Shields and Brooks Discuss the War in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay
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MARGARET WARNER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Welcome. Let’s talk about Iraq and the president. Mark, this week, just yesterday, in fact, four congressmen, – two Republicans, two Democrats – introduced a resolution to bring the troops home from Iraq by a time certain and the polls are also showing that a majority of Americans is now saying the Iraq War was a mistake. Is the domestic consensus around Iraq beginning to crumble?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it has crumbled, Margaret. I mean, we’ve now reached the point in the Gallup Survey where six out of ten Americans say they’re now ready to bring some or all of American troops home, which is a corner that has been turned. There’s been a sense that six months after the election things are not better, the violence increased.
Last year there were 25 car bombings in the whole year in Iraq. Now we’re up to one a day. And the casualty numbers continue to mount. They’re reaching record highs again — American casualties as well as of Iraqi casualties. And the vice president’s own prediction that the insurgency was in its last stages, its last throes is contradicted by American military there.
Col. Jack Wellman, Fred Wellman, excuse me, who’s in charge of training the Iraqis said that there’s no shortage of recruits and he says, “For every one — We can’t kill them all. For every one I kill, three take his place.” So, I think there is a sense that the war is coming to that ultimate maxim, which is that the conventional army loses if it doesn’t win and the insurgent army wins if it doesn’t lose.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s happening, David? And if so, what are the implications?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s happening. Insurgency wars are long wars. It has been a discouraging period since the election. The violence is still very high. We seem to be doing a little better against the Sunnis, the native Iraqis who are fighting less, but there are more foreign insurgents coming in. So the violence has been extremely high.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t win an insurgency war. It just means and every insurgency war through history shows that you have to win it over a long period of time and they tend to be won a bit with military, but quite a lot with politics.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that the American public — I mean, you’re giving me the arguments for why the U.S. should stick it out. But what do you think it says that the American public is saying, boy, it was a mistake?
DAVID BROOKS: It’s been a discouraging period. But you can’t run wars by polls.
MARGARET WARNER: So, you don’t think it’s going to have an impact?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s going to be cut and run. Three of the four people who had the resolution, three of them were already against the war and one of them backed off today. So there’s no serious person in Congress I don’t think who wants to cut and run now.
But do serious people want to take a look at the situation and say “We’re not making the progress we should be making? What should we do about it?” There I think you have a lot of people, Joe Biden on the Democratic side, a lot of Republicans want to say, hey, do we need — my colleague, Tom Friedman suggested doubling the number of troops. A lot of other people are saying what we can do?
There’s a political process there, but the political process in Iraq has so far been disappointing. And so what do we have to do there? So I think what you’ve seen, especially on the Republican side, is a higher intolerance for the sort of happy talk that Vice President (Dick) Cheney was issuing and a much more dogged thing, what do we got to do now? Let’s think about some changes.
MARK SHIELDS: Margaret, I don’t know what Tom Friedman’s smoking. I mean, double the troops — where are they coming from? I mean, we are now extended to the point with where we could not carry on a military effort any place else. This is the case of the elites being totally out of touch with the country.
MARGARET WARNER: But didn’t you talk to one of these — I hate to interrupt you. One of these members signed on to this resolution, the one who had voted for the war.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Walter Jones, a Republican of North Carolina in whose district, the third district of North Carolina, are Camp LeJeune, the largest Marine installation, Cherry Point Marine Air Station and the — an Air Force base — 60,000 military retirees — strong supporter.
And he — this is a city, Margaret, where everybody goes to great lengths to avoid responsibility. Nobody has yet admitted that in this administration or in the press who supported it how wrong they were about Saddam’s weapons, about the threat Saddam represented, the involvement of Iraq in Sept. 11. Nobody’s apologized for the grounds for going to war.
Here’s a man who voted for it and who feels it’s his responsibility, his responsibility. He said “Our troops have fulfilled their task now.” I spent a long time with him yesterday. And he was very open, he said, “Look, if this costs me my political career, fine. I’m doing the right thing.” Because the reality ii our troops have done everything we’ve asked them to do. And it’s time now that we have fulfilled — they have fulfilled their task. They are now an army of occupation and that makes them targets.
DAVID BROOKS: But, you know, I have this statement right here of today he said he does not support withdrawal of troops, he does not support setting a date to end troops. He’s saying let’s talk about this. And I think what you’re beginning to see, is a friction between those Republicans who never believed in nation building, get rid of Saddam, he’s a menace, let’s get out, and those who do believe in nation building. And that’s a genuine friction.
