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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

Interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Interview with Senators Evan Bayh and Bob Corker; Interview with Gold Star Mom Merrilee Carlson; Forgotten in the Mississippi Delta

Aired September 27, 2009 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John King, this is STATE OF THE UNION.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): A wrenching debate over whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. And startling revelations about a secret underground bunker in Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: This is an illicit nuclear facility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And a candid assessment of the pressing global challenges from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Plus, the political divides on foreign policy and health care. We'll talk to two influential senators, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Then, our "American Dispatch" from the Mississippi Delta. Unemployment is pushing 20 percent, things look bleak, and every job matters.

And her son did the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. But she says the United States can't leave the work there unfinished. A special weekend in Washington, Gold Star mom gets "The Last Word."

This is the STATE OF THE UNION report for Sunday, September 27th.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We'll get to our interview with the Defense Secretary Robert Gates in just a moment, and you won't want to miss his thoughts on the new nuclear showdown with Iran and the president's debate over sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan.

First, though, let's set the scene with some remarkable new images of the Iranian nuclear facilities at the heart of this high-stakes confrontation right now.

For sometime, the world has been watching 17 -- 17 -- nuclear sites all around Iran. But this has been the most area watched most closely now locally. The city of Qom here. Several facilities up here.

Let's look in first -- this satellite imagery, about three years old. From late 2005, 2006. A small amount of construction there. Look at this remote. Look at the topography. Pretty level there.

Now we're going to zoom you in. This takes a second to load. This is an image from January. Just eight months ago. And look at how much that landscape has changed. Deep underground construction here with some steel beams. Deep underground construction here. More over here.

Keep this mind. Now keep that image in mind of the construction as we bring you in to a new image that CNN obtained just yesterday. Watch this change as we go. This is eight months ago, watch this site change as we bring the construction in.

Here's where we are now. A building, completed here. You see the roof of the building here and what was that bunker before. This was open. Now it's closed. Tunnels in to the hillside. This was open. Now it's closed. Tunnels into the hillside.

Let's go back in time so you can get this perspective. I'm going to bring it back in time. This is about three years ago. Look at that site. This is now. This is a site the United States is watching closely.

The question for Secretary Gates and others in the Obama administration, what more does it know? And what actions will they take?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

We learned as the week came to an end about a new underground secret Iranian nuclear bunker, and the president described it this way. "The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

Tell us more about what we know, and do you have any doubt Iran was using this facility or planned to use this facility to develop nuclear weapons?

GATES: We've been watching construction of this facility for quite some time, and one of the reasons that we waited to make it public was to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right.

This is information shared among ourselves, the British, the French, as we've gone along. And I think that, certainly, the intelligence people have no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret. If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there's no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.

KING: Take me back in time. You say you've known about it for some time, dating back into the Bush administration. You, of course, were serving in the Bush administration. How far back?

GATES: Well, it's hard for me to remember, but at least a couple of years we've been watching it.

KING: At least a couple of years. Because the former vice president, Dick Cheney, is on record as saying in the closing months of the administration, he was an advocate for possibly using military action against some of these Iranian sites.

Was this one of his targets, this facility we've just learned about?

GATES: Well, I think I'll just let his statement speak for itself.

KING: All right. We know -- and correct me if I'm wrong, please -- that you were skeptical about that, in fact, opposed to that. You didn't think that was the way to go. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said publicly many times how skeptical he is about the military options here.

I just want you to help an American out there who says, we can't trust Ahmadinejad, this has been going on for years. We don't think sanctions will work. Why don't we do something about it?

Explain to that person out there, whether they work in the United States Congress or whether it's just an average American, when you look at the contingencies that you have available to you and the president has available to him, are there any good military options when it comes to these deep underground facilities?

GATES: Well, without getting into any specifics, I would just say we obviously don't take any options off the table. My view has been that there has been an opportunity through the use of diplomacy and economic sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change their approach to nuclear weapons.

The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened.

And so I think, as I say, while you don't take options off the table, I think there's still room left for diplomacy. The P5 Plus 1 will be meeting with Iran here shortly. The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers.

And there obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. And I think we have the time to make that work.

