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Afghanistan Strategy, Budget Pitch Top Week’s News

March 27, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks mull how President Barack Obama's budget blueprint is faring in Congress and discuss his strategy for growing resources and personnel in Afghanistan.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, it’s good to have you both with us.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: It’s good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s start with the president’s rolling out the refined plan on Afghanistan and Pakistan today. David, you’re just back from Afghanistan. Have they defined the problem correctly? And is this the right solution?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think the thing that strikes me is that the president’s plan flows very organically from what I was hearing on the ground, not only from the military people, but from aid workers, from U.N. people, from a whole range of people.

I think there’s a rough consensus in the country about what to do, and the president’s plan encompasses it. And the two big sides are the military side — we’re going to be sending a lot of Marines, especially Marines, but also a Stryker brigade to the south of the country, where the terrorists have essentially had free reign, and that’s going to mean a tough summer, with high casualty rates this summer, and probably a five-year commitment. But there’s a consensus you have to get the security.

But the other part of the plan is the civilian side. And we’ve had this huge military presence and a very small and not-so-effective civilian presence. But there is a consensus we really need to get heavily involved in the country for agriculture, but especially for law and order and governance, to give the local governing institutions some credibility. And this does that, as well.

So it is nation-building. It is a very big doubling-down. The president sort of tried to mask that over with some moderate rhetoric, but this is a big, long commitment, but it definitely reflects what people in the country think is needed.

High casualty rates likely

David Brooks
The New York Times
[W]ithin [Afghanistan] among the western officials who are there, there's a great deal of optimism, a great deal of commitment to this, a great confidence that they can succeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you said they're already saying they expect high casualties?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, the military officers, especially in the south, expect that this summer they're going to go into places they've never been before. We have no idea who's there. We know the terrorists are there. And they expect, when that first contact is made, there is going to be some high casualty rates.

And that's going to be a political issue, because I think that, within the country among the western officials who are there, there's a great deal of optimism, a great deal of commitment to this, a great confidence that they can succeed.

Back home, I'm not sure that confidence is here. And if we get those high casualty rates, that will be a political challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the plan, Mark, realistic?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think -- I defer to David's more immediate reporting on it, but, I mean, from people I talk to, I think it is realistic.

I think there is a -- there's a gnawing question, Judy, on several grounds, one, the history of Afghanistan, the thousands of years, the countries that have gone in and with great hopes and great plans and foundered.

But I think the difference now, beyond the new president and the plan he's laid out and his leadership, is that we're a different nation from where we were seven years ago when this began. There isn't the enthusiasm; there isn't the support in this country.

CNN had a poll today whether you favor the war in Afghanistan or you oppose it. And it was 47 percent favor the war, 51 percent oppose. That's a decided, profound difference.

And the point David was making about whether, in fact, there is a tolerance and a patience for increased casualties, American casualties this summer, which virtually every authority or expert suggests is going to be the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about after the public hears the president's explanation? Does that help the case at all?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he makes -- always makes a good case. He's a very strong advocate. He always sounds very reasonable. The plan sounds reasonable. It's got broad-based support.

But I don't think -- you know, I don't think that's something right now that is on the national radar, in the sense of the same way going into Iraq was or going into Afghanistan was originally.

Now it seems like a task rather than a mission, I mean, an important task, but -- if one thinks about it. But there just isn't that sense of urgency and sort of all-out support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it fatigue with war? Is it distraction with the economy, much more urgent for the American people? What is it?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, I think it's both. And, again, you have to differentiate between the homefront and over there. The homefront, there is fatigue with the war, but we're going to be distracted. I think this will not be a big story, except for periodically.

But what struck me is, among the military, I mean, a lot of the people there served in Iraq. And the aid workers, too, served in Iraq. They've been out of the country in these really very harsh places for years and years and years. And what struck me was their incredible commitment to staying.

And the other thing to be said is, we are a much better military at this. One thing that struck me with talking from privates to generals, counterinsurgency is now bred in their bones. And that means they know there's no military -- purely military solution.

They all want to talk about governance. They all want to talk about agriculture, about schools. They know that's the way you win this war. So we are just a lot better at this.

And then the final thing to be said is, they much prefer the Afghan people to the Iraqi people, to be blunt about it. They think they're more cooperative, more welcoming.

And Mark said it's a very frustrating place. I mean, there are high school teachers who are illiterate. It's a very frustrating place, but there's more of a sense of common purpose, I think, than there was in Iraq.

Banking plan 'very prudent'

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Secretary Geithner did a lot better than he had done. I mean, the bar had not been high, but he seemed a lot more confident, a lot more in command, and got a far better response this week than he did initially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back here at home, let me ask you about the economy and what's been going on, Mark. The administration rolled out this week the plan to help the big banks get rid of these toxic assets. We just heard Jeffrey Brown doing that interview. How's the administration doing on that front? How's Secretary Geithner doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Secretary Geithner did a lot better than he had done. I mean, the bar had not been high, but he seemed a lot more confident, a lot more in command, and got a far better response this week than he did initially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that mean he's gotten his groove? I mean, what's changed?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know. I mean, I'd give him a 9.7 on style. No, I think that the president has had several times now publicly used major forums to say, "He's my secretary of the treasury. I wouldn't let him quit even if he wanted to."

It's a little reminiscent for baseball fans of saying, "He's our manager. He'll be our manager." But I think that there's no question his -- the questions about his job security seem to have abated and cut off later in the week.

