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Shields, Brooks Examine Obama’s Moves on Iran, G-20

September 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sift through this week's headlines, including Iran's nuclear surprise, the G-20 summit and U.N. talks.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how important is this news today about the Iranian nuclear facility?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure, Jim. I think it is important. I think it was revealing how the president in the United States did respond in sort of stark contrast to what had happened in the past, I mean, standing there with President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown. I mean, I thought that was sort of a signal, the gravity of it, and sort of a new approach.

I thought the words were severe and quite blunt. And maybe, just maybe, the deal on the land-based anti-ballistic missiles that was negotiated last week, removing them from the Czech Republic and from Poland, missile defense system, maybe enlisted Russia, which is going to be key. Without Russia and without China, any sanctions against Iran are going to be more form than substance.

JIM LEHRER: Is this a huge development? Do you see this…

DAVID BROOKS: I was mostly struck by the sense of urgency and by the atmospherics of it. The countries have worked together for many, many years on this issue, and they’ve been quite strong about it in some of their statements. Nonetheless, this was sort of like a “gotcha,” “we got you” moment. And Sarkozy…

JIM LEHRER: And that’s based on — apparently based on U.S. intelligence, which he, Obama, then informed the Brits and the French about, correct?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And intelligence that we’ve had, apparently, for many months. But what struck me was, you don’t write that check. You don’t go into this level of urgency and even ultimatum, as Sarkozy did especially, unless you can cash that check, unless there’s something behind that check.

So, basically, today they made a bunch of threats, and so that made me think why — what do we have in their pockets that makes them feel comfortable making these threats? And basically, it suggests to me that somewhere in the creation of a new sanctions regime, they’ve got something.

And it suggests to me that, in the past week, the Russians have dropped hints that they would be supporting the sanctions. I have trouble believing they would have gone to such a level of urgency unless those hints were somehow real, because they have to be able to cash these checks. They’ve basically made an ultimatum.

What Obama needs from Russia

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the president understands that he would be open to political criticism and legitimate political criticism if, in fact, the Russians don't come along.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Margaret Warner here on the NewsHour last night reported the fact that the U.S. president and the Russian president sat down -- after they had kind of a formal meeting, they shooed everybody out of the room, except their interpreters, and talked privately for several minutes. And that apparently is when Obama said to the Russians, "We got this."

MARK SHIELDS: "We've got this."

JIM LEHRER: That's a new -- do you think the atmosphere of the ballistic missile shield are changing the nature of that, may have encouraged that private conversation?

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody wants to say it was a quid pro quo, but I certainly think that it was, to use a Latin term, a sine qua non, "without which not," I mean, it wouldn't have happened without the ballistic missile, without the shield. I think that sealed the deal with Russia, as far as Iran is concerned.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think this puts now the Iranians more on the defensive and gives credence to the offensive language and threats of the United States and threats...

MARK SHIELDS: I think they're very much -- I think they're on the defensive, and I think they're close to being isolated right now.

DAVID BROOKS: I would differ. I wouldn't get that hopeful, actually. I mean, it's one thing for Medvedev to say something. It's quite another for Vladimir Putin to say something.

He's been quite clear that he enjoys the fact that Iran is a thorn in our side. Russia has been quite helpful to the Iranian regime in cracking down on rioters. And the Russians have -- so far, they can talk about hinting towards sanctions, but there still is some question whether they'll actually do it.

And then there's the fact that the Chinese, who have made no hints at all, and you really can't do it without them. So I'd say it's, from my point of view, a step forward, but if I were the Iranians, I still wouldn't be terribly afraid. I still think it's unlikely that we'll get in their way.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president understands that he would be open to political criticism and legitimate political criticism if, in fact, the Russians don't come along. I mean, so...

JIM LEHRER: You mean political criticism here?

MARK SHIELDS: Here at home, I mean, that he was, you know, too gullible or too believing, too trusting, that he looked into the soul of the Russians and saw...

