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Shields and Brooks on Sending Arms to Syria, Impending Comey Nomination

May 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the issues surrounding sending arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the impending nomination of James Comey to head the FBI and Rep. Michele Bachmann's announcement that she will not seek reelection in 2014.

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. It’s good to have you both with us.

So, Mark, this terrible humanitarian crisis spilling across the border into Jordan, does this put more pressure on the Obama administration to do something?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it does in a humanitarian sense, Judy.

The resistance to America doing anything in a military way has obviously been shaped and determined by a decade of Afghanistan and Iraq and Americans’ understandable reluctance to go into it.

But when you see the piece that Ray just presented and the human face of the suffering, these are the poorest of the people going to the poorest of Lebanon, children without school, without joy, without laughter, and people without hope or future. There’s certainly — at a humanitarian level, it cries for engagement and generosity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know John McCain — this was reported earlier — who has just come back from the region, he is coming back and he is saying the United States must give ammunition, he said, and heavy weapons, or he said the rebels will lose.


Well, I’m somewhat more sympathetic to that as time goes by. And nobody really is certain what the next Syria will look like. But — and it would be nice if the Syrians would solve their own problems or would solve it within the Syrian context. But the fact is the Russians and the Iranians and through Iran, Hezbollah, or Hezbollah through Iran, are involved.

And so the government is getting outside help. And it seems to me that’s creating a strong imbalance, that Assad will survive, continue to have the kind of regime he’s been having. And so to me it seems more compelling, both on humanitarian grounds, both so we can shape the rebel force to keep the extremists on the extreme of that force, and finally just to deal a blow to Hezbollah and Iran, for our own national interests.

I think making sure Hezbollah and Iran don’t have a victory in Syria is an important part of generally reshaping the Middle East. So I think the case for doing something, either what McCain says, or no-fly zones, becomes more compelling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do Americans have the appetite for something like that?

MARK SHIELDS: No, they don’t. And I think a no-fly zone, as much respect as I have for John McCain, I think is an unrealistic objective.

I don’t argue with David’s point. I think the Russians may have pushed by the long-range missiles that they’re introducing into theater. They may, in fact, provoke the United States and everybody else to do what they hadn’t contemplated doing and wouldn’t do on their own. It’s terrible to think of a war by proxy, but I think that is what could be on the horizon right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And it’s not like we would be alone. The Europeans are way ahead of us in wanting to do something.

And so it would be a — I think a reasonably broad coalition. What it would lead to as far as the Syrian future, to be fair, no one knows that. And so that’s, I think, why the hesitancy from the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a tough one.

Well, let’s come back here to the United States, where all the problems are easily solved. The president, David, it looks like he’s getting ready to announce the number two man at the Justice Department under President Bush to head the FBI, James Comey.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Smart move?

DAVID BROOKS: I think extremely smart, bipartisan in the first place, but just in terms of an outstanding public servant.

I have never interviewed him. I don’t know him personally, but I went back just today and rewatched — he gave testimony after a very dramatic incident which has been widely talked about. There was a domestic surveillance program in the Bush White House that some people in the White House in the vice president’s office wanted to continue.

The Justice Department decided that it wasn’t a legal program, and they were going to not extend it. And the White House chief of staff and the president’s counsel went to the hospital room of John Ashcroft, the attorney general, to get him to overrule the Justice Department. And Comey and Bob Mueller and some others physically stood there and said, no, this is our ruling, we’re sticking with this ruling.

Ashcroft stood with them. And to stand up as a mid-level civil servant against the chief of staff and the White House, that takes enormous courage. And if anybody wants to see how to testify before Congress, go on YouTube and watch this testimony. It’s exemplary in how he presents himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is this a slam dunk in terms of confirmation if he’s nominated? We should say he still hasn’t been nominated.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, should be. I don’t think — if he isn’t nominated, I don’t think he will be confirmed Judy.

I think that’s the way it works.

I think it was an inspired and brilliant choice. I really do, on substance and politically. Chuck Hagel, who is a Republican, had been a friend of Barack Obama’s, even a supporter. That’s — James Comey is not political at all. There’s nothing partisan about him.

He is a Republican. He’s a registered Republican, but he’s most of all a public servant. At a time when trust and confidence in government is some — is in the cellar, deep in the basement, I mean, this is a man who exemplifies a profile in courage that David has just described and public service at its best.

I just think it’s a remarkable choice. And he is the one who gave us Patrick Fitzgerald and probably — but David described his standing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who was the special prosecutor.

MARK SHIELDS: Special prosecutor who, of course, led the investigation of the whole leaking of Valerie Plame and resulted in the president’s chief of staff — the vice president’s chief of staff being convicted, and, at the same time, led to the breach, quite frankly, politically, not that it was intended, between George Bush and Dick Cheney.

I mean, that was the cleavage. Comey was — I mean, not that Comey set out to do it, but because he did stand up and he did warn that enhanced interrogation and water-boarding would come back — it would be revealed and it would come back and humiliate and hurt the United States of America. And he was absolutely right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does the president, David, then avoid a fight by choosing him?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right. He avoids a fight.

The other potential talked-about person was sort of involved in Benghazi in tangential ways. And so there was an opportunity that the confirmation hearing would turn into another Benghazi occasion. So, this, I think, will — I — if the nomination comes through, I would really be surprised if there was much fighting about it.

