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Dubai, Iraqi Violence Dominate Political Debate

February 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, how do you see the situation in Iraq?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it is to say it’s dire, I think is probably too positive a statement. What continues to amaze me, I have to be very blunt about it, is how the United States Marine Corps can take a kid off a farm tractor, another kid off a street corner and another kid out of a prep school and in 16 weeks they become part of the cohesive fighting unit. We’ve been two and a half years we have been training the Iraqi, and here in a moment of crisis, the — they have been next to no help at all.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the Iraqi military and the security forces.

MARK SHIELDS: The Iraqi military and the security forces. And what it comes down to is the sectarian loyalties. It’s like these guys continue to belong to gangs like the Crips and the Bloods, once they join the Marines. And the sectarian loyalties are there. And I — the terrible part of it is, the United States and our troops right now can do nothing — I mean except we can deal in words and hope that order and reason prevail but I mean, we — I don’t know if we are there to bring stability, or our presence there is provoking hostility.

JIM LEHRER: David, now picking up on that, we had a couple of analysts on the program last night and they both said there is nothing the United States can do now except try to facilitate discussions. And if the folks don’t want to discuss, it isn’t going to happen because we want –

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I’m not sure there is anything politics can do. One of the things we learned is the limited prestige of politicians, the limited effect of politics. Politics in societies like this and in all societies only goes so deep. And beneath that is religion. And it’s the religious leaders who have come to the fore and it’s religion that has caused a lot of the sectarian violence because of the two sects in the Islam faith, but it’s also the religious leaders that have urged some unity, and it’s really up to the culture, it’s up to the organic culture whether they want to stick together.

And one does get the sense as much as there is, you know, this outrage, this horrible thing that happened, and as much as there has been the sectarian killing, we have been waiting for civil war for a couple years now.

JIM LEHRER: It’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: And there have been many instances that would kick it off. The number of deaths, the number of Shia who have been shot, lined up and shot, the number of atrocities has just been amazing. And in each case there has been an upturn in violence and there are death squads on the Shiite side but they haven’t erupted into civil war. So there has got to be some social cohesion there holding these two groups together.

MARK SHIELDS: What is interesting — I agree with David on the religious leaders.

JIM LEHRER: It was borne out in Margaret’s discussion -

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: — it is the clerics who holding this thing together right now — not the politicians.

MARK SHIELDS: That is exactly it. And that can’t be overstated. I mean, that they were there during the darkest hours of Saddam. They remained while the Gucci guerrillas, as Gen. Anthony Zinni said he called them, all headed to London to see their tailor and to raise money from the United States. And boy, I tell you, Ahmad Chalabi and that crowd are precious little help at this point in trying to bring anything.

The other thing I think that can’t be overlooked even as we hope for the best, is that alone in the Bush administration apparently Colin Powell’s State Department anticipated or at least considered the possibility that Iraq would be Yugoslavia, that is a place of teeming factions and ethnic divisions and intense dislikes, held together by a strong dictator.

JIM LEHRER: As Tito was in Yugoslavia.

MARK SHIELDS: As Tito was in Yugoslavia.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And once he was gone, the sectarian violence bubbled to the top. And we saw what happened there.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think a lot of people realized early on that Ayatollah Sistani was the key — that getting –.

JIM LEHRER: The big Shiite leader.

DAVID BROOKS: Big Shiite leader, who was a strong leader, who was supportive of democracy but who was incredibly restrained. I mean, this guy deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. He has restrained the Shiites from retaliating from this incredible onslaught.

JIM LEHRER: He told them to, it was okay to go out on the streets and demonstrate but don’t hurt anybody.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, which is even an escalation from him because he has been discouraging getting out on the streets. But this guy has restrained the Shia population. And he has just been just a great leader.

Just one more thing about the role of religion, it seems to me this – you know, of all the issues we talked about over the past month, Iran, Iraq, Hamas, the cartoons, our politics is Mid East drenched. And one thing we have got to get a handle on is how to talk about religion.

I mentioned the other night, I was at this conference in Doha with these Middle East analysts. They are talking about power politics; that is how they have been trained to think about game theory and nations going against nations. There was no hint of an idea of how do you talk about religion and democracy, how do you talk about religion and foreign policy.

We are so far behind on that. And there was one little old guy at this conference talking about religion. He stood out and he was ignored because he was sort of like a faux pas but it’s religion that we’ve got to talk about.

JIM LEHRER: Americans aren’t comfortable doing that, are they?

MARK SHIELDS: No, and increasingly less so in recent years. I mean, it’s become — it’s become such a politically divisive and defining.

