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Shields and Brooks on Military Action in Libya, U.S. Attitude on Nuclear Power

March 18, 2011 at 6:43 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss President Obama's pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to stop attacks on civilians, plus the shifts in opinion on U.S. nuclear policy in light of the ongoing crisis in Japan.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start with Libya.

David, you heard the president earlier. We heard Ambassador Rice. Is the U.S. stance now clear, and is it right?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s right, but it’s certainly not clear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still not clear?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

So, I don’t think we could stand by and allow a humanitarian disaster. I think, especially when there was this tide of democratization sweeping through the Middle East, which was in danger of being reversed, I thought, it’s in our interests to try to keep it going.

Having said that, and having really — I’m glad the president announced what he did — I still have very great trepidations and questions. You would like to think the policy was widely accepted in the U.S. government, but Secretary Gates and many other people in the administration have been expressing concern for weeks.

Were those concerns real? Were they overruled? What happened?

JEFFREY BROWN: Apparently, quite a serious debate…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, yes.

And then, in the country, does the country really know what it’s getting into? And finally, does the government know what it’s getting into? If Gadhafi continues, say, with this bombing, what’s our next step? What’s our goal? So, I’m glad he’s taken this step, but I’m not sure how widely — deeply entrenched or widely thought through it is yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark, do you see a coherent strategy here?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the president’s presentation today as to why they had not acted before, and what had happened intervening, and what the United States had been involved in, I thought it was coherent. And I thought it was — it certainly stood in stark contrast to the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq, I mean, that there was — military action of any kind was the — obviously the last, rather than the first and preferred option.

And I thought that he made the case that individual countries had had their sanctions, that the U.N. sanctions, the embargo, the humanitarian aid, the aid to refugees, all the things we had done, and that the United States did not want to get out in front. And so it was important that Lebanon be the sponsor at the U.N., the resolution.

I don’t think the case for action itself, in answer to your question, is strong in the country. There is great resistance to United States involvement. Gen. James Mattis, the CENTCOM commander, was very blunt that this is an act of war, it’s an act of combat, when he was asked about it on Capitol Hill.

And war involves casualties. And what happens when there are casualties? I’m not sure what the next step is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, you mentioned Iraq. And you can’t help but think that this is a president who came in, and he had Iraq on his plate, and he had Afghanistan on his plate.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here he is. We watched him today. Does it feel like a momentous move of some kind? And do you feel a coherent strategy in its thinking about — about moving towards war?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I really don’t feel it’s as momentous as it should be. I don’t think the — a big speech before the American people has been made. I feel like there are so many other things going on. He’s going off. He’s leaving the country. I’m not sure…

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s going on a trip to South America.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right. Exactly. I don’t think the predicate has been laid. I’m not it’s been explained even to the people who will be doing the combat.

And so that’s one of the reasons I have concern. Having said that, I think there is a possibility for a strategy, to say we’re in this historic moment. Gadhafi is this sort of leader. We have a national interest in seeing this through.

But that would mean spelling things out a lot more than they have been spelled out.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that? Because there has been this — it was sort of days of wondering and watching and, behind the scenes, clearly, there was a big debate. Now — so, is there a coherent way of getting at a strategy now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there was — behind the scenes, there was a big debate and there were a lot of things happening, I think, that were pretty — that became obvious as the week went on.

I think that, right now, the United States is in the position of — the president said it right at the outset today. He spoke about hope. And I think he was making reference to the dashed hope that the revolutionaries and the rebels in Libya would prevail and would depose Gadhafi.

But this — this is a situation, we have no idea what the endgame is going to be. But I think the possibility, Jeffrey, of standing by while there was a humanitarian disaster that he was threatening, he, Gadhafi, was threatening, of the dimensions of — relatively speaking, of Rwanda, were just unacceptable, not simply to the United States, but to the international community.

But I do not think there is a coherent strategy for where we go. What is the end? How — how is victory — what’s the exit strategy? How do we know when it’s over? Is it a new government there and free elections?

JEFFREY BROWN: It was interesting, because you heard Ray talk to Ambassador Rice.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When he asked, is there a — is it civilians or what about the people who are fighting against Gadhafi?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is the distinction there?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And another thing that’s disconcerting is, I think in most in of the big foreign policy issues we have talked about for decades, the U.S. has been the lead player in the West or in the developed world. We have sort of been the one leading. Our decisions have sort of been the leading decisions.

Here, we’re clearly not the lead player. It’s U.K. and France and other people. And we’re sort of carrying — following along on the caboose. And, so, it’s disconcerting, though we don’t — in a sense, we feel like the U.K. often feels, as the secondary player.

And, so, the question is, how much is the president really supporting this, and how much is he being dragged along?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do — I do think — I do think the United States, for good reason, was not out front on this.

