Return to Transcripts main page
CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER
Interview With Hillary Clinton; Interview With Chuck Hagel
Aired September 23, 2007 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11 a.m. here in Washington, 8 a.m. in Los Angeles and 7 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "Late Edition."
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he will not seek re-election. It's a decision that brings OUT some mixed feelings among the Republicans he's clashed with, most recently involving the conduct of the war in Iraq. But he hasn't left yet, and this morning he's here at CNN joining us on "Late Edition."
Senator, thanks for coming in.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Wolf, thank you.
BLITZER: A lot of your supporters say you're the voice they really need in the Senate right now. Why did you decide to give it up?
HAGEL: Well, I have 16 months left on this term. First, I had said even before I was elected in 1996 that 12 years was probably enough. I think it is. These kind of decisions, at least the way I make them, consist of an accumulation of factors, and my family and what I want to do and my age, and can I influence things maybe more effectively from outside the Senate?
I never intended to retire in the Senate. Obviously, there are many parts of this job I will miss, in particular many of my colleagues. But there are other ways to make the world better, and I intend to work hard and apply the same energy over the next 16 months that I have over the last 11 years.
BLITZER: One of those ways would be to run for president of the United States. Are you ruling that out right now? I just want to be precise on that.
HAGEL: Well, I'll sign a certification or anything that you want me to sign. I don't see any circumstance where I would be a candidate for any office next year, including the presidential office.
BLITZER: Because there's been a lot of speculation. As you know, your friend, Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, he's a very wealthy guy. He's a billionaire. There's been speculation that you and he could run on some sort of ticket.
Is that wild, that speculation? Is that any basis in fact? HAGEL: Well, I have never, along with Mayor Bloomberg, as far as I know, come to any conclusions or worked our way towards that kind of outcome or applied any focus on that. I don't really see that happening.
I know this business is full of uncertainties, and I think next year probably will be as uncertain a political year as we've seen in modern history. I think the currents are running unpredictably, swiftly, deeply. Could well be that Michael Bloomberg could emerge as a very credible alternative to both parties, especially when you look at these poll numbers, in Congress and for both parties, not good. America wants leadership.
BLITZER: Is there room for a third party candidate running for president of the United States?
HAGEL: I don't know. You know the difficulty of a third-party candidacy, but one of the things that Bloomberg would bring -- and I'm not here to promote Bloomberg, but you brought him up -- is you have to have financing, and you must have resources. There's probably $100 million that you would need.
I would hope that as we work our way through next year and into 2012 that some alternatives could emerge in the presidential race, and I think that's where we are tracking here politically in this country. The fact is, when you look at these poll numbers and the disconnect with our country with those of us in Washington, what the people of America are saying, they've lost confidence in our leadership, they've lost confidence and trust in what we're doing that we cannot build a consensus to go forward and really resolve the great problems and issues of our time.
BLITZER: $100 million for Michael Bloomberg is not a big deal, as a lot of our viewers know. This guy's worth many, many billions, and he spent a lot of -- what, $60 million just to run for mayor of New York.
Take yourself out of the picture. Would you advise him to think seriously about doing that?
HAGEL: Well, I think anyone who is accomplished as Mike Bloomberg is, who has been a very effective public servant, a very effective mayor of the city of New York, one of the largest in the world, has the resources. That's all to the plus side.
But in this business, especially if you're going to run for president, Wolf, you have to be driven. It has to be deep down inside you. You have to be burning inside to do this.
Whether Mike Bloomberg is burning inside to put himself through that and his family, I don't know. But he surely would be, I think, a very, very credible candidate for president.
BLITZER: If he doesn't run -- and obviously, we don't know if he is or he isn't. He says he's not thinking about it, but you never know, as you point out -- who do you like among the Democrats and the Republicans? You're a Republican, but you've been opposed to the war in Iraq very consistently. What do you see among the presidential candidates?
HAGEL: Well, there was a story in one of the papers this morning about how the Democrats are apparently starting to kind of settle in with the eventual candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I still think there are miles of travel before that happens.
BLITZER: Before she gets the Democratic nomination.
HAGEL; That's right, but I think she's the one the Democrats have to beat. I think that's clear by any measurement. My party is far more confused, and really no candidate has broken out of the pack. Twenty-five to 30 percent is about the top end of the four top candidates.
BLITZER: Who do you support among the Republicans?
HAGEL: Well, I'm going to let it play out for a while, and I am a friend of all of our candidates. I like them all, I admire them all, they all add something, they all contribute something to the debate. And we'll see where it goes.
BLITZER: Correct me if I'm wrong, but in your years in the Senate, you've been pretty close to Senator McCain. You've had a pretty good relationship with him, although on this issue, the war in Iraq, you guys come out at very different ends.
HAGEL: Well, John's one of my closest friends, and both John and I have said, regardless of where we are on differences on issues, it doesn't matter on our friendship. And there's no one I respect and admire more than John, but...
BLITZER: Could you see yourself supporting him, even though you totally disagree with him on the war?
HAGEL: Well, let's just see how it all plays out, and if John is the eventual candidate, I'd want to know more about where he wants to take the country. He and I have disagreed on other issues and that hasn't affected our friendship -- campaign finance reform, taxes -- down through the years. But we also agree on many things, like immigration reform.
BLITZER: Here is the president of the United States speaking out this week at his news conference on Thursday. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the things I feel passionately about is for the United States to recognize what the Middle East would be like if terrorists and extremists had safe haven and were emboldened by a U.S. defeat. And that's why one, I believe we can succeed, and two, I know we've got to succeed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Do you agree that the United States can succeed in Iraq right now, has to succeed, as he says?
HAGEL: Well, I have never agreed with the way this administration has framed this disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in the context of win or defeat. Iraq is not some prize to win. The success in Iraq will eventually be determined by the Iraqi people.
Dick Lugar, I thought, made a good point in our hearings a couple weeks ago when he said the Iraqi people have to decide whether they want to be Iraqis. We can't determine that for them.
I've always said, Wolf, the future of Iraq will be determined by the Iraqi people. So to frame it with the American people that we're going to win or we're going to lose, I think, is inverted logic. We're not going to win or lose.
What the president himself has said, and I think he's right on this, what we want to do and what we've been trying to do for almost five years, at a very high cost of American blood and treasure, is give the Iraqis some time to try to bring some reconciliation to governing themselves.
BLITZER: Have you seen any progress lately?
HAGEL: No. As a matter of fact, I think it's gone backward. I think we are in such a deep hole there, we are so burdening our military in asking them to do it all, when in fact we don't even see any movement toward political accommodation in Iraq.
Now, that is the only thing in the end that's going to determine the outcome in Iraq, and to essentially now go into a "stay the course, part two" phase of this policy I think is wrong.
HAGEL: It's going to end up even worse than where we are today. It's going to ruin our army. We are ruining our force structure. We are undermining our interest in the world. We're driving back allies. We're, I think, misplaying the whole Iranian issue. So I don't agree with very much of what this administration's been doing or saying in projecting ahead.
BLITZER: And you certainly don't agree with your friend Senator McCain. Listen to what he said on Thursday. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: I keep hearing, as I did from the distinguished majority leader, "It's time to change course, it's time to change course." Well, we did change course. Thank god, we changed course. And that new course has been succeeding.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. You disagree with him on that?
HAGEL: I disagree completely with John. I said so on the floor. I was on the floor of the Senate a number of times this week, as well, with the Webb-Hagel amendment, another debate. Let's be clear here: A so-called surge is an escalation of troop involvement. The word surge is nowhere to be found in a military manual. It's not a policy. It's not a strategy. It's a tactic. So I don't really understand what John's talking about.
And by any measurement, I don't know where this is adding to a -- in the end, the only thing that matters in enhancement of a political reconciliation. There's been some progress in Anbar province, but that's not just been because of the surge. That was started earlier this year as a result of Al Qaida overplaying its hand.
And this idea that somehow Al Qaida is instigating all the violence in Iraq is wrong. Our National Intelligence Estimates have said it. This is a clear sectarian war, not just Sunni on Shia, but Shia on Shia, and we are putting our people in a position to try to change that. And we can't do that.
And the other last point I'll make very quickly here on this, this nonsense in the debate here -- and irresponsible parlance about, "Let's get out now, let's just cut and run, precipitous withdrawal" -- very few people are talking about a precipitous withdrawal. There couldn't be a precipitous withdrawal if we wanted one.
