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Iraq Victory-declaration Idea, GDP Report Top Week’s News

July 31, 2009 at 1:44 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the top news of the week, including an idea to declare victory in Iraq and the latest economic figures.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

First, let’s talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. On the issue of declaring victory in Iraq and pulling out, what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I would be suspicious of that. I mean, things in Iraq are going in our direction. There are frustrations, as there have been for the past five years or six years, about the performance of this or that Iraqi player.

Nonetheless, things tend to be going in the right direction. Why would we want to accelerate a process that seems to be working? It’s clear we’re getting out, but why would we want to accelerate and endanger that process when so far it seems to be working reasonably well?

JIM LEHRER: And as Rajiv said, Mark, this is not a widely held position within the top at the Pentagon, anyhow.

MARK SHIELDS: No, it’s just people in the field, Jim. It’s the people there every day. That’s where the dissatisfaction and the yearning to get out, I think, is strongest.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a view of it?

MARK SHIELDS: I do have a view of it. I do not see what the payoff is.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, to get out?

MARK SHIELDS: No, for staying longer…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, staying longer?

MARK SHIELDS: … for just extending it indefinitely. I mean, I don’t disagree that things are going well, but I do not see the value right now. I mean, the anecdotal evidence from on the ground is that the Iraqis are very much feeling frisky or full of themselves and, you know, are enjoying it, their newfound power and authority. And…

JIM LEHRER: So let them have it?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t feel that way?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we are getting out. It’s a question of how fast.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, OK.

All right, on Afghanistan, the second part of the thing. The apparent need for more troops and the point that was in — that Margaret and Rajiv were talking about, that there’s not a lot of sympathy for that or a lot of support for that at the White House or also at the Pentagon for that.

Afghanistan the Modern Vietnam?

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I still do think the American people have no will and no appetite for an indefinite commitment of a war.

MARK SHIELDS: There isn't, Jim. I mean, already 21,000 troops have been committed. George Wilson, one of the great defense reporters, covered Vietnam in the field and has covered this for so long...

JIM LEHRER: For the Washington Post.

MARK SHIELDS: ... for the "Washington Post" and for the long time -- George wrote a piece recently comparing the situation that President Obama faced in Afghanistan to that that Richard Nixon faced when he became president in 1969 in Vietnam. He didn't write it lyrically or positively, but he simply said the reality was, do you send more troops, more and more and more troops, or do you basically turn it over to the locals with having beefed them up and sort of leave with vague promises?

We've been there for eight years. The difference, obviously, between Vietnam and Afghanistan are profound, historic, geographical.

The biggest difference domestically here at home is that there is no draft. In 1969, Richard Nixon faced the sons of the establishment dying in Vietnam. That is no longer the case. With rare and conspicuous and admirable exceptions, the establishment is out of this war.

But I still do think the American people have no will and no appetite for an indefinite commitment of a war.

JIM LEHRER: And sending more troops. How do you feel about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we were there for eight years, but we were not really committing serious resources until recently. Barack Obama decided, with the support of the military, with everybody, when I was over there, to double down, to expand and to create what is basically a nation-building enterprise.

They knew absolutely at that time what is happening today would happen, that as we went into these new areas, casualties would rise. They were totally prepared for a summer that would be extremely unpleasant, and yet they still at that time thought it was worth doing now because they could get through it. It would take some time.

It seems to me extremely premature to be talking about getting out when what we knew would happen is happening.

Now, there is a tension between what Barack Obama approved as a policy and what he sold as a policy. He approved a policy of pretty serious nation-building, with people going and helping with the agriculture, helping with the law. He sold a policy to the American people of sort of a light commitment.

And I hope he adjusts the policy he's selling to the policy that's really on the ground, which may require more troops.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mark's point? Mark doesn't believe the American people are going to go for many more troops in Afghanistan just because of memories of past things.

