DATE September 2, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Peter Baker on the relationship between
President Bush and John McCain
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
President Bush will speak tonight to the Republican National Convention by
satellite. His scheduled appearance last night was canceled, along with most
of yesterday's convention plans because of Hurricane Gustav. My guest Peter
Baker writes about the rocky relationship between the president and John
McCain in this week's New York Times Magazine. Baker is a national
correspondent for the Times and is working on a book about the Bush
presidency. He's at the Republican convention in the Twin Cities.
Peter Baker, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What do you know about what's been
going on behind the scenes of the McCain campaign in terms of figuring out
what their strategy will be now during the convention in the wake of the
hurricane and of the revelations about Sarah Palin?
Mr. BAKER: Well, this has been week of complete improvisation by the McCain
campaign for obvious reasons. They've basically thrown out the script, both
on the vice presidential choice and on the hurricane. You know, most McCain
staffers didn't expect it to be Sarah Palin, either, so this caught a lot of
people by surprise. As recently just a couple nights ago they were calling
around Republican operatives saying, `Hey, can you scramble and get out to
Alaska for us?' They've got a team up there on the ground right now that will
help do their own research into her background beyond the initial vetting that
they've done and to help answer questions by reporters and prepare for the
politics of a vice presidential campaign.
And then the hurricane, you know, obviously, that's something nobody could
have expected to come at this exact moment. The irony of three years just
after Katrina is lost on no one. Fortunately, it turned out to be not to be,
you know, the sort of catastrophe that they had in 2005, and now they're
trying to get back going with the convention with a sort of abbreviated
format, but I think you'll start to see a lot more of the conventional
convention starting tonight.
GROSS: Is the McCain campaign convinced that it did an adequate job vetting
Mr. BAKER: They say that she was fully vetted, that she was looked at just
as thoroughly as any of the other finalists that they considered. But there's
certainly some reason to look at that and wonder exactly--I mean, she clearly
came up late in the process as the final choice the senator made and, you
know, a team didn't arrive in Alaska until Thursday, last Thursday, the same
day that she was being offered the job. So, you know, unlike some of the
other candidates he was considering who were well known on the national stage
and had been vetted in effect by the national media before, so any issues that
were already more or less on the table. Sarah Palin's something of an
unknown, and so we're now beginning to pour through her life and seeing all
the impressive things and the other things that are issues that she and her
family have to deal with.
GROSS: President Bush was supposed to speak last night at the Republican
convention, but because of Hurricane Gustav, the McCain campaign and the
convention, they threw out all of their plans, so it was unclear whether
President Bush would end up speaking at the convention or not. Now we know
he's going to speak tonight by video to the convention. You've just written
an article for the New York Times Magazine about the rocky relationship
between John McCain and President Bush. What do you know about what happened
behind the scenes in terms of deciding whether or not to use tonight as a
second chance for President Bush to speak to the convention?
Mr. BAKER: Well, I mean, look, there's no question that if you were to get
some of Senator McCain's closest advisers, you know, to take a polygraph
test--really open up--they would probably acknowledge that they were never all
that thrilled about having President Bush address the convention and that, you
know, the hurricane coming along gave them sort of a convenient way of sort of
avoiding that, at least, an in-person address. At the same time, they want to
be careful because, while President Bush is unpopular with the broad public,
he still has a lot of support among solid conservatives and Republicans, and
those are the people who are here at this convention. So any appearance of
disrespecting him would be a problem for Senator McCain. Given than the
hurricane didn't turn out to be as devastating as some had feared, people
would wonder, I think, why he didn't then, you know, get a chance to address
the convention at least by video over these next few days. And so they really
had no choice but to arrange something like this.
And for his part, I don't think President Bush was all that looking forward to
coming here and, you know, celebrating John McCain's takeover of the party, in
effect. I mean, Senator McCain has run a, you know, pretty tough campaign
with regard to President Bush. Up till just a few weeks ago he ran an ad that
said we're worse off than we were four years ago. That's the kind of ad the
opposition runs, usually, not the standard-bearer of your own party. So
there's no great enthusiasm between these two men, but they also have their
fates tied together by history. It's in both of their interests that Senator
McCain win this election, and they're both doing what they can to do that.
GROSS: The Obama campaign has been describing the McCain campaign as four
more years of Bush-Cheney, and you say about McCain, quote, "He finds himself
saddled with the baggage of a man he never much liked to begin with, forced to
live with a record he personally considers deeply lacking, and portrayed as if
he were a clone of his longtime adversary," unquote. What were some of the
things that the Bush campaign did against the McCain campaign in 2000 when
McCain was running in the primary for the Republican nomination, things that
the Bush campaign did that were most infuriating to McCain?