MARGARET WARNER: Give me your assessment now of where the White House is because Dan Bartlett, the communications director of the White House said this week the president is going to be out there talking more about Iraq. Do they see a need to change at least the public debate or the way the president is talking about Iraq?
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Certainly the way they’re talking about it because that happy talk, that the insurgency is in its death throes — that last gasp — all that stuff was disastrous, and I think they now appreciate that. Whether the substance change, I think the substance will not change. They’re not going to double the troops, as my colleague Tom Friedman suggested. They’re going to keep doing what Gen. Portrayis — trying to train more troops.
But there are substantive policy debates. For example, there is now a sense that because we can’t police everywhere because there’s such a shortage of troop there, of our troops there, that we have to allow not only their troops, but their militias and allowing maybe Sunni militias. So they’re having that kind of debate. But for sure they know they have to be more realistic about the way they talk about this.
MARGARET WARNER: Now there was also a lot of debate on the Hill this week, both on talk shows and hearings on the floor about Guantanamo. And let’s just give our viewers a flavor of that because there were some pretty contentious words said on the floor of the Senate this week.
On Tuesday, Democratic whip Dick Durbin rose and he began reading what he said was a report that an FBI agent had submitted to Pentagon investigators about what went on there.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:
“On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for eighteen to twenty-four hours or more.”
If I read this to you and didn’t tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have happened by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime, Pol Pot or others, that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that’s not the case. This was the action of Americans in treatment of their own prisoners.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the White House spokesman immediately denounce Durbin’s statements as reprehensible and then yesterday the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner, rose in the Senate to express his dismay over Durbin’s remarks.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I was astonished, and I just did not want to let this day — the sun go down without conveying to the Senate my own historical perspective and the danger that loose comments such as this that, comparisons which have no basis in fact or history, could do harm to the men and women serving wherever they are in the world today in this war on terrorism. I really feel so strongly I say to the distinguished leader of our party that I feel apologies are in order to the men and women of the armed forces.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: To suggest that I am criticizing American servicemen, I am not. I don’t know who was responsible for this. But the FBI agent made this report. And to suggest that I was attributing all the sins and all the horror and barbarism of Nazi Germany or Soviet Republic or Pol Pot to Americans is totally unfair.
I was attributing this form of interrogation to repressive regimes such as those that I noted. And I honestly believe the senator from Virginia, whom I respect very, very much, would have to say if this indeed occurred, it does not represent American values. It doesn’t represent what our country stands for.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: For you to have come to the floor with just that fragment of a report and then unleashed the words “the Nazis,” unleashed the word “gulag,” unleashed “Pol Pot,” I don’t know how many remember that chapter, it seems to me that was a grievous error in judgment and it leaves open to the press of the world to take those three extraordinary chapters in world history and try and intertwine it with what is taking place — allegedly — at Guantanamo.
MARGARET WARNER: And this went on for quite a while. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell got into it, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid did too. Mark, what does it tell you that we’re hearing such heated rhetoric on the Senate floor over this Guantanamo issue?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think in this case they were both right. I mean, I think John Warner was right when he said these are buzz words. I mean, when George Bush the first said Saddam is Hitler before the war in 1991, it was just over the top. This is very — this is over the top when you use the same word.
The fact that this was not some undependable detainee who made this allegation, it was an FBI agent, you know, should have been enough to stand on its own and I think Dick Durbin, upon reflection, would say that. But what is I think overlooked Margaret is Guantanamo was established for one reason and that was to reach — to put those prisoners beyond the reach of American law. That’s exactly it. I mean, that was the only reason Guantanamo was chosen. And the Supreme Court of nine constructionists — strict constructionist, let it be noted -
MARGARET WARNER: It is.
MARK SHIELDS: It is — this is under the constitution. Ever since then, in total defiance of that court decision, they have stonewalled the Supreme Court, that decision. And I think there’s no question that this was established and it’s hurt the United States. We’ve lost the moral high ground and it just is not working for us.
MARGARET WARNER: So David, you know, there was also a hearing on the Judiciary Committee this week and Sen. (Arlen) Specter, the chairman, said really Congress has ignored it own duties to set up some procedures, just left it to the Defense Department and the courts. Do you think we’re going to see Congress really getting into this very sticky issue?
DAVID BROOKS: They’d like to, but as we just saw, it’s so polarized. I’m not sure they can do it effectively. You know, the one thing I disagree with Mark about is Saddam was Hitler; his ideology was Hitler and his behavior was Hitler. But, no, I bring that up for a reason. Because this debate — the debate over whether to go into war has never ended and the Gitmo debate is a new version of that debate.
