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Columnists Debate Mideast, Bush Admin Shake ups

November 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight.

Well, gentlemen, we watched this press conference between the president and Prime Minister Blair, and I’m sure when they planned this trip, they thought most of the questions they would take would be about Iraq instead of course, because of Arafat’s death it was about the Middle East and what they planned to do.

David, how does the White House see Arafat’s death? I mean, if we look at it in sort of crass political terms, do they see this as a great opportunity for the president or is their thoughts sort of, God, this is just one more issue we have to deal with that we really don’t want to deal with right now?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure they’d say great opportunity but opportunity and a pretty good one. The decision to sideline Arafat which the president took say two and a half years ago in June I think it was, two years ago was I think the right decision, a closely contested decision within the White House. And the problem with the decision is once you’ve said “okay, we’re not dealing with Arafat,” as long as he’s alive, you have no policy. And so they were just sitting there with nothing. There was nothing they could do because they couldn’t deal with the only guy who was representing the Palestinians.

So his death creates this opportunity to actually have a policy. And that policy, which the president emphasized, was democracy. I think it’s also a convenient time for them to try to re-launch relations across the Atlantic, which is clearly another thing the president is eager to do.

MARGARET WARNER: You heard him say that today.

DAVID BROOKS: He said he was going to go to Europe. But it also gives them a common project to work on. Now, Europe and America are not going to see this situation eye to eye. But in this moment when both sides will try to kind of start to re-launch this relationship, it does give them something to do together.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of is this?

TOM OLIPHANT: I disagree a little bit. First of all, given the fact that Mr. Arafat was sidelined so long ago, I would have thought the administration would have been better prepared for his death since they didn’t have anything to do in the meantime. Secondly, I think it’s caught them with a very weak foreign policy bench. If nothing else, this would be a reason for Colin Powell to stay around a little while.

But I did not hear in the president’s remarks any clear — if I could use the word roadmap — for how to use this election process or this reform process to actually begin creating a new relationship either with the Palestinians or among the Palestinians, us and Europe.

And finally, I think this is a headache for the president and not an opportunity. The agenda is already cluttered. They have barely begun the work on a Social Security and an income tax package. And now you have a second huge foreign policy problem that will occupy his attention throughout the next 12 months dropped in his lap.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet you did hear him say “I see the next four years as a time to spend the political capital of the U.S. around the world to get this.”

DAVID BROOKS: This is an issue he cares quite a lot about. From the way he talks within the administration, the things he likes to talk about, he likes to talk about the Middle East. He sees it as part of, you know, the war on terror which is the thing that consumes him. He’s got plenty of staff to plan Social Security and tax reform. There’s an entire domestic wing of his administration that can deal with it.

But I think he can use this opportunity to go to Cairo, talk about the Middle East, reestablish relationships with the moderate dictators we call our friends in the Middle East. And I just think it’s a chance to sort of broaden things out and put the war in Iraq in a new focus.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there’s any domestic political pressure on him?

TOM OLIPHANT: None whatsoever. The American support of Israel is gigantic. There’s more support for the Palestinians than there used to be but it’s not consequential. I do think, however, that the president is in the process of changing the way he looks at the region. I think up until now it’s been Baghdad and Iraq as a gateway to the rest of the region. Now I think it’s almost the reverse.

MARGARET WARNER: Jerusalem leads to Baghdad. All right. Let’s talk about another person passing just from the Washington scene, Attorney General John Ashcroft. First of all, there have been all these rumors around. Tom, I’ll give you the first crack at this. Did he leave of his own volition or was he encouraged to leave?

TOM OLIPHANT: There’s a story up on Capitol Hill that I have heard that after the election he had second thoughts about his resignation and was at least exploring whether there was a chance for him to stay. The most interesting reaction to all of this I thought came from the White House, which seemed quite happy or prepared, at least to see him leave. There’s some displeasure, at least with the stylistic aspects of his behavior. And I think he — but I do think from what I hear on Capitol Hill that he wanted to stay.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the White House see him as a political liability of sorts?

DAVID BROOKS: No. They were not close. The president was not particularly close with the attorney general. They saw him a bit as a publicity hog at some points, though less so recently.

MARGARET WARNER: All the press conferences announcing these…

DAVID BROOKS: The press conferences and press conferences in Moscow to take credit for something in the U.S. And he’s just not a man who is familiar with people in the administration. So was he a best buddy the way Gonzales probably would be with the president? No. Did they actively try to get rid of him? I haven’t heard that they pushed him out the door. So it’s somewhere in between those two things. They were not weeping but they were not pushing either.

MARGARET WARNER: But not begging him to stay.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And not begging him to stay.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about Alberto Gonzales, who was nominated to be — the White House counsel nominated to become his replacement. Why Gonzales?

DAVID BROOKS: He’s friends with the president. This is a role that is traditionally filled or often filled with people who are not — if not the president’s brother, which has happened, close friends — Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan; it’s an important role, you never know when you might have an independent counsel that needs appointing or — well, maybe not anymore but you have these sorts of intimate issues, it’s a very important issue.

