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Shields and Brooks Mull U.S. Response to Iran

June 19, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the Obama administration's response to political turmoil in Iran and new plans to overhaul the financial regulation system.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what do you think of the way President Obama has handled the Iran developments?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: It’s evolving. It started out as most administrations do when a big thing like this happens, when you get this chaotic nonlinear event. They all pull back quickly. Reagan did it. Clinton did it.

And it’s for a couple of reasons. One is, they don’t know what’s going on. You always have to remember, our intelligence is terrible everywhere, and so they just do not know what’s going on.

And so their attitude is, well, I don’t know what’s going on, so I don’t want to cause more harm than good, so let’s do as little as possible.

And then they had — also, their policy momentum was committed to this idea of negotiating with the regime to get the nuclear weapons program killed. So they had these two reasons to do very little.

And so, as a result, their first day’s comments were very tepid and, I thought, out of proportion to the magnificent events that are going on, or at least the giant events.

But slowly they’ve been evolving in a direction, and they’ve been pulled along by the politicians, people like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who have their political antenna saying, “This is big. This is potentially gigantic. We can’t be on the wrong side of history.”

And so they’re evolving, to my mind a little too slowly, but they’re getting to the point where they have to say, “This is about more than the election. This is about more than nuclear weapons. It’s about the regime itself. And can we get any way to get rid of this regime?”

JIM LEHRER: And can the United States — but can the president of the United States say that without making things worse?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wish he would come out and say, “I admire, I’m inspired by what’s going on.” And I wish today he would come out and gather with people from all around the world, including the Arab world, in saying, “The entire world is opposed to a crackdown in Tehran tomorrow, if that’s what’s going to happen. All of us are against it. Don’t you dare.”

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead and say it now? Say it today?

DAVID BROOKS: I would say it before — why wait for the crackdown?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK. All right.

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I think that the president has been measured. I think he’s been sure-footed.

JIM LEHRER: Correctly measured?

MARK SHIELDS: Correctly measured and sure-footed, I really do. And I do not — I think this is a moment when there is a certain tendency to do a little chest-beating and a little, “You know, aren’t we terrific?”

David, I think, is absolutely right. We don’t know not simply what’s going on there, but what will happen if we do A or we do B? And I think, in that sense, expressing identification, support for those who want an open, free, fair election — I mean, I think the United States stands for that. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

I do think that we run the risk, with over-assertiveness, that any regime that’s as dictatorial and totalitarian as this one has been in Iran, its greatest organizing weapon and instrument is outside threat.

And the United States has not clean hands when it comes to Iran, whether it’s Mossadeq in 1954 — and we threw out of office and overthrew a democratically elected because he was too close to the Soviets, we thought — to whether it’s backing the shah all the way through his excesses and his repressiveness, and not seeing the revolution coming, I think that more or less corroborates that we ought to have a little humility in approaching exactly what we ought to do there.

Situation in Iran intensifies

David Brooks
The New York Times
It has been in the case in the Soviet Union, in the Orange Revolution, all the colored revolutions, that a clear American statement calling them evil empire, whatever it was, was appreciated by the dissenters.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about David's point, that here we are, on this Friday night -- we just heard at the top of the program, really, a kind of chilling thing from Lindsey Hilsum of ITN and the discussion that followed that Ray ran that push is about to come -- could be coming to shove here tonight or tomorrow...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: ... literally tomorrow in Iran? And should the United States and the world be saying something official, "Hey, hey, hey, just don't kill people"?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that's -- I think that's -- sending the warning shot, standing up, and making it be known that the whole world is watching. But if they think that there's going to be any intervention by the United States, that would be raising false hopes.

DAVID BROOKS: That's a fair point, and it's been made by people in the administration. You don't make promises you're not going to keep. And, frankly, in the past, we have done that during the Cold War. We did do that, and we sent people out there which we then weren't going to follow. We did it in Iraq after the First Gulf War..

So that's a fair point. It's also a fair point that we don't want to cause more harm than good.

But I would say a couple of things, first about what happened over the last few days. They were holding up signs in English. They were talking to us. The crowds clearly wanted some engagement.

JIM LEHRER: The protestors?

DAVID BROOKS: The protestors. And it has been in the case in the Soviet Union, in the Orange Revolution, all the colored revolutions, that a clear American statement calling them evil empire, whatever it was, was appreciated by the dissenters. And we shouldn't allow Ahmadinejad or the regime to decide what we're going to say.

And now, having said all that, I think they should have been more out there. I also agree that the U.S. is never the primary actor in somebody else's revolution. We're never first.

And whenever I've been in a country covering a revolution or a big monumental change, from Washington, what we say seems very important to us, but when you're there on the ground, what we say in Washington is sort of in the background.

There are 8 million local figures who are in the foreground when you're there. And so it's not like we control everything.

Nonetheless, I think an honest reaction, a sincere emotional reaction that we're inspired by these marchers, appalled by the regime, is just who we are.

Conservative reaction

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I'm not questioning their convictions, but there is a tactical advantage that they're trying to grab.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mark, how do you explain, then -- well, there were two op-ed page pieces today in the Washington Post from conservative columnists who've beaten up on Obama for not actually saying more, and that's been continual since the very beginning. What's driving that? I mean, is that just normal politics of the time?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there is a political -- Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense in the Bush administration, and Charles Krauthammer, right...

JIM LEHRER: Right, those were the two, right.

MARK SHIELDS: ... who wrote those, yes. And I think, you know, part of it is the ideological lens through which -- I mean, Charles Krauthammer believes devoutly and fervently that Iran is the greatest threat in the world. I mean, that is his conviction. And, therefore, any inaction against them is somehow a failure of will and a moral blot.

