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Shields and Brooks on DOJ Drone Memo, Brennan Hearing, Syria Strategy

February 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff about the week's political news, including CIA director nominee John Brennan's confirmation hearing, the leaking of a Justice Department memo justifying targeted killing and the Syria strategy split within the Obama administration.

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

Welcome, gentlemen.


DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s start with the president’s choice to be CIA director, John Brennan.

Mark, he had the confirmation hearing yesterday. A lot of discussion about the use of unmanned drones. Did John Brennan help make the case for the administration, what the administration is doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did.

Just in a note, in fairness to John Brennan, David has time and again — and with some justification — pointed out that the nominees of the — and appointees of the Obama administration have been overwhelmingly the sons and daughters of the Ivy League. And John Brennan is a graduate of Fordham University in New York, a Jesuit city school, and did graduate work at the University of Texas. But…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Glad to have that classified.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just — I wanted David to know.

DAVID BROOKS: The Jesuit League is well represented as well.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, that’s right, that’s right.

But I do think, Judy, that he was a far more formidable witness on his own behalf for his own nomination than was Chuck Hagel the week before. He was far more confident, far more informed, authoritative. But this is the first time we have ever debated this subject. I mean, it’s gone undebated.

And I have to concede that much of the criticism, I think, from conservative press is absolutely valid. If this were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and we had increased by sixfold the number of unmanned attacks on other countries that are not combatant countries, that we’re not at war with, there would have been far more hue and cry.

And it is interesting that the president — the only criticism of the president seems to be among a few liberals, and the support seems to be from people like John Bolton and the neoconservative community. So it’s a debate that I think we have to have, we should have, and it’s been cloaked in secrecy. And secrecy is the sacrosanct secular religion of this city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this has really stirred it up?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so. We’re finally — because of the leaked memo and because the testimony, we are having a debate about drones. And I guess if I want a drone policy, I want it run by a Franciscan, not a Jesuit.

But he didn’t really defend it, even, though. He didn’t really go out there and say, here is why we have to do it. You saw the chairman of the committees, Senator Dianne Feinstein, trying to drag an argument out of him. And he was very hesitant to go there because he wanted to adhere to secrecy.

But because of the memo, we’re having the discussion. And it’s being led on the other side by the opponents, Ron Wyden and Jay Rockefeller, people like that. And so, you know, when I look at the evidence, one of the things you see is that people like Barack Obama who were opposed more or less — or skeptical of the policy, once they are actually in power, faced with the realities, you see them swing over.

And so it’s become a — if you think about — if we are going to take on al-Qaida, and I think the evidence is that it allows you to kill the leaders of al-Qaida with much fewer civilian casualties than a bombing campaign, than boots on the ground or anything else.

So it is an effective program for that. The two things I would say is the blowback from popular opinion is a real issue. The second thing to be said — and, this, Brennan gave no ground on, and I think it’s a mistake — is who is reviewing? We have got really a group of people who all work together every day sort of doing this process, trying to say to us don’t worry, we’re doing the review process.

I, as a supporter of the program, would feel much more comfortable if there was an external review process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now there is talk about secret courts, and then there’s — but there is a reaction to that as well.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, there is. The rule of law — I mean, Judy, presidents make mistakes, I mean, even great Democratic presidents. Franklin Roosevelt made a terrible mistake by interring 140,000 Japanese-American citizens.

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Jerry Ford had to outlaw assassination because, when he became president, he found out there was a recommendation to assassinate Fidel Castro. So we do make mistakes. And the fact that the president has come over — yes, it’s neat. We don’t put Americans into combat situations. They’re not combat situations.

The fact that neighborhoods in Yemen are being hit by drones is known by the people in the neighborhoods in Yemen. That’s no secret to them. It’s been a secret to us. And I just think the failure to debate that has been a failure of us in the press, but it’s a failure of political leadership as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this — this accusation that the president is guilty of hypocrisy because of what he said during the campaign, what he said early in his presidency, is that a fair charge?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a fair — for the president — I think the president has to make the case, I mean, you know, because he certainly — his position now is entirely different.

David’s right. He has a different responsibility now than he had then. And it is kind of neat. And you don’t have the civilian casualties that you do when are you bombing from 20,000 feet. But at the same time,, by the New America Foundation’s estimate, 142 civilians have been killed in Yemen.

Yes, we kill — we kill terrorists. How many do we create with these?


Well, you know, when you get that daily intelligence brief, the way a president does, it changes your perspective. You don’t have the luxury of doing the moral preening you do from the outside. And so he has a different view. But I do agree with Mark.

It’s just we should never trust concentrated power. That is not what the country is based on. It’s based on checks and balances. And especially because it is so neat, because it seems so easy, you just order a strike and it — somebody in, I don’t know, wherever, Tampa or somewhere is running the thing or in Langley is running the thing, it’s so easy.

And I so do think it may slow down the acquisition of kill lists, but you do need the — a court review and maybe some former military intelligence people doing an efficacy review. But it would make us all feel better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another tough foreign policy lesson.

We learned yesterday, Mark, from another congressional hearing that there has been a division in the administration — and this is what Ray Suarez’s discussion was about tonight.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We learned that Sec. Clinton, then secretary of state, Sec. of Defense Panetta, the CIA director all were in favor of the U.S. sending arms to the rebels in Syria. The president overruled it.

Significance of this, that we are finding it out now?

