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Shields and Brooks on Red Line Reluctance, Flexibility on FAA Furloughs

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk with Judy Woodruff about President Barack Obama's "red line" on Syria, the FAA furlough deal in Congress, repercussions of the Boston Marathon attack and George W. Bush's newly dedicated presidential center.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, let’s start with the lead story tonight, and that is Syria.

Even the administration, Mark, is now saying that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government. The president, though, says a red line has not been crossed. So what’s — what is — what’s going on?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the president is in the position of having said that he’s drawn this red line, and it appears that the red line has been crossed. I don’t know if the line is changing. Maybe it’s a little less red than it was.

But what he’s reflecting, Judy, I think, is the lack of will and enthusiasm and interest in this country for intervention in another war in the Middle East. And, secondly, it’s clashing with the sense of horror and fury at the human cost and toll of death and suffering there that we’re seeing, I mean, 80,000 people dead.

But I think the president is in an awkward position politically right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what it is about, a reluctance to go to war?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he made the mistake of setting the red line. I think that was the mistake, the first mistake, which was when he set a red line, then you say, if you do X and we will do Y, then you’re handing control of your policy over to whoever is doing X.

And so I’m against red lines. I think he nicely walked back from it today by saying if they cross this line, it will change my calculus. And what that suggests is a proper way to think about this. It’s a multipronged problem, and the chemical weapons are one piece of that problem. They’re not the whole piece.

And so then you have got to go to the other layers of uncertainty. What can we do? We talk about a no-fly zone. Does that really address chemical weapons? And then third — and I think this is the issue hanging over it all — suppose the Assad government does fall? What happens then?

My colleague Tom Friedman wrote that the — why are the Christians shifting to Assad? Because that part of the population is worried about what will happen if the government falls. So, there’s the uncertainty over whether there are the weapons. There’s uncertainty about whether we can do anything it. And then there’s uncertainty about what actually we should be rooting for. And so that does urge caution, I would say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it matter, Mark, how much chemical weapon …

… used?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I think if there’s further evidence of it — and the secretary of state was on record as saying there were twice — twice instances of the Syrian government having used it.

I mean, this is quite different from just killing people. This is a universal declaration on chemical weapons. And if they in fact are using them, you cannot — you cannot stand aside indefinitely and in any way pretend to the moral leadership of the planet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, as we heard in the earlier segment tonight, Jeff’s interview, David, — you hear the experts saying, well, there is still more testing to be done to find out exactly what happened.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. There seems to be that.

Saddam used chemical weapons. And I personally don’t think that should always be a red line. Also, though, hanging over this is Iran, because that’s the president’s other red line. And if that — if this red line, which he’s already declared, washes away, then the Iran red line probably looks like it washes away.

He has got to be thinking about U.S. credibility vs. Iran. And so I’m not suggesting — I don’t seem to have any answers, but nobody else does. And that’s why I think the caution that the president is showing is probably the right …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talk about — yes.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no. I think he’s in a very difficult position. But I don’t think the situation in Syria can be ignored.

I don’t think you can — and I think that there has to be an insistence upon determining, as evidenced in our earlier discussion with Jeff about — from the Notre Dame and Stanford people, that we have to determine whether in fact that’s the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bring it back home. The Federal Aviation Administration, David, the deal today in Congress to give them some wiggle room, so they can address these flight delays, end these furloughs for the air traffic controllers, what does this say about the way Washington works?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s always important to protect the bourgeois, to protect the upper middle class.

I think we should keep subsidizing corporate suites.

This is the sort of thing that makes everybody sort of into a populist. And it is true. Kids are getting kicked out of Head Start, but the airplanes are flying. Now, I understand the airline industry, you know, if that gets delayed, the whole economy is hurt, so I understand that pressure.

But it just looks bad that the people who are bound to have the most lobbying power, which is to say people who fly a lot, get a fix, and the people who go to Head Start don’t get a fix.

And I should say before the whole sequester thing is stupid, because it doesn’t solve the debt. It cuts spending in the places we don’t want it. It doesn’t cut spending in the entitlement programs, speaking of other powerful interest groups. So, it’s sort of stupidity on stilts at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stupidity on stilts.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, I think that — again, I think the administration’s position on the sequester had been, this was a meat axe approach. Any changes would have to be comprehensive and across the board. They would have to involve increases in revenue if it was going to be addressed.

Well, you can honestly say that the administration caved like a lawn chair. I mean, they folded on this. It’s a scalpel. It’s an interest group changing. It’s not AIDS patients. It’s not cancer patients. It’s not NIH research. They don’t have political action committees. And this was a — and the Congress looks bad in the process.

The Congress — this passed the Senate without a single dissenting voice — vote on either side. And it looked — as the Congress is going out on recess, that looks — it looks like a matter of convenience. So I just — I really think the whole thing is just lousy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, does it say, though, anything, David, about the — what’s going to happen to the larger sequester? Does this mean Democrats have any more negotiating power than we thought they did?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, maybe a little less than we thought, because if the president spent all those months warning it will be terrible, it will be terrible, and then when it comes time when something sort of is terrible, they cave in on that, then the sequester probably doesn’t seem that painful to the country.

