Congress Debates Iraq Resolution; Cheney Defends Policies
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JIM LEHRER: The analysis of Shields and Brooks — syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, where is Congress headed as we speak now on this resolution thing on Iraq?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, this Congress, for the past five years, has had all the curiosity and energy of muzzled sheep on the issue of Iraq. And now they have finally disturbed themselves. And they are having the debate.
We haven’t had the debate in the country. And they have not, in any way, monitored the operation of the war, the conduct of the war. And we will have a vote probably the week after next — not next week, because, next week, the Senate will be doing the minimum wage. But Senator Biden has his resolution, which is a stronger resolution than is Senator Warner’s, the Republican…
JIM LEHRER: His is the national interest, right…
MARK SHIELDS: His is the national interest.
JIM LEHRER: … that to send in more troops is not in the national interest.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
MARK SHIELDS: And it has only two Republicans on it.
He wrote a letter to — he and Senator Hagel wrote a letter to Senator Warner, asking to work out some sort of compromise. Senator Warner answered in public, and rejected it.
JIM LEHRER: Said, forget it.
MARK SHIELDS: So — that’s right. So…
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: There will be — I think — I talked to Senator Reid’s people today. There will be votes. It’s not going to be a limited vote. But there will be a full debate the week after next, I suspect.
Petraeus' confirmation hearing
JIM LEHRER: But also today, David -- in fact, we reported in the news summary that the president was talking to some House Republicans today, who said they would agree to a resolution that would set some guide -- some mile...
DAVID BROOKS: Benchmarks.
JIM LEHRER: Benchmarks, benchmarks, right...
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: ... for Iraq.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I think McCain is involved.
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean?
DAVID BROOKS: This a way for Republicans who are unhappy with the course of the war, and who frankly want some political cover, to vote on a resolution which expresses concern, without coming out against the president.
MARK SHIELDS: Concern. No criticism.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
But I -- but where I would differ, I would say, with Mark, they are having a debate. They are not having a debate about Iraq. They are having a debate about politics.
I went to this David Petraeus confirmation hearing on the Armed Services Committee on the Senate side. They didn't -- here is the guy who has written the book on counterinsurgency, who is going over to run the counterinsurgency.
Did they ask a lot of questions about the counterinsurgency? No. They asked a lot of questions about their own resolutions. What do you think of me? What do you think of my resolution? What do you think their resolution?
DAVID BROOKS: So, it was narcissism on parade.
And Harry Reid, at the top of the show, was asking -- he said, this is going to be a tough vote for those Republicans up for reelection. It has -- nothing with Iraq, the conditions to go on Iraq.
So, this is pure politics. And the idea that somebody is sitting out there in Baghdad waiting to plant an IED, and they think, oh, there is a resolution, that the Warner resolution is actually different from the Biden resolution, believe me, that's not...
MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.
I think that -- is there politics? Sure, there's politics. Are there politics in the Republicans? Are they looking for a fig leaf? I mean, these guys are terrified. I mean, let's be very blunt about it.
But we are finally at least debating the issue. It has gone undebated for five years, Jim.
Look -- be very blunt -- the Democrats were cowed in 2002. They were terrified of being accused of being soft on terrorism, as they had been earlier cast on -- soft on communism or soft on crime.
JIM LEHRER: And they voted for the war resolution.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the majority of House Democrats did not.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: The majority of the House Democrats voted against it.
JIM LEHRER: The majority...
MARK SHIELDS: But the majority of Senate Democrats did vote for it.
JIM LEHRER: Did vote for it.
MARK SHIELDS: So...
MARK SHIELDS: A slim majority.
DAVID BROOKS: But, as we heard from the reporters earlier, the Pentagon reporters, the military wants the surge, most of them. I mean, they are split, of course, like any group of human beings.
Petraeus wants the surge. Have we had a debate about the merits of the thing on the ground? That, I could understand. We haven't had that debate.
JIM LEHRER: We had -- just one little aside, just to confirm what you were saying. We had -- we ran excerpts of the Petraeus hearings. And I said to somebody, well, all our excerpts were of the senators, instead of Petraeus. What happened? And they said, Petraeus didn't get a chance to say very much.
DAVID BROOKS: And his staff came prepared to talk about how -- their strategies, what they are thinking, what they have learned. They didn't get to use any of that material.
MARK SHIELDS: Just one point.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: And that is, American voters are the most pragmatic people on the face of the earth. The American people have concluded that this war didn't work out. I mean, they really have.
