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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Interview With Rahm Emanuel; Interview With John Kerry
Aired October 18, 2009 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, HOST: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm just getting started! I don't quit. I'm not tired. I'm just getting started!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Testing time for President Obama. Nearing a critical decision about troop levels in Afghanistan and deep into tough negotiations on health care. We go inside the deliberations with the president's point man, White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: It would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country when we don't even have an election finished.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: The Afghan political crisis and the fight against Al Qaida from a pivotal voice in Congress. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry is visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan and shares his firsthand assessment.
Then, our "American Dispatch" from Alaska. It is breathtaking and struggling. The recession arrived here late, but it is now making a painful mark.
This is the "State of the Union" report for Sunday, October 18th.
We begin this Sunday with one of the most powerful men in Washington. He's President Obama's gatekeeper, determining who gets access to the Oval Office, and he also plays a key role in virtually every decision the president makes. The White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, welcome to "State of the Union."
EMANUEL: Thanks, John.
KING: I want to begin overseas. There are reports that we are getting, hearing from U.S. officials, Western officials who have met with him and also on the ground, that President Karzai is resisting the findings that the fraud in the election was significant enough that there should be a runoff. In the view of the president of the United States, does President Karzai have a choice? Must there be a runoff?
EMANUEL: Well, first of all, what President Karzai must do and the process there is a credible and legitimate election or result, more importantly, for the Afghan people and for that government going forward, whether that's through a runoff, whether that's through negotiations. The process will be determined by the Afghan people. The result, for us and for the president, is whether, in fact, there's a credible government and a legitimate process; the Afghan people then think, this has worked, it's processed through. It's more important for the Afghans to come to that conclusion than what we say they have to do, because it's important for that government, whatever result or whatever process it takes, that the end result has a legitimate and credible government for the Afghan people.
KING: So at this point, since we do not view the prior election and the U.N. does not view the prior election as legitimate, is that then -- is the choice then a runoff election or a negotiated power sharing agreement with Mr. Abdullah?
EMANUEL: John, you've seen in the papers, you see the reports that are coming from Kabul. There is basically two roads there, or two basically processes. One is another runoff election between the two top candidates, or a negotiation between those candidates. But the end result must be a legitimate and credible government to the Afghan people. That's what's important. It's the Afghans making a decision about what type of government they're going to have and what road they're going to take to that point.
KING: And this plays out as the president faces a decision of enormous gravity, whether to send thousands, tens of thousands of more U.S. troops. Will the president wait and delay that decision until after you have a clear picture of the political situation?
EMANUEL: The review's going to continue to go on. That's not in question. The question, and one of the central questions of that review -- so we will continue. We've had five meetings. There's another set of meetings this week and the following week.
The question, though, and one of the questions is at the heart is -- and even General McChrystal's own report says -- the question does not come how many troops you send, but do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?
And you know, here in Washington, we want to have a debate, and you can't -- we would love the luxury of this debate to be reduced down to just one question, additional troops, 40,000. This is a much more complex decision. Even the general's own report and General Petraeus' own analysis says the question, the real partner here is not how much troops you have, but whether in fact there's an Afghan partner. And when you go through all the analysis, it's clear that basically we had a war for eight years that was going on, that's adrift. That we're beginning at scratch, and just from the starting point, after eight years. And there's not a security force, an army, the type of services that are important for the Afghans to become a true partner. So that is the question. And what I think it would be irresponsible -- and it's clear that as I saw the clip earlier, Senator Kerry said -- Senator Kerry, who's now in Kabul in Afghanistan noted, that it would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level if, in fact, you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S. troops would create and become a true partner in governing the Afghan country.
KING: Whether the president sends more troops or not, how are we going to pay for this? Even if he does nothing more, there will be 68,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan at the end of the year, maybe a little more than that, without a decision to increase them. Will the president have to request emergency funding to pay for that, or is that (inaudible)?
EMANUEL: It will be part -- I mean, if we did this, it would be part of what we have to do as we've done both for our Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the past. It would be part of that process.
