MS. IFILL: Surprises welcome and not. The president pops up in Afghanistan. The jobless rate goes up, not down. Plus WikiLeaks exposes diplomats at their most undiplomatic, tonight on “Washington Week.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The president of the United States of America, our commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As we begin this holiday season, there’s no place that I’d rather be than be here with you.
MS. IFILL: Talk about changing the subject. President Obama takes a break from a week of domestic political struggle with a quick trip to Afghanistan, but there remain so many loose ends, including the state of the war itself, lingering fallout from embarrassing WikiLeaks disclosures.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: At least one of my counterparts said to me, well, don’t worry about it, you should see what we say about you.
MS. IFILL: And good old fashioned gridlock over taxes –
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): I’m trying to catch my breath so I don’t refer to this maneuver going on today as chicken crap, all right? But this is nonsense.
MS. IFILL: – the deficit –
ALAN SIMPSON, CO-CHAIR OF DEFICIT COMMISSION: This is it. No more fun and games, smoke and mirrors, alchemy, trickery, cunning, CYA, demagoguery, and making promises we can't possibly keep
MS. IFILL: – and rising unemployment. Covering the week: Yochi Dreazen of “National Journal,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. By the time we got to work this morning, President Obama had slipped out of the White House Hanukkah party last night, boarded Air Force One under cover of darkness, and flown to Afghanistan for an unannounced visit with U.S. troops stationed at Bagram Air Force Base.
PRES. OBAMA: We look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility. As we do, we continue to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term.
MS. IFILL: Yochi Dreazen has been reporting in Afghanistan for the last five weeks, trying to assess the state of the war and whether the promises we’ve made, including a 2014 pullout date, can be kept. What did you find out about that, Yochi?
MR. DREAZEN: The goal posts keep changing. First, it was July, 2011. Now, it’s 2014. And even looking at 2014, it’s kind of hard to see how we get there. The Afghan army is really, really far from being capable of replacing us when we go. The relationship between Washington and Kabul, between Obama and Karzai, in particular, is poisoned. General Petraeus is a master of the slideshow. He’s a master of the PowerPoint presentation. So he can find statistics that make you think maybe this is doable. But when you actually look at those statistics, they start to fade a bit in a way that they didn’t fade in Iraq.
So for instance, whenever I asked Petraeus for a sign of progress, he said, “more Americans are dying from IED blasts and there’re more IED blasts, but there are fewer Americans dying in each IED blast.” There’s a sort of convoluted logic chain. But if you look at anything measurable: number of attacks, number of civilian deaths, number of U.S. deaths, number of U.S. casualties on the whole, it’s all off the charts.
MS. IFILL: So what was today’s visit all about? Was it just a rally? Was it – it’s only the second time he’s been there. Was it as billed, just a holiday trip?
MR. DREAZEN: I think it really was just a rally because otherwise the timing of it and the substance of it are just a little bit strange. It’s not a Thanksgiving trip. It’s not quite a Christmas trip. He only went to Bagram when the heavy fighting is in the South. Bagram is in the East of Afghanistan.
MS. IFILL: Well, he tried to get to Kabul and couldn’t get there.
MR. DREAZEN: Right, but even the itinerary was never to go to the South. He didn’t really see Karzai, except potentially by video teleconference that he could do from Washington. It was a strange trip to my mind that I don’t entirely know what he was trying to demonstrate. Fundamentally, if you’re trying to say to a war weary American public, “we’re making progress, eventually there’ll be some sort of victory at hand,” to fly to Afghanistan for three hours, spin off among the most heavily secured base we have and not leave it for any purpose, I’m not sure how that demonstrates strength or success.
MR. MCMANUS: Yochi, you did spend time in Kandahar and like the president – and that is the part of Afghanistan where at least earlier this year the administration was saying, this is really the make or break offensive. What’s the situation there?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s a tough one to measure because as was the case in the previous make or break offensive in Marjah and central Helmand delivered earlier in the year, they went into Kandahar expecting it to be D-day. Those are the words several soldiers used. The unit that I was with brought only one change of clothing because they thought they’d be fighting constantly and didn’t need to worry about basic hygiene. Then they got there, and there was no one to fight.
So one school of thought is that we drove them out, which would be a good thing and potentially a sign of progress. The other school of thought is the Taliban have left on their own volition to wait us out, which is kind of what happened in Marjah. In Marjah, if you guys remember, we swept in, took control of it pretty quickly, and declared victory. Then, within a few weeks, there were public beheadings, there were assassinations. There were night letters. The Taliban, they’re not stupid. And if they have the choice of fighting us head to head or waiting and fighting us after we’d move some place else, they’ll always choose the latter.