JIM LEHRER: And a weakness of the United States.

MARK SHIELDS: And weakness of the United States. Plus, Jim, the other thing is, quite bluntly, not unlike North Korea, Iran is a great issue for the out party. It really is. I mean, when George Bush was president, North Korea and the troubles with it was a great issue for the Democrats. Now...

JIM LEHRER: Haven't done enough and need to do more?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. When you're president, you know, then it becomes -- the outs get a chance to take a shot. I'm not questioning their convictions, but there is a tactical advantage that they're trying to grab.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, Iran is the regime in the world that threatens -- that, A, has killed more Americans than any other regime in the world in the last 10 years and, B, threatens the stability of the entire Middle East with a religious ideology.

I believe the revolution in 1979 was a gigantic world historical event which has unleashed radical Islam that we've been dealing with ever since then. And so it's not like just that cheap shot.

Second -- and this is a point Paul Wolfowitz made -- where you might agree or disagree with whatever Wolfowitz did in the Iraq war. But the role he played in the Philippines in bringing down Marcos was an important role and was a parallel to this, because you had this mass movement.

The American government under Reagan froze, because they didn't know what to do. And he and George Shultz said, We're not going to freeze here. We're going to get out and...

Lessons from history

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think the record shows historically, it's been advantageous to stand for what you believe in.

JIM LEHRER: He was the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines at the time.

DAVID BROOKS: He was ambassador over there, and he played a very important role. And if I recall correctly, George Shultz threatened to resign because Reagan wasn't moving fast enough.

And the lesson from that -- and the lesson from a lot of other occasions like this was the U.S. has to stand firm. And you can have an -- have some effect on these countries. Now, that doesn't mean you have a dominating impulse.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: It doesn't mean you make promises you're not going to keep. But I think the record shows historically, it's been advantageous to stand for what you believe in.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's difficult when we don't have relations with them. I mean, that does make it difficult to communicate the same way that an ambassador could.

And Marcos had been our ally. We had propped him up. He'd been our guy, our puppet. I mean, he supported us in Vietnam. I mean, so I think that it's not on all fours, by any means.

Both parties -- let's get that straight -- I mean, it's obvious he's become a folk hero because he shows a certain social openness that the others don't, but, I mean, he believes in the Islamic revolution. He believes in the nuclear power. I mean, he's committed to it, as well. So, I mean, it isn't like right and left and good and bad.

Financial regulatory reform

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
They've decided what they're going to have in the way of regulators before we've understood actually what did happen. I think it was the time for open hearings and bring people under oath and hear them and then come up with your solution.

JIM LEHRER: In this particular -- all right, two things quickly before we go. We got two other things on -- the president and everybody else got two other major things on the plate right now. One of them, of course, is the financial regulatory reform thing. What do you think of the way it's been laid out? And what is your immediate reaction?

MARK SHIELDS: I think a golden opportunity was missed. I'm still yearning for accountability and for transparency. I'd like to know how this happened, how it brought us to this point, and what we're going to do about it. I think that's how you decide the regulation.

They've decided what they're going to have in the way of regulators before we've understood actually what did happen. I think it was the time for open hearings and bring people under oath and hear them and then come up with your solution. I've criticized the administration for having too many czars. This is a time I think when you really do need a czar.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that to some extent. They say we should change the compensation structures, which did encourage risk, but they don't say how they're going to do it and they just say, "Somebody should do it." And so that sort of leaves you hanging.

The things that's most controversial is empowering the Fed to regulate this shadow financial...

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, that's become very controversial on Capitol Hill.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.

DAVID BROOKS: Chuck Schumer, Chris Dodd, all these people.

JIM LEHRER: Too much power...

DAVID BROOKS: Too much power to the Fed. They screwed things up in the last 10 years. Why should we entrust them? And my attitude would basically be, as opposed to what? You know, I don't trust Congress to regulate. I guess I'll take the technocratic boring guys over anybody else.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Fed is...

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of technocratic...

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Fed is a much diminished institution. I think, you know, five years ago, seven years ago, people would have said, "That's a great idea."

But, I mean, we know now that the Fed kept interest rates too low too long, that they went right through the warning signs by former Governor Ned Gramlich on subprime mortgages, and that, you know, that they admit that now.

I will say this: The most clever thing that was done this week politically -- not profound, but clever -- was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who introduced an amendment that anybody who drew up this plan could not go to the Fed. Now, everybody...

JIM LEHRER: They couldn't get work at the Fed.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. This is Larry Summers' job description of Larry Summers. I think that's what people are thinking.

DAVID BROOKS: I think Ben Bernanke drew up that amendment, if I'm not mistaken.

MARK SHIELDS: Maybe Ben Bernanke and Bob Corker.

JIM LEHRER: But you think that, whatever happened to get us there, they're the instrument that -- an instrument that can fix it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we all have disagreements, and I'm not qualified to have an informed opinion about the interest rates they've been setting for the last 20 years. But one does hear that they're reasonably good at this sort of regulation.

Now, that doesn't mean they're going to foresee what's going to happen next. They will not, because nobody will.

MARK SHIELDS: I like elected accountability. I like somebody who's accountable. If the person screws up and doesn't regulate, I want the president to be accountable for it. That's why I think it ought to be a presidential appointment.

JIM LEHRER: OK, I'm accountable for now saying we're out of time. That means -- and we didn't get to talk about health care reform, but I've got a hunch it's going to come up again.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both.