KING: But the president said in April, he had hoped not to do that anymore. The president sent a letter to the House speaker, and he said, "this is the last planned war supplemental." And he said, you know, in the past, after seven years of war, the American people deserve an honest accounting of the cost of our involvement in ongoing military operations. Is this something that candidates can say one thing or a young president can say another thing that you learn that sometimes you can't ...
EMANUEL: No, I mean, one of the points is, is, what is the cost if we took this approach? And that's been part of the discussion.
The first part of this discussion, John, has been about the fact that, where are we, what is the context, what is the assumptions built into this? One of the things that has been analyzed in all this is that, you know, and people would like to reduce this down and would like the luxury that, you know, send more troops, as if that's all that it takes.
You have to have a policy. It's important -- the policy is as important to protecting the troops as the equipment they have. And an analysis of where we are, what happened.
You have literally got into a situation, is there another way you can do this? And the president is asking the questions that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side, and the strategic side. What is the impact on the region? What can the Afghan government do or not do? Where are we on the police training? Who would be better doing the police training? Could that be something the Europeans do? Should we take the military side? Those are the questions that have not been asked. And before you commit troops, which is -- not irreversible, but puts you down a certain path -- before you make that decision, there's a set of questions that have to have answers that have never been asked. And it's clear after eight years of war, that's basically starting from the beginning, and those questions never got asked. And what I find interesting and just intriguing from this debate in Washington, is that a lot of people who all of a sudden say, this is now the epicenter of the war on terror, you must do this now, immediately approve what the general said -- where, before, it never even got on the radar screen for them. That -- everything was always about Iraq.
This is where Al Qaida is based. Not just in Afghanistan, it's clear that they're based in Pakistan. What is the relationship between the Taliban? Are there different grades of a Taliban? That is what the analysis is going on in the situation room, and I think the comfort for the American people is the president will not be rushed to making a decision without asking firm questions and challenging the assumptions behind those questions.
KING: A quick break with the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. When we come back, we'll bring the debate home, domestic issue. Will health care reform pass this year, and what about the record federal budget deficit? Stay with us.
KING: We're back with the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
You are deeply involved in this health care negotiations on Capitol Hill. Right now, behind closed doors in the Senate -- this is a story from the Washington Post today. "Small group now leads closed-door negotiations." And it quotes the president, from candidate Obama saying, we will have these discussions televised on C- SPAN, everybody will be at the table, we'll do this in an open and transparent way. Why does it have to be done behind closed doors?
EMANUEL: Well, John, first of all, I mean, you know very well that this has been -- the entire health care process has been fully public and...
KING: This is the most important part.
EMANUEL: And everybody is going to continue to be involved. We went up to have the first set of a series of discussions. You saw all the hearings. Many people said, you know, cover the hearings in five separate committees that had those discussions or discussions happening then, both at the hearing level, and also...
KING: So as you negotiate now...
EMANUEL: ... as you negotiate in private. But that doesn't mean that you can't have what's going on.
The key point in this debate about health care, John, isn't what's going on in a sense of just these negotiations -- those are key -- is what, at the end of the day, will the result achieve what I call the four C's. That is, are we going to control cost, expand coverage, give people choice, and competition in the system. And that's the goal the president set out. We went up there. You had two committee chairmen, as well as the Senate majority leader there. Everybody knows these issues that we're discussing.
KING: You have another stop, so I'm going to interrupt you, because you have another stop to make and my time is limited. In the C's, controlling costs...
EMANUEL: I was actually getting close to be (ph) a senator (inaudible) filibustering for a second.
KING: You were filibustering quite well. You're very good.
One of the controlling cost elements here is competition -- excuse me, here -- is would you have the public option. And on the Senate side, you know, it's harder to sell in the Senate, because you have more centrists involved. Is this an acceptable public option to Rahm Emanuel, the Olympia Snowe trigger plan, maybe with a combination of Tom Carper's proposal to let the states do it?
EMANUEL: Breaking news, John. Doesn't matter whether it's acceptable.
KING: It does matter whether it's acceptable, because you'll have to sell it on the House side.
EMANUEL: No, here's the deal. As you saw the president say in the joint session to Congress, he believes a public plan, a public option is important to competition. Because in many parts of the country, a single health insurance industry has 80 percent, 70 percent of the market. Let me go -- finish. It is also parts of -- that parts of the country where premiums are the highest. So if you don't have competition, an insurance company has the run of not only premiums, but what kind of health care you have.