MARK SHIELDS: And I would just add the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

MARK SHIELDS: Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, I mean, you had across the board, and these are not groups that walk in lockstep, State Department and CIA and Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The fact they came up in the end — I mean, first of all, the fact that it’s out in the open, I mean, neither General Dempsey, nor Secretary Panetta was particularly eager to talk about it. But it was — it did give us a look into this administration. The argument at the White House among the national security people was that it would strengthen groups, they felt, the arms would, inside the — Syria who were radical Islamists that were — would possibly be Sunni allies of other radicals elsewhere.

The failure to do it — and the skeptics add that the president was running for reelection on the thesis that he was disentangling us from Iraq, Afghanistan, and further conflicts in that area, and that this would dilute that argument. And the irony is, of course, that the group that has taken the lead now against President Assad is, in fact, the Sunni Nusra, Al-Nusra.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Significance that the president overruled all these folks? What does that tell us?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we were — when we were talking about Hillary Clinton’s legacy, we were saying foreign policy is run from the White House, and here is another bit of evidence that it is run from the White House.


DAVID BROOKS: Now, the president has the perfect right to overrule.


DAVID BROOKS: He is the commander in chief. And some of the best decisions — a man named Eliot Cohen write a book on this — some of the best presidential decisions have been overruling.

So, he has — within that perfect right. Nonetheless, the concentration of power in the White House across a whole range of spheres is, I think, a little troubling. And, seconds, it’s very hard to believe that there wasn’t any politics in this — domestic politics, I mean.

Now it could be arming the rebels was ineffective.

DAVID BROOKS: But if you have this broad sweep of people saying we should arm the rebels, and then the White House says no, it’s hard to believe, since it was so politically convenient not to arm, that it wasn’t a mistake. And now the wrong rebels are on the ascendance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Politics does have a role sometimes in foreign policy. MARK SHIELDS: Yes. The president did, in fact, overrule his advisers, including the vice president, including the secretary of defense, Gates, on going after Osama bin Laden.

And he listened to John Brennan. So, I mean, there are times when a president has to make that lonely decision, and that’s where the buck does stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, bring it back home, and talking about politics, pure politics, inside the Republican Party, David, it looks like there are some — we have seen some evidence of this, but now it looks like it’s more out in the open, that some of the traditional — folks we thought of as being traditional leaders of the Republican Party are openly challenging the Tea Party.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this a momentary difference of opinion, or is it some longer-lasting …

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s the beginning of a longer-lasting thing.

There’s been a lot of calls for Republicans to change. And we have seen that from everybody to Paul Ryan to Marco Rubio. Now we’re beginning to see the donor class really begin to change. There is some question, are they trying to change just the candidates, so they don’t get Todd Akin, or they trying to actually change some of the substance?

And, so far , it seems to be just the candidates. One of the interesting things — and I can’t say I know the answer to this — is, how much will the Tea Party fight back? There has been some effort that they are saying, oh, the establishment is taking over.

But my own sense of things so far is that there is not the will to fight among the Tea Party and that a lot of people in the Tea Party are, frankly — they’re not — they are also Republicans. And a lot of — say, Rush Limbaugh, for example, who is not Tea Party, he’s more an establishment Republican who wants the Republican Party to win.

So I have a feeling that the establishment is going to have maybe an easier time of it than some might think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you sense?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that William F. Buckley, the great conservative philosopher, had the best advice for Republicans here. He said, I always support the most conservative candidate who is electable.

And that was his rule of support. And the Republicans have been nominating people who have been unelectable. I can think of five Senate seats, Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, Colorado, and Missouri, where they nominated candidates who are unelectable. And Democrats who were really difficult races either to be elected or reelected won in all cases, and the Democrats retained control of the Senate.

Twenty-six percent of the electorate, Judy, is either Asian, Hispanic or African-American. Republicans won 13 percent of that constituency in 2012. They have lost the voters between the ages of 18 and 30 by 22 percent on the average in the last three elections.

I mean, they don’t have a constituency. They have got to figure out how to get elected, how — how to nominate people who are going to win. They’re not going to nominate people in New England to win who could win in Alabama or Mississippi.

DAVID BROOKS: That why it can’t just be about the candidates.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: It has to be deeper.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as we keep being reminded, the Republicans — most of the Republicans who were reelected come from districts where they were comfortably reelected, and they — do they see a reason to think differently, act differently, when they’re being supported by the folks who sent them to represent that district?

DAVID BROOKS: People don’t change.

So I read a study this week where they took a look at candidates. What happens when they get — when their district shifts and their district, say, becomes more moderate? Do the candidates themselves become more moderate? The answer is no. People don’t change. So, if you are looking for people atop the Republican Party to lead the change of changing the party, that is just not going to happen.

It’s going to be people out in the states. It’s going to be people off in a new wing that’s going to rise up and change the party from the outside.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the problem — I agree with David.

But the problem is, they can move on immigration. And that’s a — there’s a legislative response. They say, look, we are moving. But how do you do that with younger voters? I mean, you’re a party looking for heretics, rather than converts, which is what they have been. They have been an unhappy group. They’re not welcoming.

Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, made a speech this week about being more inclusive with sort of a kinder, gentler Republican Party, for education and being inclusive. But, you know, it’s sort of a difference in tone, but, you know, I don’t — I think the Republican problems are serious.

Ronald Reagan won young voters for Republicans, and they were the best group. In 2012, 30 years later, that group that Reagan won was still…

JUDY WOODRUFF: They’re still Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And that’s the problem the Republicans have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we don’t have a problem with the two of you. We love having you every single Friday night.

Mark, David, thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: 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.