And, you know, from — to listen to the president today, he made the case that — of all the things we had been doing behind the scenes. But there’s no question, France was pushing the hardest at the U.N., joined by Great Britain.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Japan, the other huge story unfolding here.

Let me start with you, Mark. Has this put the nuclear power issue here back on the table, the debate?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s — I mean, nuclear power, which had emerged, in the time of a new energy plan and crisis, as a viable option, is a lot less viable today than it was two weeks ago; there’s no question. A Gallup-”USA Today” poll showed that 70 percent of Americans are now more concerned than they were before the Japanese disaster and tragedy. I don’t think there’s any question.

We have never really confronted nuclear power in this country. The Yucca Flats repository for nuclear waste has become a political football. It’s — every Nevada politician of any stripe runs against it. And the administration, in fact, had repealed the decision to go in there.

And I would say, right now, when you have got China and Germany reexamining and taking long, hard looks — there’s always been a latent opposition to nuclear energy in this country. I think it’s activated right now.

And I will say this. There is not a Republican, I don’t care, a Tea Party member, who is going to be standing up on — Congress, what we really need are fewer nuclear safety inspectors in the federal budget, and we need fewer food inspectors of fish coming in from Japan. I don’t think that is going to be a popular theme.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see? What are the consequences here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I — you know, we have — nuclear power has been a significant energy source for us for decades. It’s been a safe energy source.

And so I’m glad that a lot of the people, including the president, have said, it’s part of the menu. And they have continued to say that. I think they’re right to say that. I continue to think that the primary driver of whether nuclear spreads or not is cost.

And the fact is, with the huge up-front cost, with the new finds of natural gas, the low cost of natural gas and other fossil fuels, nuclear power just will not spread economically, let alone for any other reason.

So, this has clearly set it back. But, to be honest, I’m not sure it was ever going to be a growing source of energy for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the larger — a calamity of this nature — and Joel Achenbach in The Post had a — put it in the “Black Swan” event.

It’s the kind of event that is almost beyond the imagination, but clearly within the realm of possibilities, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it raises all these questions: How do governments act, prepare for it? How do societies deal with it?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, Nassim Taleb wrote the book “The Black Swan.” And the “Black Swan” is the thing that’s extremely rare, but Taleb’s point, and really anticipating the financial crisis, is, there are so many potential really rare events, a lot of them are bound to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. And here is one.

DAVID BROOKS: And here is one.

And I guess the thing I’m struck by is the response, the Japanese response against the American response, the different political styles. And we complain in this country that we have such a polarized style in politics and we really have a sick politics. And I agree with that a lot of time.

But it does mean we have reasonably free information flows in our politics. And it’s been interesting to watch the Japanese government respond in one way and our government respond in a different way. The Japanese have a more consensual style, but I do think it’s meant they have had less free information flows.

And we have — I think our narrative from our government has been probably a little more accurate, from what I can see.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think our — I think our government, for one thing, has put pressure on the Japanese to be, quite frankly, more forthcoming, I mean, by our action.

We are messy and we — we are noisy in our system, but in the final analysis, we’re a lot more candid and a lot more transparent, even with our — too much secrecy that we — we do have. And I — I do think that this is — this is a greater caution.

Chernobyl, you kind of expected it. I mean, it was — the Soviet system was not functioning. It was shoddy. They cut corners. And the Japanese don’t — are not known for cutting corners. They took the safety route. They — and so I think that’s why it’s so much more sobering and so much more alarming to see that this could happen in a country that — with their reinforced zoning construction rules.

This — I think that really sets a greater case of awareness and anxiety in this country.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And it’s, also, we’re saying that we tend to — we get very anxious over — obviously, over a story like this, which seems to have some potentially catastrophic downside.

But it is worth remembering that thousands of people die every year over sulfur dioxide, some of the airborne pollutants that come out of the coal and other sources. And it’s just so regular, we’re — we have acclimated to it. And we sort of overplay things that are potentially spectacular, like…

JEFFREY BROWN: And we only have about 30 seconds here, but, in the meantime, right, all the stuff we thought we’d be focusing on, like the budget, go on.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. They do go on. And it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, isn’t it? You finance it…

JEFFREY BROWN: You have a continuing resolution, extend it three weeks.

MARK SHIELDS: And then it may go out, or if it isn’t, we will go another two weeks.

I mean, it really — it’s a bad, bad message to send, not only to the world community, but to the United States economy, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: But swamped by other news.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I don’t think we will have a shutdown. I still think both parties realize they will be hurt more by a shutdown than not.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

MARK SHIELDS: David is too rational.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: David is too…

MARK SHIELDS: David is too rational.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Mark Shields, David Brooks — the rational David Brooks…

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: … thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.