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Confederacy Controversy; Obama's Health Care Payoff; Life Lessons from Nelson Mandela; Mending U.S.-Afghan Relations

Aired April 10, 2010 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: President Obama signs a major new arms control agreement with Russia, but can he get the votes in the U.S. Senate to ratify it? And what is he getting from Russia in return? I'll ask the National Security Council's Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough.

Also a governor's proclamation honoring the Confederacy stirs up controversy and opens up old wounds. Doug Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, and a member of the sons of Confederate veterans will both weigh in.

Plus Washington's critical relationship with the Afghan president on the rocks. Now an outrageous allegation, what if Hamid Karzai actually joined with the Taliban? We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A major shift in U.S. nuclear strategy this week. President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signing an agreement to slash their nuclear weapons stash by one-third. For that, and more, I'm joined now from Prague by the chief of staff of the president's National Security Council, Denis McDonough.

Denis, thanks very much for joining us.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, CHIEF OF STAFF, NAT'L. SECURITY COUNCIL: Happy to be with you, Wolf, thanks a lot for the chance.

BLITZER: Can you get 67 votes in the United States Senate to ratify this new treaty?

MCDONOUGH: I think that's the right question, Wolf, especially now that the difficult work of negotiating the treaty is completed. To protect against that, what we've done, and what the president has insisted on, is working very closely with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate over the course of these negotiations. So we've kept the Senate fully apprised, frankly, we've raised a lot of the issues they wanted us to raise.

And we have a history in this country of having very strong bipartisan support for arms control treaties, going back over the course of the last 20 years or so. It's hard to find a treaty that passed with fewer than 90 votes in the Senate. So we feel pretty good about it, but frankly, we not taking anything for granted. That's why we are going to keep working this.

And frankly, earlier on Thursday many of our colleagues were briefing from here in Prague, back to Washington, to make sure that the a Senate had the best understanding of this. So we're going to keep working this. We're not taking anything for granted but we this a treaty in our interest, so we feel pretty good about it.

BLITZER: I think a lot of members of the Senate, not only Republicans, but Democrats as well, will be looking at Russia and its behavior in the coming weeks and months. Do you have a firm are commitment from Russia that it will support a new round of tough sanctions against Iran?

MCDONOUGH: Well, in the first instance, let's keep in mind, Wolf, that we believe this treaty in and of itself is in our interest. It's going make sure that we lead the world here in drawing down our nuclear weapons. In so doing we're going to isolate those actors like North Korea and Iran. We want to break out of the international proliferation system. So we think it's in the first instance very much in our interest to do that.

As it relates to our cooperation with Russia, we feel like we're making good progress on that. The president and President Medvedev on Thursday spent a lot of time talking about that. So, we think we're making good progress on it, but again, we're not taking anything for granted on that either.

The negotiations up in New York are ongoing. The cooperation we're getting from Russia, in Afghanistan, in terms of transiting lethal equipment to our troops down there, through Russian air space, that is proceeding apace. But we're not going to taking anything for granted. We are going to keep pushing this thing right on through, as it relates to Iran, as it relates to Afghanistan, as it relates to North Korea, and a range of other issues.

BLITZER: Do you have a firm commitment one way or another from China that it will support sanctions at the U.N. Security Council?

MCDONOUGH: Again, I'm not going to get ahead of the negotiators up in New York or the negotiations that are going up at the capitals. What I do know is this, Wolf, we worked very closely with our Chinese friends on an issue as it relates to North Korean proliferation. You have seen as a result of our efforts there, the most robust nonproliferation resolution ever enacted, and frankly, enforced as it relates to North Korea.

We know that our Chinese colleagues recognize the importance of stopping a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. So we think these are all very important things that China recognizes, but again, I'm not going get ahead of the facts on the ground. I'm going to make sure we get a resolution that's in our interest and that will change Iranian behavior.

BLITZER: There have already been at least three or four rounds of sanction against Iran and it doesn't seem to have any impact on Iran's decision to go forward and pursue a nuclear weapon, that according to U.S. officials. So what make you believe that a new round of sanctions would have any impact at all?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I think the bottom line, Wolf, is we're got going to hang our hats solely on sanctions. Although a strong resolution out of New York as we have seen related to North Korea can have an impact. But we're not hanging our hat on only that.

