TOPICS > Politics

Pentagon Extends Military Tours; McCain Defends War Policy

April 13, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: David, what do you think of this idea that’s going around of creating a war czar for Iraq and Afghanistan?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, when the patriots threw the tea over the Boston Harbor in 1775, or whenever that is, they tried to get rid of a king. I don’t think they wanted a czar to replace it.

And we have a president. We have a secretary of defense. We have people who are supposed to be running this war. What do we need a czar for? I just don’t understand. We’ve got generals; we’ve got a whole apparatus. They’re supposed to be running the war. The president should be obsessed about the war. Why do we need czar?

And the only reason I can think of is that they think the president doesn’t have credibility to talk about it in public and they want another public face.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going on, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, the problem with Iraq and the United States policy in Iraq is not an organizational chart. And it’s not whether there’s vertical lines or horizontal lines or whatever else.

First of all, I thought General Petraeus was the answer to all the prayers, that he was totally in charge, that he had the roadmap to success and all the rest of it. When you have an idea, which is a bad idea, I think, and then you float it…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the czar idea?

MARK SHIELDS: … the czar idea, by being rejected by three people, including the general, General Keane, who had been the principal advocate of the surge, and you get Jack Sheehan, Marine general, saying…

JIM LEHRER: Those guys don’t know what they’re doing over there.

MARK SHIELDS: … these guys have no idea what they’re doing over there, I mean, it’s just one more “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

Stretching the Army

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
This is one more example of all the burden, all the suffering, all the sacrifice in this war being borne only by those in uniform and their families and their loved ones.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What about the announcement a couple of days ago about extending the troop tour of duty from 12 months to 15 months for the U.S. Army? What does that say about where we are?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it says, first of all, that Bob Gates, the secretary of defense, is being more honest in dealing with the realities of where we are and how close the Army is to the breaking point.

JIM LEHRER: He even used the term -- what was it -- he used the word "stretched."

MARK SHIELDS: "Stretched," that's right. I wasn't attributing that to him, but he's being more honest about, we're going to have to do 15 months...

MARK SHIELDS: ... have to keep them there longer and so forth, not doing just stop-loss orders at the end of somebody's tour.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what a stop-loss is.

MARK SHIELDS: A stop-loss order is that your time of duty is up, your time of enlistment is up, and instead of letting you leave and return to civilian life, as you may have planned to get married, or go to school, or whatever, they just extend your stay. That's a stop-loss order, and they've done that in thousands and thousands of cases.

But on this one, George Wilson, who's a wonderful military journalist, did a book called...

JIM LEHRER: Used to work with the Washington Post.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right, and now writes for the National Journal, called "The Infantryman." And it was really a landmark book. And he interviewed a man in there, Colonel Steve Siegfried, combat veteran of Vietnam. And he made the argument that, in a time of war, extended war -- this is four years -- that the country had to have a draft.

And Steve Siegfried said this: Armies don't fight wars. Countries fight wars. And if a country isn't willing to fight a war, it should never send an army.

This is one more example of all the burden, all the suffering, all the sacrifice in this war being borne only by those in uniform and their families and their loved ones. And the rest of us, 98 percent plus, hey, you know, it's an inconvenience on the news, but that's it.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see that?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't disagree with any of that. I do think that you've got to tell people how long they're going to be serving as early as possible, and I think there's still a problem with that, where they're letting people go into the theater, and they're not telling them upfront that it's going to be longer, because the problem -- the short-term problem is, if they think it's 12 months and it turns out to be 15, then morale suffers.

And you just can't fight a war effectively that way. So I still think there's a problem -- Gates has made it better -- of not telling people earlier enough.

But the other issue as far as morale is -- and we did a story in my newspaper about the effect of this on morale, which was, it's hurt, but they're stoic is about it -- is how it's going in Iraq. And if they feel there's a sense that the surge has turned some things around, then it will have been worth it for them and for us as a country.

JIM LEHRER: So then the extension of three months will be less important, you think, if the...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think -- I mean, anybody who's fighting a war wants to feel it's going well. And I do have to say, the signals from Iraq are extremely mixed, but, you know, for 2006 it was all bad news. And now there's a mixture of good and bad.

