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Columnists Discuss U.S. Policy in Iraq

December 1, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, that big political noise we hear is the coming of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq. Based on the leaks and anything else you know about it, what, in fact, is it going to say?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, it charts some real ground, if you have George Bush over here who wants to keep fighting and keep going until we win, and Jack Murtha over here who wants to really have some sort of imminent withdrawal, it’s sort of there in the middle.

It’s clearly heading toward the exits, but a very slow, gradual heading toward the exits. Maybe a goal of withdrawing our combat troops by ’08, but that would still leave perhaps as many as 70,000 troops in Iraq in two years. And it’s conditional.

And so what it really is a very — it’s a political compromise. And I think it has a lot of public support. My doubt is: What does it have to do with the reality on the ground in Iraq?

Are we going to be able to keep withdrawing if the violence gets worse? If the violence gets worse and Iraqi politicians become more insecure, less likely to reach across sectarian lines, are we going to keep withdrawing? If the Iraqi army fails, doesn’t show up for battles, are we going to keep withdrawing?

So there’s the whole Iraqi reality that I’m not sure how it applies to. The American reality, I completely understand. It’s right there in the middle where a lot of people are.

JIM LEHRER: Right there in the middle where it ought to be, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think, Jim, that it shows the consensus is formed now, solidifying around an exit strategy. I think that’s what…

JIM LEHRER: The fight is just over the details?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that’s what it is. I think there are two other things at play here in the Baker thing. One is that it may be too little and too late, I mean, that events seem to be in the saddle right now, throughout the Middle East.

When the best news out of the Middle East is from the Israeli-Palestinian sector, I mean, then you really know you’re in trouble. There’s been nothing but bad news there.

JIM LEHRER: Including today, of course, as we just — Lebanon.

MARK SHIELDS: Lebanon, earlier in the story.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, just everywhere you turn, and, I mean, the Iran-Syria card. I mean, they have a capacity for causing great trouble. We don’t know if they can use their leverage for any good, and that will probably come with a price, and Lebanon may be the price.

I mean, it seems to be that this is beyond the Baker-Hamilton. And I’m not minimizing its importance, the effort or the sincerity of the people involved.

But unaddressed throughout this whole debate, by the Democrats as well as the Republicans, is: What is our moral obligation to the Iraqis and to the Iraqi nation?

I mean, we went to war without world support, without the support of the world community, without a valid rationale for going to war, with either wrong assumptions or false pretenses. Having secured that victory, we were unprepared and made bad decisions. And we took a brutal, repressive, stable, secular Iraq and turned it into a brutal, unstable, theocratic, and unlivable Iraq. And what is — I mean, as we talk about leaving, what is our responsibility?

Reality in Iraq

David Brooks
New York Times
I really think it's time not to worry about us and what we want for Iraq, but to look at the reality of Iraq and to adapt our plans to that reality.

JIM LEHRER: You want to pick up on that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, I do think we have a responsibility there. And a lot of people who oppose the war think we should stay because we have a responsibility there not to have it devolve into a genocidal civil war.

Nonetheless, my emphasis now would not be on us; it would be on them. I really think it's time not to worry about us and what we want for Iraq, but to look at the reality of Iraq and to adapt our plans to that reality. And the reality of Iraq is that 10,000 Iraqis are moving every week to their sectarian homelands. The country is dividing itself.

JIM LEHRER: A lot of Iraqis are leaving Iraq, just getting out of there, getting out of there.

DAVID BROOKS: And a lot are just moving -- middle-class people are in Jordan and Syria and neighboring cities. So the reality of the country is that it's splitting.

And the reality of the country is that everyone there who gets interviewed in the paper wants a strong government. And the reality is they're not going to have a strong government if it's Sunni and Shia together, because those two communities right now can't have a strong government.

JIM LEHRER: Just can't do it.

DAVID BROOKS: So I'm migrating much closer to what Peter Galbraith has been saying, what Joe Biden and Les Gelb have been saying, which is you've got to have a strong government -- or you have some government in the center to divvy up the oil, but really look where authority, look where reality is. It's local.

JIM LEHRER: Well, speaking of a reality, President Bush went to Jordan and met with Maliki. What came out of that? What was the point of that meeting, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's hard to know. They clearly wanted to know, what kind of guy is Maliki? And I've been hearing radically different things from within the administration about whether he's hopeful or hopeless. And I don't think they really know.

There's just a great deal of debate in the administration. In fact, I'd say now the most important debate is not actually in the Baker-Hamilton report; it's within the administration, with some people in the State Department and elsewhere saying, "Let's give up on the Sunnis." I think David Ignatius reported it as the "80-percent solution." We just...

JIM LEHRER: He said that on this program last night, as a matter of fact.

DAVID BROOKS: So the Shia and the Kurds, we just can't reconcile this country. And that's sort of the one-winner strategy. I would amend it, you've got to have a two-winner strategy. The Sunnis have to feel like leaders, winners, and the Shia, but they just can't be winners together.

Bush administration on Iraq

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I do think that what we're seeing ... is reminiscent of the debate -- and the administration is busy about it -- to what we saw in Saigon in 1975.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, some people were suggesting that the president going to Jordan to talk to Maliki, et cetera, was a small step at least to try to even preempt Baker-Hamilton. Is that a legitimate -- what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that, during the campaign, up until November 7th, the Baker-Hamilton commission study group was used regularly by the White House, by the president, to show this was under active consideration, to show that they weren't just wed to the status quo, that they were open.

JIM LEHRER: No staying the course.

