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CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer - Transcript

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BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. And joining us now with their take on U.S. strategy in Iraq, the midterm elections and more, the two top members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In Washington, the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana. And in his home state of Delaware, the panel's ranking Democrat, Joe Biden. Senators, thanks very much for coming in.

Senator Lugar, I'll start off with you. Excuse me. I want you to listen to this clip of what President Bush said earlier this week about the situation in Iraq.


BUSH: We're winning and we will win. Unless we leave before the job is done. The crucial battle right now is Iraq. And as I said in my statement, I understand how tough it is. Really tough. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, you're a straight shooter. Is the United States winning in Iraq right now?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: Well, I agree with the president. We will win if we are in Iraq or in the area. I make that distinction because I don't know any more than anybody else does how effective the Iraq government will be. In the last instance, whether they can secure the country, whether they can have a stable central government, whether they can distribute the oil money and pay their bills.

But in any event, they are going to need some security, and we are going to need some security. And our troops are that security. By that I mean the borders of Iraq are important. Not only to the Iraqis but to other countries. And without there being border security, there's likely to be an invasion of Iraq from others.

In addition, if we withdraw, we clearly open the borders but we do have once again an incubator for terrorism in Iraq, comparable, I suspect, to the Afghanistan situation we tried to clean up after 9/11. And therefore, we've got to be thinking globally and strategically about the Middle East and I suppose, hoping, that the Iraqi government will in fact be strong enough, will be capable enough with our assistance, and as a democratic government, do the job.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, is the United States winning in Iraq right now?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Well, just look at the storyline here, Wolf. Most deadly month in a long, long time. No fundamental change. The administration continues to be in disarray. There were four different press conferences last week saying different things. Yesterday, Maliki and the president spoke to try to seem to be on the same page. Maliki saying to our ambassador, I'm not your man in Iraq. Don't tell us what to do.

And while all this was going on, as Dick said, there's no plan to distribute the oil money equitably in order to deal with the sectarian violence. There does not seem to be any plan to move beyond where we are, and there is no call for a regional plan, which Dick has called for, I've called for, Secretary Baker, Secretary Schultz, et cetera, so that we in fact find ourselves in the position where we can deal with the border from the other side of the border.

That is, as it borders these other countries as well as internally. So I don't see much -- I'm not very hopeful that the administration sees the need to have some real change.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, do you have confidence in this prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki?

LUGAR: Well, he is the prime minister. I think we want to stay away from judgments now about whether the prime minister is competent or not. He is the prime minister. And we are going to take for granted what he's saying that he will make those decisions with his people. This is the element here in which we have fostered democracy.

We've succeeded. This is an elected government. They have a constitution, they have a road map. If they wish to join together various provinces and be more autonomous, they could in fact distribute the oil money, and they could in fact train people.

We're getting now into some name-calling backward and forward, in which the prime minister indicates that he doesn't think we've trained their troops very well, and we've pointed out a lot are AWOL and not very conscientious. And ours are sort of left in the middle. So I'm not going to engage in that today.

I think our ambassador is giving full support. The president, as you said, has been on the telephone at least twice, at some length, to try to at least gain the greatest solidarity we can gain.

BLITZER: Senator Biden, here is how the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, sized up the situation earlier in the week. Listen to this, and I'll get your reaction.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to flowing down if some date isn't met. That is not what this is about. This is complicated stuff. It's difficult. We're looking out in the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty.

So you ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated. It's difficult.


BLITZER: He was speaking to reporters but I suspect he was speaking to you and other critics as well.

BIDEN: "Relax," huh? While we're getting killed, while 140,000 troops are there, while they have no plan for success, and he's telling us to relax. Come on.

Look, Wolf, I think his leadership has been abysmal. But that's a different issue. I'm not about to relax as long as we have 140,000 men and women in that country in the midst of a growing civil war with no plan for a political solution and no serious means by which we are calling in the neighbors to figure out how they support any solution that comes forward. I wish he'd get a little more sense of urgency.

BLITZER: Here's what Lindsey Graham, Senator Lugar, said earlier in the week to the Associated Press. Republican of South Carolina: "We're on the verge of chaos in Iraq, and the current plan is not working." As you know, Senator Lugar, there's an increasing chorus now of Republicans who are breaking ranks with the administration on Iraq.

LUGAR: Well, I'm well aware of that. I read the press. But that's not really very helpful one way or another. I would just say, and I think in the constructive spirit of our conversation today that Senator Biden and I have tried really to work together and bring together as much bipartisanship in the Foreign Relations Committee to be helpful to the process of our troops and our commanders there, and our ambassador. People that are really on the ball and have to be there.

Now, I would just say that the president and the Congress, however the election comes out, will have a lot to do with our leadership and who does what. But for the moment, it seems to me we've got to keep our eye on the ball. It is urgent. We cannot relax.

And the facts are that we're offering advice to a fledgling government. We are hopeful they are successful because that will make the Middle East more successful.

BLITZER: Senators, stand by for a moment. We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to discuss. Senators Lugar and Biden, they are standing by.

Also, still to come here on "Late Edition, " my complete unedited interview with the vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney. She had some strong words for the Democrats, for CNN, strong words in defense of her husband. I'll also share some personal thoughts.

