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JOHN KING, USA

Awaiting President Obama's Iraq Speech

Aired August 31, 2010 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf and good evening. An important night here in Washington and for the country, one hour from now President Obama will address the nation from the Oval Office and he will declare combat operations in Iraq over. It is a noteworthy moment and politically a big promise kept by a president who opposed the Iraq war to begin with. Yet during a visit with the troops today in Texas, Mr. Obama signaled his tone would be cautious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not going to be a victory lap; it's not going to be self-congratulatory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That caution is borne of an important lesson; part of what Mr. Obama will tell the American people tonight is something they have heard before.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended and the battle of Iraq the United States and our allies have prevailed.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was seven years and four months ago, under that now infamous mission accomplished banner on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. In the hour ahead, a reminder of how much Iraq has cost in American blood and treasure since then, a debate about the military and political lessons learned, and a close look at President Obama's challenge as he asked war-weary Americans now to support his military escalation in Afghanistan.

Joining me as we await the president's speech, retired General Brent Scowcroft (ph), who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, Democratic Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, David Frum, one of President George W. Bush's speechwriters and advisers, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of "The Washington Post". He was the paper's Baghdad bureau chief and in New York, Fareed Zakaria of the host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARI GPS". First though before we talk to our panelists, let's check in with our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry with a preview of the president's big speech -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well John, you're absolutely right that in one of the excerpts the president talks about how now it is time to turn the page on Iraq, specifically, but what top aides say he wants to do is refocus things on Afghanistan moving forward. I asked some of these aides whether the president would have any reaction to John Boehner, other top Republicans basically saying the president was on the one side of history in terms of opposing the surge of troops in Iraq back in 2007, one aide said who cares when I told him about that Republican criticism.

They say he wants to look forward not back that it's time to refocus things on Afghanistan. As you heard the president at Fort Bliss (ph) today, he was talking about and warning the American people about what he called heartbreak ahead. There's going to be a lot more casualties in Afghanistan. The fact that as General David Petraeus takes the fight directly to the al Qaeda and Taliban that there is going to be a lot more casualties. He wants to prepare the American people for that.

And his aides feel that he's not just fulfilling one campaign promise about ending the war in Iraq responsibly, but a second campaign promise, which was to focus a lot more resources and troops on Afghanistan. Something he said back in the campaign George W. Bush did not do enough of, John.

KING: Ed Henry -- we'll check back in Ed as the hour progresses. Let's get straight to our panel. Among the many challenges the president faces, and General Scowcroft (ph) I want to put this question to you first. Is Iraq ready? There are questions, are the security forces up to the task of taking on more and more responsibility? And can they do so in a country that right now has a coalition caretaker government?

BRENT SCOWCROFT, PRESIDENT, THE SCOWCROFT GROUP: I would divide that into two parts; on the military side I think Iraq is increasingly ready. You know we have gone for a point where total security was provided by Americans to a place where there were joint operations for the Americans and Iraqi troops and now the American troops are drawing back. It will be Iraqi troops out in front with Americans only as a help.

So, I think that is going pretty much according to schedule. The political issue, though, is not over. And Iraq's not over until we can be confident that there is a structure there that will solve its problems with the kind of give and take, instead of a zero sum gain, which still threatens Iraq, so we have to consider that aspect of it.

KING: Fareed, from your perspective, what is the president's biggest challenge tonight? He wants to say I'm going to end this war in Iraq and we're making progress, but I need your help and support as we escalate in Afghanistan and by the way, we're coming out of a very difficult recession and it's going to be a long fight here at home as well.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Well I think you're exactly right, John. And I think the challenge the president faces follows entirely from what Brent Scowcroft just said. There is still a very significant problem in Iraq. And it relates exactly to what Brent was talking about which is the political deal that will create genuine and lasting stability in Iraq rather than the temporary stability we have now.

Now the president has to figure out how he asks the American people for their support, their forbearance for a very large military commitment in Iraq that is not there to -- to prevent, you know, a foreign invasion, as say in Korea in the 1950's. It's there in some way to oversee the successful political development of Iraq.