MR. HARWOOD: Yochi, the larger question that occurs to me in the pretty gloomy assessment that you’re giving, during the campaign the president said Afghanistan was the war that we took our eye off the ball when we were in Iraq and I’m going to do something about that. And he came up with a new policy in 2009. Does that tell you that even with a surge of troops or at the level that the president supported this is not a winnable conflict?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s a great question and it’s one that I wrestled with myself on the trip. I’m not sure exactly what winnable means in the context of Afghanistan. And that wouldn’t matter all that much. I’m a journalist -- who really cares at some level. But when I asked Petraeus, when I asked Ambassador Eikenberry, when I asked the guys fighting in Kandahar, they didn’t know what it means. And when there is a sort of basic lack of understanding of how we’d even know if we’ve won or if we didn’t win, why we lost or what a loss would look like, it’s a very messy situation. And when President Obama announced the surge, it was all about al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is gone. They’ve been gone from Afghanistan for years. So now it’s about the Taliban. And now it’s about peace talk potentially with the Taliban, but the Taliban don’t want to talk to us because they feel like they’re winning.
One thing that I found very interesting, a couple of years ago, when I was first writing about the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, I asked General Petraeus, can you ever envision sitting across the table the way we’re all sitting here with Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. And he said, definitely not. He has too much blood on his hands. We couldn’t possibly talk with a man who indirectly killed so many Americans. This trip, when I asked a very senior ISAF official that same question, he said not only can I envision sitting across from him, I can envision shaking his hand. And if at the end of that process he wanted to go live in exile in Saudi Arabia or own a big house in Dubai, we have no problem with that.
MS. IFILL: We’re about to talk about the WikiLeaks disclosures this week. Among them was this tension that we knew about, but which was probably thrown into great relief between what the White House, the administration, and Hamid Karzai. How much of a drag is that on our effort?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s enormous. And the level of sort of contempt within the military towards Karzai personally was just staggering to me, in part because it’s no longer an issue just of him criticizing Obama, criticizing the U.S., believing in sort of conspiracy theories about why we’re there, but he’s specifically criticizing the military effort in unusually specific ways. He’s saying the military presence is too big. Publicly he said that he doesn’t want any more nighttime special operations raids, which Petraeus believes is the best weapon we have. So the feeling in the military, at least among the guys I was with, was we’re fighting and dying so this man can stay in power. And his response is not only is it not thank you, it’s constant attack, constant criticism.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, does that mean that the problem that you referred to as poisonous a few minutes ago is not an Obama-Karzai problem, it’s a Karzai problem?
MR. DREAZEN: It’s a Karzai problem. I think it’s an Obama-Karzai problem because it’s clear that this White House, like the White House before it, frankly, they don’t really know what to do with Karzai. If you remember, the last time that Obama went to Afghanistan in the flight over, General Jones, who was then the national security advisor said wouldn’t he go and kind of laid smack down on him on corruption. That leaked out in Afghanistan and blew up. This trip, there was no talk anymore about hammering him for corruption. So it’s as clear to me that we don’t really know as a country or as a government what do we do with Hamid Karzai.
MS. IFILL: Well, as we mentioned, Afghanistan also played a major role in this mountain of confidential government cables disclosed this week by WikiLeaks, this organization devoted to exposing state secrets. The leaked documents were full of unflattering assessments of enemies and allies alike, but in the end, how much was impolitic and how much was actually dangerous, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, Gwen, there certainly was a lot that was impolitic, as you said, unvarnished opinions of foreign leaders assessments of Karzai as paranoid, of the president of Pakistan as – and this was a British diplomat’s word, “numbskull.”
MS. IFILL: Americans don’t use words like “numbskull.”
MR. MCMANUS: That’s too elegant a word. And of the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, as really, really dull. So none of that was good, but at the level of substance, the big surprise was actually, out of these thousands of documents that a bunch of newspapers had reviewed, that there was no big surprise. There were a lot of intriguing details about pieces of American diplomacy, lots of interesting stories. It was very gripping reading. And it was there on the website, so you could go see the original documents, and that’s always intriguing because it’s a look behind the curtain. But it told you things you mostly already knew. That the United States does backroom deals, for example, to get the cooperation of Yemen or Pakistan on counterterrorism. That the United States doesn’t trust a lot of its supposed allies, like Karzai or like Vladimir Putin in Russia. And that it’s a messy world out there. And that there’s a lot of corruption and backstabbing. But I think you already knew that.
