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President Discusses War; Candidates React to Iraq Reports

September 14, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Joe Biden today claimed President Bush last night offered no plan to win in Iraq and no plan to leave. Like all of the Democratic candidates for president, Biden is a strong critic of the war. And as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he took a lead role earlier this week in questioning and critiquing the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: The surge is at best a stopgap that delays, but will not prevent, chaos. Its net effect will be to put more American lives at risk, in my view, with very little prospect of success.

KWAME HOLMAN: Two other Democratic candidates followed, Chris Dodd of Connecticut…

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: … 93 percent of all Iraqi Sunnis think it’s justifiable to kill Americans. How do we justify this continuation?

KWAME HOLMAN: … and Illinois’ Barack Obama…

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York’s Hillary Clinton ridiculed the Petraeus report from her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the committee’s top Republican and presidential candidate, John McCain, was equally as strong in praising what Petraeus had done.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: It’s the only approach that has resulted in real security improvements in Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: And on the other side of the Capitol, California’s Duncan Hunter, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, cited other positive developments.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), California: You now see Shiites in leadership positions. You see Sunnis in leadership positions. You see Kurds in leadership positions. You see a military which is starting to emerge as a professional force.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those presidential candidates who did not have the opportunity to question or comment during the hearings issued statements that for the most part reflected their earlier positions on the war.

Among the Republicans, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said, “The surge is working, and there’s been significant progress.” Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson said he was “encouraged by the reports” and that “momentum is on our side.” And former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney today said, “The president wants to make sure Iraq does not become a safe haven for al-Qaida and jihadist terrorists.”

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo said the progress would “allow the U.S. to begin disengaging from our lead role without withdrawing.” And Kansas Senator Sam Brownback was more specific, arguing the progress created “a unique opportunity to forge a Sunni region similar to the Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani qualified his support, saying the surge had “worked better than anybody anticipated” but was not “perfect.” Only Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a critic of the war since the start, called this week’s action in Congress “a lot of politicking” and “grandstanding of both parties.”

The other Democrats were even more critical. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel criticized Petraeus for not being candid, saying, “Every independent study of Iraq demonstrates his statements are inaccurate.” Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich denounced Petraeus’ report as “a clear and unequivocal acknowledgement that we are in a no-win situation.” And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson reiterated his call “to get all our troops out of Iraq and leave no residual forces behind.”

After the president spoke last night, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards released a video response urging the president to change course.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: After General Petraeus reports the surge has produced no progress toward a political solution, what does the president want? More time for the surge to work, when all of us know it won’t.

KWAME HOLMAN: While all of the presidential candidates expect the war in Iraq to be a priority issue throughout the campaign, those serving in Congress could begin casting votes on the policy beginning next week.

Analyzing the candidates' moves

David Brooks
New York Times columnist
None of the candidates are asking any of the tough questions.

JIM LEHRER: And finally, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, and to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, good to see you both. Let's talk first about what these presidential candidates had to say.

Mark, do you hear from any of them something you can agree with in terms of what the general, the ambassador, and the president put together this week?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Something I could agree with? I hadn't thought of it that way, to tell you the truth. I mean, I just kind of looked at what each one said, any one that was surprising.

I thought that the most interesting to me was Obama and the hit he's taken when he acknowledged that the only way we could do is to withdraw up to a maximum of two brigades a month if we started to draw down there. And you saw the real dividing line and fault line in the Democratic Party, with the antiwar activists, wing of the party condemning him, excoriating him for that.

I guess the one who showed the most political leg on this was John Edwards. John Edwards decided to run against the unpopular president, a Republican president. He said, without a plan to succeed, he called the president, and he said against an unpopular Democratic Congress without the courage to bring them home. So he's positioning himself as the outsider.

But I think the Republicans, more than anything else that the White House wanted this week, they did not want the last thing -- they wanted was a Republican candidate breaking from the president or getting daylight between himself and the White House on the Iraq policy and then getting some political traction. That would be the worst thing that could happen for Republican candidates who are now getting a little wobbly on this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, are any of these candidates striking a right note, or is it up to those in the Senate who are going to be doing the voting, and obviously that includes some of these candidates?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, my view is that the candidates are the worst place to look at them, because they're all putting their brains in a blind trust. None of the candidates are asking any of the tough questions.

On the Democratic side, the question is, what happens if we leave and why, as Alissa Rubin said, do the Iraqis ambivalently want us to stay? And that's a tough question, and a president has to deal with that question, but a candidate doesn't.

