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British Begin Troop Drawdown in Iraq; U.S. Army Mends Walter Reed

February 23, 2007 at 5:03 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, on Iraq, how important is the Tony Blair decision to withdraw troops?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, it’s symbolically, I think, important, Jim. I mean, the reality behind the move is that, as Tony Cordesman from Strategic and International Studies said, Basra was lost a year ago, and Brits have had to withdraw to the airport.

It’s now just a Shia stronghold. There is no tension. There’s no civil war there, because there’s no Sunnis. And it’s a little bit like saying that there wasn’t any racial tension in Fargo or Moorehead, North Dakota, during the civil rights struggle. There weren’t any racial minorities.

And that’s really what the reality is. The vice president, to his everlasting credit, always sees the glass as 5 percent full. And it’s a lot easier in Great Britain now to sell the idea of troops in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: David, the idea that withdrawing — a lot of the attention on this has been drawn to the fact, hey, wait a minute, the Brits are withdrawing troops, and we’re sending more in. How do you see this?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I would point to the same distinction Mark made, that Basra is not Baghdad. Basra is a Shia community, mostly Shia. It doesn’t have the sectarian violence.

And, to me, what Basra is, it’s a window on — suppose there wasn’t the sectarian violence in Baghdad or in Iraq. Well, where would we be? We would have our expectations not met. We would not have sort of democracy that we hoped for when going in.

Nonetheless, we would not have the sort of civil war we see in Baghdad, and we would be withdrawing, too. But Baghdad has this sectarian violence; Basra doesn’t.

JIM LEHRER: You buy the idea that, all of that aside, this is not — this is psychologically not good for the American cause during a time of surge?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess so, yes. I mean, I think the Brits once had 40,000 troops. Then they went down to 7,100. And this is a drawback to 5,400, so it’s not as if Tony Blair is running away.

I mean, Tony Blair has been steadfast in believing in the mission and keeping troops there, despite incredible political pressure. So, you know, I don’t think he’s totally answering to the pressure. I think it’s a response to the reality.

MARK SHIELDS: But the reality is also domestic political reality.

JIM LEHRER: In Britain.

MARK SHIELDS: In Britain, regional elections this spring. And the Labour Party is trailing, and Tony Blair has to turn it over or will turn it over to Gordon Brown, his antiwar successor.

JIM LEHRER: Sometime this summer.

MARK SHIELDS: So the political reality is at least influencing it.

Senate plans for Iraq legislation

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
But I think that there's a bail-out or recouping of position by saying that we won't send troops in, if they aren't trained, aren't up-armored, don't have the body armor themselves.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of domestic realities in the United States of America, David, what do you make of the Senate plans? They've been talking about probably going to start next week to try to reauthorize or change the legislation that originally authorized the military action against Iraq.

DAVID BROOKS: This is like "Back to the Future." They're going to go in a DeLorean back to 2002 and un-vote the vote they made.

You know, the big difference to me is, you know, George Bush -- you can say what you like about his operation of the war, but he took a look at what should happen in Iraq, and it was the surge. He knew it was going to be unpopular, but he was going to be for it, even though it was unpopular.

Is there any Democrat willing to stand up and be for something unpopular or even take a position? I really don't know what the Democratic positions are.

There are individual positions, but when it comes to resolutions, there's this Murtha business, which is sort of funny, reallocate the relocation of the troops, the intervals which they go in and out. Then there's the Levin-Biden plan, which is to go back to 2002 and somehow reauthorize that bill.

Why don't they take a position and say, "I'm for this. This is what we think should happen in Iraq. We think the war is lost. We think we should get out"? Or, "We don't think the war is lost. We should do this"?

But it's all poll-driven, and that's my problem with the Democratic plans that are all evolving. They're all poll-driven. It's the party right now with the soul of a campaign manager.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't agree. We do have elections in this country, other than polls. We had an election last fall in which the Republicans, largely on the issue of Iraq, and largely on the issue of the stewardship of the president and vice president of that war, and the conditions and circumstances under which we got into that war, and the way it had been maintained, lost control of the Congress.