Mr. BAKER: Well, the crucible came in South Carolina, which is the most
important primary that followed Senator McCain's upset victory in New
Hampshire, and that was just a two-week period of brutal, very low-ball
politics in which fliers and telephone calls around the state spread all sorts
of insidious and mostly false stories about Senator McCain, you know, that he
was some sort of Manchurian candidate, that he had fathered a black child out
of wedlock, that his wife was a drug addict; all sorts of stuff that was just
very, very, you know, scurrilous in most cases. And while they never had any
evidence that the Bush campaign, per se, was involved in any of this,
certainly to the McCain camp they knew who benefited by it and, you know, that
was something that colored the relationship forever.
Senator McCain wrote in one of his memoirs, you know, about the night of the
New Hampshire primary where he and Governor Bush called, it was a concession
call. He says, `We hung up the phone that night as friends. We would be
friends no longer.' You know, today both men and their people will tell you,
`Well, we got over that a long time ago.' But there's still--it's hard to get
over that sort of thing, and it still, I think, you know, frames the dealings
between these two men and certainly, for instance, Cindy McCain continues, I
think, according to people around them, to remain very bitter about the way
her family was dragged through the mud.
GROSS: John McCain deplored the kind of negative tactics that Karl Rove was
behind in politics, yet now McCain has two people who worked on Rove's team,
Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, in key positions within McCain's campaign.
Do you know why he hired people who practiced the kind of tactics that McCain
has said he deplored?
Mr. BAKER: Well, I'm not sure I would buy that, actually. You know, the
idea that Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace are Karl Rove clones, I think, is
sort of not very true. I mean, did they work in the Bush White House? Yes,
they did. And did they work on Bush campaigns? Yes, they did. And so in
that sense, obviously, they have seen Karl Rove's strategies up close and been
part of them, in that sense. But they're not his proteges. That's been sort
of exaggerated, I think. Both of them, in fact, spent their time in the White
House at various moments fighting with Karl Rover over various things.
They're not going to advertise that today, but they're not Karl Rove clones.
You know, I think the senator's campaign this last few weeks and months has
obviously gotten sharper in its attacks on Senator Obama. It's certainly
taken a more negative tack. That's not entirely surprising for an underdog
campaign, but, you know, I'm not sure how far it's gone over any lines at this
point. I mean, you know, pointing out that Senator Obama seems to be a
celebrity is hardly the same thing as some of the stuff that Senator McCain
was subjected to in South Carolina. But we'll see. It's still early. We're
just at Labor Day. We're just at the beginning of the fall campaign. This
is--we've just finished the pre-season and we're only now beginning into the
regular season. So we'll see how far this goes. There's a lot of questions
whether Senator McCain compromises those kind of values that he talks about in
terms of campaign for the chance to win. This is going to be a real test for
GROSS: One of the places where John McCain has supported President Bush most
strongly is the war in Iraq. You got access to a private, three-page letter
in which John McCain warned Bush that he would lose the war without an
increase in forces. Can you tell us when the letter was sent and what it
Mr. BAKER: Right. This is December of 2006. The Republicans had just lost
the Congress, the midterm elections, and Donald Rumsfeld had just been fired
or pushed out as defense secretary, and this is a moment when President Bush
is rethinking his strategy and Senator McCain decided that he had to weigh in
if he had any chance of influencing policy. It was the first time Senator
McCain had advocated more troops in Iraq, but he saw the body politic in
Washington going the other direction. You know, the Baker-Hamilton report, a
lot of the new Democrats taking over Congress, and even a lot of Republicans
were saying it's time to withdraw, it's time to begin pulling out. We need to
look at scaling back our presence there. And McCain says, `No, it's the exact
opposite approach. The whole idea of a political reconciliation without
fostering security first is lunatic, and you have to do it the other way
around. You have to create an environment in which people safely talk about
their differences and create a peaceful resolution to them, and the only way
to do that is with more troops on the ground.'
It was a risky move. It was a risky move for both him and President Bush, and
I think that's obviously one risk that today looks better than it did at the
GROSS: How influential would you say McCain was in convincing President Bush
to go forward with the surge?
