure the stability and the safety of the region, to ensure the safety of Iraqis and to meet our national security interests.

But in order to do that, we have to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there permanently, which is why I have said that as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we will initiate a phased withdrawal, we will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. We will give ample time for them to stand up, to negotiate the kinds of agreements that will arrive at the political accommodations that are needed. We will provide them continued support. But it is important for us not to be held hostage by the Iraqi government in a policy that has not made us more safe, that's distracting us from Afghanistan, and is costing us dearly, not only, and most importantly, in the lost lives of our troops, but also the amount of money that we are spending that is unsustainable and will prevent us from engaging in the kinds of investments in America that will make us more competitive and more safe.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, if the Iraqis said, I'm sorry, we're not happy with this arrangement; if you're not going to stay in total and defend us, get out completely. They're a sovereign nation, you would listen?

CLINTON: Absolutely. And I believe that there is no military solution that the Americans who have been valiant in doing everything that they were asked to do can really achieve in the absence of full cooperation from the Iraqi government.

Building on his first hypothetical question, Russert then asked:

RUSSERT: I want to ask both of you this question, then. If we -- if this scenario plays out and the Americans get out in total and Al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do you hold the right, in your mind as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals, and I believe that what's --

RUSSERT: But this is reality.

CLINTON: No -- well, it isn't reality. You're making lots of different hypothetical assessments.

I believe that it is in America's interests and in the interests of the Iraqis for us to have an orderly withdrawal. I've been saying for many months that the administration has to do more to plan, and I've been pushing them to actually do it. I've also said that I would begin to withdraw, within 60 days, based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president.

And I think we can take out one to two brigades a month. I've also been a leader in trying to prevent President Bush from getting us committed to staying in Iraq regardless for as long as Senator McCain and others have said it might be, 50 to 100 years.

So, when you talk about what we need to do in Iraq, we have to make judgments about what is in the best interest of America, and I believe this is in the best interest.

Russert asked of Obama: "[D]o you reserve a right as American president to go back into Iraq, once you have withdrawn, with sizable troops in order to quell any kind of insurrection or civil war?"

Obama responded in part:

OBAMA: Now, I always reserve the right for the president -- as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that's true in other places. That's part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9-11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

From the April 7 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

MIKA BRZEZINSKI (co-host) : You know, I'm looking at John McCain's fact sheet on his address that he's going to be giving to a VFW later today, and he talks about success and victory. And he uses the key words that you're talking about here when you talk about Americans not wanting to lose. And possibly also a challenge for the Democrats, Tim, in terms of putting out a conversation about Iraq that is realistic and when you talk about --

JOE SCARBOROUGH (host): What do you mean, instead of 16 months?

BRZEZINSKI: Sixteen months, or you talk about timelines that really don't match with the situation, and you look at what's happened there over the weekend, I think John McCain, who has served this country and whose son has gone to Iraq and has another son who is possibly going to Iraq, may look more credible.

SCARBOROUGH: But is talking about victory realistic?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, I don't know.

SCARBOROUGH: That's what's [inaudible]

RUSSERT: Yes, it is.

BRZEZINSKI: What is victory? That is a question we should ask John McCain, and I think it's a good one.

RUSSERT: But the reality is realistic. I remember I asked the candidates in a debate last fall whether they would pledge to have all troops out within their first four years. None of them would make the pledge. By the last debate in Cleveland, both Obama and Clinton were saying, "Oh no, we'll have them out by '09." And I asked a simple question: "What if you start withdrawing troops and all hell breaks loose, and a slaughter begins to go forward. Do you then retain the right as an American president to reinsert troops back into Iraq?" And some of the response was, "Well, that's a hypothetical question." I mean, it's reality.

BRZEZINSKI: Yes.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah.

RUSSERT: And that's what has to be confronted. The American people, when it comes to war, have a very good sense of a gut-check as to what's real or not. They want people not to wave a wand and say, "I'm gonna fix this. I'm going to make it all better tomorrow," because they know it's a lot tougher than that.