JIM LEHRER: Oh, that again.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, one other thing that struck me about this was that -- that we've had this long debate about, do you negotiate with the Iranians or do you not? And I think there's a wide consensus that we should negotiate.

But how do you regard those negotiations? Do you think just by sitting down you're going to be able to work out a deal? I think it's clear the president sees the negotiations as a means to an end, that probably won't get anything out of the talks unless you really have sanctions, that sanctions are the big deal, and just the fact of sitting down with Iranians really doesn't get you very far.

JIM LEHRER: And there's a meeting next week on October 1st...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... that we'll get a better taste because the Iranians will be there with the Americans and the others, and we'll see.

MARK SHIELDS: And China.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, and China. Yes, absolutely right.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

Obama's remarks at the U.N.

David Brooks
The New York Times
My objection with the speech is -- all these U.N. speeches -- I covered a lot of this stuff -- they're filled with pabulum. I thought Obama abused the privilege and went a little too far in the "let us all work together" sort of oratory.

JIM LEHRER: More generally, Mark, how did you think the president, President Obama, handled himself on the big stage, the U.N., now the G-20, all these things, his speeches, his comments, the whole nine yards?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he certainly did things which even Mr. Bush's staunchest admirers will acknowledge his predecessor couldn't do. I mean, whether it's sitting down directly and handling the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and inserting himself right in there and playing the central role...

JIM LEHRER: Made them shake hands.

MARK SHIELDS: Shake hands. Now, we're still waiting for results, and we're still waiting for progress, but that, and then chaired -- the first American president to chair the U.N. Security Council.

Beyond that, Jim, there was a strong message that this is a different time, that we are not the swagger, go it alone, we're by ourselves. We're going to be collaborative.

But that's process. And I think it's appealing to people. It's appealing to countries around the world. It's appealing to the other nations. He was quite frank in chiding those other nations: Don't use it as excuse any longer for inaction on your part because the United States is not acting.

But on things like climate control, the Senate of the United States hasn't moved on that at all. There's no -- there's no...

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just defend President Bush, he was -- I mean, he did substantively work with these people. He was giving Angela Merkel shoulder massages out there in public, close relationships.

But my sense is that he declared it's a new regime in the United States, a new philosophy, but when you ask, "Well, so what?" If he thought that just by declaring a new regime and the announcement that we're going to close Guantanamo suddenly the pennies would drop from Heaven, well, I think we were disabused of that, because he made a lot of gestures that things have changed here and now we can all work together on all these various issues, but on one issue after another, very little has happened.

The Middle East, very little has happened. Coalitions in Afghanistan, very little has happened, or nothing has happened, or it's gotten worse. Global climate change, very little has happened.

The one exception, which was today, was some real progress, getting the Russians pseudo-involved in a sanctions regime. So the Iranian front has stepped forward. Everything else is pretty much where it was.

JIM LEHRER: What do think of the criticism from your fellow and sister conservatives of the president's speech at the U.N., for the General Assembly Speech, that he admitted too many errors by the United States and showed weakness in doing so?

DAVID BROOKS: It's politically effective; I don't really care. You know, it's politically effective to say that a lot of people hated President Bush and so, if he wants to -- if he thinks it will get in good with the other regimes to say that, fine. I guess my view is, it doesn't help you.

People have interests. People criticize President Bush. But behind the scenes, they work very closely. The second term with Condoleezza Rice, we had perfectly good professional relationships, and countries are motivated by interests, not by these speeches.

My objection with the speech is -- all these U.N. speeches -- I covered a lot of this stuff -- they're filled with pabulum. I thought Obama abused the privilege and went a little too far in the "let us all work together" sort of oratory, rhetoric. But so I don't mind it, but I'm not particularly impressed by it, either.

Signaling a new regime

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Acknowledging mistakes is not only the intellectually honest thing to do, it's realism. It's an acknowledgement...that this is a different regime,

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree. I mean, I think it's a cheap shot on the part of my conservative brethren and sisteren.

JIM LEHRER: Cistern?

MARK SHIELDS: Sisteren. Yes, sisteren.

JIM LEHRER: That's where water comes...

