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Political Analysts Discuss Military Tribunals, Sept. 11 Anniversary

September 8, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight.

David, the president’s secret prisons, 14 terrorists transfer, alleged terrorist transfers, announced, how big a deal was that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s a pretty big deal. I think it reflects a couple things.

The first thing, obviously, is, there are some decisions that have forced their — their hand to be a little more open, but, secondly — and almost more importantly — change in the internal power structure of the administration.

There have always been two these tensions in fighting terror, one, to kill the bad guys, two, to have some moral authority to win over people and to — to be a good citizen of the world. And the former camp was winning for about three or four years. And, for a number of reasons, the latter camp is now winning. And, if you want to put in it a shorthand, I would say it’s the State Department winning over the vice president’s office.

But I do think there has been a slow evolution within the internal debates of the administration.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

TOM OLIPHANT: Sort of.

One reason that I don’t think it has proved to be a big deal is that the political content of this move was drained almost immediately. Factually, there is no rush here. I mean, the procedures for trials could be agreed upon tomorrow, and it would still be a long time before there would be any trials.

And, secondly, to the extent there’s been a difference of opinion here, as David noted, it’s been inside the administration. And it’s also been between the president and Republicans in the Senate, and between the politicians in the administration and the uniformed military legal system in the Pentagon.

So, I think, when all this was — happened on Wednesday, there was an expectation of politics that the reality underneath it kind of eliminated.

Military tribunals

David Brooks
The New York Times
I suspect the Republicans will come up with something. And, then, as Tom indicated, the question is, will the Democrats dissent? And they probably won't.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's follow up on this particular thing. The -- the president's proposal for these military tribunals that he wants, many Republicans, including John Warner, or John Sununu, and a lot of others -- in fact, Sununu, on our program last night, very clearly said: I'm not going for this, as long as the defendants don't -- are not allowed to look at the evidence against them and all that sort of stuff.

JIM LEHRER: What's going on there?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, Lindsey Graham.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, Lindsey Graham -- Lindsey Graham.

DAVID BROOKS: John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: John McCain. You got it. It's a long list, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And these are heavyweights.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, what you have is a number of people more -- on the more conservative side, saying, we should not be giving classified information to suspected terrorists. And so they want them removed from the courthouse while that comes up.

Other people, I think including Lindsey Graham, say, that will last about 15 seconds on appeal, that it's -- you just can't have a trial that way. And, so, they're now talking amongst themselves. And from what I was told, there is an expectation they will come up with some compromise language.

And I would have to say that, on balance, the Warner camp probably has a little more muscle, because of where the president's standing is, because of the legality of the issue. But I -- I suspect the Republicans will come up with something. And, then, as Tom indicated, the question is, will the Democrats dissent? And they probably won't.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? The Democrats will go along with that, won't they?

TOM OLIPHANT: You know, this happened four years ago with an obscure provision in the legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security. And out of that teeny little disagreement came a huge advertising campaign and really the result of the election.

The same mistake will not be made twice. The only thing I would add...

JIM LEHRER: You mean the -- let's be specific.

TOM OLIPHANT: The Democrats will hide...

JIM LEHRER: The Democrats will support McCain, Warner?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think one should be more cynical than that...

TOM OLIPHANT: ... as well as accurate.

The Democrats will hide...

JIM LEHRER: Oh.

TOM OLIPHANT: ... behind the skirts of Warner, McCain and Graham.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

TOM OLIPHANT: And anything they agree to basically will be the Democratic position. It's almost policy that there not be any daylight between Democrats and Republicans on this issue.

I think there were expectations in the other direction at first, when Bush acted. There's another reason, though, that I think the Republicans are holding kind of firm in the Senate. And that is, they have been through a situation where, in effect, they tried to tell Bush that, if you do this unilaterally, the legal system, you are likely to get slapped down in the courts.