I think, in Anbar, where you have a lot more Sunni cooperation, there is some genuine good news. In Baghdad, extremely mixed. There's some terrible violence, still at a very high level. There's some calmer neighborhoods, still at a much better level.

So there's a mixture there which we didn't have a year ago. And if that continues, if you actually get a surge in the right direction, then morale will recover from these hardships, which Mark is absolutely right -- and you hear it all the time from the troops, "It's just us."

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, one thing...

JIM LEHRER: And the families. The families...

MARK SHIELDS: The families. I mean, it's missed anniversaries. It's missed graduations. It's missed high school plays and high school games that the mothers and dads and husbands and wives are going to be missing further.

But add to that -- to say this Army's stretched, we paid six times as much money in bonuses, re-enlistment bonuses, between 2006 over 2003. We had six times as many naturalized -- in other words, foreign-born -- come into the United States military and become citizens.

You can argue the wisdom of that. We're waiving drug convictions and drug problems and alcohol abuse. We're waiving no high school graduation to fill out the ranks at this point. And, you know, whatever case you want to make, the Pentagon, according to Brian Bender of the Boston Globe, was considering -- or at least is apparently considering -- opening up recruitment offices overseas.

And, you know, that would be kind of the final statement, that, you know, we might as well...

JIM LEHRER: I hadn't seen that. Had you heard that story?

DAVID BROOKS: I hadn't heard that. The underlying lesson is the lesson we all have to remember. There's total war, and there's not war, but you don't do half war. And that was sort of a problem we learned before, but we're learning it again.

Defending the surge

David Brooks
New York Times
It [the Green zone bomb] was one negative shot, but there's a lot of positive. There are actually families moving back into some of the neighborhoods. There seems to be some progress on the political front with oil and other things.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of learning, what was learned by this successful suicide bombing inside the Green Zone and Baghdad?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, obviously, it was a blow to the idea that we're securing Baghdad. Nonetheless, I think, as I said before, I think that it was one negative shot, but there's a lot of positive. There are actually families moving back into some of the neighborhoods. There seems to be some progress on the political front with oil and other things.

So, as I say, I think the message is much more mixed than it was. And I just think it's -- you know, I saw an e-mail from John Edwards' campaign, "Edwards says the surge fails." How does he know? The fact is, nobody knows yet.

And there's a lot more good news than a lot of us would have expected. And the fact is, this deserves a shot to play out over a few months, until August, and then we can, I think, make other decisions.

JIM LEHRER: John Edwards brings up politics. Where does John McCain -- his speech this week, he's had many things to say about Iraq -- how does where he is fit into this?

MARK SHIELDS: I just want to point out, the American casualty rate right now, since the surge began, mortality rate is higher than it's been at any time since the first 30 days of the war.

DAVID BROOKS: That's because we're actually occupying neighborhoods...

MARK SHIELDS: No, well...

JIM LEHRER: I reported in the news summary a moment ago...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... that the death rate among Iraqis is way down sharply in Baghdad among Iraqis, but way up, 20 percent up, by the American troops.

MARK SHIELDS: By Americans.

JIM LEHRER: But as you say, there's more action.

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain...

JIM LEHRER: OK, John McCain.

MARK SHIELDS: John McCain, and David wrote about him this week and his speech at VMI, was it a necessity, out of conviction, whatever. I mean, there's a sense of fatalism, maybe even tragedy about John McCain. This is a man who, one year ago, one year ago, was the Republicans' best hope. He represented at that point a party trying to hold the White House for a third term, change, which obviously voters were looking for in 2008, but also continuity and they could keep the party.

Now John McCain has come to represent fairly or unfairly the candidate of the surge. He's the most effective advocate the administration has for its policy -- the only effective advocate I would say, including the cabinet -- but, Jim, he's lost the support of independents, who were his base. John McCain used to kid in 2000 that his base was the political press corps.

You know, but his real base of that campaign, as David remembers, were independent voters. They have turned almost as strongly against the war as Democrats, and they've deserted John McCain.