KING: I want to get to that diplomacy in just a minute, but when you shared this intelligence with others, I want to ask you specifically about the case of Israel, which you know in the past has been very skeptical about the diplomatic route. And many have thought perhaps Israel would take matters into its own hands because it is in the neighborhood. What did the Israeli government, specifically the Israeli military, say when they learned of this intelligence, about this new second facility?

GATES: Well, Israel, obviously, thinks of the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. We've obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out.

KING: And as that goes forward, President Sarkozy was quite skeptical and he was very clear, this year, December, he wants to see progress or else we'll see tougher sanctions. From your perspective, what sanctions would have the most teeth, would work?

GATES: Well, there are a variety of options still available, including sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry. I think there's a pretty rich list to pick from, actually.

KING: Let me ask you about the situation in Iran, as this diplomacy goes forward. You're the defense secretary now. You have been the director of Central Intelligence.

When you look at post- election Iran, all the talk of turmoil, reports of tension between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, Ahmadinejad and the reforms, is the water bubbling or is the water boiling in the sense that you just see trouble or do you see potential seeds of revolution?

GATES: Well, I guess I would say it's simmering. It's clear in the aftermath of the election, that there are some fairly deep fissures in Iranian society and politics, and probably even in the leadership.

And frankly, this is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could have some real impact, because we know that the sanctions that have already been placed on the country have had an impact. The unemployment among youth is about 40 percent. They have some real serious problems, especially with the younger people.

So I think that we are seeing some changes or some divisions in the Iranian leadership and in society that we really haven't seen in the 30 years since the revolution.

KING: And if you think sanctions work and this is a clear violation -- they hid this from the world, they hid this from everybody, in clear violation of their commitments -- why wait? Why not slap tougher sanctions now? Why wait until the end of the year?

GATES: Well, the opportunity exists in the October 1st meeting and over the next few weeks to see if we can leverage publicizing this additional illegal facility and activity to leverage the Iranians to begin to make some concessions, to begin to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

I think we are all sensitive to the possibility of the Iranians trying to run the clock out on us. And so nobody thinks of this as an open- ended process.

KING: And so, lastly, on this point, this facility obviously is not online yet. It is under construction, not online. So Iran's capability in terms of being ready to perhaps have a nuclear bomb, in the past, the public statements have been a year to three away. Is that still operational?

GATES: That would be my view.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: The defense secretary, Robert Gates.

We'll be back in just a moment with another big decision facing the secretary and the president, whether to send thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We're back with the defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Very momentous decision. Recommendation you will have to make to the president, the president will have to make to the nation about whether to send thousands, perhaps tens of thousands more troops into Afghanistan.

I want to start with a threshold question. Do you have full confidence in the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, on the ground in Afghanistan now?

GATES: Absolutely. I think we have in General McChrystal the very best commanding officer we could possibly have there.

KING: Does the president share that?

GATES: I believe so.

KING: And then is it a logical extension then to go on to say, if you have such full confidence, that if General McChrystal says, I need 40,000 more troops, he will get them?

GATES: I think we are in the middle of a review. The president, when he made his decisions on strategy in Afghanistan at the end of March, said that after the Afghan elections, that we would review where we are and review the strategy.

We now, in addition to that, have General McChrystal's assessment of the situation. He found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than we had thought and that he had thought before going out there. So we're in the middle of a process of evaluating, really, the decisions the president made in late March to say, have we got the strategy right?

And once we confidently have the strategy right, then we'll address the question of additional resource.

KING: As you know, some of your friends on Capitol Hill are saying, why wait, in the sense of because of the ominous warnings, General McChrystal sounds, in his report, among them, this. "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term, over the next 12 months, while Afghan security capability matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

If the situation is that dire and he believes he needs more troops, why wait?

GATES: Well, first of all, I'd like to remember -- remind people that the debate within the Bush administration over the surge took about three months, from October to December 2006.

It's very important that we get this right and there is always a dialogue between the chiefs -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CentCom commander, and our commander in the field. We had the same kind of dialogue with General Odierno about the timing of pulling our combat units out of Iraq. And the conclusion of all of that was actually for General Odierno to take some additional risk. And it has proved to work very well.

So the question is, there's got to be some dialogue between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of Central Command, as well as General McChrystal, and then a discussion among the president's national security team.

