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Weekly Analysis of Shields and Brooks

March 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: And with me are syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks. Well, gentlemen, just a week ago Colin Powell was saying that they were going to wait for the Blix report and then kind of take soundings from the Security Council and they might or might not introduce the resolution. But last night the president said – he essentially issued a dare, a diplomatic dare and said we’re going for a resolution and put Blix and the Council on notice. Explain, David, what is the president’s strategy here, his sort of public strategy?

DAVID BROOKS: Gives new meaning to the phrase “in your face.” He has decided, I think, that the resolution they’re putting before the Council next week is true; that Saddam Hussein has not unilaterally, aggressively, immediately, whatever the phrases are, disarmed. And therefore if there is going to be a disagreement about that, it might as well be in public. He wants the French, the Chinese and the Russians to deny this reality in public. And that’s the straight talking guy he is. I think the other factor here is the realization that France, China and Russia will never side with us in this particular matter. In 1998, Bill Clinton tried to launch these attacks on Iraq. France, China and Russia opposed it then. For 12 years they’ve had a steady policy. I think they’ve come to the realization that France, China and the Russians are not going to change their policy. So you might as well get the truth out there in the open and then we can do what we have to do.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure that’s entirely what it was. I think they’re anticipating, Margaret, a report from Blix today, Margaret which would report progress and which would solidify the ranks of those who were reluctant to go to war and reluctant to support, to say, look, we are make progress, 34 al-Samouds destroyed already. So with that in mind, they brought the president out. Now the president was responding not simply to Hans Blix, he was trying to make Blix’s report irrelevant last night, by essentially saying it all comes down to one question. The one question is has he completely, totally complied, cooperated, has he disarmed — not interested in progress, not interested in missiles being destroyed or whatever — and I think, and plus responding to the need for the president to address the nation in prime time on this subject — and potentially to those overseas audiences as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And also, wouldn’t you say, responding to the fact that France, Germany and Russia had also this week essentially threatened to veto?

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. That’s what last night was about to a considerable degree — to try and frame the debate, but also to beat him to the punch of what he was doing. He did not give Iraq a clean bill of health, by any means. But he certainly did add some support and just buttress the case for those who say well, inspections with a heavy military concentration, quarter of a million American troops are working, are showing progress.

MARGARET WARNER: But, David, the polls show — all of them show the same thing, that the American public, by a large margin, is much more comfortable going to war… the only way you really get a majority for going to war is if the U.N. is behind it. So the same question Jim asked his panel: Is it perilous for the president, if he is going to push this thing the to a vote next week, if he loses, that this compromise doesn’t work and then he goes ahead?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, let’s look at the stakes here. We have a resolution. Presumably it fails. The president then goes against the resolution and goes to war. This puts the U.N. and the U.S. at loggerheads -

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: — because suppose the U.N.– the U.S. effort succeeds, the U.N. is tainted permanently. Suppose the U.S. effort fails, unilateral action is tainted permanently. Kofi Annan becomes president of the world. I’m overstating things a little, but the stakes are high. And, to me, I think the final factor is I think it will be a long time before any U.S. President goes to the U.N. again. They’ll do what Clinton did in Kosovo, what Clinton did when he attacked Saddam in 1998.

MARGARET WARNER: But here at home also do you think it is a higher risk move on the president’s part?

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. But I think character is destiny. He is a guy who thinks the truth is out there, let’s tell the truth and somehow that will be the right thing to do. For a lot of people, and people in France, they’ll say what does honesty have to do with diplomacy? Diplomacy is about seeking solutions. You lie if you have to, you pass resolutions you don’t believe in if you have to. It’s sort of a clash of civilizations inside the Security Council chamber.

MARK SHIELDS: I think a clash of civilizations is perhaps an overstatement. I think Dominique De Villepin said today something that is true and it’s hard to argue with him. Quoting him is a little bit like quoting Madeline Marray O’Hare at a religious meeting. He said the United States — in essence the United States could win this war against Iraq but that no nation alone, the United States or anybody else, could build that peace. And you can see the Democrats who have been no bargain on this whole thing. They have been split about 18 different ways. But the central line of criticism of the president, both politically and substantively, has been he is not his father’s son — that his father in 1991 constructed a remarkable coalition, and that the problem the president had in 1991 was not in the United Nations — winning support there, the first Mr. Bush. It was in the Congress. And once he prevailed in the Congress, then it was clear sailing. This president obviously has stumbled and has not been able to assemble a similar coalition.

MARGARET WARNER: That is the line of attack from the Democrats. I think Tom Daschle said yesterday, well, their diplomacy has failed. Why do you think, David, the Democrats are finally now stepping up their criticism?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m mystified frankly. We are on the verge of war. When the war starts, criticism will stop. Why do it right now is a little strange to me, especially when you don’t have a counter policy. There is a lot of carping and a lot of legitimate carping about this aspect of diplomacy about why there hasn’t been a cost estimate, all that sort of stuff. You have to have a counter policy. You can’t just look like carping critics second-guessing. You have to have something. It seems to me the Democrats haven’t come up with that sort of policy. Nancy Pelosi in an amazing speech today in which she said if we had acted five months ago to stop Bush, we wouldn’t be in this place. That’s right. We wouldn’t be in this place. There would be no inspectors in Iraq if we’d stopped Bush five months ago; Saddam would be happily arming himself. And that seems to me evidence of the Democrat aggressive criticism – some of it legitimate – but no counter policy. What would they do about Saddam? They really haven’t answered that question.

MARGARET WARNER: And Tom Daschle, Mark, despite criticizing the president, when Ted Kennedy wanted to essentially push for a second resolution, more debate, Daschle didn’t want it?

MARK SHIELDS: No. That’s right. He did not. The Democrats are heartily united.

MARGARET WARNER: And why not?

MARK SHIELDS: Probably because some people who voted for it the first time wouldn’t want to vote for it this time. I mean, they don’t want to be split that far from their own party. Maybe there have been differences. I think in fairness to the Democrats, they do emphasize the urgency, the crisis-like urgency of North Korea and that the president’s preoccupation with Iraq leaves us with a problem, with a country that, given weeks and months and not our attention or intervention, that the president last night referred to as a regional problem, which is rather news to four star generals who say look, they’re talking about commodifying nuclear weapons. That’s what the North Koreans – the North Koreans -

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re going to sell them.

MARGARET WARNER: Sell them.

MARK SHIELDS: They’ll have a bazaar, you know, cash and carry. I mean, this is right now a matter of some great urgency and the president kind of pooh-poohed it and put it off last night, and I think that’s a legitimate point to make.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both very briefly because we are almost out of time — Senator Byrd said today after watching the president last night and I’m looking for it right here, but he said: “He spoke like a man who stopped listening.”

DAVID BROOKS: He has made up his mind that Saddam is a threat to peace; he’s moved on to the question of how we’re going to achieve the goal; that’s true.

MARK SHIELDS: There’s no question — I don’t think anybody who watched the president last night had any doubts that his mind was made up that he was ready to go to war and would go to war.

MARGARET WARNER: And the source of this commitment?

DAVID BROOKS: Something he has formed over the past couple of years since Sept. 11. He really believes that Saddam in his nature is a subversive force to world order.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know, but he has the passion of his conviction and there is no doubt about it. I don’t think he is a man who is paralyzed by self-doubt, for good or for ill.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both.