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Shields and Brooks Debate Iraq War, Karl Rove and Guantanamo

June 16, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And speaking of Congress, Mark, the big vote today in the House on the Iraq war and the debate yesterday and today that led up to it, something important happen?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t really think so. I think something less important than strikes the eye, Jim. I think that, ultimately, what Iraq will be decided upon by the American voters in November is what’s happening in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: On the ground?

MARK SHIELDS: On the ground. And, I mean, we learned in the New York Times today that attacks, sectarian violence is up, the number of insurgents is up. And they’re homegrown; 93 percent of them are Iraqis. You know, just so many indicators…

JIM LEHRER: So what was going on, then? Why this debate?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what was going on was an attempt by the Republicans — and they seized the moment. They’d their first good week in about, you know, a year, and it was perfect timing. The capture of Zarqawi, the elimination of him, coupled with the completion of the cabinet five months after the election in Iraq, and to get a debate to try and put the Democrats on the defensive on this issue.

The biggest problem they have — yes, four out of five Democrats voted against the Republican position, 95 percent of the Republicans voted to stay the course. The problem is: Most people don’t want to stay the course.

I mean, if you look at the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, you know, almost two-to-one margin voters don’t like the policy and don’t think staying the course is the answer.

JIM LEHRER: So do you agree with Mark’s analysis that it was, first of all, not very important — it’s politics — and not necessarily good politics for the Republicans? Did I paraphrase you correctly?
MARK SHIELDS: You did a nice job, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Mark.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It was better than the original. Yes, I actually do agree.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my. Well, next question, Mark…

Iraq will matter in November

David Brooks
New York Times
And to withdraw now or to set a timetable of withdrawal by the end of the year would be a disaster. I think that, and I think certainty the Iraqi leaders think that, and I just think it's the wrong policy.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm going to worm my way to a disagreement by the end of this answer.


DAVID BROOKS: First, on the politics, you know, I've spent the last three days talking to defense analysts about how to take advantage of this moment in Iraq, and there is a serious debate to be had about how to pacify Baghdad.

And on one side, you've got people like General Casey who say we can't use U.S. troops; we have to lead with Iraqi troops, to send these 80,000 troops into Baghdad to secure Baghdad, because American troops are irritants.

Then, on the other side, there are people saying, no, the Iraqi people hate anarchy more than the American troops. We've got to use the American troops really aggressively, get them out of the bases. And that's a substantive debate about strategy to how to take advantage of what may be our final good moment.

And then I would get off the phone with the analysts and turn on the TV. And I don't care if it was Boehner, or Pelosi, or Republican, or Democrat, it was just stupid.

And it's the sort of politics that most people, not only wonks who are in these sorts of debate -- most people go, "What are you talking about? People are dying; there is a war; there are serious issues. And this is all manipulating this or that image." And so, on the one -- I was sort of, you know, disgusted or repelled by what I saw.

JIM LEHRER: So you don't think it hurt or helped anybody politically?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, Iraq will matter in November. As Mark said, it depends on what happens.

But I do think the one thing -- I'm working my way to the disagreement...


DAVID BROOKS: ... is that I do think that, if you talk to the Iraqis, if you talk to most military analysts, they think withdrawal would be a disaster.

Now, some of them are pessimistic. They think the odds are it will not go well, but they think there's hope and we've got to stick it out while there's hope.

And to withdraw now or to set a timetable of withdrawal by the end of the year would be a disaster. I think that, and I think certainty the Iraqi leaders think that, and I just think it's the wrong policy.

MARK SHIELDS: The State Department, our own State Department has polls of Iraqis which say up to 80 percent of Iraqis want us out of there. I mean, we are the occupiers.

JIM LEHRER: Eighty percent of Iraqis?

MARK SHIELDS: Eighty percent of Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: How do they know that? I mean...


MARK SHIELDS: They did a poll.

JIM LEHRER: Regular polls, professional poll?

MARK SHIELDS: Professional polls. And that's the reality, Jim. I mean, I'm not questioning David's reporting on the leaders or whatever.

But, I mean, by every possible indicia, things are worse than they were. And, you know, the idea that we can't sully outside agitators anymore -- there are up to 20,000 insurgents, which is a dramatic increase. And, at the same time, 93 percent of them are homegrown Iraqis...

JIM LEHRER: Homegrown.

MARK SHIELDS: ... which, I don't know, Mark Russell, the Will Rogers of the 21st century, said, if the United States pulls out, Iraq will be overrun by the Iraqis. And, I mean, I think that's what we're really talking about. It isn't like the Syrians or the Iranians who are going to come pouring in; it's the Iraqis.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark -- yes, sorry.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, they're going to have a full-scale civil war. What we've seen is nothing compared to what we have when the Iranians and the Turks and everybody else will get involved. The Iraqi people...