In fact, over the course of the last 15 months, we've unwound the strategy as it relates to Iran. That has resulted in Iran being less united at home. Frankly, more divided politically than we've seen it in some time, more isolated in the world. They're seeing the balance of power in the region moving away from it. And we're seeing according to the IAEA some struggling from the Iranians with their nuclear program.

So, there's no silver bullet here, Wolf, you're right. But we are not counting on one silver bullet. We're working very closely with our allies, and with our friends. As you mentioned, the Russians, for example, we're going to continue push on exactly that.

BLITZER: Is a military option still on the table?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I think you've heard the president say that no commander in chief puts -- takes options off the table one way or the other here. But what he has also been clear is we believe diplomacy is the right way to go at the moment. We believe, as I indicated a minute ago, that our diplomat efforts over the last 15 or so months, have resulted in a weaker more isolated Iran. We think that is in our interest. Frankly, we've seen from our allies and friends, from Great Britain to France, to Israel, all strongly supporting that diplomatic effort and we are going to continue to pursue just that.

BLITZER: Is Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, still coming to Washington on May 12th?


BLITZER: No change, given some of his controversial statements over the past few days?

MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, Wolf, we're very focused on results. Let's remember why we're in Afghanistan. We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked on 9/11 with a level of attack that, frankly, we had not theretofore seen in the United States. The president is bound and determined to make sure that doesn't happen again. So we're working very aggressively to advance our interests in a stable and secure Afghanistan. And we are working with our partners in Afghanistan including President Karzai.

So we're focused more on the results, Wolf, than we are on a particular statement here or there, and we're going to be candid with our partner, where we disagree. We'll be candid where we agree. But the bottom line is the president saw some good progress after his visit to Kabul. We are seeing some good progress in the run up to the May 12 visit. And that exactly what we are focused on, is progress on the ground to advance our interests and stability there.

BLITZER: Do you still have confidence in Karzai?

MCDONOUGH: You know, Wolf, I do. But the more important thing is that the president does. And most importantly had he has a lot of confidence in the strategy that we're able to hammer out across the agencies of our government, from the State Department to Defense Department, to our intelligence community and our foreign assistance efforts. So we have a comprehensive effort that underscores our interests, that advances our interests, not just in Afghanistan, frankly, but also in Pakistan. So we have confidence in the strategy that we've laid down and we're seeing that unfold. We've seen it unfold in Marjah, we're seeing it unfold, frankly, in the capitol. And I'm sure we'll that unfold over the course of this summer in Kandahar as well.

BLITZER: Is the Obama administration putting together a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement defining what needs to be done by both parties?

MCDONOUGH: Wolf, what we've been doing since the president turned up to work in the Oval Office, on that first day of work over 15 months ago, is engaging in this process, engaging in it because we think it's in Israel's interest to have peace with security. We think it's in Palestinian's interest to have peace with security.

But as importantly as anything, it's in the United States' vital interest to have peace in two states living side by side in peace and security in that region. So we've been working this through, Wolf.

As to your specific questions, I know a lot of reports I've seen lately, I'm not aware of any of those particular efforts and we spent a lot of time on this. But we're are going to do everything we can to advance our interests in the region. To advance Israel's security interests and obviously, fulfill the president's goal of two states, as I said, living side by side in peace and security.

BLITZER: Are you saying all those reports are inaccurate that the U.S. might come up with a peace plan and try to impose it on the Israelis and Palestinians?

MCDONOUGH: What I am saying, Wolf, is I've seen a lot of reports that seem to be ahead of the fact as I know them. And in some instances a lot ahead of the facts s as I know them. What we're focused on here is working through, engaging this process. We have the leadership Senator Mitchell, as our envoy in the region, working closely with our Israeli friends and with-and with our allies and with partners throughout the region to advance those interests. So any of these reports that suggest we're going all-in on one new plan or one new effort, I don't think are accurate reflection of what we're working on.

BLITZER: Denis McDonough, is the chief of staff of the National Security Council.

Denis, thanks very much for joining us.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks a lot, Wolf, it's good to be with you. BLITZER: Iran more defiant than ever even as the West threatens tough new sanction over its nuclear program. Now the Iranian president is openly mocking President Obama. We'll assess.

