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President Owes Public More Information, Analysts Say

January 16, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis of what the president had to say from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the president’s stated purpose for this interview and others was to convince the skeptics about his new Iraq plan. Did he make any progress today?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t think so, Jim. I think the president put it bluntly himself. The secretary of state did, as well, yesterday.

And that is that all the words, all the rhetoric, I mean, you could be Churchillian at this point, but it’s the reality on the ground in Baghdad. And you led the news tonight and you prefaced your first question to the president by what’s going on, in terms of the American casualties, in terms of Iraqi — the crisis that is Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Is he making his case, David? How would you say he’s doing making his case?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, this is the best I’ve heard him on the past, on the troop deployments, on the inability that we had for a couple of years to hold any territory that we cleared.

I thought it was very interesting what he said, after the Samarra bombing, that he didn’t commit enough troops into Baghdad to quiet what was followed. I hadn’t heard him say that before.

I found him also pretty compelling on the future, what would happen if we don’t succeed there. And he was nothing if not wanting to return to that theme.

Where I found him less compelling was on the present and on this plan. And he identified sources of skepticism and I thought did very little to fill in, in any substantive way, why we should not be skeptical.

One, why should we trust the Maliki government now when they’ve let us down almost every time in the past? Why is 17,500 the right number to go into Baghdad? Will that make a difference?

And, third, you know, are we going to go into Sadr City? How exactly are we going to do it? He talked vaguely about clearing neighborhoods. But how exactly are we going to do it?

You know, Americans have been following this issue for a long time. And they’re pretty well educated about it, especially viewers of this program. They want some details. They don’t just want the grand assertions.

And his problem, I think, throughout his presidency — he’s very declarative; he’s very assertive. But when it comes to the details and the arguments and the evidence, he doesn’t put it together the way a lawyer had. And, therefore, I found myself less persuaded about the present course.

Strengths and weaknesses

David Brooks
The New York Times
But in each case, he's tried to make this easy in order to sell the policy more easily. Well, it may be good publicity, but in the long term it's just not, because people see the reality.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I thought the president's strength was in describing the failure, or at least what he saw as the possibility, the dimensions of the failure, of a failed policy in Iraq, of the failure of the Iraqi government.

JIM LEHRER: The dominos, in other words?

MARK SHIELDS: The dominos. I mean, he started with a positive domino. That was the neocon dream going in, that Iraq would be Iowa and a democracy and that it would just spread throughout the entire Middle East. Now it's the reverse domino, that it's going to be worse. But I thought he made that case quite well.

I thought, Jim, his answer on the sacrifice question I thought was just absolutely less than defective. I mean, this is a man who is ahistorical. Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, every president who has presided over a war -- and the president describes this as a nation at war, this is the battle, the ideological battle of the century that we're engaged in. It's an all-out global effort.

And every one of them saw the need to call upon their nation, two Republicans, two Democrats, for collective and individual sacrifice, that war does demand equality of sacrifice. And that just eludes him. He just becomes a tax-cutter again. He reduces the whole argument to that.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about that answer?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I agree with it. Fundamentally, I don't think anybody -- first, let me say that I don't think anybody thought Iraq was going to become Iowa. I think that's a caricature of what the argument was at the time.

As for the sacrifice, he's absolutely correct. I mean, what Mark said is absolutely correct, which is that he's been asked this before -- I've been in a session where he's been asked this before. And you hear this from the military constantly: The phenomenal sacrifices they and their families are making is not reflected in what the rest of us are doing.

And he's got to have an answer to that. Not only does he have to have an answer, he has to have a policy. And he really has been afraid to do this. And it's symptomatic, I think, of a lot of the other things that have gone wrong.

He's wanted to make this as easy as possible for the American people. That's fundamentally why there are only 17,500 going into Baghdad, because he wants to make the policy as easy as possible.

Even in his presentation last week, he said Iraqis will be in the lead. Iraqis are going to be in the lead. It sounds easy to the American people. It's not true: Americans are going to be in the lead.

But in each case, he's tried to make this easy in order to sell the policy more easily. Well, it may be good publicity, but in the long term it's just not, because people see the reality.

The president and responsibility

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Even though he went through this whole series about 2006 being a terrible year and all that had gone wrong and in the summer and everything else, apparently it didn't really sink in until November 7th.

JIM LEHRER: What about the series of questions and answers about basic leadership, in other words, decisions that he made, his own fundamental decisions and judgments that he made. How did you think he handled that?

MARK SHIELDS: There was one rhetorical open field running on the part of the president when asked about -- he was asked about taking responsibility and do you feel any sense of personal failure? And he said, if I were asked, do I approve of Iraq, no, I don't approve of what's taking place in Iraq, if I was asked that in a poll.

That isn't the poll question. The poll question is: Do you approve of the president's handling of Iraq? And he just distanced himself.

The one point that he did take responsibility and assumed responsibility -- and, I have to say, it was the first in my experience of listening to him -- was in the failure to send troops after the bombing of the shrine and send troops into Baghdad. But, I mean, that's the only time there was even an acknowledgment.

And even though he went through this whole series about 2006 being a terrible year and all that had gone wrong and in the summer and everything else, apparently it didn't really sink in until November 7th, when the Republicans lost both the House and the Senate, that there had to be a profound and dramatic change in both personnel and policy, that the secretary of defense left the next day.

Looking for more answers

David Brooks
The New York Times
You've got to ease the skepticism based on three years of failure. And, again, that involves granularity; that involves evidence; that involves treating people like adults and not talking down to them.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think they knew there had to be a change before the election. And they just waited until after the election to announce it.

I found -- one of answers I found interesting was on, again, going back to this issue of 17,500 troops in Baghdad. You asked him, will that be enough? And he said, I'll do what the generals tell me to do basically.

Well, that was his answer for three years when they told him they didn't commit enough troops, as he now acknowledges. So why should we believe him now? And which generals are these?

And what he's trying to do is absolve himself from having to make a judgment and give us the reasons for the judgment, because there are all different generals and colonels and everybody else giving different analyses of how many troops it will take.

And he doesn't give us any military reason. And when pressed, he always gives you a personal reason. "Well, I trust this guy, General Casey. I like that guy, General Abizaid." Well, they're good guys, but the president has to have made -- has to have heard the different arguments and have a substantive reason why this number of troops will work and that number of troops won't work.

And he never really answers on that. He just says, "I defer to the generals." Again, that's not good enough anymore. I haven't heard that many other plausible arguments. And I'm willing to give this policy a chance, as other people who know more about the military situation, more than me, are willing to give it a chance.

But you've got to ease the skepticism based on three years of failure. And, again, that involves granularity; that involves evidence; that involves treating people like adults and not talking down to them.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I can't argue with anything that David said there. I would just add that I thought the president's explanation of the successes in Iraq, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and that, I was fascinated by his use of the term "kind of a revenge killing."

I mean, there are millions of people who think that capital punishment is a revenge killing, it's an institutionalized revenge killing. But when the president talked as he did about the successes, I don't think they have created a unity government. I don't think anyone really believes that.

It's a sectarian government, and that's one of the real problems that we're dealing with right now. And so maybe he just wants to believe that, but it's not true. Saddam Hussein is gone.

The other thing that just amazed me was that he said we have to stop al-Qaida from getting a foothold in Iraq. That was in the resolution to go to war in the first place, that al-Qaida did have a foothold in Iraq. So, I mean, here we are, five years later.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, David, thank you both.