JIM LEHRER: In other words, what you're saying is, yes, the Iraqis will start fighting each other, but, before it's over, everybody will be fighting?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that is a consensus among the people who I think are pessimistic and realistic and know what they're talking about.

But then, on the support for the U.S. presence there, the Iraqi people don't like us there, obviously. But have you seen a single Iraqi leader, Sunni, Shia, who wants to us get out? Because they know what would happen if we got out.

And then the second thing -- and this really is sort of the core of the debate -- is what's going on there? How pessimistic should we be?

Obviously, pessimism pays. Over the last year -- I agree with Mark -- things have gotten a lot worse. But over the past couple of months, we've got a real government. We've got real Sunni buy-in, with actual Sunnis with ties to the insurgency choosing the political option. We've seen the rise of a real Iraqi army, but needs U.S. help, but is still a real army.

So to me this is a moment not to start talking about withdrawal but to talk about giving it this last shot.

JIM LEHRER: Even the foreign minister told Margaret a while ago, he said: Give us six months. Give this new government six months. Maybe we can get it together.

He was almost saying what you're saying. He wasn't being necessarily optimistic, but he was saying: Hey, give us a break here.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, it's been six months. You know, we've had a lot of six months, Jim. And I don't know how many great American commentators, and senators, and foreign policy experts, "The next six months are crucial. The next three months are crucial."

JIM LEHRER: So here we go again, you're saying.

MARK SHIELDS: Here we go.

The President's trip to Baghdad

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It's a fortification; it's not real; it's not the Baghdad where 75,000 troops have gone out to impose a curfew to try to stop the number of attacks that occur there daily and the number of killings...this is just an unreal place that he visited.

JIM LEHRER: All right. You said it was a good week. Do you include the president's surprise trip to Baghdad in the good week summary?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I do. I mean, I think -- it was his second trip to the country. I think that was good. But, I mean, again...

JIM LEHRER: There was a press conference afterwards, too.

MARK SHIELDS: And he dominated cable news very well. But the reality is Jim, he was in the Green Zone. That's where everything takes place, is in the Green Zone. That's where the Iraqi government is, in the Green Zone.

It's a fortification; it's not real; it's not the Baghdad where 75,000 troops have gone out to impose a curfew to try to stop the number of attacks that occur there daily and the number of killings. I mean, this is just an unreal place that he visited.

But, you know, and I think it was significant. It obviously gave the president himself a lift. I think it gave his supporters a lift, and that's not unimportant.

JIM LEHRER: What's your reading of that, the trip?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the most important thing was his measure of the prime minister, al-Maliki, and what he saw was a man who I think is certainly stronger than Jaafari, the previous guy, and has been pretty clever about getting this national reconciliation process going.

And so, again, I go back to the substance of the trip. Bush got a lift, I think, personally. I think his confidence was enhanced.

But, to me, almost one of the other important things that happened this week was the day before the trip, when he had a meeting at Camp David with four serious critics of the way this war has been waged, people like Elliot Cohen or Mike Vickers, people who have been on this program highly critical.

JIM LEHRER: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: And Rumsfeld's sitting there. You've got the generals on the video conference. You've got Peter Pace sitting there. And a real debate in front of the White House, that's something they haven't done too much of. And I thought it was a tremendously good sign that they're really looking at all these different options.

JIM LEHRER: You give him points for that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. But there's some outrage, in that we're having the debate three years into the war, 39 months into the war, 2,500 dead into the war, 18,000 wounded into the war. They're having the debate in the Congress.

Now, I don't fault the Republicans completely by any means on that first vote in 2002. The Democrats were cowed in 2002. They were terrified of being accused of being soft on terrorism, just as in early incarnations their predecessors had been accused of being soft on communism, soft on crime.

So, you know, they rush to, you know, to rubber-stamp the president's position. So I think it would have been nice if we'd had this kind of a debate and the president sought out these other points of view 39 months ago.

Is Rove's exoneration good news?

David Brooks
New York Times
There were some people who had fantasies of Rove being frog-marched out of White House in chains. People can have fantasies, but I never thought politically it was a big subject either way.

JIM LEHRER: New subject: Karl Rove. No indictment. Good news?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess so. It will head off a media storm, if he had been indicted. But I personally have never met a human being who would have changed their vote whether he was indicted or wasn't indicted. I never thought this issue had any political impact.

It was an obsession to us in the media because it involved a lot of people we know. But, you know, there was some talk that there was a massive conspiracy to criminally discredit all of the president's enemies. I never really believed that.