JIM LEHRER: And that's over, you mean, in terms of the conclusion?
MARK SHIELDS: That decision has been reached. And that's what we are talking about.
MARK SHIELDS: We are talking about how we are going to get -- wind it down, and get out. And that's where it is.
Nobody -- there is not anywhere near a plurality of any significance in this country that thinks that General Petraeus, with all his genius and all his ingenuity and all his leadership, can make a difference.
DAVID BROOKS: I would differ halfway with that.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID BROOKS: I think the American people have decided this war has not worked out, and that, as Bill Gates said, it's been a -- Bob Gates said -- it has been a failure.
I do not think the American people want to just walk away and leave the Middle East to what would happen if -- if we just left.
John Burns, my colleague, was on TV, on PBS, earlier this week. He said what -- all his friends tell him that what we are seeing today would be a miniature, compared to what we will see over the next decades. And I don't think the American people are quite willing to do that.
State of the Union message
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, David. Did the president help himself with the State of the Union message, on this issue of public support for what is going on in Iraq?
DAVID BROOKS: No, I don't think -- I think the American people discounted pretty much what he said.
JIM LEHRER: Well, do you agree with that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Rhetorical equivalent of a Chinese meal. I mean, it was a very pleasant, civil evening, and it had no impact.
JIM LEHRER: How does Jim Webb's response look three days later
DAVID BROOKS: I think that is being talked about more, and very different reactions. A lot of people I know, especially Democrats, were rapturous about it. They thought it was fantastic -- a lot of Republicans I know who are deeply unhappy.
What struck me was the difference between what Webb said, which was in bold colors. You know where he stands on Iraq: Get out in short order.
Compare that to where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said, where you are not quite sure. It is all shades of gray. And I think, as the political season, the presidential season, heats up, it won't be Jim Webb, but somebody, John Edwards and others, will be out there in bold colors.
DAVID BROOKS: It will be extremely hard for the establishment people to come out in shades of gray, when that -- bold colors is out there.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree the bold colors are there?
MARK SHIELDS: The bold colors are there. And he made a formulation that is very important, because the administration...
JIM LEHRER: You're talking about Webb now?
MARK SHIELDS: Webb.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
MARK SHIELDS: The administration's argument has become, you are going to let the troops down.
He says: This is not something we are doing for the troops. We sent the troops there. This is not about -- about their war. It is a war that we chose and that we choose to continue. And he put the responsibility, just as Chuck Hagel did, right back on the Congress. I mean, they're -- and I think that's a fundamental premise that Democrats have not advanced, and really goes...
JIM LEHRER: And Webb is.
MARK SHIELDS: And really just rebuts the White House argument.
Vice president on Iraq
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of bold colors, let's talk about Vice President Cheney.
First of all, I wanted to show an excerpt of what the vice president said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. That was earlier this week.
RICHARD B. CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: If the history books were written by people who have -- are so eager to write off this effort, to declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago.
The bottom line is that we have had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes.
Just think for a minute -- and think for a minute, Wolf, in terms of what policy is being suggested here. What you're recommending, or at least what you seem to believe the right course is, is to bail out...
WOLF BLITZER, CNN Anchor: I'm just asking questions.
CHENEY: No, you're not asking questions.
BLITZER: Yes, I am. I'm just asking...
CHENEY: Implicit -- implicit -- implicit in the critics...
BLITZER: ... questions that -- that your critics are asking.
CHENEY: Implicit in what the critics are suggesting, I think, is an obligation to say, well, here's what we need to do, or we're not going to do anything else; we're going to accept defeat. Defeat is not an answer.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Oh, now we're returning to planet Earth.
DAVID BROOKS: Enormous success? What is he talking about?
You know, I don't know anybody else in the administration that talks that way. Where is he?
DAVID BROOKS: And I do think, seriously, he is a bit isolated now within the administration.
JIM LEHRER: Well, in an interview the president did, the president himself did, three or four days before that interview, he said, we have had slow failure here, and conceded all kinds of mistakes, and would have been willing to probably have done even more. And the vice president is saying something just the opposite.
What is going on?
MARK SHIELDS: He has got an enormous emotional, I think, personal and intellectual stake in this war.
But listening to him talk about the tremendous successes reminds me of the story of the fellow -- the husband who comes down at 6:00 in the morning. And his wife says, where have you been all night?
He says, I got home at 1:00 and I didn't want to disturb the household, so I slept outside in the hammock. And she said, I took down the hammock last week.
