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CNN CROSSFIRE

Tony Blair Defends Iraq War to Congress

Aired July 17, 2003 - 16:30   ET

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

ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.
In the CROSSFIRE: As the Bush administration fires back at critics of its evidence against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in America to make his case for the allies' war effort. Will these two embattled leaders win out in the end? Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, is in the CROSSFIRE to tell us what he thinks -- today on CROSSFIRE.

Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

He is President Bush's strongest ally on Iraq. And just moments ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Both leaders have been targeted by heated attacks over intelligence for going to war with Iraq, especially whether Saddam Hussein tried to get uranium from Africa. Are the Democrats playing partisan politics?

Joining us to talk about it, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

(APPLAUSE)

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.

Watching Tony Blair up there, who I have to confess I am a great admirer of, known for many, many years.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Superb. Superb.

BEGALA: It was an eloquent speech. I thought it was brilliant, it was wise, it was witty. It was also very politically savvy, as an old political hand. And here is why.

He did not try to defend the indefensible. He did not get in the weeds and try to defend the hyping of intelligence, which is the issue of the day. The closest he came to really defending the specifics about Iraq, I think, was this particular sound bite.

Let me play it for you and then ask you about it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: He said, if we were wrong, that's the worst thing we could say, is that we took out a tyrant. With all due respect to a man I admire, that's wrong. If we are wrong, then 200 Americans have lost their lives attacking a country that was no threat to America. Isn't that the issue here?

EAGLEBURGER: No, that's not the issue at all, because, if we were wrong about what? We were wrong about whether they bought some uranium from Niger or someplace? That's not the issue.

The issue is -- there are several issues, one of which is, were there weapons of mass destruction that were at one point or another being developed in Iraq? That is, I think, still an issue that's not yet settled. And we certainly know that he had some at one time, because he used them. And he used them against Iran. That's one issue.

The second issue -- and I certainly will give you the argument right now, so we can get -- it's too bad that we're going from the sublime, his speech, to the ridiculousness with this particular issue.

BEGALA: Here's the question.

EAGLEBURGER: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: I don't think it's ridiculous to talk about why 200 men and women lost their lives, Mr. Secretary. With all due respect, the threat was...

EAGLEBURGER: Wait a minute. No, come on. Wait. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Wait. Are you now saying...

BEGALA: The threat, our president said, was imminent. He said it was imminent, the threat to America.

EAGLEBURGER: Are you now -- are you now saying that the president of the United States needlessly killed 200 Americans by lying to the American people?

BEGALA: I'm saying that the threat was not imminent. I said that before the war. I say that after the war.

EAGLEBURGER: Wait. Wait. OK.

BEGALA: And the evidence that we're learning today is that, in fact, the threat was not imminent, that he did not have the sort of capacity that Mr. Bush told us he did.

EAGLEBURGER: You're really stretching it now, are you not, when you make this claim against the president? My point is this.

BEGALA: What was...

NOVAK: Can I get in here, please, for a minute, Paul?

EAGLEBURGER: Don't -- if you guys are going to hit each other, can I get out of the way?

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, let me try to...

(APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: Let me try to put this in a little bit of perspective, if I could. We have been having a feeding frenzy by the media and by the Democrats on this question of uranium ore from Niger, people making speeches. I have heard all these commentaries today on how this was a disaster for Tony Blair to come here at this particular time; it hurt him, hurt the president. Didn't he change the whole mood with that eloquent speech?

EAGLEBURGER: I hope he did. I thought it was a superb speech.

Look, if I may, I think, first of all, it was wrong for the president to put that sentence in the speech. It was not worthy of a presidential speech. I don't argue that at all. But, No. 1, it is not yet proved one way or the other whether it was inaccurate. The British still argue that their intelligence says it was a legitimate point to make. The president shouldn't have made it. I don't argue that at all.

But to argue from that that the whole going to war with Iraq was wrong is really stretching things well beyond where we ought to be.

NOVAK: You have been around here almost as long as I have, Mr...

EAGLEBURGER: And I'm in a lot better shape than you are, too, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, there used to be a rule that, when politics stops at the water's edge, that when it comes to national security, to foreign affairs, you don't play politics. Now, that was broken during the Vietnam War -- I know that very well -- by both sides. But isn't this a blatant violation of that unwritten rule?

EAGLEBURGER: I think what we're seeing here now, with all respect, again, to my gentleman on my right, which belongs on the left -- but anyway -- is, I think what we're seeing here is some pretty bad Democratic presidential politics on this one on an issue which doesn't deserve this kind of attention and which all of the people who are now yelling about it -- almost all of them, at least -- voted for going to war in the first place, basically.

And you cannot tell me that they all voted in favor of doing what we did with Iraq on the basis of that piddling little sentence in the president's speech.

BEGALA: No, sir, let me tell what they did it on the basis of. They did it on the basis of our president telling us that the IAEA, the arms inspectors, said that Saddam Hussein was six months away from having a nuclear bomb. That was false.

They did it on the basis of our president telling us he had aluminum tubes he was using to make nuclear bombs. That is deeply dubious, highly questionable. They did it on the argument that there was a link with al Qaeda. We now know that that was overhyped. They did it on the basis that they were linked to 9/11, this supposed meeting in Prague. We know that was false.

Again and again and again, at every turn, our president misled us into this war, Mr. Secretary.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: That's why the Democrats are upset, not just one line in one speech.

(APPLAUSE)

EAGLEBURGER: Now that you've gotten your flack out here to shut up for a minute, if I can go on with this, the point here is...

