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Shields and Brooks

February 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks. Let’s pick up where Jim just left off and look at politically the same question he asked his guests from a policy sense. Can the president politically afford now, David, to go to war quickly without the full backing of the U.N. and without giving the inspectors additional time?

DAVID BROOKS: I think yes. Sixty-seven percent of the people roughly say that they believe… they accept the president’s case that we have to take action in Iraq. They are not persuaded that we have to move right away. They would like to wait. They would like to get more allies. They’d like even to have the French, at least the Germans maybe not the French. But they are… this is a country with a very complex mood right now, which I think is resolved, which has grasped the difficult situation we’re in, which is a little fearful but which has… will respond when called. I have no doubt about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though the poll numbers by two-to-one say the public really wants to wait to get U.N. backing and give the inspectors more time you think that would melt away if the president came to the country and said….

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely because two-to-one they support the idea of dealing with Saddam.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president can go to war. I think that the question, Margaret, is what becomes success politically as well as militarily. I don’t think anybody doubts that the United States could vanquish the depleted armies of Saddam Hussein. But the reality is, Margaret, here we are 58 years after World War II. The United States still has troops in Japan and Germany. Fifty years after the end of Korea, the United States still has troops there.

Anybody who thinks this is a year or two years, to build the kind of Iraq that is envisioned, that is, a democratic Iraq, multi-representational government with secure borders, having disavowed any use of weapons of mass destruction, living in harmony and some peace and prosperity, if it took 50 years in Germany and Japan, with homogenous populations with traditions it’s an investment that the president has not prepared this country to make. It’s just really… it’s an enormous, enormous task. And I think given the American people’s attention span on this war, they’d root and we’d win and that would be it. I’m telling you, I could see it turning to absolute ashes and dust before us.

DAVID BROOKS: I think in some ways the events of today at the U.N. are misleading where the Washington debate is. The Washington debate is on exactly the question Mark is talking about. Within the administration, there are 500 different positions on do we trust Chalabi, who’s the Iraqi opposition leader, or do we not? The Pentagon has one view, the State Department has another, the NSC has another. There are all these different positions.

Later tonight Secretary Rumsfeld is going to give a speech at the Intrepid in the U.N. saying let’s not get so involved in these countries like Iraq and Afghanistan that they become dependent on us, which is a true point but a lot of people in the government are saying he’s just trying to get us to bug out quickly. And that speech tonight and a lot of the inter-feuding that’s going on is a sign of where the debate really is in Washington. It’s moved beyond the parade of the unpersuadables at the U.N. frankly.

MARGARET WARNER: But I notice, Mark, again in this very comprehensive New York Times poll when you ask the public, are you ready for ready long commitment, boy, they go the other way. Should the U.S. spend a lot in Iraq to rebuild; something like 65 percent say no.

MARK SHIELDS: Margaret, the President of the United States since Sept. 11 has never asked young Americans to join the military — One — never once. He has never said this is going to be long, it’s going to be bloody, it’s going to be painful, it’s going to be costly. We’re going to go to have forgo some pleasures, some privileges and some luxury, never. So as a consequence, American people are totally unprepared for any kind of admission as noble but as risky and difficult as building a multi-party multi-religious democracy in a land that is a construct, an artifact of a political drawing and not a natural place.

DAVID BROOKS: Not to sound like Yogi Berra but I completely disagree with half of that, which is that the president is not prepared. That’s because the administration hasn’t made up their mind but I do think the American people are aware of it. I don’t think we’ve ever gone to war in our history with such a feeling of sobriety. There’s no war fever in the country today. There’s a feeling this is a difficult thing we have to do. I watched Schroeder address the Bundestag yesterday.