DAVID BROOKS: My reading of the American public right now is they're barely paying attention, and they've been barely paying attention. They're paying attention to health care and all these other things. And I have seen no evidence of any tremendous desire on the part of the American people to get out of Afghanistan.

And on the military, my experience is, people are reasonably committed to this project. It's not like people in the military -- even if you compare it to Iraq, the disillusion there was in Iraq in the bloody days, the atmosphere in Afghanistan is completely different.

People have much more hope about the Afghan -- they, frankly, like the Afghan situation a lot better. They like the Afghan people, their Afghan partners a lot better.

So I haven't seen any sense of great disillusion or rush for the exits among the people who are actually executing the policy.

MARK SHIELDS: Two quick points. One, don't expect more troops, resources from our European partners. We're in it there, in Afghanistan, not unlike Vietnam, when there was no help forthcoming.

And unlike Iraq, I mean, where there was a nation, the building of a nation in Afghanistan, it would be an historically exceptional achievement. I mean, we're starting from a country that has no tradition...

JIM LEHRER: No strong central government?

MARK SHIELDS: ... and no institutions. No.

JIM LEHRER: It's always been diverse, to put it mildly, and dispersed, in terms of its government.

All right, on to other things. David, today's news on the economy, do you -- do you read it the same way? You heard what the expert said. You're an expert, aren't you?

Praise for Bernanke and the Fed

David Brooks
The New York Times
They took less drastic efforts, and yet it seems to have created enough financial stability so it's not having the continual impact on the broader economy.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I am such an expert. You know, if you look at the chart of the recession, you basically had a downturn. And then September of '08 rolls along, when you have the financial collapse, and then things just fell through the floor.

And so now that period seems to be over, the financially fed total collapse, and now we're in this minus 1 percent, and then what the experts tell us will be a period of growth.

And to me, what it suggests is some sense of praise for Bernanke and some of the other people who were told, "Nationalize the banks. This is happening forever. You've got to totally take control of the economy." They took less drastic efforts, and yet it seems to have created enough financial stability so it's not having the continual impact on the broader economy.

And for that, they deserve some praise, for taking what were heavily criticized for not being strong enough actions.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: The economy is no longer -- the economy is no longer in freefall. I mean, I think it looks like boom times after you go from 5.4 percent shrinkage the last quarter...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, to...

MARK SHIELDS: ... of 2008, 6.4 percent the first quarter of 2009, to minus 1 percent.

But, Jim, I don't think there's any question that there's still a fear abroad in the land. And I think that America's -- the earlier segment with Jeffrey, I don't think, you know, on the economy...

JIM LEHRER: It's all about jobs, isn't it, still?

MARK SHIELDS: It's still jobs, but it's also, Americans are scared. I mean, Americans are not going to go back. This is the biggest scare that's been put in people since the Great Depression.

Other recessions, you know, "Well, we'll bounce back. It's going to be back." This was a terror in the land I think because we were right at the precipice, and we knew it, and it did require the kind of action that David has just described.

DAVID BROOKS: To me, one of the interesting effects will be, how big is the moral effect? Because if you looked at personal debt, total household debt as a percent of GDP, and you started like in the '20s, say, it's rolling along, flat, flat, flat, then the '60s, '70s come up, boom, straight through the '80s, '90s, and you had, I think, got to 350 percent of total GDP, this total debt.

And so it's sliding now a little, but will it continue to slide down or will people just go back to good times?

JIM LEHRER: Do you find it interesting that the savings thing that they were talking about...

MARK SHIELDS: Five percent.

JIM LEHRER: ... people are holding -- holding on to their money.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that's right.

JIM LEHRER: Whatever they've got, whatever they're getting, they are -- because that also feeds your fear.

MARK SHIELDS: Which both parties have railed against, the low savings rate in the country for years, and now they're upset because it's not sparking the consumer-driven recovery that was a historically the pattern.