And that means that three or four years could pass and we will be all the way back to square one, which is where we are. Nobody wants to see that mistake made again. They want to design a system that can withstand the appellate courts. And that's why they will be careful this time.

The politics of the policy

Tom Oliphant
Columnist
No, I don't think it's fear-mongering. But I -- I think the political content of this has to be recognized. I mean, obviously, the Democrats could have made a big mistake on Wednesday, when Bush made his announcement and his proposal. They didn't.

JIM LEHRER: David, speaking of cynicism, is it a mistake to suggest there's any connection between the November elections and the president's decision to make this announcement this week?

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn't totally rule out a connection.

DAVID BROOKS: So -- so, I mean, it's obviously part of a political campaign.

And, yet, sometimes, when one talks about politics, there's sort of a -- an assumption of cynicism, that they -- it's all Karl Rove or Lee Atwater, somebody like that, sitting around strategizing.

And there is some -- there is a -- a different feel to the way people in the administration talk about this and the way a lot of us analyze it. I mean, they -- they really see it as the central issue of our time. And, so, while it's coincidental and it does have potential political advantages for them, they really describe it to themselves as the thing they were put on this Earth to do.

And, so, there's a much less cynical tone than there would be if they were talking about tax cuts or anything else like that. This really feels like the core of what they do.

And the fear the president expressed in the speeches about the seriousness of the threat, that is a fear that they genuinely feel about the threat. And a lot of my -- a couple of my friends, more on the Democratic side, said: They're fear-mongering. They're fear-mongering.

But they're not faking it. They really feel that level of threat. And other people may not feel it and think it's fear-mongering. But -- but the tone is a little different than normal politics.

JIM LEHRER: Is it fear-mongering, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, I don't think it's fear-mongering. But I -- I think the political content of this has to be recognized.

I mean, obviously, the Democrats could have made a big mistake on Wednesday, when Bush made his announcement and his proposal. They didn't. But part of this involved -- and I thought it illustrated the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats in the current environment. And it's really cultural, Jim.

Republicans...

Characterizing the parties

Tom Oliphant
Columnist
The Democrats are looking over their shoulder, expecting to lose at the last minute again. Republicans have this discipline about them that causes them sometimes to march in lockstep off a cliff.

JIM LEHRER: Cultural?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. Republican -- think of Republicans as very disciplined fanatics.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

TOM OLIPHANT: And then think of -- think of...

JIM LEHRER: Just hold on.

JIM LEHRER: Hold on. Just hold on.

TOM OLIPHANT: On the other hand.

And then think of Democrats as totally undisciplined neurotics, and you have the setting in which all this happened on Wednesday. People are thinking, oh, my God, he's done this and the Democrats will do that.

In truth, the factual situation obliterated this -- this initial thought. But that's the basic difference. The Democrats are looking over their shoulder, expecting to lose at the last minute again. Republicans have this discipline about them that causes them sometimes to march in lockstep off a cliff.

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: All right, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, to some extent, I agree. Whenever -- whenever I interview people in Republican administrations, I always think they're -- they're bland, but normal. And, in Democratic administrations, they're neurotic, but interesting.

TOM OLIPHANT: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: But -- but I would say, now, after all that's happened, Republicans are bland, but neurotic, which is the worst combination of all possible things.

DAVID BROOKS: But...

DAVID BROOKS: And I would say that the serious point behind that is...

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: ... that the party is no longer a lockstep party in general. It is a party with distractions.

JIM LEHRER: And there's proof.

TOM OLIPHANT: Right.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, the president -- the president's proposal is already being shot down by his own party.

TOM OLIPHANT: But I think there's important flip side to this point.

And that is, through bitter experience, most Democrats have learned the importance of security, not as an issue, but on its -- on its own merits. And -- and that lesson learned is reflected in their behavior today.

I mean, you -- you see initiatives now to do far more in areas other than criminal trials, like the ports, chemical plants, nuclear plants, big trains and all the rest of it, that reflect, at last, an understanding that security is a serious business.

