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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Aired June 28, 2005 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome. Thanks so much for being with us tonight. I'm Paula Zahn, here in Washington, with my colleague, Wolf Blitzer. Always good to be with you. Appreciate your dropping by.
Earlier tonight, President Bush went before a crowd of about 750 soldiers and airmen at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, on this the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the coalition to an Iraqi government. But in the past few weeks, the president's approval rating and support for the war in Iraq have dropped. Even some Republicans, former supporters, are now criticizing the war. And lawmakers from both parties are looking for answers and specifics, and that's what the White House promised in the hours before Tuesday night's presidential address. Did he deliver? Well, that's up to the American people to decide.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But one specific we knew we would not hear going into this speech was a timetable for when America's 135,000 troops will leave Iraq. The White House made that clear earlier in the day. And President Bush, as you'll see, was emphatic on that point.
Instead, the president set out to persuade the American people that the war in Iraq is, in his words, "worth it" and "vital to America's security." And he made several references to the attacks on 9/11. He did this on a day in which attacks in Iraq killed 18 people, including two American soldiers, pushing the U.S. toll to 1,741 since the invasion.
Here is the president just a few hours ago at Ft. Bragg.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Please be seated.
I am pleased to visit Fort Bragg, home of the airborne and special operations forces. It's an honor to speak before you tonight.
My greatest responsibility as president is to protect the American people. And that's your calling as well.
I thank you for your service, your courage and your sacrifice.
I thank your families, who support you in your vital work.
The soldiers and families of Fort Bragg have contributed mightily to our efforts to secure our country and promote peace. America is grateful, and so is your commander in chief.
The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. The war reached our shores on September 11, 2001.
The terrorists who attacked us and the terrorists we face murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent.
Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression by toppling governments, by driving us out of the region and by exporting terror.
To achieve these aims, they have continued to kill: in Madrid, Istanbul, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Bali and elsewhere.
The terrorists believe that free societies are essentially corrupt and decadent and, with a few hard blows, they can force us to retreat. They are mistaken.
After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.
Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war.
Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.
There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.
The commander in charge of coalition operations in Iraq, who is also senior commander at this base, General John Vines, put it well the other day. He said, "We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us."
Our mission in Iraq is clear: We're hunting down the terrorists. We're helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We're advancing freedom in the broader Middle East. We are removing a source of violence and instability and laying the foundation of peace for our children and our grandchildren.
The work in Iraq is difficult and it is dangerous. Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed. Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real.
Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it?
It is worth it. And it is vital to the future security of our country. And tonight I will explain the reasons why.
Some of the violence you see in Iraq is being carried out by ruthless killers who are converging on Iraq to fight the advance of peace and freedom.
Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and others.
They are making common cause with criminal elements, Iraqi insurgents and remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime who want to restore the old order.
They fight because they know that the survival of their hateful ideology is at stake.
They know that as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well.
And when the Middle East grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world.
Some wonder whether Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Among the terrorists, there is no debate.
Here are the words of Osama bin Laden: "This third world war is raging" in Iraq. "The whole world is watching this war." He says it will end in "victory and glory or misery and humiliation."
The terrorists know that the outcome will leave them emboldened or defeated. So they are waging a campaign of murder and destruction. And there is no limit to the innocent lives they are willing to take.
We see the nature of the enemy in terrorists who exploded car bombs along a busy shopping street in Baghdad, including one outside a mosque.
We see the nature of the enemy in terrorists who sent a suicide bomber to a teaching hospital in Mosul.
We see the nature of the enemy in terrorists who behead civilian hostages and broadcast their atrocities for the world to see.
These are savage acts of violence, but they have not brought the terrorists any closer to achieving their strategic objectives.
The terrorists, both foreign and Iraqi, failed to stop the transfer of sovereignty. They failed to break our coalition and force a mass withdrawal by our allies.
They failed to incite an Iraqi civil war. They failed to prevent free elections. They failed to stop the formation of a democratic Iraqi government that represents all of Iraq's diverse population. And they failed to stop Iraqis from signing up in large number with the police forces and the army to defend their new democracy.
The lesson of this experience is clear: The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they cannot stop the advance of freedom.
The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September the 11th, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden.
For the sake of our nation's security, this will not happen on my watch.