We're not talking about that. We're talking about a responsible, careful unwinding of America's footprint, as General Jones said in his report, in our involvement there. That's the way it's going to come out anyway. That's where we're headed, Wolf.
BLITZER: There's already one Democratic Senate for from your state of Nebraska, Ben Nelson. There could be another Democratic senator, Bob Kerrey. The former senator from Nebraska comes back from the New School in New York. You think that's possible?
HAGEL: I think it is possible. I don't know what Bob's going to do. Bob's a good friend of mine and I have highest regard for him. I enjoyed serving with him very much.
BLITZER: Who would you support if it were Bob Kerrey versus Mike Johanns, the former secretary of the interior?
HAGEL: Of agriculture.
BLITZER: Agriculture, that is, who has just announced he's leaving to go back to Nebraska?
HAGEL: Well, I have said I'm going to help whoever emerges out there on our side, and I have a strong relationship with Mike Johanns. And if that's my choice, then I would, of course, support Mike Johanns, taking nothing away from my friendship and relationship with Bob Kerrey.
He's a remarkable individual who's given a lot to his country and probably has still more to give, and then it's up to the people of Nebraska to decide who they want to replace me and represent them in the Senate. But I think in a case like that, Nebraska would be well- served to have two excellent candidates in Johanns and Kerrey. BLITZER: And we know you still have 16 months to go, so you're not leaving any time soon.
BLITZER: We hope you'll be a frequent visitor here on "Late Edition."
HAGEL: Thanks, Wolf, I will be. Appreciate it.
BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.
And coming up, my interview with Senator Hillary Clinton. We're going to tackle all of the big political issues with the Democratic presidential front-runner.
But up next, the new French foreign minister made some controversial comments about Iran. Is France really preparing for war? I'll ask Bernard Kouchner. He's here on "Late Edition." We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
Bernard Kouchner has been France's minister for foreign affairs and European issues for only a matter of weeks, but he's already made enough headlines for an entire career, urging the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, to step down, and talking about the possibility -- the possibility -- of war with Iran. I asked him about that and more when we spoke earlier this week.
BLITZER: Foreign minister, thank you very much for coming in. Welcome to Washington.
BERNARD KOUCHNER, FOREIGN MINISTER, FRANCE: Thank you.
BLITZER: I hope you'll be a frequent visitor here while you're foreign minister and beyond.
KOUCHNER: I hope to.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the news that you made in recent days, and I'm going to quote what you said on September 16th in this radio interview. You said: "We will negotiate until the end. And at the same time, we must prepare ourselves. We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war."
You were referring to the threat of Iran and its nuclear weapons program, and that caused a lot of commotion when you said those words. Explain to our viewers what you meant when you said, "We must prepare for the worst." KOUCHNER: We must be prepared for the worst, and the worst is war, but we are not preparing the war. This is completely different. We have to be prepared, because this is a very difficult situation. We have to be prepared because this is a difficult area, explosive area.
And in addition of that, not only in the nuclear power -- the nuclear problem in Iran, but Iraq, but Syria, but policy in Israel, et cetera. This whole region is absolutely explosive, so we have to be prepared.
BLITZER: If you prepare for the worst-case scenario...
BLITZER: ... which would be what? What would be the worst-case scenario? Iran developed a nuclear weapon?
KOUCHNER: The maintenance of tensions -- tension, and tension. Meanwhile, we have to negotiate to talk and talk and talk. But as you know, three resolution in the Security Council, we sanctioned, but we ask Iran government -- Iranian government to stop enriching uranium. BLITZER: And they haven't stopped.
KOUCHNER: And they haven't stopped. So this is a very difficult situation. This is a dangerous situation. And we don't want -- because it's impossible to accept -- in addition of this explosive regime, to get the problem with the nuclear bombs.
This is easy to understand. We are not going to war. We are not preparing war. But the tension is high and we have to be prepared.
BLITZER: Be prepared in -- but the president of the United States always says that all options have to remain on the table. Is that what you're saying? I just want to be precise.
KOUCHNER: I am not the president of the United States. My president...
BLITZER: But France is worried about Iran's nuclear program also.
KOUCHNER: Yes, but this is not the answer. I have to give you the answer.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
KOUCHNER: OK, thank you. So, my president said we must find another alternative that -- either having an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran. This is the same thing. We have to find a very narrow way in between peace and a disaster. So let's go together to find -- and yesterday or today President Bush said, "Yes, we have to negotiate." So I'm very happy.
BLITZER: Here's what the foreign minister of Austria, the Germans -- a lot of Europeans were nervous about your words. She said this, Ursula Plassnik: "It is incomprehensible to me that Kouchner would use martial rhetoric at this time."
She was upset. You want to reassure your European allies and friends about what you meant?
KOUCHNER: Yes. She's right. You don't have -- we don't have to cut a word, the word, very heavy word, war, to cut it from the context. The worst is war, I said, not to favor war, but to fight against war. So the Austrian foreign minister, which I know very well, must be reassured that I'm a pacifist guy. I'm not, en francais, on dit "vatenguerre" (ph). I'm vaten (ph) peace, to go to peace.
BLITZER: You're not a warmonger, you're a peace monger. Is that what you're saying?
KOUCHNER: Exactly. I did it for French ears. You know why I'm telling that? Because I know the war since 40 years, all the wars I've been involved in. And this is not my favorite behavior, not at all. So I was not preparing war.
I tell the people, this is a very dangerous situation, but diplomatically, you don't have to use a heavy word like that.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about what President Bush said Thursday at his news conference. Listen to what he said when he was asked specifically about your comments. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: It's very important for us to take the threats coming out of the mouth of the president of Iran very seriously. He's a person that is, you know, constantly talks about the use of force on Israel, for example. And Israel's our very firm and strong ally.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. So you heard what the president said...
KOUCHNER: Not completely, but he said use of force, yes.
BLITZER: He said Israel is a very strong and firm ally. He was referring to the threats from the president of Iran against Israel. And in fact, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on September 12th, "We think Israel is an invader, and it's cruel and it hasn't got a united public. All other countries, neighboring countries, are against it. It cannot continue its life."
KOUCHNER: Yes, I know.
BLITZER: Those are strong words from Ahmadinejad. And so your reaction as the foreign minister of France.
KOUCHNER: I know that. It is absolutely, absolutely impossible to accept, and this is part of the threat, and this is part of the tension. Not only they declared very openly that they want to destroy the state of Israel and eventually other states in the surrounding, but they will get atomic bombs.
This is impossible, unacceptable. That's why the situation is serious, but that is not to say that we are forced to use preventive force.
We have with all our allies and the surrounding people -- because the threat is mainly on the neighbors, Arab moderate countries, others, so we have to negotiate and to be very serious. That's why we have to offer with our allies real sanctions, effective sanctions, very efficient sanctions.
BLITZER: But so far, you're not there yet, in those effective sanctions. Here's the General Mohammed Alavi, the Iranian deputy air force chief, responding to all of this in recent days.
He says this. He says, "We have drawn up a plan to strike back at Israel with our bombers if this regime," referring to Israel, "makes a silly mistake. The whole territory of this regime is within the range of our missiles. Moreover, we can attack their territory with our fighter bombers as a response to any attack."
Those are pretty harsh words coming from a top Iranian official.
KOUCHNER: Unfortunately, yes. That's why I explain to the rest of the world that this is a very, very dangerous area, and we have to be cautious on that.
BLITZER: Do you think the Chinese and the Russians will be on board with France, the other Europeans and the United States in tightening the sanctions against Iran?
KOUCHNER: I don't know, but we are working with the Americans, with four or five European countries and we'll see to enlarge the circle. This is not to target the Iranian people. This is to target the economy of the richest people in Iran, and it has not been applied. We are just working on, we are following this negotiation line, and in the same time, we want to reinforce sanctions.
But if we are, with the Russians and the Chinese, able to go through the Security Council, it would be absolutely better. Force resolution in the Security Council with effective sanction is better than offering one by one the nations' sanctions.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about Iraq. You were just in Iraq yourself, and in an interview in Newsweek magazine, you were quoted saying this, and I'll read it to you: "It seems President Bush is attached to Mr. Maliki." Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister. "But the government in Baghdad is not functioning," you said. "I told Condoleezza Rice, 'Listen, he's got to be replaced."
You want Nouri al-Maliki gone?