MARK SHIELDS: No. And since the election, since the election, they've been preempting basically and debunking what are the alternatives. I mean, the president says there's no graceful exit. You know, the president is not talking about Syria and Iran.

I mean, he seems to be moving away from -- it's no longer available to him. I do think that what we're seeing, Jim, somewhat is reminiscent of the debate -- and the administration is busy about it -- to what we saw in Saigon in 1975.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the debate that David just portrayed as having in the administration?

MARK SHIELDS: In the administration. And that is, you know, when the one great scorer comes to write beside your name, he writes not whether you won or lost but who gets the blame. And you'll recall, in the last days of...

JIM LEHRER: It's the reverse of the John F. Kennedy line.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. In the last days of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, it was a question -- well, it was the Vietnamese. It was them. They failed.

Well, the very same people who told us that this would be a democracy borne, you know, when Baghdad fell, and it might be difficult, but it was just waiting to be created, are now saying, "Well, there's something in the culture of the Iraqis. They just can't do it; they're unable to do it."

So, you know, I think this may be for domestic political consumption and trying to write the first draft of history as much as it is for any real policy.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there I'm differing. Listen, no one's minimizing the U.S. failure here. You take a country, you take away all their police, you let everybody out of jail. If we did it in this country, it would be ugly. So nobody's minimizing that.

Nonetheless, to say that the Iraqis are not partially to blame for their own country is wrong. This is a government that has not been able to cut a deal on oil. This is a government that has not been able to reach out. These are people, like Sadr, who have brutally committed, want to commit acts of genocide.

To say that the Iraqis have behaved well is also not true. So there's ample blame to go around. Just within the administration, there's certainly an attitude of every man for himself. You're beginning to see leaks, significant leaks, the Steve Hadley memo on Maliki earlier in the week.

Iraq Study Group leak

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
...[T]he attempt to pin it on the Iraqis is usually accompanied almost invariably by any failure to address what did go wrong on the part of the administration and to confront the wrong decisions that were made every single step of the way.

JIM LEHRER: Does that mean -- do you think that was an intentional leak by the administration to put Maliki on the defensive before they meet?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think so. I haven't spoken to Michael Gordon, our reporter who did it, and I wouldn't ask him who he got it from.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But it said in the story "an administration official." I would say the official had an effect -- psychologically liberating effect on a lot of people who were unhappy but marching to the party line. And now they're talking.

And now they're talking about radically different ideas, and they're suggesting radically different things. It's become much harder to report on the administration. It used to be you talked to one of them, you knew what they all thought. But now, no more.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I'm simply saying that the attempt to pin it on the Iraqis is usually accompanied almost invariably by any failure to address what did go wrong on the part of the administration and to confront the wrong decisions that were made every single step of the way.

And, you know, that somehow that the policy that led to all of those decisions is not going to be re-examined, and certainly in the Iraq Study Group. The other thing the Iraq Study Group is going to provide -- and it's important -- and that is, it's going to provide political cover for both Democrats and Republicans. And it's the Republicans...

JIM LEHRER: Because it is in the middle. Anybody can look at it and get anything at it they want?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, what they're coming up with is essentially what Jack Reed, the senator from Rhode Island, and Carl Levin have been talking about for almost a year. But it's the Republicans who want to get Iraq resolved before 2008. They don't want to go another campaign.

Presidential candidates for 2008

David Brooks
New York Times
[Bill Frist] is not a natural politician, cared about being a doctor, didn't really master politics, tried to pretend he was more conservative than he really was.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of 2008, before we go, Bill Frist decided he wouldn't go. Governor Vilsack, the Democratic governor of Iowa, said he would go. Surprise on -- what happened to Bill Frist?

DAVID BROOKS: A great man who is not a natural politician, cared about being a doctor, didn't really master politics, tried to pretend he was more conservative than he really was. And like a lot of people who fake it, he overdid it. And so he's a great man, but not a natural politician.


MARK SHIELDS: Bill Frist is a totally admirable physician. I mean, he spends weeks providing medical care in Africa to impoverished Africa. But over-ambition on his part and egregious bad judgment on the part of the White House put him in a position of Senate majority leader, where he was bound to fail.

And you can't run for president as Senate majority leader. I mean, Bob Dole, a gifted politician, couldn't do it.

JIM LEHRER: You have to annoy too many people to get the job done.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. And you carry the institution's shame with you.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. What about Vilsack? Is he...

MARK SHIELDS: Vilsack...

JIM LEHRER: ... a serious candidate?

MARK SHIELDS: He's a serious candidate in the sense that he's a red-state Democrat, that is a Democrat who's run and won in a state that George Bush carried, just as Mitt Romney has an appeal as a blue-state Republican.

JIM LEHRER: Just the opposite, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He's just the opposite. And he did something that is to be commended for. He didn't go through the sham and the hypocrisy of an exploratory committee.

JIM LEHRER: He just said, "I'm running."

MARK SHIELDS: He just said, "I'm running for president."

JIM LEHRER: "I'm running." What do you think about Vilsack? Got any...

DAVID BROOKS: Great personal story, an orphan who was adopted by a woman with alcohol and drug problems, and rose up to become governor. And I think plausible, a serious policy guy. I happened to be in the Carter Center yesterday, and you forget where Jimmy Carter was in 1975.

JIM LEHRER: Or Bill Clinton...

DAVID BROOKS: So I think quite possible. I wouldn't bet on him, but possible.

MARK SHIELDS: The question is whether a governor in the post-9/11 -- I mean, governors were great candidates in, you know...

JIM LEHRER: National security being what it is an issue, yes. Thank you both very much. Good to see you.