Iraqi Government Benchmarks, Blair Legacy Assessed
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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, the saga of Iraq funding legislation continues. President Bush now says he will accept benchmarks. Is that a big deal?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: It is a big deal, Jim, I mean, in the sense that here we are, in the fifth year of a war. I’m reminded of the great wisdom of the late Arthur Schlesinger, they’re all wars that are popular for the first 30 days, and the shelf life of this one is long since past.
And we’re now — apparently, the Congress and the president are going to somehow get together and define what success and failure and victory and defeat are. And it’s a commentary in that sense. It is a move on the president’s part.
JIM LEHRER: He’s never accepted that. And my reading of it was he had never said, “I will accept benchmarks.” Am I right about that, David?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, he’s certainly talked about benchmarks. It’s the linkage to cutting off funding that I think…
MARK SHIELDS: Right, but now we’re going to agree on what benchmarks are. I mean, that’s rather remarkable in the fifth year of a war, I mean, to do that.
I think it is significant of the president. I think it’s a reflection. The story this week was not the House Democrats passing what they passed or even what’s going to happen in the conference between the House and the Senate on it, eventually before Memorial Day.
The real story, Jim, is — it sounds like an oxymoron — the revolt of the moderates. I mean, the Republicans…
JIM LEHRER: Yes, we’ll get to that in a minute. But I just want to see what you think, David, about how big a shift is this of the president? And is it likely to lead to anything?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it’s a tremendous shift. It’s a shift. It’s a desire to show flexibility, but he has talked about the benchmarks. In fact, he’s talked about the same benchmarks on the de-Baathification, the oil law, and all that. He just hasn’t linked them to cutting off funding.
And I think the better way to see it is sort of as a climate, an atmospheric pressure building against what Bush is doing. But I think it’s a very gradual building, especially on the Republican side. And I think what we’re likely to see is — really, until September. I think most Republicans in the House, Senate, have given the president until September. And then, in their mind, that’s decision time.
And then the second thing that is clearly building, I think in the White House and also in the Congress, is a move toward the Baker-Hamilton report. We just saw Lee Hamilton on the last segment, but their report, talking to Iran, doing a lot of that stuff in the region.
There’s much more support in the White House, and there’s always been a lot of support on Capitol Hill. And I think there’s a move also gradual in that direction, as well.
Avoiding another election on Iraq
JIM LEHRER: I noticed that Senator Lamar Alexander from -- yes, I was just going to say that Senator Lamar Alexander, conservative senator from Tennessee, has said, once this is all said and done, he's going to introduce a bill that would, in fact, would adopt the Hamilton-Baker report as legislation, in fact.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, probably, for the administration's sake, six months too late, I mean, if they had embraced it. I think it's bigger than David thinks it is, because, Jim...
JIM LEHRER: You mean what the president has done?
MARK SHIELDS: What the president has done, because the restiveness and the restlessness in the Republican ranks, it takes this form. They're not worried -- there are people obviously, maybe 110, 120 Republicans, who couldn't lose irrespective of what happened in the country, the economy, internationally. But they don't want to face a next Congress...
JIM LEHRER: Couldn't lose re-election.
MARK SHIELDS: Couldn't lose re-election, but they don't want to face re-election, Jim, with a corporal's guard of 140 members in the House of Representatives.
The best statement that was made, I think, that said more than anything else all week was made by Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, who said the Republicans would like to avoid another election on Iraq.
I mean, he was very blunt and very candid that they feel they lost their majority because of it in 2006. They cannot go into an election in 2008, they can't wait beyond September of 2007 to change their position and to change the administration, because they look -- they change in 2008, it's going to look shameless and hypocritical.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but that atmosphere has been there for three years. They didn't want to face the last election with Iraq, but President Bush drew them to it. So I don't think there's been a gradual change.
The other thing that's happened is the Republicans keep getting pushed back into the White House by the Democrats. What the House passed, for example, this week, which was...
JIM LEHRER: Funding through July.
DAVID BROOKS: ... funding through July, the Republicans think that's just terrible policy. Roy Blunt told me today, he said, "If you say we're going"...
JIM LEHRER: He's one of the leaders of the House, right.
DAVID BROOKS: He's a House Republican. And he said, you know, if we give like a two-month window, that just gives the insurgents an incentive to kill as many people as they can over the next two months and as a way to chase us out. We've got to have one constant stream of policy.
So they don't want to be casting these votes. But the Democrats have pushed them back to the White House by adopting what is a pretty partisan way of approaching this issue.
MARK SHIELDS: The funding, because the president has, until this week, resisted any benchmarks, any cooperation, any collegiality, this is the first sign that there's any partnership between the Congress and the executive.
Jim, John Boehner, who is Roy Blunt's senior in the Republican leadership, said in the debate on the floor three weeks ago, every blood, ounce of American blood spilt since the revolution will be wasted, will be lost if, in fact, we do not win in Iraq.
OK, that's about as straightforward as you can get. He's now saying, if the things haven't improved profoundly by September, members are going to demand a Plan B. In other words, they're laying the groundwork. They're getting ready, and they're just warning the president that his time is short.
The will of the people
JIM LEHRER: David, starting with you, when we go back -- both of you began immediately talking about this in political terms, the Republicans this, the Democrats this, this, that. And I, in the last two or three interviews I have done with members of Congress, members of the Senate, members of the House, the divisions are always on party lines on Iraq now.
I mean, there are some who are now talking privately about various things, but the fact of the matter is, this is a partisan issue. Republicans have one view, supporting the president; Democrats have another view, to pull out, period, right?