KOUCHNER: It was impossible, it was not to me to say so, so I apologize. But I receive all the remarks and all that criticism from various people, member of the government of Mr. Maliki. So I have to say, apparently, and they all left from the government, and I won't -- I'm not an Iraqi, I'm not an American, but I think that the government must realize a sort of national unity, if it's better. So now I apologize...
BLITZER: You apologize to who?
KOUCHNER: To Maliki, of course.
BLITZER: Because you said he should be gone?
KOUCHNER: Because I'm a foreigner. I don't have to say so, and I didn't say so in writing. I say so in an...
BLITZER: In this interview. But do you believe this government in Baghdad is not functioning?
KOUCHNER: Don't ask me to do the same fault. It's up to you, to stay or not.
BLITZER: Because a lot of people think the government in Baghdad is not functioning.
KOUCHNER: OK, so...
BLITZER: I'm trying to get your opinion.
KOUCHNER: So you are adding some argument to my non-comment, very good.
BLITZER: You don't want to elaborate. You said what you said, you've apologized to the government of Iraq for saying it, and now you want to move on?
KOUCHNER: I want to work with the people representing Iraqis. For the time being, this is Mr. Maliki. I'm absolutely ready to work with him if it is in the implementation of the U.N. resolutions. That's my point.
BLITZER: I'm going to play another clip of what the president said on Thursday...
KOUCHNER: But you are always criticize me. You have something good to say...
BLITZER: I'm not -- no, no. We'll speak about some good things. I'm just trying to make sure we take advantage of your presence here and get the answers.
KOUCHNER: Yes, try to criticize me, OK.
BLITZER: Here's what the president said would be the consequences if the United States and its allies were forced to withdraw quickly from Iraq. Listen to what the president says.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BUSH: If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened. Al Qaida could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries. Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, this is a very dire scenario that's painted by President Bush. Do you basically agree with him that those who do the consequences if of 150,000 or 160,000 U.S. troops were to withdraw quickly from Iraq?
KOUCHNER: First, I don't ask neither President Bush, nor the Americans, to withdraw right now. I never do so. I never do. Second, this is already the case, so we have to work together. We have to forget the past, to turn the page.
We were not in agreement when you started the war in Iraq. We, the French, we were not in agreement. Let's forget about that. Now there is a government, American soldiers, they have to stay for the moment, even if they have to withdraw after, of course, and a U.N. resolution.
My coming, visiting Iraq, has a very clear purpose, involving the European Union, all the nation, if I may, to first to visit Iraq, to open the door to recent...
BLITZER: And you've done this?
KOUCHNER: Yes, I did it after the Swedish minister, Carl Bildt, visited also, and to implement in (inaudible), in reconstruction, in justice, to implement with the civil society with the Iraqis themselves, a sort of coming back to the normality, getting out of the chaos. That's my purpose. To help the Iraqis and also to help our American friends.
BLITZER: It's a whole new voice, I must say, coming -- I've interviewed a lot of French leaders. This new leadership of the new President Sarkozy and you, Foreign Minister, very different from Jacques Chirac, from Dominique de Villepin. Is it fair to say that there's a new message coming from France to the United States today?
KOUCHNER: Two remarks, sir.
KOUCHNER: First, despite this new sound, you are always criticizing me.
BLITZER: I'm not criticizing, I'm only asking questions.
KOUCHNER: OK, asking questions, yes. I know the question.
BLITZER: Yeah. KOUCHNER: And second, yes, this is a difference. But I don't want to support the past, to support the way you did. It's over. The problem is not your problem. This is not Iraqi problem. This is mainly Iraqi problem, but this is all region at a very dangerous situation.
And second, the rest of the world. So this is the place where we all have to deploy and to reforce the -- let's say the way to peace, and all the strengths going to peace. That's why, yes, I want to work with the Americans on that purpose.
BLITZER: I suspect a lot of critics of France from the old days that didn't like the French fries, they started calling them the freedom fries, when they hear you, they're going to say they can be called French fries again.
KOUCHNER: You're right, but I'm just out of a restaurant where French fries have been served, with a sort of respect now. So I was very pleased.
BLITZER: Foreign Minister, it's been kind of you to come into our CNN studios here for this interview. Thanks so much.
KOUCHNER: Thank you.
BLITZER: And up next, the comedian Bill Maher, he handicaps the presidential race. I'll bet you can't guess his favorite among Republicans. Stick around. Lots more coming up here on "Late Edition."
BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington.
Comedian Bill Maher pulls no punches when he takes on politicians as host of his own HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher." Earlier this week when he joined me in "The Situation Room," he didn't mince words as well as he handicapped some of the contenders for president.
BLITZER: Is Barack Obama ready to be president of the United States?
BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: Well, I think he could be a good president, yes. Look, when you're in your 40s, as everyone like myself, who's now in my 50s, will tell you, you're probably too young and green for anything. I only really got my seasoning the last couple years. But yes, I think he could be president. He certainly could be better than the president we have.
BLITZER: Who do you like among the Republican candidates? Who would be the best president among the Republicans? MAHER: Ron Paul.
BLITZER: I knew you were -- I suspected you were going to say that. I told our producers.
MAHER: Well, the other ones all sound alike. You know, they all come from the part of the party that are appealing to the part of the party, the base, that wants this war in Iraq to keep going. I asked this of Chuck Hagel on our show Friday night -- I don't understand this strategy.
I guess I do. You have to get the nomination first, but how does a Republican who is supporting this war to the degree they are all supporting this war, then turn around after he gets the nomination and wins a general election in a country that is overwhelmingly against this war? That's a pretty tough one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Bill Maher earlier in the week in "The Situation Room." Up next, what the U.S. is doing right, what the U.S. is doing wrong in Iraq and the Middle East. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, they're standing by live.
Coming up later, my one-on-one interview with Senator Hillary Clinton, all coming here up on "Late Edition." We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back. It would be difficult to think of any two men in U.S. history who have had more experience in foreign policy than my next guests. Henry Kissinger was national security adviser and secretary of state during the Vietnam War and President Nixon's historic trip to communist China.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was a national security adviser during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt, and they're still involved today.
Secretary Kissinger is supporting the campaign of John McCain. Dr. Brzezinski is supporting the campaign Barack Obama, though both of these gentlemen are speaking here today only for themselves, not representing either campaign.
Thanks, gentlemen, for coming in.
And Dr. Kissinger, I'll start with you. Put on your hat not only as a statesman, but as an academic. Should Columbia University be welcoming the president of Iran tomorrow to deliver a lecture, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: It isn't just the campus of Columbia University, which is the site of the conversation. Ahmadinejad is the first speaker in a distinguished lecture series under the auspices of the president of Columbia University, and I do not believe that that is an appropriate invitation. BLITZER: So you oppose it. What do you think, Dr. Brzezinski? You used to teach at Columbia University.
KISSINGER: I do not oppose his speaking. I oppose its sponsorship by Columbia University.
BLITZER: All right. He's precise.
What do you think, Dr. Brzezinski?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: You know, basically, it seems to me a university's a place where ideas, issues, very controversial issues, should be discussed, can be discussed. So if there is an audience that wants to hear the guy, I would have him speak.
BLITZER: Despite his views on Israel, for example, the Holocaust, the fact that, at least according to General Petraeus and other U.S. military officials, he's sending sophisticated weapons into Iraq that wind up killing Americans?
BRZEZINSKI: Look, if his views are odious we can say so, but we have a society of openness. If we start censoring in advance what it is we like to hear and what we don't hear, we're on a slippery slope.
So I think as a matter of principle, we should be open to open discussion. The Council on Foreign Relations a couple of years ago had Ahmadinejad as a speaker and there was some sort of a debate.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit more about Iran, Dr. Kissinger. General John Abizaid, the former commander of the U.S. military Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said this this week -- and I'm going to play a clip for you. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID (RET.), FMR. CENTCOM COMMANDER: There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran. Let's face it. We've lived with a nuclear Soviet Union. We've lived with a nuclear China. We're living with nuclear other powers as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you agree with General Abizaid?
KISSINGER: No, I don't agree with him. We can probably deal with a direct attack by Iran on the United States. The consequences of Iran getting nuclear weapons, the U.N. Security Council has unanimously voted that the enrichment process should stop.
The only way they can get nuclear weapons is to defy the security council, that is the major countries that are represented there, and therefore, it would be a major symbolism.
Secondly, the impact on other countries in the region also acquiring nuclear weapons would mean that one would have to worry not only about the general nuclear war that was the situation during the Cold War, but about nuclear conflicts between these countries.
