Shields and Brooks
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, based on what we’ve just heard, how do you read the Iraqi constitution situation tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I mean, we’re hoping that — deadlines have come and deadlines have passed, and there seems to be some real sticking points. This is not a conventional war in Iraq. In a conventional war, you have battles, you win territory, opponents surrender; cities fall to you. So we’ve relied very much, the administration has in particular, on symbolic events to indicate success and progress: The capture of Saddam Hussein; the turning over of control, of civil control; the selection of a president; the elections.
And the constitution has taken on an importance and a significance, I think, quite beyond what would have been imagined at the outset of this. And for that reason, it legally, quite frankly, if they fail to come up with a constitution, that means that the assembly is dissolved and new elections must be held by the 15th of December. I think this is an important step for the administration to make the case, “yes, we have succeeded, we are succeeding, we’re turning it over, therefore we can start an orderly withdrawal at some point.”
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that that much is riding on this, David?
DAVID BROOKS: No. No. I think it’s important and the more elections we can have the better we are. But the security thing is the most important thing. But as for the constitution I think there are two parts of it. The one is the distribution of power, the federalism part, and the second is the social issues part, the protection of minorities.
On the federalism part, it seems to me they’ve done pretty good. I think if these events have proved anything in the past week, is that we cannot not find these three groups – the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites – closely together into one centralized country because they’ll tear each other apart. They need a loose structure where each group can really govern themselves. So I think the federalism part is just good. Then you get to the social issues –
JIM LEHRER: But they’re not quite there yet.
DAVID BROOKS: They’re not quite there.
JIM LEHRER: In fact, they’re not there at all.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re not there at all. I think what’s going to happen is the Sunnis are going to scream, but then they’ll continue in the process afterwards to ratify. So eventually they’ll get there through a process, unhappily.
But then the second side, and the side that’s generated a lot of press back here, is the protection of women’s rights and the social issues and the court system, and things like that. And here, we’re obviously a lot less happy. If you read the constitution, it’s contradictory. There are some parts of it that read like the Equal Rights Amendment, and much more liberal than anything we have, other parts that are much more restrictive. But I think the key point is that the Shiites in the South who are insisting on some of these conservative social issues, they were elected and it’s their country, and if we try to repress the legitimate values they have, even if we find them distasteful, that will just turn off their population; it’s their country and they have got to work through it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, in that the United States may be in a position where we have to stand back and let a constitution go with some things in it that are going to be really hard to sell in the United States?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I disagree with David in this sense. First of all, I think they’re quite a ways from it. I mean, the loose federalism is obviously endorsed very strenuously by Syria, by Iran and by Turkey. They don’t want to see a strong, an independent Kurdish state develop in the North. At the same time, all the oil, being very blunt about this, it’s a political question, who gets the money? You know, how tough a central government do you have? And the Sunnis don’t bring much to the table. They don’t have the oil lands in the South as the Shia do, and they don’t have the oil land in the North, as the Kurds do. So they want a stronger federal presence and they want a stronger protection of the minority which they have become.
As far as the question, Jim, of whether, in fact, the United States can accept it, the president’s supporters have been really reduced and their rationale for the war to saying that actually the key speech was not anything at the United Nations or anything to the nation, it was a speech at the American Enterprise Institute he made when he talked about democracy in the Middle East. And if this comes up as this form of sort of democracy with no minority rights, it is a theocracy, it isn’t what the president had described to us.
DAVID BROOKS: That’s not true. It’s not our kind of democracy. We never said it was going to be Switzerland or the United States or Cape Cod, it’s going to be their kind of democracy, and that was the whole essence of the theory behind it, which is you’ve got regimes that are dysfunctional, societies that are repressive because there’s no give and take, there’s no culture of compromise, there’s no building coalitions. But if you get a system, which we will have under this constitution, where women have the vote, where you’ve got to build coalitions, where you’ve got freedom of assembly, freedom of parties, all that kind of stuff, you get a much more normal society.
JIM LEHRER: The other — a lot of things to talk about on Iraq this week. Senator Hagel said last Sunday — he brought up the bad word, because he was a Vietnam veteran. In fact, he won two purple hearts and a bronze star in Vietnam. He said, “It’s beginning to look like Vietnam.” And it became a major, major event when Chuck Hagel said this. What do you think about that?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he pointed to something useful, which is that the president just can’t go around the country and say “freedom, freedom, freedom,” repeat that stuff. The reason a lot of people are losing support for the war is because they don’t think it’s winnable. They might think “okay, it’s a noble cause, but we’re not winning. Why should we sacrifice more young men and women to a lost cause?” And what the president did this week was not address that issue. He just repeated the stuff about freedom. He’s got to address the issue about winability. And he’s got to show what we learned in Vietnam, which was how to fight an insurgency. At the end of Vietnam, we actually got reasonably good at it using a strategy we haven’t even tried here.
So I hope the president would take a look at what Hagel said and say, okay, in Vietnam they learned how to fight an insurgency, let’s learn from our experience, which we haven’t done at all.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, Hagel, to quote him directly, said, By any standard when you analyze two and a half years in Iraq, we’re not winning.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he said that, Jim. Chuck Hagel is no Johnny-come-lately to this. I mean, in 2003, he took on the administration for lack of post-planning. He railed against the fact that Dick Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was kept totally out of the loop and out of the decision making process. So — and he’s taken on the vice president on “this is the last throes of the resistance and rebellion.”
So — but what’s important with Chuck Hagel, Chuck Hagel is a lot more important to me than any Democratic dissent or anything of the sort, because if there’s going to be ultimate political resistance to the president and change of his policy, it’s going to have to come from Republicans.
