The Bill and Condi show

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that ... we've made substantial progress."

Published April 4, 2007 12:24PM (EDT)

At a talk the other day before a group of newspaper editorial writers, Condoleezza Rice answered a question about the Bush administration's objection to talks with Iran and Syria by saying, "You never just talk in diplomacy. You don't. You talk with an aim to get some place." Rice said that even when she talks with her "closest diplomatic friends," she always goes in "expecting to achieve something."

So here's a question: What did the secretary of state expect to achieve when she agreed to a radio interview Tuesday with Fox's Bill O'Reilly?

From the State Department transcript:

O'Reilly: Madame Secretary, you have to understand that most Americans have given up on the war on Iraq and they don't want any more -- they don't want to hear about it, they don't want any part of it, it's been a fiasco. This is public opinion I'm talking about. So it's a very tough sell for you and the president isn't it?

Rice: Well, the president is committed to this because it is important to our security. Yes, it is very important that we carry through on helping Iraq to form a stable democratic society. It is very important that we follow through on making certain that Iraq remains territorially integrous so that the region doesn't come apart. But the truth of the matter is, as important as it is for Iraqis, it is doubly important for Americans because we cannot have --

O'Reilly: But most Americans aren't buying it.

Rice: Well, Americans --

O'Reilly: They don't get it.

Rice: I understand that people are skeptical. I understand that people are frustrated. The president said when he launched this new strategy that he counted himself among Americans who found the current situation unacceptable. But we have a new strategy, a new commander in the field, a new ambassador who's gone out there. They're having some initial success in helping to bring some stability to Baghdad. This is hard. This is really hard, Bill. But I can assure you that it is going to be a lot harder for America and for American interests if we prematurely withdraw from Iraq and Iraq becomes a safe haven for terrorism and if it becomes a source of instability in the Middle East. And so --

O'Reilly: I believe that, but I don't know if you're going to be able to rally the American public after four years of disappointment in that theater. And my analysis is the Iraqi people themselves haven't stepped up. They're more interested in killing each other than they are in forming a democratic nation ... You are not having a success in the hearts and minds in Iraq. There's simply too many killers there, too many factions that don't want democracy. And I'm not sure, no matter what surge you have, that you can overcome the Iraqi people not cooperating.

Rice: Bill, if that were the case, I would agree with you. If the problem was the Iraqi people and that they did not want to live in a stable society together, I would agree with you. But I don't think that is the issue.

O'Reilly: Then who's killing each other?

Rice: But these are death squads and militias and terrorists who are keeping not just us from succeeding, but Americans -- Iraqis from succeeding.

O'Reilly: There are so many of them. There are so many of them.

Rice: No. Bill, just a second. Let's remember that twelve and half Iraqi -- twelve and half million Iraqis voted for a democratic future. They have lived for years under tyranny and it's hard to come to political solutions where you used to use violence and repression. But Iraqis, innocent Iraqis are dying. Iraqis are dying as policemen, they're dying as soldiers. That shows that they want to build a different kind of Iraq.

O'Reilly: Some of them do. But look ... I think the Shia and the Sunni and the al-Qaida there combined are a fairly formidable army and they have terrorized the people that you say are voting. The people are -- don't have security. They blow up the services and they can continue to do that ad infinitum unless the people themselves cooperate and rise up. And when I was over there in December, that wasn't what was happening, Madame Secretary.

Rice: But I have to tell you, Bill, that you are right. The majority of Iraqis want a peaceful life. And yes, there are a minority of terrorists and death squads, Sunni and Shia, who are trying to take that possibility from them. But they are, in fact, investing in their future, investing in their future with their own lives. Now, what the president decided in January was that we needed to give the government our support and our help so that they could do the job of bringing stability and security. And there are good initial signs. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the problem's been solved or that we've made substantial progress. I can tell you that there are initial signs that are good.

O'Reilly: OK. Look, I wish you the best. I see your vision. I'm on your side as far as geopolitics are concerned. But I know the American public doesn't want any more of this, that they've thrown in the towel after four years. And that leads me to my final question. How do you process -- you yourself -- the vitriolic hatred now directed not only at President Bush but at you and other members of the administration by the left and far left in the United States of America? It has reached, I think, a more intense level than even Vietnam.

Rice: Bill, I'm going to do what I think is right. The president is going to do what he thinks is right. Criticism comes with the job. I agree that I think that sometimes the nature of the discourse isn't very civil, but that's life. I know that this is important for America and for America's future. And by the way, I know that the American people are frustrated. I don't agree that they've "thrown in the towel." I think they want to see that we can make progress. I think they want to see that Iraqis care about their future. And I think they're going to start to see that. But when you're in a position like this or you're the president of the United States, you have to do what you think is right for the country, and that's what we're going to keep doing.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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