Stimulus Plans that Worked

David Brooks
The New York Times
Cash for clunkers is 3-for-3. It's creating some economic growth. It's not spread out long term. It's costing some billions of dollars, but it's actually temporary, timely and targeted, so I'm all for it.

JIM LEHRER: What about the cash for autos, for clunkers thing? What do you think about it?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a great government program that worked. I mean, it really did.

JIM LEHRER: Hip, hip, hooray!

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, when was the last time -- I mean, no, talk about immediate and a reaction. And it sparked -- people responded to it. You know, I mean, to me, it's, "Yay for our side."

JIM LEHRER: I don't think David is saying, "Yay."

DAVID BROOKS: No, no, I actually am.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, are you? OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I wanted a stimulus package that was timely, targeted and temporary. Cash for clunkers is 3-for-3. It's creating some economic growth. It's not spread out long term. It's costing some billions of dollars, but it's actually temporary, timely and targeted, so I'm all for it.

JIM LEHRER: What's your reading on where health care reform rests tonight on the eve of the coming of the congressional recess?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they moved a little toward the center with helping the Blue Dogs sort of water down the public plan. Then they zigzagged a little to the left again today.

To me, the two crucial things that happened this week were, one, a CBO report came out on saying the underlying health care inflation, if the House bill is passed, will be 8 percent a year forever. And so that's just bending the curve the wrong way. So that's the one thing.

The second thing is, the debate is really beginning to shift out of Washington and into the country, because it'll...

JIM LEHRER: Because of the recess?

DAVID BROOKS: It will be another seven weeks before we even get House votes and maybe longer to the Senate, so what really matters, is public support as it is now, 50-50, or is it 40-60 or 60-40? It's really now a national debate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that it's now gone national?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's national.

JIM LEHRER: Gone to the public?

August an Advantage for Democrats

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the advantage that the Democrats have at this point is that presidents historically own the month of August.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the advantage that the Democrats have at this point is that presidents historically own the month of August. I mean, the Congress goes out. They go to their districts. They're not here. They're not making news.

So presidents really do dominate; that bully pulpit is theirs. The president and Democrats ought to cherish this as still the most plausible, the most believable, and the most popular figure on this subject.

The advantage the Democrats have is that they haven't voted on anything so there's nothing they have to defend when they go home. But they...

JIM LEHRER: Because they haven't passed anything.

MARK SHIELDS: They haven't passed anything yet. But I think the White House faces a harsh reality, Jim, and that is they've got to determine in the next month, this month, just exactly which one of these five bills that's passed...

JIM LEHRER: They can't leave with all five of them out there?

MARK SHIELDS: No, they can only have one vote in each House. That's all you can ask these people to cast. You can't ask them to cast three different votes on this and that and something that's not going to happen.

And the question is which one they work from, which one do they decide is the one we're going to build a consensus from? Probably the most likely, if they ever got it, was the Senate Finance Committee, but that did bog down this week.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think of Chairman Bernanke's performance in our town hall or our forum from Kansas City?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I really liked it. I thought he pitched it just right, so he was not condescending, an incredibly complicated issue. He's a guy who wanted to be the anti-Greenspan, who didn't want to be this oracle who was sort of removed because of his brilliance, and I think he's doing quite a good job of that, and I think this was part of that.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it was a little bit like the pope or the queen of England having a town meeting and answering questions. I mean, you think of the Fed chairman as sort of...

JIM LEHRER: I don't think I would have been there if that...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, no, but, I mean, this sort of remote figure, he's totally accessible, very natural, and I thought, you know, quite totally responsive.

I mean, I thought he was blunt in his answers and, I thought, forthcoming. I liked the fact that he feels that it's necessary to have a policy developed for companies that are too big to fail to be able to fail safely so that it doesn't threaten the economy.

JIM LEHRER: Well, you know, we have to go, and I wanted to ask you, give you several minutes to talk about the beer summit, but we'll have to get to that some other time. Thank you both very much for now.