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Shields and Brooks on Syria, Snowden and Surveillance

June 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's top political news with Judy Woodruff, including the Obama administration's decision to provide aid to Syrian rebels, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and American attitudes towards domestic surveillance.
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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.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, we just listened to Dr. Brzezinski, to Dean Nasr.

David, where do you come down on this, having heard the president basically change policy?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I have been leaning more interventionist as the months and weeks have gone by.

I have — you know, obvious caution, what Dr. Brzezinski, talked about are there, who are the people we’re arming, all that sort of stuff, what is the endgame? But I think it’s sort of outweighed. It’s outweighed first by the humanitarian needs. Second, it’s outweighed the possibility that Assad and really a rogue regime will be there forever and will win

Third, it’s outweighed by the collapse of the region around there if that rogue regime does win. And, finally, I think the big story in the Middle East is Iranian radicalism. And I think we have a lot to fear from an Iranian client state, a victorious Hezbollah.

I think we have a lot to fear from that. And so I think it’s a continuum of no action, total boots on the ground, which obviously is not going to happen. I think the Obama administration has tilted a little toward a little more interventionist, too little to do any good, actually. But I think that probably a little more tilt to try to prevent all the things I described.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what the administration is doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are they moving into the right direction?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Judy, after listening to that discussion, which was a good discussion, with Dean Nasr and Dr. Brzezinski, I think you have what the problems are for the administration.

There is not a compelling case that has been made that people say, OK. I mean, there’s a lot of individual discrete reasons. I mean, Americans don’t like to see children suffer. And 93,000 people, according to the U.N., have died already, and thousands more continue to die. One-and-a-half million have fled into Jordan.

Jordan is an ally, and its stability is threatened, and the reasons that David cited, that — the prospect of Assad being in the saddle with Hezbollah at his side and Russia playing this kind of a role there, you know — but, at the same time, I don’t know, Judy. It has a feel of Fast and Furious.

Remember Fast and Furious, the gun policy in the bureau of — the Department of Justice and Bureau of Arms and Tobacco did?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

MARK SHIELDS: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Just get out guns, and maybe they will get to a Mexican cartel, and we will find out and we will trace the guns that way. We’re going in and providing arms. We don’t have a reliable ally, an identifiable ally. We don’t have that most elusive subtype in the entire world. And that is a rebel who believes devoutly in religious freedom and pluralism and believes in democratic elections.

I mean, so …

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying it’s complicated to pick sides here.

MARK SHIELDS: Complicated, beyond complicated, and I don’t think the president has made the case for it yet.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s sort of stacking the deck, expecting a rebel force of the ACLU. You’re not going to get that in the Middle East.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you have got al-Qaida. You have got al-Qaida.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s part of it. There’s no question. We probably should have been involved in forming the rebels a little earlier and a little more aggressively, though some of that has been done.

So, I do think there is a group there. But the downsides — and, again, the downsides of having an Iranian client state, of having a mass-murdering regime are significant. Now, the — now, we can have this academic debate about what outcome we like.

The reality, of course, is we have very little influence. We certainly have no influence, given what the administration is doing, which is a few anti-tank and some bullets and rifles. This strikes me as just a sort of gesture, political gesture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about Dr. Brzezinski’s point? He said there’s a lack of clarity that defines the administration.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he — and you were saying that this is a step in the right direction. But his point is, if you keep going in that direction, are you going to end up in a war with Iran?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, foreign policy is like art. You have to draw lines.

And so I’m a little dubious about slippery slopes. This whole debate is a series of parallels. Some people, like Bill Clinton earlier in the week, sort of drew an implicit parallel to Rwanda. We can’t allow this to happen again. Other people are drawing the Iraq or the Vietnam parallel.

I think the Iraq and Vietnam parallel, we are so far away from really getting deeply involved in Syria that we’re not even close to that kind of line, and we’re not going to go there. There’s no support at all in the country for that sort of thing. And so I don’t buy that kind of slippery slope argument.

MARK SHIELDS: In the final analysis, if we’re going into this war, and we’re talking about going into this war, an army doesn’t fight a war. A country fights a war.

And this would be — we have gone through 12 years of wars where, Judy, the president — neither president — neither President Bush nor President Obama has ever acknowledged the fact that the country is at war. I mean, there’s been none — there has been no sense of collective mission.

All the sacrificing, all the fighting, all the dying is one percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because it’s a volunteer force.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s again — a volunteer force, that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are serving multiple terms.

MARK SHIELDS: Multiple terms, at the cost of enormous, enormous personal injury and damage, and as well as to their families. I mean, so, you know, I just — I just don’t like to talk sort of cavalierly about doing this.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s not a human being on earth who’s talking about that. There’s no single American who says we should be sending soldiers over there or troops over there.

We’re sending — the question is, we’re sending maybe anti-tank guns. We’re sending some riflery. The question is whether we’re sending anti-aircraft. The question is whether they’re going to do a no-fly zone, on the outside.

MARK SHIELDS: What is the mission?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the issue — the mission is prevent a mass massacre.

MARK SHIELDS: And how we will know when we have succeeded? And how we will know when we have succeeded? When we stop the massacre?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that would be a start, for me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we may not resolve in the next few minutes.

So let’s talk about another — another story we have been watching for last few weeks. And that, of course, is the government surveillance. Since I talked to the two of you last Friday, it’s been revealed that a 29-year-old former government contractor named Edward Snowden, who we think is still in Hong Kong, David, is the one who spilled the beans.

Is Edward Snowden a hero, a whistle-blower, as some say, or is he a traitor who violated his oath?

