TOPICS > Politics

California Wildfire Response Compared to Katrina; U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Iran

October 26, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

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

Mark, the California fires. People are drawing analogies between what happened at Katrina and what happened now. Is that valid?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, it’s certainly welcome to the administration, Jim. I mean, after the fires in Southern California, except where personal and community and public tragedy, but they were a great political gift to the administration, to show that they had learned from the disastrous experience of Katrina and the failed response of FEMA, that they could respond quickly.

The president was given a Republican governor there, whom he’d never been particularly close with, but they could be in mutual admiration. The fact that it was California guaranteed that it was going to get greater public attention than the Gulf region and greater federal response.

And they did. And, you know, I think that there was federal — there were troops there to prevent looting. There were all of the things that were learned. There was quick settlement on insurance claims.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, David? Just legitimate to make these comparisons?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I think so. I mean, it’s most important for the country. When you looked at the images we saw at the top of the show, there’s people planning. The authorities are taking control of the situation.

And if you look at public polling across the country, people are reasonably happy with their own life. If you’re asked, “Are you happy with your own life?” you get very high numbers, 80 percent, 90 percent. “Are you happy with the state of the country as a whole?” is very low numbers.

There’s incredible disjunction between private happiness and public anxiety. And that’s based on the fact that a lot of people don’t think we’re in control, that the authorities in this country are in control of situations, that there are all of these threats coming in, and we can’t do anything about them.

And the fact that we seem to have been able to respond effectively to the fires at least forestalls another period of national depression and maybe shows that some authority figures can actually work and maybe begin to restore some sense of authority. And then I think it’s partly learning from Katrina, it’s partly from pretty good local response, and it’s partly because the area it struck had much higher degrees of social capital than the area in New Orleans.

Sanctions versus military action

David Brooks
New York Times
[President Bush] is preparing the way for the next administration to have some means to deal with the situation [in Iran]. He believes in the diplomacy. But unless I totally misread him, I think he has no inclination to launch a military action.

JIM LEHRER: The government action -- that's a segue, Mark --the U.S. government issued new sanctions on Iran. Are they going to work?

MARK SHIELDS: We don't know, Jim. And the question right now for most people here in town is whether they're a further commitment to diplomatic efforts to resolve this or a prelude to military action.

JIM LEHRER: But how do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, given the track record of the administration, I think, right now, there's a major cleavage within the administration. I don't think there's any question where the vice president is on this and whether he...

JIM LEHRER: Do you think -- he's ready to take a military strike, if need be?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that's certainly his inclination. And I think it's fair to say that, based upon the experience of Iraq, where on flimsy evidence and faulty intelligence the nation was taken into war, and the mission was totally botched, there's an apprehension...

JIM LEHRER: But it could be...

MARK SHIELDS: ... about the willingness to do it, their ability to do it, as well as there's an apprehension about Iran and its intentions.

JIM LEHRER: Does it add up that way for you, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No. I am reasonably confident there's going to be no military...

JIM LEHRER: You agree with the professor who talked a moment ago...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and I'll tell you the basis for my agreement. And this is an argument that the president should give more interviews. He gives interviews to some columnists. It's not a broad ideological stretch. I'm sort of the Fidel Castro of the group. I'm on the far left. But he does give interviews to...

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. You're on the far left of...

DAVID BROOKS: Of this particular group.

JIM LEHRER: Of the group of people, columnists, OK, got it.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And we get together with the president periodically. And there are two of my colleagues who, every time they ask about Iran, and the president knows the questions are coming, it's sort of a joke between us, and we see his body language and response to these questions. Some of it is on the record; some of it is off the record.

But if you look, read his language, if you look at his body language, you see a man that's totally different than before Iraq. He is preparing the way for the next administration to have some means to deal with the situation. He believes in the diplomacy. But unless I totally misread him, I think he has no inclination to launch a military action.

JIM LEHRER: Then why all the anxiety?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, because the vice president has been making noise, and because the White House for totally legitimate reason has been ratcheting up the pressure on these people.