DAVID BROOKS: Because they went up 400 points. I mean, I thought he was the same guy, it was the same plan. But I guess, in the first case, the herd psychology, the mean girls were allowed to get him, and now the mean girls all like him, so he went up.

I mean, I think he's the same guy with the same plan. It was just the herd psychology shifted for whatever reason herd psychology shifts.

I think -- you know, I can't analyze every single economic part of it. But just as a political manner, it strikes me as extremely prudential. The big debate is, do you nationalize or do you have these public-private partnerships? And the core issue is, in what bad shape are the banks?

And the fact is, we don't know. But we do know, if you nationalize, that's irrevocable. You will never get back from that. So this plan which he's come out with...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the administration is trying not to do that.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, so this is an intermediate step. Let's not do the irrevocable step. Let's do the step to see if this works. And that strikes me as a very prudent way to go about this.

Congressional budget vote to come

David Brooks
The New York Times
The Democrats have cut back, in the Congress, have cut back some of the spending. But they've really cut back the revenue side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's also this budget out there. The president has been out there pushing in public day after day. How is that shaping up? Does it look like he may get what he wants?

MARK SHIELDS: He's going to get most of what he wants. His priorities will be intact. There were fault lines that emerged this week between congressional Democrats and the Obama White House, really for the first time publicly. There'd been some tension on the original stimulus bill, but they were really clear.

And they were, I think, sparked in large part, Judy, by the Congressional Budget Office prediction that -- statement -- that the national debt was going to just skyrocket under this plan. And there was an understandable nervousness and anxiety among congressional Democrats on this level.

And they were saved. They were saved. They were rescued by the Republicans, who, unable to help themselves, called a press conference to announce their budget, which, unlike most budgets you're familiar with in Washington, didn't have any numbers in it.

And they became an object of scorn and ridicule universally. I mean, it wasn't a question of partisan reaction. And it rescued the Democrats from what had been sort of a family squabble.

They reported out the budget of the president with some minor cuts, along party lines, both the House and the Senate. And next week they'll be voting on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the public expect the Republicans to come up with their own budget? I mean, they said they were going to. It was 18 pages long and may have had a couple of numbers in it, but, David...

DAVID BROOKS: What's this tyranny of numbers? I was a history major. I don't like numbers any more than anybody else. Of course, I don't write budgets.

It was a bit of a joke. It was meant to establish the fact the Republicans really don't like federal spending. It was not a budget you could actually use if you were actually in government.

It was sort of this symbolic thing, and it was a bit of a joke, because if you were in government, you would not be freezing spending in the middle of an economic crisis, believe me.

But I do think it laid out the main concern, which was the deficits, and that's my concern with even how this budget is evolving. The Democrats have cut back, in the Congress, have cut back some of the spending. But they've really cut back the revenue side.

The cap-and-trade part of the -- the energy package, which generates about $650 billion, that's probably gone. A lot of the other revenue things are probably gone. So they've cut back a little on the spending. They've certainly cut a lot back on the revenue. So I still think there's a gigantic deficit problem.

Card-check measure controversial

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[President Obama], unlike Bill Clinton, is comfortable with unions and was an organizer. So I think he has a commitment to it which the Clintons never had to labor unions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Change of subject again, so-called card-check, this proposed measure that would allow the labor unions to make it easier for them, in so many words, to organize, a major -- something they were counting on. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, changed his mind this week. It looks like it may be dead. Why is it so...

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know if it's dead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do you...

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was hurt, there's no question. Sen. Specter's defection, he had supported it two years ago when George Bush was in the White House. And he had a poll this week that showed him 16 points behind a conservative challenger in the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary in 2010. And that was an epiphany of sorts.

And he did, in fact -- this was very much of a position that was popular in a general election in Pennsylvania, but certainly not in a Republican primary.

I think -- would you want to know about card-check or do you want to -- beyond that? I mean, I think that...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes...

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think the greatest misunderstanding...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is it so tough, I guess is my question?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there's a couple of misunderstandings. I mean, one, obviously, the opponents have framed the issue, "Are you for a secret ballot or are you not for a secret ballot?" Which I think is, quite frankly, misleading.

We don't have free elections about unions in this country. The fact is that, if I'm an employer and David is trying to organize workers, I can spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week persuading, proselytizing my workers. David cannot even do that on the premises.

In other words, I guess the comparison would be, if I were a candidate for re-election to the Congress of the United States and David were my challenger, I could say to him, "David, you can campaign any place except in the congressional district. And if you do come in, I'll fire you."

And that's what's happened over and over again. They've postponed elections, and they've been denied elections. We've now reached a point in the country where over half the people want to belong to unions, want the chance to belong to unions, and they don't have that chance.

And just one little figure. In George Bush's National Labor Relations Board, which is not a pro-union group, in 2007, 29,975 workers were reinstated for having been fired unfairly and illegally for just trying to join a union.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just make a political point on why I think it's probably dead this year, I would often ask Democratic Party fundraisers -- they're getting all this money, the Obama campaign. And I'd say, "Don't those rich people giving you money mind that their taxes are going to go up?" And the answer I would always get back was, "They really don't mind the tax increases. They're fine with that. It's card-check they hate."

And so I think there's a big Democratic donor base that does not want to push this. So there's a group of people in the Democratic Party who want it; there's a large group secretly saying, "Phew."

MARK SHIELDS: The secret weapon is Obama, is President Obama. He, unlike Bill Clinton, is comfortable with unions and was an organizer. So I think he has a commitment to it which the Clintons never had to labor unions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to leave there. We have a commitment to both of you and to the clock. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.