NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. and Iraqi governments decided to focus military efforts on the city of Baghdad. Thousands of U.S. troops from other parts of the country relocated to the Iraqi capital, many of them from units whose tours were suddenly extended. The battle for Baghdad, the president said, was critical to the war for Iraq. Last week, two prominent conservatives agreed with that analysis but said the solution did not go far enough.
Editors William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Richard Lowry of the National Review wrote a op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that a substantial increase in U.S. troop levels would improve the chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. In a reply a couple of days later, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb and Peter Ogden described that idea as reinforcing failure. Sending more troops to Iraq now, they wrote, is strategically dubious and would threaten to break the nation's all-volunteer Army and undermine national security.
The U.S. troop level in Iraq is our main focus. Later in the program, former Justice Department official John Yoo and retired General Joseph Hoar on the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the interrogation of terror suspects.
But first, is this the moment to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, or to rely more on Iraqi forces and reduce the American role? The number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we begin with Richard Lowry of the National Review who joins us from our bureau in New York. Very good of you to be with us today.
Mr. RICHARD LOWRY (Editor, National Review): Thanks so much for having me.
CONAN: You acknowledge in your piece that the president would have to run political and military risks to send more troops to Iraq now. What makes those risks worth it?
Mr. LOWRY: Well, he has said in his own terms, in the speech he gave on 9/11 commemorating the fifth anniversary of the attacks, he said that the security of America depends on the battle going on in the streets of Baghdad right now. He said there's a crisis, a security crisis in Baghdad. Our ambassador on the ground there in Iraq has used exactly the same word: crisis. And if that's the case, I think he should back up his words and his rhetoric with the actions necessary to win that battle. And the reporting from on the ground in Baghdad does suggest there's one thing that makes a difference neighborhood-to-neighborhood in the level of security and the level of violence, and that's the presence of American troops.
And personally, I've always been skeptical of the hawks who say, you know, the only thing that is wrong with Iraq is we lack enough American troops. I've thought that's been simplistic. But I think the case against more troops has collapsed with the administration implicitly saying, yes, troop levels matter because in order to secure Baghdad we are sending more American troops to Baghdad. And I think they should stand more still to make it more likely that we win this crucial fight.
CONAN: You said substantial numbers should be sent. What do you mean by substantial? How many more?
Mr. LOWRY: Well, I'm not a military expert. I would prefer not to talk specifically about numbers. But we're sending, you know, 5,000 now, which is a little bit more than a combat brigade. Maybe, you know, two or three more combat brigades into Iraq. And the crucial issue is this has happened again and again in Iraq. When American troops go into clear an area of insurgents or terrorists, they succeed. Then when the trouble enters is when they attempt to hand them over to the Iraqi forces. And we've made progress in training Iraqi forces, especially the Iraqi military. The Iraqi police are still a bit of a disaster. But when we hand them over, inevitably the security situation deteriorates again.
And what I fear is that we'll see the same dynamic in Baghdad, where American troops will clear a neighborhood, hand it over to the Iraqis, and then it'll exactly back to the same situation it had before. John McCain has described this dynamic in Iraq as whack-a-mole. And if the battle for Baghdad is so important, we shouldn't be playing whack-a-mole in Baghdad.
CONAN: Well, what about other parts of Iraq? We just heard - what was it a couple of weeks ago - the analysis of the Marine Intelligence services who said that we need another division if we hope to hold Anbar province in the western part of Iraq.
Mr. LOWRY: Yeah. That's exactly right. And the administration has been, you know, robbing troops from Anbar to send them to Baghdad. Which again, to me, is just an argument that we probably need more troops in both places.
CONAN: So substantial and then more substantial, if you're going to send 15,000 more to Anbar. And you're talking about 15 to 20,000 more to Baghdad?
