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Shields and Brooks

April 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and “New York Times” columnist David brooks.

Mark, the British foreign secretary, I called him the foreign minister in the News Summary but the British foreign secretary said this is the most serious situation yet in Iraq. Do you agree with him?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim. I think first of all you have to distinguish between United States military which is overextended, overstretched, undermanned and exhausted has performed brilliantly and courageously throughout. They have been put in a position of absolute impossibility of failed civilian leadership in this country.

First of all, the very war that many people expected a year ago never materialized. It was very easy. Saddam came down, was gone from power. That war now is occurring that was predicted by many a year ago. That is block by block, door to door, and it puts the military in the worst of all positions. That is their choice. You heard it in Kwame’s piece. We don’t know whom to be with, whether to be with the Americans or to be with al Sadr.

So if you use force to go into a civilian population, you are going to incur great civilian casualties and you are probably going to provoke great further civilian animosity and antipathy toward you. If you don’t act, then you are in the terrible position of appearing weak both within Iraq and outside of Iraq in the Middle East. So it is a terrible, terrible position that the United States military has been put into by this nation’s civilian leadership which ignored the advice given to me and on this broadcast by a marine officer who carries the battle scars and knows the area well.

They do not understand that we are going to be first western Christian pro-Israeli invading occupying army of a Muslim holy land. What part of that doesn’t Bush and Rumsfeld don’t understand? And they didn’t.

JIM LEHRER: Serious words, David. Civilian leadership at fault for this?

DAVID BROOKS: With all due respect, it’s a little oversimplified. Moqatdr Al Sadr is a thug, a brown shirt who has been opposing Sistani and the rest of the leadership who have been involved in the process. Not that they are our favorite people but the establishment Shiite leadership has been involved in the process.

This guy Sadr is a brown shirt and thug who has tried to up end the established Shia leadership. He has failed miserably in winning popular support because he is a terrible brigand. He has made this desperate effort three weeks before the handover of sovereignty to try to take over, to try to create a conflagration of chaos in which he can take over in a beer hold type puch to take over first the Shia community and then the country. He is an Iranian-backed guy. He wants to create an Iranian-style ayatollah regime.

The crucial situation comes with Sistani and the rest of the Shia who are involved with us — are they want him to be with us but can he be with us? No. People are frustrated with the occupation for legitimate national pride reasons. Right now overwhelming majority does not want to be with Sadr. If we get rid of this guy, we will have built up Sistani and the people who are going to be with the process and who are invested in the new Iraq. This will be a battle and a war and a battle that we can win.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mark’s point. Actually we’ve talked about it two times already with other guests on this program this week, that from the military point of view, the marines in Fallujah, for instance, are confronted with the situation that they lay back then they will appear to be weak. If they go in, as Kwame just reported in the News Summary as well, 450 Iraqis have died in Fallujah. They’re in between a rock and a hard place. How do you analyze that?

DAVID BROOKS: I’ve spoken to a half dozen Republican and Democratic senators, people I think most serious about the situation. On their view, especially with regard to the Shia, and also would I say with regards to Fallujah, that the risks, and there are risks on both sides — you’re going to offend the population of Iraq if you are aggressive. Allow the bad guys to thrive if you are not aggressive. All of them said to me that the risks of allowing people like Sadr and the terrorists who are in Sunni leadership, allowing them to thrive, the risks of are greater because especially Sadr is a potential Hitler who can take over the country in an Iranian style. It is a terrible situation with no good choices. The risks of inaction are greater than the risk of action.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way?

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody’s talking about inaction. We’re talking about a serious situation. David has invoked every metaphor to invoke Hitler. Saddam was supposed to be the Hitler. That was the argument against him 12 years ago. He is a bad, brutal man. We were told, Jim that the big concern after Saddam was toppled was that the country would split between the Sunnis and the majority Shia into civil war and into armed camps. You know, somehow we’ve managed to you unite them this past week in this terrible division, we’ve united them against us and it has a reasonable us element and that cannot be. We are the Christian crusaders. Don’t forget that. That cannot be ignored in this equation.

JIM LEHRER: David, to add to that Senator Bob Kerrey, you saw that yesterday morning, the first thing he said to Condoleezza Rice before… he is a member of the 911 Commission, before he got to that, he said to her “I think we’re going to end up with civil war if we continue down the military operation strategies that we have in place.” He disagrees with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Everyone can find flaws in the way we’ve done this. You have a CPA — civilian authority there strangers to Iraq because they’re hold up in the security zone. We have a military overextended because they don’t have enough troops –

JIM LEHRER: I said John Kerry. I meant Bob Kerrey.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I would say — I spent the last three days talking to probably 25 people, many of whom have spent their careers analyzing this area, and they said what’s happening there is worse than the administration is letting off and they’re scaring people with their happy talk which jars with the images we see. On the other hand ,this is not a full scale war. Getting to the point where they can control the country where Sistani can take care of Najaf, somehow we need to get there. We are not going to be popular with those people but they’re invested in having some kind of democratic Iraq and they’re still the vast majority.

MARK SHIELDS: This administration has been consistently wrong. It underestimate al-Qaida. We heard that in the 9/11 Commission. We argue about that, and they certainly underestimated the difficulty of this task. The….

JIM LEHRER: The mission in Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: In Iraq. Talking about bringing democracy restoring order and all of these things. What do they think they were going to do it, on the cheap? Gen. Shinseki said we were going to need… the former army command. He was ridiculed by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and basically he was kicked out of office, terminated early. They’ve riffed the– they’ve reached point where 45,000 American troops last month, who had finished their obligation, completed their duty all volunteers were basically drafted. They were kept on — kept on in the military.

We have a draft in this country right now, Jim. We have a military draft. The only people we’re drafting are the young American men and women who are patriotic enough to serve and volunteer and serve and fulfill obligations. When they want to go back to their plans, they can’t do it because the administration has not leveled with the American people about the size of the army we need –

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on that issue, about whether we put the right resources in there and do we have enough to do the job.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with 80 percent of what Mark just said aside from the draft. I don’t think that would be helpful or useful in this crisis. We clearly underestimated. A number of people who gave the troop and cost figure from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden saying we need more troops, over and over again saying. The message didn’t get through because Donald Rumsfeld was too interested in transforming the military which meant high-tech, low personnel. That was a big, big mistake.

JIM LEHRER: We’re going to be back in a minute to talk about 9/11. But before we leave the subject, how do you read the polls? A lot of new polls coming out –

DAVID BROOKS: The last polls I saw say the number of people about going into Iraq, is about the same at 57. But there is slippage whether bush has a plan, competent at carrying out the policy.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

MARK SHIELDS: George W. Bush’s campaign has spent $40 million basically trying to define negatively John Kerry. He just got the best economic job news of his entire administration last Friday. And he is tied in the polls. And David is right. The internals; that is, how people see him as a leader, his plan on Iraq, his leadership on Iraq, his is dropping right through the floor.

JIM LEHRER: All right.