TOPICS > Politics

In Wake of Iraq Report, Troop Levels Stir Debate

April 11, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
Loading the player...
This week, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker spoke to Congressional panels about the current situation in Iraq and President Bush backed shorter Iraq troop tours. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week in the news.

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

David, do you detect any real change, any real movement in Pennsylvania before the April 22nd primary?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Not at this point, certainly no change in the ads. Those are some of the most conventional political ads you could see. You see the same kind of ads every cycle; I doubt they’ll move anybody.

I think the basic momentum of this race on the Democratic side is Obama going along smoothly, really no problems, continued potholes for the Clinton campaign. Mark Penn was fired, or pushed out, or “Rumsfelded” out. And…

JIM LEHRER: “Rumsfelded” out. Is that your view, Mark?

DAVID BROOKS: Slightly pushed out, much too late, that sort of thing. And Bill Clinton stepped in it again by bringing up this issue of the Tuzla airport and what Hillary did and didn’t say, what didn’t happen, and some reporter mentioned that in Bill Clinton’s speech he crammed six falsehoods into one little, brief snippet.

So that was another stumble for — basically, the momentum is Obama was gaining for awhile in Pennsylvania. Now it seems to have stabilized with Clinton with a 6-, 9-point lead, somewhere around there.

JIM LEHRER: Six-, nine-point lead.

How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I see it not dissimilarly from the way David does. I do think the ads make sense, more sense, especially the one Obama showed, and there’s another one, personal, that we didn’t have time for of Hillary, and that is the sense of they have to connect with voters at a personal level.

The doubts about Obama are not about his ability to change things or to be inspirational, to be smart, or to be different. It’s am I safe with him? Are his values my values? And that’s what that ad was about, was establishing that his values are your values, that he is very much an American, even though his personal narrative is different from that, the overwhelming majority of Americans having grown-up in Indonesia, dad Kenyan, mother from Kansas.

And Senator Clinton, the same thing, I mean, she’s got one where she talks about playing pinochle growing up in Pennsylvania. It is a sense of trying to communicate.

But his problem is that he has to do that. Am I safe with him, in the sense not simply of commander-in-chief, but on the values? Hers is, can I trust her? And that’s where David’s point comes in.

I mean, those contradictions, the president, President Clinton, saying that she actually, you know, said it once, at 11 o’clock at night…

JIM LEHRER: This is when she was landing in Bosnia.

MARK SHIELDS: When she was in Bosnia.


MARK SHIELDS: You know, it’s just — and then whether she was for NAFTA or she wasn’t for NAFTA, you know, they reinforce and they underline the doubt that voters have about her and about the Clintons is, can I trust them?

Democratic race turns polite

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think there is just disgust with politics. And as conventional as these are, the negative ads would really turn people off.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Are you surprised at all, David, that these ads have not gone negative? There was an expectation that not only the ads, this entire campaign was going to get negative the closer we got to Pennsylvania, that they started moving closer. In other words, Obama and Clinton started getting closer, they were going to get more negative.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think that's a couple of things. I think the most important of them is the American people, I think, and especially Democrats, a, are extremely wary of it getting so negative, and I think the voters are enforcing that. They don't want to see the party destroyed.

And I think there is just disgust with politics. And as conventional as these are, the negative ads would really turn people off. I think it's not out of the virtue of the candidates; it's out of the focus groups. I think it just doesn't work.

JIM LEHRER: What about this new feeling -- or maybe it's not a new feeling -- but the increasingly reported feeling that many Democrats -- and it's not so much Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, let's just get this thing over with? Is that beginning to take a toll?

DAVID BROOKS: I think gradually. I think you had a crescendo of that a couple of weeks ago and now people are just waiting. Frankly, not a lot is happening in the campaign. They keep going. They gets more and more exhausted. It just goes on. And finally we'll get a news event in Pennsylvania. We haven't had a news event in quite a while.