Third, they could use these nuclear weapons as a shield for other activities and to prevent intervention against them. So, to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons ought to be one of the principle objectives of any American administration and of many other countries.
BLITZER: All right, Dr. Brzezinski, what do you think? Could the U.S. live with a nuclear Iran?
BRZEZINSKI: We would prefer not to live with a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran would be very destabilizing, especially in the region, because we certainly can deter Iran. I think Israel can deter Iran, too. It has 200 nuclear weapons.
But it would certainly be highly destabilizing. But it's an enormous jump to move from there to imply, therefore, we should go to war to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. We don't want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, either, because it would be regionally destabilizing.
BLITZER: But North Korea already has nuclear weapons.
BRZEZINSKI: But we have been patient in the negotiating process. We have been pursuing it. And it seems that we are making progress. I think perhaps, perhaps, we can accomplish the same outcome with Iran if we are patient. But if we escalate the tensions, if we succumb to hysteria, if we start making threats, we are likely to stampede ourselves into a war, which most reasonable people agree would be a disaster for us.
And just think what it would do for the United States, because it would be the United States which would be at war. We will be at war simultaneously in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we would be stuck for the next 20 years.
BLITZER: I'm going to play a clip for you from what Rudy Giuliani told our John King in an interview, Secretary Kissinger, this week. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDOLPH GIULIANI, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This idea of containment of Iran is too dangerous. What I would say is, Iran would be very sure if I were president of the United States that I would not allow them to become nuclear, that we would take any step that we thought was in our interest to stop them from doing that. We would not take the military option off the table.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you agree with Mayor Giuliani on that, Secretary Kissinger?
KISSINGER: I agree with the statement abstractly as it is stated, but at this moment, the issue is whether we should pursue the same basic strategy with Iran that has so far been successful with North Korea, namely to line up the countries that can influence the situation, that are dealing economically with Iran and to bring about a set of sanctions to which Iran will pay attention.
And in the context of that, we should be prepared to negotiate with Iran. We should not get into a position in which we talk ourselves into the frame of mind that we can do nothing. The current objective has to be to unite the countries that will suffer directly from Iranian nuclear weapons, the members of the security council and other countries in a program of diplomacy.
BLITZER: Should the -- let me bring Dr. Brzezinski...
KISSINGER: Down the road...
BLITZER: Go ahead, just finish your thought.
KISSINGER: Further down the road, the issue of military action would be discussed, and probably that would be in another administration.
BLITZER: You think the military option should be on the table, Dr. Brzezinski?
BRZEZINSKI: I don't think it helps the negotiating process to be making military threats. In fact it helps -- and I think there is a lot of evidence of that -- it helps Ahmadinejad. It simply emotionalizes the Iranian body politic and increases his influence.
The fact of the matter is that if we want the negotiations to succeed, we have to be willing to negotiate seriously. As Henry said, pretty much on the North Korean model. And we have to be willing to make concessions in return for concessions.
For example, if we want the Iranians to give up uranium enrichment, which they have a right to do, and which so far they're only enriching up to 5 percent, which is permissible, then if we want them to give that up, we have to be willing to give them something in return so that they're not forced to make a unilateral concession even before the negotiations begin.
We should, for example, offer to lift some sanctions that we have sustained against them as they suspend uranium enrichment. This way we can entice them into negotiations.
And my last point is that if we are serious about negotiating, we have to be patient. I think the administration, the president and the vice president particularly, are trying to hype the atmosphere, and that is reminiscent of what preceded the war in Iraq.
When the president flatly asserts they are seeking nuclear weapons, he's overstating the facts. We are suspicious, we have strong suspicions, but we don't have facts that there are...
BLITZER: Do you have any doubt, Dr. Brzezinski?
BRZEZINSKI: I'm not sure. I think it's quite possible that they are seeking weapons or positioning themselves to have them, but we have very scant evidence to support that. And the president of the United States, especially after Iraq, should be very careful about the veracity of his public assertions.
BLITZER: I'm going to take a break, but I want you to respond, Dr. Kissinger. Do you have any doubt that the Iranians are seeking to build a nuclear bomb?
KISSINGER: I believe they are building a capability to build a nuclear bomb. I don't think they're yet in a position to build a nuclear bomb, but they may be two or three years away from it.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about, including what's going on in Iraq and Pakistan, the war on terror.
And later, Senator Hillary Clinton explains her new health-care plan. We'll get a critique at the same time from a Bush administration official on this issue, the secretary of health and human services, Mike Leavitt. He's standing by to join us live. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition."
I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're continuing our discussion on foreign policy with the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and the former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Dr. Brzezinski, let me start with you this time. Alan Greenspan in his new book writes these words -- generated a lot of commotion -- "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows. The Iraq war is largely about oil." Do you agree with him?
BRZEZINSKI: No, not entirely. I think there were so many mixed motivations for that war that it's very difficult to assign a single cause to it. Yes, oil was important, Israel was important, security was important, 9/11 was terribly important. All of these factors played a role.
BLITZER: What do you think, Dr. Kissinger?
KISSINGER: I agree with what Dr. Brzezinski has said. I know some of the people who made the decision, and I don't think oil was the principle target. The principal target was the issue that Brzezinski mentioned -- security, terrorism, the evolution of the region. And of course, nobody can ignore the energy supply from that part of the world, but I do not believe that that was the principal objective.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about how the war is unfolding right now, Dr. Brzezinski. I interviewed this week the number two U.S. military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, and he offered this assessment of what's happening right now. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LIEUTENANT GENERAL RAY ODIERNO (USA), COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL CORPS-IRAQ: Thirteen consecutive weeks we've had a reduction in attacks. The week ending 15th September was the lowest amount of incidents we've had here in Iraq before the Samarra mosque bombing. That's pretty significant. IEDs are trending down. We believe we're seeing more normalization coming back in parts of Iraq, not all parts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, that's a pretty upbeat assessment of what's going on and it reflects what General Petraeus testified before Congress as well. Are you that upbeat that things are going in the right direction right now finally in Iraq?
BRZEZINSKI: It also reflects what General Petraeus said three years ago. In other words, the trend has been up and down, up and down. It may be down, but it may not go up again, it may go up again. I think the key point is a little different. Namely, this war does not have a military resolution. It has to be resolved politically.
What worries me, and it worries me very seriously, is that our political system right now is stalemated. The president clearly is signaling that he's going to hand the war over to the successor. The Congress is divided, and there isn't a sufficient Democratic majority to force through an alternative approach.
And in the meantime, the war's going on, the suffering is increasing, the war's perceived in the region as a colonial war, and the Blackwater incidents are a symptom of a colonial...
BLITZER: Private U.S. security for protecting U.S. diplomats.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, and killing, quote, unquote, "natives," which is very typical of colonial wars. All of that is rather dismaying, and inherent in the war is an unpredictable dynamic. We could have some incident, some provocation, some event that creates a American- Iranian collision so that added dimension is threatening.
And it is for this reason that I deplore the president advocating irresponsibility. He should be reaching out for a political solution along the lines of the Baker-Hamilton proposals.
BLITZER: The Iraq Study Group.
All right. Dr. Kissinger, I suspect you disagree with your friend, Dr. Brzezinski?
KISSINGER: The issue is not -- one cannot talk about ending the war as if it were an issue of turning a television channel. I agree that there is no purely military solution and that military, political, and domestic evolution have to be related to each other. What I do not agree with is the idea we can withdraw rapidly and then say, "Now we're going to do a political solution," or we're going to do a political solution on the basis of the abdication of the American position. We have to find a way of relating military, internal Iraqi measures and diplomatic measures to each other.
I believe that it's possible. I believe we should do it on a nonpartisan basis, but it cannot be defined simply as who can withdraw troops on a fastest theoretical schedule, because that, in my view, would have enormous consequences throughout the region that, in the long run, would cause us more in lives and in treasure than a gradual disengagement on a diplomatic basis.
BLITZER: Dr. Kissinger, Dr. Brzezinski, unfortunately, we have to leave it right there. We'll continue this conversation here on "Late Edition." Thanks to you both of you for joining us.
Coming up, should the president of Iran be able to speak at Columbia University? I'll put that question to Democratic front- runner Hillary Clinton. Lots more coming up, here on "Late Edition."