KING: You know the conversation in town, though, some understand the surge debate, find this one rather remarkable in the sense that you now have General McChrystal, part of his report has leaked out, saying he needs more troops.

Admiral Mullen has testified to Congress recently he believes we're going to need more troops. Some see an effort to almost put the president in a box before he deals with the other issues.

If you have the military, the admiral and the generals on record saying we need more troops, does the president really have a choice to say no?

GATES: Well, I think the president always has a choice. He's the commander-in-chief. The reality is, do we need additional forces? How many additional forces? And to do what?

And it's the "to do what?" that I think we need to make sure we have confidence we understand before making recommendations to the president.

KING: Let's turn to the debate back home. You try to stay out of the politics, but it does influence what happens in this town.

As you know, a growing number of people on Capitol Hill want a clearer exit strategy. They want benchmarks. They want to know where the end is. Some have even said -- a few, but some have said we need a time line to get U.S. troops out. And now a liberal organization that was very vocal in the Iraq political debate is urging its members to call the president, e-mail the White House, and say don't send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to be stuck in a quagmire.

Is Afghanistan a quagmire?

GATES: I don't think so, and I think that with a general like McChrystal, it won't become one. I think that we are being very careful to look at this as we go along. We've put out metrics so that we can measure whether or not we're making progress. And if we're not making progress, then we're prepared to adjust our strategy, just as we're looking at whether adjustments are needed right now.

So I think that the notion of time lines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think, would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States.

Taliban and al Qaeda, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.

I think what we need is a strategy that we think can be successful and then to pursue it, and pursue it with confidence and resolution.

KING: General McChrystal, in an interview that will air on "60 Minutes" tonight, talks about the breadth and the geographic spread of the violence in Afghanistan. He says, "It's a little more than I would have gathered."

We've been at this nearly eight years. Why are we still surprised?

GATES: Well, I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s. And that strategy was more about the Soviet Union than it was about Afghanistan.

KING: That's a -- you served in the Bush administration. That's a pretty broad damnation of the Bush strategy.

GATES: Well, the reality is, we were fighting a holding action. We were very deeply engaged in Iraq. I increased -- I extended the 10th Mountain Division the first month I was on this job in January of '07. I extended -- I put another brigade into Afghanistan in the spring of 2007. And that's all we had to put in there.

Every -- we were -- we were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we have now.

KING: And if it comes to the point of sending more, and this time, if the president agrees and General McChrystal gets -- maybe it's 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 -- do we have the troops now? If you needed 40,000, could you find it?

GATES: Well, I think, if the president were to decide to approve additional combat forces, they really probably could not begin to flow until some time in January.

KING: We're about out of time. I want to ask you a couple of quick questions in closing. One is, do you see any chance now, because of the delays in the political problems, that the administration will keep its promise to close Gitmo, the Guantanamo Bay detention center, in one year, as promised?

GATES: Well, I think -- I think it has proven more complicated than anticipated. I will be the first to tell you that when the president- elect's national security new team met in Chicago on December 7th, I was one of those who argued for a firm deadline. Because I said that's the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.

But if -- and you have to extend that date, if at least you have a strong plan, showing you're making progress in that direction, then it shouldn't be a problem to extend it. And we'll just see whether that has to happen or not.

KING: And lastly, you served eight presidents. What makes this one unique, or is there anything unique when it comes to these decisions of war and peace?

GATES: He is very analytical. He is very deliberate about the way he goes through things. He wants to understand everything. And he delves very deeply into these issues. I'm not going to get into comparing the different presidents. I very much enjoy working for this one.

KING: Mr. Secretary, thank for your time.

GATES: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: So how will a decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan sit with lawmakers on Capitol Hill? And what should the president do about Iran? We'll talk it over with two key senators, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A shot of the capital there on a late September Sunday here in Washington. Joining us now, two men who work in that building, two leading senators in both the foreign policy and military debate and on domestic policy.

Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana is here with me in Washington and Republican Senator Bob Corker joins us from Tennessee.

Let me start -- you just heard Secretary Gates, and, Senator Bayh, let me start with you, because you're on the Intelligence Committee. He says there's no doubt this is an illicit nuclear site. Iran has now acknowledged it exists. The United States has made it public, will have its first conversations across the table with Iran coming this week.

In those conversations, should there be any carrots at this moment or all sticks?

