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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and David Brooks

March 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks; syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard. Mark, what did you think of the way the president signed that campaign finance law into law?

MARK SHIELDS: We don’t know that he signed it, Jim. All that we have is the word of Dick Cheney and Condi Rice who were in the office at the time.

JIM LEHRER: Very early in the morning – like 7:00.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: No big pens and all of that, people standing behind him, any of that. No John McCain –


JIM LEHRER: — no Chris Shays.

MARK SHIELDS: No Marty Meehan or Chris Feingold. It reminded me, Jim of when John Warner first ran for the United States Senate in Virginia, there was a very controversial issue, and it was about the equal rights amendment and whether the time that was running out on the ratification of it ought to be extended. And his Democratic opponent, Warner’s Democratic opponent said he was for the equal rights amendment but against extending the time, thus effectively alienating both sides of the argument, those who were against the amendment and those who were for it.

What President Bush did was essentially displease both sides. He displeased obviously those like Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House who said this was armageddon for the Republicans and the big majority of Republicans on the Hill who did not want him to sign the law, and he displeased the Democrats, the reformers who had fought seven years for this, including John McCain. And his self-portrait as sort the conciliator and the man who brought civility and bipartisanship, I thought took a little bit of a hit by this stealth performance.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I basically agree with that. My theory is that they put a clothespin on his nose while he was asleep; they put the pen in his hand, and they sort of moved the paper under it so he wouldn’t be morally tainted by signing the thing. He came across looking unprincipled and cynical because if he was for it, he should have signed it in the proper manner. If he was against it, he should have vetoed it. I agree – the way he did it just made him look Machiavellian.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to the news of this day, the Middle East. Do you share the growing sense that the only the United States can prevent this thing from getting worse than it is now?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think we can now. I think what’s happened is that it used to be about land for peace. But after Arafat walked out of Camp David, people on the Palestinian side okay, we are not going to have peace soon but some day we are going to have everything we want. So they pushed back their mental time frame and then they maximalized their demands. And then it became — from a land-for-peace conflict, it became an existential conflict.

And then what happened was the suicide bombers took over. I really think the suicide bombers, which are a weapon, have transformed the whole culture of the Middle East because suicide bombers and the passions they arouse of martyrdom and vengeance, of murder, of religious purity are just more powerful than the passions of politics, of negotiations, and give and take.

And I think the care and nurturing and celebration on television of suicide bombers has been like a narcotic, an addiction that has transformed the situation, which will have to burn off until we can get back to where it was before, which was a negotiation between two people fighting over the same piece of land.

JIM LEHRER: And, Mark, President Bush and his folks have been reluctant to get really involved in this till now. But do you agree with David that even if they wanted to now, that things have to calm down, things have to move on, on their own before we can do anything, we meaning the United States of America?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, Jim. I’d say if there were an identifiable United States policy, I would say it was in tatters. I don’t think there has been one. It was the anti-Clinton policy. There was a hands-off laissez-faire be removed and it has been a disaster. It has been a total disaster. And I think we stand exposed, this particular week, after requesting the Sharon government to allow Yasser Arafat to travel to the Arab conference, that we stand exposed as powerless and without influence in the Israeli government.

And everybody knows the special relationship between the United States and Israel, the fact that we’ve given over $90 billion in foreign aid to Israel — more than any other nation — and that we have been its staunchest supporter and ally. And so I think right now where I might disagree with David is this: that if anything is going to be done by the United States, it is going to require the direct involvement of perhaps both the secretary of state and the president.

JIM LEHRER: Is that likely to happen, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is now. I think today was an important day, and especially Colin Powell’s press conference today, because I thought the administration recovered the moral gyroscope it had lost for two weeks. And we had gotten in a world where we were excusing terror, minimizing terror, rewarding Yasser Arafat by trying to meet with him, trying to get him up to Beirut for the conference because of the terror.

But what Bush and Colin Powell said today was that, you know, for a little while we sort of thought that Yasser Arafat was a constructive force in the Middle East. Now we basically have gone back to our original position, which is that he is not going to be a constructive force and Colin Powell essentially gave the green light to Israel today.

JIM LEHRER: You think he did?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s how it certainly is perceived on both sides of the issue; that he basically said we understand Israel does what it needs to do and I think they understand that you can’t fight terror around the world while sort of being morally neutral about it in the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t. I didn’t see it that way. Now maybe I missed some nuance there. Jim, I have to say that this week, you know, I don’t know what Yasser Arafat’s argument is the case to be made for him, but when the policy of Israel and the Sharon government has been to emasculate, to humiliate, to marginalize Arafat, which they have done, and then to hold him accountable for not being a strong, forceful, dominant commanding leader…

I mean it is an impossible demand to place upon anybody, regardless how you feel about Yasser Arafat. And I really think that that is sort of the reality we’re stuck with and struck with this week. I don’t think that– I did not get the sense that there was an endorsement of any kind of carte blanche on the part of the Israelis.

