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President to Address Nation about Iraq

Aired August 31, 2010 - 18:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- Make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us, but the fact of the matter is that, because of the extraordinary service that all of you have done, and so many people here at Ft. Bliss have done, Iraq has an opportunity to create a better future for itself, and America is more secure.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The President of the United States addressing troops at Ft. Bliss in Texas earlier, previewing his Oval office address later tonight, two and a half -- one and a half hours from now, I should say.

Let's get some more with CNN's John King, who's the host of "JOHN KING USA" that begins right at the top of the hour, and you'll be setting the stage, John, for the president's address to the nation.

What was the thinking? What are you hearing? Why did the president decide that it was important to address the nation tonight from the Oval office only the second time he's done so since becoming president?

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And as you're well aware, there's some debate around the town as to whether this is a significant enough milestone for the president to do that.

But this White House believes it is for a number of reasons. No 1, they believe the president can tell the American people, this is a significant promise that I have kept. No. 2, he does want to explain. That cautious tone you just heard right there. and that's born of the fact that, Wolf, the American people have heard what this president is going to say before. They heard it seven years and four months ago when George W. Bush said that major combat operations in Iraq are over.

So they know that at the Obama White House, and they know they need to be cautious and say just because combat is over, and we're down to a little over 50,000 troops, there could be more tough days ahead, and the president wants the gravity of the Oval office -- the gravitas of the Oval office, I mean, to say that.

But there's a bigger challenge. He needs the American people. He's trying to rally them to come with him on what is still a very unpopular war in Afghanistan. The president says we need to press there. And he'll also -- it's not much of the speech, but he will say that his central responsibility is to help the American people through these tough economic times. They decided all those things taken together, and they would also concede that, in the political environment nine weeks until a big mid-term election, they thought they needed a big moment.

BLITZER: This shows the president as commander in chief, presidential. They felt that, politically, going into this midterm election, that might reassure folks out there?

KING: Well, they want to have a big presidential moment, because they view these as three big major policy challenges. They don't dispute the fact that we're in a very heated and consequential political environment, and they believe the president in that setting has more standing with the American people.

They also were well aware of the risks involved here, that there could well be bad days or weeks in Iraq in the days to come. So they want to have a presidential commander in chief setting they believe is the best way to deliver the message.

BLITZER: Certainly, you don't get more presidential than that Oval office address to the nation. He's going to look in that camera and he'll read that teleprompter for, what, about 20 minutes or so? Is that what we're hearing?

KING: Yes, 15 to 20 minutes. The White House earlier said 15 minutes, and as you know, as you spent a long time covering that building, as did I, they tend to scratch on the speech until the last minute. But look for about 15, 18 minutes.

BLITZER: Yes. The excerpts that have just been released (AUDIO GAP) it was the economy and making the transition to issue No. 1, the economy and jobs right now. It's basically what he told the troops earlier in the day at Ft. Bliss.

KING: If you step back, it's a remarkable moment. Remember, Barack Obama would probably not be president of the United States had he not been the leading -- of the leading candidates to say "I oppose the Iraq war" from the beginning. Iraq has been a defining force in his rise in national politics.

And here's somebody, here's a president who opposed the Iraq war, who is down telling those troops today, you did a fabulous job. We have left Iraq in a better place. He inherited this war from George W. Bush, and it's been no secret, Wolf, that in the campaign, he has said, "I will end as soon as I can." This White House would like to say, and as you know, there's a lot of Republican debate in town today, but this White House likes to say they are going to end it responsibly. The challenge for the president tonight as he makes that case is to pivot: Afghanistan and, home, the economy, huge, huge challenges.

BLITZER: And we'll have live coverage, of course, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern, a little less than an hour and a half from now. You'll have much more, setting the stage at the top of the hour.

KING: Great group coming in to talk about it.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thanks very much. We'll speak with the president's National Security Council chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, right after this.


BLITZER: We are counting down to President Obama's Oval office address to the nation, marking the end of combat operations in Iraq. But will he give any credit to his predecessor?

And joining us now from the White House, Dennis McDonough. He's the chief of staff at the National Security Council.

Dennis, thanks very much for coming in on this important day.

DENNIS MCDONOUGH, CHIEF OF STAFF, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Wolf, I'm always really glad to be with you.

BLITZER: Here's what John McCain wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" today about the president's speech on Iraq. He writes this. He said, "It would be nice if President Obama could find it in himself to give his predecessor," referring to President Bush, "the credit he deserves." Will the president do that tonight?

MCDONOUGH: I think what you'll hear from the president tonight is a deep expression -- expression of gratitude to the more than 1 million troops who have served over the course of this effort in Iraq. So, obviously, he'll give an appropriate shout-out to all of the generals on the ground, to those troops and then obviously, to President Bush, as well.

But we're not going to be looking back; we're going to be looking forward on this thing. We've got a lot of challenges in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere. And that's what we're focused on.

BLITZER: So will the president formally thank President Bush for -- for the implementing the surge back in 2007-2008?

MCDONOUGH: You know, Wolf, the president had a good chat earlier today with the former president. I'm not going to get into that, but I'm also not going to get into what the president is going to say tonight. Why don't we tune in and hear directly from the president, himself?

