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Analysts Discuss Diplomacy in Mideast, Bolton Hearings

July 28, 2006 at 1:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Dionne, New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Mark Shields is off tonight.

David, first, on President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, how well did you think they did today explaining what their position is?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think they did well in the abstract, as usual. And the abstract, I think, is right, that you don’t declare a cease-fire that’s not going to last.

Israel and Lebanon have had a series of cease-fires, none of which have lasted because none of which have addressed the underlying problem. And they’re right in the abstract, that if we declare a cease-fire now and Hezbollah and Nasrallah become the winners, that’s just disastrous.

Hezbollah will overshadow the Lebanese government; he will become the giant in the Middle East; and the extremists of all sorts will have this tremendous boost, as well as Iran.

Now, where I would fault them — and where I would fault the whole administration understandably — is actually, how are you going to affect the alternate strategy?

And the alternate strategy is two stage, or maybe three: one, let Israel pound Hezbollah to weaken them; two, get some humanitarian aid in there; and, three, create this international force to create a better future after the fighting is done.

Now, that structure is frayed. Can we really count on the Israelis to pound Hezbollah? Are they going to be able to do that successfully? That’s a question. And then, as we just heard, is there actually going to be an international force? That’s a huge question.

My sources in government sound a lot more optimistic this week than last about the Israeli military possibilities, but they’re much more pessimistic than last week about the international force.

Bush and Blair

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
The problem is that, as the war goes on, I think Israel has lost support, some support in Europe, and a lot of the Arab governments have felt required for their own reasons to say, "No, now we need to stop."

JIM LEHRER: E.J., how do you read the Bush-Blair performance today?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Well, you know, there's a long history of Tony Blair doing often a better job of explaining and defending Bush policies than the president. And this has been a very hard week for the administration. Condoleezza Rice's mission did not go very well. And Blair...

JIM LEHRER: The one in Rome?

E.J. DIONNE: ... yes, the one to Rome, and Blair came to Bush's defense. I think the problem is that Israel faces a problem now which is that, at the beginning of this conflict, virtually everyone in the world, including in a quiet way some Arab countries, said, "Of course Israel is justified in responding to these attacks from Hezbollah."

The problem is that, as the war goes on, I think Israel has lost support, some support in Europe, and a lot of the Arab governments have felt required for their own reasons to say, "No, now we need to stop."

There are three big issues at play here. One is Israel's defense, and they have a right to defend themselves.

Two is the survival of the Lebanese government, which I don't think gets enough attention. We talked a lot in the last year about what a great victory it was that democracy came to Lebanon. The Syrians were pushed out; that was a big victory. And I think one of the things we have to watch for is not to allow this situation to collapse this Lebanese government.

And the third is the long term. And I think that Blair, right out of the box, when the administration was silent, suggested this international force, which is at one level highly...

JIM LEHRER: He did that at the G-8.

E.J. DIONNE: At the G-8 and was this immediate response. There was very little coming out of the United States at that time. It's one of those things that's a great idea in principle. In practice, as David suggested, it's going to be very hard to pull off.

I have thought for a while that some kind of cease-fire, even a short one, a unilateral one on the part of Israel for humanitarian purposes, might actually help restore its moral authority, which they had at the beginning and they're in danger of losing, whether fairly or not, as the war goes on.

Europe's role

David Brooks
The New York Times
I'm beginning to hear rumbling of people saying Israel's pulling back their ambitions. They don't want to kill Hezbollah; they just want to bomb some places and get out.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, I mean, on the moral authority, Europe has to make up its mind. And Europe is really the key player, because they're going to be the key to the international force.

JIM LEHRER: More so than the United States?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, because we're busy in Iraq. We can't go there...

JIM LEHRER: Because of that?

DAVID BROOKS: ... because of what happened in '82, et cetera, et cetera. So they've got to make up their mind. Do they support the destruction, really, of Hezbollah? Yes, they do. Do they support anybody who does it? No, they don't. They've got to align their goals with their means, and they have this inconsistency.

And so then you go onto the international force. It seems to me Jacques Chirac again has to make up his mind. Chirac -- France is the key player here -- has always said Europe wants to play a crucial role in the world, that Lebanon is the key, that the Europeans have a unique role to play in Europe because we're too closely tied with Israel.