And so the president believes in it as a source of competition. He also believes that it's not the defining piece of health care. It's whether we achieve both cost control, coverage, as well as the choice that...
KING: Is a trigger good enough for the president?
EMANUEL: The president of the United States will obviously weigh in when it's important to weigh in on that. There are key members of the Senate that want a public option. The Senator Snowe, who's also important, would like to see a trigger. But what's implicit in the notion of a trigger is that you should always have available that option of having a public plan to bring the type of competition that brings downward pressure on prices and price-effective health care costs.
KING: The way the Senate Finance Committee bill is paid for is a fee on these Cadillac insurance plans. And your friends in the labor movement say, no way. That what happens is you'll put a fee on the insurance companies, and they will backdoor that by passing the costs onto the consumers. Gerry McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says we "all worked for these people. We worked for Obama. What do we get for it? We not only don't get anything for it, we get a slap in the face." They say that it's a backdoor way of violating the president's promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Will that be in the final bill? EMANUEL: First -- one of the first things the president did when he got into office, was ensure the largest middle class tax cut in history. Because middle class had basically saw their incomes...
KING: But why does a labor leader call it a slap in the face?
EMANUEL: Well, that's his position. In fact, he spoke -- the president spoke to this in the joint session.
But I want to go back. Remember this -- the middle class received the largest -- one of the largest tax cuts in one of the first things he's done in the 45 -- in the first 45 days of his office.
Second, this is basically one of the ways in which you basically put downward pressure on health care costs. The president believes, as he said in the joint session, that while he opposed this originally, thinks that -- and based on the analysis -- it is helpful in getting costs under control. And it hits the insurance companies and the high expansive and expensive plans.
KING: We have a $1.4 trillion deficit this year. I know the president has said he will cut it in half in his first term. Health care reform will be deficit-neutral is the president's position, and yet...
EMANUEL: More than deficit-neutral, John.
KING: And yet...
EMANUEL: John, wait a second. Wait a second. More than deficit-neutral.
KING: You say it will help bring the deficit down.
EMANUEL: Also, let me make a point up here, which I think -- I really want to make this point. When the prescription drug bill was passed, in the '80s -- I mean, rather, in 2005.
KING: In the Bush administration.
EMANUEL: Yes, in the Bush administration, there was no pay-for. It was charged on the credit card. And it run up costs as far as the eye can see, basically for about $850 billion. This bill, somewhere will be about $850 billion, $900 billion, fully paid for, done within the health care system, and it brings down the deficit. And it's the first step, if you want to control...
EMANUEL: As you know, John...
KING: The administration has asked the Senate to do this...
EMANUEL: ... if you want to control health care costs...
KING: ... $250 billion Medicare fix to doctors. The administration has asked the Senate to do that outside of health care reform. And right now, there is no way to pay for it.
EMANUEL: Yes, but, John, in fact is -- the president -- this is one of the gimmicks that was done year after year in Washington...
KING: So why do it now? If it's been done year after year, why not end it?
EMANUEL: And the president's budget, in fact, he included it in his budget when we negotiated that and we passed the budget. The first year, it's paid for.
What happens is, everybody says, you know, don't worry about it, and then they just pass it on. We've made a difference.
But the first piece of controlling the deficit is health care. I will also say the next step, is also important, is paying pay as you go. In the 2000 era, starting in 2001, the discipline of the '90s that led to a surplus was pay as you go. That was eliminated, basically allowed to lapse. And we passed three tax cuts, a prescription drug bill that led to $5 trillion of red ink run up -- the biggest red ink run-up in the shortest period of time in American history. Literally over half the nation's debt is accumulated in the last eight years.
KING: I traveled 40 states in the last 40 weeks, and people often use language for which you and I are known for using, mostly in private, not often in public, when they come to the issue...
EMANUEL: I didn't know you were a fellow traveler, John.
KING: They're watching Wall Street and they see the stock market going up, and many of them think that's a good thing, but they also see 9, 10 percent, if you go to Michigan, 15 percent unemployment. And they see this past week Citigroup gets $45 million in government bailout money, pays $5.3 billion in bonuses. Bank of America gets $45 billion in their taxpayer money, pays out $3.3 billion in bonuses. Is there anything the president can do about this?
