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Political Analysts Discuss Mideast Conflict, an Iraqi Civil War, U.S. Senate

August 4, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, gents, a big week that began with the return of Condoleezza Rice from the Middle East. How’s the administration handling American interests in this very difficult conflict?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, they’ve actually been working hand-in-hand with the French of all things, and there’s been a lot of cooperation with the French and better relations than we’ve had
for quite a while. And what they’re describing is a process where, next Monday or Tuesday, they’ll achieve the first of the U.N. resolutions, which will be a truce in place, meaning the Israelis will sit there in southern Lebanon.

And then, in two or three weeks, then they will get to the stage of trying to insert the international force. And so the question becomes – the Israelis will sit there — will Hezbollah take their gains, which they
really have gotten in the last couple weeks, and decide to become a big political force in Lebanon, in which case they’ll calm things down in the south, and the international force will go in?

Or will they take the gains and try to, you know, continue the war against Israel? In which case, the international force will never materialize, and Israel will have some tough deciding to do, whether to stay there or the get out somehow.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think it’s been complicated by the fact that, under this administration, the United States has lost its historic role as the honest broker. And there’s no question that the
United States is seen as just an uncritical supporter of all Israeli administrations and all Israeli activities. And for that reason, it has really hampered what had been, I think, the very constructive role the United States
has played in the past.

I thought the previous discussion with Margaret was fascinating, because this war is about perceptions to a great degree. And there’s no doubt, David’s right, that Hezbollah has some real thinking and reflecting to do, because this ragtag group of 15,000 has taken on the greatest regional military power, the vaunted Israeli military machine, and, you know, not defeated it, but is still on the playing field after three weeks, which has
not been the experience of other organized military forces in the area against Israel.

So I think Israel’s decisions are not happy ones and their alternatives are not particularly palatable at this point.

DAVID BROOKS: Let me just say, it’s hard to be an honest broker — it’s easy to be an honest broker against Jordan and the Palestinians, because there’s a negotiated bit of land that you can be a broker about, but
Hezbollah wants to destroy Israel. What are you going to broker? And so that’s made it hard to be in the middle.

But the second thing Mark said — and I do agree with it – if you read the Israeli press and talk to Israelis, they’re not happy. The main subject in the Israeli press is: How could this war have been fought better?

And so it’s clear that they didn’t achieve what they thought they were going to achieve. And now the question is: Can they create a narrative of victory which will give them a chance to get out?

MARK SHIELDS: An honest broker means being able to talk to all parties. And any settlement of this, long-term settlement, is going to involve a regional settlement. It has to, by definition, and that includes
giving Syria and Iran a seat at the table.

I mean, I’m sorry, that’s the reality of it. I mean, this is an administration that, for some reason, denies their existence. There is no long-term solution without their involvement and their being on the line.

DAVID BROOKS: But there are channels open to Syria. There are channels open the Iran. They’re being fully utilized. The problem is the interests diverge.

So what the U.S. is trying to do, along with France and Europe, is to strengthen the regimes that are moderate: the Lebanese government, the Jordanian government, the Egyptian government, the Saudi
government. There’s a long way from regime toppling, by the way, but they’re trying to strengthen those regimes.

Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and also Syria are trying to weaken those governments on behalf of the terrorist armies. And so you’ve got a fundamental difference of interest here. And the problem is that, in the past three weeks, the Iranian side has been winning. And that’s going to have long-term consequences for the world.

Setbacks in Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: Today on television screens around the world,vast crowds, the yellow Hezbollah banner waving in street after street, in Baghdad.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, the Shias are on the march. Andnot only the Shias, the Sunni radicals are on the march. You know, to me one ofthe big things that's happened here is that we've had really an ascendantIslamist force going on for decades.

We did nothing for a long time; they ascended. We've triedto attack them, and we've suffered a setback in Iraq. Now we've basically suffereda setback in Lebanon.They're ascending.

We've tried doing nothing. We've tried fighting them. What'snext? And that's just a long-term problem. So the news is bad because thiscrescent of Shiaism, but not only Shiaism, but radicalism, they're on themarch, and they're still on the march.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this week, when Condoleezza Rice cameback to the United States,she said one thing that can't be tolerated is a political party with an army,and referring to Hezbollah, but hasn't the United States tolerated political parties with armies in Iraq sincethe end of widespread combat operations?

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. There's no question. I mean,you've got your militia, I've got mine, he's got his. And that's been anacceptable status quo for the United States in Iraq. It's becoming less andless acceptable with each passing day as the country plummets into civil war,acknowledged, admitted civil war.

RAY SUAREZ: Before you say acknowledged and admitted,General Abizaid did back up his comments by saying that he didn't think thatthe rest of the slide was going to happen. He thought the Iraqi forces, asconstituted, would be able to stop that from happening. But did that admissionstrike you as significant?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, Ray, this is the first time thatGeneral Abizaid, to whom I have enormous respect and everybody I know does, aswell, has testified since March and since the capture of Zarqawi, and the toneand the emphasis of pessimism in his remarks was so dramatic, so palpable.

I mean, that was a serious hearing yesterday. I mean, whenJohn McCain, and John Warner, and Hillary Clinton, I mean, you're reallyconfronted the reality. General Peter Pace, who's been criticized widely asbeing too close to the civilian bosses at the Pentagon, was very blunt, aswell, using the term "civil war."