There were some people who had fantasies of Rove being frog-marched out of White House in chains. People can have fantasies, but I never thought politically it was a big subject either way.

JIM LEHRER: And so his non-indictment is also...

DAVID BROOKS: For a lot of the bloggers, it ruins their week.


MARK SHIELDS: It's kind of tough when your fantasies are down to Karl Rove...


JIM LEHRER: Moving right along with this...

MARK SHIELDS: For from it for me to say anything. I think two things about it: One, it kind of showed people's raw nerves on this thing. Trent Lott, who was deposed, basically, by Karl Rove, said...

JIM LEHRER: When he was the Republican leader of the Senate, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Replaced by Bill Frist, who's done just such a superb job as the shepherd of the Republicans. But he said, "He was not indicted. That means exonerated? Not where I come from." But it...

JIM LEHRER: That's what Lott said?

MARK SHIELDS: That's what Lott said.

JIM LEHRER: I didn't see that.

MARK SHIELDS: But I think it showed that Patrick Fitzgerald had the guts not to indict him. You know, I think he's been fearless throughout. And I think he's been a person of integrity, and he wasn't going to make a case against the president's top guy...

JIM LEHRER: Just to make the case?

MARK SHIELDS: ... unless he could make a case that would stick. I think what did come out, obviously, is that the White House was up to their eyebrows in trying to discredit Joe Wilson and, even if it involved Valerie Plame, after his piece in the New York Times.

JIM LEHRER: You don't agree with David that it was small potatoes, just a small-potatoes issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, I mean, I think David's absolutely right. They were rooting on both sides. I mean, there were people who lost sleep about the possibility of Karl Rove being indicted, like God almighty, that would prove that divine providence...


Should Guantanamo be closed?

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I mean, these people have not been charged. They have not been tried. They are not POWs. And they exist how long in this limbo? It is a total black eye for the United States, and rightly so.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, right.

The three inmate suicides at Guantanamo Bay, David, has rekindled the debate: What do we do about it, close it down, get this thing -- a lot of people overseas have called for this before. What do you think we should do about Guantanamo?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I have mixed emotions. Politically, I'd close it down, just in a heartbeat, just because it's more of a problem. But what do you do about hardened terrorists? That remains the problem.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you put them?

DAVID BROOKS: Where do you put them? And then, in this case, I think one of the reasons why we had three coordinated suicides was that it was a political act to try to gin up a propaganda campaign against Guantanamo.

So I think the case against Guantanamo is actually reasonably strong, but I sort of resist being manipulated by people doing what is, in effect, a publicity suicide bomb.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, this wasn't exactly like putting on an Uncle Sam suit. I mean, you take your own life.

I mean, when the commanding officer said this is an asymmetrical act of war against the United States, somebody killing themselves -- you know, we've basically suspended the Geneva Convention and the laws in the Constitution of the United States.

I mean, these people have not been charged. They have not been tried. They are not POWs. And they exist how long in this limbo? It is a total black eye for the United States, and rightly so.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think it should be closed down?

MARK SHIELDS: I definitely -- and I think the president wants to close it down. He just doesn't know how. And other countries don't want to take them.

JIM LEHRER: One quick word, going back to Gwen's piece about Pennsylvania politics, suburban Philadelphia, do you agree with the conclusion that this is not a really good time to be an incumbent Republican or Democrat?

DAVID BROOKS: Not in a blue state, and not in a ring suburb where those districts tend to be. It's definitely not a good time.

JIM LEHRER: And did you notice those people pulling back a little bit from the president?

DAVID BROOKS: I think I noticed a slight bit of difference.


MARK SHIELDS: They were Republicans, if I'm not mistaken.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I think so.

MARK SHIELDS: And you said not a good time to be a Republican or a Democrat.


MARK SHIELDS: I think it...

JIM LEHRER: I should have made the distinction.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think any Democrats are pulling back from the president. If they are...


JIM LEHRER: No, you're right, you're right, you're right. But the general thesis is that it's a plague on everybody's house right now, no, no?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, I really -- I don't think so. I mean, I think there's a dissatisfaction with both parties, which is acute and deep, and I think there is a possibility for a third party movement, but I don't think it's as intense.

The Republicans, voters know, run everything. They run foreign policy; they run the budget; they run everything; and they run the White House and the Congress. So that's the problem the Republicans have.

JIM LEHRER: The one thing I run is this. And I'm going to say...

MARK SHIELDS: And you run it well, too.

JIM LEHRER: ... you bet. Thank you, and I'm going to say good night and thank you, both.