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Analysts Discuss U.S. Policy in Middle East, Katrina Anniversary, CIA Leak Case

September 1, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: But first, Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how do you see the president’s new speech offensive on Iraq and terror this week?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, the thing that first strikes me about the White House these days is how it has narrowed down to the Middle East, that this is what they think about. The president every morning sees the casualty reports. On every trip, he’s visiting the families of people who have been killed.

His administration has focused down on this. And a lot of people are saying he’s doing it for the fall elections. I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s doing it for…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think that’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, at least there is a political element to it, but primarily it’s to keep support for the war, and because this is what the administration has become all about: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon.

JIM LEHRER: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, I don’t take quite as benign an approach to the president’s speech. The president said…

JIM LEHRER: Speeches.

MARK SHIELDS: Speeches. The president’s speeches. The president said, in particularly the Salt Lake City speech, that this was the ideological battle of the 21st century, the battle of Iraq, upon its outcome and victory there, dependent victory in the battle of the war against terrorism.

If that’s true, what the hell are we doing with 130,000 troops there? We ought to have half a million. Why haven’t we mobilized the home front? Why aren’t we paying for this? I mean, why, seriously, isn’t the country on a war-footing, if that’s really what he’s talking about?

And comparing this to battle against communism, the Cold War, and comparing it to the battle against Nazism? I mean, to me, you’re making a statement like that, and then you just totally contradict yourself by saying, “We’re going to continue with this failed policy and this failed approach.”

JIM LEHRER: What about that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s a good point. Would you support half a million troops there? That’s the problem. Right now, he couldn’t get the military to support it, in part because he didn’t raise the size of the military after 9/11. He couldn’t, at this point, get the country to do it.

I agree with him, and I agree with Mark. I agree it is an ideological conflict almost equal to the size of the fight against communism in the Soviet Union and fascism. If you look at a recent survey done in the Middle East, who are the five most important people in this region? It was the head of Hezbollah, the head of Iran, the head of Hamas, the head of Egyptian Brotherhood, all Islamists.

This Islamist movement continues to build and build and build, whether it’s Sunni, Shia, Iran, Iraq. This is a big ideological fight.

Mark’s point is perfectly valid, though. If it’s that big, why aren’t we fighting to win? Why aren’t we committing 80 percent of the troops necessary to do the job?

Comparing terrorism to communism

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What we have is we have a breeding ground, a recruiting station for terrorists in Iraq as a consequence of the United States occupying, occupying, invading and occupying the Muslim holy land.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David and the president that it is comparable to communism?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't. No, I think the president is trying to take several disparate movements and make them into a single movement.

JIM LEHRER: And so is David Brooks.

MARK SHIELDS: And so is David Brooks. I mean, Hezbollah and Hamas are not the same thing, not as Iran. And let's be very blunt about this: al-Qaida had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a secularist. If you were a practicing Muslim in Iraq, you had to keep your head down. You couldn't even show it.

Now, what we have is we have a breeding ground, a recruiting station for terrorists in Iraq as a consequence of the United States occupying, occupying, invading and occupying the Muslim holy land. That's the first thing.

The second thing is, Jim, that, as you look at this movement -- and the president's talked about it -- they've got their narrative totally backwards, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. That was, they started off telling us this was going to be a cakewalk, this was going to be -- Rumsfeld said it won't even last six months.

The president said it's the end of combat. Cheney said we'll be welcomed as liberators. Now, they've turned it around and said, "No, no, this is a battle for civilization. This is a lot tougher than we thought it was. And if you're on the other side, and you question the wisdom and the folly and the mistakes that we have made, you're Neville Chamberlain. We're Winston Churchill."

If they're Winston Churchill, where is the blood, sweat, toil and tears?

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there's a whole lot of things there. Nonetheless, I do think: Did we exacerbate the problem by failing to do Iraq well? Absolutely. Does that mean the movement that started with Qutub (ph) and started 50 years ago is now building throughout the Islamic world is not a real movement, is not a real threat?