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: Well, it needs to be both, John, but more sticks, frankly, at this moment than carrots. We've tried a variety of inducements to the Iranians over the years, being included in the global economic trading system, a number of other things. Frankly, none of that has worked.

What they respect more than anything is strength. They're contemptuous of weakness. The one time the Iranians have actually reached out to us behind the scenes and offered to be cooperative was following the invasion in Iraq, where we had invaded first Afghanistan, then Iraq, and they began to think, whoa, are we next?

So I think it needs to be mainly stiff economic and financial sanctions, with the possibility of other options lurking in the background if they don't change their behavior. That gives us the best chance of getting them to give up their program.

KING: And, Senator Corker, should the United States sit down one-on- one with Iran right now, or is that in and of itself a gift they don't deserve?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think the P5 Plus 1 meeting's set up this week is the right venue. I think the table couldn't be set better for that meeting. And I agree with Senator Bayh. I think we should be very -- very tough on them.

The fact is, the world community is now, I think, more united than ever to confront Iran. And this is information we've had for some time. I think making it public this week and Iran actually coming forward and saying that it was true certainly turns the table.

And I think we have a tremendous opportunity for the first time in a long time for a breakthrough.

KING: So let's consider the moment. You will have this meeting this week. Iran has been caught, essentially, defying its commitments to the world community. But everyone is saying, well, have these meetings and maybe have sanctions down the road.

Some would say, you might have more leverage if you imposed the sanctions now and then had the meetings, so that Iran had a steeper hill to climb. Would that be a better approach?

BAYH: Well, sooner is better than later, John. Time is a-wasting here. But the problem is, in order for sanctions to be effective, you've got to get the Russians and the Chinese on board. That may take a little time.

So if it's just us and our Western European allies, we could do that very quickly, but the Chinese are now providing a third of the gasoline for Iran. That really is their Achilles' heel. And so, to be effective, you really need the Chinese to come to the table, and they're notoriously slow in these kind of things.

The Russians have been making more positive noises recently, but I suspect they may take at least a month or two to, you know, nail down exactly what we're going to do.

KING: And so what happens, Senator Corker, if the Chinese are, as Senator Bayh puts it, notoriously slow? Do the United States have many options if the Chinese are reluctant to go along with very tough sanctions?

CORKER: Well, we have lesser options, sanctions-wise, if they do not go along, but I think instead of moving ahead, you know, let's see how quickly they're going to let our inspectors in. The fact is, we know they're probably today clearing out evidence of what they're doing there. So how quickly are we going to get our inspectors in? How assured will the Chinese be as to what was happening there?

This facility clearly -- I went through a classified briefing Friday. This -- this facility, I can assure you, was not set up for commercial purposes. And -- and I think to, again, the Chinese have just seen this intelligence this week, to allow them to digest this, hopefully to become more rigidly opposed to what's happening there is important.

And, again, let's -- let's -- we've got a few weeks here in front of us. They're very important. I don't know how the table could be better set, as I said earlier. And let's -- let this play out over the next couple of weeks.

I think we now see, though -- Israel had this same intelligence. I think we now see why they've been certainly very concerned about what's happening there, as it does impose an existential threat to them, and I think we can see why they've been very concerned.

KING: Well, let me ask the question this way, Senator Bayh. An intelligence success here, but is this the only one? What do we know? Or what don't we know? Are you worried about that?

BAYH: Well, as you know, we can't discuss specifics on the air, John, as much as you might like that. But let's just say, Iran is more open than North Korea, but we have imperfect knowledge with regard to Iran. And one of the difficulties with a military strike -- and, you know all options need to be kept on the table -- frankly, for one of the purposes of bringing the Chinese about.

But one of the problems with a military strike is, by definition, you can only attack what you know where it exists. So the possibility does exist that there may be other sites about which we are simply unaware at this time.

KING: And, Senator Corker, when you heard Secretary Gates saying, look, all options should be kept on the table, but let's be candid, essentially, was his point. He said a military strike would set them back. You couldn't take them out, especially because they're reinforced underground facilities.

Is that the right posture for the administration? I mean, if you're the president of Iran right now, you essentially know the Obama administration says, "Well, sure, the military option is on the table, but it's not so great"? CORKER: Well, look, I think we need to also take into account there are movements inside Iran that have not existed in decades. And the fact is, there's a lot of turmoil internally. I think we need to look at which sanctions actually call that to move ahead.