A little over a year ago, I spoke to the nation and described our coalition's goal in Iraq. I said that America's mission in Iraq is to defeat an enemy and give strength to a friend -- a free, representative government that is an ally in the war on terror and a beacon of hope in a part of the world that is desperate for reform.
I outlined the steps we would take to achieve this goal.
We would hand authority over to a sovereign Iraqi government. We would help Iraqis hold free elections by January 2005. We would continue helping Iraqis rebuild their nation's infrastructure and economy. We would encourage more international support for Iraq's democratic transition. And we would enable Iraqis to take increasing responsibility for their own security and stability.
In the past year, we have made significant progress.
One year ago today, we restored sovereignty to the Iraqi people. In January 2005, more than 8 million Iraqi men and women voted in elections that were free and fair and took time on -- and took place on time.
We continued our efforts to help them rebuild their country. Rebuilding a country after three decades of tyranny is hard, and rebuilding while at war is even harder.
Our progress has been uneven, but progress is being made.
We are improving roads and schools and health clinics. We're working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity and water. And together with our allies, we will help the new Iraqi government deliver a better life for its citizens.
In the past year, the international community has stepped forward with vital assistance. Some 30 nations have troops in Iraq, and many others are contributing non-military assistance.
The United Nations is in Iraq to help Iraqis write a constitution and conduct their next elections.
Thus far, some 40 countries and three international organizations have pledged about $34 billion in assistance for Iraqi reconstruction.
More than 80 countries and international organizations recently came together in Brussels to coordinate their efforts to help Iraqis provide for their security and rebuild their country. And next month, donor countries will meet in Jordan to support Iraqi reconstruction.
Whatever our differences in the past, the world understands that success in Iraq is critical to the security of our nations.
As German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said at the White House yesterday, "There can be no question a stable and democratic Iraq is in the vested interest of not just Germany, but also Europe."
Finally, we have continued our efforts to equip and train Iraqi security forces. We've made gains in both the number and quality of those forces.
Today, Iraq has more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions. Iraqi forces have fought bravely, helping to capture terrorists and insurgents in Najaf and Samarra, Fallujah and Mosul.
And in the past month, Iraqi forces have led a major anti- terrorist campaign in Baghdad called Operation Lightning, which has led to the capture of hundreds of suspected insurgents.
Like free people everywhere, Iraqis want to be defended by their own countrymen, and we are helping Iraqis assume those duties.
The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path forward.
To complete the mission, we will continue to hunt down the terrorists and insurgents.
To complete the mission, we will prevent Al Qaida and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban: a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends.
And the best way to complete the mission is to help Iraqis build a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.
So our strategy going forward has both a military track and a political track.
The principal task of our military is to find and defeat the terrorists. And that is why we are on the offense.
And as we pursue the terrorists, our military is helping to train Iraqi security forces so that they can defend their people and fight the enemy on their own.
Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.
We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do. Today, Iraqi security forces are at different levels of readiness. Some are capable of taking on the terrorists and insurgents by themselves. A large number can plan and execute anti- terrorist operations with coalition support. The rest are forming and not yet ready to participate fully in security operations.
Our task is to make the Iraqi units fully capable and independent. We are building up Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible so they can assume the lead in defeating the terrorists and insurgents.
Our coalition is devoting considerable resources and manpower to this critical task.
Thousands of coalition troops are involved in the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.
NATO is establishing a military academy near Baghdad to train the next generation of Iraqi military leaders, and 17 nations are contributing troops to the NATO training mission.
Iraqi army and police are being trained by personnel from Italy, Germany, Ukraine, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Today, dozens of nations are working toward a common objective: an Iraq that can defend itself, defeat its enemies and secure its freedom.
To further prepare Iraqi forces to fight the enemy on their own, we are taking three new steps.
First, we are partnering coalition units with Iraqi units. These coalition Iraqi teams are conducting operations together in the field. These combined operations are giving Iraqis a chance to experience how the most professional armed forces in the world operate in combat.
Second, we are embedding coalition transition teams inside Iraqi units. These teams are made up of coalition officers and non- commissioned officers who live, work and fight together with their Iraqi comrades.
Under U.S. command, they are providing battlefield advice and assistance to Iraqi forces during combat operations. Between battles, they are assisting the Iraqis with important skills such as urban combat and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance techniques.
