White House Press Secretary Tony Snow following up the President’s speech last night.
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show now, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Happy New Year, Tony.
TS: Happy New Year, Hugh.
HH: I thought it was a fine speech last night, well delivered, well crafted. I’ve got a couple of inside baseball questions, then some specifics. Why the release early, Tony Snow, of the partial quotes, and the briefings? Doesn’t that drain audience and interest from a presidential address?
TS: No, actually, I think what it does is it gives you a press corps that has something to chew over. One of the things we were doing, and by the way, we always release excerpts before a speech, always, that is for big speeches. We do it for major addresses, state of the unions, so that’s kind of par for the course. A lot of early details leaked out, but they were leaked out in kind of a vacuum. And when members of the press yesterday got briefings about what was going to be in it, and how the pieces fit together, I think it set the stage for a lot better, fairer and more comprehensive coverage than we would have gotten otherwise. I mean, otherwise, it would have been ‘Bush admits mistakes, wants more troops.’ And that’s all it would have been. And instead, you had people with the opportunity to think about the economic pieces, about the strategic pieces, including Iran and Syria, it gave them an opportunity to take a close look at the Baghdad security plan, the increased role for the Iraqis, and the significantly increased responsibilities. And frankly, in a country where fewer than half of the people saw the President’s speech, it’s important to make sure that the people who are doing the primary reporting on it have an opportunity to get their arms around a pretty big, complex policy, than to do so in a way that they could transmit it without hammering us.
HH: Well, I want to argue the point just a bit. If you go back earlier in the week, Steve Jobs introduces I-phone. They go to extraordinary lengths not to let any detail out, because they want to build audience, excitement and attention. And then it’s up to Jobs to deliver the goods. And you also don’t give the enemies of the produce, or in this case, the speech, the opportunity to dismiss and begin to quantify earlier. And I wonder if we haven’t gotten too concerned about briefing that press corps, and not engaging, maybe only half watched it.
TS: No, I don’t think so. Look, there’s a big difference between an I-phone and the war in Iraq. Among other things, the kind of press that covers it, maybe because the techie press is interested…they’re interested in the substance. What does this do? Wow, what a big screen. It operates for five hours? Look at this, the connectivity. Cool. They don’t sit around…I mean, they weren’t spending a lot of time asking about Jobsgate. So I think it’s a different kind of press where here, you’ve got an adversarial press. And you know what? It’s not a bad thing to go ahead and let the opponents go ahead and have their first shot, because guess what? We got our responses in the same story. So it allowed us, I think, to shape the story from the standpoint of getting a policy out, getting a critique and getting a response in the same news cycle. So this really wasn’t an effort to kowtow to critics. It was an effort to go ahead and, in a certain sense, make sure that the press corps had everything they needed to do a fair story. And frankly, Hugh, for a speech that begins at 9:00 Eastern, wraps up at about 9:30, for our guys, for the press corps to have to digest that all, and to get it into comprehensible form, and to know what they’re talking about before print deadlines, or it you’re a television or broadcast reporter, to do it immediately, it wouldn’t have worked out. It would not have been pretty.
HH: All right, a couple more inside baseball questions. Why the Library Room? And why standing?
TS: Well, because you can’t sit in the Library Room, and I’m not sure why we did the Library. We were looking for kind of a different venue, and we looked at some, and the Library looked the best.
HH: Why a different venue?
TS: You know, we just wanted to.
HH: All right. I want to play for you one paragraph, and then parse it a little bit with you. Perhaps the most interesting paragraph in the speech:
GWB: Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity, and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces, we will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria, and we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.
HH: What does that mean, Tony Snow, we will seek out the networks?
