TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks

April 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Shields and Brooks. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

David, how do you see the state of the Powell mission tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess it’s the Middle East so you should grade on a curve. I’m going to call it a disaster as opposed to an unmitigated disaster. He’s done a couple of things.

In the first thing, he’s hurt U.S. prestige. He’s been rebuffed everywhere he’s gone. That doesn’t make us look good, especially as we go on to Iraq.

Second, he shredded U.S. policy in the Middle East. The entire Tenet-Mitchell policy was based on the idea we have cease-fire first and then move on to political negotiations. He’s cut out the cease-fire part, which has been the basis of our Middle East policy all along.

Third, and most importantly, he’s hurt our moral clarity. The Bush doctrine says that terrorism is not acceptable in the Middle East — anywhere. You can’t fly planes into buildings. You can’t send bombers into Seders and that’s just not an acceptable form of political warfare.

And, here Colin Powell in Madrid said… he essentially equated terror in response to terror. He said they’re both part of the cycle of violence. Finally, he’s caved in to Yasser Arafat to some small degree so far.

Cheney would not meet with Arafat unless he renounced terror. Colin Powell, quite clearly, is willing to do that. So it’s a victory for Arafat, a victory for terror, and a muddling of the U.S. commitment, which started Sept. 11 until today.

JIM LEHRER: Other than that, Mark it’s going really well?

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with David in the sense of if we’re going to go after Colin Powell, Colin Powell is carrying out the policies of this administration. So let’s call it President Bush. It’s President Bush’s policy. Colin Powell is, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t deviated in any way from the president’s own policy.

The best that he can do, Jim, he’s there for a very simple reason, because of Dick Cheney’s trip. Dick Cheney made a trip as vice president of the United States and everywhere he went he was told that the president’s agenda in the Middle East going into Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein would be held hostage, would get a deaf ear and cold shoulder from all the Arab nations until and unless the United States spent some political capital in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

And, quite frankly, up until then we were blamed for fiddling while that crisis simmered and exploded. Now we’re being exposed as powerless.

I mean, a week ago, the president told his ally Ariel Sharon to withdraw. One week later — after defiance — the secretary of state is there.

I don’t think anybody anywhere in the world with an ounce of rationality would criticize Israel or any society for going after suicide bombers. But what Israel has done under Sharon is gone more than after bombers, they’ve gone into the West Bank, and they have dismantled any sense of civic authority that the organization — that government could possibly have.

They have dismantled any hope of a Palestinian state, which is the policy to which the United States is committed, that there be a separate Israeli state and a separate Palestinian state.

That’s what Colin Powell is confronted with tonight.

JIM LEHRER: So you have… each of you have stated a position that is very different on what… but let’s start right now, tonight. Colin Powell, what’s happening on the ground, what happened today, all of this, what… looking at Colin Powell as an individual and as the representative of the United States government, what can this man now do?

What are the strengths that he has left to play and what are his weaknesses, David? Whatever you think about how we got here.

DAVID BROOKS: There are two crucial issues: One is do I meet with Yasser Arafat? We’ve said we’re giving him one last chance. This is the 24th last chance, but okay, one more. Do I meet with him? And it appears he is going to.

But, secondly, what is my reaction to what Israel has done? Israel clearly is going to keep doing it, you know, Mark described it as an attack on the infrastructure. If you’re Israeli reading the Israeli press, what you’re seeing in that press is a series of descriptions of daily battles with militias in different towns – the Israeli government rounding up and killing specific terrorist leaders. So the Israelis are going to keep doing this because they across the board regard it as a success.

So, Colin Powell’s opportunity is to say “Okay, you’re going to destroy a lot of the infrastructure of the Palestinian terror groups. What are you going to do then? You know that’s not going to kill terror forever. You know it only buys you a pause. So what are you going to do then?”

So I see those as the two things that are on Colin Powell’s plate right now. Do I meet with Arafat — reward terror — and then what do I do long term? How do I take advantage of the pause that’s going to follow the eventual two weeks from now Israeli pullout?

JIM LEHRER: Here we have a situation, Mark, where the president of the United States has made two demands, one of Israel, one of the Palestinians and neither one have been met.

And as you say, they sent the secretary of state there, and he hasn’t got either thing done and so what does he do? I mean, what power does he have?

What I’m trying to get at is, what leverage is there left for Colin Powell on the ground trying to make this thing work?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, probably the best that Colin Powell can hope for is that things don’t get worst between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the Israelis and the Arabs, between the United States and the Arabs. I mean, that’s really… it’s containing and controlling this. That would be a success, I think given how serious and truly hazardous….

JIM LEHRER: You mean, just kind of hope that it plays itself out along the lines that David was talking about, without it getting worse?

MARK SHIELDS: That he can exercise that influence. He brings enormous strengths to it, Jim.

He is the most popular political figure in the United States. I saw a field poll from California, he’s at 87 percent favorable to 6 percent unfavorable. Contrast with the president at 80 percent to 26 percent, the vice president at 2-1 favorable. I mean he’s just a towering figure.

We’ve never had a secretary of state in this position who’s a national icon, a great triumph of the American dream, a success story, a general, somebody who carries the scars of battle himself, two tours in Vietnam, his company commander, battalion commander. He brings to it enormous credentials and stature and he’s the most popular figure in the administration. I think in that sense we’ve never had a secretary of state before who’s a plausible presidential candidate. He was until he withdrew.