That was the reason. The Republicans say that; Democrats say that. So that's not a poll. That's not a focus group. That's the American people having expressed it, their feelings for it.

The president is apparently indifferent, immune. He has a four-year term, so he's indifferent to the plight of members of his own party, as their position becomes increasingly unpopular.

As far as the Democrats are concerned, I think they made a mistake. I think Jack Murtha made a mistake in revealing his plan on MoveOn.org, the activist, leftist group...

JIM LEHRER: Leftist group, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... who are against the war and take great credit for the victory. And they're not at all bashful about accepting full credit for the Democratic victory last fall. But that is the energy in the Democratic Party, is in the activist, antiwar left.

But I think that there's a bail-out or recouping of position by saying that we won't send troops in, if they aren't trained, aren't up-armored, don't have the body armor themselves. And the only exception would be if the president certifies that it's necessary to send troops in who have not had an interval of training, have not had an interval of civilian time, stateside time between assignments.

So I think David's right: You can't do a do-over. They're trying to get a second vote on the 2002.

Defining Democratic policy?

David Brooks
The New York Times
The Democrats do not have a clearly understandable policy. They've got this subterfuge about changing the schedules, which as Murtha said is just an excuse to starve the surge. Then they've got this, "Go back to 2002."

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that idea?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's OK. The president says, "This is not the war we went into. This is the war we're fighting." So it is different. I think you can lay down different terms for where we are now and what we're about. But I don't think you can come back and sort of repeal what happened in 2002.

DAVID BROOKS: The difference is, Bush takes a look at Baghdad. He says, "We've got to pacify Baghdad to give the Maliki government the space to do what it needs to do," so he says we're going to send in 20,000 more troops. That is a clearly understandable policy, whether you think it will work or not.

The Democrats do not have a clearly understandable policy. They've got this subterfuge about changing the schedules, which as Murtha said is just an excuse to starve the surge. Then they've got this, "Go back to 2002."

If they want to get out, and if they think it's lost, do what Governor Vilsack said, "We think we should get out. Here's our timetable. We think we should get out.'

Instead, you've got Hillary Clinton at first saying, "We're going to cap," and then changing her position a week later, and saying a 90-day withdrawal. You've got slow withdrawal with Obama. You've got subterfuge. You've got nothing. You've just a series of dodges.

MARK SHIELDS: You don't have a party speak with a single voice, David, when you're out of power.

DAVID BROOKS: They've had resolutions coming up in the House. Put forward a resolution.

MARK SHIELDS: They put forward a resolution. It carried in the House last week. They'd like to put up a resolution in the Senate, as well.

But, I mean, the only policy the Republicans have is the president's policy. And it's increasingly winning less and less support, both in the country and in his own Republican caucus.

DAVID BROOKS: Well...

JIM LEHRER: Well?

DAVID BROOKS: ... you know, I think they -- it's popular now to be against the war. It's not popular to seem to be cutting the rug from under the troops, so the Democrats are trying to answer both those poll results, but you've just got to get away from the polls.

Walter Reed treatment

David Brooks
The New York Times
And so and then there are stories of people who have had brain injuries who are wandering off because they can't be reminded of their appointments. It's just one thing after another. It is the worst bureaucratic malfeasance.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the troops, what do you think of the Walter Reed story that the Washington Post broke and has been covering?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, I'd like to say it's a great tribute to the positive power of a free press. That Dana Priest and Anne Hull and the editors of the Washington Post put it on the front page on a Sunday and a Monday, and it got a result.

Families all over this country have been complaining about the treatment out there. It got nowhere. It didn't get a hearing in the Congress. It didn't get the kind of coverage it should have gotten.

And there's a terrible political reality here. These people, these young Americans who've gone over there, and they're wounded, are not -- their parents do not summer in Nantucket or Santa Fe. Their mothers don't wear designer originals. Their fathers are not friends of Bill, and they aren't Pioneers or Rangers for George W. Bush.

