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Shields and Brooks Discuss U.S. Mission in Afghanistan, Cabinet Nominations

January 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top news with Judy Woodruff, including the Obama-Karzai talks on the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the integrity -- and insularity of Obama's cabinet nominees, plus the latest on gun control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome back, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Afghanistan. The president met with Hamid Karzai today at the White House.

David, what do you make of this announcement or sense now that they are going to try to get U.S. troops out of a combat role quicker than expected?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I’m mostly impressed by how little resistance there is to us hitting the exits, maybe even quicker than what we heard about today.

Some of it just budgetary. We just can’t afford it. But I guess I have two concerns. One is what happens to schoolgirls there if the Taliban takes over part of the country.

And, second — and this goes to the whole mood of the country right now — suppose something happens abroad, and we have to do something expensive around the world.

Where is the money going to come from for that? Where is the public will going come from? I think the mood of the country, it’s not isolationist, but it’s, don’t bother us now. We got problems here at home.

And it’s very unlikely that we will go eight years without having a major foreign crisis that will cost us something. And so when that crisis comes, will we turn around and say, OK, we’re broke, but we’re going to spend some money to do this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So more arguments for getting out sooner?

DAVID BROOKS: I think right now there is no resistance. The president could pull everything out, as Ben Rhodes said, and there would be some people on Capitol Hill who would raise some questions, but among the country, very little resistance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is right about the lack of resistance.

I think there is a sense, Judy, that, regardless of 25,000 troops, 30,000 troops, that that is — it amounts to a corporal’s guard. And it reminded me of what Sen. Ernest Hollings said about Ronald Reagan sending 1,800 Marines to Lebanon, too few to fight, too many to die.

And, of course, 241 of them were blown up in barracks in Beirut. But I just think there is — there is not a sense of mission in Afghanistan today. There is not a — and I think that contributes to the willingness to leave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so this debate, it sounds like it is all but over. It’s about when.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I don’t know what will happen on Capitol Hill. But I’m not sure that there’s the political majority or even sizable minority in the country is going say we want to you stand up and fight to maintain 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the man, David, the president wants to oversee the withdrawal, the drawdown and the withdrawal, is Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon. We talked about him last week. You said then that you thought it would be hard to get him confirmed. Do you still think so?

DAVID BROOKS: Did I? I have changed my mind.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I was right then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Giving you a chance.

DAVID BROOKS: But reality has changed, so I’m also right now.


DAVID BROOKS: Which — I think he’s going to get confirmed. There is Republican opposition.

Some people are saying it is up to Chuck Schumer, the senator, the Democratic senator from New York. He holds a key position. The idea that Chuck Schumer, who is one of the senior Democrats in the Senate, is going to vote against Obama’s defense secretary, seems to me infinitesimally small. So, I think he is pretty likely to get it.

I think the one thing that strikes me with these picks, with John Kerry, with Chuck Hagel, is that, like Obama, they were among the least social of senators, that they have the similar profile, probably more intellectual than the average senator, but they were not Joe Bidens going around shaking everybody’s hands. They were very solitary people.

And so we have gone from a team of rivals to a team of loners. And so they are very similar temperamentally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that say in the national security — and then throw in John Brennan, who the president wants to go to CIA.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think the Chuck Hagel thing is — there have been 579 Cabinet officers in the history of the United States.


MARK SHIELDS: All right? And a grand total of nine nominees have been rejected by the United States Senate on up-or-down votes, and exactly one since 1989 and two since 1959.

I mean, that’s all. So the idea of Chuck Hagel being rejected — and John Tower, the late John Tower, who was rejected secretary of defense, a former senator, there were large questions about his ethical dealings in business and his personal behavior toward women and his personal comportment.

And there is none of that with Chuck Hagel. I mean, there is no scandal. There is no background that’s going to come out and bite. So I think he will.

He’s not the first enlisted man, which has been said time and again. Bill Perry, who was Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defense, was an enlisted man briefly, then became an officer.

MARK SHIELDS: But he is a combat veteran.

And I think it is interesting. David mentioned John Kerry. John Kerry, Jim Webb, Dan Inouye — Dan Inouye died. Jim Webb left the Senate voluntarily. John Kerry will now leave in all likelihood to become secretary of state. There were only four members of the United States Senate who had earned a Purple Heart in combat, John McCain being the fourth.

I mean, and so what you have in Kerry and Hagel are two men who have seen war up front and up close, and who have become far more reluctant to deploy Americans. They don’t talk in the ancient language of swagger, how we are going to go in and kick some tail, or anything of the sort, like so many of the noncombatants do.

So I think that Hagel — I think Brennan will bring up a discussion. We will find out how liberals, if, in fact, they really do care about the use of drones in this administration. They seem to have given a pass to President Obama and his — he has used drones a lot more than President Bush ever did. And I think the Republicans will use it to discuss Benghazi, but I think he will confirmed as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both of them.

