On the August 21 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, substitute host and NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory let Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) falsely claim without challenge that he had been "supportive" of President Clinton's position against setting a timeline for withdrawing troops from the Kosovo conflict in 2000. Gregory also failed to challenge Lott's inflated claims about Iraqi troop and police readiness.
Gregory did not dispute Lott's contention that there are 171,000 "capable" Iraqi police and soldiers, even though the Pentagon has acknowledged that the figure Lott cited includes many Iraqis who have received only the most basic training and equipment. According to a Pentagon report to Congress -- the unclassified portion of which was publicly released on July 21 -- roughly 171,300 members of the Iraqi armed forces had "completed individual entry training" and were "equipped with basic equipment." The Pentagon has reported that a far smaller number are actually capable of engaging in counterinsurgency operations without U.S. support.
Similarly, Gregory was unprepared to correct Lott's revisionist history on Kosovo. Prior to interviewing Lott, Gregory interviewed Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who on August 17 had called on the Bush administration to set a timeline for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2006. Gregory pressed Lott to reveal his position on setting a timeline for withdrawal by referencing Feingold's remarks:
GREGORY: You heard Senator Feingold talk about not a deadline, he says, but a target date for withdrawal by the end of next year. Is he right that it's important to tell the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government that American forces are not there for good, that they do have to stand up on their own and stop the violence?
But Gregory failed to note a falsehood in Lott's reply. Lott justified his opposition to setting a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq by misrepresenting his prior position on doing so in Kosovo:
LOTT: I used to talk to President Clinton about that [an exit strategy] with regard to Bosnia and Kosovo, and by the way, we're still there. A lot of people forget it, but we're there with, of course, a coalition force, but we have U.S. troops in both of those places to this day. But it should be based on conditions, not on a calendar.
LOTT: I can remember, again, talking to President Clinton about, "OK, what's the exit strategy? What's the plan? What's the date?" And I remember him saying back, "We can't do that." He was right then, and for the most part, I was supportive of that. The worst thing you could do is say, "All right, by X date, we're out of there, regardless." It will depend on the circumstances.
Contrary to Lott's claim, as then-Senate Majority Leader, he led 40 Republican senators who voted in favor of setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Kosovo, as The New York Times documented on May 19, 2000:
In a victory for the Clinton administration, the Senate today narrowly rejected a measure to set a deadline for withdrawing American ground troops from Kosovo. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had also criticized the measure, but even so 40 Republicans voted for it.
But it seemed almost certain that the fight over American military involvement in the Balkans would not end with today's vote.
"We have no long-term plan for Kosovo," complained Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority leader, who supported the deadline for withdrawing American forces. "We don't know how long we're going or how much it's going to cost. Commitments are not being fulfilled by the Europeans, and that's unacceptable."
Lott's position on setting a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Bosnia was less clear, but some reports suggest he pushed for a deadline at various times during the conflict. As the New York Daily News reported on November 29, 1995:
Clinton's softness on a pullout date sparked fresh concerns among critics of the peacekeeping proposal. "A lot of Republicans are concerned about this going on and on," said Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi. "We don't want this to become a nightmare."
According to a June 17, 1996, Los Angeles Times report, when asked about the notion of a deadline for removing troops from Bosnia in 1996, Lott stressed that the conflict could become a "quagmire" but that meetings were required to determine whether a deadline was necessary:
Lott said he is willing to admit that the 6-month-old U.S. operation in Bosnia has not turned out as badly as he thought it would but that he still believes it could be headed for a "quagmire."
Asked about indications that the deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal may be softening, he said: "I would like for us to have some Armed Services Committee hearings. I would like for us to begin asking questions about what is happening militarily, what is not happening politically" with government reconstruction in Bosnia.
Finally, according to a May 18, 1998, report in The Washington Times, "[Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison [R-TX] has been working for weeks to build support for a plan that would mandate a decrease in U.S. troops [in Bosnia] from 8,900 to 2,500 over 18 months. She had built a powerful group of support including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles and the entire GOP leadership."