BLITZER: My interview with Senator Hillary Clinton. That's coming up next. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: This is the second of hour of "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: This is not government-run health care. This creates not a single new government bureaucracy. This is the American Health Choices Plan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Iran, and much more.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: I believe the best approach is to put more power in the hands of individuals.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: An exclusive Sunday interview with Mike Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services and the Bush administration's point man on health care.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: I thought the ad was disgusting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Did a tough political ad backfire on the Democrats? we'll talk about that and a whole lot more with two of the best political on television, Gloria Borger and Joe Johns.
The second hour of "Late Edition" starts right now.
When as first lady, Hillary Clinton came out with a plan for universal health care, it was to say the least, not a great success. Now the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton has released a very different plan. We spoke about that, we spoke about the war in Iraq, a lot more just a short while ago.
BLITZER: Senator Clinton, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome back to "Late Edition."
CLINTON: Thank you so much for having me, Wolf. I'm glad to be with you.
BLITZER: As you know, a lot of people believe the Democrats won the majority in the Senate and the House, the primary responsibility they say you had was to end this war in Iraq. It's been now almost a year since you have become the majority. You have failed in this mission. I'm referring to all the Democrats, not you necessarily personally.
What happened? Why can't you stop this war?
CLINTON: Well, Wolf, I think it's clear that the country wants to extricate us from Iraq and bring our troops home. The Democrats certainly do, and a few Republicans are willing to side with us.
But in order to get anything done, you've got to have the votes to do it. And I'm very proud of the Democratic majority. We have consistently voted to try to change the policy in Iraq.
Unfortunately, we have most of the Republicans in the Senate continuing to side with the president. That has meant that we've not been able to pass what we need to with the 60 votes necessary to send something to the president.
Of course, he has said he would veto it. I think what's become...
BLITZER: But, Senator, you have the...
CLINTON: I think what has become clear though, Wolf, is that the president has no intention of changing his policy in Iraq. He's now talking about leaving it to his successor.
And as our system works, as you well know, if a president vetoes or a president has enough members of his party to stand in the way, even if you have a majority, although as small as ours is, you can't get it done. Now the answer for this is, let's elect more Democrats in 2008. That will help solve the problem.
BLITZER: But you do have the power of the purse. You could simply stop funding the Pentagon. You could stop funding the war if you wanted to, to make your point, which you've avoided doing as the Democrats as a whole.
CLINTON: Well, I have, as you know, starting last spring-early summer, voted against continued funding for the war because I've reached the conclusion that the best way to support our troops is begin bringing them home.
And I don't believe we should continue to vote for funding that has an open-ended commitment, that has no pressure on the Iraqi government to make the tough political decisions they have to make, or which really gives any urgency to the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts. So I have reached that conclusion. And I think that it is unfortunate because we know that even if we're successful on that, the president will veto it. So it is frustrating. There is no doubt that the country voted for change in Iraq. The president still, under our system, has sufficient authority and support to avoid making those changes.
That's why I have said that if he does not extricate us from Iraq before the end of his term, when I am president, I will, as quickly and responsibly as I can.
BLITZER: Here is what the president said the other day about how the war is going right now. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late. They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to Al Qaida. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Senator Clinton, Al Qaida may not have been in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but they're certainly there now, almost everyone agrees on that. Does the president have a point when he says the United States must stay in Iraq, in part at least to fight Al Qaida?
CLINTON: Well, let me make three points about this, Wolf. Number one, there is no doubt that everyone agrees, except perhaps the president, there is no military solution in Iraq. That has been the constant refrain from military and other experts, that in the absence of the political decisions being made, you might have tactical gains on the ground, but you are not going to create a stable, secure Iraq.
Number two, I give great credit to our men and women in uniform. And their change in tactics, their focusing on particularly al-Anbar province, going after Al Qaida in Iraq, allied with some of the Sunni tribal sheiks, has produced some results.
But it is only tactical. Even those who are implementing this policy of the president's cannot tell us it will make America more safe, nor that it will lead to the kind of political decision-making that we have to expect from the Iraqis themselves.
And thirdly, I think that the failure of this policy, which has exacted such a toll on our forces in terms of deaths and injuries on the Iraqis, on the region, empowering and emboldening Iran, cannot be addressed in just a focus on the military side.
So if you give the president everything that he is claiming, that yes, we are now after Al Qaida, and yes, we now have a new alliance, the south is increasingly under Iranian influence, the British have withdrawn to a base, sectarian militias are fighting for advantage, Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed...
BLITZER: But on the issue -- excuse me for interrupting, Senator. But on the issue of Al Qaida in Iraq, if you were president, would you still retain troops in Iraq to fight Al Qaida there?
CLINTON: Well, I have voted for that. That is one of the remaining missions, Wolf. I have voted for a remaining mission bringing home our -- the bulk of our combat troops, but doing what we can to continue the counterterrorism effort against Al Qaida in Iraq, protecting our embassy and our civilian employees.
If the Iraqis change in accord with some of the recommendations by General Jones and his commission, continuing a training mission, and I have added, doing what we can to protect the Kurds. Those are among the limited missions that I think are really merited, and that I and others have continued to vote for. I voted for most of that just this week, when I voted for Senator Feingold's amendment to try to set a date to begin withdrawing our troops.
So there is no doubt that if we're making progress against Al Qaida in Iraq, we want to continue that. But we don't need 160,000- plus troops to do that, and the mission has to change. And that seems to be what the president really refuses to do.
BLITZER: The president also this week blasted Democrats for in effect supporting or at least remaining silent in the face of that Moveon.org New York Times ad questioning General David Petraeus as "General David Betray Us." Listen to what the president said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like Moveon.org, or more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military. That was a sorry deal.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Is the president right?
CLINTON: Well, I thought it was pretty sorry when his campaign attacked Senator Kerry's record of service, and I thought it was pretty sorry when the Republicans attacked Senator Cleland. I don't condone attacks by anyone on the patriotism and service of our military. I am an admirer of General Petraeus, as I've said on numerous occasions. I don't condone it, and I joined in voting for a resolution that condemned such attacks.
But let's be clear here. This debate should not be about an ad. This debate should be about the president's failed policies. The Republicans are very good at coming up with political strategies, but unfortunately, they don't seem to have a very adequate grasp of military or geopolitical strategies that will forward America's standing, position, values and interests in the world.
So I think that we ought to stay focused on what's important -- the war in Iraq -- and not allow this debate to go off track. And I look forward to continuing to debate what we should be doing in Iraq, and I would invite the Republicans to join in that debate.
BLITZER: But quickly, do you want to disassociate yourself from that MoveOn.org ad?
CLINTON: I have voted against it. I mean, I've voted for Senator Boxer's resolution, which condemned that attack, and also condemned the attacks on Senator Cleland and Senator Kerry. I don't condone it. I voted to condemn it.
But again, I would underscore, let's be clear what's going on here. This is an effort to focus on an ad that I condemned and don't condone in order to avoid having to deal with the tough questions about our policy in Iraq.
The policy has failed. The president is able to hang on to it because he has enough Republican support. It's going to be an issue in the '08 election, and I hope that we will be electing more Democrats, because that is the way to really change direction in our country.
BLITZER: Do you believe, as General Petraeus testified, that Iranians are supplying sophisticated weaponry to their allies in Iraq that winds up killing American soldiers?
CLINTON: Yes, I believe that Iran is playing a very dangerous game in Iraq in supporting all kinds of groups, to attack our forces, to destabilize the Iraqi government, to further their goals in Iraq. I believe that includes the provision of weapons and training.
So this is one of the results of the policies that have been pursued by the Bush administration, that Iran is in a much stronger position today than it was. And we've got to have a united international front against Iran, and most especially against Iran acquiring the capacity for nuclear weapons.
I believe there's a bipartisan consensus, and I think we've got to be smarter about how we try to implement it. It will remain one of my principal concerns. I've spoken out about it for several years.
And I will continue to try to do what I can as senator, and certainly when I become president, to prevent Iran from having the spread of influence that it is now enjoying, not only vis-a-vis Iraq, but with Hezbollah and Lebanon, now supporting Hamas in Gaza.
We've got to get back to, you know, being smart and strong, not just throwing our weight around and seeing the situation deteriorate, as it has over the last years.
BLITZER: So with that in mind, was it a good idea for Columbia University to invite the leader of Iran, President Ahmadinejad, to come and deliver a lecture there this week?
CLINTON: Well, that's a decision the university has to make. I was very much opposed to permitting him to go to Ground Zero. I thought that would have been a travesty, and I am pleased that that will not happen.