From MSNBC's broadcast of the February 26 Democratic presidential debate:

RUSSERT: Let me talk about the future -- let me talk about the future about Iraq, because this is important, I think, to Democratic voters particularly. You both have pledged the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. You both have said you'd keep a residual force there to protect our embassy, to seek out Al Qaeda, to neutralize Iran. If the Iraqi government said, President Clinton or President Obama, you're pulling out your troops this quickly? You're going to be gone in a year, but you're going to leave a residual force behind? No. Get out, get out now. If you don't want to stay and protect us, we're a sovereign nation, go home now. Will you leave?

OBAMA: Well, if the Iraqi government says that we should not be there, then we cannot be there. This is a sovereign government, as George Bush continually reminds us.

Now, I think that we can be in a partnership with Iraq to ensure the stability and the safety of the region, to ensure the safety of Iraqis and to meet our national security interests.

But in order to do that, we have to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there permanently, which is why I have said that as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we will initiate a phased withdrawal, we will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. We will give ample time for them to stand up, to negotiate the kinds of agreements that will arrive at the political accommodations that are needed. We will provide them continued support. But it is important for us not to be held hostage by the Iraqi government in a policy that has not made us more safe, that's distracting us from Afghanistan, and is costing us dearly, not only, and most importantly, in the lost lives of our troops, but also the amount of money that we are spending that is unsustainable and will prevent us from engaging in the kinds of investments in America that will make us more competitive and more safe.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, if the Iraqis said, I'm sorry, we're not happy with this arrangement; if you're not going to stay in total and defend us, get out completely. They're a sovereign nation, you would listen?

CLINTON: Absolutely. And I believe that there is no military solution that the Americans who have been valiant in doing everything that they were asked to do can really achieve in the absence of full cooperation from the Iraqi government.

RUSSERT: Let me ask you --

CLINTON: And --

RUSSERT: Let me ask you this, Senator. I want to ask you --

CLINTON: And they need to take responsibility for themselves. And --

RUSSERT: I want to ask both of you this question, then. If we -- if this scenario plays out and the Americans get out in total and Al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do you hold the right, in your mind as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals, and I believe that what's --

RUSSERT: But this is reality.

CLINTON: No -- well, it isn't reality. You're making lots of different hypothetical assessments.

I believe that it is in America's interests and in the interests of the Iraqis for us to have an orderly withdrawal. I've been saying for many months that the administration has to do more to plan, and I've been pushing them to actually do it. I've also said that I would begin to withdraw, within 60 days, based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president.

And I think we can take out one to two brigades a month. I've also been a leader in trying to prevent President Bush from getting us committed to staying in Iraq regardless for as long as Senator McCain and others have said it might be, 50 to 100 years.

So, when you talk about what we need to do in Iraq, we have to make judgments about what is in the best interest of America, and I believe this is in the best interest.

But I also have heard Senator Obama refer continually to Afghanistan, and he references being on the Foreign Relations Committee. He chairs the Subcommittee on Europe. It has jurisdiction over NATO. NATO is critical to our mission in Afghanistan. He's held not one substantive hearing to do oversight, to figure out what we can do to actually have a stronger presence with NATO in Afghanistan.

You have to look at the entire situation to try to figure out how we can stabilize Afghanistan and begin to put more in there to try to get some kind of success out of it, and you have to work with the Iraqi government so that they take responsibility for their own future.

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, I want you to respond to not holding oversight for your subcommittee. But also, do you reserve a right as American president to go back into Iraq, once you have withdrawn, with sizable troops in order to quell any kind of insurrection or civil war?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007, so it is true that we haven't had oversight hearings on Afghanistan.

I have been very clear in talking to the American people about what I would do with respect to Afghanistan. I think we have to have more troops there to bolster the NATO effort. I think we have to show that we are not maintaining permanent bases in Iraq because Secretary Gates, our current Defense secretary, indicated that we are getting resistance from our allies to put more troops into Afghanistan, because they continue to believe that we made a blunder in Iraq. And I think even this administration acknowledges now that they are hampered now in doing what we need to do in Afghanistan in part because of what's happened in Iraq.

Now, I always reserve the right for the president -- as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that's true in other places. That's part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9-11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

Posted In
Elections, National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Morning Joe
Stories/Interests
Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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