MARK SHIELDS: And sometimes, you know, even wastewater.

JIM LEHRER: Never mind.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. But, no, I mean, I think, you know, it's the John Wayne approach to foreign policy. You've got to swagger; you got to be tough; you got to walk in.

And if you don't -- and, you know, I think acknowledging mistakes is not only the intellectually honest thing to do, it's realism. It's an acknowledgement -- I mean, it's not going to be a pattern and a habit in every speech, but it is a way of signaling and saying that this is a different regime, as David calls it. It's a different approach.

DAVID BROOKS: But, you know, it's one thing to say we're going to close Guantanamo, but then not to really close it and then not to take any of the people in our own country, and then ask a lot of other countries, "Why don't you take those people?" Well, substantively there are still problems.

JIM LEHRER: OK. The McChrystal report on Afghanistan, big deal?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was a big deal. It's a remarkable report.

JIM LEHRER: Sixty-six pages.

DAVID BROOKS: And it's very honest about where we've been failing, and it makes the case quite intelligently -- there's been all this talk about the troop levels. The troop levels are not the main thing. The main thing is the strategy.

And McChrystal, along with David Petraeus, are part of this group they call the COIN group, the counterinsurgency strategy, which is you don't just try to kill the bad guys. You have to protect the populations. You have to work closely with the population to give them skin in the game. And we have not done that. And it was a criticism, frankly, of his own military for having people in convoys...

McChrystal report tough for Obama

David Brooks
The New York Times
It was a very, I thought, intellectually serious report. It puts Barack Obama in a terrible position, because essentially he said, either you go in or you might as well get out, because there's no middle way.

JIM LEHRER: You say McChrystal's report? Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and everything else. And so he said, there's only one way of defeating an insurgency. You don't do it with drones. You don't do it with cruise missiles. You don't do it with special forces. You do it with this heavy, intensive, on-the-ground, really, armed nation-building.

And so it was a very, I thought, intellectually serious report. It puts Barack Obama in a terrible position, because essentially he said, either you go in or you might as well get out, because there's no middle way. And politicians don't like that. But I think intellectually he's absolutely correct about that.

JIM LEHRER: You agree that President Obama is now in a difficult position because of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he's President Obama's choice. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: McChrystal is, sure.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. I mean, the president...

JIM LEHRER: And McChrystal was Petraeus' choice, and they're all in it together.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, he's -- that's right. He is, in fact, the president's. And what struck me -- and, again, in stark contrast I think to the previous administration, which did go frequently shopping for friendly advice or advice that it agreed with for its military advice was its candor.

I mean, this was not a report that was intended to win favor at the White House or make the White House more comfortable. It did -- the request is for 30,000 troops. It said, without the 30,000 troops, there will be failure, that it was no guarantee that with the 30,000 troops there will be success or that there's any time certain.

So I think, in that sense, the mission question still remains. What is the mission? When will we know we have won? And when will we be out?

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David, though, that it's less about troops than it is about the mission and the strategy, whether you do counterinsurgency or counterterrorism...

MARK SHIELDS: I think he suggests that they're bookends. I don't think you can do -- you can't do the strategy that General McChrystal recommends and urges without the added troops. I think that's what the argument is.

And there's just, Jim -- the reality in the country is we now have a majority of Americans who are against a troop increase, and we've got 1 out of 3 Americans strongly opposed, so it's become a politically difficult situation.

JIM LEHRER: And 30,000 more troops means 100,000 Americans...

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And we'd have to speed up the training the Afghans, but we still would be short of what they call the ratio between the number of troops you want for a population.

What this report, I think, really does, when you look at the polling, the American people don't want to go in more. By and large, they do not want to just pull out. But what this report does -- and I think what a lot of the experts do -- is take out that middle ground that people would love to see, where we just sort of are there for a couple of years or maybe there with less commitment, and he's essentially saying, no, that's not going to work.

JIM LEHRER: You're going to have to make a choice.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK. And we are, too. We're going to have make one, and I just made it. We have to go. Thank you.