JIM LEHRER: Because there are so many issues that –

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you wonder so many times, Jim whether our religion informs our politics which is fine, as it certainly did in the Civil Rights Act, the civil rights movement, or whether our politics informs our religion. And I think that’s — I think that’s the dilemma.

One thing about, and I agree with David about Sistani and the enormously important role. No American official has he spoken to since the invasion. I means that’s — I mean you talk about — I mean, giving us the cold shoulder. I mean, he has played an enormous — no American official has spoken — has been in Sistani’s presence. That is how, you know, removed we are, really, from the power center at this point.

JIM LEHRER: David, I hesitate to bring this up, another subject, I hesitate to bring it up because you said on Wednesday night it would be gone, and this is that port security issue. Now it looks like everybody has agreed to, what is called a cooling-off period, do you see that as a good thing or bad thing?

DAVID BROOKS: All politics is local, complete vindication from my point of view. You know, they are going to reach some settlement — listen, I didn’t say it would be gone by — in two days.

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry, can we check the record please–

DAVID BROOKS: You are lying about my record Senator. (Laughter) You know, I think what’s happened is that the — the argument hasn’t moved. The people who are suspicious of port have no argument. Their argument is Arab port, Arab port, these two things should not go together.

On the other side I think there has been a welling up of reasonable people piling up bit after bit of evidence to show that UAE and Dubai, the most important thing is they have been tremendous allies in the war on terror. We now know that 700 U.S. ships just last year were in the Dubai port being serviced by this very same company that is being blocked. Nobody blew any of those ships up. The UAE has been threatened by al-Qaida for being such a good ally to the U.S. They have been our best ally and one of our best allies in the region in the war on terror. And they are the ones we are kicking in the teeth. And so to me the argument just gets stronger by the day.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, you probably don’t even want equal time on this, right? You are going to throw in the towel, right?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I’d like to hear David debate with himself. No, I will say this, Jim. In 36 hours we went from Clint Eastwood “make my day” let me veto, to Rodney King, can’t we all reason together. I mean, now Karl Rove is saying, I want all the members of Congress to reach a comfort level with information.

I think it has changed. I think the debate has changed. I think it has gone from, to a great degree from the idea of Arab port to the fact that in this country, the question is on port security. And I think that is going to be the focus of the debate.

DAVID BROOKS: Totally different issue.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but I think –.

JIM LEHRER: You are saying it opened it up.

MARK SHIELDS: It opened it up completely. Sins 9/11 according to the Appropriations Committee of the House, since 9/11 this nation has spent $29 billion plus with a “b” on airport and airplane security and $910 million on port security.

I mean, we’re talking about 2 to 5 percent being inspected, we’re talking about fewer than 10 percent being inspected before the cargos shipped over. And what really I think it reflects post 9/11, pre 9/11, and the Clinton administration practiced this as well — they were so involved in commerce, they were so involved in trade, trade became almost the Holy Grail that anything coming in. And I don’t think that changed after 9/11.

I think this administration, plus its dependence upon foreign capital — because we’ve had to have foreign capital — really, finance this country’s deficits.

JIM LEHRER: So keep those container ships coming in.

MARK SHIELDS: Keep them coming in. Don’t ask questions about foreign ownership; don’t ask about foreign goods.

DAVID BROOKS: There are a lot of different issues here. One, this is a global economy. We have a lot of ships that come in, a lot of cargo is going to come in. There is a global economy; that is the bedrock of our prosperity, the bedrock of world prosperity. That is not going to change. The second issue is the port security.

Here I’m completely with Mark; I am quite happy to have a debate about port security. I just don’t want it to turn in to a xenophobic horde which focuses on the fact that some Arabs were running it. If this was that debate, that with be fine, but this horde got started because a British company sold to an Arab company. That is what this is about and if we have it in this context it’s just a terrible tone to set. This is not Clint Eastwood, this is a Gregory Peck movie, one of those movies where they wanted to lynch some guy and needed some reasonable person to say hold on, let’s look at the facts.

JIM LEHRER: Just a few seconds, Mark -

MARK SHIELDS: It’s To Kill a Mocking Bird now –

JIM LEHRER: At the risk of annoying David terribly, do you think the Democrats are going to hear him and back off now? Is this thing over and we’re going to — and the cooling-off period will result in no legislation and no further problems for the administration’s decision?

MARK SHIELDS: Every thoughtful Democrat I know listens to David, and the majority of them think he is 100 percent right about 37 percent of the time.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, we’ll leave it there but this is the last time we will talk about this because I’m sure it will be gone by the -

DAVID BROOKS: When Mark sees a thoughtful Democrat, I want to know.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.