That is something I think Americans are not that anxious to do right now in the midst of a recession with Afghanistan on their plate. And yet the responsible thing for the United States to do would be to in some way help oversee this political development. Can he -- will he try to make the case? Or will he hope that Americans have sort of subcontracted Iraq to the -- to Washington and say as long as American troops don't die, we don't care whether there are 10,000 troops there or 40,000 troops there.

KING: Congressman Ellison, I want to put the question to you. You will get a vote and you are from part of Democratic Party that wanted both of these wars over yesterday if not sooner. So I want your perspective on what the president is asking for and as I do so, I just want to show our viewers, remind our viewers that some of the toll in Iraq.

Number one, we can just go through the troop levels going all the way back to the beginning, 2004, you see, January 2007, the surge begins and now you see 49,500. Those troops the president says are not combat troops, Congressman Ellison (ph), but they are still troops at risk and at the same time the president says it's going to be billions, more bloodshed and years more in Afghanistan. Will you stand with him?

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: Well, I'm going to stand with the American people and my constituents. I do wish the president well, but I think we got to learn the lessons of Iraq. I mean let's go back to promises that there were WMD there. That's why we had to go there. We were told that we had to prevent a smoking gun from becoming a mushroom cloud, yellow cake and Niger (ph).

All of these things were things that could have been addressed if we asked the tough questions; those questions need to be asked in Afghanistan right now. the reports that I have heard is that there is less than 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan that much of the population, really what they want to do is help strengthen Afghanistan, not see us go fight a group of Afghans who call themselves the Taliban.

So, the fact is, is that we've got to learn the lessons of Iraq. We cannot allow ourselves to simply say to salute the president and not ask any questions. That's not the role of Congress. That's not the role of the press. And I hope that we never see another conflict where the United States is embedding the press along with military troops so that we're not getting different perspectives on the war. We need to have critical analysis to make sure we're doing the right thing and we need to analyze, analyze, analyze to make sure that we're not just walking down a path based on the false conception that loyalty to the president is in some sort of thing -- patriotism. It's not. Patriotism is fidelity to the American people and the Constitution. That's the job I'm going to do.

KING: Well David Frum, I want to bring you in on that point because in some ways some people say that this is a military milestone. In other ways people say it's an important political milestone for the president. It is clear from listening to a fellow member of the president's Democratic Party that he has a very, very, very tough sale in his own family.

DAVID FRUM, SPEECHWRITER FOR PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Your exchange with the congressman is I think a crucial moment in this conversation because the president is not speaking to the American people tonight. They'll be listening of course, but he is speaking to his own party. He's saying will this do? I promised you to end the war in Iraq. Is this good enough to get all you disillusioned liberals out there to come to the polls in November after all?

We know that one of the reasons the Democrats are in such sad shape going into the season is that their core supporters have lost a lot of heart in the president and are backing away from him, maybe not showing up. So that's his question. Is this good enough for you? And the congressman is telling you the answer to that question will probably be no.

KING: I want to look forward when we come back about the challenges in Afghanistan and the communication challenge for the president. Rajiv, you said more ground, more time on the ground in Iraq than any of us. Is Iraq ready for this moment?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, WASHINGTON POST: Well, there's going to be a lot of difficult days ahead, John. But, look you know the surge helped bring down violence. It didn't lead to political accommodations, so as these forces are drawing down, it's going to take perhaps weeks, maybe even months to get to a political deal in Iraq.

But the presence of more U.S. forces isn't necessarily going to accelerate that process. That's something that sort of happens on its own time frame. So, you know, Iraq is probably as ready as it ever will be and you know it's -- we have to be clear with ourselves. There's going to be continued risks and danger for the remaining American forces on the ground and there's going to be a lot more bloody days ahead in that country.

KING: We'll continue our conversation with our great panel in just a minute. We're about 50 minutes away now from the president's address to the American people from the Oval Office. He will say combat operations in Iraq are over. He will explain the many challenges ahead. But as we go to break and prepare to listen to the president, let's also take a moment to look back to how we got to where we are now. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Saddam Hussein's actions have put us on notice and there's no refuge from our responsibilities.

