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Political Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks Discuss the Week’s News

December 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Gentlemen, welcome.

It’s been sort of a rough week in Iraq. It began with the president acknowledging on Monday in his news conference that the insurgents are having an impact, that this is going to be a long haul.

There was that horrific explosion in Mosul that caused such a loss of life and now, reports that Secretary of State Powell has been privately and behind the scenes urging more troops be sent to Iraq. What do we make of this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, taken in reverse order, Terry, I think Gen. Powell, Colin Powell, makes a valid victory from the Department of State has to confront the reality that the Powell doctrine, which he developed, has been repealed by the Bush/Rumsfeld policies.

The doctrine very simply stated that in order for the United States to go to war, it had to be a last resort to go to war.

Second, that there had to be a real threat, an identifiable threat, a genuine threat to our national security from the target that we are going after.

Third, that we had to use totally disproportionate overwhelming force to achieve our objective. And finally, that there had to be popular support, strong popular support for the mission itself and a defined exit strategy.

It’s fair to say that in Iraq that every one of those are missing. The popular support, which is now gone; it was there tentatively at the beginning. And I think that you can feel that the president’s own sort of confidence and optimism about Iraq in that press conference was tempered by the reality.

We’ve seen contractors leave this week. We saw more casualties last month in Iraq of Americans than there were in the first six months of the war: The invasion, the occupation, and the war itself.

More deaths and more Americans killed last month than any month. So it’s a war that is not going well.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s a difficult time, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is a difficult time. It’s a war. We saw this week what the war is about in the killing on the street of the election workers. We see 80 percent of the country enthusiastic about elections, working hard, risking their lives every day for elections.

And we see a small group but powerful group of insurgents that want to defeat that. So we know what the war is about. But the progress of the war has been very difficult.

And I think it’s the most symptomatically difficult in the road between downtown Baghdad and the airport, that U.S. forces have not even been able to get control of that road between the international airport and downtown.

And so, the former CIA analyst writing this week, calls it a war of the roads. You’ve got to get control of the roads. This is something you’ve got to do with U.S. Forces.

And it takes a lot of people to do it, but it’s doable, because you just can’t have not only American troops– because Americans, frankly, the high level delegations are helicoptering over those roads, driving in convoys– but regular Iraqis driving through those roads getting blown up or getting robbed.

So getting control of the roads is a task, and it’s a task that’s so important that, you know… we are in the middle of this war and we could lose it in six months. You know, you go to war, sometimes you don’t always win. And that’s all in play.

TERENCE SMITH: And you’re describing a security situation, as we speak, only five weeks prior to what are supposed to be national elections. I mean, that’s a task.

MARK SHIELDS: David is right, but Terry, one of the great disappointments, one of the tragedies of this war is that each time there is supposed to be a significant, seminal, defining event in this war… it was when Saddam was going to be captured.

And we captured Saddam, and then the violence increased. And then it was when sovereignty was turned over last June to the Iraqi people.

Then, when the interim government was established, and then when their own security forces… now, it’s the elections, and now the president is saying, “well, don’t expect it.” So is Secretary Powell. So is Secretary Rumsfeld.

That the violence will not abate after that. So there is a sense of… there’s a light and people are starting to question if there is a tunnel.

DAVID BROOKS: I just don’t… I’m not quite sure I agree with that. You are never going to have one event where suddenly the insurgents go home. They are Saddamists. Some of them are Zarqawiists. They’re al-Qaida people. That’s who did, probably, the Mosul thing.

They are not going away. The hope is that you transfer sovereignty, you have elections, you have election after election after election, as we’ve seen in insurgency wars elsewhere.

And the people like elections, and so the insurgency loses some support and gradually you defeat them. That’s the only hook that you are going to have.

But what… I mean, people in the Arab press have made the argument of what’s positive which is happening, which is some Arab commentators said, “You know, we’ve had three elections in the Middle East.

One in American-controlled Afghanistan. We are about to have one in Israeli-occupied Palestine, and we’re about to have one in American-occupied Iraq.”