And the very public spat between the White House and Afghan leader leads to outrageous allegation including drug use and more.

And almost 150 years after the start of the Civil War, governor's proclamation ignites new controversy


BLITZER: Iran shows no sign whatsoever of backing down from its controversial nuclear program despite the threat of increased sanctions. In fact, the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stepped up his rhetoric in recent days. Taking direct shots at President Obama.

Let's get some insight from the well-known journalist, Robin Wright. She is now with the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, non-partisan organization, created by Congress.

Robin, thanks very much for coming in.

I'll read to you what Ahmadinejad said poking fun at President Obama the other day. He said, "American materialist politicians, whenever they are beaten by logic, immediately resort their weapons like cowboys. Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer. Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience. American officials, bigger than you, more bullying than you couldn't do a damn thing, let alone you."

Wow. That's a direct shot at a president who for a year has been trying to reach out in his own ways to establish a dialogue, if you will.

ROBIN WRIGHT, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: This is not first time Ahmadinejad has made an outrageous statement whether it's about the United States, or even when he was in New York in 2007, claiming there were no gays in Iran. This is a man who doesn't have lot of tact. And he often speaks without thinking. He's not a man who's exposed a lot to the outside world. And I think that there are probably a lot of people within his own government who are embarrassed about his bluntness of what he says.

BLITZER: But his grip on power remains there. Is there any prospect that the anti-Ahmadinejad elements, we saw them on the streets after the election, are going to be able to overthrow him, get rid of him and create new regime?

WRIGHT: Look, the regime has never been more vulnerable than it is today in the 30 years of the revolution. The fact is the Green Movement, while it's been forced underground is not gone. One of the things that's so striking is the number of people who have joined the movement in part because of what's happened with the detentions, the show trial, the mass arrests, and the brutality, the militarization of the regime.

So this is not over. There is a hiatus at the moment, as they're trying to figure out what happens next, but I suspect what we'll likely see is the regime under pressure economically, which may get worse because of sanctions, also faces the removal of subsidies to many on basic commodities like sugar and gasoline and that this is going to create a backlash. And that the next phase of the Green Movement is likely to play out over economic issues, labor dispute, unions protesting, we're already beginning to see the start of that.

BLITZER: I guess, the question is, you and I are old enough to remember when the shah was overthrown. And what happened, he a powerful grip at that time as well, but he was gone. Could that same domestic unrest result in getting rid of Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij, all of those elements of power that control Iran right now?

WRIGHT: Well, remember, the revolutionaries now in power were those who were behind it. They remember the tactics they have used. And they have used, they have pulled out all stops in trying to make sure that they are not undermined.

Iran is more authoritarian today than it ever was under the shah, but the regime is also vulnerable. Are we likely to see something as dramatic as the removal of the shah and the removal of Ahmadinejad? Probably not. But his term ends and then Iran, particularly the supreme leader who has ultimate power, has to deal with the facts on the ground, and the fact that he is increasingly unpopular as well.

BLITZER: Let's shift in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You heard Denis McDonough, the president's National Security Council, chief of staff, sort of pooh-pooh these reports that the Obama administration may come up with its own proposed peace plan and try to impose it, if you will, on the Israelis and Palestinians. What are you hearing about that?

WRIGHT: I think the administration is frustrated that after a year, George Mitchell hasn't been able to get the two sides to talk. The danger for the administration is that this is no longer just the Palestinians and the Israelis, now you have Iran looming in the background as a complicating factor. And that this is the first time you've seen much of the Arab world in agreement with Israel on an issue.

BLITZER: They're just as worried as the Israelis are.

WRIGHT: Absolutely. And they would -and you talk to leaders particularly in the Gulf who say we would like to be on the board with the Israelis, but we're not going to unless there's some movement on the peace process. So I think the administration feels that in large part because of Iran there is greater need for resolution of this conflict because if it comes to the moment there's some kind of tension with Iran, it then could very well play out as well in the Arab-Israeli front.

BLITZER: We'll watch it together with you, Robin. Thanks very much for coming in.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Robin Wright, always helping us understand what's happening in the Middle East.

Dining with Al Qaeda, we'll talk to the author of a new book that takes us inside the mindset of a terrorist.