First of all, you know, we look at the faces of the dead at the end of the programs here, 70 percent of those people are killed indirectly or directly from Iranian influence. So there's a reason to be suspicious and hostile toward this regime.

Second, they are behaving more and more militant. They now have this pact or talks with Russia. They're more and more flagrantly in violation of the Security Council resolutions. They are behaving extremely aggressively. And so it's perfectly legitimate to want to do something about what is a tremendous global problem, but that doesn't mean I think we're about to send the planes.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I'd say this. When you start talking about World War III, which the president did this week, when you start tossing around the Hitler...

World War III rhetoric

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Q]uite realistically, I don't know how the United States is going to stop Iran from getting nuclear technology.

JIM LEHRER: He said, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, that could be -- we're talking about World War III.

MARK SHIELDS: World War III, right. And, quite realistically, I don't know how the United States is going to stop Iran from getting nuclear technology. I really don't, and I don't think there's any realistic way.

JIM LEHRER: You mean diplomatically.

MARK SHIELDS: Diplomatically. And I don't think they...

JIM LEHRER: They're not going to talk them out of it.

MARK SHIELDS: ... can do it economically. I don't think so. I think it's not just the crazies. I think there's a commitment in the country itself.

But I'd point out, you know, that they're talking about Iran the same way they talked about Nazi Germany or the Soviet empire. And David's point about the weapons, I'm not questioning that Iran is fomenting trouble in Iraq, contributing to it, and providing arms.

We fought an entire war, the longest war in American history in Vietnam, when it was supplied, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, were supplied by the Chinese and the Russians. We didn't go to war with the Russians and the Chinese. I mean, if that were the case, Korea would have been the United States against China.

JIM LEHRER: That would have been World War III.

MARK SHIELDS: It would have been World War III. So they toss around these terms in a way, and they've done it in the past. I mean, they inflated the importance and the terror posed by Saddam Hussein before that war, which turned out to be a paper tiger. And now they're talking about a country that has 1/68th the size of the United States' economy and spends 1/110th as much as we do on defense and has an economy the size of Finland.

JIM LEHRER: In Margaret's discussion earlier, the expert on the oil markets said, well, the rhetoric is exciting people to think that there could be military action, and that's what's causing anxiety and all of that...

DAVID BROOKS: There has been some rhetoric that's -- the World War III...

JIM LEHRER: What about the World War III?

DAVID BROOKS: That was probably over the top. There have been periods when the administration is trying to make clear how serious the threat is, and I think it's a serious threat.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's a World War III-type threat?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I wouldn't necessarily say that. But Ahmadinejad -- and we don't know how much he has control or doesn't have control, obviously. But nonetheless, a president who threatens to wipe Israel or whatever off the face of the map, you have to be worried. I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican. You have to be worried about those people having nuclear weapons.

God knows the Saudis are worried. God knows the Europeans are worried. The French are worried. There's a legitimate reason to be worried. And there's a legitimate reason to think it's completely unacceptable for them to get a nuclear weapon. The Security Council agreed with that.

You look at how the administration has behaved. They haven't rushed into anything. We've been talking about this forever. They've gone through the U.N. They've had endless talks with the Europeans. They've tried to ratchet up pressure.

And, believe me, this is no major league sanctions. They had some little economic sanctions which they believe had some effect on the Iranian regime. These are more significant sanctions.

And within the administration, one of the things they'll tell you, and Condi Rice says this all the time, the Iranians are not like the North Koreans. They're a cosmopolitan people who really want to have a lot of global trade. So if you make it risky to do business in Iran, if you make it harder for their banks to exchange currencies, you may have some effect. And that's why these sanctions have been chosen.

The presidential race and Iran

David Brooks
New York Times
When you hear the Democrats talk about Iran, it's always, "You're empowering Bush. You're not empowering Bush. I'm opposing Bush." It's all about Bush.