So the Arab was saying, “what’s the problem here that the only place we are having elections in this region is where Americans or Israelis are involved?” And there are lots of things stirring across the Middle East in this respect that that’s benefit out of all this cost that we see around.

TERENCE SMITH: Mark, we saw some clips before of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s quick visit to the war zone and his remarks. Is that trip for the troops’ morale or for his?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s for the secretary’s own morale more than anything. I mean, I just certainly don’t doubt that he has an interest in the troops, that he has certainly gone to some lengths and efforts this week to emphasize, but he’s under siege.

He’s become the visible symbol of those disaffected with this policy. And I just add, not to berate or to continue, but, I mean, this is a war that each time the rationale part has changed.

I mean, first, it was because they had weapons of mass destruction. Then it was because, “well, gee, Saddam was a bad guy and aren’t we better off without him?” Now, “we can’t abandon the mission.”

And I think that it makes it difficult for Rumsfeld. He’s trying to… this is sort of his sensitivity counteroffensive this week, “that I do care.” Message to troops, message to nation: “I do care.” It’s reminiscent of the first President Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you make of it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, his tone as changed a little. He’s sort of soft and cuddly, and if Donald Rumsfeld is going to go cuddly, then who needs him, you know? I want Rumsfeld to be tough and manly.

No, he is under siege. But, you know, there has been a lot of rallying behind him. My colleague Bill Kristol and four members of the Senate asked for his ouster.

I’m sort of struck by how many Republicans who secretly don’t really like him are rallying behind him. I don’t know if the White House told them to or what. But there has been a sort of rallying. So I would say he is not going to be leaving soon.

TERENCE SMITH: Speaking of the White House, they announced that the president is going to nominate for a second time a group of some 20 candidates for federal judgeships that were turned away by the last Congress. We have a little confrontation looming here, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think a little confrontation. Drop it in just in the Christmas weekend. There’s sort of a message. This is the fruits of victory. They’re going to play hard ball.

They nominated 210… they had 210, I think, confirmed– lowest vacancy rate in 15 years in the federal judiciary, but there were seven that were filibustered. And the president’s brought them back.

I mean, a couple of them, including William Hanes– who was a Department of Defense general counsel, Terry-I mean, this was a man who did a memo prior to the war saying the president was exempt from torture, anti- torture laws.

I think that’s a hearing that I’m not sure the administration wants to have vented and ventilated right now.

TERENCE SMITH: Are we going to see filibusters again?

DAVID BROOKS: We could. I think the administration’s point of view is we had a battle over these judges in the election. We won. We are going to, as Mark says, reap the fruits of victory.

And it’s going to be a lot easier to pass these and overcome a filibuster with 55 Republican senators, which there are now, as opposed to 51.

TERENCE SMITH: Still, they have to get to 60.

DAVID BROOKS: But then, you know, there’s this… there’s a sign of what hard ball the administration is playing, they are talking very seriously about this so-called nuclear option.

This would be the Supreme Court saying we are really making it almost impossible to have a filibuster. When they first started floating this idea, which really would short circuit the way we’ve been doing these nomination or the confirmations, I thought they were just bluffing or trying to scare people.

But everyone I talked to over there said they’re serious. They might want to change the rules. And that really would be… that would change the climate even from the depths that it’s in right now.

TERENCE SMITH: Sounds like a rehearsal for a Supreme Court battle to come.

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, I think it does. And I think you can see in the reaction to the White House announcement on resubmitting the 20 judges, Arlen Specter, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who just recently basically bartered his soul and self-respect to keep the chairmanship, said he didn’t think it was a very good idea at this point.

But his committee has just been added to it this week. On the Republican side, Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, and Sam Brownback, conservative senator from Kansas; so they’re going to make absolutely sure, the leadership is, that Arlen Specter is not going to be deciding force in that committee.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. We’re out of time, but Merry Christmas, happy holidays to you both. We’ll see you next week.