Also, what's next for President Obama after health care reform? Does he have the political capital left to tackle financial reform, energy reform, immigration reform, lots of reform? What's going on? We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Almost every American knows and fears Al Qaeda, which seared itself onto the national consciousness with the 9/11 terror attacks. But who are the people that make up this terror group? And what drives their hatred of the United States? The former "The Wall Street Journal" correspondent Hugh Pope has covered the Middle East extensively and writes about his experiences in his brand new book entitled "Dining with Al Qaeda"


BLITZER (on camera): Tell us something our viewers don't know about Al Qaeda. Because you've spent time with them and the book is entitled "Dining with Al Qaeda." We are going to get to that in a moment. But give us a little something that you learned about this organization that might not be all that obvious.

HUGH POPE, AUTHOR, "DINING WITH AL QAEDA": My encounter with Al Qaeda was a glancing one. It was in Riyadh, two months after September 11. We were all fascinated to know who were those 15 Saudis who were on those planes? And I was in Saudi Arabia, and I had asked to meet someone who known them, and the chaplain of the camp in Afghanistan where they had trained, if you like.

The young man who gave them religious direction was very pro-Al Qaeda. That person agreed to meet me. I would just say that the man was somewhat flaky. He at first threaten to kill me as we started the conversation, but gradually I understood, and he understood, that we were not threatening to each other. But I would stress that he thought I was of a spy out there to kill him, just as he was threatening to kill me. I think the important thing to remember is when we attack, or do things in the Middle East, we don't feel it. Similarly, we only feel what they do to us. There's a huge lack of empathy and engagement with the Middle East on a broad front and getting the context right of what's happening will help everything bring down the level of tension.

BLITZER: You know this region well. You've spent 30 years covering the region. Look ahead for us. Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has invested so much blood and treasure. Years from now, will they have been a success or a failure from the U.S. perspective? POPE: Personally, I see these as rather like someone who's made a big investment and watched the stock plummet, and question is at what time do you disengage from the stock? Of course it's very difficult to admit you've taken a big loss. It is hard to see how any of these countries can quickly recover. There's no magic wand in this. All the Middle Eastern core societies are eroded. They are terribly thin. All the best people are here in America, they've left, they're refugees, to have gone away.

To rebuild these countries is going to take stability, then prosperity and time and then eventually real, any kind of wealth that's flowing through these societies and allowing the middle classes to grow will be a tide that lifts all the boats, and makes everything better. But that's not going to happen overnight, and unfortunately for the United States now having gone in, is intimately involved, and the birds are coming home to roost.

BLITZER: It's hard to get out when you still think there's going to be success. Clearly, that's the point you're making. Do you think the president was right in going to Turkey to address the Muslim world, right to go to Egypt to address the Arab world, but you think he blundered when he didn't go to Israel. Tell us why.

POPE: I think he should be talking to Israel. Many Israelis are not willing to hear his message about he's their long-term security. But it is very important in these matters is this a key change in U.S. policy, for decades Israeli has been given a blank check. Israeli has been able to do whatever it likes and there's an idea in America that the interests of Israel are exactly the same as the interests of the United States.

I think that recent weeks have shown that the commander of CentCom, General David Petraeus has made it clear through these reports that American are national security interests are at risk when Israel attacks, or damages, or is seen to impinge on Muslim sacred symbols, for instance, Jerusalem. I think that Obama drawing a line down showing no, we are now engaged in two important Muslim country, Afghanistan and Iraq, we must also protect the sanctity of Muslim symbols because we are in charge populations that care about this. And at a certain point, Israel cannot do everything it wants, that is a change it will take for the Israelis to understand, but in their long-term security I think that they have to come to some new arrangement with the Palestinians.

BLITZER: You think the president should have gone there and told the Israelis exactly how he feels.

POPE: Yes. And maybe it would have taken a year or two for them to believe it. But I think that he is-if he has good arguments, and I think he does, then he could persuade them.

BLITZER: Hugh Pope's book is entitled, "Dining With Al Qaeda: Three decades exploring the man worlds of the Middle East."

Hugh, thanks very much for coming in.

POPE: Thanks for having me.


BLITZER: Controversy about the Confederacy, a proclamation from Virginia's governor sparking intense debate while opening some old wounds. Now he's conceding he made a major omission. We have details of the uproar. I'll also speak with the former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder.


