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President Refutes Reid’s Comments That Iraq War Is ‘Lost’

April 20, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The war of words over funding the Iraq war heated up in Washington late this week. It was yesterday when the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, spoke to reporters.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: I believe myself that the secretary of state, the secretary of defense — and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows — that this war is lost, and that the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than 24 hours later and some 6,000 miles away in Baghdad, the man in charge of the war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said that’s not the case.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I would say that I have great respect for Senator Reid. And on the matter of whether the war is lost, I respectfully disagree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Michigan today, President Bush maintained keeping American troops safe should have no strings attached.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I just disagree with the notion that, when we have troops in harm’s way, that there ought to be, you know, a kind of political process with strings attached to a piece of legislation that goes to fund our troops. As I say, there’s ample time to discuss right or wrong. I don’t believe there’s ample time to delay funding for men and women who have volunteered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Reid, speaking on the Senate floor today, said the president has let down those same men and women.

SEN. HARRY REID: An effective strategy is exactly what we’re offering the president and our troops, no more, no less. Let’s all understand: Changing course in Iraq will increase America’s security by bringing this war to a responsible end.

Mr. President, I believe supporting our troops means giving them the funding they need and a strategy they deserve. It means stopping the partisan attacks, and it means spending time working together on a bipartisan basis to develop an effective strategy to successfully end this war. I wish some of my detractors felt the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reid added it was not too late for changing direction on the Iraq policy.

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

Political showdown on war funding

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The American troops fought bravely, effectively with great skill, great courage. They won the military war. Now they're mired, because of the failed leadership of the civilians, in a civil war, which they can't win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, it's been a full week. We lost 180, almost 200 Iraqis in fighting just on one day this week. We had the words of Senator Reid getting reaction from the White House. We had the meeting between the president, the leader, Democratic leaders this week. Are we any closer to seeing the two sides coming together on funding?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Not really. I think they will come together. They had a meeting where they said they were civil to each other, though Bush was a little angry at Reid for some of the things he said.

I think, at the end of the day, we will have a political showdown. There will be maybe a veto of the Democratic bill, but then, after that, there will be funding. I don't think Democrats want to be responsible for cutting off funding.

And the bottom line is what's happening in Iraq, the bombing you mentioned, the nearly 200 dead. That's going to, at the end of the day, be determinative.

Next week, David Petraeus, the general there, is coming here to meet with the Democrats, going to meet with a lot of the people in Washington. And he'll be able to report something back, yes or no. And I must say, the last week's events make it much more skeptical that the surge is working. But we'll see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, are we just going through the motions with these words, if we're heading to a deal, as David was saying?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No, I don't think we're going through the motions. I think that the mandatory date that the House included in its resolution will be removed, and they'll agree with the Senate, which has a date, a goal instead.

But I think what they'll come back with after the veto that David has described, which I think passes both houses, which the president will veto as promised, is they'll come back with benchmarks. And I think it's going to be tough for the president then to veto that. You know, there's no date involved. And I think those benchmarks include things like the oil revenues and...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because it's not binding.

MARK SHIELDS: But it does impose upon him an obligation to report to the Congress on the progress of those. And I think the benchmarks become tougher to reach for the Iraqi government, Judy, because 200 Shias get blown up this week. And it's the Shias who have to agree to the compromise in the government to give these concessions to the Sunnis, who they see as their tormenters and their nemesis at this point.

So I think the Maliki government has a very tough chore ahead of it to meet what I think are probably legitimate benchmarks but may be unreachable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So harder for the president to veto, David, and you said the more deaths coming out of Iraq, the more pressure there is on whom?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there's pressure on both sides. I mean, Harry Reid put his foot in it by saying he thought it was helpless and the Republicans pounced on that. But, you know, I think the fundamental fact is that it's going to be determined on the ground.

And one thing I heard Rahm Emanuel, the Democrat from Illinois, say this week was, we need to get in some position where in August we have some objective source that everybody can trust saying the surge is working or not working, because now you've really two realities, a lot of Republicans saying it's working, Democrats saying it's not working.