Third, we are working with the Iraqi ministries of interior and defense to improve their capabilities to coordinate anti-terrorist operations.
We're helping them develop command and control structures.
We're also providing them with civilian and military leadership training, so Iraq's new leaders can effectively manage their forces in the fight against terror. The new Iraqi security forces are proving their courage every day. More than 2,000 members of Iraqi security forces have given their lives in the line of duty. Thousands more have stepped forward and are now training to serve their nation.
With each engagement, Iraqi soldiers grow more battle-hardened and their officers grow more experienced.
We've learned that Iraqis are courageous and that they need additional skills. And that is why a major part of our mission is to train them so they can do the fighting, and then our troops can come home.
I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I.
Some contend that we should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces. Let me explain why that would be a serious mistake.
Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done.
It would send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve.
And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out.
We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer.
Some Americans ask me, "If completing the mission is so important, why don't you send more troops?"
If our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them. But our commanders tell me they have the number of troops they need to do their job.
Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave.
As we determine the right force level, our troops can know that I will continue to be guided by the advice that matters: the sober judgment of our military leaders.
The other critical element of our strategy is to help ensure that the hopes Iraqis expressed at the polls in January are translated into a secure democracy.
The Iraqi people are emerging from decades of tyranny and oppression. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Shia and Kurds were brutally oppressed and the vast majority of Sunni Arabs were also denied their basic rights while senior regime officials enjoyed the privileges of unchecked power.
The challenge facing Iraqis today is to put this past behind them and come together to build a new Iraq that includes all of its people.
They are doing that by building the institutions of a free society -- a society based on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and equal justice under law.
The Iraqis have held free elections and established a transitional national assembly. The next step is to write a good constitution that enshrines these freedoms in permanent law.
The assembly plans to expand its constitutional drafting committee to include more Sunni Arabs. Many Sunnis who opposed the January elections are now taking part in the democratic process, and that is essential to Iraq's future.
After a constitution is written, the Iraqi people will have a chance to vote on it. If approved, Iraqis will go to the polls again, to elect a new government under their new, permanent constitution.
By taking these critical steps and meeting their deadlines, Iraqis will bind their multiethnic society together in a democracy that respects the will of the majority and protects minority rights.
As Iraqis grow confident that the democratic progress they are making is real and permanent, more will join the political process.
And as Iraqis see that their military can protect them, more will step forward with vital intelligence to help defeat the enemies of a free Iraq.
The combination of political and military reform will lay a solid foundation for a free and stable Iraq.
As Iraqis make progress toward a free society, the effects are being felt beyond Iraq's borders.
Before our coalition liberated Iraq, Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Today the leader of Libya has given up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs.
Across the broader Middle East, people are claiming their freedom. In the last few months, we have witnessed elections in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. These elections are inspiring democratic reformers in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Our strategy to defend ourselves and spread freedom is working.
The rise of freedom in this vital region will eliminate the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder and make our nation safer. We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America's resolve.
We are fighting against men with blind hatred and armed with lethal weapons who are capable of any atrocity. They wear no uniform; they respect no laws of warfare or morality. They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras.
They are trying to shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001. They will fail.
The terrorists do not understand America. The American people do not falter under threat, and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins.
America and our friends are in a conflict that demands much of us.
It demands the courage of our fighting men and women. It demands the steadfastness of our allies. And it demands the perseverance of our citizens.
We accept these burdens because we know what is at stake.
We fight today because Iraq now carries the hope of freedom in a vital region of the world, and the rise of democracy will be the ultimate triumph over radicalism and terror.
And we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand.
So we'll fight them there, we'll fight them across the world, and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won.
America has done difficult work before. From our desperate fight for independence to the darkest days of a civil war to the hard-fought battles against tyranny in the 20th century, there were many chances to lose our heart, our nerve or our way.
But Americans have always held firm, because we have always believed in certain truths. We know that if evil is not confronted, it gains in strength and audacity and returns to strike us again. We know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat, it is courage. And we know that this great ideal of human freedom entrusted to us in a special way and that the ideal of liberty is worth defending.
In this time of testing, our troops can know: The American people are behind you.
Next week, our nation has an opportunity to make sure that support is felt by every soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman and Marine at every outpost across the world. This 4th of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom, by flying the flag, sending letters to our troops in the field or helping the military family down the street.