BLITZER: Huge controversy erupted over a decision this week by Virginia's new Republican governor to designate April Confederate History Month.

CNN's Kate Bolduan is following the story.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Virginia, known for its Civil War battlefields. Its capital, Richmond, was the capital of the confederacy. Now, a new battle over that legacy.

Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has declared April Confederate History Month to, "understand the sacrifices of the confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens."

GOV. ROBERT MCDONNELL (R), VIRGINIA: I thought that just having people look at the history, learning from the mistakes of the history, but understanding Virginia's role in the battlefield, et cetera, would be helpful for economic development. And so, that's why -- that's why I signed it up.

BOLDUAN: But the governor is now apologizing for what he calls a major omission, failing to make any mention of slavery and is amending the proclamation to include it.

Civil rights advocates had accused the governor of trying to, quote, "whitewash history."

BEN JEALOUS, NAACP: To, you know, not take even a second to acknowledge that the Civil War, you know, the main purpose of it, the -- the main reason for the -- you know, for that fire that burned across this country was the South's refusal to let go of slavery, which is a deep and abiding crime against humanity, does suggest that he lacks courage.

BOLDUAN (on camera): For better or worse, Virginia is steeped in Confederate history. Monuments like this one can be found throughout the state. Governor McDonnell, in the proclamation, suggested that the move was meant to help boost tourism ahead of next year's 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): The governor says he issued the proclamation at the request of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans. They say the outcry is politically motivated. Earlier, McDonnell gave this explanation for leaving slavery out.

MCDONNELL: Slavery was an absolute abomination on this nation. It was a vile and horrific practice that I'm delighted is wiped off the face of this -- of this country, and so I didn't mention it solely because I was trying to keep the focus on really the -- the war aspects of it.

BOLDUAN: Kate Bolduan, CNN, Washington.



BLITZER: Let's talk about this with the former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder; and Richard Hines. He's a member of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans. Gentlemen, thanks to both of you for coming in.

Let's start off with the news that just developed. Governor Wilder, your successor a few governors removed, Governor McDonnell, now apologizing to the people of Virginia for not condemning slavery in that initial proclamation. I assume you're happy he's done that.

L. DOUGLAS WILDER, FORMER VIRGINIA GOVERNOR: Well, I'm glad he's done that. I talked with him earlier today. He called me and he said he was going to revise his statement as well as the proclamation, and I think it's the right thing for him to have done so because most people recognize that slavery was because of the war.

The war was not a glorious thing in our past. It was something that we were able to withstand in terms of tearing the country apart.

I want to point out something though, Wolf. Some of my very good friends are Confederate relatives of -- of people who fought in the war, who died in the war, yet they don't talk about glorifying what took place during that period of time. They recognize the sacrifices, and I do, too, acknowledge those sacrifices that people made.

But slaves and slavery was because of this war, and thank God that war ended with the Confederacy losing.

BLITZER: Did -- Richard Hines, did Governor McDonnell do the right thing today, coming out with this dramatic statement, apologizing to the people of Virginia, saying it -- it was a mistake. I apologize to any Virginian who was offended and disappointed?

RICHARD HINES, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS: Well, Wolf, I mean, that -- that's up to the governor. I think the governor deserves a great deal of credit for issuing the Confederate History Month Proclamation, and he certainly has retracted that.

Governor Wilder, we're talking with, never did issue a proclamation.

WILDER: That's correct. HINES: As mayor of Richmond, he never did anything to help us with the Confederate graves, say, Oakwood Cemetery. We -- we asked, you Mr. Wilder, to help us there. The city had broken those headstones and had done nothing to preserve that important part of Virginia's history, and you did nothing to help us.

So you have been sort of in a -- a Pavlovian sense, very anti- Confederate since the get go. I don't know why because a plurality of Virginians have Confederate soldiers in their...

BLITZER: I want to get into that, Mr. Hines, but do you condemn slavery?

HINES: Of course. I don't know anybody that supports it. Do you?

BLITZER: All right. So I -- no, of course not. So that's why I just want to make sure that we got that out of the way.

But go ahead, Governor Wilder, and respond to Mr. Hines' now -- his assertion. When you were governor, why didn't you declare Confederate History Month in Virginia?

WILDER: I don't intend to engage in any debate with this gentleman about anything. Facts speaks for -- speak for themselves.