(SOUNDS)

BUSH: At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A countdown there to the president's address from the Oval Office at the top of the hour, as you can see, a little more than 48 minutes until we get there. Let's continue our conversation, setting the stage and the stakes with our panel and as we continue the conversation, there's a lot of talk in Washington. We're having one here.

The politicians get involved. The analysts get involved. Often forgotten in this debate are the families who have paid the ultimate price, I sat down earlier today with Carol Roddy (ph). She lost her son four years ago and just about two weeks from now. He was a Navy operations officer in Iraq. He helped detonate roadside bombs. Roadside bombs have caused so many of the more than 4,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq. She now works with the USO helping troops as they come home. And this remarkable woman said that she has a big question tonight as we get down to 50,000 troops and then below, her question is, is it the right time to come out? Essentially, will her son have died in vain?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAROL RODDY, SON KILLED IN IRAQ IN 2006: We listen to the guys and we listen to them when we work the USO and they, too, are not quite sure that we're ready. We just hope and pray that, you know the Iraqis can stand up, because I don't want another mother or another father to go through what we have been through. It's -- it's heart wrenching. It's -- there's a void that will never be filled. You know, we need to be able to -- I realize we helped these people, but we need to know that our children did not die in vain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Fareed, enormous risks for the president at this moment, are there not? Of course if you look at the polling, the American people want this war over. More than 60 percent think it was a mistake that it never should have begun to being with, but as the president says we're getting out, there will be dangerous days ahead for the nearly 50,000 troops left behind?

ZAKARIA: Well absolutely. There are two points to make here, John. One is the president has to speak here as the president. Not as the senator, not as the candidate, certainly not as an analyst or a historian trying to assess whether Iraq was worth it. He is going to have to give meaning to this war, even if he himself privately has doubts and skepticism about that meaning.

That is, you know tradition in American history. You have to help people feel that their sons and daughters have not died in vain and that the country did not embark on this in vain. So, there's, you know that element which is probably absolute crucial to how the president handles it. The second is, as you say, the fact that the country is tired of this, and yet the president is going to have to ask for some perseverance.

KING: To the point Fareed just made, Barack Obama, Senator Obama opposed the war in Iraq. And I want you to listen to something his defense secretary, Robert Gates, who is a holdover from the Bush administration said today. He gave a speech to the American Legion, and if you listen to Secretary Gates here, it seems pretty clear that Secretary Gates, who was not in government at the time the Iraq war started, he also thinks it was a bad idea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: With the invasion of Iraq, our attention and our resources were diverted. Afghanistan became a second-tiered priority for troops, equipment, security and development assistance. Starting in 2003, the Taliban regrouped, refilled their ranks, reconstituted themselves in safe havens and re-entered Afghanistan and violence began to increase significantly in 2005 and has grown worse ever since.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: General Scowcroft, you hear that skepticism. You wrote an op-ed piece before the start of this war, essentially raising a lot of these same flags, but yet, if you're Secretary Gates, if you're President Obama and as Fareed noted, maybe you didn't think we should be here to begin with, what is your challenge now because it is your war now?

SCOWCROFT: The challenge is to -- we need to look back at some time and say did we do this right? Did we do that right? This is not the time for it. We are where we are. And what we need to do now is concentrate on how can we make a success out of where we are now. That is what will give some hope to the wonderful women like you -- like we just saw whose sons died, that they did not die in vain.

If we concentrate on arguing were we in the right place, did we do the right thing or not? We're likely to miss what we need to do now and I think now is the transition from Iraq to Afghanistan. But, if the Afghanistanis (ph) think we are deserting Iraq, it's certainly doesn't help our mission in Afghanistan. So the president's job is to say, yes, we're doing well in Iraq but we need to finish the job while we're focusing on Afghanistan.

KING: More perspective from our panel in just a minute, we have to work in a quick break as we await President Obama's Oval Office address about Iraq. When we come back, we'll also get a live report on what's happening in Baghdad right now. That's after the break.