BLITZER; I know you don't want to look back, but a lot of people are reminded of then-Senator Obama's opposition to the surge that President Bush implemented back in 2007. He said it was a mistake at the time. Senator Obama at the time, he opposed it, and he told Larry King this.


OBAMA: I did not see anything in the speech or anything in the run-up to the speech that provides evidence that an additional 15,000 to 20,000 more U.S. troops is going to make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that's taking place there.


BLITZER: All right. So, does the president now have regrets over his opposition to the surge?

MCDONOUGH: What he has is great, deep appreciation for all the troops that made this possible. Obviously, as he indicated then and has since, he recognized that it would not be the surge alone, but obviously, the Iraqis taking charge of their own future that would allow us to make the kind of progress that we've seen over the last couple of years.

We think there's lessons in that for Iraq, but also for Afghanistan. That's why you see the president is dedicating this extraordinary level of additional resources over a course of a specified period of time to try to help the Afghans make the kind of progress that the Iraqis have made. So that's exactly what we're working for, and that's what you'll hear from him tonight.

BLITZER: I'm going to get to Afghanistan in a moment, but General Odierno, the outgoing U.S. military commander in Iraq, he's concerned that if there's no new government formed there within the next month or so, it's been almost six months since the last election, that the whole situation in Iraq could deteriorate. We could see Sunni and Shia and Kurdish elements back fighting each other. Are you as worried about that as General Odierno seems to be?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we all get paid to worry around here. And nobody does a better job of preparing and planning and seeing around the corners than General Odierno. But let's remember a couple things. One, there's a caretaker government in place. They're making decisions for the Iraqi -- Iraqi people now. The Iraqi security forces are on the move. They're leaning forward. They're demonstrating, over the course of the last year, that they're being very effective as they've taken over pieces of their country.

And starting tomorrow they'll be in the lead across the country with a strong 50,000-person force from the United States and support and obviously able to undertake counterterrorism efforts as needed. So obviously, we're focused on this. That's why the vice president is there now on his sixth trip to try to help the Iraqis make these kind of difficult choices.

But we are focused on the trend lines as well, too. And those trend lines are positive. Violence is down. Capacity is up. And obviously, as you heard from Prime Minister Maliki this morning, hope is up over there, as well, too.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Afghanistan for a moment, because I'm sure the president will address that subject in his Oval office address later tonight. He's made it clear that, starting in July of next year, 2011, he wants to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

And John McCain, once again writing in today's "Wall Street Journal," says that's a mistake. He says this, McCain: "The president needs to state unequivocally that the conduct of the war, including decisions about troop strength, will be based on conditions on the ground. He says, if you start announcing when you're going to start withdrawing, that the Taliban and al Qaeda will simply hold their fire and wait for the U.S. to leave.

Will the president follow McCain's advice tonight?

MCDONOUGH: Well, we've had a debate on and off over the last couple years with Senator McCain. Obviously, a couple years ago, he was saying that the central front in the war on terrorism was in Iraq. That's obviously proven to be wrong.

Here's what we're going to do. We're going to stay on the offense against al Qaeda, against its Taliban allies. And you've seen over the course of the last 18 months the extraordinary dedication of an additional 50,000 troops in Afghanistan to try to help the Afghans create the space and to build the capacity for them to take charge of their own future.

So look, I know this, Wolf, al Qaeda and the Taliban is not wondering whether our soldiers lack dedication and determination in this effort. They are keeping it on the offense. It's a forward lean, and I have no doubt that they are hearing directly from our troops about that determination.

So I don't want to get involved in these Washington back and forth. That's for Senator McCain and others. What we're going to do is just to stay on the offense, and make sure that al Qaeda can't plot and plan and carry out these kind of heinous attacks against us again. And that's exactly what we're doing.

BLITZER: Dennis McDonough, thanks very much.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks a lot, Wolf.

BLITZER: The combat mission may be over in Iraq, but for thousands of U.S. troops, there's still much work to be done there. We visit a soldier training right now to go back.


BLITZER: A lot of troops are headed out for Operation New Dawn in Iraq, and they're coming out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They're training side by side with soldiers heading to Afghanistan. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now from Ft. Campbell.

Barbara, tell us what you're seeing, what you're hearing, the mood of the troops about to go off to war?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, here at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. This is the home of the 101st Airborne Division, the only air assault division in the world.

These troops have already done three combat tours in Iraq. One of them under the command, you'll remember, of General David Petraeus, who's now running the war in Afghanistan, so these are very experienced troops. Some of them actually will head back to Iraq for yet another tour of duty, part of that 50,000 contingent that will support the Iraqis over the next year, but these troops also right now are in the lead in combat in eastern Afghanistan.

So this is a very busy place. We were on the training range today here at the air assault jump tower, and we asked one soldier if he ever had imagined when he was back in combat in Iraq that this day would come.


SGT. BRIAN DEPPNER, U.S. ARMY: I had confidence in my Iraq counterparts. I had a good feeling that they were going to come through positively in the end. We sat beside them and trained them for over 15 months, so sure, I mean, right, yes, of course. I saw an end. There's always an end.