EMANUEL: Well, one -- yes. And the level is -- and one of the issues is -- I mean, I think the American people have a right to be frustrated and angry, in this sense -- when the financial markets and the financial system had frozen up to a point that literally one of the reasons the economy was literally going towards a depression, literally head first. There's a one out of three chance we were going to get a depression. That basically the system came, and they only people -- the only place that you could actually resolve this situation was the government, which required the taxpayers putting up $700 billion. That as soon as stability was achieved, and things had a sense of normalcy, what are some of the titans in the financial industry do? Is they're literally going and fighting the very type of regulations and reforms that are necessary to prevent, again, a crisis like this happening.
And it's -- you know, as somebody who has literally sat once and was in Congressman Barney Frank's committee, the Financial Services Committee, that they're literally in that short of order, they assume everybody else has, you know, basically short-term memory problems around here.
The notion that they came, and I -- and I -- and the president understands, and it's why he's spoken to this, why the American people are frustrated. Not only do they come for a bailout, but in this short period of time where they have a level of normalcy because of what the government did to help them, they're now back trying to fight consumer offices and the type of protections that will prevent another type of situation where the economy is taken over the cliff by the actions taken on Wall Street and the financial market. And that is what's frustrating people.
EMANUEL: What's also frustrating to the American people, and the part on the bonuses, and I understand, as a former member of Congress representing people, is that while they see these bonuses going back and three see that as part of what the banks pay, is in fact -- there was an article the other day in the USA Today, incomes are at their 18-year low.
So while they're struggling to try to make ends meet, save for their retirement, pay for health care costs that are going up 10 percent next year, according to the Hewitt Associates, provide for their children an education -- while they're struggling to make ends meet, Wall Street is back doing what Wall Street did.
They have a responsibility to the whole system. And it starts with not fighting the financial regulatory system and the reforms that are necessary to protect consumers, homeowners, and others. They have a responsibility to come to the table and understand that taking -- that the risks that they took, took the economy to a place, it was near a depression, which we hadn't seen since literally the '30s.
They have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of being the obstacle and the forces, which is what the president is facing both on health care and the financial system, is fighting the very special interests that have vested interests in keeping the status quo and their friends up on Capitol Hill, who have actually been their advocates in keeping the status quo.
KING: You need to go, and so I'm going to ask you one more quick question. I let you answer that because I could see how important it was to you and I didn't interrupt you. I've known you for... EMANUEL: That's so much like a family discussion.
KING: I've known you for 17 years, and we've been through a lot of campaigns together, you practice hardball politics with relish. I'm trying to get behind the curtain and understand why your White House has decided that it is in its interest to have this, boom, with our rival, FOX News, Anita Dunn, one of your staff, calls it the -- the communications director, the wing of the Republican Party. why?
EMANUEL: Well, no, it's not so much a conflict with FOX News. But unlike -- I suppose, the way to look at it and the way we -- the president looks at it and we look at it, is, it is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective. And that's a different take. And more importantly, does not have -- the CNNs and others in the world basically be led and following FOX, as if that -- what they're trying to do is a legitimate news organization in the sense of both sides and a sense of value (ph) opinion.
But let me say this. While it's clear what the White House and what Anita said, I mean, the concentration at the White House isn't about what FOX is doing. Its concentration is about, what does it take to make sure the economy is moving, creating jobs, helping the economy grow, making sure that we responsibly withdraw from Iraq, making sure what -- the decisions we make on Afghanistan, we ask the questions before we go ahead first into putting 40,000 more troops on the line and America's reputation, its most treasured resources, its young men and women, and its resources. That's what's occupying the decisions and the time in the White House.
KING: I know you would rather be home with your children, I will let you go.
KING: Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, thanks for coming in to STATE OF THE UNION.
EMANUEL: Thanks, John.
KING: And when we come back, should the president send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan? And should he at least wait? You heard Rahm Emanuel's view. When we come back, one of the most powerful voices in Congress is in Afghanistan. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's chairman, John Kerry, next.
