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Analysts Shields and Brooks

May 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: Of course, that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the New York Times. Well this afternoon, speaking to the Danish prime minister, if there were any qualifications about what kind of sovereignty President George Bush put them to rest, complete and fully?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s already been handed over, to be honest, if you look at what’s happened in Najaf and Fallujah in the last couple of weeks much we’ve done deals with some of the people we really hate, Muqtada al-Sadr and people in Fallujah. And we’ve done as Mr. Wolfowitz said because we fear the harsh negative reactions of local Iraqis.

And so it’s not only the sovereignty of the transitional government that the U.S. is worried about; it’s the sovereignty of the Iraqi people, and I think they’ve made the decision – it’s in the president’s speech and it’s been in every action since in the last several weeks, which is that we can’t solve this problem militarily. We can’t solve it through nation building; it has to be through a series of democratic procedures. And that means the Iraqis themselves have to start politicking, and you can’t do that if there’s a war going on.

MARK SHIELDS: We’re in an incredibly difficult zone right now, Ray. The United States said military fought bravely and well. Both Fallujah and Najaf, and we’re out to get a man that we regard as a war criminal, a murderer. And to disband and disarm his militia, and that’s been all resolved at the bargaining table, he walks free, his militia while depleted still lives to fight another day. And I don’t know, talk about security, solidarity, everybody’s going to have the militia over there, it’s going to be tough to preserve security.

RAY SUAREZ: How does that mesh with what you heard the president saying earlier this week in his big address?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just — I was struck by the president’s address, I mean, Republicans and conservatives love to speak about accountability and liberals’ disdain for that, and I was just amazed that given the catastrophe that the American policy in Iraq has been, I mean, truly a catastrophe — that there was no accountability, that he held nobody responsible for the fact that the world and people of the United States have been told that Saddam had weapons of mass murder — that he had the inclination and the capacity to deliver them against the United States — that in addition to that that he was in cahoots actively working with al-Qaida.

Those are both untrue, that the civilian leadership of the Pentagon was quite frankly negligent to the point of just crying for vengeance, failure to accept or pay any heed to repeated warnings when military leadership of this country, the number of troops we needed there to occupy, to pacify it, and to take on the added burden of being social services.

And I think at every point you heard Margaret and Paul Wolfowitz, the question about where it’s going to be Paris in 1944, welcome us as liberators, now they want us out of there. We are occupiers — at every point — it wasn’t any acceptance — it was acknowledgment that the policies had worked, but there wasn’t admission or wasn’t a sense of accountability this went wrong, why did it go wrong, why did we have bad intelligence, what are we going to do about it.

RAY SUAREZ: David, how important is all of that have to how the message was delivered?

DAVID BROOKS: I think what the president was trying to do is sketch out the future. I think the administration has been pretty open in the last several weeks saying that they were too slow to hand over sovereignty. I think there has been a bunch of testimony to that affect. They overestimated the amount of time average Iraqis would allow some foreign group of people to run the country and whether it was a foreign group of people, it was multilateral or U.S., or anybody; they are a proud people and want to run their own country.

But this feature is about future, and what is interesting to me is when we talk about what we do now, how unideological it is. You can talk about John Kerry, George Bush, Joe Biden, Sandy Berger, you can go to magazines left and right, think tanks left and right, it’s a completely nonpartisan discussion because no one has a clue what they’re talking about, so there are a lot of policy ideas that are being talked about: Moving up elections to get that democratic process accelerated; maybe having rolling elections so parts that are peaceful can have elections first, serve as example for the other parts.

What’s interesting to me was when you sit around a group of — a table with a group of people, some Democrats, some Republicans, and they talk about these ideas, you can’t tell who is a Democrat and Republican. We are really in a zone beyond ideology here because we’re in such an unprecedented mess. And therefore, I think what the president was trying to do was chart a way forward as we feel our way through this thing. And I think huge mistakes have been made, I just think it would be a mistake now to in the middle of this crisis for the president to give a speech start blaming people, firing people, looking backwards.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark noted that there was no admission of passed error, but in addition there was attempts, repeated attempts in the text of the speech to reiterate the original reasons for going to war, the president said that this war was forced on the country, that this was history’s choice not ours, in a sense restating the arguments that Mark was ticking off before he said have no merit.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t think bringing some transformation to the Middle East is an idea that has no merit. That’s a thing we’ve got going for us, he didn’t lower our sights here that was important. Bush did not lower our sights saying, hey, we’re going to pass this off to some Sunni strong men and get out. He said we’re in this for democracy and we’re still in it. They’re ruthlessly flexible on tactics and maybe much too so making deals with Muqtada al-Sadr. But on the overall goal they haven’t moved an inch. That part they basically got right.

