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Shields and Brooks

December 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks– syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, a big week on Iraq; the president made a speech on Wednesday, major speech at Annapolis, and then yesterday, ten Marines were killed. Where do we stand tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first on the speech, I think it was the best speech the president has given. My colleagues John Burns and Dexter Filkins wrote that it was sort of a landmark speech because for the first time the war that Bush described matched the war the generals described, and so he really did go a little more on specifics, a little more talked about the mistakes. I thought it was a landmark speech because for the first time the private things I’ve been hearing from the White House were reflected a little bit in the public, and so some of the candor -

JIM LEHRER: Do you mean kind of skepticism, well, hey, this thing isn’t working, we’ve got to figure out -

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, when I go in for background briefings, I hear a lot of that. I hear a lot of we’re going to do this, this isn’t working, let’s do that. The Republicans never heard that. And I think that’s one of the reasons – or the president – and so I think the president is right to move in that direction. I wouldn’t say it’s fully moved there or laid it out completely, but I think this speech, you know, was the best they’ve done.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president had to make the speech, and I think it was probably very good for his side. I think his side –

JIM LEHRER: “His side” meaning –

MARK SHIELDS: More supportive, Republicans, conservatives who were dispirited, I mean, they hadn’t heard any vision, any sense of mission. All they had heard was sort of a repeating mantra of, you know, things are fine, things are going good, this is the right thing to do.

I thought there were a couple of things about the speech, Jim, that jumped out at me. One was the president has changed the terms of the debate. As recently as August, his quote was, “When the mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, we’ll come home.”

Now, that’s — there’s a different goalpost. It’s when the Iraqis can deal with the insurgents or the insurgency, then we’ll be able to start withdrawing American troops. That’s a change, and I think it’s a more realistic assessment but at the same time, I think that when you have the ten Marines killed after all the rosy statements — I mean, the vice president will always be remembered, the last throes of the insurgency six months ago, that statement. I mean, we just had the fourth bloodiest and deadliest month of the war for Americans.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s a reality that–

MARK SHIELDS: That’s a reality, and reality always trumps rhetoric.

JIM LEHRER: David, the president’s use of the word “victory” has gotten a lot attention. He not only used it a lot in his speech. It’s also in the document that the National Security Council put out. How do you feel about his definition of victory?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that word is there because are we withdrawing just to get out of there, or is success or is victory our exit strategy? And I think they wanted to say we’re not getting there – we’re not withdrawing just to get out there.

And I think the president really does believe that. I talked to a Democratic senator who said, oh, he’s just laying the groundwork so we can get out. I really don’t think that’s the case.

I think the president is willing to lose the House majority to win this war. I think it’s that important. I think it’s right to think that.

But just on to what has been happening in Iraq, it has been an incredibly bloody period. My basic bottom line is that we are fighting a war better than we’ve ever fought it, but that doesn’t mean the bad guys aren’t also fighting it better than they’ve every fought.

JIM LEHRER: They’re meeting everything we do–

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what they do. But I know, as you look at what we’re doing, we’re doing it better. For example, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, we were taking towns, and then we’d lose Marines in these towns, but then we’d give them back because we had no one to stick in those towns.

Now we just finished this operation Steel Curtain; we’ve taken the towns and we’re leaving Iraqi troops there to secure the towns. So that’s better, and there’s been a whole series of improvements on that score, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to see immediate progress, and then say it’s because they could be getting better. And it doesn’t take that much to put an IED down.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, you said this was a good speech for the president’s side. Talk about the other side on this, the Democrats, the anti-war people. Where are they now in this? How are they doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they’re growing.

JIM LEHRER: Growing.

MARK SHIELDS: They continue to grow. There are more people against the war. I just looked at the numbers before – 85 percent of Democrats believe it was a mistake, 25 percent of Republicans now believe going to Iraq was a mistake, 95 percent of African Americans, 60 percent of independents.

And I don’t think there’s any question, I don’t think David would argue that in 2007, 2008, there will be a slogan on the campaign trail of “No more Iraqs.”

JIM LEHRER: What about the Democrats in Congress and–

MARK SHIELDS: In the House, they voted 60-40, Jim, against the war, and I would say right now, that’s probably up maybe 75, 80 percent of Democrats there. There are conspicuous divisions. Certainly Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, came somewhat belatedly in the eyes of many to endorse Jack Murtha’s position -

JIM LEHRER: The withdrawal in six months.

MARK SHIELDS: The withdrawal in six months. And Steny Hoyer, who is her deputy, principal deputy – not her deputy but the Democratic deputy leader in the House, said to do so — made a statement that must have warmed the cockles of the White House. I mean, to do so precipitously– would be bad for our credibility – bad for the –

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lieberman.