So all this suggests they should be eager to put troops in there. But for various reasons, they're not. And it seems to me there's a danger here that Europe may be missing its great opportunity to play a significant role in the world.

E.J. DIONNE: I agree with David on Europe and its role. I think the Israelis have to remember that that old line, "War is politics by other means." Can they degrade Hezbollah greatly? Yes. And would that be useful? Yes.

But Hezbollah is not going to be made to disappear simply by military means. And I think what the Israelis need is -- and, by extension, the United States, which has many interests aligned with the Israelis here -- is an approach that would allow this European force to come in, would make it easier, and Israel has just got to figure out a way, I think, to back up, having had some success against Hezbollah, to look at its longer-term interests.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just make one quick point on this point, because I think something has changed in 36 hours. Thirty six hours ago, the Israeli cabinet had a meeting where they really, it seems to me, based on many indications, decided, "We're going to put our emphasis on a very thin slice of southern Lebanon, a few villages. We're going to talk about a security zone."

So the first burst of the war, where they were bombing all over, now in the last 36 hours it looks very different. It looks much more modest. And I'm beginning to hear rumbling of people saying Israel's pulling back their ambitions. They don't want to kill Hezbollah; they just want to bomb some places and get out.

And so that's also -- that seems to me -- maybe next week we may look at that, and that will be the real danger.

JIM LEHRER: On U.S. policy, E.J., there was a question at the news conference, part of it for the president, part of it for Tony Blair, which is essentially, "Mr. President, the United States is supporting Israel's bombing of Lebanon. It is also evacuating Americans from the bombing. And it is also putting money into the rebuilding after the bombing. Is that a policy?"

E.J. DIONNE: Right, it has not been clear from the beginning that there is a policy. Tom Friedman had an interesting line in his column where he said, "The United States has moral clarity; what it doesn't seem to have is moral authority." And I think we've lost -- this is, I think, one of the costs of the Iraq war -- that we've lost some of the influence that we might have had.

And I think, in the early days of this, the administration was really at sea. It had no real response to this. It took days for the administration to respond.

Some say they were keeping silent because they wanted to let the Israelis do what they could do against Hezbollah, but I think the administration's tendency to stay away from diplomacy led it to a certain unwillingness to act early on, which I think turns out to be a mistake. I think it hurts us, and oddly I think it hurts Israel that we weren't there to say, "Watch what this is going to do in the long run."

JIM LEHRER: Now, that doesn't bother you, right, David? I mean, you think we've done -- do you think the U.S. has...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they've always had a strategy.


DAVID BROOKS: I think, on the overall, the strategy has always been this two-prong strategy: first, weaken Hezbollah; then, bring in the international force to build a new reality and to strengthen the Lebanese government. That's always been the strategy. The implementation is the hard part, and it's always been the hard part.

JIM LEHRER: And it always will be, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, of course, because the terrorists just have to destroy. We have to build. And so the odds are against us even now.

Conversation with Iraq

David Brooks
The New York Times
Republicans play politics with national security, but they also, because they're in power, have to have policies. They have to have a policy about when something happens in Hezbollah.

JIM LEHRER: The Washington visit of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki this week, what was accomplished?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he gave a speech which I thought was a little platitudinous. But I think what he demonstrated, first, that he's independent from the U.S., with his comments about Hezbollah and the various issues that surrounded that.

Second, there was a bit of exchange about when the U.S. was going to get out and when we were going to negotiate with the Iraqis to get out. And that's going to have to go through Iraqi parliament next time, so there was setting up of commissions so the U.S. and Iraqis could decide together when it was best to get out, sort of regularize that process.

And then there was just a lot of conversation. I had one meeting with other journalists with the Iraqi foreign minister, and he said something that I'd never heard somebody say, which is that there are members of the Iraqi government who are involved in the terrorism, and inspiring, and partnering...

JIM LEHRER: Members of the Iraqi government?

DAVID BROOKS: ... of the Iraqi government. He said this was an on-the-record thing, and there were probably 15 journalists around the table. There were members of the Iraqi government who were partners, he said, and maybe inspiring some of the terrorist activity as part of the political activity in the government, in other words, as part of the power jockeying.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my god.