MR. HARWOOD: Did you have the reaction that our colleague Fareed Zakaria had, which was that in fact the cables told a story of American diplomats focused on the right things, not fundamentally acting in ways that are deceitful or at odds with their public posture. He said it raised his estimation of U.S. diplomacy. Did you have that reaction?
MR. MCMANUS: You could have that take and to some degree – I was surprised that there was so little deception that in a sense the story told in these cables is the same story we’ve been hearing in public. There’s even a school of thought that there could be some positive to come out of this, that for example, exposing the fact that a lot of Arab leaders, including the Saudis and others in the Gulf really dislike Iran and that Iran has very few allies, well, maybe that could shake some sense into the Iranians. Or exposing the fact that the Chinese have been dragging their feet on nonproliferation, haven’t been blocking arms shipments from North Korea to Iran could embarrass the Chinese into improving their performance. But I don’t think a lot of that is really going to happen. I don’t think countries get embarrassed like that and –
MR. HARWOOD: You don’t think Iran is shocked that the Saudis are not –
MR. MCMANUS: – no, I –
MR. HARWOOD: – kindly feeling toward them.
MR. MCMANUS: I think the Iranians knew that.
MR. DREAZEN: But I wonder, Doyle, we talk so much about what does it mean for the U.S. and what does this mean for Washington. What does it mean, do you think, for the Saudis and for the other Sunni Arab Gulf neighbors of Iran to have it be so public and so personal – cut the head off the snake –
MR. MCMANUS: That’s a good question because that really is where I think there is a negative impact from this. It’s not only the Arabs. There’re an awful lot of embarrassed leaders out there. Actually, the king of Saudi Arabia who said “cut off the snake” speaking of Iran, well, I think most of his –
MS. IFILL: The head of the snake.
MR. MCMANUS: – the head of the snake.
MS. IFILL: Far more evocative even.
MR. MCMANUS: But the prime minister of Turkey, for example, is furious that there is an American diplomatic cable that says he has secret Swiss bank accounts and he wants to sue somebody over that. More substantively, the problem is that in places like Pakistan and Yemen, you had countries that have been cooperating with American counterterrorism efforts and they’ve been trying to live a lie. They’ve been trying to tell their own people that our cooperation is notexistent or that it’s minimal or that it’s very limited. And it’s not. And this may actually push them, for domestic political reasons, to cut back on the cooperation.
MS. IFILL: I detected a shift in tone from the beginning of the leak, when these were first coming out and everyone hadn’t read them yet, where Hillary Clinton was saying “this is dangerous and this could bring bad things.” And then by the next day, when she was kind of saying, “well, you know, they say worse about us.” It was almost as if they were relieved that the contents of documents weren’t more damaging.
MR. MCMANUS: I think that’s right. Actually, there were some sort of serious nuggets in there that would have been big news if they’d come out in a different way. For example, there are cables that show that both the Americans and the British are more deeply worried about Pakistan’s nuclear security, Pakistan’s ability to prevent nuclear weapons material from leaking out to terrorists, that the Americans and the British are more worried about that than they’ve let on.
But in a strange way, because there was this great flood of gossip that everyone was riveted to, this was much more US Weekly than Foreign Affairs quarterly, right? That everyone wanted to read about Colonel Gaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse who travels with him all the time, the blind Ukrainian, than some of these more serious things that might have been more damaging got kind of buried.
MS. IFILL: But do we know or are we satisfied at all that we know how these documents came to be leaked and that we know how to stop that from happening in the future?
MR. MCMANUS: Maybe and no, by which I mean it appears pretty clear that the American government believes that this Private First Class Bradley Manning, this young Army private, who has been arrested under military charges for earlier WikiLeaks, that this came from his computer. He is being prosecuted under military law. And of course, the question has been raised, gee, how could a private see all this. Incidentally, one reason that bigger secrets haven’t come out is this stuff was only secret and in classification secret isn’t really the best stuff. It has to be top secret. There’s no top secret stuff here. Can we stop it? Probably not. There’re three million people who can get secret documents. And prosecuting the WikiLeaks guy, Julian Assange, is very difficult because he’s in another country and there’s no law that catches him.
MS. IFILL: And someone’s got to find him first.
Okay, well if there wasn’t – as if there wasn’t enough on their plates, the Obama administration got a rude shock today when they learned the jobless rate has leaped to 9.8 percent, this in a week when Congress failed to extend unemployment benefits, a presidential commission couldn’t reach agreement on how to cut the deficit, and a much anticipated tax cut extension deal failed to materialize. Is this gridlock or is this all about lame duck politics at the end of the year? Do we go through this all the time?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I do think, Gwen, it’s a little more about lame duck politics and timing with respect to the tax cut deal. And I want to be a little counterintuitive. We’ve had a very pessimistic discussion from Yochi and talk about embarrassment from Doyle. I think the story on what’s going on between Republicans and Democrats is actually somewhat more hopeful than it appears on the surface. Yes, there is partisan trash talking. Yes, you had the chicken crap – chicken –
MS. IFILL: Chicken crap, that was the term.