KING: You just heard the White House perspective on the question of what's next in Afghanistan. Should there be more troops? What happens with the dispute over the contested election? We also have the views this morning for you of a very powerful voice in Congress, who is in the ground -- on the ground in Afghanistan, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KING: Senator Kerry, thank you for joining us from the ground there. First, I want your assessment of the political situation. How soon do you think they could administer a runoff election in Afghanistan?
KERRY: I'm told by the authorities here that they could do it in two weeks. And I accept that. I think it could be done in two weeks.
KING: What do you think the United States, the United Nations, and the international community need to do to make sure that what happened last time doesn't happen again? How do we strengthen the administration and the integrity of that election process? KERRY: Well, I think it's critical -- obviously, in any emerging democracy, there are going to be a certain number of difficulties. I think they've done a good job, frankly, over the last months and weeks of isolating what those difficulties were. and of throwing out the votes that needed to be thrown out. But if there is indeed going to be a run-off, then we want to try to do it as effectively as humanly possible. One of the things that was lacking last time, particularly in the south, was adequate security.
KING: Do you believe we should just step back from this, or is the best thing now going forward to try to encourage negotiations? There has been some talk of maybe a power-sharing arrangement. President Karzai would then bring Dr. Abdullah into the government somehow. Is that a good approach?
KERRY: I think it's entirely up to President Karzai to make -- assuming he gets reelected, if he is, then he has got to make decisions about what the make-up of his government is going to be. That doesn't mean we just stand by, no. I don't accept that. We have too much at stake here, our troops are on the line. We have people in harm's way in this country. And they're making great sacrifices.
And we have a responsibility to make certain that the government here is a full partner in our efforts to be able to be as effective as we can be. So before the president makes a decision about the numbers of troops that ought to come here, I believe it is critical for us to be satisfied that the reform efforts that are absolutely mandatory within the government here are in fact going to take place and be fully implemented.
This struggle here in Afghanistan, and the goals of the president that he has defined with respect to al Qaeda and the stability of the region, those goals will not be achieved by just the United States military or the numbers of troops here.
The essential ingredients, frankly, as important as anything, is the ability of the government of Afghanistan to deliver at the top, all the way down to the local level; and secondly, the ability of the international community to bring the civilian sector in underneath the military effort in order to provide an improvement in the quality of life and opportunities for the people of this country.
Those are critical components of counterinsurgency strategy. It would be very hard, I think, for the president to make a commitment to X number of troops, whatever it might be, or to the new strategy, without knowing that all of the components of the strategy are indeed capable of being achieved.
KING: Well, let me ask you a little -- more questions about that then. You've had meetings with General McChrystal and his deputies there on the ground.
KING: Before you left Washington, you said you were very wary of the prospect of sending maybe 40,000 more troops into the situation in Afghanistan.
After the face-to-face contact with the generals, are you more comfortable with their plan?
KERRY: They answered a lot of questions. And obviously, General McChrystal is a very impressive leader. Not all of the questions have been answered. And some of the assumptions that General McChrystal is making, and he acknowledges this himself, are based on the other two things I talked about.
And so this mission is not defined exclusively by its military component. And we've got to make certain that the other pieces, again, I say, are achievable. And I'm not yet convinced that we're there.
KING: Not yet convinced. You have, in the past, many times raised the Vietnam analogy, saying your worry was that then-Defense Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland, would keep asking for more troops without examining all of the big underlying questions.
Are you convinced that General McChrystal is not General Westmoreland?
KERRY: Absolutely. I think General McChrystal is asking the questions about the underlying assumptions. This is not Vietnam in that - many respects.
We are here in Afghanistan because people attacked us here, in the most significant attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. We are here because there are still people at large who are plotting against the United States of America. And we are here because the stability of this region is of critical strategic interest to the United States.
I think most people agree on that. So the -- the basic assumptions here are very, very different from what we experienced years ago in Vietnam.
In addition to that, I think the general is very, very carefully looking at the other components of the mission that he has set, i.e., what will the government of Afghanistan be able to deliver? And how does he work around it if they don't? And secondly, how much and how fast can we get a civilian component in here to do the build part, after we clear and hold, and then ultimately transfer to the Afghans? And that's another assumption that people are looking at very carefully. What are the Afghans themselves capable of doing with respect to their army? How fast can they be trained? How capable will they be? What kind of transition can take place?