Mr. BAKER: I think it was influential. I don't know whether it was a
deciding factor but, you know, this is a moment when President Bush looked
around him and found everybody telling him not to do it, you know, including
his own joint chiefs of staff, his field commanders, his secretary of state,
again, the Baker-Hamilton commission, which represented in some ways the
voices of his father's administration. He was a very lonely figure when he
decided to authorize the additional 30,000 troops for Iraq, and I think to
have Senator McCain there backing him up, I think probably did embolden him,
at least it made him think, `Well, at least, I've got, you know, the support
of this fellah who's been pretty tough on me over these years, and he's going
to stick with me on this policy, and he's going to be running for president so
he's also got something at stake here.' And I think it brought them together
in a way. I think they both emerged from that moment with more respect for
each other. I think they both sat there and said, you know, here's leadership
under pressure and they looked at each other and said, `This is somebody we
can do business with' in the end.
GROSS: What are your impressions of how confident the McCain campaign is that
they will win the election?
Mr. BAKER: I don't think they're overconfident on this right now. I mean,
they--it's an interesting situation where the national polls have been pretty
even. And in some ways they're doing much better than a lot of people had
expected. Senator McCain's running far ahead of the generic Republican
number, which shows that he has an identity with the public that goes beyond
conventional party lines.
But on the other hand, I don't think they would have picked Governor Palin
either if they felt very confident that they were going to win. That's the
choice of an underdog. That's a choice of somebody who's taking a risk in
order to shake things up and, you know, if you look at some of these
state-by-state polls, if you look intensity of support, things like that,
those are troubling signs for Senator McCain. And then just history is a
troubling indicator for him. I mean, you don't have too many examples where
the incumbent party keeps the White House for a third term, particularly in a
time of war and economic disruption and a 75 percent wrong track number,
meaning 75 percent of the public thinks the country is on the wrong track, and
a president whose own approval number is in the high 20s. So, you know,
history would suggest that the odds are stacked against Senator McCain.
GROSS: Peter Baker, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BAKER: Oh, thanks for having me. It's always great to be here.
GROSS: Peter Baker's article about the relationship between President Bush
and John McCain is in this week's New York Times Magazine. He spoke to us
from the Twin Cities.
Coming up, General David Petraeus, the presidential candidates and the way out
of Iraq. We talk with Steve Coll about his article in the current edition of
The New Yorker. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Steve Coll of The New Yorker on David Petraeus, the
presidential election and the way out of Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
Both John McCain and Barack Obama have consulted with General David Petraeus
about Iraq, but each candidate has reached a different conclusion about what
America's strategy should be. My guest Steve Coll writes about Petraeus, the
candidates and the road out of Iraq in the current edition of The New Yorker.
Petraeus will leave his position commanding the Iraqi theater on September
15th to assume command of CENTCOM, broadening his responsibilities to the
Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, including the wars in Iraq and
Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former foreign
correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post. He's written books
about the bin Laden family and the war in Afghanistan. He's also the
president of the public policy institute the New America Foundation.
Steve Coll, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with how General Petraeus
thinks we should end the war. What have you learned about that?
Mr. STEVE COLL: Well, he has a war plan that contemplates changes in the
role and the mission of US troops in Iraq, and those changes imply, but in the
war plan don't make explicit, reductions in the number of troops that would be
required. And this war plan is called the Joint Campaign Plan. It's being
rewritten right now; actually the last version was signed off on in November
of 2007, and essentially it's a classified document totally several hundred
pages, but it goes out a couple or three years in its estimate of where the US
is trying to go, and I think the most important element of it, certainly for
voters and for American decision-making about Iraq, is this transformation of
the US mission from combat and partnering in combat with Iraqi forces to what
the plan calls "overwatch," which is a more removed posture of support,
providing air intelligence and logistics support to Iraqi forces.
But the plan is interesting in that it doesn't have a fixed timetable, and it
certainly does not make specific commitments as to how many troops would be
drawn down when, and that, for instance, makes it quite a difference formula
in those respects from the proposals to end the war that Senator Obama has
GROSS: But, you know, there's an agreement that's been reached between the
United States and Iraq that hasn't been signed by the Iraqi government yet,
but that calls for basically a timetable. It's a draft agreement that
contains a target date of 2011 for the withdrawal of all American combat
troops. That's about 18 months later than Obama's plan, but still it's a
timetable. So how does Petraeus' plan square with the fact that the Bush
administration and the Iraqi government have reached this tentative agreement
that has a timetable?
Mr. COLL: Well, it's a good question. I think it's a fact--there was
a--when Senator Obama and Senator Reed and Senator Hagel visited Iraq in July,
in the private briefing session they had with General Petraeus, the question
you asked was posed, in fact, by Jack Reed, the Democrat from Rhode Island,
who's a West Point graduate and a specialist in defense, and he essentially
said to Petraeus, `Look, deadlines are coming. They're coming from the
Iraqis. We're going to live with them one away or another, so we need to
change our own conversation and come to terms with this idea of timetables.'
