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Shields, Lowry React to Iraq Study Group Report, President’s Response

December 8, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off.

Well, Rich, there’s been reaction to the Iraq Study Group and reaction to the reaction. And I guess we’re getting down now to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction, but looking at this very big week in…

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: And you want me to react to that, I assume?

RAY SUAREZ: I do. I want to hear what you have to say.

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think that the report has some useful ideas for President Bush probably around the edges, but the two primary recommendations I don’t think are terribly constructive or workable.

The diplomatic outreach, let’s take that one first. Even the report doesn’t really hold out much hope for engaging in Iran. In fact, it predicts that Iran will probably rebuff a U.S. diplomatic outreach. And the report just says, “OK, well, that will convince people that Iran is rejectionist so there will be some use in that.” But there’s not much hope there for Iran really helping us in Iraq.

And Syria, I think, is really a ridiculous bank shot. The report says, “OK, let’s broker this peace between the Israelis and the Syrians, where the Israelis give back the Golan Heights, and then that will cause all these sorts of changes in the regime’s behavior in Syria, and that will somehow help the situation on the ground in Iraq.”

And it’s totally unrealistic. It’s not going to happen. And the key thing — we’ve heard this from the commanders on the ground; we’ve heard this from our ambassador in Iraq — the next four to six months in Baghdad are crucial. And unless you have something intelligent and constructive to say about how to help that situation in the here and now, I’m just not sure how useful it is.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think, first of all, the report, Ray, its substance was a relentless, unsparing indictment of the failed policy. It robbed the White House of its baseless optimistic projections and pronouncements, and it just laid out the case.

And the fact that it came from a bipartisan group that included, not simply Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, but his attorney general and his first nominee to the Supreme Court, George Herbert Walker Bush’s two secretaries of state, and came unanimously.

And what Rich talks about I think is a fundamental difference in worldview between Condi Rice and George W. Bush on one side, and Jim Baker and the Iraq Study Group unanimously on the other side, that Baker believes — you can argue with him — that diplomacy and leverage go together.

And you reach out to — you make peace with your enemies. You demand as part of the negotiations that Iran or Syria do certain things. If they don’t, there are consequences to it.

At the same time, President Bush and Secretary Rice divide the world into friends and enemies, and the friends are with us. And those who are with us, those are the ones we negotiate with.

Well, the world has changed profoundly in the past six weeks. Don Rumsfeld is no longer secretary of defense, and the Republicans are no longer on Capitol Hill. And I would say right now that the United States’ prospects of success in Iran are recognized as close to nonexistent by an overwhelming majority of the American people.

President Bush's reaction

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The president certainly has not embraced it, but he had to sit down there and listen to that commission. He had to see it up front and personally.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about a rebuke, a scathing indictment. Does the president give any indication that he's internalized that, is taking it seriously? He talked about the report as "worthy of serious study" and "interesting," not necessarily the words of a man who's going to take it as a template now and run out and take it as an action statement.

MARK SHIELDS: The president, as his supporters have insisted -- and absolutely rightly so -- is the commander-in-chief. It's up to him. In the case -- the case has been made.

I mean, today, we had Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, a strong supporter, an emotional statement on the floor of the Senate, say, I can no longer support the Republicans, saying, I can no longer support the president's policy.

It's just because of the sense of futility, the sense of failure that he confronts every day. We don't know. I mean, the president certainly has not embraced it, but he had to sit down there and listen to that commission. He had to see it up front and personally.

I mean, this was criticism -- if he does exist in that bubble that's described -- it penetrated the bubble.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Rich, you ran down some of the items which you see as dead on arrival. And even though Jim Baker said he doesn't want this to be a fruit salad where you go picking through, looking for the fruit you like, are there some pieces of advice there that the White House might do well to heed?

RICH LOWRY: Sure. The more embedded American troops with Iraqi units makes some sense. Working further to improve the training of Iraqi units makes sense. It has very harsh language in there about our intelligence efforts in Iraq, and the deficits of them, and some recommendations for improving them.

All that, I think, Bush can cherry-pick those recommendations out of the report. But the central military recommendations that you were just discussing earlier, I think, in an odd way, they're really kind of stay-the-course recommendations.

They're warmed over Don Rumsfeld. This is what we've been trying to do for three years, on the theory that, if we begin to draw down our presence in Iraq, it will lessen our footprint, lessen the nationalist reaction against us in Iraq, and force the Iraqis to pull up their socks.

And it hasn't worked for three years, and that's why President Bush needs something new. And if we just do Rumsfeld on an accelerated schedule, it's not going to help security conditions there in Iraq; in fact, it's going to make them worse.