Mr. LOWRY: Correct. You know, we'd talking probably about, you know, 30,000, 45,000 more troops. But look, you know, 15,000 more troops would make a difference in Baghdad. I don't think there's any argument about that. If that Marine Intelligence analyst is correct, and he was, you know, quoted widely over the last week or so, another 15,000 troops would make a big difference in Anbar.
Now sending those troops would be a strain on our military and our Army; there is no doubt about it. But for me, if you look at this question in terms of is it better to strain the Army now or is it better to lose in Iraq, that's no contest. And I think most of these guys who, you know, are amazing and would be faced with going over there for the second, or third, or maybe even the fourth tour, if you ask them would you prefer to stay home or to lose in Iraq? They'd all eagerly go, or almost all of them. Which is one of the reasons our American troops are just so incredible.
CONAN: You wrote that this was a decisive moment. What makes you think that there's going to be a decisive battle in Iraq?
Mr. LOWRY: Well, I think everyone agrees that Baghdad is the ultimate center of gravity, and there's a risk of that capital city effectively running out of the control of the central government, which would be a huge deal and would go further to undermine the credibility and the power of that central government that we are hoping to reinforce. Now I cannot tell you that if we go there and secure Baghdad, Iraq is going to be a flourishing democracy and we win the war and it's a sustainable government, end of story. But I can tell you if we lose that battle, that would be a huge step towards ultimately losing in Iraq. So it seems to me it's a crucial moment.
CONAN: Also political risks. You're asking the president of the United States, the leader of the Republican Party, to send more U.S. troops to fight an already unpopular war six weeks before Election Day.
Mr. LOWRY: No doubt about it. It would be a risk. And this - I think, though, politically, the conventional wisdom is wrong on this. I think part of what is dragging Bush down in Iraq is not just the conditions but the sense people have, one, that's he's been ignoring or glossing over those conditions, which they see on their TV screens everyday. And two, he doesn't really have a plan to deal with those conditions. So I think it behooves the president - and he started to do the first part of this - to frankly acknowledge what everyone is seeing there, and he's begun to do that.
He's, you know, described security conditions in Iraq as horrible or terrible. I forget the exact word. He's called it a crisis, as I mentioned earlier. That's good. That's shows him cluing in to reality. The second step would be having some plan that's credible and plausible for actually doing something about the conditions there. And I think more American troops would help the conditions there, and I think it would bring some people back in Bush's camps who are former supporters of the war who just don't think we're winning or have a plan to win.
Now, obviously there's a huge swath of the American public that's just opposed to the war, pretty much has been opposed to it from the beginning, that he's not going to reach. But those former supporters of the war he can reach, and this would be, you know, a courageous act of leadership. And often times, when you don't follow the polls, when you do something that everyone says that you can't do because it's so politically risky, you actually benefit from it, paradoxically.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. We're talking with Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review. In a few minutes time Lawrence Korb will join us, a senior fellow now at the American Center for Progress, former assistant secretary of defense at the Defense Department.
And let's get - if you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. Let's begin with John(ph). John calling us from Richmond, Virginia.
JOHN (Caller): Yes. Nice to be with you.
CONAN: Thank you.
JOHN: I think that we should reduce the number of U.S. troops, and the reason is that the law-abiding Iraqi citizens have become completely dependent upon U.S. troops keeping the peace and securing their neighborhoods and their communities that they live in, and the Iraqi security forces and their own army will never learn to, first of all, secure those same areas and at the same time give the Iraqi citizens the confidence in them that would be needed unless we reduce or perhaps even completely eliminate our presence.
CONAN: Rich Lowry?
Mr. LOWRY: That's a fair point. And that's one point that the administration, when people ask why don't you send more troops, that's the point they'll make. They don't want to foster Iraqi dependency. I do think that's a concern. There is a balance to be struck, but I think the issue of Iraqi dependency is a second-order concern compared to addressing the very real security crisis on the ground now in Iraq. Look, it's a weak central government. It's beset by a vicious insurgency and a budding civil war. They are going to be dependent on us for some time to come.