Now, how binding the timetables in this "status of forces" agreement that you
referred to will actually turn out to be, I think, is difficult to assess at
this point. This negotiation has dragged on, I think, a lot longer than the
Bush administration wanted it to, and even now this draft agreement seems
quite tentative to me. But a central observation remains: The Iraqi
government, for domestic political reasons, is insisting upon--and it's
difficult to imagine how they could back away from--timetables.
GROSS: What are the domestic political reasons that you refer to?
Mr. COLL: Rising Iraqi nationalism, a broad sense--as the violence has
calmed in Iraq, it has had political effects on Iraq, just as it has had
political effects on the United States. And in Iraq, some of those effects
have expressed themselves in a sort of more peaceful version of the
perceptions and ambitions that fueled the insurgency. That is, Iraqis want
their country back, and they want their own institutions to be in the fore of
the next phase of national life, including the next phase of counterinsurgency
against violent rejectionist groups. So the government of Iraq, led by Prime
Minister Maliki, which is a relatively young and not deeply rooted
administration, is approaching another round of elections, and politicians are
competing to convince voters that they are true Iraqi nationalists and they
are not going to tolerate a continuation of American control over Iraqi
national life. So that's the political equation that Maliki and others are
trying to address with their insistence on timetables.
GROSS: So both John McCain and Barack Obama have consulted with General David
Petraeus. What's the difference between how Obama and McCain have reacted to
Mr. COLL: Well, they've come at it from very different directions, although
these days I think the difference between McCain and Obama's forward-looking
plan for Iraq is a lot less stark than it was a couple of years ago. In
McCain's case, he was an early and adamant supporter of what came to be known
as the surge, the decision by President Bush announced on January 10, 2007 to
dispatch what became about 30,000 additional troops to Baghdad in order to
intervene in what was then a multifaceted and deepening civil war in Iraq.
And because McCain believed that that was the right response to the conditions
at that time, and because he knew Petraeus as an advocate of counterinsurgency
tactics that were going to make the surge work, or define the surge, he had a
kind of natural alliance with the general.
On the other hand, Senator Obama was a critic of the surge and a critic of the
war. He had voted against it. He had been consistent in his opposition to
the basic strategic premises of the war, and so when the surge came along he
saw it in that context, argued against it in that context. And in the
political competition that evolved over the Iraq war, both within the
Democratic primary and then looking ahead prospectively to the general
election cycle in which we now find ourselves, Senator Obama was, you know,
adamant about his judgment that the war was a mistake and that re-investing in
the war in the form of the surge was also a mistake. And so that created
distance in his relationship with General Petraeus, and it was only in 2008
that Senator Obama began to reach out to him privately at first, then talk
publicly about the general, and then in July he went over and met with him in
the context of the election campaign.
GROSS: Steve Coll will be back in the second half of the show. His article
about General Petraeus, the presidential candidates and the road out of Iraq
is in the current edition of The New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Steve Coll. We're
talking about his article in the current edition of the New Yorker about
General Petraeus, the presidential candidates and the road out of Iraq. Coll
is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former foreign correspondent and
senior editor of the Washington Post. He's the president of the New America
Foundation and author of the book "The Bin Ladens."
What do you know about the meeting in Iraq between Obama and Petraeus in July?
Mr. COLL: I thought it was a really story. Petraeus described it to some
extent. I also interviewed Jack Reed, who was in the meeting, and others who
were in the meeting who didn't want to be identified. It begins with these
really red hot hearings in September of 2007 when partisan feeling about the
war was at its most sort of inflamed, and this was the time when the activist
group MoveOn published an advertisement with the headline "General Petraeus or
General Betray-us?" questioning his reliability as a source of information
about the war, and when Democrats and Republicans at these hearings argued
vociferously about the surge and about the future direction of the war.
And at that hearing Senator Obama asked--which, going back and looking at the
transcript--a really important question, and it was a very, sort of
well-composed question, I thought, just as a sort of lawyer-ly formulation,
and it essentially went to the basic outcome of the war. `What is the
minimally acceptable end state for American interests that would allow us to
start leaving?' he asked the general, because the general was saying, `We
cannot draw down precipitously,' so the senator said, `Well, then, what are
the conditions that will allow us to do that?' And in the context of only
having seven minutes to answer questions and the clock running and a lot of
political sort of argument going on, Petraeus never had a chance to answer the
question, so what he told me was that in the subsequent months it had gnawed
at him that he had never been able to have a conversation with Obama about
this fundamental question, `How does this end?'
