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Iraq, Democratic Rivalry Top the Week’s Headlines

March 28, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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New violence in Iraq pitted security forces against Shiite militias, likely GOP nominee Sen. John McCain outlined his foreign policy plans and Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean called for a cooling of the rhetoric between presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week.

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

On Iraq, David, President Bush said it was a defining moment in history, this going after — the government going after the Shiite militias. Do you see it that way?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, it certainly is an important moment and what’s happening, from abroad, is really hard to figure out what’s going on, there are so many conflicting reports.

But if you cover the Palestinian territories, if you cover Lebanon, one of the crucial issues in those sorts of countries is, does the government have monopoly of force? And if, indeed, what this is happening is the government of Maliki trying to establish a monopoly of force, that is to say to de-fang these militias, including the Mahdi Army of Sadr, then that’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing if that’s what’s happening. And it would be a really good thing if they would actually win. And both those things are in doubt.

But it certainly would be a good thing if they could crush the militias and establish real authority. There are other factors in here which do complicate that, of course.


Crackdown threatens perceptions

David Brooks
The New York Times
This isn't like the past insurgent violence, where the violence starts from the insurgents at the government. This was violence initiated by the government, the government going after the militias.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, two factors. First, the U.S. military ascribes the surge a success and the reduced violence to three factors: more troops; the cease-fire on Sadr's part; and, third, the Sunnis' cooperation.

And, quite frankly, all three are now, I think, in jeopardy. This has been the one bright spot in all the polling, all the public opinion about Iraq, even though constantly...

JIM LEHRER: You mean U.S. public opinion?

MARK SHIELDS: U.S. public opinion, by a 2-1 margin, that they think it was not a good decision to go in, wasn't worth it in blood and treasure to make that decision to invade and occupy, but that the surge had worked and was working and it was a one positive.

And now -- and when we had the five-year anniversary, that was the one bright spot that sort of the administration and John McCain, we hadn't got it right, not enough troops going in at the outset, but now we've got Gates instead of Rumsfeld, we've got Petraeus instead of Tommy Franks and all those other generals, and things are going swimmingly.

And if that comes undone, the political implications in this country will be profound. I mean, I really believe that.

DAVID BROOKS: And I would just say that this isn't like the past insurgent violence, where the violence starts from the insurgents at the government. This was violence initiated by the government, the government going after the militias.

And so it's a slightly different deal. I mean, it could turn out to be a disaster, believe me, if they don't beat the Mahdi Army. But if they do beat them, this will be a step forward. And so it's different from all the other violence that's happened before.

JIM LEHRER: And it's a Shia government, remember, going after a Shia militia.

MARK SHIELDS: The Sunnis are restless and rested. They feel the pledge and the promise to incorporate them into the military has not been honored, that that in itself is a problem.

And plus, we've got American bombers bombing. I mean, you know...

JIM LEHRER: And helicopter gun ships are supporting this.

MARK SHIELDS: And there's going to be civilian deaths and there's going to be pictures of that. And that's -- I'm not saying it's a game-changer, but it certainly is going to make an awful lot of people revisit their feelings and attitudes on this war.

McCain departs from Bush line

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
John McCain did, in fact, I thought, emphasize that he was going to work with democracies to the exclusion of other nations.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Mark, let's move right in then to the presidential campaign, U.S. presidential campaign. John McCain made a major speech today on foreign policy -- I mean, this week on foreign policy. How did you read what he said about, in terms of contrasting his view of foreign affairs and that of George W. Bush?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, other than his area of agreement, which is Iraq, and where he's emphasized differences with the administration in the past, but, I mean, in support of the Iraqi policy, I mean, he emphasized a lot of places of disagreement.

I mean, that John McCain is his own man, whether it's the closing of Guantanamo, whether it's the refusal to use torture as a policy of -- an instrument of American policy, the sense of communality and collegiality among nations, reaching to the allies, that time that a post-Kyoto treaty would be negotiated, I mean, right across the board.

And there were areas of disagreement and independence that we had come to expect. The one difference...