MARK SHIELDS: Sen. Lieberman was one of the five Democrats in the Senate who voted against the resolution, the John Warner-Bill Frist resolution, the 80-19, 79-19 vote that 2006 has to be a year of significant transfer of authority to the Iraqis and –

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you both this, starting with you, David, are we drifting, or are we moving, whatever verb you want to use — toward a division, particularly among the political class on Iraq, which has the Democrats, basically the Murtha position, that the policy should be aimed toward getting U.S. troops out, versus a Republican position, the president’s position, which we only get out when certain things have happened. Is that where we’re going?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I really don’t think we are. I think Steny Hoyer is not alone. I mean, the division within the number one and two people in the House is pretty dramatic and if you go to the Senate, there are a lot of Senate Democrats, they don’t like — believe me, Joe Biden and Barack Obama frustrated with the way the war is being fought – but that doesn’t mean they’re where Murtha is, and I think a large percentage of people – John Kerry was just there also, so I don’t think that’s where the division — the divisions are different.

There’s a division, there’s a Pew poll that illustrated this, there’s a big division been opinion leaders and the country, there’s a huge division — Michael O’Hanlon and the Brookings Institution had a good piece — saying a huge division in the military where people really think we can succeed over the long term, the people on the ground who are reenlisting in high rates, they tend to think we can win this thing.

And there’s a huge division between those people and between the media and the academics who tend to not think we can win. And O’Halloran’s point was, if we get out, there is going to be furious anger on the part of the people who are fighting this war, who think the rug was pulled out from under them.

JIM LEHRER: But as Jack Murtha said in all kinds of interviews on this program and elsewhere -

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: — he was hearing just the opposition of what you just said –

DAVID BROOKS: — This is from polling data, and this is reenlistment rates which are-

MARK SHIELDS: I’ll dissent on this point: The White House was furious at the Murtha thing. They were furious at the Murtha thing, not because of Murtha – I mean, they had no particular relationship with Jack Murtha. They knew Jack Murtha was a major player and respected on both sides of the aisle.

They were furious because they conducted, and accurately so, that officers had spoken to him. There’s no question, I don’t think, Jim, that the brass in this administration has been cowed. I mean, it’s as bad as it was in Vietnam. After Vietnam it became an ethical course taught to officers that if you dissented, you had a responsibility to speak up because so few had.

And I don’t think there’s any question that these — that Jack Murtha reflected because of his long relationship with the military, these people — they can come to confession to him, and enough had come to confession-

DAVID BROOKS: But the Pew poll showed 65 percent of military officers think we can win. So that leaves 35 percent, that’s a significant minority.

And you go to the people on the ground in Iraq and you get these high reenlistment rates because they believe — and the Marines that I’ve spoken to, they think over the long term — and they emphasize long term -

JIM LEHRER: Long term.

DAVID BROOKS: — that we can win.

MARK SHIELDS: The Marines I’ve spoken to don’t share that, and I can say from personal experience that Murtha told me that he spoke to the commanders. He’s — he has some considerable disdain for the American generals in Iraq who live in the palaces that Saddam Hussein occupied.

And he just finds that totally offensive, and a terribly unhelpful symbol to send to the people. But that aside, I don’t think there’s any question that the support and the enthusiasm for this war is waning. I think David is right. The president is committed to it. This is a president, understand, who said, “I believe God wants me to be president right now.” I mean, that’s a quote, quoted by Richard Lamb, the Southern Baptist, the president told him.

I think there’s a sense of mission that he has, and I don’t think he’s making political calculations. What the Republicans have framed the debate — is anybody who wants to get out six hours before George Bush does is a cut-and-run person. If you wait -

JIM LEHRER: Is that true? Is that fair?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think that. It’s a — listen, we lost ten men. It’s a rational position – I mean, it’s a close call, like most political calls about whether to get out. I happen to think if you look at the consequence of getting out, it would be much worse, but to say you’re a cut-and run if you want to cut this bloodshed, no, I don’t necessarily think that. It’s a serious position.

JIM LEHRER: Quick, before we go, the resignation of Duke Cunningham, a member of the Congress of California. Anything there besides Duke Cunningham? Is there a larger picture there?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s serious, beyond greed or corruption, Rolls Royce’s or yachts, this was a man in an enormously important position in the Intelligence Committee, the Subcommittee in Human Intelligence, and chairman, as well as the Defense Appropriations Committee, and what he did — this is a man who had been a top gun pilot, Navy flyer, an ace in Vietnam, a hero – what he decided to do was to trade and traffic in the safety of American troops because the contracts that went out involved not only intelligence of Iraq, but combating the IED’s, the improvised explosive devices -

JIM LEHRER: The one that killed the ten Marines.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right – killed the Marines. Were they going to mediocre bogus companies –

JIM LEHRER: Got to go. Anything to say about Cunningham?

DAVID BROOKS: I think what he did was terrible. I don’t think it’s a broad scandal, though.

JIM LEHRER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you, both.