And there is a certain style of person, I would say, if you look at various parts of the administration, the president likes. Quiet, a quiet person, maybe not going to create independent policies, attract independent attentions, but quietly competent and loyal. And that’s the sort of person Alberto Gonzales is. He also has the advantage of being Hispanic, which will help in the confirmation hearings. He’s got some red flags that will pop up and we’ll be seeing them. But he’s someone who has been loyal. I think the president has appointed him to four or five jobs over the past decade or so.

MARGARET WARNER: And are there Supreme Court politics or Supreme Court appointment politics bound up in this, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Of course, there always are. But in this case they’re sort of interesting to me in that there are — it’s being spun two ways this week. There are many groups socially, social issue activists on the right, who are very happy that this guy is going to be the attorney general because they think it’s less likely that he’s going to be on the Supreme Court.

There are some people — smaller number of people — who think that this is a way to give him a little bit more seasoning showing off and then try to name him maybe if there’s a second Supreme Court vacancy down the road. But I would be very surprised if that happened. One of my favorite trivia questions is the identity of the last attorney general who was nominated to the Supreme Court. Harry Truman did it 60 years ago — Tom Clark. And the problem is you develop a track record, controversy issues you have to recuse yourself on. It is not a proven path.

MARGARET WARNER: There was a story in the Times today, David, and I wonder if you put any stock in it, that it was part of — even the larger picture which is Alberto Gonzales would be attorney general and may or may not be groomed for the court. But that would clear the way for the president for his first court appointment to name someone who is absolutely adored by social and religious conservatives, that base of the party. Do you put any stock in it?

DAVID BROOKS: I put stock in everything that appears in the New York Times. MARGARET WARNER: It was on the news pages, the op-ed page…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I guess I would say that I think administration realizes correctly there is no way to please — to pick a human being who would both please the conservatives who are owed and who the president believes in, and also placate the liberals who might fight it. There is no individual who can please both groups. So you are going to have a fight. And it might be a fight that consumes the administration.

And so they’re just going to pick someone who’s going to have a fight and I don’t think they’re going to back away from that fight. So, you know, I don’t think there’s any complicated rationale here. There’s going to be some people, I don’t know if it’s Miguel Estrada or somebody who they’re going to pick and there’s going to be a fight. No complications.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think in some ways the key variable, David, will be which vacancy is it for? Ironically, if it turns out that it’s the chief justice’s seat, there may be a little bit more leeway for the president to appoint someone very conservative since that, after all, is Rehnquist’s position. If it’s Justice Stevens or Justice O’Connor, that’s when the sharp knives come out.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the latest betting, reporting, on the other high-profile Cabinet members whose potential living has been talked about so much — either Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Colin Powell and then of course Condi Rice comes into the mix here –

TOM OLIPHANT: I have been told flat out by Republicans I trust this week that Rumsfeld wants to stay and wants to stay for as long — it’s not so much to clear up the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I don’t think that’s fair even to Rumsfeld. I think it’s to really not leave in the middle or near the middle anyway, of the Iraq situation. And that kind of freezes Condoleezza Rice’s situation, because I am told she’s far more likely to be named secretary of defense than secretary of state.

MARGARET WARNER: And far more interested in that job.

TOM OLIPHANT: I would think so.

DAVID BROOKS: And it probably freezes Secretary Powell, because he and Rumsfeld have to go together with their arms wrapped around each other. I’ve talked to people who are intimate with both men and I’ve asked actually both of them “When are you quitting?” And somehow they’re not saying. And the people around them, intimately around them are trying to read their vitality. Do they seem really interested in the job? Do they seem like they’re looking around? And I would say no one knows. I really believe no one knows. The people who are around them say they seem really engaged.

MARGARET WARNER: Now Powell said an interesting thing I just read today. It was a trip to Mexico and someone asked him the same question and he didn’t give his usual stock answer of “Well, I serve at the pleasure of the president.” He said, you know, “I’m not out here on some farewell tour.” Do you think, for instance, the prospect of the Middle East peace engagement might make him more interested in staying?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there’s that. I think also Iraq. Remember, when we transferred sovereignty, it’s the State Department and Negroponte who really is the contact point. And he is someone Powell talks with everyday. So he is very much at the center of Iraq policy now in the way he wasn’t before. So that’s an important thing. The other thing, I think the administration is not eager to have everybody go at once across the Cabinet because they — they like some continuity. There might be a terror attack. They need some experience; they don’t want to have all these confirmation things all at once. The rollover policy makes some sense to the White House, too, I would think.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say this is going to be managed in a very orderly way, that that’s what we saw even this week?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, I don’t think it will be because there rarely is about such matters and I wouldn’t expect it to be here. Remember that Secretary Powell said something else this week that the tea leaders loved and that is staying around for as long as the president and I think it’s worthwhile. And I think that’s a signal that he wants to be sure that there really are going to be initiatives on which he can have an impact and not be in the kind of position he was in the first term when he was more often than not overruled.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that — you don’t think that the White House is pretty well orchestrating who’s leaving and who’s not?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s more fluid than that. This is not a White House that kicks people out. And so I don’t think they’re kicking people out. I really don’t think they’ve thought about it until the past few days and they’re processing it methodically. I don’t think there’s a strategy yet. I think they’re feeling things through.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. David and Tom, thank you.