On the Republican side, the tough question is, if we stick it out now, what makes us believe it will be better or more sustainable in six months or a year? And that's a tough question, and they're not dealing with it.

I think what happened this week, first of all, it was a good week for the president. The Republican doubts were stanched for a little while because there were all these processes in play that may turn out better.

But then, if you compare the presidential candidates, which are so political, to what Robert Gates just said on this program, what Petraeus and Crocker said on this program and the hearings, these are candid men. And so I think what you saw is not Rumsfeld, you know, balderdash. You saw people you can have some element of trust in. And that was the other thing that I think happened this week, and that certainly wasn't showing on the campaign trail.

Impact on the White House

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker ... did well for the administration. I think they didn't make converts. I think they bought them time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, the president helped himself this week?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was helpful to the president, not in making converts. I don't think converts were made by General Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker, I think both of whom were impressive and fascinating that they've become the face of the administration.

We now have a president who has been under 40 percent approval rating in the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll for two years. That's longer than any president in history. And his job rating on Iraq is at 26 percent average over the last year. So he really is not an effective spokesman.

And Secretary Gates has not been there long enough. The vice president is disabled. So, by default, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker became -- I thought they did well for the administration. I think they didn't make converts. I think they bought them time.

DAVID BROOKS: They didn't answer some questions. I think one of my frustrations is, is they embraced two contradictory policies. And this is certainly true for the president.

One, the policy of national reconciliation, of building up the Iraqi Army, which has envisioned a centralized Iraq, and the second policy they endorsed, which is an opposite policy or at least in tension with the first, is endorsing the arming of the tribes, the Sunni tribes in Anbar, which are not national but are sectarian, and then talking about an oil law when we learned this week the oil law is probably not going to happen. The Kurds have signed several separate oil deals. And then the ethnic cleansing of the neighborhoods in Baghdad has not decelerated; it's accelerated.

And so you've got these two policies, one of which may happen, one of which may not. And I think the administration has embraced both of them, hoping somehow they can be melded in the future, but it's hard to see exactly how that happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in particular -- and Jim touched on this when he talked with Secretary Gates -- this notion that the U.S. presence in Iraq is something that's going to last presumably for years to come, not just into the next president, but may well be years beyond that.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and I don't think there's a majority of that anywhere in the country, in the Republican Party. I don't think that is a -- I mean, the president asserted that last night, and he may very well be stating his perception of reality.

But I thought the president in the speech -- first of all, I agree with David about, especially, we see that reality on the ground is what's going to determine this, not testimony on Capitol Hill. And we saw the assassination of Adbul-Sattar Abu Risha, who is, and was, you know, the crowning success...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Sunni sheik in Anbar.

MARK SHIELDS: ... the Sunni sheik in Anbar who was -- who met last week with the president, who met with Joe -- on Labor Day, met with the president, Joe Biden last week, had met with John McCain, was the emissary to other Sunnis, and even to Shias, and worked closely with the United States, had great credibility, because his father and four brothers had been assassinated by al-Qaida, and he was assassinated by al-Qaida. I mean, that's the kind of reality on the ground, along with the sharing of the oil revenues.

Shades of optimism

David Brooks
New York Times columnist
There are at least processes in play [in Iraq] where you can imagine some drive towards stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet Secretary Gates was just telling Jim he's more optimistic. He foresees that there's a good chance that, by the end of '08, or a decent chance by the end of 2008, that there will be half as many brigades in Iraq. So...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I guess that's what -- I guess that's what, you know, keeps him going. I mean, they...

DAVID BROOKS: But it's not out of whole cloth. I mean, he was very candid. I think what he said reflected what a lot of people, especially on the Republican side feel, whereas nine months ago, no hope, and a desperate desire to separate themselves from the president.

Now, because of the developments in Anbar, maybe there's Shiite restiveness against the JAM, and so there's some hope. There are at least processes in play where you can imagine some drive towards stability, which is why I think the president is going to -- there will be no drawdown under this president's watch, more than he wants anyway, which you couldn't have said six months ago or nine months ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying, no matter what the Democrats try to do next week, that they aren't going to get enough Republicans to come over?