STARR: We asked, also, we talked to a number of family members, wives, mothers of troops that have been deployed to Iraq, and we especially asked about, you know, the memories.

Most of America may now say, OK, the war in Iraq is winding down, but here at the 101st, they lost nearly 200 members over the years in the wars in Iraq, and the wives, the mothers, the family members say all of that will be part of the history here forever. This is now part of the imprint of the war on the 101st. Iraq will not be forgotten here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise, Barbara, because you know this story quite well. When we say combat operations are over, there are still several thousand U.S. Special Operations Forces -- Green Berets, Navy SEALs, other elite combat forces -- on the ground in Iraq, and their mission will be there to go out and kill terrorists and others if necessary. They will fully be engaged in combat. Isn't that right?

STARR: Well, you bet, Wolf. I mean, you're going to hear the expression counterterrorism. These are the troops, whether they're in Afghanistan, Iraq or other places in the world, like Yemen or Somalia or other places, these are the Special Forces that are highly trained, highly equipped, and they, in fact, do go after specific terrorist targets. Their mission is to kill or capture. Make no mistake about it, and that is something that, yes, is very much still going on inside Iraq, very much something that U.S. Special Forces are involved with, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr with the Screaming Eagles over at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Barbara, thanks very much.

To date, 4,420 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003; 316 non-American, non-Iraqi troops have also died, including 179 from Britain. While the number of Iraq citizens killed is difficult to determine, one organization that collects documented reports of civilian deaths reports that around 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in violence since the war began.

The casualties are significant, as are the number of wounded. That includes nearly 32,000 U.S. troops, more than half of them returned to duty within three days of their injury. But nearly 14,000 American troops injured did not.

Fidel Castro apologizes. The former Cuban dictator says a great injustice happened, and he's responsible. You're going to find out who he said was persecuted unfairly.

And the White House fight for stem-cell research isn't over yet. Now, it's telling an appeals court, critical medical research is in harm's way. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Deb, what else is going on?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just two days before Israel and the Palestinians relaunched direct peace talks in Washington, four Israelis have been shot dead in the West Bank near Hebron. One of those killed was pregnant. A paramedic at the scene says the victims' car was sprayed with bullets. Hamas is claiming responsibility, and it says the attack is just the first in a series of operations.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemns the attack.

The Obama administration is appealing last week's surprise court ruling that blocked federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The Justice Department also wants the lower court judge to keep his ruling from taking effect while the appeal goes on. Justice Department lawyers say that's necessary to protect research on new treatments for a wide variety of illnesses.

And stunning words from Fidel Castro. In a newspaper interview, the former Cuban dictator is acknowledging that persecution of gays and lesbians during the revolution he led half a century ago. His government sent openly gay men to labor camps without any charges against them or any trial. Castro calls it a great injustice. So never too late to apologize -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Deb Feyerick.

We're counting down to President Obama's Oval Office address to the nation. Our special coverage begins right at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING USA." I'll be back at 8 p.m. Eastern right at the top of the following hour with Anderson Cooper, all of our analysts, all of our reporters. We'll have full coverage of the president's address.

Jack Cafferty is next with your e-mail.


BLITZER: Let's get back to Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, is it time for the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests? The pope on his way to London in a couple weeks, and there are a lot of women over there who think it's past time.

Joanne in Pennsylvania writes: "It's past time. There's a great need for priests, especially in the United States. We don't know for sure Jesus only chose 12 men, since it was men who decided what texts went into the New Testament. I think it is tradition and not doctrine that has kept women from becoming priests."

Guillermo writes: "I completely agree with Father Wang. Similar to babies being born from women only, the role of priesthood was established for men only. As simple as Father Wang indicates it, the priest represents Jesus -- a man."

Y. writes: "If I were a woman, I'd tell the Catholic Church to take a hike. Why be obsequious to these clowns? The golden days of white male dominance are over."

Joe in Houston writes: "As an ordained minister of the Church of Apathetic Agnostics, I don't believe there's any way I could care any less."

Anthony in New Jersey: "As a disavowed Catholic, I think the church should just take down its shingle and declare moral bankruptcy. They demonize homosexuals, abuse children and treat women like second- class citizens. They're still in the middle ages, as our friends the Islamic radicals. If a religion can't teach tolerance and acceptance as their main precept, then they ought to just disband and get out of the way of progress."

Barker writes: "The Anglican Church is basically the Catholic Church, except you can have women priests and priests can marry. It seems to have worked fine for the Anglicans/Episcopalians for the last few centuries, and you don't see all the scandals with them that you see with the Catholic priests."

And Dick writes: "Oh, my goodness, no! The only things that remain the way the Almighty intended are the Catholic Church and the 'white male only' country clubs in South Carolina."

If you want too read more on this, you'll find it on my blog at

I'm out of here, Mr. Blitzer.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack. Thank you.

To our viewers, remember: you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my tweets at, @WolfBlitzerCNN. You can follow THE SITUATION ROOM on Facebook, as well. Go to to become a fan.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll be back in just one hour to continue our special coverage of the president's address from the Oval office.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.