JIM LEHRER: For a while, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It isn't happening in the states where it's taking place. I mean, Indiana...

JIM LEHRER: They're hot to go.

MARK SHIELDS: ... oh, in Pennsylvania and in North Carolina coming up, because these states have not been center stage in the past. I mean, it's been over long before it got to them. So they're enjoying very much being the deciders.

JIM LEHRER: The deciders, right.

No minced words on Iraq

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
He [Gen. Petraeus] said, 'Yes, progress,' but he said it's fragile, it could be perishable. The violence could break out again; it has, certainly.

JIM LEHRER: OK, Mark, what did you hear, to the General Petraeus-Ambassador Crocker testimony, what was the message you heard from those two folks this week?

MARK SHIELDS: The fundamental message which the president took from it is that the United States is not going to lose this war by withdrawing on his watch, is not going to lose it, that is, visibly, officially, finally. And he's going to pass it on to the next, his successor, whoever that successor is. I think that's what he took.

JIM LEHRER: From what Petraeus...

MARK SHIELDS: From Petraeus.

JIM LEHRER: What did you hear? What did you hear?

MARK SHIELDS: What did I hear? I heard -- well, I heard the two parties having different. I mean, Petraeus, I think -- and I don't know the man. But I think he's either too honest a man or too good a soldier to have given the party line.

I mean, the party line would have been successful, victories around the corner, whatever else. He refused to do that. He wouldn't go for it for the president. He wouldn't go for it for John McCain.

He said, "Yes, progress," but he said it's fragile, it could be perishable. The violence could break out again; it has, certainly.

And on the Democratic side, you had the sense of, "This is the cost in human terms, the cost diplomatically of our staying, the cost economically and militarily. Our forces are stretched thin," that what has become is Iraq is the centerpiece of all American policy.

And that's a concern, I think, the Democrats -- on the Republican side, especially by Senator McCain, was, if we pull out, it will be a disaster, and victory is within the grasp, and we would be giving it up.

JIM LEHRER: Petraeus-Crocker, first of all?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think you did hear from the questions the increased concern about the cost from the Democrats, also from the Republicans.

But I think there was a crucial moment when Barack Obama was asking questions, and he made -- he said explicitly, "There will be no precipitous withdrawal." And I think people can also see the consequence of that withdrawal, whether they're Democrats and Republicans.

And what struck me was how different the hearings were and the private discussions from the campaign trail, where it's all about, "Let's get out quickly" or, you know, "Let's stay forever."

It is clear what's going to happen. The president will leave behind 100,000 troops. Gates said that he hoped to get it below that by the end of the year; he knows now that's not going to happen. That will allow the next president to reduce it, to some degree, but we'll still have a lot of troops there.

And if the conditions stay as they are in Iraq, I think the expectation is among serious Democratic foreign policy experts we're going to have a lot of troops there for a long time, because the costs of staying are high, the costs of leaving are prohibitive, and there will be a slow, gradual drawdown.

And to me, the temper, the timing of that drawdown will actually not be set in Washington. It will be set in Iraq. If all these truces that now obtain in Iraq continue, then we'll be there. If it blows up, it doesn't matter even if John McCain is president. We're out of there.

JIM LEHRER: How did you read Petraeus' conduct, and his words, and his presentation to the Congress, and of course to the American people?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think all of us who've covered him and Ryan Crocker, who equally -- they're the A Team. They're the best we have. And I think they're candid; they're straightforward; they don't over-promise; they get incredibly detail-oriented.

I was just in an interview with Crocker with a group of columnists. And you couldn't get the guy to make a generalization. It's about, "What are you going to do?" "Well, there's this, but then there's that problem. And then we're going to do this. We're going to have the provincial elections."

It's very detail-oriented. It's very execution-oriented, though they both fervently believe that, if we get out too soon, the war will not the end, the war will escalate, there will be genocide, they will be a terrorist state.