So, I think we’re going with the best we have as a country.

The only criticism he has politically comes from the right, comes from the neo-conservatives from those who viewed that Iraq is the big problem and this is just a distraction and if we could just get on with that and somehow he’s been an obstacle to our invading Iraq and to conservatives.

DAVID BROOKS: I regard Saudi Arabia as a problem, Iraq as the distraction.

JIM LEHRER: Can Colin Powell leave the Middle East with the situation status quo the way he found it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he’ll have to. I mean there will be some patched over….

JIM LEHRER: Can he do that, really?

DAVID BROOKS: Of course. People have failed before. secretary of state have failed before.

JIM LEHRER: They all get caught up in it. I read somewhere this week that once you get involved in the Middle East it owns you.

DAVID BROOKS: Irving Kristol once wrote that those whom the Gods would drive crazy make interested in the Middle East.

We’ve seen — it happens to every administration and in this respect it’s not Colin Powell’s fault.

There’s an incoherence in the middle of U.S. Policy, which is we know and correctly that Yasser Arafat is the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. He represents the center of the Palestinian people. He’s not like Saddam Hussein who doesn’t represent his people. Arafat represents his people.

So, we have to deal with Yasser Arafat. On the other hand, he will never sign a peace treaty. I don’t think, and I don’t think George Bush thinks he will ever sign a peace treaty. I mean Fidel Castro will go to work as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley before Yasser Arafat signs a peace treaty.

So, you’ve got these two positions. Here’s a guy you have to deal with. Here’s a guy who is never going to actually get you to the promised land. So what do you do? That is an incoherence.

JIM LEHRER: Is it that grim? Can that man go… can Colin Powell say in two days, three days, four days, “Hey, I tried, this thing’s over, I’m out of here, you guys work it out”?

MARK SHIELDS: No, he can’t because in spite of the great success, this is the ultimate challenge of his career; this is a time, this is his high-wire act.

I’d just point out to David that Yasser Arafat did reject Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak’s great effort at a peace plan.

Also objecting to it and opposing it was Ariel Sharon. I mean it is like on one side we have got Albert Schweitzer and on the other side you’ve got Franco, for God’s stakes. These are two people — he’s got on sides — he’s got real problems. He has got people who won’t talk to each other, don’t like each other, don’t trust each other, won’t be in the same room with each other, and have done things that have incurred the mistrust and disbelief of the other.

JIM LEHRER: But we’re the most powerful nation in the world. What happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I’ll tell you what happened, David is keenly aware of this, the Congress of the United States has made abundantly clear to Colin Powell, to George W. Bush that nothing that Ariel Sharon or the Israeli administration does or the Israeli military will in any way jeopardize all-out support from the Congress of Israel.

There will be no attempt to any way limit aid or inhibit aid or try and lay down any particular restrictive policies upon Israel. I mean, so he’s got his hands tied in that sense as to what he can really do.

DAVID BROOKS: I’d go a little beyond that. This is a learning experience for us all.

We believed our press clippings after the easy war in Afghanistan. We can walk over everybody, we’re the unilateral power.

JIM LEHRER: Just point and say, hey, you go do this, you go do that.

DAVID BROOKS: We actually thought and I assumed when George Bush told Ariel Sharon, “pull out of Jenin,” I thought he would do it.

JIM LEHRER: Did you really?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they’ll get as many people as they can get in four days and then they’ll pull out even if they only get half of what they want.

But then you look at from Sharon’s point of view, he says, I only get half the terrorists I want to get. Suppose the other half go and commit operations — and then somebody in IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, or the opposition party says “he could have got those people.”

Then Sharon’s government falls. So you may like George Bush, you may really want America on your side, but if it’s your government at stake and the same sort of logic applies to Yasser Arafat, then you kiss off the U.S.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read why we just can’t get this done? We’re supposed to have ultimate clout with Israel for the reasons you just outlined plus a lot of others.

I mean, we’re Israel’s major friend in the whole world. We’re also supposed to have a lot of clout with the moderate Arab nations and a lot of clout with Yasser Arafat.

He wanted us to come over there, he always wants the United States involved, but neither side will do what… they won’t salute.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, to quote Tip O’Neill, who was not much on foreign policy but knew something about politics, “All politics is local.” And, David touched on it.

Ariel Sharon was in big trouble politically, and now he’s a towering figure in Israel because of his leadership in this moment of crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Arafat the same.

MARK SHIELDS: Arafat the same; Arafat was discredited, a crippled leader, now his popularity is soaring.

What you truly have, and I mean I think the fear that Powell has is that he’s expressed privately, anyway, is that you’re going to radicalize the next generation. Any time a guerrilla army does not lose, it wins.

And this is a guerrilla war.

JIM LEHRER: Welcome to the powerlessness of the new powerful world?

DAVID BROOKS: We’re strong; we’re just not Zeus.

But I would say there’s one lesson that can be learned — you know, that Israel has to go into Nablus, has to go in to Jenin, has to go in to Ramallah; they don’t have to go into Gaza.

There have been no suicide bombers in the last cycle from Gaza.

Why is that? Because there’s a fence there. And I think ultimately there that’s what this lesson says. You have got to build a fence.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.