Iraq Reports Reveal Security Weakness; Petraeus Prepares for Congress
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, here comes Petraeus, and other stories of the week, as analyzed by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, first, have a thought about the new bin Laden tape?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I guess only after listening to Judy’s discussion, two things hit me. One, there were no overt threats in it to the United States. And, two, it was quite self-indulgent, I thought, on his part, I mean, in that sense. It obviously was made rather recently, too.
JIM LEHRER: Scary in any way?
DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: No, ludicrous. I mean, on one hand, he’s a malevolent guy who killed 3,000 Americans. But you read this thing, and it’s like he’s been sitting around reading lefty blogs, and he’s one of these childish people posting rants at the bottom the page, you know, Noam Chomsky and all this stuff.
You can’t help read it and not laugh at it, occasionally, because it is just absurd. It’s flying this way, and that way, weird conspiracy theories, and mortgages, global warming. He throws it all in there.
The one thing that leapt out — and Bruce Hoffman and the others mentioned this — was how Western it is. And a friend of mine, Reuel Gerecht, points out that there’s this argument that Western ideas never permeated into the Arab world, but in fact it’s all — I mean, a lot of the worst ideas from the West have permeated in, and he’s picked up Noam Chomsky, and he’s picked up some of the anti-globalization stuff. And that’s what infuses this.
JIM LEHRER: Do you expect it to have any impact at all on the American public or the American debate on Iraq coming with the Petraeus report, et cetera?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I really don’t.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
OK. Speaking of the Petraeus report, why has this — does it deserve all of this “Here it comes” attention that it’s getting?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, it’s become a dramatic moment because, you know, the administration’s response every time there’s been questions raised or debate, “Well, wait until September, wait until the Petraeus report.”
JIM LEHRER: Now it’s here.
MARK SHIELDS: And now it’s here, and it’s one of several reports. I mean, we’ve had the GAO report this week. We had General Jim Jones on the show last night and his commission report. And we have the Petraeus report.
And I guess, obviously, in each one, Jim, there is something that both sides, all presidential candidates, can take something, “Hey, that proves my position.” But what strikes me is, from what we learn of the Petraeus report so far, is the agreement that they have. I mean, they all agree that the…
Condemnation of Iraqi government
JIM LEHRER: You mean, the GAO, the Jones, and the Petraeus as expected?
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. I mean, they all agree that the national government of -- they condemn, criticize in scathing terms the national government of Iraq and its failure. They all acknowledge that rampant sectarianism remains the intractable problem. They all acknowledge that the Iraqi military is not up to taking over now for the United States and question some whether it will be.
All four are scathing in their condemnation of the Iraqi police force, I mean, that it's corrupt, that it's counterproductive, that it's inept. In addition to that, they raise the very serious questions about -- they acknowledge some progress under the surge and raise questions as to whether -- the question remains whether, in fact, once the United States removes or reduces its footprint and its presence there, whether, in fact, that will sustain.
And finally, I'd say they raise the very serious question of the costs of the United States leaving, especially abruptly, and raise the questions about the responsibilities we have for what we've -- the chaos that our invasion and occupation of that country has generated.
JIM LEHRER: David?
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with a lot of that. I think they are very much the same. There's been all this different emphasis put on one or the other, but they all draw from the same data points. Sometimes they cut the data off at a different period so you get sort of different ramifications.
But they're all similar, and I think Mark summarized it. They all point to the failure of the national government. They all talk about what could -- the catastrophe that could happen if we pull out too quickly. They also point out the fact that U.S. troops do inhibit violence.
And to me, that's one of the key things to grapple with, because the other thing they talk about is this thing we didn't expect, but has happened. It began in Anbar. It's gone to other places, Diyala and Amiriyah and other neighborhoods in Baghdad, and that's the tribal revolt. And that's why we've all talked about...
JIM LEHRER: Against al-Qaida?
