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The Political Analysis of Brooks and Oliphant

July 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, David Brooks of the Weekly Standard and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, who’s filling in for Mark Shields tonight.

Well, David, we talked last week and it didn’t look necessarily like the Iraq thing would still be going full force with the uranium purchases on-again-off-again. It’s still with us this week.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s still with us. This story in my view deserved two days. This is a story about one charge among many, and this national intelligence estimate there were three paragraphs about this uranium story out of ninety pages, and it’s not an important story at all.

We’ve got three important things in front of us: What about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? What about the reconstruction of Iraq, what about fighting this guerrilla war so our soldiers don’t get killed? Those are three important issues. There is an important Iraqi civil governing body made up of 25 Iraqis basically getting ignored in the American media because we are in this frenzy. It is like a libido for the trivial that somehow we think we have Travelgate or Watergate or some other scandal. And so we are now and I’ve been involved in this in Washington for two weeks debating which mid-level NSC staffer was talking to which mid-level CIA staffer about one phrase and one speech. Now it was a mistake, obviously. But is it should it dominate our discussion now? No, it’s ridiculous.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Oliphant, is there something more important at stake in your view?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, in my judgment, there is. And I say that like David as a supporter both of the authorization for force to be used and of the war itself. The problem I think is that there is a context here, and it relates to the decision to go to war on March 20, involving primarily just the United States and Britain, and here the case for an imminent threat to the United States posed by Iraq is, I think crucial to the decision to go to war in that way at that time.

And to make the nexus complete, I think this also relates to the situation today where, for the purposes of reconstruction, we find ourselves, again, essentially with Britain, facing a Herculean task. And the reason we do is that we are still essentially alone, and the reason is that the war began early on the basis of an assessment of a threat that is now a matter of controversy. And I think that’s the… I mean you ask yourself, why are all these eyebrows twitching on Capitol Hill. I think that’s the reason. And it doesn’t just involve 16 words. I think it involves several, perhaps as many as a dozen statements by the president and other senior administration officials about a significant threat that may or may not have existed at that time.

RAY SUAREZ: So we wouldn’t be having this conversation, if, for instance, more evidence had been located on the ground in Iraq?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s exactly true. That is true. But I disagree with Tom in this respect. First of all, if we had waited six months, I don’t think France and Germany and the rest of the world would have signed up with us. Secondly, this is part of the national intelligence estimate. Bush gets this in the Oval Office; he reads this on the first page. If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year. Your president of the United States, September 11 just happened, several months to a year. You have to connect the dots. If you’re sitting with this document and the whole document is compelling aside from the few areas, including the uranium tubes which are not compelling because of the state department difficult sent. But if you are sitting with this document, you want to connect the dots.

You’re in a context, post-September 11 where everybody is blaming you for not bring all the information together, to think about a theory of how the World Trade Centers got blown up. So you want to be aggressive in connecting the dots. They were aggressive and they did take this Niger thing seriously. But to me, that’s what I want my president to be doing in those circumstances because nuclear bombs could be months away in Iraq.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think… in other words, another question might be why is the Senate Intelligence Committee proceeding with Republican support and not simply partisan Democratic agitation? And I think there has been an interesting switch in the last several days if you follow the committee chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas. Last month he was saying, I don’t want hearings, maybe we’ll have a closed door hearing. This is just an effort to impugn the integrity of the president; I want no part of it.

After George Tenet left Wednesday night, he says, we have to follow this wherever it leads, and he uses the great investigative cliche, let the chips fall where they may. Now that indicates support within the president’s own party for an inquiry to see if the connecting of the dots that David referred to was done prudently and with sufficient evidence so the judgment that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States, that justified the beginning of the war in March, can be made. And for that reason, I think there will have to be inquiry into the basis for the statements that the president, Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice made in this period that go far beyond the 16 words.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t disagree with any part of that. There was clearly a mistake made; clearly an inquiry has to be undertaken. My basic point is a question of perspective. The reconstruction of Iraq is what we’re going to remember in a year or two — not one charge out of many in the president’s case. And that, I think, in Washington, in particular, and I’m not sure it is true in the country, we’ve lost perspective. I think Tony Blair actually brought us back into the proper perspective with his tremendous speech this week, but we’re in the midst of like a Travelgate frenzy, which I think is just out of…

RAY SUAREZ: Let me ask you something. Absent the weapons, the imminence, the uranium sales, the stockpiles of chem. and bio. agents, if the president had just come to the country earlier this year and said this is a bad guy who has killed many of his own people, dangerous and destabilizing to the region, would that have been enough of a case absent these other things?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it probably would have as the polling suggested… if he had come to the country and said there is a bad guy and there are mass graves, he kills two million people, I actually doubt it would have been enough. But if he had come and said we have to transform the Middle East to drain the swamp of terrorism, and that is part of our larger war on terrorism, then I think the American people would have supported the president on that.

