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Shields, Brooks React to Middle East Talks Debate, Bush Press Conference on Iraq

December 22, 2006 at 6:30 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, Mark, the president’s announcement to the country of the new way forward in Iraq is going to have to wait until next year, but he did talk to reporters earlier this week for over an hour. What did you see?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: What did I see? I saw the president have a certain rendezvous with reality about the progress or lack thereof in Iraq, saying that the United States is not winning, which was obviously a reversal.

At times, he seemed more relaxed and confident than he had in the past, talking about bipartisan initiatives and cooperation with the Democrats on the Hill.

And then, Ray, he turned a little bit curt and defensive when he was asked of his own legacy and compared to LBJ. But, you know, the reality is that the president has only two options in Iraq: He can either disengage or escalate. And it looks like he is leaning toward a limited version of the second.

RAY SUAREZ: Though he wouldn’t be drawn out, David, on exactly what he has planned.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, I don’t know why he had to go public this week. He had nothing to say. There was this stupid debate about winning and losing, which are totally obsolete terms in this kind of conflict.

But he has a decision inside the administration, which they’re now arguing about. And the decision is a plan, really prompted by retired General Jack Keane and others, which is to devote 20,000 or 30,000 troops to Baghdad and finally do the job we haven’t done, which is to actually secure the place.

That’s to get our troops out of the bases, to put more people in, and secure the place. And the theory is that it still can be secured, and that creates the political room.

My fear is that it’s not two options; it’s three options. They’re going to do a halfhearted attempt at securing the place, which we’ve been doing for three years, which is like a 70 percent solution, where we’ve put in a few more troops, pretty limited time.

We don’t take people out of the bases and put them in the neighborhoods to secure the neighborhoods. We do it halfway, which is what we’ve been doing as some sort of compromise measure.

And I don’t know which is the right policy, but my advice to Bush would be, if you’re going to do the “go large,” which is the “do it,” or get out, but don’t do some sort of halfway “go medium,” because that will surely fail.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this week there was reporting in the Washington Post that indicated his own service chiefs are very skeptical of a “go large” strategy.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And what you have in the military is people in the mid- to low-levels saying, “We need more troops. We need more troops.” And Secretary Gates heard some of that this week.

Then the top levels, you have the generals who have been in charge of our troop levels for the past three years. And their theory has been, if we put more troops in, that just inflames the situation. And their second theory is, we can’t support the troops we have there.

And so the top generals are pretty much, “Let’s stay the course. Let’s do what we’ve been doing.” I think, for most outside viewers, that’s not working. So either go large or go small, but don’t stay the course, which was what General Casey and Abizaid been saying and continue to say.

And it’s interesting that this strategy from Keane, this recently retired general, and a whole series of recently retired officers from Tal Afar and other places, have come up with this strategy, saying, “Let’s finally do it right.”

And so it’s gone outside the normal military channels, through the retirees, and gotten straight to the White House.

MARK SHIELDS: I’d just say — and I think it’s becoming increasingly clear — that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq will not postpone, will not alter the inevitability of U.S. disengagement. It will simply postpone that date of that inevitable disengagement.

And the generals are talking about — that George Bush is ignoring, whose counsel he’s ignoring right now — are the men he chose. He didn’t inherit any of these people. Every one of the generals in a position of leadership right now in Iraq or in the military anywhere was a Bush appointee.

He was nominated, chosen by this White House, chosen by this secretary of defense, the previous secretary of defense. And so, I mean, this isn’t like — this is a president who said, “I’m always going to be guided, always going to be determined by the number of troops we use by the commanders in the field.”

And now he’s saying the commanders in the field are to be ignored. So it is — it’s an about-face on his part. But I don’t think anybody ought to be kidded that this is going to — that 20,000 troops are going to mean anything in changing the outcome of this war.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, I mean…

What do the American people want?

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think, within Washington, the momentum for quickly getting out is not there. And so I think there would be some bipartisan support, if the president decided, "We're going to give this one last turn."

RAY SUAREZ: Let me jump in there, because both of you are talking about a Washington establishment that is talking about these options seemingly removed from the realm of politics, as if 300 million Americans from sea to shining sea don't get a vote in this thing, too.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the American people up for another 20,000 or 30,000 troops in Iraq, at a time when they were confidently told and have been told for years that we would now be pulling out?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm not sure there's much momentum for pulling out. I think one of the things the Baker-Hamilton commission did -- we could have had -- right after the election, we could have had a move to pull out.

Gordon Smith, a Republican senator, said, "I'm at the end of the rope." But the Baker-Hamilton commission really froze debate for a month and drained away that pulling out momentum. And then the Baker-Hamilton commission talked about a gradual drawdown, leaving perhaps 70,000 troops in for another two or three years.

So I think, within Washington, the momentum for quickly getting out is not there. And so I think there would be some bipartisan support, if the president decided, "We're going to give this one last turn."

My question, frankly, is not so much the American people; it's the Iraqi people. Suppose we do secure Baghdad, but suppose the Shia and the Sunni still don't want a compromise. Suppose the butcher on the street in Baghdad, all he can think about is not reconciliation, but killing the people who killed my brother.

And if that's really in the heart and soul of the Iraqi people, then I do think that the more troops won't help. But there are a number of people within the military who think that what we've been doing for three years, by General Casey and Abizaid, is just enough to lose, and we should give it one honest attempt to devote the resources we need.

MARK SHIELDS: Ray, George Bush's presidency right now is on life support. This is his last chance, what he comes up with.

If what he proposes does not inspire and generate support, popular and political support in this country, but more important does not lead to success on the ground -- it's been the failure on the ground, the reality of the tragedy and the defeat that has penetrated to America.