But the real issue here is how do we get an international coalition to stand with us against Iran's efforts to expand its influence and to obtain nuclear weapons? And I think that we haven't handled that under the Bush policy as well as we could.
I hope we're going to try to make up for some lost time in the next 15 months. When President Bush outsourced our policy on Iran to the British, the French and the Germans, I thought that was a mistake. We've lost valuable time...
CLINTON: ... and we've of course undermined our credibility. We need to rebuild our position in the world.
BLITZER: ... when you say it's a decision that the Columbia University should make, what do you think, though? Is it appropriate for an American university to invite the president of Iran, who's got a well-known record on a lot of issues, to be received there and to deliver a speech?
CLINTON: Well, if I were a president of a university, I would not have invited him. He's a Holocaust denier. He's a supporter of terrorism. But I also respect the right in our country to make different decisions. I thought Ground Zero, which called for public support through the NYPD and the city, was clearly out of bounds.
So I think that we have to do everything we can to undermine his standing, his position, his leadership, his demagoguery, but I think the way to do that is by building an international coalition with enforceable sanctions and a strong diplomatic effort, and that's what I'm focused on.
BLITZER: You announced your new health care plan this week. Rudy Giuliani, arguably the Republican presidential front-runner, he responded quickly to your plan. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORMER MAYOR RUDOLPH W. GIULIANI, R-NEW YORK CITY: I think Hillary's health care plan is a pretty clear march towards socialized medicine. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: "Toward socialized medicine" -- he didn't waste much time saying that.
CLINTON: Oh, yes. Well, you know...
BLITZER: But I wonder if you want to respond to the former mayor.
CLINTON: Well, you know, the Republicans were attacking my plan before it ever came out. And it's back to the same old tired rhetoric. This is not government-run health care. This creates not a single new government bureaucracy. This is the American Health Choices plan. If you're satisfied with what you have, you keep it.
But if you're one of the 47 million uninsured Americans, or one of the millions more with insurance except when you need it -- the insurance company won't pay your doctor or your hospital for your treatment -- then this is a very great opportunity for you to have the same choices that members of Congress do.
We're going to open up the congressional plan to every American. We're going to give you access to that health choices menu. And if it's not affordable, we're going to provide health care tax credits, and also to small business so that they can play a greater role.
In addition, we're going to modernize our system through the use of electronic medical records, better care of chronic care patients. Because right now, Wolf, we spend more than anybody in the world by 50 percent, we don't always get the best outcomes.
And I challenge the Republicans to come forth with a plan that will cover every American, control costs and improve quality. That is what my plan will do. And I'm waiting to see what their plans are.
BLITZER: Elizabeth Edwards and her husband, John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate, they say basically that you have just copied Senator Edwards' plan and that is what you are doing. Do you want to respond to that?
CLINTON: Well, I have been for universal health care coverage for 14 years. And I have worked to try to make progress by helping to design and pass the Children's Health Insurance Program and extend health care coverage to the families of our National Guard and reserves. And I welcome everyone to the fight for quality affordable health care for everyone.
I think it is important that the Democrats are all on the same page. We all want to have a system that covers everybody. The Republicans don't. And that is a great divide. But I am very happy to have as many allies as possible in this fight I have been waging for 14 years.
You know, it was a kind of lonely struggle back then. But you know, now it is exciting to see that the Democrats are united and we are going in to the '08 campaign with a strong position that is good for the economy, it's good for families.
It does rein in the insurance companies and the drug companies, which needs to happen, but it preserves and maximizes choice for Americans. And I think that is what Americans are looking for, to have that choice at an affordable cost.
BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, Senator Clinton. It has been a busy day for you, thanks very much for joining us.
CLINTON: Thank you so much. Great to talk to you, Wolf.
BLITZER: You've now heard from Senator Hillary Clinton. Coming up next, we'll get reaction from Mike Leavitt. He's the secretary of Health and Human Services. He's the Bush administration's point man on health care. Lots more coming up right here on "Late Edition."
BLITZER: While the question of universal health insurance is on the campaign agenda right now, a fight is also brewing between Capitol Hill and the White House over health insurance for children. The State Children's Health Insurance Plan, known as SCHIP. President Bush says he will veto the plan as it's currently envisaged up on Capitol Hill.
Mike Leavitt is the secretary of health and human services. He's joining us now. Secretary, thanks for coming in.
MICHAEL LEAVITT, HHS SECRETARY: Thank you.
BLITZER: I want to get to that in a moment. Let's talk about affordable health insurance for all Americans. When the Bush administration took office, there were about 39 million uninsured Americans who had no access to health insurance. It's now gone up to, what, 47 or maybe even 48 million Americans. Why hasn't the president done anything, really, to deal with this crisis?
LEAVITT: Well, all Americans do need to have health insurance, and the president in the last state of the union address made he's prepared to move forward to do it, and laid forward plans that would take us a long ways there. And it's the subject we now need to get down to the business of.
We're going to be talking about children's health insurance. That's a very important issue. The president takes...
BLITZER: But isn't it late -- excuse me for interrupting, Mr. Secretary -- isn't it a little late in the game now, at least a little bit more than a year to go, for all of a sudden the president to start talking about this issue?
LEAVITT: Issues ripen and mature, and it's very clear this one has. And it's time for both parties to put proposals forward that would, in fact, allow every American to have an affordable policy. The president's made clear he wants to play on that debate, would like to have it now and would like to find solutions during the next 15 months that would move us that direction.
BLITZER: But what is he looking at? What does he want specifically? Something along the lines that we just heard from Senator Clinton?
LEAVITT: Well, a big problem and one that could be solved very quickly would be to eliminate the blatant discrimination that occurs now among people who have to buy insurance from some place other than an employer. There's no way to defend our current system.
If I work for an employer, my health insurance is not taxed. However, if I have to buy it on my own, I have to both pay higher rates and I have to buy it after I pay my taxes. The president would like to solve that. It would provide a benefit to 80 percent of all Americans who have insurance and 100 percent of those who don't.
BLITZER: Because a lot of Americans who have health insurance aren't happy with the health insurance they have. And many others are afraid of giving up their jobs, even if they want to give up their jobs, for fear of losing their health insurance. There's something wrong with a system in the country right now, where you have almost 50 million uninsured an tens of other millions who have insurance but are not satisfied with they have.
LEAVITT: The system needs to be fixed, and we need to get about the discussion of how to fix it.
BLITZER: And so what I hear you saying is that even though it's late in the Bush administration, you're about to try to tackle this in a serious way. Working with Democrats, trying to find some common ground?
LEAVITT: In the state of the union address, the president said two things. The first was, I want to solve this blatant discrimination against people who have to buy insurance on their own or, for the most part, people who have none, who have to pay their taxes before they can buy health insurance.
He'd like to solve that problem, and it would help 80 percent of the people in the country that have health insurance, and it would in fact help 100 percent of those who don't.
BLITZER: All right, what...
LEAVITT: It would add as many as 20 million people to the rolls of those that are insured. And we need to get to the business of dealing with SCHIP, which we'll talk about in a moment, but we also need to have this larger debate. The president would like to act on that, and act on it now.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the children's health insurance program that the president this week came out at his news conference and he said he would veto the legislation that's currently pending in the Senate and the House of Representatives. And we expect votes this week in both chambers.
Republican Senator Cluck Grassley of Iowa, who is a conservative, he's not a flaming liberal by any means, here's what he said in dealing with this issue. Because he's a firm supporter of the legislation on the Hill: "As far as the size of the package, it's important to understand that about half of the new money is needed just to keep the program running, and the rest goes to cover more low- income kids.
"The bill is written to safeguard those dollars. It phases adults out of the program and tamps down on states covering higher- income kids."
Now why is Chuck Grassley and a lot of other members, because there's overwhelming support among Democrats and Republicans for approving this legislation, why are they wrong?
LEAVITT: Well, let me just give you the facts. They suggest that the bill will claim 4 million additional children. There are 900,000 children who currently do not have coverage who would qualify for SCHIP. That means that the balance of them, which would be 3.1 million children, are children from families with higher incomes.
The president believes that we ought to be focussing on getting coverage to the children who are poor and don't have coverage. The proposal would allow families making as much as $83,000 a year...
BLITZER: But that's gone down in the 60s right now in the new version that they're discussing.