DAVID BROOKS: He’s a betrayer. He betrayed his oath, which was given to him and which he took implicitly and explicitly. He betrayed his company, the people who gave him a job, the people who trusted him. He betrayed his friends, who are all now going to be suspect, and they won’t be handing responsibility to a lot of 29-year-olds in the future.

He betrayed the democratic process. It’s not up to a lone 29-year-old to decide what’s private and public. We have — actually have procedures for that set down in the Constitution and established by tradition. And he sort of betrayed that. He betrayed the cause of liberty, because, if you don’t have mass data sweeps, well, then these agencies are going to want to go back to the old-fashioned eavesdropping, which is a lot more intrusive.

So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think he’s a traitor, to the best of my knowledge.

He is — he didn’t sell secrets. He didn’t provide secrets to an enemy or to an unfriendly entity. He didn’t put at risk Americans, to the best of our knowledge. He didn’t reveal projects of plans or programs that were going.

Is he a hero? I wouldn’t certainly categorize him as a hero. The president says, I welcome this debate. That’s healthy for democracy. There wouldn’t be a debate, Judy, if we didn’t have this disclosure. I mean, that’s a little bit disingenuous, to say that we welcome this debate.

What we have had is, we have had no debate. What we have had since 9/11 on all the security measures that we have taken, the debate has been overseas. It’s been rendition. It’s been Guantanamo. It’s been Abu Ghraib. Now, for the first time, it’s a question of, what is the trade-off? What are Americans willing to do to give up their own privacy without court orders, to let the government? And the appetite for secrecy for every administration is absolutely limitless.

DAVID BROOKS: I think we have had a bit of that debate, warrantless wiretaps. There’s been a lot of that sort of stuff.

But I agree with Mark that the openness should have been there and the …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Openness to what degree?

DAVID BROOKS: Just that this policy existed. I don’t think it’s news to the terrorists that we are doing this.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: So, we could have — we could have …

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you don’t think he revealed that much, or …

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we know some details. He apparently told the Chinese the stuff we knew about them. That was harmful to America. That was being a traitor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s a Chinese newspaper, government newspaper today saying the government should use him to negotiate with the U.S.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. So, if he wants to stay in China and not …

MARK SHIELDS: He would be a lot more heroic if he hadn’t — if he weren’t in Hong Kong. There’s no question about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, let’s be honest about it. He did sacrifice and surrender his own job, quite conceivably his own freedom.

I mean, this is not without cost, what he did. And I have to tell you, what I find the most offensive of all the criticisms of the guy, whom I don’t know and probably will never meet, and that is that he was a high school dropout.

We have had Ph.D.s named Wolfowitz and an MBA named Bush and a Ph.D. student named Cheney take us to war, and a terrible war for this country that’s cost division and cost lives and caused suffering. And we have had a lot of high school dropouts in this country named Washington and Lincoln and Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Rosa Parks who’ve made great contributions to this country.

And there’s something terribly snobbish about Washington’s credentials, if he just had gone to an Ivy League, if he had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago like Paul Wolfowitz or been like Doug Feith or Richard Perle. I mean, it’s just — that really is …

DAVID BROOKS: He had to attack Chicago.

No, I don’t attack him for being a high school dropout. I do attack him for being a grandiose narcissist. When you work for an institution …

MARK SHIELDS: Is that a felony?

DAVID BROOKS: No.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank goodness.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s a plague around here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re not going to get personal.

DAVID BROOKS: When you work for an institution, any institution, a company, a faculty, you don’t get to violate the rules of that institution and decide for your own self what you’re going to do in a unilateral way that no one else can reverse.

And that’s exactly what he did. So he betrayed the trust of the institution. He betrayed what creates a government, which is being a civil servant, being a servant to a larger cause, and not going off on some unilateral thing because it makes you feel grandiose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he should be prosecuted?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, but he obviously — there’s a calculation involved.

He was willing to sacrifice what was, according to all reports, a six-figure income, a prestigious position, I mean, and he was willing to sacrifice that or trade it for making public — I mean, you can call it narcissism, but — or call it a martyr complex, but he did do this, instead of, you know, leaking it out or whatever.

All administrations hate leaks, unless they look good by them, unless the leaks are made by them themselves.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And, no, I mean, this is — but I just don’t see what — John Boehner calls him a traitor, and Dianne Feinstein calls him a traitor.

DAVID BROOKS: Can I just make one political point which struck me this week powerfully, which is the polling?

I thought — and I think I said on the program last week there would be a lot of revulsion against the program. Not in the polls. By 2-1, 60-odd percent say, no, this NSA program is a good thing. We have more to worry about from — we’d like to see our privacy invaded to make us safer.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s — I would say this, if you look at the polls and particularly Pew, what you see is a total reversal. Our politics are totally polarized. Democrats who opposed this under George W. Bush now endorse it under Barack Obama.

Republicans who embraced it under George W. Bush now resent it and oppose it under Barack Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: So, I mean, the polarization just seeps into national security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, on that note, we’re going to say good night.

But, before we do, I just want to remind everybody watching that Mark and David always go to our newsroom on Fridays and they record something called The Doubleheader. They have done it today. You are going to see it tonight on television.

One week from tonight, it is going to be a special Doubleheader, because they’re going to take your questions live. And we’re trying to drum up as much of an audience as we can.

That’s why we are talking about it tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: Going to hit double digits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re both getting nervous about it.

MARK SHIELDS: Do you think we will get to a dozen people?

Is it 5:00 Eastern next week? Is that when it is, 5:00 Eastern?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark and David, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.