Eventually, yes, we want them to be able to defend themselves and we are taking steps towards that direction, but I think we risk having the whole enterprise collapse now unless we take the steps to address that security crisis in Baghdad.
CONAN: So in a sense, this decision to send U.S. troops back into Baghdad that was taken earlier this summer, this was a reversal of policy. The areas had been turned over to Iraqi forces in hopes of reducing that sort of national resentment of foreigners.
Mr. LOWRY: Correct, and what administration officials will tell you privately is that they just - they use this analogy all the time of teaching someone how to ride a bike and you keep your hand on the back of the bicycle seat. And they'll say in Baghdad we let go of the bicycle seat too soon. And, you know, I think one of the interesting things that's been going on in Iraq is that Sunni attitudes, they traditionally have been the more nationalist - they have represented the more nationalist rejection of the presence of American troops in Iraq.
With the increase in sectarian violence, you've begun to see some Sunni leaders sing a different tune about American troops. And U.S. officials will tell you - and I believe this is true - that when they go to Baghdad, Iraqis will tell them: The one person we feel comfortable opening the door for when they come knocking in the middle of the night is an American soldier.
You know, if you're an Iraqi family the last thing you want to see is someone in an Iraqi police uniform show up at your door, because there's some substantial chance that person is a member of a militia and a thug who's going to take away, you know, your son and drill a hole in his head and dump his body on the streets of Baghdad somewhere to be found in the morning. So in this environment of sectarian bloodletting, in some ways American troops are the most trustworthy forces in Iraq at the moment.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll have another question for Rich Lowry of the National Review. And then, as mentioned earlier, Lawrence Korb will join us. If you'd care to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're discussing U.S. strategy to secure Iraq. Should more troops be sent or would that just reinforce failure, as Lawrence Korb argues in a few minutes. The former assistant secretary of defense joins us. Right now we're talking with Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review. Of course, you're invited to join us.
Should the U.S. send more troops to Iraq or is it time to reduce the American role and let Iraqi forces step up? Our number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is email@example.com. And let's turn to Mike. Mike's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.
MIKE (Caller): Hey. I just wanted to make a comment, Neal that I'm right on with Rich. I'm a former commander who served in Iraq. I know what's going on. I'm slated to go back in February of this coming year, and I definitely agree that, look, we don't need to give it up. If I have to go back two and three and four times I'm willing to. I have a great job and I have a good wife and family at home to support me in that. But I'm echoing what you say, Rich, that most of the American soldiers that I talk to are willing to go back and doesn't want to give that up. That's all I have to say.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Just before you go, Mike - it sounds like you want to take something decisive. You want to get something done; you want something in return for all the sacrifice, the blood and the treasure that we've spent.
MIKE: Yes, I do. I would like to see the Iraqi people enjoy some of the freedoms we do. I've made many friends over there. Still have one that contacts me periodically. But I'd like to see him enjoy a democratic society, and I think that someday that will happen. But right now we've got to secure that, and I think that by us being there, our presence being there, will help that and one day, as history is written, will show that we have actually made a good choice in being there.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well Mike, good luck to you.
MIKE: Thank you, sir. Appreciate your time.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Rich Lowry, there's a vote on your behalf, but - Mike's willing to go, but to get all these units up - I mean, there's a shortage of combat-ready units. After two and three tours equipment is failing. A lot of people would say the troops aren't ready, including our very next guest.
Mr. LOWRY: Well it's a strain, no doubt about it. And you'd be asking these guys to make a big sacrifice on top of the sacrifices they've already made, but I think Mike is fairly representative. I think most of the troops still believe in this mission, and I think actually - going back to the political question you were asking about earlier - polls show the American public still wants to win this war despite all the difficulties, despite the stressing things they see on their screens. They still want to win, and that's the part of - the segment of the public that President Bush has to play to.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more call in for Rich Lowry. Steven(ph). Steven with us from Berkley, California.