Changing troop levels

Rich Lowry
National Review
We've had a very ambitious project in Iraq, one on which President Bush has gambled his presidency and all of U.S. foreign policy, and there has never been the follow-through, the resources, or the execution to make it work.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it wound the White House in any long-lasting way, along with the report sort of laying out the facts on the ground that could have been drawn from any newspaper morgue, there were other things that are less talked about: official sources understating, systematically understating the suffering of the Iraqis; the American military never understanding the insurgency; six fluent Arabic speakers in an American embassy of 1,000 staff in Baghdad. When I saw some of those things, I said, "Wow, I didn't know that."

RICH LOWRY: Yes. Well, look, all of this are things that need to be heard, and there's something to be said for, as many people as possible, taking, you know, President Bush by the lapels, and shaking him, and saying, "Look, this is not working, and you need to acknowledge the reality on the ground."

And some of those items you mentioned, Ray, they go to failures of the U.S. government across the board, not just the military. And the problem here is, we've had a very ambitious project in Iraq, one on which President Bush has gambled his presidency and all of U.S. foreign policy, and there has never been the follow-through, the resources, or the execution to make it work.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, the two committee chairmen, Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker, were on the Hill earlier this week, and John McCain gave them some tough going-over. Are the revelations in the Iraq Study Group report and their overall conclusions isolating to him in his still-held view that we need to send a lot more troops to Iraq in order to win?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he was joined this week, was John McCain, by General Anthony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander, who had been a strong critic, arch-critic of the initial war and the Bush policy from the outset.

But I don't think there's any question, Ray, that, right now, in the Associated Press poll out today, 9 percent of Americans expect victory in Iraq. And I think the assessment has been made, the consensus is formed.

And Senator McCain might be able to argue that that's what we would have needed, but he has to -- he's a smart man. He's a perceptive man. He has to know that I think what this commission -- the group was writing was they didn't want to say it's over.

They didn't want to say that, but there was an assessment that this thing is so bad, so serious, so grave, that, unless immediate and drastic actions are taken, that it will fail, and that failure is inevitable. And I think you could make the case that, politically, at least it becomes tenable for John McCain to say, "Well, if they'd followed my advice, it would have turned out differently."

I'm not sure that that's going to be a successful platform in New Hampshire and Iowa in 2008, if this war continues to drag out and the president persists in enduring his policies.

President Bush's level of support

Rich Lowry
National Review
The White House is correct to formulate their new policy, whatever it's going to be, sooner rather than later...[E]very day he continues to be basically dead in the water on this, the way he is now, he gets weaker.

RAY SUAREZ: Rich, do you think this has -- well, go ahead, Rich.

RICH LOWRY: Well, I was just going to say the report does leave a slight window open to more troops in Baghdad, if the commanders recommend them, if the generals recommend them. But all the indications are that Abizaid and Casey aren't going to call for more troops in Baghdad.

So if that's going to happen, it's really going to require President Bush rolling his generals on the ground and insisting that this happen, even though it's going to cause, you know, political uproar here at home, even though it's going to be a further strain on the institution of the Army.

But if you really believe we're in a crisis in Iraq, and what we've done to this point hasn't worked, and we still have to win -- that's the crucial thing, if you still think some form of victory is possible -- then I think the only logical step is to send more troops to Baghdad to finally try to stabilize and secure that city with enough boots on the ground to really attempt to effect that policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Rich, yesterday, during the joint news conference with Tony Blair, the president talked about how these are hard things to do, and it's going to be hard from here on out, as well.

But as someone who is never going to face the voters again, is he standing with enough people at his back, who have his back to do hard things? Does he still have the power to do hard things and be sure that he's got enough backing in the various power centers here and abroad?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, well, as Mark pointed out, he's still commander-in-chief. But the indication to look for, in my mind, is the Republicans on Capitol Hill. And that's why Gordon Smith's statement was so important.

I don't think, you know, he's -- I don't think a lot of people necessarily hang on Gordon Smith's every word, but it's a strong wind. And if you see other Republicans on the Hill begin to use similar language and stake out a similar position, then you're seeing a real total collapse in the president's political position.

And that's one reason, by the way, I think the White House is correct to formulate their new policy, whatever it's going to be, sooner rather than later. And the indications are they're going to do it before Christmas, and he's going to give a speech before Christmas, because every day he continues to be basically dead in the water on this, the way he is now, he gets weaker.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick, quick response.

MARK SHIELDS: Quick response, I'd just add that the Iraq Study Group said, yes, a surge in troops, briefly, if necessary, but that's all.

I think the president's position politically is eroding. We have 71 percent now not supporting it; only 27 percent who do support the president's policy.

Once somebody leaves the support of the war, they don't come back, Ray. You know, it isn't like getting back on the bus. Once they leave, they're gone. And that number of supporters is only going to get smaller, and the opposition is only going to get bigger.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Shields, Rich Lowry, thank you both.

RICH LOWRY: Thank you.