Troop level shifts

David Brooks
The New York Times
The [Iraqi] Sunnis know they're never going to take over again. And now you have this much more complex series of local truces between tribes, between the awakening councils.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you agree with David's general point that it doesn't really matter who the president of the United States is, there's going to be, at least probably, 100,000 troops there when he or she takes over, and that the withdrawal issue will become less political and less relevant once that happens? It's going to depend on what happens on the ground, not what somebody says during the campaign?

Is that what you said?

DAVID BROOKS: That's a good summary.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, reality is always, you know, a major player in these. I think we're delusional, we, the United States, are delusional. There's no way that we can stay there for any kind of indefinite period.

JIM LEHRER: No matter what happens on the ground?

MARK SHIELDS: No matter what happens. I mean, the readiness of the United States military -- I'm talking about talking to military people. They know we're stretched thin to the point of breaking. It is that bad.

Right now, just as an example of what we're facing, three times as many moral waivers had to be given. A moral waiver is given when you're seeking a recruit. You don't want recruits with prison records or rap sheets.

Three times as many had to be given in 2007 as were given three years earlier. Those are people who've committed multiple misdemeanors and/or a felony. And we had the lowest percentage of high school graduates enroll, enlist in 2007 we had in 25 years.

And the reality is this, that if you're not a high school graduate, one half of them don't complete, by the Pentagon's own studies, don't complete basic training. I mean, so when we're giving $40,000 bonuses to enlistees, I mean, a private, I mean, this thing, Jim, we don't have it.

And all three candidates, Obama, McCain and Clinton, all said, "Oh, we're going to expand the military. We're going to expand. Of course, we're going to grow the military."

We can't. We can't. I mean, unless they have the honesty to say, "We're going to have to draft people in this country," and at which point there would be a revolt.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think you can expand the military, but...


DAVID BROOKS: ... we're not going to have 140,000 troops there. We're not going to have that by the end of the year. We're certainly not going to have it with the next administration.

But things have fundamentally changed in Iraq. One the other things that struck me from this, from the last Petraeus and Crocker hearing, back then, when they were talking about the Iraqis, they were talking about the Iraqis who were still looking in the past, with the Sunnis still thinking they could take over, the Shiites wanting to make sure the Sunnis could not take over, still engaged in those kind of conflicts.

Now the conflicts are totally different. Now they really have left behind -- the Sunnis know they're never going to take over again. And now you have this much more complex series of local truces between tribes, between the awakening councils.

And it's how to wield that into a fabric. And wielding that into a fabric in the best-case scenario will not require 140,000. It will maybe require 50,000 or 60,000 to arbitrary truces and things like that, but it will take a long time.

And so that's the thing the country really has to have a debate about. I think most of the experts that you talk to, they think a long, long time of some level. Is the country willing to do that? And that's really where the debate should be.

Iraq still prone to violence

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
You know, there is progress [in Iraq] in the sense that there is less violence and fewer attacks. I mean, the national government is a joke. It is a joke.

JIM LEHRER: But less a combat role. You're saying the combat role will go by the boards and it will be replaced...

DAVID BROOKS: That is the hope. I mean, the next -- Crocker says the next big event is the provincial elections October 1st. If those -- we might see a spike of violence. We may see it all blow up.

But if you actually get some provincial governments semi-functioning, that would be, you know, one small step toward what they have achieved in the last six months.

MARK SHIELDS: You know, there is progress in the sense that there is less violence and fewer attacks. I mean, the national government is a joke. It is a joke. That was a joke, the invasion...


MARK SHIELDS: ... and the surrender in Basra. I mean, it was a surrender, and it was acknowledged as such by people privately. They're very -- very candidly, they will be very frank about it.

And, Jim, I think if you look at where the situation is now, we're still paying for the entire cost. I mean, I don't know where the corners we've turned -- and that was what impressed me about Petraeus, is that he didn't pretend.

And the president obviously came in yesterday and said he was going to limit future deployments to 12 months.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of turning corners, we're going to do that right now. Thank you both very much.