Military action certainly would unify the country very quickly against us. So, look, military option certainly needs to be on the table. I know Israel certainly has their antenna up in that regard.

But the fact is, we have an opportunity, with all of the countries now, the P5 Plus 1, to actually put sanctions in place. It will do severe damage.

Again, let's let that play out. Let's don't jump ahead. We've got a couple of weeks here that I think are going to be very, very important, and we haven't had this opportunity that I can remember.

KING: Senator Corker describes the stakes. I want you to come in, but I want to ask you a question about what we hear from our government. This is the National Intelligence Estimate. It was published in November of 2007. This is a public document.

At the moment this was published, the Bush administration knew about this facility in Iran. That was knowledge of the intelligence community at that time, according to Secretary Gates. But this document says that the government has high confidence -- high confidence -- that Iran has stopped the weapons aspect of its nuclear program.

Help me out here. If they say there's no doubt this facility is to develop nuclear weapons, Senator Corker says he saw the briefing, he has no doubt, why would our government put out a document that says, "Well, they're not at the nuclear weapons business anymore"?

BAYH: John, I objected strongly to the wording of this estimate at the time because I did think it was misleading. And you need to look at a footnote in there that actually explains what's going on.

There are three different parts to a nuclear program. One is getting the fissile material. They're going rapidly ahead with that part of it. Second is a delivery mechanism, ballistic materials, that sort of thing. They're going rapidly ahead with that aspect, as well.

The third is the design of a warhead. And that is what they apparently suspended some years ago. But they've got the designs -- this is something else they lied about. They got the designs, the know-how to in fairly short order go forward with that.

So the NIE made it look like they'd suspended the entire program, when, in fact, it was just one component of it, which they could restart on fairly short notice.

KING: All right. We've got to work in a quick break. We'll be back with Senator Corker and Senator Bayh in just a minute. We'll talk about whether the president should send more troops to Afghanistan and some domestic fights here at home. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Don Lemon here is at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. Time for a quick check of your headlines.

At least 75 people are dead in a flood in the Philippines. A tropical storm unleashed the heaviest rainfall in the capital city in 40 years. 80 percent of Manila is under water, 300,000 people had to evacuate to escape the rising water.

Filmmaker Roman Polanski faces possible extradition to the United States for being arrested in connection with a sex charge from the 1970s. Swiss Police say he was taken into custody yesterday as he arrived from France to attend the Zurich Film Festival. Polanski fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.

I'm Don Lemon. I'll see you back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Now back to "STATE OF THE UNION" with John King.

KING: We're back with Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Gentlemen, I want to move on to the big decision the president faces about Afghanistan and your thoughts on what appears to be a bit of a conflict. You have General McChrystal, the commanding general on the ground, who says he needs more troops, perhaps as many as 40,000.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has told Congress we're going to probably need more troops in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates in the interview we just had didn't quite say so, but those who know him well say, if you listen closely to his talk about we cannot fail, we cannot give the Taliban this victory, and his rejection of the comparison with the Soviets, that that was Secretary Gates' way of leaning forward in the idea that he would support more troops.

And then, Senator Bayh, you have Vice President Biden, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who we are told are very skeptical of sending more troops into Afghanistan, worried, A, that it won't work, and, B, that politically it could become a Vietnam-like scenario.

Do we need more troops in Afghanistan? And are you worried the administration has an internal conflict?

BAYH: The number of troops is a tactical question, John, in pursuit of a strategic goal. The president sets the strategy and then will listen to his commanders about how many troops he needs to achieve that strategy. And what you heard the secretary say is, very clearly, we need to decide an essential question.

Is Afghanistan capable of being a coherent nation-state? Can they reconcile their differences enough where their government can have enough trained troops and police to control their own territory? If so, that's the ideal outcome, and it warrants us giving them another couple of years to try and develop that capability so we can withdraw. If not, if they're just going to be different ethnic and religious groups, always a weak and corrupt central government, then devoting more resources to try and prevent the inevitable probably doesn't make much sense and you ought to deal with this with a lighter footprint.

