NR: "Four words: dog and pony show."
TJ Holmes asks Michael (in Baghdad) and Kyra Phillips (in NY) to weigh in on whether visiting politicians get a true picture of the conditions on the ground in Iraq when they fly in for the escorted and highly controlled tours.
TJ HOLMES: Well, Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq before it started. He has ever since. But he may be heading back to Iraq. Obama's campaign says the Democratic front-runner is considering a visit before the November elections. Republican John McCain, who supports the war and the troop surge, has blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq in more than two years and for turning down McCain's offer of a joint visit.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Glad to hear that Senator Obama is now, quote, "considering" a trip to Iraq. It's long overdue. It's been 871 days since he was there. Senator Obama was driven to his position by ideology, and not by the facts on the ground. And he does not have the knowledge or experience to make the judgments.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: Well, McCain has been to Iraq several times, around as many as eight times he has made trips there. But do VIPs on an orchestrated tour really get the full story?
Well, joining us now CNN's Kyra Phillips in New York and Michael Ware in Baghdad. Both of them have gotten the full story. They're familiar with the true picture on the ground there in Iraq. Thank you both for being here.
Michael, I will start with you. Given how the VIPs are treated, given the security they have, given the limited areas they can go because of safety reasons, how true of a picture can a VIP, can a senator, can congressional delegations really get there in Iraq?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in many ways, T.J., it's four words -- dog and pony show. I mean, you've got to give anyone credit who comes here at least trying to get the smell, the touch, the feel of this place. But you need to understand, as a visiting U.S. official, or even as a senior U.S. commander or embassy staffer, you are getting a very, very filtered version of the reality. The Green Zone and American bases are far divorced from life on the Iraqi street.
And as genuine as U.S. commanders like to be with visiting delegations or anyone who is inquiring, they themselves don't always have a handle on what's going on.
Remember, we've had officials in this -- visiting this country before told that the insurgency is in its death throes. The American mission is turning how many corners, that there is no civil war or that you could walk the streets of Baghdad. All of which have since proven to be false -- T.J.
HOLMES: Well, Kyra, I will turn to you now. And given the dog and pony show, as Michael there just described, and I'm sure you can attest to some of that as well, but can still something be learned? Because when you're over there you talk to people on the ground, who are in some of those tougher places. So can you gain an education in that way, at least talking to Iraqi soldiers, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens on the ground?
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Michael hit it right on the head. You know, these politicians, for the most part, they zip in for a couple days. They have a security entourage that's, you know, bigger than the president, and they are shown certain things. They cruise through the marketplace, and that's about it.
What these politicians have to do is, No. 1, sit down with the Iraqi people. Go into these hawashans, these abandoned warehouses where these middle-class Iraqis have had to move because al Qaeda is forcing them out of their neighborhoods, taking over their homes, taking over their goods inside their homes. And now they're living like homeless people. Sit down and spend some time with those folks, hear what they have to say.
And the Iraqi soldiers, this was amazing to me. So many of these politicians, they go, they meet with U.S. troops. But U.S. troops are under the command of certain captains and generals and admirals. And you know how it goes. They have public affairs officials. They can only say certain things. But when I sat down with Iraqi soldiers, it was totally uncensored. There was nobody there standing over their shoulders saying, OK, you can say this and you can't say this. Take a listen of what some of the soldiers told me when I was there.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PHILLIPS: If you could sit down with Obama what would you tell him you need from him?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I would ask him to pay attention to the Middle East, and the Iranian and American conflict that's happening on Iraqi land. Our young people don't have simple things like a job, electricity. We have oil, and we are poor and jobless. We want new companies to trust Iraq and invest in Iraq. We want jobs for our young people so they don't join these terrorists.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PHILLIPS: That's the voice of the people. These are the men and women who are on the frontline suffering, and those are the people that the politicians need to be talking to -- T.J.
HOLMES: And, Michael, back to you here, and one of the criticisms we've been hearing over here about Barack Obama, at least from Senator McCain, is that he hasn't been there, Obama, hasn't been there since '06. That was before the surge. If he would go now and see how things were after the surge, then possibly he'd have a different view. Do you believe that is possible, that if Obama went now as opposed to when he was there in '06, he would see something differently, or like you said, it'd still be the same old dog and pony show?
WARE: Well, it's still going to be, you know, a very sterilized kind of visit. But I mean, let's look at it from a different perspective. As you said yourself, T.J., what, Senator McCain has been here something like eight times. And Senator McCain gets it glaringly wrong quite often as well. However, at least you may get a much more of a bracing sense of what's happening on the ground.
And where the advantage would be, would be those off-the-cuff conversations. If indeed you could find U.S. officials or soldiers who they bump into and have a casual conversation. If there can be a frank -- just for one frank moment, as rare as that might be, could make the whole trip worthwhile. You certainly can't rely on the Iraqi officials, because they're going to tell the Americans just what they think the Americans want to hear.
HOLMES: All right, and, Kyra, last thing to you here quickly. We see these trips. How do the, I guess, Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi citizens, as well as the American soldiers, view these trips by VIPs? As you all have said, they dip in and dip out for a couple of days. Do they see people coming over to really help, or see that they're coming over really to get in front of cameras?
PHILLIPS: Well, you know what the soldiers think? The soldiers think, OK, who is this American coming into town with all this protection and all this security, that's taking away from the streets that I'm supposed to be here protecting?
So it's frustrating for them. And very rarely do they ever get face time. I mean, Michael is so right. You could call up Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki, on a conference call and probably get the same type of conversation you would get if you met with him there in the Green Zone. They've got to show up unannounced and they've got to meet with the people that are living this and fighting this war every single day. Losing their lives, losing their loved ones, losing their homes and losing part of their life every single day.
HOLMES: Well, this back and forth, we -- no doubt will continue between McCain and Obama. We'll see if Obama does in fact head over to Iraq. But we know he's not going to go with Senator John McCain.
Kyra Phillips, for us in New York. Also Michael Ware.
We appreciate you both. Appreciate both the expertise you all can offer on this subject.
Thanks so much, guys.