And what impressed me was how different the debates are in the U.S. and Germany. In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder said we want peace. That’s fine. We call on Iraq to disarm. That’s fine. But there was no grasping of the metal, which was he’s not disarming. The U.S., like it or not, we do grasp the metal. It’s an unpleasant duty that nobody wants to do. But I do think the American people have faced it despite the duct tape and the fear and all that stuff that is genuine.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with virtually everything David said at that point. I don’t think there’s any preparation. Margaret, just take Afghanistan. The last time we were involved in Afghanistan was when the Soviets were there. Ok, the Soviets leave, we leave. What happens? The Taliban. Now we’re in Afghanistan. Girls can go to school with boys. Isn’t that terrific? Karzai — one of the great leaders of probably the area in the region is now the mayor of Kabul effectively because that land is essentially… we have lost interest in it. Do you hear Americans talking about the mission we have in Afghanistan?

DAVID BROOKS: If they’re in the U.S. government they do.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk a little bit about the mood here at home because it was very jittery this week with the threat level being higher. Now the Democrats who aren’t saying much about the prospect of war are being very critical, David, of the administration on the way they’re handling the homeland security. Do you think there are valid criticisms?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I do actually. It’s not as if the administration and Tom Ridge have thus far exhibited or projected great confidence and mastery. I mean, this duct tape thing is just a fiasco. It’s the exact sort of issue that symbolizes, that crystallizes everybody’s view because it’s so stupid they think, “this is just what they’re all about — reminding me of Bill Bryson’s advice on what you should ever do if you’re caught by a bear, which is to run as fast as you can because it will give you something to do with the last 12 seconds of your life. It was just so pointless.

The Democrats are absolutely right to focus on this. I think they’re silenced on the whole issue of the war by the French because they don’t want to take the French position. But on homeland security, they make very good and valid points.

MARK SHIELDS: Homeland security is sad. I mean it really is. When the first lady of the United States goes out publicly and says they’re raising the anxiety level of the country unnecessarily and that’s what they accused the press. The press didn’t make this up. We got it from homeland security, we got it from the administration. The administration was relying upon an informant who a week later took a polygraph test and failed it about the charges that led to the upgrading to orange… level orange. The Democrats, Margaret, don’t know what to do because the leaders of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has no leaders, but basically…

MARGARET WARNER: The leaders plural.

MARK SHIELDS: The leaders, plural; basically what they’ve done is they’ve taken a position, the ones in Congress, supporting the president on this. The party itself is against war — strenuously against war. And probably if we go in and the troubles do develop as are predicted and the long painful peace follows and difficult peace, then there they’ll be even more against it. So you have the followership party of the party going in one direction and the leadership going in the other. The leadership is absolutely in my judgment paralyzed with what to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just go back to homeland security though, David. The Democrats are saying the president is not willing to spend enough money on first responders and so on. They’ve had a couple high- profile press conferences this week. One, again, do you think that they have a valid criticism? And two, does it have legs politically? They clearly think it does.

DAVID BROOKS: I think at the end of the day it’s all swallowed by the war. Politically the 2004 election will be about Iraq not about what happens here.

MARGARET WARNER: Unless there’s an attack.

DAVID BROOKS: If there’s an attack, I do not don’t believe the American people are going to blame George Bush. They’re going to blame Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or whoever conducts it. I just don’t think — I think, substantively it’s a legitimate point. Politically I don’t think it will have an effect on the 2004 election or on the president’s behavior abroad or at home.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is right here except that, Margaret, if first responders who are lionized, who are mortalized and rightly so after Sept. 11, the firefighters are now complaining publicly that they have not gotten the equipment they need from the federal government, that the president has not supported the appropriations. You know, if we find out that emergency workers in the next crisis, in the next attack are deprived of the tools, the federal government is supposed to provide for them because instead we’re diverting those funds to cut whatever tax it was that was burdening Bill Gates that day, then I think that there will be an erosion of the president’s leadership qualities and a sense of his judgment in that way.

MARGARET WARNER: So would you expect to see the White House endorse greater funding for this area?

DAVID BROOKS: Well they have a budget crunch. We’re about to fight a war. They are just constrained. If I could say, I do think that public opinion is shifting on two other issues very dramatically: The U.N., do we trust it? And Europe, do we trust them?

MARGARET WARNER: We’ll have to leave that until next week. Thank you both.