If we get to late August and no one can reach any agreement on how we're doing in Iraq, then we really will be in a mess. And they talked about putting together some sort of bipartisan commission to do that, a good idea, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we're talking four or five months from now?

MARK SHIELDS: I think what we'll have is a series of votes, Judy, and I think they'll probably come in the form of what's called a continuing resolution instead to fund the war, probably for 60 days at a time, and so that there will be a forced renewal, a forced reconsideration by the Congress and the administration.

And, quite honestly, the Democrats see that to their advantage, that Republicans continue to go on record, Republican House and Senate members, voting to support and endorse the president's policies in Iraq, which, as we know, have lost and continue to lose public support in the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The senator's comments that the war is lost helped his cause or hurt his cause?

MARK SHIELDS: No, it was not helpful to him as majority leader by any means, and it gave the Republicans a great opening to say, "He's letting the troops down."

You know, the way to say is it that the American troops fought bravely, effectively with great skill, great courage. They won the military war. Now they're mired, because of the failed leadership of the civilians, in a civil war, which they can't win, and from which they want to be extracted, and ought to be.

I mean, that's, I think, you know, would have been a better way of phrasing it. And it's not helpful to his side.

Gonzales faces tough questions

David Brooks
The New York Times
[Attorney General Alberto Gonzales] is a perfectly nice guy, but clearly not up to the task of attorney general. And a lot of people say, you know, this reflects very poorly on Bush. Why would he choose him?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alberto Gonzales, David, where does he stand? He spent, what, more than five hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.

DAVID BROOKS: It was not a great Mensa moment for Alberto Gonzales. Byron York of the National Review Online, who follows his for National Review, the conservative magazine, called it disastrous. I think that about sums it up.

It was disheartening on many levels. The case he tried to make, which, "I made these decisions, but I didn't really do it with a lot of knowledge," it's a great Bush administration slogan. "We make our decisions without any knowledge of our decisions."

And I think it's disheartening for a lot of people, because it reflects on the president. This guy is a perfectly nice guy, but clearly not up to the task of attorney general. And a lot of people say, you know, this reflects very poorly on Bush. Why would he choose him?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the president, the White House piles on the statements praising him. Today, Dana Perino at the White House said...

DAVID BROOKS: Very solitary White House at this point. The Republicans in the Senate...

JUDY WOODRUFF: She said he's doing a fantastic job.

DAVID BROOKS: A hell of a job, Alberto. No, there's no support there. There's really no support. You saw it in the Republicans in the Senate. Even Republicans who tried to help him in that committee, he couldn't follow their lead because he really wasn't with it enough. There's no support there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So where does this go?

MARK SHIELDS: He's all alone. I mean, it's rather sad and solitary figure. I mean, President Bush is his only friend and supporter in this town. He's a man without a constituency, either in the Congress or really in the country.

He was a George Bush protege, plucked from a law firm, and made his counselor in Texas as governor, and continued along with him. And I think David's right. I think he's been elevated to a position that's beyond his capability.

Being attorney general is an enormously difficult job. And the speculation I heard today from Republicans was, who's going to be next? And that maybe Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, by being his sole and most vocal defender on the Judiciary Committee yesterday, may have made the case for himself to get that job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe is Karl Rove vulnerable next? I mean, we interviewed the chairman -- we interviewed Chairman Leahy and Senator Specter yesterday, and they both talked about wanting to get those e-mails.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, well, we'll see. You know, they've been going after Karl Rove, and this is the great dream for Democrats to get Karl Rove finally. He's the great, white whale floating out there, and every few months there seems to be an attempt. They think they're going to get him, whether it's Plame or this. They never seem to get him.

So I'll reserve judgment on whether Karl Rove -- Alberto Gonzales was the guy was in charge of this agency, and it was his agency.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know anybody, either in or out of the administration, who believes that those e-mails just miraculously disappeared. I mean, it's a little bit like Rose Mary Woods' missing 18 minutes of tape from President Nixon. I mean, that just -- if anything, it whets the appetite and the thirst of Democrats to see Karl Rove finally answer some questions under oath.