MARK SHIELDS: There would be some criticism — and already has been — from the American Civil Liberties Union and those on the left.

But, politically speaking, pragmatically, that’s an ideal nomination for Barack Obama to make, to have an FBI director who the only critics of is — is from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is, you know, not probably considered formidable politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this comes at the same time the administration is — the name is floated at the same time the administration is under a lot of fire from the news media and, frankly, from just about everybody for the way they have investigated the press aggressively, Mark, looking for whoever got a leak, a story from — in the form of classified information from the administration, the attorney general particularly under fire.

He’s been having meetings the last two days with news media executives. What does all this say? Is the administration — are they able to put this behind them by talking to the press about what happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they’re playing defense, Judy.

I mean, they’re trying to make up for it. This is the first time, really, since Richard Nixon’s administration and the Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, the reporter who published and reported on the Ellsberg case, the Ellsberg papers, about the United States deep involvement and background on Vietnam, which the administration then didn’t want published, it’s the first time they have invoked a member of the press, a reporter, as a co-conspirator under the Espionage Act.

And this was what was done to Jim Rosen of FOX News on the investigation. So, there has been an understandable and predictable and very loud and vocal cry on the part of the press that — I mean, this is more than chilling. It’s really punitive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where is this headed, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they’re trying to rewrite the rules, but they’re handling it very ineptly, I have to say.

They — first of all, there was testimony from the attorney general, from Holder that they were not doing any prosecuting of press people. At the same time, they were at least walking up close to that. And so there’s some problem with the testimony. And then they have clearly signaled this week that they’re uncomfortable with the rules as they exist.

DAVID BROOKS: And, to me, that’s not even close to being enough. They should be appalled by the rules as they now exist, but, nonetheless, they’re showing a little sense of remorse, or pseudo-remorse, a sense of, OK, we’re going to fix this.

And, apparently, there’s some …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you say pseudo-remorse?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, pseudo.


DAVID BROOKS: You can’t really tell what they’re feeling, because it’s all been through vague leaks, and, yes, we will adjust it, but how much. Yes, the White House is saying we will change it, but how much?

And so they had this off-the-record briefing this week in which — which was all leaked immediately — in which they were not clear even then about what they wanted to do. So there was just a lot of fuzziness, but a little saying, oh, we’re sorry, we’re sorry. But what are you going to do?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a lot of the media didn’t want to participate — or media executives didn’t want to participate in these meetings as long as they were off the record.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, exactly.

And pseudo-remorse is sort of like a limited mea culpa. They kind of: We didn’t want do anything wrong, but we want to reexamine what we were doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, politics. The tea party seems to be getting a lot more attention since the IRS controversy. And we haven’t talked about that in a few weeks.

But the other thing about the tea party is, this week, Michele Bachmann, who is a very prominent member of the Tea Party, announced, David, she’s not running for reelection to her congressional seat, which I think gives us a reason to look at what’s happened with the Tea Party.

There was a sense last year that they were losing some steam. Are they coming back? I mean, now we’re reading that they’re picking up donations, Mark. They’re picking up new members. I mean, what do you …

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you spend a couple years saying the IRS is out to get us, and then it turns out the IRS is out to get you, it is going to help you with your fund-raising.


DAVID BROOKS: So I think it looks like they’re not losing steam. And I don’t think Michele Bachmann leaving the stage is going to hurt at all.

It’s really not a leader-driven movement. It is a grassroots movement. And so they’re — I think they are just going to be a permanent part of the party. The relative strength of the tea party vs. what you might call the establishment part of the party will vary from issue to issue.

I have to say, so far on the immigration issue, I think the establishment part of the party is doing very well. It looks like there are going to be a lot of votes in the Senate, for example, for a comprehensive immigration bill. We will see about the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think that’s going to pass?

DAVID BROOKS: I think better than 50/50 both houses, but certainly the Senate.

And so that’s a sign of strength. A sign of weakness, though, for the party as a whole is they’re having trouble recruiting candidates in a lot of places, in Colorado, Virginia. There’s a good National Journal story on this.

And I think one of the reasons they’re probably having some trouble is that a lot of what you would call establishment Republicans don’t want to have a war with a tea party candidate. And so they’re a little more hesitant to say, OK, I will run for Senate, I will run for governor, I will run for whatever.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they do not have — Republicans, have clear shots in Iowa for the United States Senate, in Minnesota against Al Franken, who won in a squeaker, didn’t get the seat for nine months after the election. They can’t get a candidate.

They can’t get legitimate mainstream …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think because the influence — the energy, the influence is disproportionate of the tea party in these states and in the nominating process.

We just saw it in Virginia, where Bishop E.W. Jackson was nominated at convention for lieutenant governor. And they’re running away from each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a very conservative …

MARK SHIELDS: Very, very conservative.

I do think, Judy, that it has its influence and its power in the House Republican Caucus. And that is a problem for John Boehner. It’s a problem for Eric Cantor, who’s tried to come up with an alternative — an alternative Republican program, the kind that Bob Dole urged them to have. And he’s been — he’s been rained on by the Tea Party members and the conservative caucus.

So I think there — there’s an energy that they have, but I really do think they are a roadblock. And they certainly inhibit the Republicans being competitive nationally at a presidential level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To be continued. We appreciate the energy both of you bring every week, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

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.

And don’t miss our special live Doubleheader, when the guys will take your questions. And that’s on June the 21st. Mark your calendars.