RAY SUAREZ: Kerry’s speech came later in the week, billed not as response but certainly watched as one.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I just think what John Kerry was trying to do in that speech at least from a political point of view, Ray, was to cast himself as George Herbert Walker Bush in the great tradition of American bipartisan foreign policy and to isolate the son, George W. Bush, as aberrant, as a unilateralist, as somebody who had not followed the successful precedent of building alliances, the United States of cooperating with allies, of enlarging compacts and covenants. But I think what Kerry is doing in this campaign is kind of fascinating.

I think both Kerry and Bush are spooked by losing campaigns that they were both privy to. And Bush’s case was his father’s. He thinks his father lost because he probably wasn’t cozy enough, close enough, comfortable enough with the religious right, having been challenged from Pat Buchanan. He certainly remedied that now running against constitutional amendment in favor of outlawing gay wedding. He thinks his father made a mistake by cutting taxes — by increasing taxes. And he’s cut three times in the face of two wars, and is not going to change, he thought he made a mistake of changing.

So he’s almost, you know, the mirror opposite of his dad, where John Kerry is spooked by the Michael Dukakis campaign that Michael Dukakis didn’t come back to charge against his toughness or his willingness to use American military power and to close what has been historically a gap between Democrats and Republicans on which party is better on national security. So he’s essentially right up to Bush’s shoulder on it. He’s not – there’s not much daylight between the two.

RAY SUAREZ: So this is the opening of 11 days of the Kerry campaign speaking to these issues. How would the opening couple of days?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was quite a good speech. As Mark said as you look forward there’s a lot of criticism of the past but as you look forward there’s very little daylight between Bush and Kerry. I’d say the campaign he’s spooked by is the McGovern campaign where the Democrats seem too dovish. One of the ironies is the Democrats were basically right about Vietnam, but because they were so dovish in being right that they – the American people stopped trusting them for 30 years with foreign policy. I think John Kerry and a lot of the people around him want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So they’re being quite tough — I think much tougher, much more hawkish than the Democratic Party really is. And I think he’s behaving incredibly responsibly in general about this.

RAY SUAREZ: By contrast came the speech from the former vice president, Al Gore, a real stem winder in New York, did you watch it?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I read the transcript. And I’ve seen — I’ve seen enough excerpts. You know, it was — I think he’s entering his Ramsey Clark phase. You know, the guy has been through something none of us will ever go through, I think it’s had an emotional effect on him, a psychological effect.

I think what bugged me about the Al Gore speech was not that it was out of all proportion — that it was really — there was no moderation — no sense of reason, but how uninterested he is in what’s happening in Iraq, how intellectually uncurious he is. He’s fighting a war, but it’s not a war against terror, it’s not a war in Iraq. It’s a war against Bush. He’ll say anything about Bush but as far as talking about what we should do in Iraq, what the problems are, he doesn’t care about that. That’s the voice of moveon.org — that’s the voice of Michael Moore; they’re fighting a war; it’s against Bush but it’s not the war this country is fighting. And I think John Kerry is absolutely right to resist that kind of language.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is about 100 percent right about 33 percent of what he said. And — no. I have to do the math on that. Quite frankly I think first of all Al Gore publicly did a considerable service to John Kerry by making that speech if not necessarily a service to Al Gore. And by that I simply mean, Bush and Kerry, while there’s no daylight between them, half the country believes this was a mistake to go in there and who speaks for them and to them.

And John Kerry — of all his advisors they listed in the paper their biographies, their credentials — not a single one of them opposed the war before it went in. And so Al Gore is speaking to a Democratic constituency that remains very angry that the country was misled, as I said earlier, and I think probably is doing him a service because if he didn’t make that speech, Ralph Nader would have. And I think that he as a Kerry supporter, helps Kerry in that sense. So I think I guess the lesson for Vietnam is not that — armies don’t fight wars, countries fight war. If you’re not ready — the country did not fight the war in Vietnam, and the country most certainly does not prepared by this president or ever asked for any sense of uniform sacrifice.

RAY SUAREZ: David, quick response. Does he keep that sentiment in the Democratic fold as Mark suggests?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think he does. He speaks to a large part of Democrats, the problem is if you get swing voters who are moderate about the war, maybe want it fought better, in a more competent way, they take look at Al Gore and they think, that guy is like McGovern, we can’t trust that party with foreign affairs they’re not tough enough. They’re not hawkish enough. I think that is the danger; I do agree he speaks for a lot of Democrats but he did when he spoke for Howard Dean, and he sank the Dean campaign because it seems too far outside the mainstream.

RAY SUAREZ: David, Mark, have a great weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.