The Department of Defense has set up a Web site, AmericaSupportsYou.mil. You can go there to learn about private efforts in your own community.
At this time when we celebrate our freedom, let us stand with the men and women who defend us all.
To the soldiers in this hall and our service men and women across the globe, I thank you for your courage under fire and your service to our nation.
I thank our military families. The burden of war falls especially hard on you.
In this war, we have lost good men and women who left our shores to defend freedom and did not live to make the journey home.
I've met with families grieving the loss of loved ones who were taken from us too soon. I've been inspired by their strength in the face of such great loss.
We pray for the families. And the best way to honor the lives that have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission.
I thank those of you who've re-enlisted in an hour when your country needs you.
And to those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our armed forces.
We live in freedom because every generation has produced patriots willing to serve a cause greater than themselves. Those who serve today are taking their rightful place among the greatest generations that have worn our nation's uniform.
When the history of this period is written, the liberation of Afghanistan and the liberation of Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom.
After September 11, 2001, I told the American people that the road ahead would be difficult and that we would prevail. Well, it has been difficult and we are prevailing.
Our enemies are brutal, but they are no match for the United States of America, and they are no match for the men and women of the United States military.
May God bless you all.
Thank you very much.
BLITZER: And so, the president of the United States wrapping up a speech to the nation, to the troops. The president speaking for just under 30 minutes, a little bit less than we thought. Only interrupted once by applause, when the president simply said, "we will stay in the fight until the fight is won." That's when the troops at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, interrupted the president and politely applauded him. There was no rah-rah, hoo-hahs from this group. Nearly 800 troops assembled at Ft. Bragg. That clearly was the instruction from the White House, the commander in chief. A very respectful response for the president as he continues to shake hands with those troops.
I think it's fair to say, Paula, there was no huge surprise in this speech. No new initiative. The president insisting the troops will remain there until the job is done, but insisting also that there will be no timetable for a withdrawal.
ZAHN: That's what I thought was very clearly reinforced tonight. I think if the president's critics were looking for any shift in the president's strategy here tonight, they did not get it, when he so clearly laid that out. He said it would be a serious mistake to set that timetable for withdrawal, making it very clear, though, that the Iraqi security forces have to be trained to the point at which they -- the U.S. forces can turn the country over to them.
I thought it was very interesting that the president made six direct references to 9/11. And he, at the beginning of the speech, he posed the question, is it worth for the U.S. to even be in Iraq in the first place? He says it is worth it, and it's vital to the future security of our country. And a little bit earlier in the speech, he said, "the only way our enemies can succeed if we forget the lessons of September 11th."
Here's one more of those direct references to 9/11 from the president's speech.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people this nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: I suspect the president is leaving himself vulnerable to a lot of criticism tomorrow. Although he did not directly tie Saddam Hussein in any way to 9/11, that is in repeated public statements, some Americans -- sorry, we're having a bit of a storm here -- have come to that conclusion. You had House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying today it was in fact the president's strategy in Iraq that has made Iraq a magnet for insurgency and for terrorism. And that was at the heart of the speech tonight, what do you do about this insurgency movement.
BLITZER: And Paula, as the president continues to meet with the families, the troops at Ft. Bragg after this approximately 30-minute address to the nation, to the troops, it's interesting and it's important to note that the president was very specific on the issue of troop levels. The president saying that he responds to what the commanders on the ground ask. If there's a need for more troops, they will respond to that, but only if the military commanders say there's a need for more troops.
And listen specifically to this explanation on why he insisted that he's not going to increase or decrease the troop levels until the job is done. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we're in fact working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president emphasized, there is no strictly military solution to what is going on in Iraq. There's a political solution. And he held out great hope that all of the Iraqis, the Shia majority, the Kurds, as well as the Sunnis, who by and large boycotted the January 30th elections, will eventually come in, be part of drafting the constitution, and will go forward with the new elections as scheduled.
Our Dana Bash, our White House correspondent, is on the scene for us at Ft. Bragg. Give us a little flavor, Dana, of what you're seeing, what you're feeling there, with the troops who are assembled.
DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just as you mentioned, it was quite noteworthy that there was only a round of applause at one particular moment. They were very careful to be sort of sedate, and the White House, as you mentioned, very understanding of the fact that they could be criticized for having sort of a campaign or political rally, if you will, at a time when the president -- when they're asking for time from the networks and trying to speak to the American people.
