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Interview with Mitch McConnell, Wesley Clark

Aired July 1, 2003 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush has a warning for Saddam Hussein loyalists in Iraq. He says those whot threaten order and stability will face the same fate of regime they once served. The president's vowel follows a deadly attack on USA led force in Iraq. Six Americans were wounded just today.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They have attacked coalition forces and they're trying to intimidate Iraqi citizens. These groups believe they have found on opportunity to harm America, to shake our resolve in the war on terror, and to cause us to leave Iraq before freedom is fully established. They are wrong and they will not succeed.


ZAHN: Administration officials are concerned the rising casualty toll in Iraq may weaken public support for their mission.

Time to check in with John King who has the very latest for us tonight. Good evening -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Paula. To stay the course, a defiance speech today say the U.S. troops will not be driven out of Iraq by those who are launching these increasing attacks, yet the president also taking note if you will, responding to what we see in the public opinion polls, not yet rising opposition but certainly rising skepticism about the U.S. deployment in Iraq. So the president used that reenlistment ceremony here at the White House today. Not only to vow that the U.S. troops will stay until Iraq can run itself. Mr. Bush also trying to send a reasuring message to the people, especially those who wear the uniform.


BUSH: I assure him we will stay on the offensive against the enemy. And all who attack our troops will be met with direct and decisive force.

JOHN: Twenty-three Americans killed now by hostile fire in the two months since President Bush declared major combat. Over here the a White House, those officials who early on suggested these were random attacks on U.S. troops now say it's quite coordinated and is the top priority of the military on the ground in Iraq to stop them -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, John. The presidents latest comments about Iraq come amid signs of growing public sceptisism. A new CNN/"USA TODAY"/Gallup poll shows only 56 percent of Americans questioned now think it was worth going to war in Iraq. That is still a majority but down 73 percent just two months ago. Joining us now to discuss the situation in Iraq and the Bush Administration's Iraq policy is former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark.

Welcome, general.

First off, why do you think the numbers are dropping?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: I think the American people have seen first that we haven't found the weapons of mass destruction yet, and there doesn't seem to have been an imminent threat. I'm sure we will eventually find some weapons of mass destruction capabilities but the idea that we were about to be attacked, that doesn't seem to have been accurate and the mission looks tougher now than it did before the. The armed forces that Saddam Hussein had collapsed rather easily but this is looking difficult. And people will always ask questions about why are we doing it when the mission looks tough.

ZAHN: Let me ask you this, if you were in charge, what would you be doing differently than the administration right now?

CLARK: Well, I think the administration needs to bring in more international support, starting with the United Nations, starting with the ligtamcy of the United Nations. And then going for political top cover. I think our troops are doing everything that the troops can reasonably be expected to do over there. They're doing it well. They are doing with enormous courage. Ultimately this is not a mission about killing people who want to do us harm. It's more a mission about persuading the Iraqis that they don't want people in there who are shooting at Americans, that there are positive incentives. We need to put Iraqis in charge of their own political development as rapidly as possible.

ZAHN: Let me ask you this, short of that, is there anything else you could suggest that you think would reduce the death toll when it comes to American soldiers?

CLARK: We've got to get iraqis in uniform out doing the basic security functions. We've got to get lots more translator in there with our own troops. For example, why not bring back Iraqi elements? Put an arm band on them. Put them out there to guard the power plants, the oil depots, give them a salary. There were 400,000 people in the army that we demobilized. And why should we sent out a patrol or a humvee without a translator on it. What point can it be to have the troops out there when they can't talk to the local people. So, we got some basic provisioning to do. We need to make the Iraqis more responsible for dealing with the insecurity in that country.

ZAHN: Before we let you go, you, no doubt, have heard what the administration has said. They said even though the president declared that the combat was over, he never indicated the American public, that this was going to be easy nor clean.

CLARK: That's exactly right and it won't be. The question is, how well will we do this mission. The answer is, it will depend on getting the Iraqis mobilized as rapidly as possible to take charge of their own fate. Eventually the Iraqis are going to ask us to leave. They just won't want us there permanently. So what we want to do is set up a situation so when we leave, we leave behind relative stability, order and hopefully a western orientation and some semblance of a democracy.

ZAHN: General we got just 10 seconds left. I know you sound pretty frustrated.

Does this mean you're nudging more in the direction of running for president?

CLARK: I haven't made any decision on that, Paula. I said it would take a month or two and I'm still thinking about it.

ZAHN: Yes. You've been telling me that for months, sir.

CLARK: No, I told Tim Russert that on NBC and that's what I mean. I haven't made a decision.

ZAHN: All right, General Wesley Clark, always good to see you. Good to see thanks for your time tonight.

Now for another take on the situation in Iraq, let's go to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky the Senate majority whip. He joins us with Louisville.

Tonight, good to see you again, sir. Thanks so much for joining us. I wanted you to react to some of those numbers General Clark was just talking about.

Are you concerned when you see the drop in support for these action in Iraq that there may come a time when the American public will demand that American troops come home?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY WHIP: I don't think that's going to happen. General Clark has been excessively skeptical about this whole enterprise, before, during and after. And it could as you indicated at the end of your questioning of him, be somewhat related to his testing the waters to running for president himself as a Democrat. Look, everybody knew this was going to be difficult.

The period after the victory was going to be doublely challenging because it's a very large country with a lot of disdent elements. And getting control there was never going to be easy. In terms of what ought to be done, the president is doing exactly what General Clark suggested, trying to get international troops in. The Poles are coming in later in the summer, training an Iraqi police force, turning over as much as we can to them. That's exactly what we're not process of doing.

ZAHN: Are you satisfied that -- or do you really believe the administration underestimated or did not underestimate the strength of Iraqi opposition?

MCCONNELL: I think we anticipated that there would be a challenge in this period after the hostilities, the large hostilities stopped. I don't think it's particularly surprising that there's still people taking pot shots at us. But we're in the process with various search and destroy missions and with internationalizing a force there in getting a handle on it. I don't think the -- you know, we're not going to be run out of Iraq. This is a major commitment. We're there for the long haul to help them establish a genuine democracy in the Middle East which would truly be revolutionary and very educational for all of its neighbors.

ZAHN: And what gives you any optimism that the American public will be patient enough to bring peace to this country?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think the public has a lot of confidence in the president's ability to deal with foreign policy and defense matters. He's been a forceful leader on this issue. The public has followed him. You remember the public was skeptcal about going to war in Iraq in the first place. But after the president began to play out the case for it the American people rallied behind it. Now today the president began to layout if case for completing the job in Iraq, for doing it right. And my suspicion is the American people will stick with the president on his handling of the whole Iraq issue.

ZAHN: Senator Mitch McConnell, thanks you for your time tonight, appreciate it.


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