So when Senator Obama arrived in Iraq in July, General Petraeus was waiting
for him in a sense, and he, in the briefing, presented a series of charts on
storyboard sort of easels and walked through them. And what he tried to
describe, he said, was the way his war plan addresses the question that
Senator Obama asked, and he talked about this planned transition from combat
and partnering with Iraqi forces to a more removed posture of overwatch that
would permit the reduction of US troops. And he tried to essentially argue to
Senator Obama that he had an end state in mind, he was moving toward that end
state, but he was essentially arguing that he needed flexibility as to the
pace at which he made that transition.
GROSS: Well, you say that, you know, General Petraeus is arguing that he
needs flexibility. Obama has argued that he needs flexibility, too. He's
said he didn't want to get boxed into what he considered two false choices, a
rigid timeline or pledging to do whatever Petraeus tells him is best. Do you
know how Petraeus reacted to that?
Mr. COLL: Well, it's interesting, because they essentially went back and
forth along the lines that you describe, and Senator Reed told me that Obama
also said in the briefing to General Petraeus, `Look, we--in effect, we have
different roles here, and I have to think about flexibility in Iraq in the
context of America's global national security and economic interests, and one
of the obvious problems that we have to confront is the fact that the war in
Afghanistan is relatively under-resourced and we need to be re-balancing
forces from Iraq to Afghanistan.'
And so General Petraeus, I think, recognizes that Senator Obama's timeline is
now a political declaration that the senator cannot easily back down from in
the context of a campaign against Senator McCain, that this is something
that's going to have to wait until after November if Senator Obama is the next
president. And I think, really, in private, both in the Obama camp and in
Petraeus' command, among his aides, there's an understanding that the
difference between what Senator Obama has announced--including this caveat
that you mentioned, that he isn't saying he's going to follow his 16-month
timetable no matter what; he's saying something more nuanced than that--on the
one hand, and Petraeus' idea of a flexible transition to overwatch on the
other hand, that the gap between those two plans is not necessarily enormous
at all. What's required is for the two of them, if they are going to be
working together as president and commander, to have an opportunity to sit
down and talk about specifics outside of the context of an election campaign.
GROSS: Is John McCain on the same page as General Petraeus in terms of a
conditions-based withdrawal of combat troops and this kind of drawing-down
that would lead to a different relationship between American troops and Iraq?
Mr. COLL: He says that he is. I think that his position is essentially, `I
believe that General Petraeus has it right, and I'm going to follow his
advice, and that a conditions-based approach is the right one.' The change in
McCain's rhetoric, anyway, has been to move over the last year away from a
position of, `We'll stay as long as it takes, whatever it takes,' this sort of
stalwart kind of language that occasionally implied such a long commitment
that it seemed to be out of step with American public opinion to a significant
extent, he's backed away from that and he's now essentially saying, `I, too,
will responsibly manage an end to heavy American commitments, but I'm going to
do it with General Petraeus' conditions-based formula and not on a fixed
GROSS: John McCain, while addressing Veterans of Foreign Wars in Orlando in
August, told them that both he and Obama planned to bring US forces home from
the war in Iraq, but he said, quote, "The great difference is that I intend to
win it first." And I'm wondering if General Petraeus ever uses the word "win"
in the context of the war in Iraq.
Mr. COLL: Never, and he's quite self-conscious about that. And he is, by
the accounts of not only himself but all of the two-stars and one-stars and
colonels and majors that I had a chance to talk to when I was over there, his
message is nobody ought to be declaring victory anytime soon, and that even
more than that, we ought not to be saying there's light at the end of the
tunnel. We ought not to be saying things are going--that we're optimistic.
His experience of such language is that it doesn't serve anybody's purpose,
and so he has adopted a kind of formulation of neutrality, of sort of
empirical language. His standard phrase is that he's no longer an optimist
nor a pessimist about Iraq, but a realist. And I asked him at one point
whether he thought now, given the reductions in violence--though Iraq is far,
far from a normal country, even with these reduced levels of violence--whether
he thought it was realistic to be optimistic now, and he said, `Well, it might
be, but you're never going to hear me say that.'
GROSS: How confident is General Petraeus that the gains we've made in
reducing violence in Iraq will actually hold?