(LAUGHTER)

EAGLEBURGER: The point here is, I will not argue with you for one minute that there was too much hype, in terms of what it was that Saddam was or was not doing.

But you cannot argue for one minute that there was no evidence that he had weapons of mass destruction, because he used them.

BEGALA: I haven't. I have argued -- the question is, was...

EAGLEBURGER: Wait. Wait a minute.

BEGALA: Were those alleged weapons a threat to America at that moment?

EAGLEBURGER: And the point is, were they were a threat to America at that moment? The point is that Saddam Hussein had -- was developing these weapons. If we let it go on, it was going to become a threat. There is no question about that.

And when it's all over, and you look at what that man had done to his own country, will you tell me that it wasn't worth the effort? I think it was. I will not argue with you for one minute that it was overhyped. It was. I fell into the trap myself. I said things that, if you look back at it, probably were more excessive than they should have been.

NOVAK: Would you have gone the other direction?

EAGLEBURGER: Never. Never. Never. I believed we should it. We did it. And I'm not going to apologize for one minute for having done it.

And I'll tell you this much. If there's any hope that we're now going to settle things in the Middle East in the Palestinian-Israeli thing, for example, it is finally because the countries in the area have taken one look at what we've done and they have finally decided we're serious. And I'll tell you this much. We now have North Vietnam -- North Korea sitting out there with, clearly, nuclear weapons.

And if we don't understand that, at some point, the civilized world is going to have to take a serious effort to stop these countries from developing those weapons, we're all going to regret it 10 years from now.

BEGALA: I agree with that.

Mr. Secretary, keep your seat. We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will give Secretary Eagleburger the "Rapid Fire" treatment on the prime minister, the president, and their political problems. So stick around for that.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered his terrific address to the Congress here in Washington on a bright summer day. But can he and his friend President Bush escape the blistering heat that they're facing over allegations that they may have overhyped intelligence in order to lead the USA and the U.K. into war?

With us, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, you've been through a lot in this era of America. Do you call this blistering heat?

EAGLEBURGER: No. No. I think it's -- it's phony. Sorry, but I think it's basically phony. I think it's aimed at Democratic domestic -- well, at Democratic politics, presidential politics.

Again, I come back to saying, as long as -- particularly as it's aimed at this thing about Africa and so forth, it doesn't stand the test, because, as I say, one sentence in a presidential speech is not what convinced these people to agree to go to war.

BEGALA: But, Mr. Secretary, if it won't stand the test, why, last night, did the Republicans in the Senate vote down an independent investigation to put it to the test? EAGLEBURGER: Well, first of all, they voted it down because they're Republicans and it would supposedly embarrass the administration. But that's neither here nor there.

The fact of the matter is, even if they voted -- if they -- they voted it down because it continues the process. I'm not saying it's not political that they voted it down, any more than the Democrats were not political in trying to get it up. I mean, come on. This is Dem -- this is politics on both sides.

NOVAK: What is the alternative to the present policy? I hear on -- the Democrats getting up on the floor of the Senate and House, saying the present policy is no good. Well, do they want to pull out of Iraq, take our troops out, and go home?

EAGLEBURGER: Well, I -- look, there is no alternative to it. The fact of the matter is, this is -- and, again, it comes back to really what Paul was saying, is: Shame on you for having done it. You have misled us. We're now there. There's no way that they can undo the fact that we're there.

I suppose what it does do -- and this, you would really need to think about. Does it undercut now the willingness of the American people to stay there, as the prime minister said we should, to make sure that, having gone in there, we come out with a proper ending to this thing, which is, namely, that you create the kind of situation in Iraq that leaves you proud that you did it at all?

BEGALA: We only have 30 seconds left. But I want to ask you about a U.S.-British problem, that two British subjects are in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba about to be tried by a military tribunal. Should President Bush, to reward his friend's loyalty, send those British subjects home with Blair to be tried in Britain?

EAGLEBURGER: Of course he should.

BEGALA: I agree with that.

NOVAK: Secretary...

EAGLEBURGER: Wise man.

NOVAK: Secretary Eagleburger, thank you very much for being with us.

(APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: Paul and I will be back right after these messages.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

We've been watching Tony Blair's speech and then had a long interview with Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger about it. Now, Bob, I'm very curious. You asked the secretary, will it change the political dynamic here at home? He said, "I hope so." But you're a veteran political observer. Will it?

NOVAK: I think it does. I think it's just -- it's very hard to get out and do that.

You know, Larry Eagleburger, Paul, was very shocked when you said, the blood of 200 Americans is on the president's hands. And I think you and people who say that -- you go farther than most.

BEGALA: I have said no such thing, Mr. Novak.

NOVAK: Please.

I think you and the people who imply that -- imply that -- are really going down a very shaky road. Be careful, my friend.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Let me tell you exactly what I said. And you be careful as well. I said that Mr. Blair said, the worst thing they can say if we're wrong is that we toppled a murderous tyrant. I said, no, that's not true.

If Mr. Bush is wrong and Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat to America, then we did go to war against a country that was not a threat to us, and we've lost 200 men in that. That is fact. And I do not retract that.

NOVAK: That's the -- that's the implication. Be very careful with that...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Just a minute, because -- well, don't interrupt me -- because that way lies political disaster for the Democrats, believe me.

BEGALA: I'm not interested in politics on this one. I'm interested in America doing the right thing.

NOVAK: Oh, you're not interested in politics? I'll sell you a bridge.

BEGALA: From the left, I'm Paul Begala. And that's CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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