So that's the question the president is trying to resolve, and it was made more difficult by the recent elections, which were very corrupt. Karzai is not a strong leader, doesn't have much authority around the country, so that's really what he's deciding.

Can Afghanistan, with our help, be a coherent nation-state? If yes, more troops would be warranted; if no, you take a different approach.

KING: But, Senator Corker, Senator Bayh lays out a pretty rational -- let's ask these questions and get to an answer, but as we have this process, we already have the commanding general on record saying I need more troops and, if we don't act quickly, the enemy might win.

CORKER: Well, look, I think it's -- I met with Secretary Gates on Thursday morning and, as you know, was in Afghanistan on Election Day. I think it's perfectly -- and I met with McChrystal there. I think it's perfectly legitimate to spend some time trying to articulate what success is.

It's easy to talk about what failure in Afghanistan might mean. I think it's been more difficult to actually articulate what success is. And until we can do that, I think it's appropriate to take some time.

Look, at the end of the day, counterterrorism leads to a strategy of counterinsurgency, which means winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan. In a poor country like Afghanistan, that ends up meaning nation-building.

And so I've heard discussions lately of partial nation-building, maybe focusing on the Department of Interior. To me, it's still a little fuzzy as to what success means. And I think it's -- again, I think we should sit down, understand what success is, and then put in place the ability to make that happen.

And, again, even talking with Secretary Gates Thursday morning, and when he speaks, I listen. I think he's the most credible person on this topic. But I think he was having some difficulty with me even articulating what success is.

So let's spend -- let's spend a little time talking about that. Let's realize we're dealing with a president that is, let's face it, has some -- has many deficiencies, someone who I think looks at this mission in many ways as more our mission than his, or at least that's what he has said directly to me.

So we have some issues there. Let's -- let's spend a little time and let's make sure we get this right. That's what we should do when we have men and women in harm's way. KING: Let me try to bring us back home in our closing couple of minutes here. I want to focus on the health care debate. We have two men here who have been skeptical about a public option.

Senator Bayh, you have said maybe, but you have to prove to me you're going to reduce the deficit.

Senator Corker, you say you think it's a bad idea.

As you watch the Finance Committee, let me just a simple question here, because they have so much work still to do. Are we -- are you confident, are we any closer to a bill that can have broad bipartisan support, or are we, in fact, closer to a Democrat-versus- Republican Armageddon in the Senate?

BAYH: Well, it looks as if it's going to be unlikely, to use your term, John, to get broad bipartisan support. You might get Olympia Snowe. I mean, Bob Corker's a very reasonable person. We could agree on many things, but there may be some elements in this he just ultimately can't agree with.

So the real debate is within the Democratic Party. And even getting that consensus, which I think will ultimately be achievable, is taking time and will be difficult.

KING: Senator Corker, do you see any evidence -- I know you have said let's do this incrementally -- if they go the 51 votes in the Senate, what's going to happen?

CORKER: Well, I think it's going to rip our country apart in many ways, and I think it's short-sighted. So I think there's so much, John, that we have common ground on that we could focus on and move the ball 50 yards down the field and then let's focus on some of the tough sledding that has to do with the delivery system.

There's many pilots and other things that need to occur at HHS and CMS. Much of what we do in the public arena affects the private delivery system itself. And I just think it's a shame that things are going as they are.

To me, the night the president gave his speech, that was a departure date of moving towards something that was more partisan, something that I think is regretful, something that I think is going to be damaging to our country.

KING: All right, gentlemen, we'll watch what comes out of the committee and we'll bring you back when we have something specific in front of us to debate. Thank you for your views on the world issues especially.

Senator Corker in Tennessee, Senator Bayh right here with us, thank you very much.

She lost a son in the war in Iraq and says we can't leave the work there undone. Gold Star mother Merrilee Carlson gets "The Last Word" next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Fifteen newsmakers, analysts and reporters were out on the Sunday morning talk shows today, but only one gets "The Last Word."

It is our privilege today to extend that honor to Merrilee Carlson. She's a Gold Star mother and the president of Families United, which is a support group for U.S. men and women serving in the military.

Thank you for joining us. It is a privilege to have you here. I just want to explain to anyone out there who doesn't understand it. The blue star parent is the parent of somebody serving actively in the military. A Gold Star parent is the parent of someone who has paid the ultimate price as you have.