First, listen to something else Defense Secretary Gates said today, a touching moment, a tribute during his speech to the American Legion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GATES: The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families, along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible. And we must never forget.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Remember we're standing by for an address from President Obama from the Oval Office at the top of the hour. Right now let's check in with Brianna Keilar for the latest news you need to know right now -- hey Bri.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, John. Some exclusive information from Alaska where a top aide to Senator Lisa Murkowski tells CNN the Senate primary could be decided tonight. The Murkowski camp is closely watching the counting of absentee votes. They are very hopeful; she was down though about 2,000 votes last count as there were several thousand to be counted.

Forecasters now expect Hurricane Earl to move up the U.S. East Coast on Friday. The eye of the storm expected to stay offshore, but a hurricane watch has been issued from north of Surf City (ph), North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border.

And the Justice Department today appealed the court ruling blocking funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Also in "Dirty Sexy Politics", a new book about her father's presidential campaign, Meghan McCain described Sarah Palin as the quote, "time bomb", because quote "from the minute Sarah arrived, the campaign began splitting apart" -- an interesting read for sure, John.

KING: I suspect it will get a lot reads here in Washington -- Brianna thanks. As we await the president's address at the top of the hour, one of the big questions Washington is asking, many of you around the country might be asking is simply this. Was it worth it? We want to take a quick look at Iraq then and now, going back in time. This is where some of the money is being spent now on reconstruction.

Much left to do indeed these areas, water and sanitation projects get about 38 percent of current reconstruction funding, health projects 26 percent, education 20, and you see down the line. So what is Iraq like now compared to before the war? Before the war there were 833,000 land line telephones, now more than 1.3 million. There was no cellar phone service before the war when Saddam Hussein ran Iraq, now nearly 20 million cell phones in the country.

Prewar Internet access about 4,600 Internet connections now, a thriving Internet in Iraq, 1.6 million connections. Electricity, you've heard that from time to time during reconstruction about the blackouts, less than 3,000 megawatts per week in Iraq before the war, now that number has more than doubled. Water quality is still an interesting 50 percent of Iraqis had access to quality water before the war, 30 to 70 percent now. It depends on where you are in the country and the status of some of those ongoing reconstruction projects.

And here's one other quick look, back before the war, Iraq was producing 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. It is now over 2.4 million barrels a day. I want to go now to our correspondent, Arwa Damon, in Baghdad to put this question to her. Arwa, there's a political debate about -- in the United States about the cost of war in money and in blood, but on the ground in Iraq, is Iraq a better, more functioning country now than it was at the beginning?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, I think the jury really is still out on that. When you ask the Iraqi people themselves, they'll say they still need to wait and see. There is so much uncertainty that still exists here, especially with this political impasse that the nation finds itself in six months after the March elections with no new government that has been formed.

Iraqis are still dealing with, albeit decreased levels of violence. It is still daily violence. Assassinations, bombings, suicide bombings, people who we speak to say that they're still fearful about the future. They were hopeful after the election, but now they feel as if that has been yanked away from them.

Even when we speak to people like General Odierno or we hear from former Ambassador Ryan Crocker (ph), they'll say that we still don't know whether or not this war was worth it. And a lot of it right now really lies in the hands of Iraq's politicians. Exactly how and when they form this new government is going to have a direct impact on this country's future. Iraq very much is at a crossroads right now. One direction could lead it down a path of even more sectarian chaos. The other could lead it on a path of more stability, John.

KING: Arwa Damon for us in Baghdad -- Arwa, thank you.

Rajiv, before we go to break, I want to ask a follow-up on that point. If you asked the average Iraqi do you want the Americans to stay? What would the answer be?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I think Iraqis are very, very mixed on that point. There's fierce nationalism there. I think they chaff at the idea there that there are still foreign troops on their soil. It's been seven long years. I think that many, many Iraqis do want foreign forces out, yet they're very nervous about the future. They -- the Sunnis are suspicious of the Shiites.

The Shiites are suspicious of the Sunnis. As we know from the worst days of the violence, they started to turn toward the Americans as protectors, as honest brokers and so there is still a little bit in the back of minds of many Iraqis this view that perhaps the Americans can keep things from spiraling further downward, particularly as they try to sort out the current political impasse and so there's a real deep seeded conflict in the minds of many people on the street in Iraq.