DAVID BROOKS: Against al-Qaida and then, but also it's really local tribes trying to restore control over their own areas. And it's happening in different ways in the south with the Shiites.
And that's why we've all talked about September being the decision point. But, in fact, it's an arbitrary point, at least as far as the Iraqis are concerned, because this tribal revolt is something real and it's something unexpected, something that wasn't created by the surge but was helped, because there are American troops there to help the Iraqi Sunni tribes. But we've got to see how that plays out.
So I guess there is some frustration that this process is beginning. It's three, four, five months old. And we're going to make some decision, maybe, without seeing how this process plays out, and this process could be quite significant.
Petraeus becomes the spokesman
JIM LEHRER: How did it get that a general -- there have been a lot of generals involved in all of this in the six years of this war. And why is it, not six years of this war, I'm sorry, the three years of this war...
DAVID BROOKS: Four.
MARK SHIELDS: Four.
JIM LEHRER: Four years of this war. I'm not good on numbers. And suddenly it's Petraeus, it's David Petraeus. Whatever Petraeus says is ruling the roost at this point. How do we get to this point? Is it a good place to be?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, it certainly isn't traditional with American military-civilian relations. I think we got here because, obviously, Petraeus himself is very respected and has a very, I think, deserved reputation as a leader.
And, secondly, we got there because he is the most credible spokesman, the last really credible spokesman. Secretary Gates is not well-known enough, but there's nobody else in the administration who carries with him the credibility on this subject that General David Petraeus does. So there's a lot vested in him.
Now, the problem that he brings to the discussion is that he's speaking from the perspective of Iraq. And for him to be sort of the fount of all wisdom, I mean, that's why Secretary Gates and the secretary of defense and the Joints Chief of Staff, they're worried about a much larger mission that the United States has beyond Iraq, I mean, our other responsibilities globally.
But he is -- there's no question -- he is the ball game, as far as the administration is concerned. It's not just my guess. This is actually measured in Gallup polls. I mean, he is the most credible and far more credible than the president or the vice president.
JIM LEHRER: And everybody is going to pay attention to what he says. And should they, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I think they should, because he was part of a school that started in Tal Afar and the people who were running Tal Afar of a different approach. It's not only the increase in troops. It was the different approach he brought, where you protect civilians, and really you emphasize local security as opposed to training or trying to get some national reconciliation, which were not realistic.
And to me what's fascinating is the whole debate has shifted from national reconciliation, which everybody now knows is not going to happen, to patchworks of local security. And he is, a, the author of this strategy; b, the first person in the U.S. government to pick up the tribal revolt and to try to capitalize it; and, c, on a guy who is universally respected. Now he's being attacked from some in the Democratic Party as being sort of a Karl Rove in uniform, but I think most people see him as a straight-shooter.
JIM LEHRER: Too political?
DAVID BROOKS: Too political. But most people know that he's a career person who's going to want to have a career after Bush leaves office. And he's not going to be a puppet for George Bush.
MARK SHIELDS: No, that's right. His own credibility is very much on the line. I would point out, though, that the White House is deeply involved in the writing of this report. I mean, this isn't just a Petraeus-Crocker document. I mean, this is the White House.
White House has input on report
JIM LEHRER: Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, said on this program the other night that he -- that General Petraeus has been in constant contact with President Bush. I mean, this isn't just something -- he suddenly gave him a report and -- of course, everybody works with the president. There's nothing unusual about it.
DAVID BROOKS: No, I hope so. He's the commander-in-chief. He's supposed to be talking to the generals. But that said, is he actually going it to change any minds? I'm really dubious that he's going to change minds, because, as we've seen with all the other reports, people pick out what they want to hear. People are pretty much locked into their position.
