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Senate Holds Iraq Hearings as Report Predicts More Violence

February 2, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

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

And this week, Mark, the “we don’t like the troop surge” resolutions merged from two to one. Does that help their prospects any?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it helps their prospects in two ways. First of all, it takes it out of the presidential arena. You had Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel, one a Democrat, one a Republican, both potential — actually, in one case, presidential candidate. So that colored, I think, the political appeal of them, diminished the political appeal.

And John Warner stepping forward. If you’ll recall, any time there’s been a suggestion of even debating or criticizing the administration policy, the automatic response from congressional Republicans and the administration in general has been, “You’re jeopardizing the troops. You’re jeopardizing their morale. It’s unfair to them.”

Well, in John Warner, you have Mr. Republican himself. I think he’s the only Republican from Virginia ever re-elected, 30 years in the Senate, former naval veteran of World War II, Korean Marine officer veteran, secretary of the Navy, chairman of the Armed Services Committee…

RAY SUAREZ: So he can stand up to that troop morale…

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. Exactly. And I think he stands up, and I think it improves the chances.

RAY SUAREZ: Can they get to 60 votes to even debate the thing in the first place?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Doesn’t look like it. I think they seem to be falling short. You’ve got to remember this is a nonbinding resolution. It does absolutely nothing substantively, so what they’re trying to do is deliver a political message, and the question is, “What political message are they trying to do?”

I think Sen. Biden is trying to deliver a slap at the president, “You’ve got to change your whole policy.” Sen. Warner is trying to do something differently. He wants to stand up for the institution of the Senate and come up with some bipartisan approach.

But I’ve heard one senator after another — I’ve heard Sen. Obama say this, Sen. Corker say this, say that the crucial issue is not the 20,000 troops. That’s just a symbolic issue. The crucial issue for them is, what is the grand strategy for Iraq moving forward?

Some of them want a regional diplomacy solution. Some want to get out. Some want this soft partition. And they’re using this troop surge idea just as a tag, as a resolution, just to get them to this larger debate, which I think really will be the substantive debate.

The tactics of whether 20,000 will help or hurt is not something they’re particularly well-qualified to judge or that interested.

Senators under pressure

David Brooks
The New York Times
The debate should not be on the surge or the non-surge. The debate should be, if those two options are terrible, is there a less terrible option?

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there are some pretty good nose-counters on both sides of this question, and there must be people getting some very heavy pressure right now to join one side or the other. Do we know who's in the crosshairs this week?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we do know people like Lamar Alexander is in the crosshairs, Norm Coleman from Minnesota, a lot of the people who are -- and there are a lot of Republicans in this camp -- who are suspicious of the war, the way the war is being conducted, would like to see a big change, but don't see the purpose in -- there's going to be a surge; Gen. Petraeus wants a surge -- don't see the purpose in a resolution that undermines something that's going to happen, which our generals command.

So they want to change, but they don't want to be seen to be undermining Petraeus.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think, Mark, that are there still a lot of votes out there that are getable by one side or the other?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, not to be too much inside baseball, but on a procedural vote, which is what cutting off debate is, usually members of both caucuses stick with their party leadership on a vote like that, if the party leadership asks them to do it, not on the merits.

I think the Republicans will find themselves in a very difficult place if they try and filibuster this and prevent a debate. David's right. It is a nonbinding resolution.

We're now approaching the fifth year of this war, a bloody, divisive and incredibly costly and damaging national experience. And it's a war we rushed into, without debate, on inadequate, misleading information, and has never really gotten debated.

If this is the first chance really for the Congress to debate it and the Republicans want to kill it on a procedural motion, I just don't think that's a politically sustainable position over an extended period of time.

David is right, it is nonbinding, but it's a baby step. It's the first step, and we're going to face this. The president now is requesting and being required to do so, to come up with an additional request for supplemental appropriations for the war. That is going to be the vehicle over which the real debate is.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say let's have a debate about the reality. This is so insular, what the Senate is doing. And it has so little to do with reality.

We just heard about the NIE, which seems to me shoots an Exocet missile right in the middle of the president's policy, because it says there will be no national reconciliation in Iraq. And it shoots an Exocet missile right in the Democratic policy, one of the Democratic policies, because it says withdrawing quickly would lead to a calamity.

So the debate should not be on the surge or the non-surge. The debate should be, if those two options are terrible, is there a less terrible option? And if you went to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings this week, which I did, there are a lot of people talking seriously about other options.

I think the most persuasive is this soft partition option, that acknowledges the country is splitting, and trying to devolve powers. But we should have a debate about that. And I hope that will be the debate the Senate has next week, not about 17,000 troops, 12,000 troops, 0,000 troops.