But one thing that I wanted to note that Paula was talking about, which I certainly noted as well, the number of times Mr. Bush referenced September 11th. And we were talking to some of the president's senior aides here just before the speech, asking that very question, whether or not are they concerned that they're going to open themselves up to the same criticism that they had heard time and time again, about trying to link these two, which aren't necessarily linkable, if you will, and one of the president's senior aides pointed out one quote in the president's speech where he quotes Osama bin Laden, saying that this is the third world war and it's raging, raging essentially in Iraq.
Essentially, the president trying to back up these (INAUDIBLE) and this assertion that Iraq is the central front on the war on terrorism by saying, even Osama bin Laden says that. So that was the way the White House was trying to defend and even explain the way they characterize Iraq right now.
BLITZER: Dana, I didn't hear any new initiative, anything startling in this speech. The president has basically made most of these points, if not all of these points, on many occasions. Are White House aides telling you there were some new -- some new concepts, some new policies, some new initiative that perhaps were hidden between the lines there?
BASH: No, as a matter of fact, quite the opposite, Wolf. Talking to the president's advisers leading up to this speech, they were very clear and very careful to say that we were not going to hear any new initiatives, no strategy changes, no policy change at all, and that this was simply an attempt to try to explain to the American people where we are right now.
One thing that the president did say, in terms of any kind of exit strategy, if you will, was talking about the Iraqi security forces. He admitted that they are not trained well enough right now, but talked about some initiatives that are under way to do that, and he did say, our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.
So he gave a broad sort of target for bringing U.S. troops home, and that is standing up the Iraqi forces, but certainly, no timetable at all, and you're right, no new initiatives, for sure.
BLITZER: All right, Dana Bash, on the scene for us at Ft. Bragg. Dana, thank you very much.
Paula, it's really interesting. This speech, a little bit more than two years after the start of the war, with 1,700 U.S. troops who are dead, 12,000 if not more injured, $200 billion in expenditures -- going into the war, the major focus was on words that the president didn't utter once during this speech, namely weapons of mass destruction. We heard a lot of explanations of the connections to 9/11, the new world after 9/11. We heard no reference to the major argument that he made going into the war, weapons of mass destruction. Simply put, the U.S. has not found any weapons of mass destruction, and that's a fact that the administration, of course, lives with.
ZAHN: But it's interesting, when you look at the language in this speech and the six references to 9/11, I think the writers of the speech were very cautious not to imply a direct linkage. I think the linkage comes from the multiple references to 9/11 in the speech.
We have David Gergen standing by, who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. He's going to join us to analyze the speech. Actually, there he is, popped up on the screen. Always good to see you, David.
DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: So did you hear anything new in this speech?
GERGEN: No, but I think we heard some things that were important. This was a classic speech, it struck me, of the kind we've heard going back over 50 years of television, when a commander in chief who sees support starting to drop in a military conflict goes on television to -- to try to stop the hemorrhaging, to try to stop the slide, reassure people, to show his presence, reassert his arguments. That's what we heard tonight. How it will work, we'll have to wait and see.
My bet is that he will stop the slide for a while. Indeed, I think the majority of Americans will now -- or will be prepared as a result of this speech to give him more time.
GERGEN: I doubt the majority are going to give him their hearts as a result of this speech. I don't think this was a speech that won people over in terms of their hearts. I think it will give him more time.
ZAHN: But David, let's come back to the slide that you believe will be stopped with this speech. Take a look at the cold, hard numbers here. In the latest "USA Today"-CNN Gallup poll, it shows 53 percent of Americans saying it was a mistake to send troops in the first place; 61 percent says the president does not have a clear plan. So what specifically would those doubters have heard in the speech tonight that is going to change their minds?
GERGEN: Well, I thought he was effective in saying, here is our strategy. We have a military strategy. Our plan is to build up the Iraqis. As they stand up, we stand down. And we also have a political strategy. It's a two-pronged strategy.
ZAHN: But they've heard that before, David.
GERGEN: But I think that was the -- I thought this was one of the most logical presentations he has made in a while on that. And remember, Paula, he hasn't been on national television in a while to make this argument. This is one of the most important appearances since his State of the Union. So I think all of that worked for him.