LEAVITT: Well, we haven't seen a new version. What they have done in previous versions is they have allowed states to define the way they would define 300 percent. So if you want to go to 400 percent, you simply say we're going to exempt certain things. I believe we'll find that places like, well, specific states could go to as high as 400 percent.
BLITZER: Are you sure that this is wise for the president and for you to be supporting vetoing a legislation that will expand opportunities for health insurance for children?
LEAVITT: As I've just suggested, we want every American to have access to an affordable basic policy, and the president put forward proposals that would not only cover poor children, but would allow us to expand to as many as 16 to 20 million Americans, which would include more children than the proposal that the president has said he would veto.
The president wants SCHIP to be reauthorized, wants it to be reauthorized now. He doesn't want the program to expire, and he's calling on Congress to say, let's reauthorize it in a way I can accept it. If we haven't reached agreement on that, let's create an extension.
One of the worries we have is that the health plan will expire, putting in jeopardy the health insurance of millions of children. And we can't let that happen.
BLITZER: Here's how the Los Angeles Times put it in an editorial: "It's been highly successful," referring to this SCHIP program, "-- since the program started, the number of uninsured children has dropped by nearly a fourth. Now it's up for renewal and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the $25 billion program needs $14 billion more over the next five years to keep covering current enrollees, let alone reach more of the nation's nearly 9 million uninsured children. Bush is willing to pony up to $5 billion. That's tantamount to a cut."
Is the L.A. Times wrong on those numbers?
LEAVITT: Well, let's just be clear on our policy. We want the program to be reauthorized. If $5 billion is the wrong number, let's figure out what the right one is. But we want to cover children who are poor.
BLITZER: So you're willing to negotiate with Congress on the number, is that what you're saying?
LEAVITT: We're prepared to meet the number it takes to reauthorize the program.
BLITZER: Because they're saying what?
LEAVITT: We think...
BLITZER: How close are you to that number?
LEAVITT: Well, we think it's 5, but they want to add $35 billion to it, which isn't just to reauthorize the program. The problem we have with this is that a very large percentage, some argue as much as half, as many as half the children that would be added, already have insurance. They have insurance through the private sector, and this is a bill that simply aimed not at putting uninsured children on private insurance, but on taking children who are currently insured by private insurance and moving them to government insurance.
BLITZER: Here's how Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, put it on Thursday. Listen to what she's saying to the White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-CALIF.: The choice is to have a bill that insures children that is paid for by a tobacco tax, that the president wants to criticize that tax and not insure the children, I think that's a poor choice. I think the American people agree.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The proposal on the hill would increase the federal tobacco tax by 61 cents to about $1 a pack. Is that something that's totally unacceptable to you to increase taxes on cigarettes?
LEAVITT: We would like to reauthorize SCHIP. We'd like to reauthorize coverage for those children who are poor. We do not desire to see the phrase "let's just do it for the children" used to expand government-provided health insurance to an entirely new and large population of people who are already insured, insured in the private sector, and simply moving them to a government program.
BLITZER: But in principle, adding to the federal tobacco tax, is that acceptable, to pay for some of it whatever it's going to cost?
LEAVITT: We don't believe we need to raise taxes of any kind to reauthorize this program into a program that would insure low-income children. We need to focus it on low-income children and not use this as an opportunity to move millions of more people on to government-run health insurance.
Everyone needs health insurance. But we've got to get down to the business of looking at the big picture, where everyone has insurance, not just children.
BLITZER: But the Democrats are close to having more than enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. They say they have 70 if you add the Republicans who are willing to come in, maybe even more.
And in the House, you need 290 to override a veto. They say that they're close to that. How worried are you that if the president vetoes this Children's Health Insurance Program expansion, that the president's veto will then be overridden?
LEAVITT: We believe that the president's veto will be sustained and we believe that we can reauthorize SCHIP, focus it on children who are poor and then get on to the discussion of how we can insure millions of Americans, adults and children, who currently need insurance but don't have it.
BLITZER: Secretary Leavitt, thanks for coming in.
LEAVITT: Thank you.
BLITZER: Coming up, more on health care. It's a hot button issue for Democratic presidential candidates, while it looks like only $30 million stands in the way of Newt Gingrich jumping into the Republican race. More coming up when we come back. The candidates will be on the trail as well. Stay with "Late Edition."
BLITZER: Let's take a quick look on the cover of this week's major news magazines in the United States. Newsweek offers some ideas on "How to Heal the World." Time magazine takes a look at "Who Owns the Arctic?" And U.S. News and World Report ranks the "Best Places to Retire."
Up next here on "Late Edition," is MoveOn.org helping or hurting the Democrats with their latest ad blasting General Petraeus?
And Congress has given up -- and has Congress, that is, given up on changes U.S. policy on Iraq? Our political discussion coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: OK. So many political topics, so little time. Let's get right to two of the best political team on television. Gloria Borger is CNN's senior political analyst. Joe Johns keeps them honest for "Anderson Cooper 360."
Guys, thanks for coming in.
Gloria, let me start with you. You know, for those of you who keep track of these things, Hillary Clinton today appearing on all five Sunday talk shows here in the United States. She's not appeared on any of them in a long time. Now all of a sudden she's on all five. It's a gutsy thing for her to do, to go in front of all the Sunday morning talk show hosts in one fell swoop.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But if you noticed, Wolf, she really, really kept to her talking points. It was kind of something natural for her to do, having unveiled her health care proposal just this past week.
She wants to control the agenda, she wants to control her message, and this was truly an opportunity for her because she knows when she says to the Sunday shows, "I would like to be on," they're all going to say sure.
BLITZER: Of course. We accepted that invitation as well.
Here is the latest poll numbers in the Gallup poll, Joe. Among registered Democrats, Hillary Clinton is at 47 percent nationwide, Barack Obama at 25 percent, John Edwards 11, Everybody else down in single digits. What do you think about -- I mean, she's obviously the front-runner right now -- the decision that she made to go on all these Sunday talk shows?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well she's, obviously, trying to solidify her position out there as the presumed front-runner.
BLITZER: But there's a fear, though, she could stumble. At least some of her supporters say, "You know, these guys are pretty sophisticated questioners."
JOHNS: Every time you go out there there's a risk that you're going to say something stupid. And it tells you a little bit that apparently she has not.
It also points at Barack Obama, who seems to be languishing there in second place, and a lot of people are suggesting -- not to use the phrase that we're going to talk about later on -- that he needs to get a move on.
But his problem really is, a lot of his supporters see Barack Obama as a little bit too cautious, some suggestion, at least by a guy like Jesse Jackson, who sort of took it back, that he's not quite militant enough, he's not pushing the envelope and he has to do something sort of extraordinary to change the equation right now. BLITZER: What can he do? Because he's been a solid second nationally in almost all of the polls.
BORGER: Well, first of all, what he has to do tactically is do pretty well in Iowa. He has to either be even with Hillary Clinton or just a little bit behind her.
BLITZER: Because John Edwards is doing well in Iowa too.
BORGER: Edwards if doing well. I mean, if he could do well in Iowa, then he moves on to New Hampshire and he thinks he does pretty well. But what I think he needs to do, Wolf, is I think he needs to kind of start attacking Hillary Clinton. And it's a catch-22 for Barack Obama because he says he's going to run a different kind of campaign. He's going to be that different kind of candidate who doesn't get in the mud.
But when Hillary Clinton attacks him as politically naive, he has got to learn how to fight back, not have his surrogates do it. But when he's standing next to Hillary Clinton in the debate, he has to say, "I can take you on and this is why." And a lot of these candidates have been holding back, I think, from really taking on Hillary Clinton.
BORGER: And as a result, she looks more and more like the presumptive nominee, which is exactly what she wants.
BLITZER: Not John Edwards and certainly not Elizabeth Edwards. They're willing to take on Hillary Clinton. But what do you think about that strategy? Should Barack Obama start becoming more forceful and going directly after Senator Clinton?
JOHNS: Well, it's very difficult for him. On the one hand, he's got a lot of people on the left who really want to support him and just aren't sure. On the other hand, there's sort of a double-edge sword for him, because if he jumps out there and he goes too far, he's going to start looking like a threatening candidate.
And, of course, that could potentially take votes away from him. Barack Obama has to sort of figure out that delicate balance to try to score some points on Hillary Clinton and not alienate those voters who think he's such a nice guy.
BLITZER: I was speaking to some Republicans this week who say if anything will solidify the Republican base, which is pretty divided right now, it's Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, assuming she becomes the Democratic nominee. That will really energize Republicans nationwide. What do you think about that?