And we'll also take a closer look at how things stand and how they could shake out in the overall political fight for control of Congress. That's with our political panel. They are standing by.

For our North American viewers, don't forget at the top of the hour, at 1 p.m. Eastern, it's "This Week at War." Our host, John Roberts, he's in Baghdad. You're going to want to see this program. That's coming up for our North American viewers at the top of the hour.


BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting today from New York. We are talking with the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar and the committee's top Democrat, Joe Biden of Delaware.

Senator Biden, I want you to listen to what the vice president, Dick Cheney, said the other day. Listen to this.


RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Decisions about American troop levels will be driven by conditions on the ground and the judgments of our commanders, not by artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, D.C.

For the sake of our own generation, and the ones that follow, we have a clear responsibility to press on in this fight.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right. I want your response to what the vice president said.

BIDEN: What does that mean? I don't know what it means. The president of the United States announced benchmarks. No one else did. The administration announced benchmarks. No one else did.

When you ask them what it means, they don't say what it means. They dope say what the benchmarks are about. And the real question, here, is what happens if the Iraqi government continues to be dysfunctional?

Let's assume it stays dysfunctional like it is now, six months from now.

Do we continue to keep 140,000 American troops in the midst of a dysfunctional country, in a dysfunctional government that, in fact, can't get its act together and is in a civil war so that we, in fact, can say we stayed our ground?

What are the conditions upon which this administration is trying to establish?

And so when the vice president uses this rhetoric, he's also the one that says we're doing remarkably well in Iraq. I think he needs a reality check.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar?

LUGAR: Well, the Foreign Relations Committee has distributed to all of our colleagues the monthly statistics on what is occurring in all of Iraq. And the fact is that we have very special problems in the Kurd area; likewise, in some of the provinces that are not Baghdad or Al Anbar.

It's important for, in a sophisticated way, for each one of us -- as opposed to getting into slogans as to whether we're winning, losing, cutting out and so forth, we need to get to the heart of the matter of who these people are and how they relate to other countries around them and to an overall Shiite-Sunni battle in the whole region that could have been triggered off -- and the problems in Lebanon, now, recently.

I think that's the kind of debate we want to have -- hard to have, I'm certain, in the next nine days. But I hope we get back to it very soon.

BLITZER: The political season is clearly here, nine days to go before the election, Senator Biden. And the president is predicting that the Democrats will not take the majority in either the House or the Senate, in part because of this. Listen to what he says.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES: I do not question their patriotism. I question whether or not they understand how dangerous this world is. And this is a big issue in the campaign. Security of the country is an issue, just like taxes are an issue.


BLITZER: That's his theme, Senator Biden, that if the Democrats take over, they're going to raise the American people's taxes and they're going to weaken their security.

BIDEN: I do not question the president's patriotism. I question his judgment. And the American people are going to have a referendum on Iraq and his whole security plan. It's going to determine what happens in the next two years.

If it turns out that they repudiate the president's judgment, then I think you're going to see a bipartisan effort that flows from that, putting pressure on the administration to make a significant change in its policy.

If in fact they conclude that the president's judgment on Iraq and other matters relating to security has been correct, then I think nothing is going to change.

And so I think this is pretty straightforward and clear. I do not question the president's patriotism. I do severely question the judgment of he, Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Cheney. I think they have dug us in a very deep hole.

BLITZER: All right. Senator Lugar?

LUGAR: In some states, Iraq will clearly be the leading issue, but followed closely by the economy, either a good or a bad economy and the overall war on terrorism.

I'm not certain which will determine people's votes. But I would say, probably, the quality of the candidates will still be the major factor, as opposed to an overall referendum, either statewide or nationally.

BLITZER: Here's -- I just want to wrap this segment up, Senator Biden, with this whole issue of alleged torture. The president, the vice president dispute the notion that the United States engaged in torture.

The vice president had this exchange with a radio talk show host the other day in North Dakota. Listen to this little clip.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you agree a dunk in water is a no- brainer if it can save lives?

CHENEY: Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but I -- for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in.

(END AUDIO CLIP) BLITZER: The vice president flatly disputed this notion that he suggested in that interview that the United States has engaged in what's called water boarding, which some have suggested is a form of torture. But I'm wondering what you think, knowing what you know.

BIDEN: Well, look, water boarding is, in fact, in most countries, viewed as torture. As a matter of fact, if you go to the museum relating to torture in Cambodia, prominently centered and as you walk in, is an actual water board. It's an actual device on which you water board people.

Now, I don't know what other kind of "dunking" there is. I'm not going to second-guess what the vice president said or meant by what he said to the North Dakota reporter.

But this administration -- let me be precise. The vice president has never indicated anything that I've seen or done that he would think that that is not a particularly useful device.

But again, I -- it's just, the rest of the world views water boarding as torture. The Geneva Convention views it as torture. I think it is torture. And I hope our nation does not, or anyone in our country in position of authority thinks it's an appropriate device to use as a matter of routine.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there. Senators, thanks very much for coming in. Senator Biden and Senator Lugar, always good to have you on "Late Edition."


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