It's not been a loss of will; it's been a confrontation with the reality of what's happened there. And I think this is where George Bush -- if it fails, than George Bush's presidency is, for all practical purposes, over.

Impact of Iraq Study Group report

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[The Iraq Study Group report] put right on the table, where nobody could hide from it and nobody dissented, that we are losing, that the situation is deteriorating, and that it is going to get worse in a hurry.

RAY SUAREZ: David mentioned the Iraq Study Group. And this program, like many others, mined it, analyzed it, dissected it. Is it finished? Are people even talking about it as a policy blueprint any longer?

MARK SHIELDS: In some respects, it became for Democrats, who did not have an agreed-upon policy, a convenient place to rally.

But I think it did something terribly important and something that's changed the terms of this debate, and that is it put right on the table, where nobody could hide from it and nobody dissented, that we are losing, that the situation is deteriorating, and that it is going to get worse in a hurry.

You can argue about specifics, whatever, but that commission coming together, and making that statement, and getting no argument and no dissent on the other side, from the administration, I think has changed the debate and brought a new sense of urgency to this and has forced this president to confront his own reality and his political mortality.

I mean, because Iraq is his legacy. Iraq is his entire legacy. And it's a tragic legacy.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say it did a good job of describing how bad the situation is there.

I think the second thing it did was to kill the Murtha momentum, which is to get out.

The third thing it did was to emphasize talking to other countries in the region, which is what we heard earlier on the program.

And the fourth thing it did was talk about how disastrous it would be to get out too rapidly.

And so it did all of those things, and that's where Bush is now left with, the disastrous consequences of getting out, which is why he and other people, not only him, are willing to give it perhaps one last try.

Engaging Iraq's neighbors

David Brooks
The New York Times
I don't have much optimistic that talks can come out of this, but I do think talking is generally a good thing for the atmospherics of the region.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's revisit that. What you mentioned was sort of injected into the policy bloodstream, talking to the neighbors. Talking to Iran and Syria has not come easily to this administration. Is there more of an opening? Condoleezza Rice was on the NewsHour last night basically saying not unless both of them change their tunes.

DAVID BROOKS: In general, I think talking to those countries, and especially Syria, is a good thing. For the reasons Dennis Ross, the former envoy, talks about it; it's a shock absorber. You get the countries engaged, and especially you get the elites engaged.

I'm extremely dubious that it can do much good. We're not going to trade the Lebanon to get Syria's cooperation in Iraq. That would just be a betrayal of the Lebanese people and a national shame.

I do not believe that what's happening in Iraq, with Sunnis killing Shia, has anything to do with Israel and Palestine. I doubt -- which was the Baker commission theory, that Syria could get Hamas to recognize Israel. I think that's unrealistic.

So I don't have much optimistic that talks can come out of this, but I do think talking is generally a good thing for the atmospherics of the region.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's better than just atmospherics; I think it's more important. And I think what we saw this week, Ray, in Iran -- I mean, when the president gets confronted by student revolutionaries, resistors who object, as many people have in the past political events, when bused in is an entire crowd that's pro-president, and there's no room for the students to speak, even be heard at this university, and they stand up with "Death to the Dictator" signs and burn them in his presence, I mean, that tells you.

And the elections in Iran, you know, I think there's an opening there. I really do. And I think it's one that ought to be explored and exploited.

DAVID BROOKS: But why does it help to legitimize him? I mean, they hate the -- "death to the dictator." They want the dictator gone. And why does it help them if we legitimize the leader? I mean, Ahmadinejad comes out of a Holocaust denial session and goes into a session with Condi Rice. How does that help either them or us?

MARK SHIELDS: I'm simply saying you talk to all Iranians. You don't simply talk to him. I mean, just as foreign governments talk to all elements in this country, they don't simply talk to the United States at the White House.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'd be certainly for going and talking to the dissidents, if it would help.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, if that means -- it means talking to them. I really think, you know, jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war. And there seems to be a lot of war, war, war talk and moving battleships around in this past week.

DAVID BROOKS: The other thing that plays into that, though, is the Saudis and Sunni governments really do not want us to talk to Iran.

MARK SHIELDS: They don't.

DAVID BROOKS: They do not want us to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Increasing minimum wage

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What's most interesting to me -- even though [President Bush] puts in that you have to have some regulatory relief and tax breaks for business -- I mean, this is heresy to the theologians of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

RAY SUAREZ: A little less remarked upon was the president's casual mention that he's ready to support a sizable increase in the minimum wage. At another time in our past, that might have gotten a lot of attention, but Iraq sort of totally drowned that out.

MARK SHIELDS: It is. I mean, what's most interesting to me -- even though he puts in that you have to have some regulatory relief and tax breaks for business -- I mean, this is heresy to the theologians of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

I mean, any increase in the minimum wage is violative of the market, and everything else. It's going to have dire consequences. And for George W. Bush to embrace it I think is an important step in the right direction.

Again, a rendezvous with reality. I mean, we've got 30-plus states that have already acted on it. And the overwhelming majorities in the Congress -- I think he's to be commended.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, the argument against it is that it cuts the number of jobs that are created, because you make the employment so expensive. But at this stage, with not having had a raise in such a long time in many parts of the country, you know, the minimum-wage jobs are already $6, $7 an hour, much higher.

So I don't think it would do much harm, economic harm, and I think a lot of free-market economists say, under these circumstances, it probably wouldn't do much economic harm.

But I do could back to my original point that it's awfully poorly targeted, that if you really want to help the working poor, the earned income tax credit is the way to do it, not to have a policy which has this massive spillover, massive subsidies for upper middle-class kids, and relatively few subsidies to the working class.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, merry Christmas. David, happy New Year, and have a good vacation.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.