DAVID BROOKS: And that suggests, on the one hand, incredible fractiousness in the government. But on the other hand, the silver lining -- which of course I'm looking for...



DAVID BROOKS: ... is that...

E.J. DIONNE: It's getting thinner and thinner every day.

DAVID BROOKS: It's getting thinner, yes, micro silver, but it suggests that the people in the government can actually have some influence on the insurgents. So if you can get them to...

JIM LEHRER: They would go aboard ship...

DAVID BROOKS: ... exert some control, if they wanted to use it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, so you learn things at these...

E.J. DIONNE: That's good news?

JIM LEHRER: E.J., what did you think of the Democrats, some Democrats who criticized Maliki's comments about in support of Hezbollah. Some of them boycotted his speech before Congress. Was that smart?

E.J. DIONNE: Oh, I don't know if it was smart, and it was politics. But when people reacted against that, I was just struck by the fact that, for a long time, the administration has used national security for political reasons. Whenever Democrats complain about it, they're called whiners.

And whenever they have a smart political move or a seemingly clever political move, they come under attack. It's as if there's a double standards. Republicans can use knives; Democrats have to use boxing gloves.

I think beneath it was a substantive point about Iraqi policy, which is that we're fighting this war to defeat terrorism. And when the prime minister, Maliki, even in a private meeting, as Senator Durbin, the number-two Democrat reported, even in a private meeting, he wouldn't condemn Hezbollah as a terrorist force.

And I think what that does is it does call attention to the contradictions in the president's policy. Here we are strengthening this Iraqi government over here, and they can't even in private say, "Yes, we've got a problem with Hezbollah."

DAVID BROOKS: France doesn't declare Hezbollah as a terrorist force. They refuse to list them, so, you know, there's a lot of diversity in the world. I thought it was terrible politics.

JIM LEHRER: What, the Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS: The Democrat...


E.J. DIONNE: I thought you would, David.


DAVID BROOKS: I'm about to come back. But, I mean, the guy's a member of the Dawa Party. He is a Shia leader who's spent much of his life in Damascus. He's going to have certain ideas of his own, and they're not going to be our ideas.

The leader of the Dawa Party is not going to join B'nai Brith. And if you get all upset because Arabs are Arabs, or Shia are Shia, you know, you're just not being realistic. And to me the problem is -- E.J. is right. Of course, Republicans play politics with national security, but they also, because they're in power, have to have policies. They have to have a policy about when something happens in Hezbollah.

The Democrats are not in power, so they can have politics. They don't have to have policies. But Peter Beinart wrote this piece in the Washington Post.

JIM LEHRER: Op-ed page today, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Op-ed page today, the New Republic writer. And he made the crucial point: Of course you have to play politics, but if you're going to be trusted, you also have to have policies. You've got to step forward and have some policies.

Bolton confirmation hearings

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
The question is, do Democrats actually want to go with a filibuster? That's not clear. But if they do, at least at this moment I think they could sustain it.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, E.J., John Bolton is up for a second go at winning official nomination and confirmation as ambassador to the United Nations. Should he be confirmed this time?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I don't think so, and I don't know if he will. What I heard today when I talked to Democrats on the Hill is that, right now, there is still enough Democrats to filibuster him.

I think the judgment on him should be the one he laid out for himself, which is he went to the U.N. to help reform the U.N. And there was a devastating piece in the New York Times, as it happens, by my former foreign editor, Warren Hogue, basically saying that even our allies at the U.N. say he is not pushing the cause forward.

Senator Dodd had a good line at the hearing, saying, "We're not against you because you're a bully; we're against you because you're an ineffective bully." Now, the question is, do Democrats actually want to go with a filibuster? That's not clear. But if they do, at least at this moment I think they could sustain it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say the word on him is that, on this reforming the U.N., he's certainly kicked up a lot dust and made some enemies. But as part of being a multilateral player on North Korea and Iran, he's been very multilateral and really worked with other countries.

So his perceptions of him have shifted to the positive, most importantly with George Voinovich, the senator of Ohio, who was the guy who really blocked him, who has now completely shifted sides, in part, he says, because he spoke to the people at the U.N. and he was impressed.

JIM LEHRER: So you think he'll be confirmed?

DAVID BROOKS: I think odds are, yes.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both. E.J., good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.