These are all the kinds of questions that are appropriately being asked now.
KING: We had Senator McCain in here last week. And you know his opinion, but I want to share it with our viewers and get your reaction to it. I asked him the question, what will it take in Afghanistan to succeed? Listen to Senator McCain.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Do you think the United States can win in Afghanistan with fewer than 40,000 more troops?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: I do not. And I think the great danger now is not an American pullout; I think the great danger now is a half-measure, sort of a -- you know, try to please all ends of the political spectrum.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: I don't think the president has any intention of doing that. I think he is going to make his judgment about what kind of mission he's going to set. And then he is going to make, I think, a solid judgment about what it's going to take to accomplish that mission.
You know, I have great respect for John McCain. He and I served in the same war. We both have searing memories about what happened when politics took over the decisions of that. So I respect his caution about it.
But I'm convinced that the review the president is going through is exhaustive; it's thorough; and I'm absolutely confident the president is not going to make a decision remotely connected to politics. He is going to make a decision based on the national security interests of our country and of what he thinks it takes to achieve the mission that he defines to meet those interests.
KING: A quick break, but when we come back, more with John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, who is on the ground in Afghanistan. Stay with us.
KING: Let's continue our conversation, now, with Senate John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Let's get your assessment of the threat. What is the threat now, in Afghanistan, of Al Qaida and the Taliban to the United States?
General Jones was here a few weeks ago, and he said probably fewer than 100 Al Qaida operatives currently in Afghanistan. What is the threat?
KERRY: It's a several-fold threat. It's the threat of the failure of governance, which is empowering Taliban to be able to recruit people because of their dissatisfaction and distrust, not essentially because they agree with the Taliban.
But if the Taliban gain sufficient footholds in parts of the country, most people, I think, make a judgment that that is an opportunity for Al Qaida to take advantage of their alliance and therefore create, conceivably, a sanctuary or training ground for terrorist activities in other parts of the world.
We have seen that. That is their modus operandi. And that's what we have to worry about. That's the threat, insofar as the Taliban might or might not present a challenge to us. I don't think they're about to take over the country. Al Qaida is not essentially here today. It is in northwest Pakistan and in some 58 or 59 other countries in the world.
But we need to also guarantee that the Taliban and our own presence don't become a destabilizing factor with respect to Pakistan and their efforts to fight against their own Taliban as well as other extremist groups that threaten their government.
And they are, as we recall, a government with nuclear weapons, a government with a major number of troops lined up on the border with India, and a government that, for a number of other reasons, I think has national security interests for the United States.
KING: Help us, Mr. Chairman, understand that delicate and difficult balance. Do you worry, for example, that, if the United States were to add 30,000, 40,000 more troops into Afghanistan, you would be roughly, then, with U.S. and NATO troops, where the Soviets were back in the old days of their incursion into Afghanistan?
And some say that that would cause so much instability in Pakistan, the giant U.S. presence, that you would be doing more harm than good.
KING: Do you share that assessment?
KERRY: Well, I don't share the beginning -- the beginning basis of the premise in which you asked the question.
I don't think people here in Afghanistan are viewing the United States now in the same way that they viewed the Soviet Union, not at all.
Yes, there is, however, a legitimate question about whether or not a certain number of troops, depending on their mission, might drive people into Pakistan, and thereby present further difficulties in the western part of that country or even fuel the extremism there.
That is a legitimate question. And it is raised by a number of Pakistanis, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to come over here to talk to people on both sides of the border about that perception. KING: Help the American people understand -- best-case scenario, how long will U.S. troops be in Afghanistan, 10 years, 20 years, more?
KERRY: Well, I hope it won't be that long, obviously. And I have -- you know, I'm trying to think about a mission that doesn't touch those kinds of time frames. My hope is that we can define a mission, here, that will achieve what we need to do to meet our national security interests. That's what this is about.
And we have to define them very, very carefully. I think the president was correct in focusing on Al Qaida and on focusing the stability of the region and of Pakistan itself. And our mission, in so much as it takes into account the Taliban, is really focused on that.