Mr. COLL: He says that he's not especially confident, that he believes that
these conditions are still fragile. And just to go back to what we were
talking about before, this rising sense of Iraqi nationalism, which you can
see expressed in the recent negotiations, for instance, the Maliki government
has acquired an enormous amount of confidence in itself over the last six
months, but whether that confidence is matched by its capacity to actually run
the country and reconcile some of these divisions, I think, is questionable.
The government is feeling its strength, but it hasn't yet demonstrated a
sustained capacity to deliver services to its people or to defend the country
against internal and external enemies.
GROSS: John McCain credits the surge in American troops for the decline in
violence in Iraq. How much weight does General Petraeus put on the surge in
explaining the reduction in violence?
Mr. COLL: I think it depends on what you mean by the surge, and I found it
interesting to discover that there's a discourse inside the military about
what the surge means, how it should be interpreted. I think when military
officers use the term "the surge," they are referring to much more than just
the dispatch of additional troops to Iraq. They're also talking about the
application of counterinsurgency techniques by General Petraeus and his
commanding officers, an emphasis on keeping civilians safe, an emphasis on
local governance, on building institutional and governmental services at the
local level. And they're also talking about political work by General
Petraeus and also Ambassador Ryan Crocker. So when McCain talks about the
surge in a political campaign, he may just be using it as a shorthand label,
but in the professional military, it's a lot more complicated than just
numbers of troops. It's about tactics and counterinsurgency doctrine, as
well. And in that respect General Petraeus believes absolutely that the
surge, writ large in the way I've just described, is responsible for these
reductions in violence.
GROSS: And when McCain says Obama opposed the surge, what is he accusing
Obama of having opposed, and what in fact did Obama oppose?
Mr. COLL: On January 10th, 2007, President Bush announced, after a series of
internal reviews, that he was sending more American troops to Iraq to try to
quell the violence. Senator Obama was among those who said he thought that
the surge was not going to work and that it was only an extension of President
Bush's failed approach to the war. Senator McCain was among the relatively
small group of American politicians who thought that the surge was just what
was needed to bring this violence down, and it turned out that the surge did
bring the violence down. It's really not much more complicated than that.
But the debate that's continued between Senator McCain and Senator Obama has
been about much more than just the surge. To some extent now it's about
judgment, and there Obama has been able to change the discussion to the
broader question of whether the war was wise, whether it was wisely managed,
and what McCain has said about those questions over the years as well.
GROSS: Is that a question that Petraeus is willing to take on, whether the
war was wise and wisely managed?
Mr. COLL: Yes. Interestingly, when I was preparing to go over there and to
interview him at length, I looked at written questions and answers that had
been created for his recent confirmation as the head of CENTCOM, which is the
military command for all US forces in the Middle East, and somebody asked him
in writing that question, `Please tell us the mistakes that have been made in
the Iraq war.' His answer was two pages single spaced, and it was really quite
a list. It started with the basic things that we know--the decision to
dissolve the Baath party without a plan to reintegrate the Sunnis who would be
disenfranchised into government and national life; the decision to dissolve
the army; the light troop footprint, he mentions; he goes through a whole
series of sort of errors in the war. And, you know, this is part of Army
culture, and that's pretty admirable as an aspect of the way our government
generally runs. The Army has a "lessons learned" center. It's just published
the second volume of its own internal history of the Iraq war, and it's a
pretty tough document. It's called "On Point." You could find it online. It
only covers the period up through 2006, but it, like Petraeus' answer, is
pretty tough on the decision makers.
GROSS: What about the question of whether we should have gone to war in Iraq
in the first place? Will Petraeus answer that one?
Mr. COLL: He won't, but I think it's a really intriguing question. Because
if you read this list of mistakes and some of the other answers that he's
given, it wouldn't shock me if, in retirement, he says, `Of course, I thought
the war was a strategic mistake.' But as the commander of it now, he's not in
any position to talk about something like that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Steve Coll and we're
discussing the article that he wrote in the current edition of The New Yorker.
It's called "The General's Dilemma: David Petraeus, the Politicians and the
Road Out of Iraq."
Steve, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Coll. He's a journalist
whose latest book is about the bin Laden family. It's called "The Bin Ladens:
An Arabian Family in the American Century." We're talking about the article he
wrote that's published in the current edition of The New Yorker called "The
General's Dilemma: David Petraeus, the Politicians and the Road Out of Iraq."
David Petraeus is about to take over CENTCOM and leave his position as the
commander of the troops in Iraq. What will his responsibilities as the head
of CENTCOM be?