STEVEN (Caller): Hi. Yes, I just had a comment that I believe - and have believed from the beginning - that this war, this invasion and occupation, was a train wreck. It continues to be a train wreck. I believe there is no way to leave in winning. I want to ask the question, however, if Mr. Lowry believes that the major conflict is becoming a sectarian or a civil war, then wouldn't that be what would happen as soon as we leave, no matter how many troops we put in there, no matter how long we stay? That's my question.
CONAN: Okay, Steven. Thank you. Rich Lowry?
Mr. LOWRY: Well that's a very good question. Obviously, some elements of both the kind of Sunni insurgency we've seen throughout this war, and now a budding civil war. And you have a semantic dispute about whether it's a civil war or not. I certainly think it could get much worse and our presence on the ground can prevent that and perhaps make it better. And, you know, when people hear the phrase civil war, quite understandably they say: Oh my gosh, this is a problem that can't be solved and something that we shouldn't be in the middle of.
But you look at the Balkans in the early and mid-1990s, we intervened in a civil war. And the fact was, you know, Serbs were killing tens of thousands of Muslims there in Bosnia, and that did not have to inevitably happen. It was a product of a political leadership, in that case from the top coming from Slobodan Milosevic; and when we confronted him and defeated him it stopped.
And the Balkans aren't perfect. Iraq is not going to be perfect for a very, very long time, if ever. But a lot of this violence is politically driven not just by the Sunni insurgency but by the Shia militias who are retaliating and hoping to radicalize Iraqi politics through this violence and hoping to marginalize relatively moderate figures like Ayatollah Sistani, who's been such a voice of reason throughout this conflict.
If we continue, if we just let the violence spiral out of control, blood will run in the streets, the politics will be further radicalized and we'll see both a humanitarian and political train wreck in Iraq. We now I believe still have a chance to stop it and have to do everything we can until we can really conclude that it's inevitably lost, and we're just not there yet.
CONAN: Three years in Iraq. Obviously much longer than that in the Balkans. A decade, more?
Mr. LOWRY: Well, we're still in the Balkans now, but I think that the real - what, the shooting war in Bosnia - what, was it from '92, '93 in Bosnia up until like '96 or so, and then you had Kosovo in '99. This is going to be a long-running conflict, and insurgencies always are. You know, they take a decade or so. We're probably - almost certainly will not be at this kind of force level over the long-term. I think we're going to have a long-term presence in Iraq, but it will be much less than this.
Critics of the administration who say they should be making more of an effort to embed advisers in Iraq units, I think that's correct. Over the long-term that's something that's going to be very important. But for right now at this crisis moment I think more troops and more effort makes sense even though it will be a strain on the military, even though it might hurt President Bush politically. We've invested so much blood and treasure up to this point, it would be a shame to not try - make every effort we can to win this thing.
CONAN: Rich Lowry, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
Mr. LOWRY: Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. He joined us in our bureau in New York.
Here with us in Studio 3A is Lawrence Korb, the assistance secretary of defense for manpower installations and logistics during the Reagan administration. He now works with Peter Ogden on national security issues at the Center for American Progress. He and Mr. Ogden wrote a response to Mr. Lowry and Mr. Kristol titled Why We Can't Send More Troops. Mr. Korb is with us here in Studio 3A. Good of you to join us today.
Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): Nice to be with you.
CONAN: And you say there simply aren't the numbers there.
Mr. KORB: Well you don't have the numbers there that you can send without destroying your volunteer Army, which means that you will not be able to respond to other situations that may come up in this long war. I would say if you need to send more troops, you ought to send them to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror. Remember, that's where the people who attacked us on September 11th came from, and you'll be sending over troops that are not ready.
If you - but because of the equipment shortages, along with the manpower shortages, the troops can't train. So if you send, as Rich Lowry talked about, 45,000 more troops, you'd have to start training them. Well they don't have the right equipment because the equipment is already over in Iraq. So you'd get over there, you would not be trained, and that's not right to send people there. You look at the problems that the Army is having now getting qualified people and keeping qualified people, this will only make it worse.