I do think it's going to leave many of his critics spluttering, because they are going to be, I think, angered by the playing of the 9/11 trump card. You know, 9/11 has been his trump card along since then, and he plays it in various political moments along the way. He played it in the campaign, he's playing it again now. And you notice how throughout the speech tonight, he never once called them Iraqi insurgents, as the media does. He called them terrorists, you know, as if they're all -- they are all associated and linked to attacks here on 9/11 and I do think you're right, the linkages were implicit, but they were -- they came come so often. It's clear the White House is now going to it's trump card again. Recognizing, many will say it's a heavy hand, among it's critics, but nonetheless that's the way to keep the country behind this.
What he needs, Paula, is not popularity for the war itself, what he needs is time. He needs more time to play this out and what he's planning for is time, so that there is not enormous pressure to withdraw.e needs more time to play this out. ZAHN: But David, you understand this better than just about anybody else out there, you know the criticism will come out tomorrow.
ZAHN: Do you think the president overreached with these multiple references to 9/11, when there's been absolutely no linkage established between the actions of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, on that horrible day.
GERGEN: Well, listen, I was troubled and at times offended by irregularity of coming back to 9/11. You know, because we -- as you say, none of the terrorists were linked to Saddam and you know, there's been this myth for a long time, that's just untrue, that Saddam was somehow responsible for 9/11.
Having said that, as a -- as my political judgment, even though you and I may not like it, it's my political judgment that, that trump card has worked well for the president in the past. It's likely to work reasonably well here.
Will this get 60 percent approval for the war?
No, not at all.
Will it get 60 percent approval for the president?
But will it do something very precious for him, and that is give him more time to play this out for another six months to a year, to two years, which is what a White House needs in this situation -- I think he helped himself on that. I think he will stop the slide for a while, buy some time and then, six months from now, he can come back and revisit it, come back and speak to the country again.
ZAHN: But David, as you well know, and very briefly here, it's not the Iraq numbers that are dragging down the president's overall approval rating, it also has to do with the economy and health care -- right?
GERGEN: I totally agree with that and here I don't think that he draws strength -- I don't think he will help himself domestically, with this speech tonight and the only caution I have to everything I'm saying is that he's spoken to the country repeatedly on Social Security in the last six months and of course, his numbers on that have dwindled regularly.
It's not working. Here, I think, because he's playing the 9/11 card, as much -- as offensive some of the critics may find it, my sense is he will buy more time with this speech.
ZAHN: David Gergen, always great to have you aboard...
GERGEN: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: To state your insight.
And Democratic Senator Joseph Biden has called for the president to set some specific goals when it comes Iraqi security, reconstruction, and government. Is he satisfied with anything he heard tonight?
I'll ask him.
BLITZER: And at the top of the hour, on "LARRY KING LIVE," reaction from two other U.S. Senators who've had strong differences with the president, at least on several of these key issues: Republican John McCain, who's always wanted more troops in Iraq and Democratic John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate.
Join "LARRY KING LIVE," with guest host Bob Costas -- a special edition.
That's coming up, at the top of the hour.
We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: The lesson of this experience is clear: The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they can't stop the advance of freedom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Amid all of this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It's worth it and it is vital to the future security of our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: And we're back now, with more of our special coverage and reaction to the president's speech out of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina tonight.
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. He is the ranking -- Hi, there -- Democratic on the Foreign Relations Committee and he's considering a run for the White House in 2008.
Always good to see you.
The president talked about some of the progress that has been made in Iraq, both militarily and politically. Do you acknowledge that progress?
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Yes. There has been progress. I've been there five times. I was back there Memorial Day. The only place there has not been progress, there's been a regression, is in the security side. In the southern part of the country -- the northern part of the countries where the Kurds have their own army and in the southern part, where the Badr Brigade, the Shiite basically have their own army, things are much, much better.
ZAHN: The president talked about three steps that are being taken in Iraq that he thinks might help that. He called it partnering coalition units with Iraqi troops, embedding coalition transition teams inside Iraqi units. Do you think that will make much of a difference?
BIDEN: Well, we've been doing that for a couple months. We've been doing that since Christmas. What it really means, is -- translated, Paula, it means there's about 2,500 Iraqis fully trained. Now, there's about probably 8- or 10,000 that are partially trained that need -- with our help they can lead, and all of the rest of the 160,000 have a long way to go. Your previous guest, David Gergen, one of the smartest guys I know, said it right. He said the president needs at least six months to two years, to get this right and pray God he bought the time from the American people to make some of the changes I didn't hear him talk about tonight.