TS: Well, it means within Iraq, you can take a look at the people who are doing transport…let me be specific about it. There’s a new generation of IED that the Iranians have been importing. And among other things, they can pierce the armor of some of our tanks and our Bradley fighting vehicles. They are uniquely lethal as far as IED’s go. That’s been manufactured and exported through Iran. What we want to do is to find out number one, who’s…we want to stop it at the border if possible. But if not, we want to find out who’s moving those things. So you do have networks that end up doing transporting or smuggling, or whatever you want to call it. They’re making it and pushing it into Baghdad. And there are concerted efforts to try and interrupt what they call the rat lines, that is the lines of transit by which either bad guys or weapons make their way to theaters of battle, whether it be Baghdad or Anbar Province. Similarly, we’re working hard on the rat lines that leave from Syria into Anbar. So it’s pretty classic military strategy, which is you cut off the supply lines. Effectively, what we’re talking about is cutting off supply lines to people committing acts of violence within Baghdad, but also going after those who are supporting them.
HH: Now does that mean if we know that there is an IED manufacturing facility over the border in Iran or Syria, that that is now fair game for American weaponry?
TS: No, we’re not going that far. And frankly…
HH: Are you ruling that out?
TS: Like I said, we’re not going that far. I think what you’ve got to understand, Hugh, is that there are a whole lot of things in play, and you also understand that when it comes to military activities and doctrine, there’s only so much you say publicly.
HH: But that was…was that carefully crafted, old speech writer Tony Snow, to leave the ambiguity there that is obviously there?
TS: Look, at this point, what we’re talking about is if you bring things into Iraq, we’re going to intercept them and we’re going to go after the people doing it. And I think that’s the one thing that people ought to take away from it.
HH: So they should not take away from it, and the Iranians should not take away from it, any indication that our patience has grown thin?
TS: Well, our patience has grown thin, but there are many ways to expressing that.
HH: All right. The President mentioned changing different…he didn’t use the term rules of engagement, and a lot of the callers and e-mailers to this program and on the blog, Tony Snow, want to know if we’re going to be tying hands behind back anymore for fear of PR.
TS: No. No, as a matter of fact, we are snipping the cords and untying the hands. You know, it wasn’t merely so-called PR concerns. Even more dramatic was the fact that politicians in Iraq could get on their cell phones and call up and say stop going into Diwaniya. Stop going into Sadr City. Stop going into some place or another. Or you have arrested this person, his uncle’s a good friend of mine, you must let him go. I mean, that’s the kind of thing…you want to know why Shia militias are thriving? In part, because bad guys get caught, and they get released. There’s no consequence for bad behavior. You want to know why Sunnis are now siding with Saddam rejectionists and forming their own sort of quasi-military operations? Because they don’t trust the local police. If you get to a situation where you’re going after the bad actors, then the public can have some faith in the legal system, and in those who are supposed to keep the peace. That’s a very important thing, but you can’t do it unless you have rules of engagement that say if you’re drawing a bead on the bad guy, go get him. No more political interference.
HH: One of the hangovers of Vietnam is a rejection of the release of body counts of enemy killed or captured. Is that going to change? Will the damage inflicted on the enemy be public now, Tony Snow?
TS: You know, we do it from time to time. The fact is, the Pentagon’s a little wary of doing it, but for instance, the President tried to make it clear we had…November, I think there were 103 American deaths in Iraq in November, and I believe the number of killed and captured on the enemy side was something north of 5,000. So you want to be careful about getting into those counts, and I think our military also says look, we don’t want to get into the situation where somebody’s going to measure their success by how many people they pop. You want to make sure you’re having the right kind of tight and focused operations. I think the more important thing that people need to look for is number one, how many Iraqis are in the lead and how many are fighting, and number two, over a period of time, what’s going on in Baghdad? You know, they can have traffic jams, they can have electricity 24 hours a day? Those are the kinds of things, ultimately, that we hope people are going to be talking about.
HH: Is Muqtada al Sadr off limits?
HH: Does that mean he will be killed or captured?
TS: It doesn’t mean he’s a target. It means that…see, a lot of people are trying to do this, and you understand the political ramifications. Somebody gets on and says we’re going after al Sadr. What you do is you set off a political tempest within Iraq. Instead, it’s probably smarter to do what the prime minister did yesterday, which he said anybody who is operating outside the government, that’s the term of art for running a militia or whatever, including the Sadrists. I mean, he calls out Muqtada al Sadr in public. He says if you’re a part of this, then we’re going to go after you. And he said today to Sadr, we expect you to be supporting the increase in military capability and military involvement, and the insistence on peace in Baghdad. I mean, that’s a pretty artful way of putting him on notice, and I think I’ll leave it at that.