And the second thing is, the crucial issue is, can we keep this as a low-grade civil war and then restore it to something else, or are they just going to have to have a big civil war? And no one knows the answer to that; no one knows the answer.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what about the Democrats now? The move of Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi to try to find a compromise after the Petraeus report, assuming -- everybody already knows what's going to be there, or assumes that they know what's going to be there, can we figure out something that the Democrats and the Republicans could agree on? Where is that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, that it's a recognition and a realization, an acknowledgment that they don't have the votes to change it, that it's going to take 60 votes in the Senate and it's going to take two-thirds vote in the House, given the president's own adamance on the issue. So they're reaching out for some common ground. If that means dropping the date, they're willing to do that.
JIM LEHRER: A date for a withdrawal to begin or end or...
MARK SHIELDS: ... in fact, that there's plans laid for the withdrawal, that president signs this law and so forth, I think that's where they're heading. I mean, what amazes me -- I mean, the Democrats are obviously an interesting story and they're -- but if you watch that Republican debate this week, all the Republicans, every one of them, is uniform in their support of war except Ron Paul. And, I mean, they're representing about 28 percent of the country right now.
I mean, I don't know what the Republican nominee is going to do once, you know, next February, when presumably that nominee is chosen, and he's locked in to these statements all throughout the candidacy of, you know, supporting the president's position, supporting the war, and, you know, that we can't in any way leave, we cut back. We are going to be cutting back American troops by the spring of 2008 from Iraq whatever.
JIM LEHRER: No matter what General Petraeus or what the Democrats or anybody else do? You agree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: I do agree with that. And it's locked in because we don't have the troops. It's locked in, Petraeus has already said that he's bringing one brigade back. So really what we're talking about is some sort of gradual withdrawal.
But I agree with Mark: The Democrats don't have the votes. I think there will be a lot of troops when George Bush leaves office. I personally think there will be a lot of troops for a long, long time.
Fred Thompson and 2008
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the Republicans, what do you make of the coming of Fred Thompson? Did he make the splash that he wanted?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the conventional wisdom is that he waited too long, that he had a great rush of momentum and great reputation. There was turmoil in the campaign. And now people are saying, "What's all the fuss about?" He had some disappointing fundraising numbers.
He said, and he made the point well on "The Tonight Show," that nobody is going to say, "I'm not going to vote for the guy. He entered too late." And that's probably a reason. I mean, they'll look at the guy. And he's got a great manner. The question is whether he has an ideology.
The Republicans are hungry, but I would say, you look at that Republican debate. The significant thing was a lot of people watched that. It was the most watched debate, the first time the Republicans have achieved parity.
Second, you saw a number of candidates doing very well, in particular John McCain, who had a fantastic night and really put to rest a lot of the words that he was finished. People may not bet on him now, but they know he's not finished, because he still does have a presidential presence.
JIM LEHRER: Put Thompson into this now with the McCain thing, whatever the thing is.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the Republicans are searching for another Ronald Reagan. I mean, they're dying to find one. I mean, it's like looking for the Great White Hope, you know, to take on heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, the African-American champion.
And Fred Thompson I think matches up well. He's likable. He's reassuring. And he's not a Type A personality. I mean, there's nothing intense about Fred, as there wasn't about Reagan.
The difference with Reagan, Reagan was coming at the end, after a failed unpopular Democratic presidency, and at the dawn of a conservative era. Fred is coming at the end of an unpopular failed Republican presidency in the twilight of the conservative era. And he doesn't have, as Reagan did, as David pointed out, an ideological agenda.
I mean, Reagan was going to cut taxes by a third, double the defense budget, and I guess he was going to balance the budget, too. He never quite got to that. But Fred -- let's give it to generalities.
DAVID BROOKS: But it's 1982. He's still getting his chance.
MARK SHIELDS: We're going to balance that budget, oh my goodness, gracious, tax cuts, cascading deficits...
MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, but Fred is given to generalities. I agree with David. I thought John McCain had his best night of the campaign. It was the John McCain of 1999, 2000. He was freewheeling. He was iconoclastic. And he was a commander-in-chief.
JIM LEHRER: And I think you two gentlemen have had a terrific night tonight. Thank you both very much.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.