Look at Margaret's piece in Iran. Look at the speeches we just heard and the speeches that have been going on and on and on about destroying Israel. If Iran is to get the bomb, do we really have total confidence that they will not give it to somebody who could destroy Tel Aviv or New York or Washington?

It seems to me that this problem is a significant problem. Have they exacerbated it with the way we've acted? Yes. But to minimize it, this is, I guess, the fall debate we're going to have.

A time to "hit back"

David Brooks
New York Times
George Bush will be willing to go down as an unsuccessful president in two years if he believes he can be successful in 10 years. So this is what he's all about.

JIM LEHRER: But what about -- and speaking of the debate -- what about Mark's point, picking up on what Rumsfeld has said, comparing this to Chamberlain and appeasement, people who oppose this are appeasing, like people did the Nazis and did the communists?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a dangerous word to use. And the way -- I haven't defended Rumsfeld in about five years. But the way he...

JIM LEHRER: We'll check the record. Do you want to...

MARK SHIELDS: It's OK.

DAVID BROOKS: The way he phrased it in that speech, I thought he asked a series of legitimate questions. Do you think you can appease forces, extremists of this sort? He didn't accuse anybody; he didn't mention any Democrats. He mentioned, I think, one Republican.

And so that's a legitimate point, because a lot of people do say, if we only talk to Hezbollah, then we can get -- or Hamas, we can get them to change their tune. That, I think, is untrue. And I think he was making a valid point.

Second, he said: Does anybody think they could negotiate a separate peace with these forces? And let's face it. A lot of countries, notably Saudi Arabia, have tried to negotiate separate peaces. So the broad historical analogy that he's trying to draw, I think, are things worth talking about.

And to be honest, Democrats, with a lot of justification, have been slamming Donald Rumsfeld in the most vicious terms for four years. He's allowed to hit back.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, is he allowed to hit back?

MARK SHIELDS: He's allowed to hit back. Of course, he's allowed to hit back and make his case, his flawed, failed case.

But the reality is, Jim, that he was asked by the Washington Post, "Can you name a single Democrat or a single American who has advocated negotiating with Osama bin Laden, a single one who wants to toss in the towel in the war against terrorism, a single one who wants to cut funding?" Could not. None, none can be named.

I mean, if you set up a straw man, sure. I mean, who are -- we're against Neville Chamberlain. I mean, seriously, David, you can't have it both ways. You can't pretend that this is some sort of a thoughtful, serious speech, when you know that it's part of a campaign, it's an organized campaign.

It's the last arrow left in their quiver, and that is "appeasement." It's something that the Weekly Standard has used, the National Review has used, and they've used it against the administration, as far as Iran and North Korea.

And now they say, "Well, what do we got? We've tried terrorism. We've tried -- the only thing we have to offer is fear itself." I mean, they've done it three elections in a row. They had a 40-point edge in 2002 as the party better on handling terrorism. That now is to the point whereby a seven-point margin. And the Associated Press poll today, the American people trust the Democrats more than the Republicans to keep them safe.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the politics of it? Then we're going to move onto something else.

DAVID BROOKS: OK, well, the politics of it, I think, are close. It's still slightly -- it's still the Republicans' best issue, which is not to say it's a good issue.

JIM LEHRER: So does that explain why they're hitting it so hard?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think it's their firm conviction.

DAVID BROOKS: George Bush will be willing to go down as an unsuccessful president in two years if he believes he can be successful in 10 years. So this is what he's all about.

Reflections on Hurricane Katrina

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Republican pollsters and politicians are pretty blunt that the defining moments of this administration were 9/11 and Katrina, and the bookends that didn't help.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Katrina, did the president do himself any good going to Katrina, making those speeches, and spending the two days down there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think you could say that he's demonstrated sincerity. He's been there 11, 12 times.

Politically, he didn't help himself. Andy Kohut put it that, the first time, Andy's Pew Research poll, the president fell under 50 percent favorable rating was after Katrina. So every time he revisits that...

JIM LEHRER: Just reminds people of it?

MARK SHIELDS: ... it just reminds people of that negative. And it's neither a shining moment in the presidency. And Republican pollsters and politicians are pretty blunt that the defining moments of this administration were 9/11 and Katrina, and the bookends that didn't help.