When I was governor, I did what I thought I should do. I removed the Confederate insignia from the shoulders of those persons in the National Guard. I thought it was the wrong thing for that to take place. I issued statements recognizing the contributions that were made during the period of the war from people on all sides, and, having said that, as I just pointed out to you, I don't intend to engage in any debate because it's not a debatable issue.

BLITZER: But just on this one issue, Governor Wilder, the -- the proclamation -- forget about the slavery issue. He's apologized for that now, Governor McDonnell. But the proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month, do you -- did he do the right thing by doing that, Governor McDonnell?

WILDER: To the extent that he wanted to promote tourism for people to come to visit the sites of slavery, to see the battlegrounds where, as he points out, most of the war was fought in many instances, there's nothing wrong with people coming to see what took place.

But, to put it in the emphasis and the thesis of glorification and people should be proud and that all Virginians should share in the contributions made by those people who fought to enslave them -- there were 500,000 people of African descent living in Virginia during that period of time, almost half the size of the state itself. Those people weren't happy, nor do their descendants have anything to be happy about.

BLITZER: Mr. Hines, you understand why a lot of people are not happy with the governor, despite his admission today that it was a mistake on slavery -- HINES: You know, I --

BLITZER: -- not happy with declaring April Confederate History Month?

HINES: I understand why people like Mr. Wilder want to make this a comic strip version of history. The fact of the matter is it's not.

You know, we have the same thing last year when the -- the president of the United States, who every year has presented a wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Wilder may have been -- been on this group of people and organizations, they called on President Obama not to present that wreath.

And it was a glorification of the service of those men, those hundreds of Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and he did the right thing. He went ahead. He sent the wreath. He ignored the criticism, and I think Governor McDonnell has done the same thing here.

BLITZER: All right. I -- I don't think you're going to agree necessarily on Confederate History Month, so -- and you don't want to get into a debate, so let's just leave it right there --

WILDER: I'm not going to be involved in a debate.

BLITZER: -- and we'll move on.

The -- once again, though, the governor of Virginia, Governor McDonnell, announcing just a little while ago in a lengthy written statement that his failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake.

Doug Wilder --

WILDER: And for that -- and for that, he should be commended.

BLITZER: Yes. Doug Wilder, Richard Hines, guys, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: With health care reform now on the books, the Obama administration moving on with its agenda. What's next on the list for the president?

We'll ask "TIME" magazine's Managing Editor, Richard Stengel. He's here. I'll ask him what thinks is on the horizon.

Plus, Stengel also has a new book out that a lot of people are talking about. He'll share lessons on life, love and courage, lessons he learned from a living legend, South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

And later, politics rated P.G. Who would have thought taking off his jacket would be such a crowd pleaser? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama virtually staked out his presidency on health care reform. What did he get with that achievement? Does he now have the political capital he needs to take on other major issues, including financial reform, immigration, education, a lot more.

Rick Stengel is here to talk about that and more. He's Managing Editor of our sister publication "TIME" magazine and the author of a brand new book entitled "Mandela's Way: 15 Lessons on Life, Love and Courage".

Rick, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Did President Obama regain his mojo by getting health care reform passed?

STENGEL: I think so. I mean, a couple of weeks ago we were talking about him as being potentially Jimmy Carter and having a failed presidency. I think the fact that they passed health care, even though it is not the world's most popular bill among the American people, in effect saved the presidency and -- and gave him a bunch of wind in his sails now.

I mean, look at what he's done since then. I mean, you know, he's been to Afghanistan. He's signed a treaty -- a nonproliferation treaty with the Russians.

I mean, he's basically saying, OK, you know what? I'm back. I have a big agenda and I'm going to be ambitious about it. I'm going to -- and I'm going to pursue it.

BLITZER: His number one priority, though, is the economy and creating jobs, but is he going to be able to deal with some of these other issues that he's been talking about, whether energy, education, immigration reform, financial reform? Does all of that sort of go to the sidelines or does he deal head on this year before the midterm elections with those issues?

STENGEL: You know, look, he's been a guy who seems to do a lot of things all at one time. I would say -- and I would agree with you. I think there's one issue for him, and that's the economy and jobs, and he should focus like that on a laser -- like a laser.