Your son Michael died 4.5 years ago, January 2005 in Baqubah.

MERRILEE CARLSON, FAMILIES UNITED: Yes.

KING: And you went to visit him this morning at Arlington National Cemetery. I want you to tell us a bit about your son. And I want to help first by reading a bit from this remarkable essay he wrote in his senior year of high school.

And Michael Carlson wrote this. "I want to fight for something, be part of something that is greater than myself. I want to be a soldier or something of that caliber, maybe a cop or a Secret Service agent. I want to live forever. The only way that one could possibly achieve it in this day and age is to live on in those you have affected."

It is a remarkable statement for a young man to make. And as we show pictures of your son, I should say, over the shoulder and pay tribute to his service, he obviously affected you because of what you do to carry on his legacy.

CARLSON: He is. He's an amazing young man and fully believed in the mission of defending and protecting us. And he has challenged me. That moment of his death changed me because we had always talked about when we said good-bye, when we talked, I would tell him, take care of your friends, take care of your buds, take care of yourself.

And it turned back on me because his last act was one of taking care of his buds, the people of Iraq, and you and I.

And so I need now to take care of his friends. Two of his buds are serving in Afghanistan, and all of the families that are part of that. And so that's my mission now, to follow his legacy.

KING: And so the Gold Star parents come together, Families United comes together, some blue star parents as well, and you all come together as a big meeting here in Washington this week. And I know you heard from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the president issued a proclamation.

I want to ask your advice for this town, if you will, because you saw what happened in Iraq. Your son served in that war, he paid the ultimate price. It became an incredibly hard political issue for the country.

You have parents I'm sure who think the Iraq war was a mistake. You have others who believe you have to finish the fight and carry it on to the end. How you do you parents who share a bond of sacrifice obviously but perhaps disagree about the politics of war work it out?

CARLSON: There are two things we do. First of all, parents in any fallen hero family, whether it's parents, siblings, spouses, children, they have one thing to do in order to get over the grief. And first of all, they have to share their hero. They have to talk about it because we are all proud of what they did.

We know that they are proud of their service. They did amazing things whether Iraq, Afghanistan, whether it was Vietnam or World War II. These men and women who have defended and protected us are incredible.

And for us, the first thing is to get together with others who understand so we can speak freely about that love, about the pain, and because we've got "get stronger" then we can share our concerns because none of us want war.

We all want all of our boys home. But we also have to stay strong because it's very important that my son's mission get completed, and that mission is protecting you and I.

KING: On that point, I want to read something else from that very same essay. And again, remarkable for a young man to have written this in his senior year of high school. "I want to carve out a niche for myself in the history books. I want to be remembered for the things I accomplished. I sometimes dream of being a soldier in a war. In this war, I am helping to liberate people from oppression. In the end there's a big parade and a monument built to immortalize us in stone."

As you know again, a majority of the American people believe Iraq was a mistake and perhaps some day we will get past that. But when you watch the debate now about Afghanistan, the same organizations that oppose the war in Iraq, urging their supporters to call the president, pressure the president, don't send more troops to Afghanistan, using the word quagmire.

Do you see it happening again?

CARLSON: It's very challenging because when we were in Iraq, and when we had our biggest problems in Iraq, it was when we the people of America were not standing strong behind our troops. Because the people of Iraq then didn't know whether they could trust us. They didn't know if we were going to leave them hanging because once we were in Iraq, the people there had to make a choice.

They had to decide whether they were going to help us and reach for freedom themselves or if they were going to have to protect them because did they -- you know, that they need to make a deal with the devil in order to protect themselves if we left them? And what we can't do is leave these people hanging. Now that we're there, we need to stand strong and we need to let our men and women do the job that they know they can do and let them finish this and let them win and so then we can all bring them home safely.

And then the people of Iraq -- I mean, the people of Iraq can't thank me for my service, and I -- you know, we've changed their lives. Michael has changed their lives.

KING: I have about 20 seconds left. For any American who hasn't been there, explain what it's like to walk through that section at Arlington where you see the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan.

CARLSON: You are humbled by the amazing men and women who lie there and that they are willing to raise their hand for you and I and willing to give their life for us, and we must, therefore, be worthy of that precious gift of freedom and do everything we can do to protect it.