BORGER: Well, I think that's probably true to a certain degree. I think that's why you see Rudy Giuliani running against Hillary Clinton. He wants to solidify himself as the front-runner, and he knows that if he takes on Hillary Clinton, she's an easy target. And it helps him with the Republican base.
That's what lots of Republicans are going to do. I'm not so sure they're right right now, because, obviously, you've got a Democratic base that's much more energized to vote because of the Iraq war, than a Republican base. And so, that may be the conventional wisdom right now. I'm not so sure what's what it's going to be like six months from now.
JOHNS: And you know, you have that piece in The New York -- actually, The Washington Post just today on page A2 that talks about the study by Celinda Lake suggesting that, out in the endangered districts where there are House members who are in danger, about 31 districts, all Democrats, in those districts, Rudy Giuliani seems to be very popular right now. And there are a lot of questions about the negatives of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. BLITZER: You've got a new column in U.S. News and World Report on this subject. Let's talk about the Republicans right now in the new Gallup poll that just came out. Rudy Giuliani nationally among registered Republicans is still ahead with 30 percent. Fred Thompson at 22 percent. John McCain at 18 percent.
And then everybody else, including Mitt Romney, in single digits. Romney at 7 percent. But he's got a new ad that's coming out. And I want to play this little clip of what he's trying to do to energize his supporters.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MITT ROMNEY: If we're going to change Washington, Republicans have to put our own house in order. We can't be like Democrats, a party of big spending. We can't pretend our borders are secure from illegal immigration. We can't have ethical standards that are a punch line for Jay Leno.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BORGER: Pretty funny.
BLITZER: Pretty good ad. What do you think?
BORGER: Well, I think it's a very interesting ad because he's trying to do two things. He's trying to establish himself as the Republican agent of change. Because everyone who's looked at this election knows if you're the status quo candidate, you're not going to win this election.
Ninety-three percent of American voters say they want somebody who's going to change the way Washington works. So he's trying to do that. He's also trying to be the first guy in the Republican field who says the Republican Party is broken and we need to fix it.
Now, he's very clever and says, we don't want to be broken like the Democratic Party, which is really bad. But he's actually coming out and saying, the party is broken and we need to fix it. And that way, he's trying to separate himself from Washington insiders like, say, John McCain.
BLITZER: He's not doing that well in the national polls, but in Iowa and in New Hampshire, he's doing very well. JOHNS: Sure. Well, it's a good message. Hate the mistakes but love the principles. And the principles of the Republican Party, essentially, are the things that sort of got them into the revolution back in the '90s when they were controlling the House of Representatives, the Senate.
And when they -- and then on to George Bush. So, yeah, it's a very good strategy. It's obviously doing pretty well right now. The question, of course, is how it's going to play in the long wrong.
BORGER: And speaking of Bush, one person they're not talking about on the campaign trail is George W. Bush. In that ad, no mention of George W. Bush. No mention of the war in Iraq. And what they're starting to go through is a little bit of separation anxiety at the beginning of the campaign.
They're now starting to distance themselves a little bit from bush. Don't want to alienate the Republican base. But, six to nine months down the road, Bush is going to be somebody who doesn't exist.
BLITZER: And Bush did say this week he's still an asset, a political asset, not a liability.
All right, we'll pick that up. Lots more coming up with our political panel. Also, Alan Greenspan, what's he saying today? Stay with us. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We'll get right back with the political panel. But first, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows here in the United States. The former House Speaker Newt Gingrich confirmed this morning that if he could get $30 million in pledges over the next few weeks, he would enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: I want the commitments first. I don't want to go out on personal ambition. If there is in fact enough people in the country who think we need this kind of approach and this kind of change-oriented policies, then I think I would feel a responsibility to run.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: On NBC, the former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan gave a sober forecast for the U.S. economy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN GREENSPAN, FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE U.S. FEDERAL RESERVE: We're heading towards a slowdown. Whether that actually leads to a recession, is dependent on things we can't forecast at this moment. My own guess is the odds are less than 50/50 that we're heading to a recession. But there is no question we've got significant pressure on home prices, which I expect to move down quite -- could conceivably get considerably lower.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Highlights from the other Sunday talk shows on "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk. Coming up, our political panel. We'll take a look at that moveon.org ad and other stuff. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're talking all things political with two of the best political minds in business, Gloria Borger and Joe Johns.
Listen to Rudy Giuliani on this MoveOn.org ad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIULIANI: I wish MoveOn.org would do several more commercials attacking me because if they do, they could get me nominated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Is he right, Gloria?
BORGER: Well, I think it certainly helps him to be attacked by a group that's perceived as the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. And so I think any time that a Republican can get in a fight with MoveOn, it's a good idea, which is why, of course, President Bush decided to take them on this week because they attacked General Petraeus.
BLITZER: With the Republican base it can only help Rudy Giuliani.
JOHNS: Well, sure. Sure. And about the only people who are having real problems with it, as we were talking before, is the folks in Congress, the congressional Democrats. They're the ones who have to sort of face this challenge, because underlying all of this is the fact that, well, a lot of the public is opposed to the war. They're still very pro-military.
So it inures to the benefit clearly of the Republicans to some extent, but also on the other side of the coin, MoveOn can bring in a lot of money by beating the drum on this issue from the very far left. They'll write some checks.
BLITZER: Some people say this was a stunt by Rudy Giuliani. When he addressing the National Rifle Association this week, he took a phone call from his wife. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIULIANI: This is my wife calling, I think. Hello, dear. I'm talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello? I love you and I'll give you a call as soon as I'm finished, OK? OK. Have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. We checked, Gloria. He did this once before, back on June 21st in Hialeah, Florida. He was also giving a speech. He took a phone call from his wife. I think we've got some video of that incident. What do you think? Do you think this is just Rudy is deeply in love with his wife and wants to take her phone calls or there's something else going on here?
BORGER: First of all, I think his wife calls too much, OK? And she ought to know what his schedule is. And I say this as a wife who calls my husband a lot. Thirdly, I think that maybe he was trying to diffuse a tough situation. He was appearing before the NRA. It's not a group that loves him. He once called the NRA a bunch of extremists back in 1995.
He reiterated his support for the Second Amendment and says he's changed since 9/11. But it clearly was a tense situation. I don't think it worked. There was no punch-line. She didn't have a message for the NRA. So why did he do it?
JOHNS: There was no laughter there. You know, you would think -- you would think in the midst of all that business with the phone, you would have heard people guffawing out loud if it worked.
I mean, the people at the NRA have a very long memory and if you go against them 10 years ago, 15 years ago, or whatever, somebody's going to bring it up. So, it doesn't look to me like he's winning a whole lot of friends.
BLITZER: He could have said, "This is my third wife, I'd better take this phone call," and people would have had a laugh as a result of that.
BORGER: Well, but -- exactly. I mean, he didn't have a joke and it also does bring up the whole spousal question. And Judith Giuliani has been a little controversial in this campaign, so why bring her front and center again before this group of all groups? I can't imagine why.
BLITZER: Very quickly, changing the subject on Iraq. Have the Democrats basically abdicated right now they have nothing else to do to try to stop this war?
JOHNS: Well, it sounds like all they can do is just punt the ball down the field because right now it's pretty clear, as we've been saying all along, that they didn't have the votes. Pretty much everybody knew going into this that it was going to be very anti- climatic, that they weren't going to get off center and it's probably going to remain that way until the point they get enough votes or you just let the voters decide.
BLITZER: What do you think, Gloria?
BORGER: I agree. I think they've been frustrated by this. They need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, to get anything done. They haven't been able to get there. Moderate Republicans have not been flocking to their point of view in the way that they hoped. So I think it's probably going to be pretty much the status quo until the election.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much. Gloria Borger, Joe Johns, good discussion. I think my phone is ringing.
If you would like a recap of today's program, you can get highlights on our new and improved "Late Edition" podcast. Simply go to CNN.com/podcast.
And coming up at the top of the hour, Tom Foreman will discuss the crisis over private security guards in Iraq and a mysterious Israeli attack on Syria. That's coming up on "This Week at War."
BLITZER: Among my guests tomorrow in "The Situation Room," Donald Trump. We'll be in New York for that.
Until then, thanks for watching. For our international viewers, stand by for world news. For those of you in North America, "This Week at War" with Tom Foreman starts right now.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com