HH: Yesterday, the President also said there will be a commander and two deputy commanders for Baghdad…
HH: …which suggests again the old Kurdish-Shia-Sunni triangle.
HH: Is that what’s going to happen?
TS: No, what you…it’s really a matter of necessity. What you have is an overall commander who was appointed yesterday.
HH: What’s his name?
TS: You know, I’ve forgotten his name. We know him, and the NSC’s got confidence in him, and one of the other deputies is somebody our guys really like. The way you do it is you’ve got an overarching commander, military commander, they call him a military governor of Baghdad, and then you divide the city basically, you know, on both sides of the Tigris River. So that’s how they’re dealing with that.
HH: Are they Sunni-Shia, Shia-Shia, Shia-Sunni-Kurd?
TS: You know, I don’t even…I don’t think they’re doing it that way. What they’re doing is, are they able to run an effective military operation.
HH: Are you at all concerned that out of those three, or some other commander, will rise the next Saddam, as happened with Iraq years ago?
HH: All right, yesterday, the President also mentioned that there will be lots of carnage on television screens. Is the administration, and especially the Pentagon, prepared to fight the new media war when that starts to happen, Tony Snow?
TS: We’ve been fighting it. I mean, it’s not that it has started to happen, it’s been going on for some time. What is interesting, Hugh, and you know this as well as anybody else, you’re also starting to see little glimmers of guys like Michael Yon and others who get over there and they basically embed themselves in Iraq, and Michelle Malkin’s over there now.
HH: Bill Roggio, you bet. They go over and do first hand reporting.
TS: And what ends up…I think what’s likely to happen over time is that people there, and you and I have both seen forces come back completely disheartened and disgusted by the kind of reporting that goes on here, I would not be surprised to see some of those people not going out in the field, but maybe back at barracks, turning on the video camera, shooting a picture, and saying you know what? Let me tell you what’s really going on here, and why, and how I see it. That sort of stuff gets on a Youtube, or a Livelink, or any of these other things. It’s going to get out. I mean, there are many different ways now for people to get a glimpse of what’s actually happening. And the new media war can take many different fronts, and while Al Jazeera or Al Arabia, or even Al Houra, which is financed by the U.S. Government, they all have cable presence there. But you know, in this day and age, it’s exploding more rapidly, and more people are just pulling their news and pulling their video off the internet.
HH: As we saw during the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel, Tony Snow, Hezbollah went to such lengths as to stage atrocities, buildings blown up, and victims left in there.
HH: Are you, as the head of the White House communications operation, prepared to immediately get out there and quarrel with that and stop those sorts of stories from metastasizing?
TS: Yeah, I am looking forward to meeting Captain Jumil Hussein, but other than that, yes. You’ve seen the latest on that, right?
HH: No, I haven’t. I haven’t read today. Is he back and not existing again?
TS: He’s back to non-existence.
HH: (laughing) But that’s the new media war…
HH: And they scored big against Israel. Are we nimble enough? Does the Pentagon believe it matters?
TS: I think so. The more important thing is, do we believe it matters? And obviously, it’s very difficult, because it’s a decentralized conflict, to continue this Marshall metaphor. So there are going to be times when stuff gets out into circulation that we don’t see, and one of the things I’ve been saying, especially to some of our diplomats abroad, you guys see something, you hear something about it, bring it to our attention, because we’re not all-seeing and all-knowing. And in this age of diffused media, a lot of times, somebody can sort of light a fire far away, and you don’t see it until there’s smoke.
HH: Now talk to me a little bit about the consequences of withdrawal. The Democrats are all arguing about the consequences of withdrawal. Is anyone in the media forcing them to talk about the Rwandan-style violence we could see afterwards? And is that your job to focus people on the consequences of a policy not followed?
