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Analysts Discuss New Congress, Iraq Violence

November 24, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now 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, to you first. This new terrible spike in violence in Iraq — or I should say another — is this a new phase or is this just more of the same? How do you read it?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I think the big implication, first of all, is that events in Iraq are happening faster than events in Washington. And what we’re seeing is the disintegration of Iraqi society.

I think about 10,000 Iraqis move every week back to their tribal homelands — Shia to Shia areas, Sunni to Sunni areas. And so you’ve had almost half a million people move. And so what’s happening is society as an organism is pulling back into itself. And I suspect that American policy and world policy hasn’t really caught up with that yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see it that way?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Well, you know, I mean, the administration wanted to wage this war in the worst way, and in the other sense, tragically, it did.

I mean, from the very beginning, we have not — we were not able to establish order in Iraq, which was the thing that Iraqis expected us to do. And we let these problems fester and fester, and I think the administration didn’t realize that there was a time limit on this, that the American people weren’t willing to stay here forever.

They didn’t have all the time in the world, and that the forces on the ground, as was mentioned in the earlier segment, were going to begin to fly apart, if we didn’t really establish order and some trust in our ability to provide order so the Iraqi government could have confidence.

I think the problem now is that it’s not clear how you put this back together. Once the china is broken, it’s broken. And there are a lot of regional forces with both an interest, on the one hand, in avoiding civil war — and that’s what we’ve got to count on, that we can get some of those regional forces together to say, “If this gets out of hand, we’re in trouble.”

On the other hand, Iran does have an interest in its influence in the south, and I think Iran profits from the fact that we are in the middle of this mess. And Syria, whose help we need, is also a real problem for us, not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon. So this is a very, very difficult situation to solve.

Regional influence

David Brooks
The New York Times
I really have trouble believing people outside Iraq are going to be able to do a better job than we have or anybody else has in imposing order in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of these regional forces, David, tomorrow was supposed to be a meeting that the Iranian leader had called of the Syrians and the Iraqis. That meeting may be in doubt. But there do seem to be some effort -- the president's going to be there meeting with the Iraqi leader in Lebanon next week. Could there be a regional answer somehow?

DAVID BROOKS: I hope so, but I guess I'm a little dubious. In the first place, as somebody mentioned earlier in the program, Muqtada al-Sadr is having trouble keeping up with reality on the streets. I really have trouble thinking that people in Tehran, or Amman, or Damascus are going to be any better at keeping up with what's actually happening on the streets than Muqtada al-Sadr who's sitting right there.

And then the second thing to fear is the way this will ripple out throughout the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia warfare that's going on right now is not going to be unwatched in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, and in other places where there's either Shia or Sunni and Shia populations with presumably higher and higher levels of hostility.

And I have to say, the one approach that seems to make some sense to me right now is an approach that's long been championed by a guy named Peter Galbraith and has more recently been championed by Joe Biden and Les Gelb, and that's acknowledging the reality on the ground, and not trying to partition the country, but acknowledging that people are moving back to their areas, and trying to set up some local authorities within sectarian groups.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying the regional efforts are really just a sideshow here, and the focus needs to be inside Iraq?

DAVID BROOKS: I really have trouble believing people outside Iraq are going to be able to do a better job than we have or anybody else has in imposing order in Iraq. And by the way, I'm not totally convinced that Iran's interests dovetail with ours to any great extent, let alone Syria's interest.

Syria has an interest, for example, in Lebanon, in destabilizing the Lebanese government. We have an interest in propping up that government. Our interests just don't dovetail with regimes like Syria and Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, E.J., you know, isn't it what -- I mean, aren't we hearing from different sources that talking to the region may be what the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is, among other things, that they're going to suggest?

E.J. DIONNE: When you have no really good options left, you go to options that may or may not work, but they're all that you can try.

And I agree with David. I think that the regional powers have real conflict within themselves over what they want. He's right that our interests conflict with Syria's and with Iran's.

On the other hand, as he said earlier, Syria and Iran, and certainly Saudi Arabia, and certainly Jordan, do not have an interest in this thing flying apart. I mean, it could be very, very dangerous to them. And so, while this is not a great option, I do think that it is one option worth pursuing, trying to get some regional cooperation to ending this.

I have some sympathy for the Galbraith-Biden idea, in terms of quasi-partition, not quite partition. The problem is, it doesn't seem to play in Iraq. A lot of the Iraqis on various sides say they don't really want to do this.

So other ideas floating around that maybe the American forces are going to have to pull back and let some of this conflict play itself out, because we don't want our forces sitting in the middle of a civil war, because that is a no-win situation for our own troops.

Stay or go?

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
Well, I think the question is: Will staying in keep the explosion from happening? And that at some point we're going to have to look at this and say, We're not going to leave American troops there forever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, some people would look at what's going on and say there's no reason to wait another minute, that whether it's the solution you just described or another one, something needs to happen very, very fast. Do you agree with that, or do we have more time?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I certainly understand E.J.'s point that, why should we sit in the middle of a civil war? On the other hand, there does seem to be some acknowledgement among people of all stripes that we have had some effect on keeping the lid on this civil war, and if it spills out into civil war and really hundreds of thousands are killed, that's a moral disgrace, and a national disgrace, and an international disgrace.

And furthermore, again, what I mentioned was the rippling out of the Sunni-Shia split could be widespread. The fact is -- and the depressing fact is -- and I have no positive solution -- is that the record of civil wars ending with some sort of moderate solution is not a good one historically.

Generally, one side or another tends to win. And the side that would win in Iraq is the more popular side, the Shia side, which is not the more popular side in the Arab world. And so it's not a hopeful situation, but I do think pulling out -- I still think pulling out would hasten the explosion.