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, I don't think that was necessary. As I said, for two or three years, Republicans -- I would say most Republicans have wanted to be out of Iraq. They're tired of the issue. They really have no hope. I have had many House Republicans tell me, "They want to have a civil war, there's nothing we can do to stop them." And that's the private belief.
And I think if the Democrats, when they took the majority, had said, "Hey, we're just going to cast it off, and what should we do about Iraq?" they would have had a very fluid situation, maybe a majority of Republicans toward some sort of moderate position. But that's now how the debate evolved, mostly because of the psychology of the House.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the Democrats look at it, they say 70 percent of the people of the country are with us. I mean, this week, we saw the Gallup poll, where people want a timetable for withdraw, irrespective of what's happening on the ground, a healthy, substantial majority of people.
So they feel they're on the right side, that the House of Representatives is representing the American will here, and that the Republicans, the one group in the country, are loyal, intense, militant Republicans who still support the president. And that's their argument.
DAVID BROOKS: The polls are mixed on how we should de-fund and how we should withdraw. There, it's more mixed.
There's one other fact here, and have I always hesitated to say this, but I think it's true, so I might as well say it. There are a couple score of people on Capitol Hill who really know this issue. There are a lot of people who really don't know this issue. They know the polls.
And when you have an interview with a lot of people, you can't tell the depth of their knowledge about Iraq. And I've asked other people, "Do they really know Iraq?" The people who do -- and we can point to the senators on both sides here.
We know Carl Levin knows Iraq. We know Jack Reed knows Iraq. We know Joe Biden knows Iraq. We know Chuck Hagel knows Iraq. We know Cornyn. We know there are certainly people who really know this issue. John McCain knows Iraq.
A lot of people just read the polls, and they're sort of guessing about Iraq. And so one of the reasons I think it plays so politically is because people don't know the policy. They know the politics of it.
The Baker-Hamilton Commission
JIM LEHRER: You see that that way?
MARK SHIELDS: I think people, as far as the sophisticated history, I mean, probably nobody in Congress had any grasp approaching that of Tony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander and four-star Marine general, prior to, and up to, and throughout the war.
I think some people have schooled themselves in it. I think people are -- I mean, I think people know that this is -- I think they understand this is a disaster, how it became a disaster. It's a military disaster, an economic disaster, a diplomatic disaster. By no measurement is the United States better off today because of this war.
JIM LEHRER: But you don't find it unusual that something as complicated and as important as this, you could just draw a line, every major vote, it's Republicans vote one way, Democrats vote another. It doesn't matter if it's the House or Senate or how much anybody knows.
MARK SHIELDS: And I think that all the restlessness and all the restiveness is on the Republican side. The Republicans want to leave their position.
I mean, that's -- I mean, do I find it -- I don't find it surprising, Jim, when the president, you know, decided to choose re-election. I think history will go back to September 11th and say, "George W. Bush, indelibly counseled by Karl Rove made a fateful and fatal decision."
He could have governed at that point forward as a center-right Eisenhower figure, by bringing two or three Democrats into his administration and going forward, and not pushing tax cuts, and not pushing -- he decided to rule the country and lead the country solely with Republican votes. That's what they are...
DAVID BROOKS: But there's a psychology here that I think Nancy Pelosi and Reid have been consciously partisan. They knew they were sacrificing stuff by being partisan. Bush has certainly been partisan.
But the bottom line is -- and I think is sort of what you're suggesting -- is that, if you took people with a blind vote, not a party vote, and said, "Do you support the Baker-Hamilton commission?" Eighty percent of the Congress would support it. "Do you support the Biden plan, some sort of soft partition?" Eighty percent would support that.
You would have that support if people were voting their conscience, but it's the psychology of the institution which is preventing it.
MARK SHIELDS: And not to be partisan, but Democrats embraced Baker-Hamilton. The Democrats praised Baker-Hamilton. They urged the president. The president was the one and the administration was the one that...
DAVID BROOKS: But that's not how they're framing it. They're framing it, "Should we get out by July? Should we get out in whatever, in some odd days?" That is the kind of approach that is guaranteed to be partisan.
MARK SHIELDS: The only way you can force a decision is with the purse strings of Congress. I mean, the president, up until this week, I mean, benchmarks, he hasn't even wanted to discuss them.
Giving credit to Tony Blair
JIM LEHRER: Quick two other subjects before we go. Tony Blair, what words would you express today, tonight about Tony Blair?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's a lot better politician than the British are giving him credit for. I thought he was the last liberal interventionist.
He gave a great speech in 1999, where he said, we're in a global world. A lot of this stuff about nation-states, that's going by the wayside because we're so joined by economics, by the threat of disease. And we've got to think anew about how we handle this world. We've got to create a global community.
And his support for the war in Iraq was part of that, to create a global community where nations and terrorist forces that seemed to upset the idea of a global community where we could all trade and live together, he thought that was a logical extension of that, that we have to intervene in other countries. And that cause, liberal internationalism, is now hurt because of what's happened in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: Tony Blair?
MARK SHIELDS: A talented political figure, towering talents, compared to Bill Clinton, similar in talents. The tragedy is Bill Clinton's downfall was because of personal reckless behavior; his was a matter of policy and judgment, which, you know, unfortunately, with sorrow, the achievement in Northern Ireland is monumental and historic. And he deserves great credit, as does Clinton and does George Mitchell.
And the man who put global warming and poverty on the national agenda, I mean, a lot of good, but Iraq, the four-letter word, remains.
JIM LEHRER: And I had another subject, but I'm not going to tell you what it is, because we don't have time. Thank you both very much.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.