KING: Merrilee Carlson, we thank you for your thoughts today. And we honor your son's service and all of those who served with him. I thank you for this.

CARLSON: Thank you.

KING: It's a special treat. Thank you very much.

CARLSON: It's a pleasure.

KING: We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: There's a lot of talk here in Washington from policymakers, from the president on down, that the economy finally shaking its slump, it's beginning to grow again. But that optimism comes with a sober warning, the recovery will be slow and uneven, meaning many places across America will continue to hurt for some time to come.

Places like southwest Mississippi. We were down here, the Democratic part of a very Republican state. We were in Jefferson County this week. 86 percent of the county is African-American. Nearly 9 in 10 of the residents are African-American.

It is the fourth poorest county in the United States and it has nearly 20 percent, 18.6 percent, unemployment.

So in our "American Dispatch" this week, we wanted to go first-hand to Jefferson County to look straight up close at the impact of such high unemployment, unemployment twice the national average.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Jefferson County hugs the mighty Mississippi. It is rural, remote, and dotted with tiny churches. Fayette is the county seat. Its monument to Confederate soldiers, a tribute to the past that seems very much at odds with this community's present. Nine in 10 residents are black, the highest percentage of African-Americans of any county in the United States.

The shuttered store fronts are a sign of a less desirable distinction, 18.6 percent unemployment. The highest jobless rate of Mississippi's 82 counties.

ANGELA SHELVY, UNEMPLOYED SINGLE MOTHER OF THREE: It has not always been this bleak. It has not always been this way.

KING: Angela Shelvy has been looking for six months.

(On camera): And there's nothing out there.

SHELVY: Nothing.

KING (voice-over): Shelvy is a single mother of three who quit a job as a teacher's assistant to join a union that provides workers for nuclear power plants. Twice the pay, but the work was sometimes as far away as Arizona. And while her parents took care of the children, the strain became too much, especially for her 4-year-old.

SHELVY: I'm like, you have granny. He's like, no, I don't want granny, I want you to hold me. And I just decided I couldn't go back.

KING: But since March, no luck, despite searching as far as 90 minutes away.

SHELVY: And they're not hiring. They're either saying they're not hiring or I'm not qualified, I don't have enough years of experience, we'll call you later, get back with us. And it has been stressful for me.

BRENDA BUCK, JEFFERSON COUNTY, MS. ADMINISTRATOR: It becomes very depressing to some people who are trying to struggle. And it is a struggle day to day.

KING: Finding jobs is County Administrator Brenda Buck's obsession. She knows the struggle firsthand. With no jobs around here, her husband works at the moment 900 miles away in Indiana.

BUCK: Right now he's employed with a company that has been going into a lot of the car plants doing re-fabrications. We have four kids, but he's here, basically, maybe two months out of the year.

KING: Most of Buck's time with county supervisors is spent on economic development. No luck so far, winning federal stimulus money to improve the roads.

This work site is also part of the county's Washington wish list. At the moment, 10 employees each making $100 a day, cutting and packaging firewood.

General Manager Paul Southerland says the noise often attracts others down on their luck.

PAUL SOUTHERLAND, GENERAL MANAGER, RELIABLE MAT: I see a lot of people come by, you know, looking for jobs there.

KING: Southerland's main product is these giant wood mats used in oil and gas fields. Orders are suddenly hard to come by.

SOUTHERLAND: Mississippi is always last to feel the effects of a recession, and most of the time it's always the last to pick back up. It hit us about June. It really hit us hard, too.

KING: Still, Southerland hopes to expand if the county secures a federal grant to buy a bigger saw mill.

SOUTHERLAND: You know, that's what it's all about. If we have that saw mill, we would be able to add eight or 10 more folks.

KING: Eight or 10 jobs might not sound like much, but in a place so remote and so poor, progress is measured a little differently.

BUCK: If you can just imagine eight men making $10 to $11 an hour, can actually come home and be at home at night with their families, the impact that it would make, not just from the economical standpoint, but from the social standpoint of that father's presence there in that household and not having to travel so far, I mean, you have a double whammy. It's a win-win situation for any family.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We'll be here again next Sunday and every Sunday at 9 a.m. Eastern for the first word and last word in Sunday talk. Until then, I'm John King in Washington. Take care.

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