Let me give you an example of what we just did in order to increase the troop level in Baghdad. We extended 172nd Stryker Brigade, which is a group from Alaska. Their year was up. They were about ready to come home. We extended them for three months. Newsweek ran an article about what it's doing to their families back here in the United States.
CONAN: We've had some of them call this program.
Mr. KORB: And so basically what you can do - I mean, Rich is right. Yeah, if you want to do it, you can (unintelligible) everybody over there. The problem is does it - what's it going to do to you in the long run. And again, the fact of the matter is that we had a chance in the beginning to send the right number of troops. We didn't, and now I think it would only make the situation worse and it would make the Iraqis more dependent on us. I mean how long is it going to be before they make the political compromises which are necessary to defuse this civil war?
CONAN: But if he's right, if this is the decisive moment of the decisive battle, isn't it incumbent on the...
Mr. KORB: This is not the decisive battle. That's the problem. Okay, Iraq is not the central front in the war on terror. Iraq is a sideshow that we went into. Did not do it right; went in under false pretenses. The longer that we stay, the more difficult it's going to be for us to win what the president calls the long war.
CONAN: Let's get more callers in. This is - 800-989-8255, by the way, if you'd like to join us. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. This is Dean. Dean's calling us from Fort Stewart in Georgia.
DEAN (Caller): Yes, sir. Can you hear me, sir?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the line. Go ahead, please.
DEAN: Calling from mobile phone. Sorry about that. Yeah, I'm with the 3rd Infantry Division, having just came back from a deployment recently, and we're still looking at a second deployment. I think mainly it's not so much of a question of a lot more troops. I think more of an extended rules of engagement, or even you could call it a targeting list. The big problem in the Baghdad area, where I was stationed, is the militias.
CONAN: The Iraqi militias, the various groups?
Unidentified Man: Yes, sir. Specifically the Mahdi Army or Mahdi militia, whichever you want to call it.
CONAN: That loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, yeah.
DEAN: Yes, sir. And I think we spent kind of a year almost ignoring them. We hear about them in the news, but we really haven't done much to get them out of power. I think really if we focused in on these militias, we could see a lot more good being done in that country, specifically in the Baghdad area.
CONAN: I guess it's a problem when they are not only a militia, they're also a political party and part of the ruling coalition.
DEAN: Well, yeah. Again, I was there for the last major elections, and they're pretty firmly in power over there. But having talking to civilians on the ground, the majority of them would like to see them go away. But the problem -they've wrested or gained so much influence within the police department and even the Iraqi army.
DEAN: So I'm not sure what the fix is, but I think really some more focus should be placed on the militias, getting them out, and then I think that you wouldn't need so many troops. Then you can focus on the insurgency, the actual insurgency at hand.
CONAN: Larry Korb, Rich - Dean, rather, knows Sadr City a lot more better than you or I do.
Mr. KORB: He sure does. And I think he's made a terrific point, though I don't know if he meant to make the point this way. Getting rid of the militias should be an objective. Mr. Maliki, the prime minister, has said - he had told us that he was going to disband the militias.
He - basically, they had that election back in December. Here it is nine months later, he hasn't disbanded the militia and in fact he owes his being able to be prime minister to the militia because, as you mentioned, it is also a political party. And that puts the American troops in an unwinnable position.
Do they go after the militias, which basically are not insurgents - these are people not wanting to fight us in the war on terror - and antagonize more of the their supporters? Do they do that and bring down the Maliki government? You know, then what do we do?
I mean think whatever mission our troops had there they've accomplished it. Because the insurgency in terms of foreign fighters is not nearly as big as it once was. We've got over 250,000 Iraqi troops. We're not asking them to fight the Red Army. We're asking them to basically do police work.
And the question is not training; it's motivation. They won't be motivated until people running the place make the political compromises. They're not going to have an incentive to make them as long as they know that we'll be the crutch on which they can depend.
CONAN: What do you think, Dean?