JIM LEHRER: In fact–.

MARK SHIELDS: By the United States.

JIM LEHRER: He said Sharon, Prime Minister Sharon should keep in mind the impact of what he is doing, what the Israeli government is doing.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And you read that as an equal signal to both sides.

MARK SHIELDS: I do. This is the first administration and I think it is to be commended, to declare unequivocally that it supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But then having made that lofty goal part of its policy, it kind of walked away. To achieve the conditions that are necessary on both sides across the board, it is going to require long hours, great details, great detailed, tough work and right now up until now, this administration has not shown the willingness to make that kind of a commitment.

JIM LEHRER: The other point that was made, been made two or three times in the last week on this program by various folks, is that it is impossible to look upon this in just an issue thing now or terrorist versus these terrorist governments or whatever, because of the hostility, the hatred that Sharon as an individual has for Arafat and vice versa, and that until that is off the table, very little else gets on the table.

DAVID BROOKS: The problem is the Israeli government used to be split. The Israeli population used to be split. That’s no longer true. We are living in a post-Oslo world where after Arafat walked out of Camp David, the Israelis felt suckered. They felt we gave these people rifles and now they’re using us to shoot at us.

JIM LEHRER: I know. But I’m just talking about today. I’ m talking about what it is going to take to get from here to there and these two men have no motivation, at least that’s what our guests have been saying all week from both sides.

DAVID BROOKS: Or the people. They do represent their people.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David made a key point. There has been a sea change and the sea change is this, in my judgment. The last Intifada in 1987, there were 25 Palestinian deaths, casualties, for every one of the Israelis. Now, I mean, still 75-80 percent of the casualties are suffered by the Palestinians but it is a three-to-one ratio. And I think what we have seen is a sea change in the sense that on the part of those most militants on the Palestinian side, that time and history are on their side, and that they’re willing to absorb this and that it has led to a more profound and more serious change in Israel and the way Israelis live, and the fear that grips so much of their lives, and I don’t know how that plays out politically, but it is a major, major factor in the political equation at this point.

DAVID BROOKS: The other thing that happened was the suicide bombers are no longer Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They’re al-Aqsa, they’re Fatah, they’re people directly connected to Yasser Arafat. That’s why I’m saying suicide bombing has taken over the conflict. There’s not a weapon in the conflict that has taken over the conflict.

So to talk about the casualties on both sides, to me they’re unequal casualties. One is terrorist casualties, the other is efforts, crude, sometimes efforts to combat terrorism. And I don’t say that as you know this radical nogoodnik-type person. If it was up to me, hundreds of the settlements would be gone tomorrow but I think we have to acknowledge it is not a parallel situation – that one side really did at Camp David made a brave offer for peace. The other side rejected it and we are living in the shambles of the death of the Oslo process.

JIM LEHRER: Does that mean the Clinton administration dropped the ball?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think, no. I think you have to be a pretty narrow and pretty petty partisan at this point to criticize Bill Clinton for the efforts they made. I mean they came that close. And Ehud Barak bet his political career on it, his public career, a great Israeli hero as prime minister, cost him the election. There is no question. Yasser Arafat turned down the greatest opportunity for peace and Palestinian autonomy ever presented. I think Bill Clinton will earn history’s gratitude and admiration for what he did.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Sharon’s statement the other day that the real problem here between the United States and Israel is that the United States is trying to get people together to take action against Iraq, and Israel is trying to get together to take action against the Palestinian terrorists?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think there is any question that Dick Cheney’s trip was a failure. I mean he went over there to organize a coalition against Iraq. While he got there, he found out there was no appetite for it, no enthusiasm for it and there was a great concern about Israel and the Palestinians, and the trouble that that meant throughout the entire Arab world as they saw it. And at that point, the United States became engaged. So there is the question about how deeply are we involved? How deeply are we committed?

JIM LEHRER: Quick closing.

DAVID BROOKS: Basically I agree with that. During the Cheney trip we got ourselves wrapped around Tenet, Mitchell, and all of that – all the moral clarity that Bush started this war with was gone. And that moral clarity I think really did return today.

JIM LEHRER: We had three other things we were going to talk about — we’ll do it next week, I promise. Thank you.