I mean, this is a long way away, Ray, from saying,"Well, you're not emphasizing the good stories. You're not supporting thetroops, or it's political opposition at home." This is the reality. Thereality of Iraq is the reality of Iraq, what is happening there. There havebeen 6,000 people killed in sectarian strife from May to July. I mean, if thatisn't a civil war, I don't know what it qualifies as.

RAY SUAREZ: Are we inching toward having some sort of ideaabout time, about how to get out, that kind of thing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there's still the debate. Ithink there's clearly -- as Mark suggested, there's clearly a diminishingnumber of people who have any glimmer of optimism about Iraq. That number mayhave diminished to zero or maybe five people in the country; there are very fewpeople who see any positive upside any time in the near future.

The question then becomes: Do we get out? And my colleague,Tom Friedman, who's, as we know, a major foreign policy writer in this country,wrote a column today saying maybe it's time to get out after one last stab ofinternational conference.

I noticed many others and Tom Ricks, the Washington Postwriter who wrote this book, "Fiasco," describing a lot of what'shappened, says we should not get out. He says it would be shameful because we'dbe abandoning people. And that's also a serious point of view, and he sayswe're going to have to be there in much diminished numbers to keep a lid on thecivil war.

And so that's essentially the debate we're going to behappening. On the one hand, why should more Americans die for what is -- whyshould we baby-sit a civil war? On the other hand, if we get out, then itbecomes much worse, drags on the region, and the consequences will becataclysmic.

Winning back voters

RAY SUAREZ: It's a debate, Mark, that Connecticut Democratsare certainly having this week.

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Ray. I think the debate is over in thecountry. It's close to being over. And we saw for the first time this week the Gallup poll that said 55percent of Americans want to get out in the next 12 months or sooner.

I mean, the people and the voters are ahead of thepoliticians on this one. It's comparable to 1998, when the voters, whenCongress was busy impeaching Bill Clinton, and the voters said, "No,you're not going to do that." The voters have decided this war isbasically over. It's unwinnable, but there are people still dying and itbothers them.

Joe Lieberman, and none of us who covers politics is objective.We try to be fair. I admit up forward I like Joe Lieberman. I admire himenormously, with the civility he's brought to politics at a very uncivil time,for his great personal warmth. He's going to lose, and he'll probably lose bignext Tuesday.

There are other reasons other than Iraq, but it will be interpreted as Iraq. It willbe interpreted as a vote against the president, for a vote against JoeLieberman's position on Iraq.I don't think it's totally accurate.

I think it's no accident that the four principle candidatesfor the Democratic nomination in 2004 all took the same position Joe Liebermandid, as supporters of that war resolution, John Edwards, John Kerry, DickGephardt, and Joe Lieberman himself. I just don't think that's the case. Ithink it contributes to it.

I don't think that he understood. I think he had lost touchwith his -- out of touch with his voters, and I don't think he realized thatthe voters, after three years of this war and six years of George Bush, werereally furious.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that put Democrats who voted for the war,David, on notice?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a bit. First of all, I wouldn't say thatDemocratic primary voters in Connecticut in August are representative of thecountry. And it's clear Lieberman's going to lose, but I wouldn't read too muchinto it.

Nonetheless, a lot of people will read a lot if he does losethis primary, and especially if he loses it big. And the MoveOn crowd, thepeople who have been behind Lamont will nationally -- I think they'll be muchmore aggressive against Hillary Clinton. They'll be much more aggressive to getan anti-war Democrat to run against her and to be a serious candidate.

So you will see a shift in that direction, there's noquestion about it. And you may even begin to see a shift from some people wholike Lieberman away from the Democratic Party. It's happened before. It'shappened to me. And so I think what's happening here is the fervor on theDemocratic Party is driving it but also driving people away.

A failed scheme

RAY SUAREZ: Let's close with the Senate handling of thepackage handed them by the House of Representatives, where they were able tovote in an increase in the minimum wage and a big cut in the estate tax. Itdidn't pass.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, this was opportunism on stilts, takingtwo issues which should have been independent and marrying them together. Themoderates wanted the minimum wage increase, which I have to say is a terribleway to help the poor because most people who make the minimum wage aremiddle-class teenagers. If you want to help the poor, raise the earned incometax credit or something like that.

But essentially they tried to take something that was intheir hearts and take something the moderates wanted and marry them together,thinking you could get a majority. And, fortunately, actually, it fell. It fellshort.

RAY SUAREZ: I'll have to check you on whether it's amajority of middle-class teenagers, but...

MARK SHIELDS: It isn't a majority of middle-class teenagers.I'm sorry. It is not. In fact, we're talking about as close to 40 percent beingthe principal earner in a household, the minimum wage.

That aside, Ray, the same Congress that somehowideologically for 10 years has opposed any increase in the minimum wage becauseit would be harmful to them saw nothing wrong with taking nine raisesthemselves that raise their own salaries by $36,000. They didn't see thatskewering the marketplace or fouling things up at all.

And tying a raise for the people making the least in thiscountry, working below the poverty level, tying it to a tax break, a taxholiday in perpetuity for the 8,200 richest families in the countryinheritance, it's beyond shameful.

Voters will see through this. They know the reality here,that Republicans don't believe in raising the minimum wage, don't care aboutit, and that they were forced into it. And I look for a straight up-or-downvote when it does come back, because I think Republican moderates who arefighting for their lives in the Northeast, in particular in the Midwest, knowthat they have to go back with something and they can't pretend on this anylonger.

RAY SUAREZ: So this issue isn't neutralized? Really briefly.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don't think it is. They want thisclearly.

RAY SUAREZ: Fellows, have a good weekend.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.