Mr. COLL: Well, CENTCOM is the integrated command for all the military
services that's organized on geographical lines, and it essentially covers the
territory from Egypt in the west all the way to Central Asia and Pakistan in
the east. And the command now is overwhelmed by two wars, one in Iraq and the
other in Afghanistan, and Petraeus will, in effect, oversee both of those
wars, from the CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and its forward
headquarters in Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
GROSS: I wonder if--and I don't think you'll be able to answer this, but I
thought I'd ask it anyways--I wonder if you think his view on the war in Iraq
and our strategy there will change when his responsibilities, you know, cover
a much larger region and Iraq is just a part of it.
Mr. COLL: Now, for the first time, in thinking about troop levels in Iraq,
he will have to weigh the costs of heavy investments in Iraq against the need
for reinforcements in Afghanistan. In his previous advocacy for more troops
to Iraq, it was his role as the theater commander, in effect, to say, `I need
what I need,' and he kept saying, `I need a lot.' Now he's in more the
judicial chair hearing theater commanders in two wars argue about what they
need and then trying to sort out where the best balance lies.
I think a second aspect of this next assignment, of course, is that he's going
to try to apply the counterinsurgency principles that he applied in Iraq now
to Afghanistan and to Pakistan as well. I talked to him some about that when
I was over there. He certainly understands that Pakistan and Afghanistan are
very different places from Iraq and that there is no sort of cookbook that you
can carry from one country to the other. But he and his cohort of
counterinsurgency specialists within the Army do believe that there is a
method, a way of thinking, a way of integrating war and politics that does
apply across borders, and he's going to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan with
real conviction and energy about that.
GROSS: Although General Petraeus has been much referred to during the
presidential campaign, Petraeus obviously is staying out of the campaign--it's
really not the role of the military to make endorsements--but what do you know
about David Petraeus' politics and his political background?
Mr. COLL: Well, he's a registered Republican in the state of New Hampshire.
He has described himself as a northeastern Rockefeller Republican, but he,
however, told me that he stopped voting in 2002. What interested me about him
at this time, most of all what drew me to this story, was the dilemma of
civil-military relations that his command represents. There have been other
episodes in American history where generals and politicians have had to manage
a divisive war and do it in a constitutional system that presumes the primacy
of civilian politicians, but also respects the role of professional generals,
but we haven't had a whole lot of those. Vietnam is one example. MacArthur
is another. And here comes a general who is very self-conscious. He's a
doctoral degree holder in international relations. As one of his colleagues,
West Point classmate, put it, you know, he may not want to admit it but he's
basically a political scientist.
So here you have a political scientist and a general managing the most
divisive war in a generation, so how do you do that? What does the law say,
what, as a practical matter, can you accomplish? And so that is, I think,
really the theme as much as the war fighting in Iraq, the broader theme of his
command lies in this area of civil military relations. And it's not finished
yet, because here we are in the middle of a national election, and his command
is probably the most important foreign policy issue, though perhaps no longer
the most important issue, in the election.
GROSS: OK. So reading between the lines here, when he says that he had been
a Rockefeller Republican, how do you interpret that?
Mr. COLL: Well, I think he's saying that he's associating himself by
implication--this was a private comment, this was not a public
self-characterization, so I don't really know what he was intending to convey
in the private conversation--but it sort of places him in the world of
Republican realists occupied by the present president's father, George H.W.
Bush, and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and that sort of era
of the Republican Party that did not seek to transform the world, but which
sought to manage American security on the basis of sort of realism and
GROSS: So you think it's a way of saying that he was a Rockefeller
Mr. COLL: He's not a neoconservative.
GROSS: ...as opposed to a Bush Republican...
Mr. COLL: Not a neoconservative.
GROSS: A George W. Bush Republican.
Mr. COLL: No. That would be implication of it.
GROSS: Steve Coll, thank you so much. Always a pleasure to talk with you.
Mr. COLL: Likewise, Terry. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Steve Coll's article about General Petraeus, the presidential
candidates and the road out of Iraq is in the current edition of The New
Yorker, where he also writes a blog. His latest book is "The Bin Ladens: An
Arabian Family in the American Century."
The FX cop series "The Shield" begins its seventh and final season tonight.
Coming up, David Bianculli has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David Bianculli on the final season of "The Shield"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The FX drama series "The Shield," which in 2002 introduced Michael Chiklis as
rogue cop Vic Mackey, begins its seventh and final season tonight. TV critic
David Bianculli has seen the first eight of these last 13 episodes. Here's
his review and his look at the impact of "The Shield" on today's TV landscape.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Six years ago "The Shield" burst onto the TV scene with
a vengeance. The vengeance was in the form of Vic Mackey, a detective running
an effective but opportunistic strike force. Vic was violent, corrupt and
played by his own rules. So much so that in the pilot episode, Vic's own
police captain assigned an undercover officer to investigate Vic and his unit.