TS: Oh, yeah, and the President’s hinted at that. There are two parts to it. The other question to ask is, you don’t like this, what’s your plan? What are you going to do, and how’s it going to make Iraq a success? You see, Hugh, everybody says this has got to be a success. Okay. So if you’re going to pull troops out just to pull them out, how does that make Iraq safer? Let me draw a picture of dire consequences. You’ll leave Iraq without securing the democracy. You leave behind a power vacuum. The Iranians certainly are going to be interested in it, al Qaeda’s certainly going to be interested in it, and in either way, you know that there is a likelihood that terrorists are going to have access to the world’s second largest oil reserves, and also have access to enormous sums of wealth that are going to allow them to go on the international market and get some pretty pricey weaponry. Now at the same time, suppose you’re living in Saudi Arabia. You don’t have much in the way of a military, and you know that in the past, you’ve depended on the United States. But you’ve just taken a look, and the United States got out of Iraq and left some people high and dry. And you ask yourself, hmm, the terrorists are now well armed and determined. Who am I going to side with in the conflict between terrorists and the West? And furthermore, if they decide to do an oil embargo, am I going to stick my neck out and protect the United States? Or am I going to go ahead and start exploring international…am I going to call A.Q. Khan on the speed dial and find out what he’s got that’s going to protect me? The same thing is true of Jordanians and Egyptians and the Gulf states. You take a look at some of the dire consequences, they tend suddenly to start to snowball, because here, you have an area of vast strategic importance, it makes Iran stronger, makes the terror networks stronger, weakens democracy, and a lot of people in that part of the world who are waiting to see who wins are going to say a-ha! The terrorists win, we’re going to find some way to get behind them.
HH: Have you seen even one MSM’er of stature walk a war opponent through the consequences in a prolonged and serious fashion?
TS: No, but I think we have seen a number of them starting to ask questions. And I think, you know, you begin with baby steps, Hugh, and the first thing is important to start laying this out for people, because everybody says well, we’ve got to succeed in Iraq, and it’s vital to succeed, it’s vital to our future, but nobody explains why. The President started that last night, you and I get opportunities to do it, but I think what we’re on the verge of here, I think, is a pretty interesting public debate where people are going to look thoughtfully at the President’s proposal, and they’re also going to ask opponents okay, if you don’t like it, what do you have that’s better? And that is also a critical question that maybe in the past would not have been pushed as aggressively, but a combination of new media, old media, and really interested Americans, I think are going to compel everybody to put their cards on the table.
HH: Two more subject matters. Somalia was not part of the speech last night, but it’s connected to Iraq, is it not, Tony Snow?
TS: It’s connected in the sense that you’ve got al Qaeda activity in Somalia, and it is important, as we have said, that we’re going to go after al Qaeda cells wherever we find them. And so to the extent that you’ve got a situation there…what’s been interesting is that the Islamic courts seem to be getting rolled up in Somalia, and that also is one of those powerful signals, if people continue doing the job, and as you know, the Ethiopians have been pretty heavily involved. You may get to a point, Hugh, where people also start coming to the conclusion that some of these terrorists are paper tigers. And that may embolden them to be a lot more aggressive in going after them. You see, it works both ways. The terrorists can get bolder and start fighting people, or they can start looking less menacing, in which case people summon the will to go after them even harder.
HH: Last subject. I’ll save the border fence for another time, Tony Snow. My old boss, Fred Fielding is back, your old friend from White House days. Has he already moved in upstairs? Is he back…
TS: No, no, no, no, no. But I did see him in the hallways yesterday. He’s coming by. But he’s doing paperwork, and doing the clearances, and all that kind of stuff.
HH: When do the judicial nominees start to roll out?
TS: I think they start rolling out pretty soon. I don’t know what the exact date is.
HH: And have you been involved in any of those meetings to replace the ones…
TS: No, that’s…the lawyers do those meetings.
HH: Is it a priority in the White House?
HH: Okay, Tony Snow, always a pleasure. Thanks for spending so much time with us. We look forward to talking to you again.
TS: Hugh, my friend, good being with you.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.