MR. HARWOOD: – crap remark from John Boehner. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a mistake there.
MS. IFILL: Yes, so did he.
MR. HARWOOD: And a lot of back and forth. However, privately these discussions are going pretty smoothly and I do think they’re on track to have a deal within the next couple of weeks. And oddly enough, this very bad jobs number today probably will fuel that because it encourages Republicans to give into the Democrats’ call for extending unemployment benefits and it also strengthens the Republican argument that nobody’s taxes should go up for the next year or two with the economy this fragile because the one thing we learned from that jobs’ report is this is a recovery that is weak, that is going to proceed very slowly, and it’s going to be a while before the unemployment rate gets down to what anybody would consider an acceptable level.
MS. IFILL: The other little piece of information that dropped today was this Deficit Commission, nobody really expected in many ways a lot of the draconian recommendations to be embraced, but still they got farther than even they thought they were going to get.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, exactly, and that’s part of the story, too. They got 11 votes. They didn’t get 14, which is what they needed to really force action more directly with the Congress, but you had people like Dick Durbin, the liberal senator from Illinois; Tom Coburn, the conservative senator from Oklahoma; Judd Gregg, House members split, but the senators, with one exception – Max Baucus in the Finance Committee – came together behind that report. And I think what it does is even though the president didn’t endorse the specifics, he praised the work of the commission.
I think what this has done is accelerated a discussion that is likely to include long-term budget reform and also potentially tax reform that could have beneficial effects for the economy. I’m not sure that that’s going to happen in the next two years. In fact, I think the odds favor it happening after the next presidential election, but sometimes in this polarized environment we have, you’ve got to be thankful for small amounts of movement forward. And I think the debate has advanced.
MR. DREAZEN: John, there’s that old joke about how in Washington if you want to kill an idea, give it to a commission and put its recommendations in a closet. That’s the last you hear of it. Do you think some of the specifics that this commission raised, whether it’s defense cuts, whether it’s raising Social Security, do you think the specific recommendations will have life after the commission itself doesn’t?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I do because those recommendations, to the extent they were controversial, were controversial because they’re where the money is. The short-term cuts that have been talked about, the pay freeze for federal workers, the attempt to squeeze discretionary appropriations at the president, Republicans in Congress are pushing – that’s not going to solve the deficit problem.
You’re going to solve it by things like taking away mortgage interest deductions, by reigning in Social Security, Medicare over the long term, and turning to defense. And that’s one area, actually where liberal Democrats and some of the Tea Party Republicans may be able to make common cause. Again, it’s a process that’s going to take some time and I wouldn’t expect it to yield huge savings in 2011 and 2012, but we’re getting closer to the reckoning and I think people are recognizing that – as all the baby boomers approach retirement – and this is a step on the path toward doing something about it.
MR. MCMANUS: John, that’s the long-term. Let me wrestle you back to the immediate question of the task cut, maybe an unfair question. What do you think the deal is going to look like? And last week, Democrats and liberals were angry at the White House and President Obama for going ahead and bargaining before they got a chance to really plant a flag.
MS. IFILL: Answer quickly.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, right, and now they’ve been trying to plant a flag with all these votes. Those are symbolic votes. The White House, in fact, doesn’t have much leverage. I think the gambits about raising the threshold to a million dollars are not likely to happen. What I expect to happen is that all the Bush tax cuts – Bush tax rates will be extended probably for one or two years. And then you’ll have that tax reform discussion.
MS. IFILL: And then we’ll all have a Merry Christmas. But before we go tonight, we return to the world of “what was he thinking.” For the first time in nearly 30 years, a member of the House was censured yesterday. Eighty-year old New York Democrat Charles Rangel, once the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, admitted among other things that he made mistakes filing his taxes. So what was he thinking?
REP. CHARLIE RANGEL (D-NY): There’s absolutely no excuse for my omissions for my responsibility to obey those rules. But I still believe that this body has to be guided by fairness.
MS. IFILL: In the end, Rangel said he did not enrich himself by his actions and he should have been reprimanded, not censured. What do you think? Was the punishment fair or not? Drop us an email at email@example.com and we’ll post your responses online. We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, but the conversation continues online with the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. Check it out at pbs.org and keep up with daily developments on air at the PBS “NewsHour.” We’ll see you again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.