KING: And David Frum, you were there at the beginning of this. How do you see it at the end, if we're not -- if we're at the end? At this moment, we're not at the end.

FRUM: We're not at the end. This went the way nobody expected and -- or very few expected and nobody wanted. The war has been much more costly, much more protracted (ph), much more difficult, much more bloody than I think anybody could have imagined in 2003 and had that (INAUDIBLE) been granted, I think a lot of mistakes could have been avoided and maybe there would have been more pause.

But if the president tonight is going to summon the country to follow him, he has to do it in a more full-throated way. I want to avert something that Fareed Zakaria and General Scowcroft and you were talking about it a moment ago. The camera finds you out. It discovers what you really think. And if the president doesn't think this war is worth it that is going -- he's not an actor. He's a leader and that will be seen and if that's what he thinks, he needs to do some really hard thinking in the next half-hour.

KING: We are about a half-hour away, a little more than 32 minutes away from the president's speech to the nation from the Oval Office. We need to take a quick break. When we come back, among the conversations we will have is with the president's national security adviser, General Jim Jones (ph).

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Thirty minutes away from President Obama's address to the nation from the Oval Office, he'll declare combat operations in Iraq over. He'll remind the American people that some 50,000 troops remain. He will also ask for their patience and support as he now pursues a policy in Afghanistan that includes an increase in U.S. troop levels there. Among those helping the president shape these controversial and delicate policies, his national security adviser, James Jones, who joins us right now. First, let me get your assessment of how the president views his challenge in speaking to the American people in just a half an hour.

GEN. JAMES JONES (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think he's got a very noble task here to signal a milestone accomplishment, which is the end of our combat missions, recognizing how difficult it has been the enormous sacrifice of lives and resources not just on our part but from those of our most steadfast allies, allies who have been with us from the start and many of whom are still with us from Afghanistan, so he'll pay tribute to the courage of our men and women in uniform and our civilians who have fought the good fight. And brought us to this point. This is not the end -- this is not the end of the mission, but it is a milestone. KING: As a general, someone who wore the uniform for years and who has himself been in combat, you want victory. That's what generals go to war for, they go to war for victory. What will we call Iraq? Some people say success, some say get out, will we ever use victory?

JONES: Well I think it's quite possible. I think we're on the path to seeing Iraq emerge as a free Democratic state. A lot of the things that are going on in Iraq are very Democratic. And a lot of things going on aren't Democratic as well. In the formation of the government this morning, I spoke with the vice president's team, the vice president is on the ground working with all parties to form this new government the Iraqis want and deserve. They had an election and they need it. However, it's not to say that there's no government there. There's a caretaker government there. Their government is functioning.

KING: Yet, even your commanding general on the ground who is about to come home after conducting a heroic mission there, General Ray Odierno told this to the "New York Times." Asked if the United States had made the country's division worse, General Odierno said, 'I don't know. There's all these issues that we didn't understand and that we had to work our way through.' He said, 'And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe." Politically, is Iraq in a worse situation or in such a fragile situation that you may get down to 40,000 or 30,000 and then have something horrible happen and then this president would face a pretty catastrophic decision?

JONES: This is a moment where Iraqis and it comes in every conflict where Iraqis have to step up and decide what they want. We can't want a free and Democratic Iraq anymore than Iraqis want for their country. It's my belief and I think it's shared by the vice president who's been really at the forefront of this effort that the main players, the main leaders of the three principal parties, if you will, do in fact want a Democratic Iraq and are willing to make compromises in order to achieve that coalition and it will probably happen in the near future. It would be great if it could have happened by tomorrow. But, what's important is that it happened. I think the pressures from the people are being heard in a Democratic way that it's time to get on with it and form this new government so Iraq can continue on the path that we all want it to be on and that we hope, a year from now, when we pull -- actually by the end of 2011, when we pull the rest of our troops out, there will be 50,000 left for the better part of the year that we will have that goal. If we do, that will change the balance of the power and the whole strategic conflicts of the Middle East.