And the second thing that’s important about Guantanamo is the perception of the danger. The people who support Guantanamo — not support it, but think it’s necessary believe that the danger caused by the people in Guantanamo is so powerful that to be honest, they’re willing to tolerate things that they find distasteful. They’re willing to say when you’re fighting against awful people sometimes people on your side — it should never be official policy — but people on your side will do awful things and you should police it but, to be honest, that’s just part of war. Because they perceive the threat so high from people who are there, they’re willing to…
MARGARET WARNER: We had a debate here this week between Sen. (Pat) Leahy and Sen. (Jon) Kyl and he expressed that view. And Sen. Leahy expressed the view that it was just becoming an icon for anti-American feeling around the world. Mark, let me just keep going – yes – called for it to be shut down -
MARK SHIELDS: And called him an icon -
MARGARET WARNER: But briefly, do you think we’re going to see Congress really getting into this, taking responsibility, in other words?
MARK SHIELDS: Taking responsibility? I’d be encouraged, I’ll be thrilled if they did, but I don’t see a willingness to step up to the plate.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Another congressional question for you: A couple of aspects of the president’s agenda hit little speed bumps this week. You saw the House reject one portion of the Patriot Act, the existing Patriot Act, and Republican leaders also reportedly told White House the Social Security thing is really — they probably can’t do it. Why do you think — do you think these two are related? Why do you think these important parts of the president’s agenda are having these troubles?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think for the first time Margaret we’re seeing what George Bush’s great political strength, that was his resoluteness, that he knew where he stood, that didn’t flinch, is becoming a problem. On Social Security there’s no question about it. I mean, it is dead.
And the Republican Senate has told the president, “We can’t pass it without Democratic votes.” And House Republican leaders have put it bluntly and said, “We’re not going to ask our guys to take a bullet on a tough bill that cuts benefits and then it goes nowhere. We don’t want it going into 2006 coming up.”
So you’ve got sort of resoluteness turning into stubbornness and that’s the down side of resoluteness. The president has a tin ear, doesn’t listen to what’s going on and I think on both Iraq and Social Security that’s the case.
As far as the Patriot Act, Margaret, it’s hard to call it — librarians of the United States crazies. I mean, they were the principal lobbyists and the cooperation, the coalition that put this together, Ray Lahud on the Republican side, Bob Ney of Ohio, and Jack Kingston of Georgia, are not exactly ACLU poster boys. They’re saying, do you really have to — the problem has not been collecting information, it’s been what to do with that information, how to share it, how to analyze it, how to act upon it since 9/11. It hasn’t been the collection of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think these are discreet issues, that Social Security is in trouble because of certain things and this part of the Patriot Act is in trouble on its merits?
DAVID BROOKS: I actually do think — I think that part of the Patriot Act, as Mark suggested, widely, people were widely nervous about it. Even if Bush were riding high, I think that probably would have been cut out.
But the issue on domestic policy, I think is in some ways more serious for Bush than the issue on foreign policy in Iraq because what you get the sense from Republicans on the Hill is they know Social Security is dead, they don’t know what’s coming next, they see they’re down in the polls, they see the president is down in the polls, the party’s down in the polls. That’s fine. Things go up and down.
But where’s the upside; what’s the opportunity we have in front of us; what issues are we going to promote that will help us get up? And so far they don’t see it. And there was some talk about tax reform, but that just got pushed off another two months. It doesn’t look like that’s generating a lot of enthusiasm.
MARGARET WARNER: And how worried is Republican leadership about the slipping poll numbers? I mean, do they really think it could affect them? And what do they want – what are they going to do about it?
DAVID BROOKS: In their professional souls they say “Hey, polls go up and down.” In their gut they’re worried, and especially in the House.
MARK SHIELDS: The only other thing, Margaret, is that the biggest number that concerns Republicans right now is that number that says — the New York Times/CBS Poll “Does Congress share my priorities?” Nineteen percent of Americans think the Republican Congress shares their priorities. They look to the president to kind of lift them up.
And what they’re not getting from the president is any fresh ideas, any fresh initiatives because there aren’t any right now. And part of that is that sense of resoluteness, I’m sticking to where I stood and that’s become a problem for them. They don’t see the life preserver being thrown to them.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And in the White House they’re having a debate, how do we turn up the heat on the Democrats; how do we make them suffer for obstructionism, so the president went out this week and said, “They’re obstructionists.” Believe me, that doesn’t turn up the heat on the Democrats. They’re sitting fine right now. So they’ve got to think of a new way.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we have to find a new way to end this. Thank you both.