And he said, you have got a choice. You can believe me or your own eyes.
And that is what it is about Iraq. You can believe the vice president or our own eyes. I mean, people do not see this as a tremendous success. And I really do think it is self-isolating to continue to talk like that.
DAVID BROOKS: I would say there is one other pernicious thing, which he exhibits more than anybody else, but some Democrats, too, that you either stay the course or you get out. You stay the course or, as he put it, stay the course or defeat...
JIM LEHRER: Defeat.
DAVID BROOKS: ... which are not the options.
You mentioned the Joe Biden resolution. Joe Biden is also promoting an idea in a more longer term of not a surge, but of separating the country -- not separating the country, but having a federal system, which is an option which I think is not a surge, but is not just getting out, but looking to a different political future, and, to my mind, a much more practical political future.
So, there are -- it is not just two options. There are still options out there.
JIM LEHRER: What about Cheney himself? What is known, if anything, about how much power Vice President Cheney still exercises with President Bush and the others who are making the decisions about Iraq, et cetera?
DAVID BROOKS: It's always been hard to tell, because, at the White House meetings, they have a big meeting with senior officials. Cheney is sitting there at the table. He's absolutely silent. He never talks at meetings. And then he has had this secret policy channel with Bush, where nobody else knows what it is, including very senior people.
But I still think -- and, so, it has always been mysterious, what their relationship has been.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
DAVID BROOKS: But I still think the word in the White House is that he has become much more marginalized, especially since Scooter Libby left, but increasingly more -- less central to the administration.
JIM LEHRER: What have you heard?
MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans whom I have talked to say that he had more influence. And John McCain said this week in an interview with Roger Simon that he has had too much influence on George W. Bush, and that he...
JIM LEHRER: You mean one on one in...
MARK SHIELDS: One on one on the policy of Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: On the policy of Iraq.
MARK SHIELDS: Policy of Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
MARK SHIELDS: And I think that -- but I think -- the same people tell me that his impact and his influence is not as strong as it once was.
Libby trial impacts
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the -- speaking of Scooter Libby, how do you read the -- quote -- "revelations" from the trial of Scooter Libby, but particularly those involving -- at least what Fitzgerald has said, about how important Vice President Cheney was in working this whole deal about getting the word out about Valerie Plame, et cetera, being married to Joe Wilson and so forth?
MARK SHIELDS: It was not a happy time for the White House. It is not what they need at this point.
It gives you a look at what was going on. And, first of all, it looks like a civil war in a leper colony between the president and the vice president, and Libby charging -- Libby -- their offices, I mean -- Libby charging that he was the scapegoat, so to avoid Karl Rove, the president's political guru, from falling.
But the vice president, sworn testimony from his own intimates and his vice presidential staff, was deeply, personally involved in rebutting this story, and attacking and discrediting Joe Wilson.
JIM LEHRER: Is this interesting, or is it important, David, or both?
DAVID BROOKS: It's -- well, it's interesting to those of us in Washington, because you get to see how they think of us in the media...
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: ... and how desperate they are to plant stories, and how they obsess over planting a little fact into one storyline.
DAVID BROOKS: I would tell them to, you know, don't be so obsessed. There are a lot of stories that come out every day. They obsess over it way too much.
Is it -- I think it's not important in sort of a world historical context. But it is a serious trial. A man's life is on -- is -- or -- is on the line.
JIM LEHRER: His liberty.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, his liberty.
MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing. One of my personal regrets is that I was not on Richard Nixon's enemies list.
JIM LEHRER: I am so sorry.
MARK SHIELDS: OK?
MARK SHIELDS: Now we -- now have got Dick Cheney's friends list, I mean, because they're revealing who they see as their -- their reliable sources. I'm not on that either.
DAVID BROOKS: I went to lunch with Scooter Libby twice when he was -- and he told me...
JIM LEHRER: What were the dates of those?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, what struck me was, A, he told me nothing. I didn't even know what he was ordering half the time.
DAVID BROOKS: And he was incredibly discrete.
And the second thing that always struck me is, he would pay in cash. Usually, you can buy somebody lunch if it's up to $20. But he would insist on following the law to the stickler of the detail. He would always put down a $20 bill.
JIM LEHRER: Did you know he had had lunch twice with Scooter Libby, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I had heard it. And it's been -- it's been reported widely.
JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, let's not talk about it anymore.
MARK SHIELDS: No. OK.
JIM LEHRER: OK?
Thank you both very much.