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Analysts Discuss President’s Push for Military Tribunals and Iraqi Violence

September 15, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, so the president says he doesn’t get his legislation the way he wants it, the program will end. Senator McCain issued a statement saying nonsense, it won’t end anything. How do you see this argument?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I see it, first of all, politically, Jim, as something the Republicans didn’t want at this point. I mean, they were hoping to draw the line between the two parties.

And with uncharacteristic discipline, the Democrats have gone mute. They’ve let this argument and this debate occur between the White House, and the president, and several of his supporters on Capitol Hill, John McCain, John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and an array of American military heroes, I mean, led by John Vessey.

JIM LEHRER: Susan Collins, also…

MARK SHIELDS: Plus, Susan Collins of Maine…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, the Republican from Maine, yes…

MARK SHIELDS: … who voted with them on the committee to give the majority. And I just — you know, I see it right now that the president was losing support today. And then Olympia Snowe came out, the other senator from Maine. Chuck Hagel has indicated that he will back the McCain proposal. I think it’s a good bet that Lincoln Chafee, who was re-nominated, will, that Mike DeWine in Ohio probably. I mean, there’s others.

So if the Democrats are united, I think the president is going to have to do some serious compromising if he wants to get anything done.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes. First of all, why is it this happening?

JIM LEHRER: Good question.

DAVID BROOKS: John McCain does not want to be bucking his president when he wants to run for president himself and face Republican primary voters. George Bush doesn’t want this, because they all want to be unified against the Democrats. So why is this happening?

It’s happening, first, because, despite best efforts over months, they haven’t been able to come together, in part because the White House has not done a good job over the years of having congressional relations, but in part because both McCain and Bush feel this in their core, McCain, that you don’t torture, Bush, that I have to prepare the way for presidents 50 years from now to do what they need to do.

But who’s going to win this? I think Mark is right: It’s going to be McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Well, McCain is — what about the other — what about John Warner? McCain, people are used to McCain being a maverick, but here’s John Warner. How do you explain that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they think, a, it’s a matter of national honor, national pride. This goes to the core of a lot of people. And a lot of people may think what I think, is that maybe you do get some information out of torture, but there’s an ideological conflict, and it’s important to have a little moral clarity in the world, in a little moral standing in the world to fight the broader war.

And one reason I think Bush knows he’s going to be caving in — that’s putting it a little too boldly, but compromising — is that when he — the key word he used in that passage we just heard was the word “clarity.” He didn’t lay any substantive grounds for where he will not cross. He said I just want it to be clear.

And so if McCain and the White House, the Senate and the White House can come together on something that’s clear, he can say that’s fine without violating anything he said today.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree he’s got room, he’s got to room to…

MARK SHIELDS: I just thought the whole tone today was sort of, you know, in-your-face…

JIM LEHRER: “Vigorous,” I think was the term people were using.

MARK SHIELDS: Vigorous I think is the most positive spin you could put on it. I mean, there was a belligerence, a bellicosity about it. Jim, I think there’s another drama playing out here, and that is the American military, the leadership of it, has the anger at what they see as the total mishandling of this war from the civilian leadership of this administration.

And not only that, but the troops have — they have not been well-served by their leaders, whether it’s in the armoring of the troops themselves, the armoring of our Humvees, and I think this was plainly where the line was drawn. I mean, I think when Colin Powell…

The definition of honor

David Brooks
The New York Times
Now, the White House case, they do have a case. One, as the president said, it's the Geneva Convention is vague. Two, that, you know, when our soldiers...are captured, they're not going to be treated fine.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about Colin Powell, both of you. What...

MARK SHIELDS: ... I mean, a totally circumspect man, when Colin Powell comes out and said, "This is where America is going to -- we're going to lose our moral leadership and our moral leverage." But Jack Vessey, Jack Vessey is the quintessential American soldier, 46 years in the military, Ronald Reagan's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went in as a private...

JIM LEHRER: World War II.

MARK SHIELDS: ... got a battlefield commission at Anzio, saw Korea, saw Vietnam. And he just -- his letter is absolutely compelling. He just lays it out and says bluntly, "Look, yes, this is a different enemy, but we were up against terrible enemies, the Japanese, and the North Vietnamese, and the North Koreans, and the Nazis at their worst"...

JIM LEHRER: And the rules worked.

MARK SHIELDS: ... "and we kept the rules. That's who we are. We've got to define who we are."