But he has been -- you know, he's been talking about an energy policy. He's been talking about bank reform. I think he really has to make the message that the economy is back, he prevented it from going down the tubes, being the message of the midterm elections for him, because they want to avoid, obviously, a lot of losses.

They want to avoid, you know, losing the House and losing a -- you know, a majority in the Senate, and the only way to do that is through the economy. That is what voters care about, that is what voters are going to vote on, and they've never really quite made the connection between health care reform and the economy. He's got to make that connection.

BLITZER: Let's talk about "Mandela's Way," your brand new book. Give us the most important lesson that you learned from Nelson Mandela.

STENGEL: You know, I think the most important lesson that I learned and I -- and I don't always display it, alas, Wolf, is -- is to be measured and to be controlled.

You know, Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. Prison was his great teacher. It taught him self-control. He went into prison as a hot-headed, tempestuous young revolutionary and he emerged as this incredibly measured human being that seems to be able to not lose his cool under any circumstances.

That -- that's the lesson that he teaches, but it's a very, very hard-won lesson. And one of the things I try to do in the book is to basically take what he taught me and convey it at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay. You know, whether it's be measured, whether it's the idea that courage is not the absence of fear.

He talked to me all the time, Wolf, about being afraid when he was in prison, being scared. And I thought to myself, here I am, talking to the -- one of the greatest heroes of the 20th Century and he's telling me that he's scared.

No, he was telling me that -- that what courage is is not the absence of fear. Courage is the idea that we have to triumph over fear. We have to show a front, as he said. That's one of the his great, great lessons that is relevant for everybody.

BLITZER: You know, it's so true, because I remember interviewing him back in 1998. He was already president of South Africa, and there was no doubt in my mind that he almost single handedly avoided a civil war, a bloodbath after getting rid of apartheid and taking over.

I want to play this little exchange I had with him. It's March 1998. Listen to this.


BLITZER: It must be so amazing for you to see where you are right now, see where South Africa is right now, and to remember those days, which were only a few years ago.

NELSON MANDELA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF SOUTH AFRICA: When you take into account that the way South African society was split from top to bottom by tensions, conflict and bloodshed, what has happened in South Africa today is a miracle.


BLITZER: And it was a miracle, and I think you'll agree, largely because of Nelson Mandela.

STENGEL: Yes. He -- he really felt, in the years that I worked with him in '92, '93, '94 that the country was very close to a potential civil war. And this idea that he represented, when he came out -- forget the past, forgiving whites for -- for apartheid, saying let's reconcile, let's move on, let's bring what unites us together rather than what divides us, was something that he understood that he had to do as a leader.

But Wolf, as a person, he felt it. He felt bitterness himself. He didn't feel love in -- in his heart for his enemy, but he realized, as a leader, to avoid civil war, to avoid this kind of Armageddon situation that you had in South Africa, he had to rise above it and project an image of harmony, of forgiveness, and -- and that is what he did.

BLITZER: People always asked me what was the most powerful interview you ever did, and I always say I think it was Nelson Mandela because of the -- the unique ability he had to get beyond 25 years or whatever in prison and deal with a crisis situation so peacefully, so honorably. He certainly is an amazing, amazing man.

Rick Stengel, thanks for writing "Mandela's Way". We really appreciate it.

STENGEL: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: The U.S. has a huge military investment in Afghanistan, but now Afghan President Hamid Karzai has caused a rift with the West by using some unwelcome rhetoric.

He reportedly warned that Western criticism of his policies might drive him to join the Taliban. Did he really mean that, and what if he did?

And sunset in Sri Lanka, one of the images in today's "Hot Shots". There are more to come.


BLITZER: There have been public tensions between the White House and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

What if, though -- what if Mr. Karzai's frustrations with the U.S. and the West intensify and he does decide to team up with the Taliban? It's a rumor that's been circulating.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence explains.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. and Afghanistan are trying to fix a troubled relationship. Hamid Karzai's government now says it's committed to a partnership with the U.S. and the State Department rejected what it calls outrageous allegations against Afghanistan's president.

A member of the Afghan parliament tells CNN he heard President Hamid Karzai say he might join with the Taliban if Western officials keep criticizing and pressuring him to reform his government.

Farouk Marani's public accusation shocked Karzai's office. His spokesman strongly deny Karzai even considered it.