MARK SHIELDS: And we will. This is the vehicle through which we're going to have this debate. And I think it's important that the debate, which is really, literally four years coming, start and begin. And I think that's what this week is really about.

National Intelligence Estimate

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There are serious, profound, innate problems [in Iraq] that, whether it's 25,000 or 50,000 more American troops, it's hard to believe they're going to remedy it.

RAY SUAREZ: But David mentions the National Intelligence Estimate that was released. And it says that, even if you get the violence under control, that won't necessarily achieve a political solution to this problem.

MARK SHIELDS: It was truly devastating. And to hear Jeffrey Brown's interview and the two intelligence experts saying that the prospects of any near-term reconciliation are nil, I mean, there has been nothing but bad news.

I mean, not simply on the ground there, but we also had the Congressional Budget Office tell us that it was going to cost 4.5 times more than the administration said, it could cost up to that, that it would require 15,000 or 20,000 more troops than the president has requested -- so there's nothing but really bad news coming.

And I think those who are looking for some glimmer of optimism or encouragement are really hard-pressed tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm not. I mean, I think it was a clarion call for this soft partition idea. It says they're never going to get it back together. So if they're never going to get back together, face that reality and figure out what we can do.

And this is what a lot of people have been talking about, like Les Gelb and Joe Biden, for a long time, and it's tough to do, because you've got to get the Sunnis and the Shias to agree tacitly, to decentralize power. You've got to get the countries in the region. You've got to have a big diplomatic offensive to do it. You have to have more troops to police the mixed areas.

But that's the sort of intelligent series of steps people need to be thinking through, once they digest the realities reflected in the NIE.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what came through in the NIE is that we have precious little influence or control over events there, that the Sunnis have not accepted their minority status, and that the Shia are terribly insecure in the new majority ruling position.

I mean, there are serious, profound, innate problems there that, whether it's 25,000 or 50,000 more American troops, it's hard to believe they're going to remedy it.

DAVID BROOKS: But getting out is the absolute wrong policy.

Conflict Within Republican Party

David Brooks
The New York Times
A lot of people don't think five brigades will make a big difference. But it illustrates the problem that a lot of people have found with Gen. Casey's decision-making, which is never really committing enough resources.

RAY SUAREZ: Moving in the same slipstream with these other stories were the confirmation hearings for General Casey as chief of staff of the Army. Now, he's one of the men in uniform most responsible for the current policy, the way we are running the war militarily. He was in charge there for two-and-a-half years, and it was Republicans, not Democrats, who were taking the bark off him during this hearing.

DAVID BROOKS: And it was primarily John McCain, who has been saying for three years there are not enough troops. And Gen. Casey, with Gen. Abizaid and with Donald Rumsfeld and with the president, have been saying there are enough troops.

And then, as we move forward, it came to a flashpoint, because McCain wants five more brigades as part of this surge, and Casey was saying two brigades. And the argument against him is, it's always just enough to lose. It's never sufficient.

Well, do you really think that two brigades is going to make that big a difference in Baghdad? A lot of people don't think five brigades will make a big difference. But it illustrates the problem that a lot of people have found with Gen. Casey's decision-making, which is never really committing enough resources.

MARK SHIELDS: It's interesting. You're absolutely right. John McCain is the ranking Republican. If the Republicans had retained control of the Senate, he would be a chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He's been the president's staunchest supporter on Iraq, and here he is taking on the Republican president's nominee to be the chairman of the Army -- the joint chiefs, chief of staff of the Army.

It was just really unthinkable a year ago. That would not have happened, but for what the reality in Iraq and the election results of 2006.

And I guess what I'd only add to that, it struck me watching John McCain. His frustration is genuine. You can almost feel it, in his presence, just watching him, over that failed policy, is that they're like a married couple, Republicans are right now. The disagreement may be over...

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of married couple?

MARK SHIELDS: A troubled married couple.

RAY SUAREZ: Troubled married couple.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the problem is actually over religion, our children, our money. But they're arguing at this point about who's going to carry out the trash or who's going to walk the dog. I mean, going after Casey, who's going to be confirmed, it just struck me that it was an act, an honest act, but an act of frustration on John McCain's part.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure. They've had a legitimate tactical difference for three years.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet he's still going to be confirmed.

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, yes, he will be.

MARK SHIELDS: ... to the president. See, he's using Casey. I mean, he criticized Cheney as the worst influence on the president. He's called Rumsfeld the worst secretary of defense. He goes after Casey. Basically his problem is with the president.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president would say -- and this is an error of management -- "I've always deferred to Casey," which is true. He has already deferred, never asked questions about Casey, how is this going to work, do we need more, do we need less. He's always just deferred.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you. Have a greet weekend.