KING: If you talk with the families, the president meets with the families that have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many of them have asked the question and many of Americans who aren't so invested might be surprised at this, many of them as the question is it too soon because they don't want their son or daughter to have died in vain. I want you to listen to Carol Roddy, a remarkable woman. She heads the Gold Star Organization in the state of Maryland. She volunteers now at the USO. In about two weeks she will mark the fourth anniversary of losing her son in Iraq trying to get IED. I'm sorry. This is Bob Roddy, the father, Carol Roddy was in earlier today. Listen to his question to the president at this moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB RODDY, SON KILLED IN IRAQ IN 2006: I don't want it to be a political move because somebody made a promise that we would be out at a certain time. I don't want to come out until we're convinced that they're ready.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: Well, I completely agree with that statement and I think the president does as well. The president set a target for 16 months. He expanded it to 19 months on the basis of recommendations from his commanders and his closest advisers. He would have done 20 months, 21 months. The other thing that's really important to understand is that a year ago, we withdrew our forces from most of the Iraqi cities. So, this is not a light switch that's going to happen tomorrow. We know from a full year's experience that the 600,000-plus manned Iraqi security force, the police forces, have in fact been improving themselves for the better part of the year. So tomorrow morning when we get up, there's no question mark about whether the Iraqis can do it or not. They've been doing it for a year and that should give some sense of comfort to parents who have lost ...

KING: As the president keeps this promise in Iraq, there are many questioning whether he'll be able to keep his promise in Afghanistan which is to begin, not to have everybody out but to begin a draw down from Afghanistan next summer in July. Among those raising questions have been the new commanding general, General Petraeus, who has said if he feels necessary to go back to the president and say that he wants more time that he would do that and the commandant of the Marine Corps has also said publicly and I want you to listen to this that he thinks that by setting a deadline you're sending a bad signal to the enemy.

JONES: We think right now it's probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we've intercepted communications that say, hey, we only have to hold out for so long.

KING: Is there tension within the military that and worries that president politically has put July 2011 a circle on the calendar in Afghanistan and politically will feel pressure to start get out?

JONES: Well as a former commandant I'd hate to disagree to the current commandant with whom I have a great friendship and admiration for the great job he's done with the Marines Corps but I would simply say that in the course of our deliberations on our Afghan strategy, everyone had a chance to voice their opinion around the table, both civilian and military and the strategy that was announced was one that was agreed upon. And, you know, no one should think that, that by summer of next year, that this is a wholesale exodus. The thing that we have to co continually explain, it is conditions-based. At some point and the president, I think, when you look at the length of time we have been in Afghanistan, has made a decision at some point, we have to show our public, not only our own the public around the world that the Afghans, also want this as much as we want it for them. So the idea of beginning of transition to that state of affairs is logical. And it's not going to be reckless. It's going to be based on the commander's recommendation. General Petraeus now he straddles two wars and brings extraordinary leadership and experience along with hundreds of thousands of officers and staff NCOs who have fought in both the insurgents in both theaters. They know what they're doing. They're not going to be reckless.

KING: Not going to be reckless you say. Let me ask you in closing, a huge part of the Afghanistan challenge is across the border in Pakistan and it has proven to be very difficult over the years and I know the administration has been trying to improve relations with the Pakistani government. In the middle of that you have these devastating floods that have set back development in Afghanistan that have raised more questions about the stability of the government of Pakistan, excuse me. How does that complicate the challenge?

JONES: I think it complicates it. This is humanitarian disaster that may affect as many as 25 million people. It will be up to the world community to close ranks and help Pakistan get through this, so they can focus on the very real threat of terrorist organizations within their borders. There is no question that what happens in Afghanistan and the time frame in which it happens has a lot to do with what happens in Afghanistan, with Pakistan, sorry.

KING: General Jones, the president will speak to nation in about 20 minutes. We appreciate your time tonight helping us understand the challenge. We'll see you another time.

When we come back a man who told President Obama to support the surge when he didn't and who on this day, on this day, will talk to us about the challenges ahead. Senator John McCain of Arizona, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A moment ago, you heard from the president's national security adviser, now let's get the perspective of the president's opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading voice of his party on defense and national security issues. Senator just let me ask you off the top quite quickly, how do you view this evening? Is it is a significant milestone and what is the president's challenge?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, I think it is a milestone and I think the president pointed out today at -- when he spoke to our troops, I believe it was Ft. Bliss, there's still a lot of work to be done and it's not over. It's significant that we have succeeded. So, I agree with General Jones' remarks who just preceded me that we should give and I appreciate the fact that the president's giving such great credit to the men and women who are serving.