ZAHN: David Gergen also mentioned that he believed this speech, because the president hasn't had an open dialog with the public lately about the single issue of Iraq, might stop his slide in the polls. Do you agree with that?
BIDEN: I hope so and I mean that sincerely. The reason I hope so: If the president, as a consequence tonight, the one thing he did do, he made it clear that Vice President Cheney doesn't speak for him, just by implication, and that Secretary Rumsfeld -- all this happy talk they've been talking about, the end of the insurgency, he acknowledged, is nowhere near where we are.
That takes the reality and the rhetoric and moves it closer together. Hopefully, that will have the American people say: OK, the president's leveled with me more, I'm going to give him more time. Because if the American people further walk away from this thing, the only people who are going to get hurt are our troops sitting there in Iraq.
ZAHN: The other thing David Gergen said, and this is a man, once again, who's worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations, that he thought the president very effectively played his trump card, tonight. That trump card: The issue of the 9/11.
And while he personally was insulted by the multiple references to 9/11 tonight, he thought that was affected. Your reaction to those references.
BIDEN: I think the American people are a lot smarter than that, Paula. Look, they've finally figured this out. Even the president of the United States said, and I think it's a quote, I wrote it down -- I can't find it right now -- he said, "We must prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for terror." That means it wasn't a haven for terror before. The American people now know that and I just wish he had been more -- he had leveled with them more. We cannot afford to lose. We can't afford to set dates of disengagement. But therefore, we have to do more to reach out and get the rest of the world in on the game. We have to do more to bring folks in. We need more troops, we need more foreign troops, more foreign trainers.
As I said, my fifth trip, Paula -- got back Memorial Day. I was there Memorial Day -- not one single general, not one single major, not one single colonel I spoke to you -- and I spoke to, I think, all of them, all of the major players -- not one of them said they had enough troops. Not one. And you've been reporting that. Your folks have been going out to Iraq. Your folks in Iraq have been interviewing the military guys on the ground. I don't know who's talking to the president.
ZAHN: Well, the president made it very clear tonight. Some Americans ask if we have enough troops on the ground -- he said, for the time being, he believes we do, so --
BIDEN: He should ask NATO, Paula. He should ask NATO to come in, take over securing the border. He said we have to prevent these folks from coming in. They're coming in through the Syrian border.
ZAHN: All right, sir, we've got to leave it there this evening. Thank you so much for joining us.
ZAHN: Senator Biden --
BIDEN: Thanks a lot, Paula.
ZAHN: -- appreciate your time.
BLITZER: Thanks, Paula. Let's bring in our political analysts -- Democratic strategist Paul Begala and our contributor, Victoria Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman during the first Bush term of office, this president.
Tori Clarke, let me get right to you. I didn't hear the president of the United States say what the vice president has said over these past few weeks, namely that the insurgency is in its last throes. Did you hear any suggestion along those lines?
VICTORIA CLARKE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, absolutely not. I think he was very direct and very honest with the American people about how tough this would be. And he tried to spell out what people haven't been hearing a lot of, which is some of the progress. I think one of the most interesting things, which nobody's talked about since the president ended his speech, is a message that I think was sent directly to the Iraqis, which is, You need to continue to press very, very hard on assuming more control for your country, for your government, for your own security. Because we'll stay as long as we have to, but we don't want to stay one day longer than necessary. I think that was a very, very important message that was being sent. BLITZER: He had multiple audiences, as we know. Primarily, though, I think it's fair to say he was addressing the American people.
Paul Begala, what's your bottom line on how the president did tonight in getting his message across?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first, I do think he probably made some progress on the question of credibility in that he looks like he gets it. He certainly was enormously empathetic about the loss of life, and his strong support for the soldiers. He didn't repeat the sort of things that Vice President Cheney has said about the insurgency being in its death throes, its last throes. I think that did enormous damage to the administration's credibility.
But as Paula mentioned, and David Gergen and everyone who's commented on it, it was striking -- the message to the American people was, this is 9/11. That is a card that worked to build support for this war. Many Democrats -- I was one of them -- said it wasn't legitimate. It worked to win the midterm elections for his party in 2002 and it worked to get him reelected. The question is, will it work one more time? And I have to say, I fear he's going to that well one too many times?