MARK SHIELDS: ... is Iraq. And John McCain did, in fact, I thought, emphasize that he was going to work with democracies to the exclusion of other nations, that he really had a problem with non -- I mean, Putin and other autocrats. And I think that could be a sticking point for a McCain policy.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the comparison?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I would say, first, the speech I thought was important for a number of reasons. One, he moved away from Bush on whether American foreign policy pivots around terror.

Terror was an issue for him, but so were a whole range of other issues, including great power rivalries with Russia and China, including resource issues, a whole range of other issues.

The second area I thought he broke was he made it clear the U.S. is not the unipolar power that's going to dominate the world. There are a lot of powers in the world. We just have -- we are a citizen among these...

JIM LEHRER: Did you find that a major change from George W. Bush?

DAVID BROOKS: Certainly from the first days of George W. Bush. Bush tore up all these treaties on the ground that it's not in our national interest. McCain would say, "Well, our national interest is important, but the fabric of global institutions is also important. We tear up these treaties and we ruin that fabric. We've hurt ourselves."

So what he really did was try to restore what really is a long tradition of American politics, which has been in both parties, which starts with Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, and especially Harry Truman, who he kept mentioning.

And that's a tradition that says the world needs a strong America, but one that is part of a global system. And a crucial sentence in that speech was: America didn't win the Cold War. An American-led community of nations won the Cold War.

MARK SHIELDS: And that's attacking the theology of the conservative movement, I mean, because that's Article One, is that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. And that's the automatic applause line in every -- so, I mean, that was a little bit heretical and independent and bold.

Obama, McCain's stances similar

David Brooks
The New York Times
I would say [Obama] and McCain are not too far off. They might have different impulses here and there, but they have both an aggressive belief in American power, but within the community of nations. They're both part of Harry Truman, basically.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now take the next step. Compare what McCain laid out as a philosophy of dealing with foreign affairs with the Obama-Clinton approach. We've talked on this program before there's not a dime's worth of difference on a lot of these things.

Taking Iraq aside, how would you compare Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's approach to foreign affairs to John McCain's? That's a difficult question.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, no, it is, and it's a good question. And, I mean, I don't think that either one has given a speech as full and comprehensive as McCain has given.


MARK SHIELDS:  I mean, they've given on independent, discrete subjects, but McCain did give a worldview, which, you know, I think was welcomed by a lot of people. But I haven't heard...

DAVID BROOKS: There was an Obama speech about a year ago, I recall, where he was very interventionist, and it was funny how aggressively interventionist. In some ways...

JIM LEHRER: He talked about Pakistan.

DAVID BROOKS: Pakistan. He talked about going into Darfur and genocide. And there was a lot of commitments of U.S. troops everywhere but Iraq. But in some ways, it was part of that same tradition.

Now, I would say on the campaign trail and in the heat of the primary campaign, he's backed a good ways off that, but he may come back to it in the general election.

And if you just took those two speeches, I would say he and McCain are not too far off. They might have different impulses here and there, but they have both an aggressive belief in American power, but within the community of nations. They're both part of Harry Truman, basically.

Clinton, Obama divide Democrats

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
They're tied. I mean, they really are.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of the heat of the campaign -- this is called a segue in television -- Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, says there's too much heat between Obama and Clinton, people need to cool off a little bit or it's going to destroy the unity of the Democratic Party. What do you think of that?

DAVID BROOKS: When Howard Dean is the Alka-Seltzer of your party, you're a party in trouble, believe me. It's not going to happen. I mean, I have written and I think it should happen. I think she really has no chance, basically, of getting the nomination. She's putting her party through incredible trouble.

You look at the way Barack Obama lines up against independents against John McCain, he used to have a big lead among independents. Now McCain has a big lead because Obama and Clinton are both down against independents. And that's, I think, because of the squabbling of somebody calls somebody else Judas, somebody else compares somebody to Joe McCarthy.