Republican views on McCain

David Brooks
New York Times
He [John McCain] is just an impressive man. I think he's doing this for the highest of reasons, because he understands the suffering of the troops, he believes there's still a chance of success.

JIM LEHRER: But the Republicans are still with him on this, are they not?

DAVID BROOKS: They agree with him on the issues. They haven't agreed with him because they haven't liked him because of his stand on global warming and campaign finance and all that other stuff.

You know, I had lunch with a Republican consultant who is unaffiliated in this campaign, and we were talking about McCain's financial troubles, which are severe, his slide in the polls, which is troubling. And the guy said, you know, at the end of the day, David, you've got to remember, he is a great man.

And I have to say, I agree with that. I spent eight hours with him on Wednesday, and he is a damn impressive man.

JIM LEHRER: You mean at the VMI?

DAVID BROOKS: We flew down to VMI together and rode in a van and then back. He is just an impressive man. I think he's doing this for the highest of reasons, because he understands the suffering of the troops, he believes there's still a chance of success. How high, I don't know. I don't think he knows.

But he thinks the surge is necessary to avoid a really cataclysmic future. And his attitude is, if I ruin my political chances, hey, I've had a wonderful life. So be it. I'm going to do this because I see young men and women who are suffering everyday.

And so I admire him for this. And I think politically it may not kill him, because 10 months from now, when we're voting, the surge will either work or not, but we will be in a dangerous world. And we know McCain's character. And I don't think people are going to toss a guy like that away lightly.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know where we will be 10 months from now. I'm an admirer of John McCain's and have been, but I look at that L.A. Times-Bloomberg poll this week, which he falls to third behind Fred Thompson who's not even in the race, at 12 percent.

And what's the most distressing, and has to be, 74 percent -- three out of four Republicans say they support George Bush's policies in Iraq. And Rudy Giuliani is leading among those voters by two to one. I mean, here's John McCain, who's been the strongest...

McCain and Jim Webb

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[John McCain is] paying dearly for his position on Iraq with Democrats, having lost Democrats who liked him, and independents, he hasn't picked up Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: That doesn't make sense, does it?

MARK SHIELDS: No. He's been the strongest -- whatever it is, he's paying dearly for his position on Iraq with Democrats, having lost Democrats who liked him, and independents, he hasn't picked up Republicans.

Today, Jim Webb, another Vietnam veteran with credentials -- I mean, John McCain's credentials are unmatched. His come awfully close, as you know, company commander, platoon commander, two Bronze Stars, Silver Star, two Purple Hearts and a Navy Cross.

JIM LEHRER: As a Marine lieutenant...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. He said, "I think that John McCain has been impugning the patriotism of those who disagree with him on Iraq, and I really regret that he's doing that."

JIM LEHRER: What's he talking about?

MARK SHIELDS: He's talking about John McCain suggesting in the speech at VMI that Democrats are endorsing defeat, that they are embracing defeat, that they're laughing on the vote on the House floor, and that somehow that they wanted to see America fail.

And, you know, I think that's a misreading. It's not typical of John McCain. It's not characteristic of John McCain. I mean, he was far more accepting and high-minded when he was savaged by George Bush and his minions in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, he was given, after he made that speech, people -- it jarred people, that section about the Democrats. And he was given many opportunities to back off it, including by me. He didn't want to, because he said, when the Democrats in the House pass this withdrawal legislation, he said they were laughing and celebrating.

MARK SHIELDS: They cheered.

DAVID BROOKS: And his attitude was, you can be for the withdrawal or against the withdrawal, but this is a terrible moment for America, and you shouldn't be laughing and celebrating. And he thinks that they -- including some Republicans, but a lot of Democrats -- have shifted their policy on Iraq to meet primary voters, which is something he has not done. And so he's offended by that.

And this John Edwards -- I think highly of John Edwards. But to declare the surge a failure already, it's like you're looking for failure. It's like you want failure.

MARK SHIELDS: These people ran against the war. I mean, for six years, they had been unheard on the war. They finally passed a resolution in the House.

JIM LEHRER: You all keep talking; I'm good to go. Thank you all very much.