You were talking about a group of loners around the president. What do these choices and what we know so far about the president’s White House staff and Cabinet say about the president, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s not exactly great copy for us, because they are not the most exciting group, necessarily.

They are a group that has — are people of integrity, every single one of them. There will be no scandals, including the new treasury secretary nominee, Jack Lew. So there will be no scandals. And there will be no stupidity. They’re — without exception, they’re cautious, reliable, responsible and for the most part extremely experienced.

So I give them high marks for these sorts of things. I think the way you fault the president is insular. They are already very well known to him, have been for a long time. A lot of them have already been working for him and are probably exhausted by what has happened over the last four years.

Second, nobody from business. I really think it would have been useful to have somebody from the business community.

Third, still very strong on the Harvard-Yale-Princeton axis, very much the establishment of the Democratic — central-left Democratic Party.

And so if you wanted some freshness, if you wanted somebody outside the box, somebody who would bring something new to an administration that is already tired because of what has happened, I don’t think you see that. So you see caution, safety, intelligence, and experience. You don’t see freshness.

MARK SHIELDS: If you want diversity, I mean, you have got the University of Nebraska, Chuck Hagel. You have got somebody who started his own business. You have got somebody who is pro gun, pro-life, anti-tax. I mean, he certainly doesn’t fit into any ideological cookie cutter.

I agree with David that the president likes people around him who have been there and have been there for a while. I think Jack Lew is an exceptionally good choice to be secretary of the treasury. This is not about saving Detroit. It’s not about the banking system coming to collapse.

We’re in a fiscal and budgetary bind of historic proportions, and it’s going to be Congress to a great degree and the White House. And I think if there’s anybody — he has been twice budget director.

He — Judy, 30 years ago, Jack Lew was negotiating for the speaker of the House, Thomas P. O’Neill, they were doing the Greenspan commission on Social Security between Ronald Reagan’s White House and the Democrats in the House.

I mean, his — his experience, his knowledge — he doesn’t have panache. He doesn’t have dash. He’s not a — quote — he’s not going to give you, you know, too colorful things. He’s not going to talk off the record like that. But he is — I just think he is a great choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, some conversation this week about lack of diversity so far in the president’s picks. Should we be concerned about that?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, Ruth Marcus said he should have had some binders full of women.

I do think Ruth made the point that there is not a lot of — that there’s not a lot of diversity in just the world view you bring to the office.

If it’s a bunch of white men, there is some loss there.

I do think Valerie Jarrett is still there, who is still a very important and much-not-talked about part of the administration and very powerful. So she does have a different demographic background.

I do think the lack of diversity is, as I say, more important in the lack of business experience and just the lack of spreading out across the country, diversity of background. I do think that is still a bit lacking.

But I don’t think that is the fundamental problem. I think the fundamental problem is a little insularity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s — and I don’t argue with that. I think it’s not unimportant for people to see people like themselves in positions of leadership. And I think that is very important.

I think, in that sense — but you do want people who — with respect to who they are, that they are qualified and are going to do well, I mean, are going to succeed. You don’t want to just see people who become symbols.

And I think the quintessential example of that is Hillary Clinton. I mean, Hillary Clinton has succeeded as secretary of state, was — and in many regards I think is an inspiration not simply to her gender, but to all kinds of Americans, and recognized by the fact that second only to Chris Christie, she’s the most popular political figure in America, who is the most popular figure in America, Chris Christie.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re going to get a chance next week to talk about guns, but — and we have only got about a minute.

But at this point, what are you hearing, David, that may come out of the White House? And will it fly in the Congress?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the conventional view now is that there will be some reforms. They will be closing some of the gun loopholes, maybe some of the magazine-related issues.

But you won’t get the ambitious things like the assault weapons ban, which Dianne Feinstein was trying to get.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you are saying they will ask for it, you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they won’t even ask.

My own sense is they won’t even ask for it. They will ask for these smaller things. And I do think there’s a realistic chance of getting those things passed.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the background check will be pushed and pushed hard.

The question whether they will bring to it the same level of intensity and relentlessness and expertise that they brought to the campaign. I mean, I think there is a chance here. I think the NRA has stumbled badly. They boast an increase in membership.

I think they are like the Tea Party. I think they misunderstand what is going on in the country and the change in mood in the country, especially after Newtown. The Tea Party defeated Richard Lugar in Indiana and was full of themselves. And now instead of a conservative Republican holding that seat, like Lugar, it is a moderate Democrat, Joe Donnelly, holding that seat.

And I think the NRA is very much of the same myopic mind-set. And I think that’s…

DAVID BROOKS: I think I disagree with that. I think they know exactly what they are doing.

They know they’re going to lose something, but they’re making sure gun owners think Obama is going to take away your guns. And they’re mobilized.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing myopic about the two of you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, and — thank you both.

And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the Rundown later tonight.