Virginia Tech shootings and gun law

David Brooks
The New York Times
It's hard to hold this kid responsible for it. I mean, we want to say, you know, there's great forces of evil, Satan acted through him. But when you lack at that young man, he's someone who was mad, who was insane.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Virginia Tech, it's been a horrible week. The country is in mourning today and will continue to be in mourning. David, what does it is say? What are you thinking right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm thinking about the randomness of it. It's hard to hold this kid responsible for it. I mean, we want to say, you know, there's great forces of evil, Satan acted through him. But when you lack at that young man, he's someone who was mad, who was insane.

And who knows the trivial reason that caused it, whether there was a virus that affected his brain, whether there was isolation, a whole chain of events? But it's the absurdity of it all. Some virus affects his brain. He becomes schizophrenic, whatever he was, and then 32 people die.

And I think it's that absurdity between cause and effect and the sort of amorality of it that is undermining a lot of people's morale, who say there's nothing to be gained from this. Thirty-two people are dead because of who knows what.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say virus infected his brain, you mean at birth?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, when you look at -- we now know a lot about why madness is caused. And for schizophrenia, sometimes there's a virus that gets into a fetal brain, and then it leads to lifelong effects. Sometimes there's an injury to the frontal lobe that leads to hyper-aggression and depression. Sometimes it's inability to process serotonin.

It's all this stuff that can create these horrible effects, and it's trivial little biological and chemical stuff. It's not a great clash of morality or anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where are we left?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't disagree with David. I have a little different take on it, Judy. In all the wars that the United States fought in the 20th century, World War I, II, Vietnam, Korea, the first Persian Gulf, 659,763 Americans died. Since Ronald Reagan became president of the United States until George Bush was re-elected, 768,000 more people died in all those wars died by firearms in the United States. Of the 26 developed nations in the world, 83 percent of all the people who died by firearms die in this country.

And the idea that we can't do something, that this man that David has described, with a 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol, and other countries, only police officers have them. I mean, the fact that he could buy this, and with no check really made of him, you know, is disturbing.

Are we this great, pitiable, helpless giant in dealing with this problem? I mean, you know, I think that we lack will; we lack imagination; we lack commitment to do something about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't disagree. I mean, the fact that he had the access to firearms meant that, instead of killing himself, he could kill 32 people. I think there's no question.

Nonetheless, when you start thinking about practically, what are there, 280 million guns in this country? The kid is smart. He has access to the Internet. If he wants to kill people, which he clearly did, he's going to get the stuff.

And I'm not sure gun control is going to affect his ability to kill a lot of people. He could do it with bombings. He'll find a weapon.

Politics of gun control

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is a majority in this country who want sensible restrictions. I'm not talking about taking away guns. A waiting period, a real check, some weapons should just -- there's no need to have magazines that can shoot 30 bullets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the background question?

MARK SHIELDS: We don't have background. We don't have real background checks. We have never beefed that up. I mean, we've shown no will. We've cowered in front of the gun lobby in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that going to continue?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think the Democrats were hardly Captains Courageous this week. I mean, I didn't see them knocking each other over to get into the well of the House or the Senate to introduce tough legislation, any of the presidential candidates. They were far more vocal on the Supreme Court decision on abortion than they were elbowing their way in front of cameras to emphasize their position, commitment and all the rest of it.

But, you know, they're scared. They're timid. They feel that they lost the Congress in 1994 because of the assault weapon ban.

But, I mean, it's just unthinkable. There is a majority in this country who want sensible restrictions. I'm not talking about taking away guns. A waiting period, a real check, some weapons should just -- there's no need to have magazines that can shoot 30 bullets...

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with you on the substance. I just don't think it will be that effective. I think people who want to kill, in this country, with all these weapons, will find a way to kill. And politically, Mark's right. There's just no way the Democrats are going to do this.

You look at the key swing states, those Midwestern states, those are pro-gun states. There's no way a national Democrat is going to put this on the agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to leave it there. We were going to get to the Supreme Court, but maybe we can talk about that next week. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.