KING: Congressman Pete Ellison, a liberal Democrat was on the program earlier, he made it crystal clear that he's not going to buy what the president is going to tell the American people tonight about Afghanistan and that he has a number of questions and he believes Afghanistan in his views, I'm paraphrasing here, it's much like Iraq. It's gone on too long and it's time to go. Will Republicans stand by the president. the Democrat president. when it comes to the Afghanistan policy or we're in a political season, will we see more partisanship?

MCCAIN: First of all, can I mention, it would be the nice that the president mention tonight that the strategy of the surge was originated by President Bush and that President Obama opposed it and opposed it to the point where he voted to cut off all funds for operations in Iraq. The fact is that, it is of great concern despite what my friend Jim Jones just said about the perception, all throughout the area, whether it be in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India, or Iran, that this date is certain for withdrawal, it means that we're going to be leaving regardless of conditions and I appreciate what General Jones just said. I appreciate what Secretary Gates has said and Secretary Clinton, but the fact is, the perception is out there, that we're beginning to leave no matter what the beginning of next year and the president has to say that. The president has to say it's conditions-based and conditions-based only. That message is not getting through, in fact that's why you see Karzai saying some of the things you're hearing him say. Pakistanis are making certain adjustments. The Taliban are telling -- I was outside Kandahar a police chief said that the Taliban are telling us that you're leaving, you Americans are leaving the middle of the next year and they're going to cut off your heads.

KING: My colleague Wolf Blitzer raised some of your concerns earlier with General Jones' deputy Denis McDonough. I want to listen to how Denis McDonough responded.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, CHIEF OF STAFF, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: We have had a debate on and off over the last couple of years with Senator McCain. Obviously a couple of years ago he was saying that the center front in the war on terrorism was in Iraq. That's obviously been proven to be wrong.

KING: Would you like to respond a little back and forth there?

MCCAIN: No, except to say that obviously we had to win in Iraq and if we hadn't succeeded in Iraq, by the way, General Odierno, I respect those quotes you have, but many conversations that I have had with him and General Petraeus is that it's very tough sledding with Iraq, they're not going to go back with the chaos and anarchy that existed before the surge began. Of course we had to succeed in Iraq and we can succeed in Afghanistan. We can't send the message that we're not there to succeed an artificial date is guiding our strategy.

KING: Senator John McCain of Arizona, congratulations sir on your recent primary win. We'll continue to track the campaign in the days ahead as well as your thoughts on these important national security. Senator, appreciate your time tonight.

When we come back, we'll continue, a little over 10 minutes away now, 13 minutes away from the president's address to the nation from the Oval Office, he'll declare major combat operations in Iraq over. We'll assess the moment for the president when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Less than ten minutes until President Obama addresses the American people from the Oval Office to declare what he believes to be a significant political and military milestone, the end of combat operations in Iraq. U.S. troop levels below 50,000. As we count down to the president's address, let's get perspective. I want to turn it first to our senior White House correspondent Ed Henry who is standing by. Ed, the president has so many challenges tonight. Number one, it's not a celebration about Iraq but it is, he believes, a page turning and yet he wants to talk about the economy in Afghanistan as well.

HENRY: So much to accomplish and bottom line is the second time he's used the Oval Office as a backdrop, the last time and the first time was basically when he was talking about the gulf oil spill. He was in desperate shape at that point. He was trying to grab the nation by the lapels and say, look, I'm in charge here. We're going to figure this out. Since then, they have. Here he's trying to grab the nation by the lapels and say several things. Number one, this has been a searing experience, the war in Iraq, so many lives lost, hundreds of billions of dollars spent and as he says, let's turn the page. He wants to grab the nation by the lapels and talk about Afghanistan and say we can't take our focus off battling terrorism around the world altogether. I was struck today by the president in Texas at Ft. Bliss warning the nation and telling these troops basically there's going to be heartbreak ahead. This is going to be a tough slog. Where have we heard that before? Donald Rumsfeld during Iraq was talking about a long hard slog. Now the president saying a tough slog in Afghanistan. Big, tough days ahead John.