What we need to figure out is how rapidly and how effectively can we create a transfer to the Afghans themselves. And, you know, I don't have an answer to that, sitting here with you today.
KING: I want to share with you an assessment by the commander of the VFW back here in the United States and get your comments on it. Tom Tradewell, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said this.
"In battle, weaknesses are exploited and attacked, which proved to be the case during the Vietnam War. North Vietnam correctly perceived that the United States government did not possess the political will to complete the mission. And that perception became reality.
"In Afghanistan, the extremists are sensing weakness and indecision within the United States government, which plays into their hands, as evidenced by the increased attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. I fear that an emboldened enemy will not intensify their efforts to kill more U.S. soldiers."
Is there weakness and indecision in the United States government? Is the commander of the VFW right?
KERRY: I -- I respectfully disagree with the judgment that he makes about -- at this point in time. Look, obviously, if you exhibit weakness or indecision, or if the United States were to suddenly pull out of here, it would disastrous, in terms of the message that it sends. Nobody is talking about that. That's not what's on the table here.
What we're trying to figure out, so that we don't repeat mistakes of the past, is not just committing people in -- putting them in harm's way and endlessly asking our military to deploy and go out and fight if we aren't certain that we're giving them the mission that, in fact, is achievable and that the American people will in fact stay committed to it.
That's part of what has to be tested here. A lot of us have tough memories of what happens when the country loses that will.
So, you know, I want to understand this as well as I can. I don't think -- I think the president -- and look, it would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country, when we don't even have an election finished and know who the president is and what kind of government we're working with.
And when our own, you know, commanding general tells us that a critical component of achieving our -- our mission here is, in fact, good governance, and we're living with a government that we know has to change and provide it, how could the president responsibly say, oh, they asked for it; sure, here they are -- and we know that the two critical schools of counterinsurgency aren't going to stand. That would be irresponsible for a president of the United States.
And no commander-in-chief should be, you know, cornered into making a decision that isn't based on a responsible assessment about what is possible and what the American people are prepared to commit to.
I think this is being approached in an entirely responsible way. General McChrystal told me that, even if the commander in chief made the decision tomorrow to put those troops in here, many of them wouldn't even begin to start the flow here until next year, because that's the way it works.
So this is not a situation where someone here is being deprived today or tomorrow or the next day. This is a situation where I think people here are being protected by a smart way of making policy.
KING: Let me try to bring you home, Senator, before we let you go, for a couple of questions about domestic policy here in the United States. The Senate Finance Committee bill to pay for its health care reforms adopts a proposal similar to one you advocated. It's not exactly the Kerry proposal, but it would put a fee on those "Cadillac" insurance plans.
And many of your friends in the labor movement have said, you know what, you're going to put a fee on the insurance companies and they're going to pass that on to the consumer. Gerry McEntee, a labor leader, who helped you when you were running for president, says it's a slap in the face of the American worker. And they view it as a violation of the president's promise not to raise taxes on middle- class Americans.
Is Gerry McEntee right? Is that a slap in the face of American workers?
KERRY: Well, I have great, great respect for Gerry McEntee. He's a good pal of mine, and I appreciate enormously his concern, and I share his concern for workers who might be affected if the threshold were to stay too low. I don't believe the threshold will stay too low.
And we're -- we've already raised it, actually, partly. We have adjusted to some of his concerns and other people's concerns. And I hope we can still raise it a little further to a different level.
But here's what I'm convinced of: If you get it at the right level, I believe what happens is, it doesn't get passed on because those insurance companies actually have a strong incentive to be competitive with the other companies that are going to be in this new exchange that is created.
KING: Senator John Kerry, there, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Up next, we head to Alaska. It's a breathtakingly beautiful state, and its isolation often protects it when the national economy takes a turn for the worst. But just as winter arrives, so does recession. Stay with us.
KING: As you know, in our travels, we often look at the mixed signals from the economy. The stock market goes up, but so, too, does unemployment. This week, we went to far away Alaska. Look at this. The unemployment rate a year ago was 6.7 percent. It is up to 8.4 percent now. Every resident of Alaska gets an annual check from the state because of oil revenues. Last year it was over $2,000. This year down because oil revenues are down. In our "American Dispatch" this week from Anchorage, we wanted to take a first-hand look at the rugged beauty that makes Alaska so different yet also at the pain of a recession that's all too familiar.