E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think the question is: Will staying in keep the explosion from happening? And that at some point we're going to have to look at this and say, We're not going to leave American troops there forever. This war, as of Sunday, will be longer than World War II was.

The voters clearly signaled that impatience with what's going on over there. And so while I think you can't just pull the troops out willy-nilly, I think we need a path to get out of there within the next year or so that causes the least possible damage to our interests and to the Iraqis.

Potential roles for Democrats

David Brooks
The New York Times
The president's biggest problem would be the Republicans, not the Democrats. House Republicans, Senate Republicans -- those few that remain, that happy band -- they want to be out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J., very quickly, back home, you have the House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, saying she wants a caucus of House Democrats. She's invited Zbigniew Brzezinski from the Carter administration, Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador, to sit around and talk to them. What else can the Democrats do, other than just criticize? Are they in a position now to be part of a constructive solution?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, some of that's up to the president. I mean, the president, under our system, has almost the entire power over foreign policy, unless Congress is willing to cut off funds for the war, which most of the Democrats have said they don't want to do because they don't want to endanger our troops.

But a lot of the people who voted for the Democrats in this year's elections were voting for -- to use a Democratic slogan -- a new direction in Iraq, and they were voting to get us out of there. So I think it's incumbent upon the Democrats to put together alternatives.

I think you have people like Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Senator Carl Levin, who are trying to suggest paths toward withdrawal that would be, you know, less destructive to the Iraqis and to us. And I think the Democrats have to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what is the most useful role for the Democrat right now in this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think doing what Joe Biden is doing, which is just throwing up ideas. There's no question, as E.J. indicated, the direction of Democratic policy is toward withdrawal.

The problem will be, they've been quoting a lot of military experts and a lot of former generals all through the last three years as authorities on Iraq. Most of those authorities do not think we should leave, and so suddenly they'll be going against the authorities they've been quoted.

I should mention, I think, the president's biggest problem would be the Republicans, not the Democrats. House Republicans, Senate Republicans -- those few that remain, that happy band -- they want to be out. They do not ever want to face another election, 2008, with American troops substantially in Iraq. And so they are going to be a bigger problem for the White House than the Democrats probably.

E.J. DIONNE: I think that's right. And I think the Democrats don't want to be in a sort of "stab in the back" position. They don't want the Republicans to take the mess that they started and, if it turns out badly, they'll blame the Democrats for it. So they have to walk a very careful line.

The future of moderate Republicans

E.J. Dionne
The Washington Post
The irony is the Republicans now need moderates more than ever if they're going to rebuild their majority, and they have fewer of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we just heard Kwame Holman's report -- excellent report -- on what's happened to the moderates. And among others, we heard Jim Leach say the center has disappeared. I mean, do you agree with that?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think the Republicans vacated the center, which is why really good people, like Jim Leach, lost in the last election. I think all the Republicans in that piece were very clear about why they lost.

Barney Frank, the congressman from Massachusetts, once said that, with the exception of Leach and a couple of others, the moderate Republicans are the people who were always with you when you don't need them, and that the problem was that many of these moderate Republicans -- they didn't stick together as a group.

Enough of them always vote for the conservative leadership that the conservative leadership could run roughshod over anyone who didn't buy conservative or very right-wing ideas.

And I think this is the election in which the American people decided, even if they're decent, smart, moderate, if they're Republicans that are going to be voting for policies well to the right of where they are -- a lot of these folks were elected by Democrats who crossed lines to vote Republican -- it's very hard to be a moderate Republican anymore.

The irony is the Republicans now need moderates more than ever if they're going to rebuild their majority, and they have fewer of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how do you see the implications of the fewer and fewer moderates in the Republican side?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, obviously, the party, first of all, has to get out of an intellectual rut. You know, listening to Kwame's piece, I was reminded of a meeting I had -- I think it was about October 8, 2005, 13 weeks before the election -- with about 26 House moderates, most of whom subsequently lost their jobs. And they knew 13 months before the election they were going to lose.

They were in a total panic about it. And yet the party did nothing -- I recall another meeting with a group of senators who said, "We've got to protect our moderates." The party did nothing about it. Why did the party do nothing about it?

First, because they couldn't really believe they were going to lose, because they have this victorious mentality. But second, and most importantly, because they were in an intellectual rut, which was all conservative, all the time. And so they really had no intellectual energy for the center.

And so what the party has to do is create something like a Republican Leadership Council. The Democrats have the DLC, which is for moderate Democrats. The Republicans have to create a body of ideas that will appeal to people in New England and the upper Midwest. They have none of that right now, and that's their core problem going ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, until that happens, David, what are the implications for policy right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think, as Jim Leach put it, there is no center. Some of the Democrats are now centrists, but there is just still the tone of partisanship.

Team spirit dominates everything still on Capitol Hill. And after this moment of peace right now, I suspect we'll return to that with a vengeance. The only hope will be that 2008 candidates, who I really think are pretty unorthodox and could be a breath of fresh air.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that note, E.J., unless you want to say something in five seconds...

E.J. DIONNE: It depends on whether John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, for example, decide they want to be that breath of fresh air. Or do they think they still have to chase the right wing in the party in order to get the nomination? And then they'll lose the opportunity to do what David rightly says the Republicans need to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it looks like Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain are about to look at this seriously.

E.J. DIONNE: It does seem that way. I still don't think Giuliani is going to run, but that's a personal view. And I'm often wrong on these things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We'll give you another chance to talk about that.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, thank you very much. David Brooks, thank you both.