DEAN: You're absolutely right. One last thing I'd try to say. I know it's a big strain for many units, but I can speak for Ft. Stewart, Georgia that deployed or not deployed, we're behind whatever. And our families, we've got strong families here and we'll do what we have to do.
I mean when the country calls, we go. Thank you for you time, sir.
Mr. KORB: And thank you.
CONAN: Thank you, Dean. We appreciate it. Good luck to you.
DEAN: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about troop levels in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this is Brian(ph). Brian's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.
BRIAN (Caller): Hi, guys. How are you today?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
BRIAN: I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity to be on your program. I listen all the time.
CONAN: Well, thanks.
BRIAN: I wanted to make a comment for your guest that having been in Kosovo and Iraq, I think one of the biggest problems that hasn't been mentioned is a lot of the Iraqi commanders are corrupt. Being in northwest Baghdad, in a town called Taji, we had a large problem with Iraqi commanders stealing their soldiers' pay.
As a result, you know, these guys kind of lost faith in the American government because here we are letting these things happen, you know, and they're getting the short end of the stick. And I'm wondering what you have - what your guest has in comments on that.
Mr. KORB: Well, again, that's a terrific question, and that will exist no matter how long we stay. I mean that's something that they're going to have to decide for themselves. I mean you're right, our troops tolerate it, because if they didn't they'd be killing, you know, people in the Iraqi army that we're trying to train.
Basically, what has to happen there is the Iraqi people have to make the political compromises necessary to create some sort of unified Iraq that the majority of the people, regardless of their sect or tribe, are willing to support and willing to fight and defend, and we haven't gotten there yet. And I would argue you ought to set a timeline to get at the end of 2007. Until you do that they're not going to do what's necessary.
Let me give you a scary figure. Between the time of the election and the time that that unity government was formed, we lost the equivalent of five battalions of men and women killed and wounded while they were dithering trying to set up a unity government.
They were told they were going to modify the constitution within four months. They haven't done that. Until they do that, nothing else is going to matter.
BRIAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call.
As you look toward the longer term, Lawrence Korb, and if U.S. troops do withdraw and turn it over to Iraqi troops by the end of 2007, in other words, a year and three months, what, from now. So the ramping down would have to start pretty soon. What happens if it doesn't work? What happens if it dissolves into civil war? What happens if that worst-case scenario that a lot of people talk about comes about?
Mr. KORB: Well, I would not leave the region, and I think that's very important. We can keep a brigade in Kuwait, which we've had ever since the end of the first Persian Gulf War; we can put the Marines and a carrier battle group, as they say, over the horizon in the Persian Gulf so that if it becomes another Afghanistan, you know, terrorist training camps, we can go in and take military action.
Let me give you an example. When Zarqawi was caught, how was he caught? The Iraqis got a tip, they told us and we sent planes to bomb him. We could still do that, you know, if we needed to do. And on the way out I think we need to convene, as somebody was talking about Bosnia, a date and style conference that gets all the parties in the region together, because nobody wants an unstable Iraq. I mean that would threaten them.
All the parties in the region together, the United States would then be talking to two of the big parties it currently doesn't talk to - Syria and Iran.
Mr. KORB: Well, that's true. I mean the Iranians wanted to talk to us in 2003 after we went into Iraq. They cooperated with us in Afghanistan. And basically even during the war they told us that while we were attacking Iraq that if an American pilot was downed in Iran, they would free him. So they basically want a stable situation.
I mean if Iraq became a haven for terrorists, they would be Sunnis, by and large, probably al-Qaida, which would be a threat to the Shias in Iran. So they don't want that either.
CONAN: Lawrence Korb, thanks very much for your time.
Mr. KORB: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress, formerly assistant secretary of defense back in the Reagan administration.
When we come back from the break, detainee rights and harsh interrogation methods on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. We'll get two views - one constitutional, one military - on the law, national security and the Geneva Conventions. If you'd like to join that conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.