And what Chuck Hagel brings to it, as you described, is not only you can’t say he’s not a patriot. He is a patriot. So he can’t be trashed and bashed. At the same time, you can’t say he’s a guy that doesn’t understand what the troops are going through. He was there in Vietnam. He knows what resistance — he knows when he speaks that he’s speaking to change policy in this country, not to in any way undermine American troops in the field.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. And, of course, General Myers spoke about that very issue. We had in the News Summary a while ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said he just got back from Iraq and the troops are beginning to say, well, we’re doing okay over here, what’s happened back home? Where is our support going? What’s he talking about?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the Vietnam analogy –
JIM LEHRER: Is he talking about Hagel?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s talking about what we all see in the polls, which is a drop in public support and what you are getting from troops, and I think we’ve heard it, I’ve heard it; they think they’re winning, how come they’re not with us back home, are they going to pull the rug out?
So when you look at the Vietnam analogy some things don’t apply. The insurgents have no popular support; they have no big superpowers backing them, they’re a shadow of that kind of thing.
But on the other hand, we are fighting an insurgency war, and it has begun to take a toll through the cost on the domestic audience. And so Myers was saying, hey, if we’re going to fight this war, let’s fight it, but let’s not lose it because we lost the civilian debate at home, which is why it’s so important that Bush get out there with a strategy.
And just to fill in — one mistake we made in Vietnam was to go around chasing insurgents on search and destroy missions, thinking “we got all this firepower, let’s use it.” Then we’d chase them, we’d leave the village, and they’d take over the village again.
JIM LEHRER: Which is exactly what happened in Fallujah, Ramadi -
DAVID BROOKS: They’d kill everybody that helped us. We made those mistakes exactly again. The secret we learned in Vietnam was don’t worry about attacking the enemy; protect civilians, and then slowly expand the areas you’re protecting. That way you get the civilians helping you. We learned that this Vietnam, but we haven’t learned it now.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, with all due respect to General Myers, I don’t think that’s what’s foremost on the troops’ mind. I mean, this has been an abomination of a war. It’s an indefensible war. I mean, we are still fighting this war with unarmored vehicles. We’re still fighting this war with inadequate protection for our troops. I mean, let’s be very blunt about this. If there were a draft, the reason that Cindy Sheehan carries great currency is she is a face of someone who has suffered in this war. Nobody in Washington knows people who have suffered in this war, and that’s why her message is so electric with so many people. And I really think that this is not the case of Vietnam, to analogize again, of where there was such mistreatment and indifference of American troops, returning from Vietnam and somehow that they were held as accountable and called baby killers by war critics -
JIM LEHRER: There’s been none of that.
MARK SHIELDS: — there’s none of that.
JIM LEHRER: No, no –
MARK SHIELDS: And this is entirely different. The American people have supported the troops, do support the troops, and the question is about the policy.
JIM LEHRER: You believe that the president could turn this around by just changing his message to the American people about this?
DAVID BROOKS: No. Well, I think the message has to be not, “hey, we’re advancing freedom.” People either accept that or they don’t. The message has got to be a strategy, but then there has to be a strategy. There has to be measurable results of winning on the ground. Listen, in Mosul two weeks ago, three election workers were killed, Sunni election workers, while they were just trying to register voters. That’s the moral clarity of this issue, that’s not the issue. The issue is: Is it a lost cause and are we winning? And I think it’s way too soon to be defeatist about it on the ground.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, reality trumps ideology, or policy, or speeches. Today, Chuck Hagel pointed out there is less electricity, there are more American fatalities, there are more insurgencies, there’s more resistance, and there’s more chaos than there was.
JIM LEHRER: Quick other subject before we go, and that’s the base closings commission; a lot of talk about politics and whether there was or wasn’t, who wins, who loses; how do you read the performance?
DAVID BROOKS: I rate it very highly. And it comes on the heels of the 9/11 Commission, the WMD Commission. We’ve had a lot of good commissions -
JIM LEHRER: Government by commission.
DAVID BROOKS: I know, maybe this democracy thing is a little overcooked. (Laughter) Maybe our greatest public figure –
JIM LEHRER: All right, choose nine people and put them over there.
DAVID BROOKS: Maybe compared to the dysfunctional nature of our politics, it’s done okay.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Very political. I mean, they’ve targeted the Northeast, there’s no question, the small blue states. And they rallied in both Maine, New Hampshire –
JIM LEHRER: Very political?
MARK SHIELDS: — Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut really overcame the target – I mean, the Pentagon targeted the blue states. I’d say this -
JIM LEHRER: But the commission?
MARK SHIELDS: No, the commission turned it around, and the biggest man in American politics today whether you want to admit it or not is John Thune, freshman Republican candidate – senator from South Dakota. He not only defeated Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate leader, last November, but he pledged to keep open the — what’s the Air Force base there?
JIM LEHRER: Ellsworth.
MARK SHIELDS: Ellsworth Air Force Base. The B1 bombers –
JIM LEHRER: B1-B bombers.
MARK SHIELDS: B1-B bombers; and it was the administration’s plan to transfer them to Texas, and the administration wanted to close Ellsworth. He said nope and he and Tim Johnson, his Democratic colleague, got together and with the delegation and the private community. I will say this about it.
JIM LEHRER: Say it quickly, please.
MARK SHIELDS: There is less – there is less public support for closing the bases than there was when the Cold War was over and we were looking for the peace dividend.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
MARK SHIELDS: There’s a greater resistance to that now.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to go, speaking of resistance. Thank you both.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.