JIM LEHRER: How do you see that, particularly Colin Powell?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree. I think, for a lot of people, it's the definition of being an honorable soldier. And this is something they were raised in from the time when they went into whatever academy or they enlisted. And this is, for a lot of people, obviously the core of their being.

Now, the White House case, they do have a case. One, as the president said, it's the Geneva Convention is vague. Two, that, you know, when our soldiers are -- our Marines are captured, they're not going to be treated fine. The idea that there's going to be any reciprocity is nonsense. And, third, that we're in a different technological age, that if we capture somebody, they know about some plot that's about to kill millions of people, don't you want us to be able to do whatever we need to do?

And the Israeli answer -- and they face this every day -- is that, in that kind of extreme circumstance, you break the law, but otherwise you keep the rules. And so I'm -- you know, I'm with Mark on this, that I think overall, it's important that we define ourselves the way we want to define ourselves.

The president, though -- and this goes to something Mark said in the beginning about his confidence, his tone -- I had a chance to join a group of fellow wackos to sit down with the president...

JIM LEHRER: After his meeting with pundits.

DAVID BROOKS: Conservatives actually.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, conservatives, OK, sorry.

DAVID BROOKS: And we had a chance to spend 90 minutes with the president...

JIM LEHRER: And it was on the record, everything was on the record, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, not everything, but two-thirds of it was on the record. And it was 90 minutes in the Oval Office. He was more confident, aggressive. He was like an actor just chewing up the scenery.

He's someone who is now, "I'm not wrong. I'm right about this in the long run." And he is just hyper-confident these days, and I think next week he's going to New York to talk to the U.N. He's going to be talking about the freedom agenda.

Stepping over the line

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Well, what drives the Democrats bats, Jim, is the president's attempt -- as he did Monday night -- to conflate the battle against terrorism with the war in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What about his speech on Monday night? He got some heat for that, Mark, from the Democrats. Harry Reid on this program and elsewhere had said that it was an opportunity to unite the nation and he made a political speech about Iraq. How did you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what drives the Democrats bats, Jim, is the president's attempt -- as he did Monday night -- to conflate the battle against terrorism with the war in Iraq. And the United States was attacked on 9/11, as we all know. It was attacked by al-Qaida. Al-Qaida's headquarters was in Afghanistan. It was a dominant force there.

There was a war of logic, if not necessity, for the United States, with other countries, to go into Afghanistan and to go after al-Qaida and to destroy that military capacity. The war in Iraq was a war of choice. And the president wants to make it one and the same, and kind of say...

JIM LEHRER: Is he making it work?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think he's going to make it work; I really don't. I mean, look, this week, you can say he's up one or two points in the polls. The polls were conducted, quite frankly, during a four-day offensive, when it was the commemoration of 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: But what about his speech? What about his speech? Did you think he stepped over the line?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he just slipped into what is natural. Jim, we're in a time, in a political season -- let's be very blunt about it -- John Boehner, the Republican House leader, made a statement that the Democrats were more concerned about protecting the terrorists than they are protecting Americans.

What John Boehner is doing, OK -- and the White House disavowed that statement -- John Boehner is doing is John Boehner is running for majority leader, OK? And John Boehner understands one thing: The Republicans that are in trouble in the House caucus are moderates from the Northeast and the Midwest. He's got to appeal to the conservatives.

This is conservative logic and rhetoric, and that's what we're going to be hearing to generate, and galvanize, and energize the base.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought what Boehner said was clearly over the line, but what the president said Monday night I don't think was over the line. I mean, the way he sees it -- this is a perception of what the war is all about. He sees it as a broad ideological conflict, and the war in Iraq was an attempt to take ideologically the fight to the enemy and begin to transform the Middle East.

So if you define the war as al-Qaida attacking us, then Iraq was not part of that war. But if you define the war as Bush and many other people do, as an ideological conflict against a form of extremism that takes many different forms and is in many different terrorist organizations, then Iraq was an integral part of it and remains an integral part of it. So I don't think it was politicizing it; it was just seeing the conflict as he sees it.

Rethinking Iraq

David Brooks
The New York Times
You have a lot of Republicans who believed in the war at the start and who have hung with Bush and with the war while growing increasingly depressed over these three years. And now you're beginning to see a lot of them say it's irreparably lost.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Iraq, is there anything new to say about Iraq? I mean, I just reported in the news summary more bodies found, 130 bodies in the last two days. What's going on there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say it's something about the political situation here, mostly on the Republican side. You have a lot of Republicans who believed in the war at the start and who have hung with Bush and with the war while growing increasingly depressed over these three years. And now you're beginning to see a lot of them say it's irreparably lost.