DAVID BROOKS: But my only question would be, is -- do they -- do they know they shouldn't put a foot wrong, or do they feel it in their guts that this is what they have to do? And that, I'm not clear about.

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I...

DAVID BROOKS: I would go by individuals.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think, after the experience of 9/11, it -- it -- this is all about individuals, David, I think.

And each person has gone through the horror of the last five years. It's been almost a personal journey for everyone who's had to do it. And if the Democratic Party, as an institution, wasn't quite there five years ago, there's no doubt in my mind that it is today.

Sept. 11 Anniversary

David Brooks
The New York Times
I'm struck by how, in the day-to-day life, my life is the same. And that's true of most Americans -- if you look at most social indicators, exactly the same -- the same. It's the mentality that has shifted.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of personal journeys, this is September the 8th, three days before September 11. And a lot of people are talking about what this -- what 9/11 did to our country and where are we five years later as a result.

What are your personal thoughts, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I -- I shared a sense, pre-September 11, a '90s sense, that the central story of the day was globalization. It was about the convergence of peoples and markets and communications and that human beings were fundamentally the same. We had different cultures, but we all wanted the same thing.

I think, since 9/11, I have become much more aware of how different human beings are, how in -- because they need identity, they form tribes. And those tribes are solidified by hating other people. They need not only freedom, but they need a sense of moral order. And those moral orders sometimes contradict each other.

And, so, human beings are much more unalike than I thought they were. And, when you go back and look at early days of the Iraq occupation, the -- trying to create a stock market, it was like they -- they were liberating a country sort of like our own.

But it's not. And the Sunnis and Shia are now not like they are. So, the -- the landscape of reality to me was -- was sort of rolling hills before. Now, there are cliffs and chasms between peoples and groups. And that's much uglier.

JIM LEHRER: Tom.

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, we -- we each express this personally, I think.

But, at -- at horrible cost, I think we have learned that, in the 21st century, there is -- America has no invulnerability from the forces at work in the world. And part of what fell on September 11, in addition to those two buildings, is any notion that the oceans protect us, that we're not in the middle of the world.

And, secondly, we did not understand that there really is an enemy out there. And -- and one thing that has changed, for as far as the eye can see, is that this disease, I will call it, of extremism in the Muslim world is real and has to be confronted.

JIM LEHRER: Do you -- either of you, have you developed any tics as a result of 9/11, personally, like, when you hear an airplane go over?

A man was telling me the other day that, the first time in his life, since 9/11, every time he hears a plane, he looks up and he thinks he can't -- he can't look at an airplane and not think of 9/11.

Do you have anything like that in your life, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I -- I can't say I do.

I'm struck by how, in the day-to-day life, my life is the same. And that's true of most Americans -- if you look at most social indicators, exactly the same -- the same. It's the mentality that has shifted.

And, so, to me, the idea that you would see on TV or the Internet beheadings, that was a non-normal part of life in the '90s. But now it's something we have -- we have seen, and people getting blown up every single day.

TOM OLIPHANT: I do.

I mean, I was out on the street, taking a little break, and felt the thud of the plane hitting the Pentagon, a mile away. I didn't know where my wife was for a couple of hours -- or an hour or so.

There is a feeling not of sadness, but of nervousness, vaguely, that I have when I go to an airport. I'm aware that it's a different environment. I -- I hate it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's permanent? Do you think this is with us?

TOM OLIPHANT: It's -- no, I think it's as far as the eye can see.

I remember, one point of agreement at this desk the night of 9/11 -- and it was with Bill Kristol -- that we're at war. And I still really believe that.

JIM LEHRER: You believe that as well?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, certainly, though, I would say, over the time, I -- my office at The Times is a block from -- or two blocks from the White House.

I used to go in thinking, will this be the day that I'm down there when something bad happens, and I would feel guilty about working at home? I would say that's diminished, and I feel a little guilty about that.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Well, thank you both very much.