BLITZER: What do you think about that, Tori Clarke? On the issue of 9/11 and making this war on Iraq part of the broader war on terrorism, politically it makes enormous sense if you look at the latest CNN/USA Today Gallup poll, because on almost all of the other issues, his approval rating is below 50 percent. But his job approval rating when it comes to the war on terror remains at 55 percent of the American public like what he's doing.
CLARKE: Well, the truth is that Iraq is part of a broader war on terror. And I think the point he was trying to make on 9/11 is not making the connection with Saddam Hussein et cetera. The point he was making is, you have to take the battle to the terrorists. You can't sit around for years and let them pound us and attack us and do nothing. You have to go after them. You have to take the battle to the terrorists. That's what the 9/11 reference was about.
BLITZER: What's your smart way, Paul Begala -- put your Democratic strategist hat on -- for Democrats respond? We heard Senator Biden and his response, but what would you advise Democrats who are now going to be asked to react to the president's remarks?
BEGALA: Well first, let's give them credit for what they did not do. They didn't try to match the commander-in-chief speaking to his troops. They could have, I'm sure, insisted -- I'm sure CNN would have given them the time -- to stand stiffly in front of a curtain and a flag and yap at us for five or ten minutes. And it would have hurt, not helped. It was very smart, I think, for Senator Reid on the Senate side, Nancy Pelosi on the House side, to stand back, to let our commander-in-chief to make his case.
I thought Joe Biden did a good job for his party and mine, when -- he's clearly supportive. We want the president to succeed, Democrats are telling the American people. But we have these questions. Joe Biden actually suggested a very new strategy, bringing NATO in to secure the borders. I don't know whether that's militarily wise. It would have been politically wise for the president to have some new ideas of the sort that Joe Biden set out there. But I think that combination of support, but insistence on new ideas and new policies is where Democrats ought to be.
BLITZER: I suspect, though, that given the fact that NATO has to operate within a consensus, and you have countries like France and Germany who are totally opposed to sending their troops to Iraq, as opposed to Afghanistan, that's unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon.
We have to unfortunately leave it there. Paul Begala, Tori Clarke, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.
CLARKE: Thank you.
BLITZER: It was the centerpiece of the president's speech. We'll take you there next. We're standing by to speak with our Jennifer Eccleston. She's in Baghdad. We'll get reaction from there. Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: The terrorists believe that free societies are essentially corrupt and decadent, and with a few hard blows, they can force us to retreat. They are mistaken.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We want to remind our viewers that coming up in a couple of minutes at the top of the hour, LARRY KING LIVE guest host Bob Costas will have Senator John McCain and an exclusive interview with Senator John Kerry. That's coming up in only a few minutes.
First, though: the president's speech was eagerly anticipated here in the United States. But will Iraqis take comfort in what the president had to say? CNN's Jennifer Eccleston is joining us now, live from Baghdad.
What time, first of all, is it in Baghdad right now, Jennifer?
JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's just shy of 5:00 a.m., Wolf.
BLITZER: So it's fair to say, that not a whole lot of people were watching or listening at this early hour of the morning.
ECCLESTON: Absolutely. I think they'll be tuning into radio stations and to broadcasts on the 24-hour news networks here in a few hours when they begin to wake up. And they're going to really judge this speech within the context and the framework of just how it's going improve their day-to-day lives. And with that, I don't think they've heard anything new here. President Bush, maintaining his policies tonight at various news events throughout the last week. And also, it was also spouted by a number of his top generals for the region, and for also here in Iraq.
But I think what the Iraqis wouldn't mind seeing -- and despite the fact that they don't like living under occupation -- but if in fact more U.S. troops were brought here, and greater security was brought as a result, they would welcome that, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jennifer Eccleston, we'll be getting back to you.
Paula, an important night -- the president laying out his strategy.
ZAHN: And we appreciate you joining us for a special coverage here this evening. Great to work with you --
BLITZER: As always.
ZAHN: -- as always.
And CNN's coverage of the president's address to the nation on Iraq continues now with LARRY KING LIVE -- Senator John McCain and Senator John Kerry, his guests tonight.
Thanks again for joining us.
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