KING: Ed Henry is at the White House. Ed, stand by. David Gergen, you have been in the Oval Office minutes before a president gives an address to the nation. We are minutes away from one tonight. Put this in context for us.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well John in many ways this is the least anticipated speech in my memory. I don't think the public is paying much attention. This is more symbolic. The country is far more interested in jobs and the state of the economy, of course. I think the challenge for the president tonight, I don't think, to use Ed Henrys' phrase, he can grab the country by the lapels in this speech. What I do think is the challenge for him is to lift people's spirits, to give people a sense -- not only a short time ago we thought all was lost in Iraq. We thought we were heading to a major foreign policy disaster. Our soldiers have turned that around and just as we have done that, we can do that in Afghanistan and we can do it on the economy. I think that's a challenge for him to convince people of that, but that's what I think he has to do.

KING: A quick break before we get to the top of the hour and the president's address to the nation. When we come back, more context from our correspondents, the president's address to the American people now a little more than six minutes away. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: A few minutes away from the top of the hour and President Obama's address to the American people about the war in Iraq and what he considers a significant milestone, the end of combat operations, the president will say. We are, of course, nine weeks from an election in this country. As the president prepares to make his address, Republicans are saying as the president celebrates perhaps he should credit George W. Bush, perhaps he should credit General Petraeus. The Republicans making note while they were in the Senate the current president, vice president and secretary of state all opposed the surge policy those Republicans say got us to this moment.

OBAMA: The responsible course of action for the United States, for Iraq, and for our troops, is to oppose this reckless escalation and to pursue a new policy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's time to turn the corner in my view, gentlemen, we should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: What is our end game in Iraq given the failure of the surge to achieve the objective that the president outlined for it?

KING: Continuing our conversation with our senior Congressional correspondent Dana Bash and our senior political analyst Gloria Borger. "A," does it matter? Is that then and this is now? Quickly, the time we have left here, your thoughts on in 2004, 2006, and 2008 Iraq drove our politics. Barack Obama would not be president if Hillary Clinton perhaps had cast a different vote on going to war in Iraq and yet if you ask the American people now, nine weeks before an election what do you care about, Iraq is down near the bottom.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The economy. The economy is driving the political discussion. To answer your question, does it matter? It matters to Republicans right now who are saying this is a president who ought to really credit George W. Bush. We're told that tonight he's going to give a tip of the hat to George W. Bush but not specifically talk about the surge which Republicans will continue to point out that the president opposed.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But your point, and I think it is important now that we're minutes away from the president speaking, how much times have changed. And the fact this issue did drive Democrats and not just in the White House but years before that in Congress as well. Just before coming on --

KING: He wouldn't be speaking.

BASH: I was just talking to a senior Democratic aide who is now a majority aide and said, look, the Democrats on the hill grudgingly admit the president has to do this, he has to mark the moment but, boy, when it comes to election year politics which is what they care about now, they want him to pivot quickly to the economy. That's what they need him to do. If he doesn't do it, Democrats on the hill will be really angry at him. BORGER: He will try to do that tonight. The test for him is whether it looks really awkward. Whether it looks like he's trying to turn too much when this is a ceremonial time as president he needs to acknowledge and wants to acknowledge and should acknowledge.

KING: The hard part is if he moves past, turns the page on Iraq, six in ten Americans aren't sure about Afghanistan either.

BASH: Six in ten Americans aren't sure. Again, we have to keep mentioning we're nine weeks before an election especially his Democratic base. They are completely disillusioned and not energized which is why some people are also scratching their heads saying you're trying to get them to applaud you with this speech but they're so angry about Afghanistan they're not even listening.

BORGER: This is a president who doubled down on Afghanistan and it is his war. Iraq is the war he's getting out of.

KING: The White House says this speech will run about 15 minutes long. The president of the United States only the second time he has addressed the American people from the Oval Office. CNN's special coverage of the president's Oval Office address to the nation continues right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.