It's squabbling every day, and it's going to go on probably for three months. And Howard Dean can say something, but unless there's a loya jirga of the big Democratic policyholders, like Pat Leahy or Chris Dodd, who've spoken out, then nothing will be settled. And that probably won't happen until June at the earliest, so this will go on in this way.

JIM LEHRER: You know, Senator Leahy today -- of course, he's a supporter of Obama and he supported him fairly early -- today called for Hillary Clinton to drop out. What do you think? You think that's going to happen? Is that where this is headed, an early dropout?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think she should.

JIM LEHRER: You don't?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I really don't. I mean, you know, you say -- I'm sitting here as a Democrat, Howard Dean, and say the most important thing right now for the good of the order and the survival of the country is a Democrat be elected president in November, yes. I mean, I'd like to have her pull out and everybody get behind Obama.

But she -- Jim, the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, Obama and McCain split independents and she gets murdered among independents. But she is highly regarded among Democratic voters. They are tied for the lead for the Democratic nomination. Yes...

JIM LEHRER: They are really tied, aren't they?

MARK SHIELDS: They're tied. I mean, they really are. And she's viewed as experienced, intelligent, strong, strong leader, compassionate. I mean, she's got a lot of qualities. I mean, she's got a lot of downsides, as well. I mean, there's a question whether they can like her or whether they could trust her.

But, I mean, she is very much a favorite of an awful lot of Democrats, but David's right. I mean, if this is simply going to be sniping at 30 yards with heavy arms from now to June, the survivor is going to be a very bruised and battered nominee.

And, most important of all, the most effective advertising that's done by any nominee of a major party is what that nominee's opponents have said about -- primary opponents have said about his...

JIM LEHRER: There's just going to run these things over.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: McCain people will run...

MARK SHIELDS: "I didn't say this. This is what Hillary Clinton, this is what Bill Clinton"...

JIM LEHRER: "This is what Hillary Clinton or this is what Barack Obama said."

MARK SHIELDS: I think Bill Clinton last week on -- wouldn't it be great to have two patriots running for president? I mean, that's a bizarre statement and one that will be recycled.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see any chance -- forget about the dropping out -- let's say -- let's stay with both of you all scenario, this thing is going to go on until June or July -- can it go on without there being mutual destruction of some way? I mean, can they just have a peaceful campaign for...

DAVID BROOKS: I don't see how. I mean, it could be. And what I think should happen is Hillary Clinton should say, "Listen, the odds against me are really long. I'm going to keep running, but I'm not going to attack Obama. I'll run a kind of campaign, maybe a bigger Mike Huckabee campaign at the end there, where he said what he had to say, but he didn't attack. He sort of knew and they kept running him that way."

JIM LEHRER: And say that? In other words, for her to say that right upfront?

DAVID BROOKS: But the fact is, you look at the way the campaigns are structured, you look at the people around the candidates, you look at the competitive juices that have now been stirred up within the candidates, they're going after each other. And every week, there's a drip. Jeremiah Wright didn't hurt Obama among Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: I noticed that. The polls didn't show...

DAVID BROOKS: But it will hurt among independents. Obama's tax reports comes out. It turns out he only gave 0.4 percent to charity for several years there. That's going to hurt. So every day, it's a bunch of little things that open your eyes about both of them, and it can't be good.

JIM LEHRER: Can't be good?

MARK SHIELDS: There is something that could be done, and this is not original with me. Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, came up with the idea, and I think it makes sense.

Instead of going after each other, they ought to have a competition for super-delegate support as to who can be the most effective, articulate, and creative opponent of John McCain. Make the case against John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: And when do they do it?


JIM LEHRER: Right now?

MARK SHIELDS: And so John McCain has a two-front war that he's got to deal with, instead of having a free ride, which he has now under the prevailing civil war the Democrats are in.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, quit talking about each other and talk about McCain?

MARK SHIELDS: ... this is the difference between John McCain and me. This is where we differ. This is where Democrats differ and make that case. And then say to the super-delegates, "Who made the case more comprehensively, cogently and persuasively? And I ought to be the nominee for that reason."

JIM LEHRER: OK. And we hear you both. Thank you very much.