These people come from modest backgrounds, and they don't have any clout. They don't have any lobbyists on their side. They don't have any political action committee. They have absolutely no advocates and no voice, and, in this case, the free press was their voice.

Shame on all of us for not being there first. I mean, I haven't been out to Walter Reed myself, and I haven't been aware. But it's more than Building 18. It isn't a mold story or a mice story.

It's a story about bureaucratic indifference, about making these -- putting them in an adversarial relationship, instead of recognizing the enormous cost that you pay for going into combat, and the psychological trauma and damage and wounds that these people carry for the rest of their life.

DAVID BROOKS: First, on the first point, the power of the press, we actually have some big newspapers here in Washington. There are cities all around the country where there won't be that kind of investigative reporters in City Hall stories like this one, parallel, will just not be uncovered. It's a good reminder about that.

Second, about the bureaucracy...

JIM LEHRER: Because it does take...

JIM LEHRER: ... they worked on that story four months. Two of the top reporters worked on that story for four months.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: And they followed up on just people calling them and whatever, and they hung in there. Yes, but go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: And so that is not going to happen because of what's happening to the newspaper business. But then on the bureaucracy, I was struck -- I mean, when you read the story, there's one thing after another. You're sort of struck by -- I was struck by, to get in and out of the system, somebody had to file 22 documents, to eight different commands, with 16 different information systems.

The Army's three personnel databases don't communicate with each other. You know, what's going on?

And so and then there are stories of people who have had brain injuries who are wandering off because they can't be reminded of their appointments. It's just one thing after another. It is the worst bureaucratic malfeasance.

Remedying the situation

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I mean, this didn't happen this week. They've been working on this story. This has happened before. I got a sense from Secretary Gates today there was a sense of outrage.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Judy Woodruff interviewed a guy here last night who had a serious brain injury and was asked, "Do you want to do inpatient or do you want to do outpatient?" He was asked. You know, it was up to him. And he had to take a taxi to go back and forth, you know, to find out where to go.

Do you have a feeling that -- Gates spoke out today; we ran what he said -- do you have the feeling that this thing is going to be fixed?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that -- I was grateful that Secretary Gates is there and not Secretary Rumsfeld, because, you know, it's been -- the administration has been in power for six years. This war is going on its fifth year.

I mean, this didn't happen this week. They've been working on this story. This has happened before. I got a sense from Secretary Gates today there was a sense of outrage.

He did something that General Kiley didn't do. General Kiley tried to shoot the messenger, said it was a one-sided story, and kind of blamed the Post for reporting this. I mean, Secretary Gates, to his credit, just stood up there and said, "No, I've looked at this. This is not one-sided. This is an outrage, and it has to be remedied."

DAVID BROOKS: To be fair, this is the one thing I would not blame on Donald Rumsfeld. I mean, I thought he was a terrible secretary of defense, but there's one thing he's good at it. It is kicking the rear end of the bureaucracy and streamlining bureaucratic procedures.

And he obviously didn't get to this, but I think this is one thing he's good at. The Pentagon bureaucracy, this huge behemoth, this is kind of what you get, 22 documents you've got to fill out.

MARK SHIELDS: He streamlined the United States Army to the point where it's 40 percent the size it was in Vietnam, and we're calling up National Guard units in four different states.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the personnel is also part of the problem, understand.

JIM LEHRER: One quick question. We mentioned -- somebody mentioned Tom Vilsack earlier. Today, he withdrew and he said it was all about money. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, you've got to raise really $70 million to $100 million, to be a first-year candidate, at least $25 million, and that's hard for somebody like that.

MARK SHIELDS: It's easier to raise money as a governor than it is as an ex-governor.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning what?

MARK SHIELDS: Meaning that, when you're governor, there's a lot of people who want to show up at your parties and write checks in hopes of maybe even getting an asphalt contract at some point or just being on good terms with the state agencies. And once you're out of office, they'll send you a Christmas card instead of a check.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of a Christmas card, we have seven other things to talk about tonight, and we just ran out of time. Thank you so much. I'm sorry. Goodbye.