KING (voice-over): Alaska takes pride in its natural beauty and the geographic isolation that makes it very different from what folks here call the lower 48.
NEAL FRIED, ECONOMIST, DEPT OF LABOR, ALASKA: Our economy really beats to a very different drummer than the sort of the average American economy, if there is such a thing.
KING: State economist Neal Fried says the numbers don't lie. Tourism is down, trade is slumping, unemployment climbing.
FRIED: Now we're part of it like the rest of the country is. We appear to be more attached and we're being more affected by this recession than we've ever been in prior recessions elsewhere in the country.
KING: With jobs so scarce, Brad Gillespie says the state is taking new steps, including an online warning to discourage people who lost jobs elsewhere from migrating to Alaska.
BRAD GILLESPIE, ANCHORAGE AREA ALASKA JOB CENTER: We have a fair number of people that think Alaska is the promise land. They have maybe misconceptions about what's up here, and they load up their family and head out on the Alaska highway and we want to encourage them to not do that until they have something lined up before they get up here.
KING: Sharon Phillips is a regular here, out of work for nine months now.
SHARON PHILLIPS, UNEMPLOYED RESIDENT: I put in for probably -- oh, probably ten jobs, eight or 10 jobs a week. I get interviewed for about four a week and I'm still unemployed. There's usually about 70 or 80 people that apply for most jobs. We've been here 27 years, but this is probably the worst I've ever seen the economy anywhere since I've been alive.
KING: Sharon's unemployment benefits run about $450 a month. She says others have it worse.
PHILLIPS: My husband also works for the state so we're making it, you know? I see so many people -- I see more people out on the streets. I see more people homeless. It's going to get worse with winter.
KING: Demand for a shelter is increasing and at this one in Anchorage, the faces reflect the higher toll on native Alaskans. So does the activity at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council job center. Unemployment among native Alaskans is around 20 percent. And with winter approaching, employment and training director Carol Wren worries it will go higher.
CAROL WREN, COOK INLET TRIBAL COUNCIL: They face a lot of other challenges that other individuals may not face. We look at education levels, they're usually lower. Poverty rates, pregnancy rates, some of those thing, so I think that it's going to be a little rough for folks here and into the future. I think we're just starting to feel it here.
KING: The tribal center has benefited from federal stimulus money and so has the state government. But Republican Governor Sean Parnell said he would prefer longer term health for Alaska, like approval of new oil and gas leases.
GOV. SEAN PARNELL (R), ALASKA: Outer-continental shelf development means 35,000 new jobs. The problem with stimulus funds is that they're great when they come in, but it's horrible when they're gone, so it's a dependence that gets created that doesn't lead to any more freedom or prosperity in the long run. I'd like to see more policy geared towards investment and job creation rather than propping up the states along the way.
KING: Looking ahead, the governor worries next summer will be another tough tourism season and that a recession that came late to Alaska will linger too long.
PARNELL: Alaska tends to trail the rest of the U.S. when it comes to the economy. So when the rest of the economy is headed out, it takes Alaska some time behind it. When the national economy is heading down, we trail.
KING: A breathtaking sunset. As you know, one of our goals is to get out of Washington as often as we can. We've made it our pledge on "State of the Union" to travel to all 50 states our first year. So far, 40 weeks, 40 states including Alaska, Maine and West Virginia. Where should we go next? You can e-mail us, stateoftheunion@CNN.com and tell us that why should come to your community.
I want to say good-bye to our international audience in this hour. But up next for viewers here in the United States, Howard Kurtz gets Michael Wilbon's take on Rush Limbaugh's now defunct bid to buy into an NFL franchise.
KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union."
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KING (voice-over): Media scrutiny derails Rush Limbaugh's bid to become an NFL team owner. Journalists fare on the analysis of the controversial radio talk show host's comments. "Washington Post" sports columnist Michael Wilbon shares his view. Plus the White House isn't backing down from its criticism of FOX News. Smart strategy or a signal of a more combative relationship between the president and the press? In this hour of "State of the Union," Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his "Reliable Sources."
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