WAHEED OMAR, KARZAI SPOKESMAN: I think again do (ph) -- those who put the lives of Afghan people in danger as priority number one, and, in that context, that comment, whoever has come up with that context, does not make sense.

LAWRENCE: That was one accusation, but a former U.N. official also suggested Karzai might have been using drugs.

PETER GALBRAITH, FORMER U.N. OFFICIAL: Every diplomat who served in Kabul has had doubts about Karzai's mental state. This is -- people don't talk about it openly, but it's there.

LAWRENCE: Karzai's government calls the drug claims a lie, but Peter Galbraith says the U.S. Military's counterinsurgency strategy depends on a credible local partner.

GALBRAITH: And a man who is in office by virtue of fraud and who is frankly as erratic as Hamid Karzai, and this is -- it makes it difficult to accomplish your mission.

CAPT. JEREMY WILKINSON, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Without a doubt we'll -- we need the strength of the mullahs, the strength of the elders and the strength of the people to secure (INAUDIBLE) Valley.

LAWRENCE: As the international politics play out, small teams of soldiers and marines are trying to build confidence in local Afghan governments.

WILKINSON: The time for being scared has to be over. There's only one -- one bad guy for every 100 good.

LAWRENCE: But commanders admit weaning out corruption is essential to their job.

WILKINSON: If your local government is not working and they don't have some sort of -- or semblance of orderly or trust, you're going to be fighting an uphill battle.


BLITZER: Our correspondent Chris Lawrence reporting.

It's a most unusual presidential strip, shall we say? Our Jeanne Moos watches President Obama take his jacket off.


BLITZER: Here's a look at our "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the "Associated Press".

In the country of Georgia, an orthodox priest bless soldiers before their deployment to Afghanistan as part of a NATO peacekeeping mission. At the Vatican, a traditional German music group performed at the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.

In Sri Lanka, a fisherman returned home from sea at sunset. And at a zoo in Germany, check it out, a rare albino wallaby peeked out from its mother's pouch.

"Hot Shots" pictures worth a thousand words.

It's a "Moost Unusual" crowd pleaser, President Obama taking it off -- his jacket, that is. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Definitely rated P.G., it's the presidential strip.


MOOS: As the campaign to sell health care heated up --

OBAMA: It's a little hot, I think.

MOOS: -- off came the president's jacket.

OBAMA: I'm good to take off my jacket, guys, so if you want to do the same thing. It's a little hot.

MOOS: And sometimes the crowd reacts as if he's hot.

OBAMA: This is a --

MOOS: There's no whistling at the president.

Look how happy she looks.

MOOS (on camera): But then again, a crowd tends to cheer for anyone who takes off their jacket.

MOOS (voice-over): Watch how they reacted to Joe Biden.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In my neighborhood, in my neighborhood --

MOOS: No one snarky critic noted that at the exact moment Joe Biden took off his jacket the Dow dropped 4 points.

BIDEN: In my neighborhood --

MOOS: Of course, no president took it off quite like Bill Clinton in this Jibjab video.

George Bush's crowds --

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You think it's all right if I take off my jacket?

MOOS: -- tended to be more sedate about presidential stripping.

BUSH: Thanks for coming out.

I hope I didn't spill any sauce on my shirt after I had barbecue at the Whole Hog.

MOOS: Remember how Bush supporters went whole hog, attacking President Obama for taking his jacket off in the Oval Office and even putting his feet up on the historic desk? But Obama defenders struck back with their own photos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Same desk, different shoes. If you don't recognize the guy, it's George W. Bush.

MOOS (on camera): And then there's the matter of what to do with the jacket.

MOOS (voice-over): President Obama either puts it on something or hands it to his aide, Reggie Love, along with his Blackberry. Or --

Joe, are you going to hold my coat?

BIDEN: You answer all the tough questions, I'll hold the coat.

MOOS: Just so it's just the coat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Take it off. Take it all off.

Nothing takes it off like --

MOOS: -- Obama.

Jeanne Moos, CNN --

OBAMA: Thank you, Portland!

MOOS: -- New York.


BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne Moos.

Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M. Eastern, every Saturday at 6:00 P.M. Eastern, right here on CNN, and at this time every weekend on CNN International.

The news continues next on CNN.