JIM LEHRER: They're saying this publicly?

DAVID BROOKS: And so they're saying -- well, if you look at -- the people who are writers, and pundits, and think-tankers are more likely to say it publicly, but I think they represent politicians who can't say it publicly who believe in it.

And you're beginning to see people like Newt Gingrich say the strategy is not working. We need a total new strategy. You saw this week Washington Post Bill Kristol and Richard Lowry, editors of the Weekly Standard and the New Republic, saying it's not working. We need more troops.

And so a lot of people are saying this is not working. We need radical changes. And that's not actually not coming from the White House, but you're beginning to see a sense this is -- the hopelessness, almost, of it.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I'd just add that the public, they're catching up with the public. For the last six months in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, three out of five voters have lost confidence in the outcome, that there would be a successful outcome, they've been unconfident, pessimistic. That hasn't changed, with good stories, or improvement, or the president's rhetoric, or exhortations.

And I think the public has concluded that the war is not going to be won, it's not going well. And I think that what it will come down to, Jim, is, which party can make the case that we are redeploying? I think that will be -- I think that will be the...

JIM LEHRER: Not retreating, not withdrawing, but redeploying?

MARK SHIELDS: That will be the rhetorical fight, as well as the strategic and political fight, for the next three months.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say, on the Republican-conservative side, amidst all the depression about it, the idea of withdrawing within a year, within a set time table, there's still great opposition to that because of what would come after that. That's sort of where the fight is going to be.

MARK SHIELDS: Redeploying, that's different.

Remembering a Texan leader

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
She was a remarkable human being. Unlike many liberals who are legitimately criticized for loving mankind and not liking people, Ann Richards liked people. She was a great friend. She was loyal; she was generous; she was incredibly thoughtful.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, Bob Ney is agreeing to plead guilty today on an Abramoff-related scandal. What does that do? Does that affect anything in terms of November or is it just Bob Ney's program?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it makes the case for the Democrats to the sense that things are rotten in Washington. We told you that the lobbyists were too close. The need for change, the need for checks and balances, you know, I think, if that's your perception -- I don't think the election will be won or lost on corruption, but I think it's not helpful to the party.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think -- corruption, I would say, is the fifth or sixth issue that's going to matter, Iraq, the war on terror, gas prices, jobs, all that other stuff will come way before. Corruption, which a lot of us thought would be a big issue, so far there's little evidence it has been.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Ann Richards died the other day, Mark. You knew her, did you not?

MARK SHIELDS: I did know her, Jim. She was a remarkable human being. Unlike many liberals who are legitimately criticized for loving mankind and not liking people, Ann Richards liked people. She was a great friend. She was loyal; she was generous; she was incredibly thoughtful.

But what she did in Texas -- Texas didn't wake up in 1990 and say, "You know, we're going to be an open-minded, open place all of a sudden." This had been a good, old boy place. And Ann Richards, through skill...

JIM LEHRER: I heard that, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: ... political skill -- and the Texas government had been white-male-dominated -- half of her appointments were female, and the highest number ever of Latinos and African-Americans. Every future governor is going to be judged by that standard.

JIM LEHRER: Did you know her?

DAVID BROOKS: I'd met her a few times at Aspen Institute-type events. I would say that, one thing that struck me in one of the obits I read today, was she said as a girl she realized early on, if you tell jokes, people like you. And she was, a, very funny.

JIM LEHRER: She was.

DAVID BROOKS: But she also spoke about the pressure that put on you to continue to be funny and continue to be liked, and she talked about some of the troubles she'd had which she overcame in the second half of her life. And that pressure to continue to perform is what a lot of politicians feel, and I thought she was quite open about that.

JIM LEHRER: As a newspaper reporter covering politics in Texas, I covered her very beginnings in politics. And she was a housewife. She was a precinct chairman, and boom. Then I came to Washington, and the next time I turned around she was the governor of Texas.

That's right.

MARK SHIELDS: Did you know that, in 1960, she and Congressman Charlie Wilson and Henry B. Gonzales were the troika behind Jack Kennedy? Everyone else was for Lyndon, of course, in Texas in 1960 for the presidency. That's where she cut her teeth.

JIM LEHRER: That's right. I remember that. Yes, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.