TOM OLIPHANT: There’s something else and I think it accounts for the fact that some people to the left of center like myself supported the war and got in trouble with our friends. And that is that there was an opportunity here to say, as Colin Powell has said, that the war in March was, in a way, the last battle of the ’91 Gulf War; that post-9/11, you cannot have rogue states that flout the specific requirements of the international community and the United Nations and that we are entirely justified in bringing this matter to a head now, based on the defiance of Iraq, very specific requirements of the international community. On that basis, and with a clear record of defiance, that’s what I think formed the basis for going ahead. And I still do not understand, given the questions about the specific statements, why the President, Cheney and Dr. Rice specifically made statements about an imminent threat the basis for which appears now to have been questionable.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess would I quickly say the think the president in most of his speeches said a gathering and distant threat, not an imminent threat, which was Tony Blair’s case actually.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get quick, quick reactions from you on what it will take to lay this to rest. We just heard a few moments ago Senator Evan Bayh suggesting hearings to build a timeline, to figure out what happened. George Tenet’s statements haven’t ended it. President Bush’s statements haven’t ended it. What is…

DAVID BROOKS: David Kay. David Kay is the inspector who is going through the millions of documents they are finding on Saddam — I think as you’ve suggested the key to this is the lack of weapons of mass destruction. When we get the truth about this about that, then this will fit into a context of what Saddam did or didn’t have.

TOM OLIPHANT: I agree. One other thing and that is it is necessary to get the principal players on the record about the basis for the things that they said.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move to the deficit. This week the Office of Management and Budget released its forecast for this fiscal year and next — bad news, by anybody’s measure, left, right or center, is that the deficits are going to be big and they’re going with us for a while. Tom, what do you make of that?

TOM OLIPHANT: This is going to be the fourth presidential campaign I’ve covered against this kind of a backdrop. Believe it or not, the first one is Nixon’s first term in 1972 — historic deficit numbers. It didn’t matter politically because the economic numbers were moving in the right direction during the election year. Same thing with Reagan in 1984. The opposite happened when Bill Clinton was elected. He had a record deficit, hideous federal finances. But what really mattered was they were accompanied by a stagnant economy that didn’t appear to be growing.

Current context, same thing with one exception — I noticed after the number finally came out this week, the fourth revision, I think, there was a spike in mortgage interest rates. Housing is central to this economy, refinancing of mortgages is very important. If people see a connection between this deficit and things that are happening in their lives, watch out. But what really counts… it’s kind of like weapons of mass destruction. The context matters more than the specific.

DAVID BROOKS: I sort of agree with that. But I think if I heard you correctly, I disagree with what the context means. I’m fine with deficits when the economy is stagnant. I think there should be deficits.

The problem for me is when the economy recovers and the deficits don’t come down because we should be stimulating the necessity when we are in a situation like this. I have my doubts that the deficit is going to come down as the White House projects it will over the next few years. We have the Medicare plan, a whole bunch of spending stuff, defense, homeland security. And I have a feeling the deficit is going to continue to grow. This year ….

RAY SUAREZ: This year’s forecast, even with the tax cuts factored into the macro economy, there’s a sort of ambient high level of deficit in the 200 million that remains to the end of the decade.

DAVID BROOKS: Right now the deficit is 4.2 percent of GDP that they’re projecting for this year; that’s about normal when you are running a recession. Then it’s supposed to come down according to projections to about 1.8 percent of GDP, which would be great. My question is will it really? One of the things we’ve learned is that Democrats are better at controlling spending than Republicans. Bill Clinton’s growth domestic spending was a lot lower than George W. Bush’s or George H. W. Bush’s were. And so I have a feeling the Republicans are going to spend.

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, yes. The relative size here, remember, is colored by the fact that we are taking the surplus in Social Security right now and using it to mask the real size of the operating deficit of the federal government, which is really more like $600 billion. And I figure at some point the number becomes absolutely alarming. It’s interesting to notice that conservatives have become much more Keynesian in the 21st century than us lefties who used to cite this in the old days. But there is… remember there are democrats who can’t make this point. Dick Gephardt, because of his health plan, does on spending what Bush does on taxes. It is an opportunity for the conservative Democrats like Lieberman and Kerry and Edwards.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot, gents. It’s good to talk to you.