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Shields and Brooks Preview Obama’s Iraq Speech

August 31, 2010 at 5:29 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to some pre-speech analysis by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, there’s been some punditry today which says this could very well be the toughest speech President Obama will ever have to make. Do you buy that?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know about ever, but the pundits are amazingly sagacious most of the time.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And, you know, it’s a tough speech because it’s a straddle speech. Things are stable in Iraq, but not too stable. We’re leaving Iraq, but we’re not abandoning Iraq. We’re paying attention close to home, the budget close to home, but, don’t worry, we’re still fighting terror abroad.

So, he has got to do all that balancing. And Obama is a guy who loves “on the one hand, on the other hand” formulations. And I suspect we will hear a lot of that. But that makes it hard to write a speech, because you’re — you’re — it’s all a series of balances.

JIM LEHRER: Difficult, do you agree, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I guess I hadn’t thought of it as being difficult, Jim. It’s obviously a speech he’s giving voluntarily.

JIM LEHRER: He didn’t have to do it.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he didn’t have to do this. And it is at a time when the administration is looking for successes. This is a box you can check off, a promise made, a promise kept.

But I think it’s an awkward speech for the president, because the president still believes and argued throughout his career and certainly in his presidential campaign that it was a preemptive war, it was indefensible, that it was a national catastrophe, that the United States went to war against a country that had never threatened the United States, never attacked the United States, had no weapons of mass destruction, represented no threat to the United States, had nothing to do with 9/11.

And it’s damaged the United States. It has left the United States with less ability to put together a coalition elsewhere, with less respect in the world, with less capacity militarily, with a depleted military. So, it’s — to say now, the success that I’m associating myself….

JIM LEHRER: Never mind all of that.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, associating myself with, I think, in that sense, it’s awkward.

JIM LEHRER: How do you — how is he going to deal with that, the fact that he was so opposed to this? And, in some ways, some people would suggest it was his opposition to the war that helped him get elected in the first place.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he was opposed to the surge, which has got us to where we are today. And he’s — I think he’s just going to ignore all that and focus on the future. I mean, Iraq is at the moment the seventh fastest growing economy on the Earth. It is, according to “The Economist” magazine, the fourth most democratic nation on the — to have a democratic, prosperous Iraq in the Middle East would be a big deal.

The problem is, we’re only halfway there. And I think the policy substance of the speech, which is worth paying attention to, is, what do we do about next year? He has made a promise, which he reiterated over the weekend, that everybody will be out, all our troops will be out, at the end of next year.

And there is a lot of fierce opposition to that within the military and among some nonpartisan policy hands, who say we have made some progress, a lot of progress, over the past two years. All of that will be in jeopardy if we leave entirely in the next year, because they still need us, as the way the people in Bosnia needed a U.S. presence, the way the people in Korea needed a U.S. presence, and we have got to drag it out a little longer. And, so, that’s really the policy decision that I think is key.

MARK SHIELDS: To none of the families of the 4,100 Americans, or the 40,000 who have been wounded and sometimes crippled from this war, or the 100,000 more dead Iraqis, or the 2.5 million Iraqis who have been dislocated in their own country as a result of our invasion and occupation, or the two million Iraqis who have fled, none of them is the case made, we are going to doing with this because you are going to have the seventh fastest growing economy in the world.

That had nothing — that was never — it was a bogus-pretext war. And I think that makes a real problem. And so — but David is right in the sense the president has to deal now with the reality, I think, the transition to Afghanistan. I don’t see how anybody can look at Iraq and say it’s a success. And to straddle that then to go to Afghanistan is really, I think, very, very difficult.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the fact that recent — the most recent polls, Mark — I wrote them down here — that majority of the American people, 54 percent or so, do — think the war was a mistake to begin with? In other words, they agree with Barack Obama on the basic thing. I’m talking about today. And 64 percent think it wasn’t worth the 4,400 lives and the $750 billion it cost.

Now, how — how to fit that into all of this?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that’s a complication. I mean, I think there is — a policy decision has to be made. Are we going to try this again? Is this going to be — is this a model for the…

JIM LEHRER: A model for the…

MARK SHIELDS: … future, I mean a preemptive war? The latest I saw, Jim, was the CBS News poll completed August 24. It said 72 percent of Americans said it wasn’t worth the cost. The only Americans who believe it was worth the cost are Republicans. Independents by 2-1 say it wasn’t. Democrats by 4-1 say it wasn’t. So…

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t know if it was worth the cost. I don’t think anybody knows and anybody has the basis of knowing.

I do know that, for the first four or five years of the war, it was fought horribly. It created the deaths that Mark referred to, the destruction Mark referred. But I do know the last three years have produced tremendous gains, both in terms of democracy, in terms of 90 percent reduction of violence, in terms of economy in a country that seems to be fragilely heading in the right direction.

And, I’m sorry, but the fact that Iraq, at the crossroads of the Arab world, if it became a democratic, healthy nation, that would be a huge deal. And that’s where we are now. That’s the decision we face now.

JIM LEHRER: Forget how we got there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we can — we will have the debate 30 years from now about the relative costs. Right now, it wasn’t worth it. Right now, if you measure the costs of the deaths both here and in Iraq, it wasn’t worth it.

But, if 30 years ago — 30 years from now, we look to Iraq as a healthy nation, a democratic nation which spawned some — some ripples — and I’m not sure if that will happen — but then probably people will say that it was a war that was fought horribly for five years, but then America figured out how to fight it. And if that’s the judgment, then it will be like the judgment, frankly, of a lot of wars which we fought horribly for the first several years.

JIM LEHRER: And, meanwhile, this speech tonight is an interim speech, not a final speech. It’s not going to resolve all the questions…

DAVID BROOKS: Not in 15 minutes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, no, the old maxim, Jim, of an army doesn’t fight a war, a country fights a war, and if a country isn’t willing to fight a war, it should never send an army — the United States was unwilling to fight this war.

We didn’t in any way tax ourselves to pay for it. It’s unpaid for. It’s a cost looking now at $3 trillion estimated in ultimate costs for it, and a disunity nationally. And the whole sense of American national collective sacrifice has been compromised.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we will see what the president says about it all.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, all.