DAVID BROOKS: I think not. I mean, they're moving, too. They're moving toward the center.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And allow them to change this policy?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and they may come up with some resolution that calls for a goal of a drawdown or something like that, which would make a lot of the moderate Republicans happy. But I'm not certain of it, but I wouldn't bet on that happening. I think there will be no great pressure on the president.

MARK SHIELDS: The activist antiwar wing of the Democratic -- I won't even call it the Democratic Party, because they're not Democrats, but particularized by this week, with it's just offensive and tasteless full-page ad in the New York Times, playing a pun on General Petraeus' name, "General Betray Us."

I think, in a strange way, it did two things. One, it gave the Republicans something to talk about all week, rather than trying to defend the president's policy, which many of them are uncomfortable doing. But it also may very well liberate the Democrats, that they don't -- from that antiwar base. And they say, "Look, I think there's a chance of a compromise."

Jim Webb of Virginia has a compromise which got 56 votes before the break. I think there's a chance he -- you know, they're hopeful they could pick up Dick Lugar, for example, to support it and a couple more Republicans. And that would require that anybody serving in Iraq or Afghanistan would then spend as much time out of combat zone in their tour of duty back here, as they did there, and that would force the president to confront.

The president is making lemonade out of lemons, Judy. He has to draw down; I mean, that's the reality. Everybody knew that. Everybody in and out of the administration knew, by April, he had to start bringing troops home. And he's trying to say it's part of the success, that's how he can do it.

So, you know, he's claiming victory where -- although he dropped victory from his lexicon last night.

Next steps for Congress

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
This week was directed ... not at public opinion, which is pretty well locked in, and has lost confidence in the administration's stewardship. It was aimed at holding Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then where did this sense come from that the president bought himself some time?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that what they were most concerned about -- this week was directed, more than anything else, not at public opinion, which is pretty well locked in, and has lost confidence in the administration's stewardship. It was aimed at holding Republicans, and I think that's what he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if he's held Republicans, then the Democrats aren't going to get the votes for that...

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think there's a chance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... Jim Webb amendment.

MARK SHIELDS: I think there's a chance of doing that. I think there's a chance, as well, Carl Levin and John Warner are working on a compromise that would embody the recommendations of Jim Jones' mission, which would basically withdraw our troops from Baghdad, protect their national assets, and protect the borders, which are porous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the pressure will be limited, because the central issue for Republicans will not be whether it's 100,000, or 130,000, or 160,000, or 80,000. The issue is not the troop number; the issue is the mission and the role of Iraq.

Pete Wehner, who was recently in the White House, is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent a memo which I think represents a lot of Republican thinking. Politically, is the issue how many troops there are? Or will Republicans be hurt if there's chaos in Iraq? The more important political issue for Republicans is chaos in Iraq.

So more troops, less chaos would be politically better for Republicans than less troops, more chaos. And, therefore, that's a strong political argument, even onto next year, to keep as many troops as Petraeus thinks is necessary to reduce chaos, to inhibit violence, if they are, indeed, doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this talk potentially of a longer stay in Iraq helps the president or doesn't help?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's certainly not popular. It's not popular in Iraq; it's not popular here; it's not popular in the Republican Party. But if we're staying there without too many casualties, then, you know, as North Korea or South Korea shows, it's doable.

MARK SHIELDS: And Pete Wehner is quite candid. But if it ever becomes the currency of the public debate that we're keeping troops in Iraq because it's politically good -- I mean, John Boehner, the Republican leader of the House, made a terrible mistake, which John McCain called him up short on, of saying it would be a "small price" to pay, the loss of life.

DAVID BROOKS: That's not what the argument -- the argument is, because it inhibits violence. And we're getting to some future. Can we get to the future with inhibited violence? That would be the argument. And that's a perfectly legitimate policy.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. But, I mean, if it's politically better to not have violence there, and it means more American troops, and they're still -- I mean, the casualties, Jim just read four more today, 38 this month, American fatalities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, just quickly, and I meant to bring this up a minute ago, this more clearly articulated description that the U.S. is moving from being there in large numbers to a mission that will transition to an oversight. I mean, that's what they're saying is where...

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but overseeing who? I mean, if it's overseeing the Anbar tribes, that you can understand. They are a real entity. If it's overseeing an Iraqi police force that's a sectarian militia, well, that's no good. And so that's always been the issue. Who are you overseeing? It is somebody who can actually establish order in the streets? And that's really what they have to answer. It's not this overwatch word, which we seem to hear a lot these days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We're glad that you're here to oversee what we're doing. David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.