JIM LEHRER: But bottom line is, he had to do it, right, David?

DAVID BROOKS: He had to do it. He spent $120 billion, or at least committed $120 billion. They want to talk about it. I think to me the biggest disappointment, not primarily to blame the president -- I blame the Congress -- was that this was a moment for an experiment, a whole series of social experiments, because the slate was wiped clean, so let's see what we can do to try to create anti-poverty programs. And that has been totally undone, not done.

There's been some aid that will be specific to New Orleans and to the region, but as far as trying to re-imagine what you can do about poverty, that never happened.

Much ado about something or nothing

David Brooks
New York Times
Now that it's Armitage and not Rove, the story has fallen off the radar screen. Nobody has any interest. And that's for a whole series of reasons, one of which is that Armitage is a member of the Washington club and Rove isn't.

JIM LEHRER: The Valerie Plame case, David, it turns out Richard Armitage, then in the State Department, was the source for Richard Novak. Where are we? What is the meaning of all of this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we're in nowhere. The story just died. I mean, there was a frenzy for almost a year, as people thought they had Karl Rove in their sights. And a lot of people in the press -- I went back and did Nexus searches on what everybody was saying, and a lot of people were spreading wild theories, including a lot of Democrats, about how there was this White House conspiracy to out Valerie Plame. That turns out not to be true.

And now that it's Armitage and not Rove, the story has fallen off the radar screen. Nobody has any interest. And that's for a whole series of reasons, one of which is that Armitage is a member of the Washington club and Rove isn't.

JIM LEHRER: Because he was close to Colin Powell and...

DAVID BROOKS: And he's been here a long time.

JIM LEHRER: ... and not part of the White House, quote, "crowd," end quote, the Cheney White House crowd.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Right. OK.

MARK SHIELDS: Dick Armitage was, I think as heard in this broadcast, one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, that Rich Armitage was the source of this.

JIM LEHRER: Why didn't you tell me then?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, because he was the only one that didn't deny it. I mean, he was the only one -- that was sort of the open speculation.

I mean, it seemed to be the consensus speculation. But the thing about it, Jim, is that, even though Armitage was the source to Novak, that Novak went to corroborate it with Karl Rove, who obviously was interested in this. And they did have meetings on how to discredit Joe Wilson and Joe Wilson's report.

JIM LEHRER: Joe Wilson is Valerie Plame's husband.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. I mean, so it was not -- I mean, the fact that it was Armitage I don't think in any way minimizes the fact that the White House and the White House political operation had a very, very committed interest in discrediting Joe Wilson's report.

JIM LEHRER: So it was much ado about something, in your view?

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Much ado about nothing, in your opinion?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, the theory was they were violating national security by leaking this CIA agent's name in order to discredit that guy; that wasn't true. And Dick Armitage, who watched Karl Rove and Scooter Libby and all these people twist in the wind for a year could have said something. He never said anything.

MARK SHIELDS: He apparently said it to Carl Ford at the State Department as soon as it happened, I mean, as soon as it was in the paper. He said, "I'm the source for that."

DAVID BROOKS: Quickly, we just have a minute left. The report from the Census Bureau this week on the uninsured and poverty, how do you read the meaning of that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, what we're seeing right now -- and it's revealed in these figures, and you see J.D. Ellen (ph) reported today -- earnings for American males are lower today in 2005 than they were in 1973. And you see in the widening gap between the very thin haves and most of the have-nots.

And in addition to that, what is taking its toll in the psychology of Americans, a pessimism about the future and about the economy of the country, according to Peter Hart, has set in. And Americans don't believe their children's lives are going to be. By a 3-1 margin, they don't think their children's lives are going to be as bright as theirs.

DAVID BROOKS: We have had these stagnant wages, really, since '67. Until now, it has not been a political issue, because people feel social inequality more than economic inequality. But I'm beginning to think that may be changing, because people really do have a negative view of the economy, despite the growth rate. So I do think this is a gigantic issue for the next however long it is.

JIM LEHRER: On a note of agreement, we're going to say good-bye. Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.