And so I think the sequester is here to stay. There will probably be a series of these pseudo-fixes or patches, but it’s hard to see them getting on any sort of serious budget agreement.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know how they can change it. And that’s to bring enough political pressure.

The meat safety inspectors, that was an exception. Understandably, people didn’t want to eat tainted, sullied, stained meat. So, that was an exception. Now there’s an exception for airline travel. You threaten the safety and security of another enough people or just make it uncomfortable enough for them, there will be patches made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Second week after the Boston Marathon bombings, we watched a lot of back-and-forth this week.

But, David, we’re starting to hearing noises that maybe the administration should be held responsible for the fact that these — the Tsarnaev brothers weren’t on a watch list, weren’t prevented somehow from doing what they did.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the administration responsible?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think so in this case.

They were on one of these gigantic sort of catchall watch lists of I think half-a-million people or something — or the older brother was. And so there was — he showed up somewhere. But to filter that down to predict that he’s actually going to do something, to filter it down to actually take him off, deny him certain rights, I think a reasonable person would have to conclude they had no real evidence to put him on that kind of hyper-look.

So, I think, you know, you have 300 million people in this country. It’s just hard, even with the gigantic apparatus we have, to track every random disgruntled 24-year-old or whatever he is young man.

MARK SHIELDS: I couldn’t agree more.

I think that, first of all, the younger brother was an American citizen. The older one was here with legal status. And he was — they came as refugees. And so we get a warning from the Soviets that somebody from Chechnya bears watching — from the Russian authorities, I should say, and not a disinterested party, and certainly not indifferent or neutral when it comes to Chechnya.

The FBI did follow up. They did the right thing. You can only keep somebody in that file for 90 days. That’s the rules. Those are the regulations. There was no fault. I think they did the right thing. I think they worked well together. The president said a week ago Thursday, we will bring these people to justice on Thursday, and on Friday night they were brought to justice.

And I think the Monday-morning quarterbacking at this point is not only unseemly. I think it’s unfair.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Russians to some extent viewed as having an axe to grind with what they did.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the George W. Bush, the latest presidential library opened yesterday in Dallas. David, pretty rosy, fond memories all around. What did you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m for opening libraries in the 21st century. It seems like an exotic thing to do.

I — Bush’s approval ratings are up. He’s up to 47 percent. People like him out of office because he seems like a decent guy. He’s not pushing himself on the country with a cause. And so I think people are feeling a little more fondly toward him. I think, when you look back on the administration, Iraq, Afghanistan are obviously going to be — remain polarizing issues.

I do think you have to say the security apparatus he created post-9/11 was — has been endorsed basically by the Obama administration. That was a permanent contribution to the country. I personally think he was — had the potential to be a decent domestic policy president before 9/11 happened and turned him away.

I think he was heading in a way the Republican Party really should be heading, both with the immigration reform, but with also a sort of — compassionate conservatism was a kernel of a good idea. And maybe if 9/11 hadn’t happened, it would have been interesting to see how he would have developed that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting the distance he puts between himself and his former vice president, Dick Cheney.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, he did.

I thought the American people are enormously forgiving. And presidents do look better in the rearview mirror. Probably, every president has. Bill Clinton was at 39 percent approval after he pardoned Marc Rich in 19 — in 2001. And now he’s the most popular figure in the country.

He’s done a lot in the intervening 12 years, I mean, to earn that respect. George W. Bush has been a very private former president. I mean, twice, Barack Obama won the White House by running against him, in ’08 and again in ’12. And he’s been — he’s never carped. He never criticized. I think that has played well with people.

And — but I — it’s hard to look back and say that Iraq was anything other than a disaster. And it — you can see the shadow and the echoes of Iraq in the decision right now about — as we approach Syria or anyplace else, Iran. It’s — you know, that is — that was a defining moment for this country’s foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for his presidency?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it was the post-9/11 reaction.

And I guess I would emphasize the two parts, the Iraq and the Afghanistan. And it’s hard to defend the Iraq war as we see it right now. But I do think the preventing another terror attack, creating that apparatus, that’s on the plus side of the ledger. I’m not sure it outweighs when history will judge, but I do think he gets credit for that.

MARK SHIELDS: The one thing that — where I do agree with David is, Mitt Romney lost in 2012 in large part because he at no point showed any empathy and could not connect with voters.

By 81-18, voters on Election Day said Barack Obama cares more about people like me than Mitt Romney. And they could have used a large dollop of that compassionate conservatism. And it will be interesting to see in 2016 if anybody sounds that theme in seeking the Republican nomination or seeks his endorsement. I mean, Bill Clinton was the defining figure for the Democrats in 2012. It was Bill Clinton’s third term that Barack Obama won, to some agree, based upon that speech. And George W. Bush was a nonperson at the Republican Convention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of Clinton, it was interesting. Yesterday, he said that he had actually been called by George W. Bush a few times during the second term, and talked about politics, and he said that he hoped there was no record of what he said.

MARK SHIELDS: Alexander Butterfield, where are you when we need you? That would be a great conversation to listen to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, great conversation.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: 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.