Vic responded quickly by shooting his fellow officer in cold blood during a
routine bust and getting away with it.
That's how "The Shield" began: shockingly. Thanks to "The Sopranos" on HBO
we'd gotten used to central characters who were less than heroic, but a cop
who kills one of his own and isn't caught or punished? "The Shield," from the
very start, was something different.
What has made the show outstanding, though, is that it never let go of that
initial cold-blooded murder, or others that have followed since. Michael
Chiklis, as Vic Mackey, won a Best Actor Emmy that first season and deserved
it. Since then, his Vic has been targeted and investigated several times, but
always has escaped justice.
This season, though, Vic's luck finally may be running out. He's about to
face a review board and most likely lose his job, but he has one last card to
play, involving a box full of incriminating evidence against city officials
and employees. The box has come into possession of two people; Vic is one of
them. The other, played by Benito Martinez, is the former police captain who
launched the investigation against Vic in that series pilot. Six years later,
he's now a well-connected city councilman, and he and Vic are about to agree
to a very uneasy alliance.
(Soundbite of "The Shield")
Mr. BENITO MARTINEZ: (as David Aceveda) What are you doing?
Mr. MICHAEL CHIKLIS: (as Vic Mackey) There are over a hundred blackmail
files in this box. I only need one of them to get my badge back.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (as David Aceveda) You saying you going to blackmail someone
Mr. CHIKLIS: (as Vic Mackey) No. I'm going to give them their sin back,
grant them absolution. Him giving me my badge back is just going to be his
way of showing gratitude.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (as David Aceveda) Right now this intel is the only proof that
we have that...(unintelligible)...dirty. Using it as leverage will compromise
it as evidence. Plus...(unintelligible)...will know that you have the box.
We can't risk exposing that now.
Mr. CHIKLIS: (as Vic Mackey) What, now that your Kodak moment is out of this
box, the hell with everyone else, right? You and me, we're never going to be
friends. We both know that we're just here for survival. Now, you want to be
mayor? All I want to do is keep being a cop.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: But Vic has other problems in his final season. Big ones,
involving his family at home and his family at work. One of his own strike
force members, Shane, killed another member two seasons ago, the same sort of
cold-blooded murder Vic committed in the pilot. This year Vic and Shane are
circling each other very warily, and all of Vic's demons and evil deeds seem
to be coming home to roost. Maybe Vic won't get away with murder after all.
Or maybe, before "The Shield" is over, he'll commit a few more.
Either way, all I can say is, I've seen all eight preview episodes sent by FX,
and I couldn't burn through them quickly enough. This is one great TV show,
and series creator Shawn Ryan is ending it by bringing everything to a boil
and, it appears, to an actual finite conclusion.
The critical and audience raves for "The Shield" in its first year did more
than put "The Shield" on everyone's radar, it put the previously ignored FX
network there too. FX responded perfectly, with one ambitious, edgy show
after another: "Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck," "Over There" and "The Riches,"
"Damages" and, starting Wednesday, "Sons of Anarchy," a new drama series about
an outlaw motorcycle gang.
"The Shield" is the forerunner of them all and more. Rival programmers were
quick to learn the FX lesson, that a single show, if bold and different
enough, could re-define a network. So we have "Dexter" on Showtime and "Mad
Men" on AMC and other obvious examples, all due in no small part to Vic Mackey
and "The Shield."
So watch this season as a new chapter in cop show history is being made. The
TV cop genre began a half century ago with "Dragnet," where Jack Webb
reenacted actual police cases. Then we had a few decades of cops as flawless
heros, followed by "Hill Street Blues," which introduced cops as flawed heroes
and changed the genre again. "Homicide: Life on the Street" took an even
darker look and told a bleak overall story. The idealistic rookie cop in the
first season ended up being a cold-blooded killer in the finale. And in "The
Shield," the central cop character began as a cold-blooded killer and has gone
downhill from there. It doesn't look, from the episodes I've seen, that Vic
Mackey will have a soft landing. But as dramatic TV roller coasters go, it's
a ride no one should miss.
GROSS: David Bianculli writes about television for tvworthwatching.com and
Broadcasting & Cable Magazine.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We're really happy to welcome a new addition to our staff today, associate
producer John Myers. He comes to us from a great NPR show that's also
produced in Philadelphia, "World Cafe." It's great to have you here, John.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.