JIM LEHRER: The politics, the presidential politics of this, Mark, every candidate, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, everybody has got something to say about Iran. Everybody has got something tough to say about Iran, for all parties. It's just a case of, what's going on? Is this a legitimate political issue? And is it going to get worse before it gets better or better than for -- whatever?

MARK SHIELDS: Iran is the new Iraq. I mean, it's a continuing debate that was begun in Iraq. And, first of all, you take the Republicans. Rudy Giuliani wins the macho, "Let's go to the mat"...

JIM LEHRER: He's the far...

MARK SHIELDS: Rudy was asked if he'd seek the permission or concurrence of Congress in order to attack, use military action against Iran. "No," said Rudy. Mitt Romney talks in terms of a bombardment; yet to be defined what bombardment is.

On the Democratic side, it's a fight over where you were on Iraq and where you are in Iran. And...

JIM LEHRER: Mostly between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and Senator Biden and Senator Dodd were the point men. They're both in the Senate. This Kyl-Lieberman amendment came up, which many people who opposed it, including Jim Webb who was on this show last night, Senator Webb of Virginia, opposed it because they thought that it might be the cover of legitimacy for a military retaliation or action on the part of the administration.

JIM LEHRER: Because it designated a particular guards group a terrorist group.

MARK SHIELDS: Correct, and also had language in there about their influence and interference with the Shia in Iraq, that it could be discouraged or denied. And so Senator Clinton voted for it. Senator Dodd, Senator Biden voted against it. Senator Obama missed the vote. He was out campaigning. After Dodd and Biden criticized it, he came back and joined the chorus.

JIM LEHRER: "If I had been there, I would have voted."

MARK SHIELDS: "If I'd been there, I would have voted. In the Senate, I would have voted in 2002." But that's where the charge has been, back and forth, on the Democratic side, that they're giving the administration, which you have to understand -- there's widespread skepticism and distrust, despite of what David says, about the administration, especially among Democrats in Congress.

I mean, there is beyond a "show me" attitude. It's a "I don't believe you until you prove it" attitude. And the idea that giving them even the remote legitimacy to do something is -- I think Democrats are, quite frankly, opposed to it.

DAVID BROOKS: I just wish they had an Iran policy and not a Bush policy. When you hear the Democrats talk about Iran, it's always, "You're empowering Bush. You're not empowering Bush. I'm opposing Bush." It's all about Bush. It's not actually about Iran and what would happen if Iran got the nuclear weapon or the Saudis got a nuclear weapon, who else would get a nuclear weapon, what would happen to the area.

And if you talk to -- I don't care who you're talking to in the area, whether they're Arab, Israeli, American experts on the Middle East, it would be a bad thing if this Iranian regime became the local hegemon in that region. And you should have a policy about that.

It shouldn't be about whether you want to give Bush some encouragement about going to war or not give him encouragement. It should actually be a policy about that.

Continuing the pressure on Iran

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is no magic formula, Jim. But overlooked in this whole thing is Iran stands alone in that entire region, with Syria and perhaps Iraq on its side. That's it. I mean, really, they're isolated.

JIM LEHRER: But what about making a choice among candidates, "If you vote for me and I become president, I will do this about Iran." "No, no, no, I will do this." "No, no, no, I will do" -- is it possible to make these kinds of decisions?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, my view -- and whoever becomes president, with the possible exception of Mike Gravel and Ron Paul, will do exactly what we're doing now. They will try to ratchet up the pressure on economically. They will not do a military strike, because we don't know how that will wind up. They will do exactly what we're doing now, and all the rest, I think, is posturing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, a posture, there's no real magic formula?

MARK SHIELDS: There is no magic formula, Jim. But overlooked in this whole thing is Iran stands alone in that entire region, with Syria and perhaps Iraq on its side. That's it. I mean, really, they're isolated. You know, the other -- they don't have allies. I mean, we ought to be building on that.

JIM LEHRER: Traction as a presidential issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Traction certainly in the primaries. And I think it will be a general election issue.

JIM LEHRER: And who knows after that, yes. Well, you two know, because you -- both of you know everything. Thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.