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Shields, Brooks on Iraq Withdrawal, Gadhafi’s Demise, Feisty GOP Debate

October 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the killing of Moammar Gadhafi, President Obama's announcement of U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq by the end of the year, plus the feistiest GOP presidential debate thus far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a lot of international news just in the last few days.

Let’s start, David, with Iraq, the announcement today by President Obama. All the troops will be home by the end of the year. Reaction?

DAVID BROOKS: Excessive. Imprudent.

It had been widely reported that our military leaders on the ground wanted to keep about 14,000, to 18,000. That had been reported. It’s been reported for months that the Iraqi military has some basic gaps, their ability to transport, to do airpower, intelligence, to do training, which the U.S. was helping.

Iraq is still a fragile country. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution points out that in half the case where there was a civil war, they slide back into civil war. So I think for all those reasons it would have been prudent to keep 14,000, not in combat roles, but in that sort of stabilizing role.

And then the thing that mystifies me, I guess, right now is Denis McDonough, who was on the program earlier, who is a fantastic civil servant, public servant, and a very smart guy, gave a picture of Iran and Iran’s influence in Iraq that suggested Iran was weak, and not really…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And isolated.

DAVID BROOKS: And isolated. And yet other people I have spoken to in the government paint a completely opposite picture. So I’m confused about Iran’s capacity in general and particularly in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, McDonough also said that the generals are on board. I mean…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … he suggested that the president is doing what the generals agree with.

MARK SHIELDS: He did say that. And until we hear a general say something to the opposite — it just strikes me, Judy, that we stand in stark contrast between the two countries involved in the headlines this week, Iraq and Libya, I mean, Iraq, where the United States invaded and occupied for nine years, and where there is increasing or undiminished animosity toward the United States and our presence there on the part of the Iraqis, Libya, where there were no American troops on the ground, and where, as of today, there’s considerable appreciation.

I mean nothing personal by this, but I have heard a number of people say we have got to be worried about Iran now. And I think it ill becomes those who were the architects and advocates and apologists for the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq now to raise the flag about Iran being an object of concern.

If that was their paramount consideration, then Saddam Hussein was your guy. He was the guy who kept…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he stood up.

MARK SHIELDS: Because he stood up to Iran.

I mean, there was a clear understanding that Iran’s influence was going to grow and grow. It has. There’s no question about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a couple things.

First, warning about Iran is not a neocon fantasy. The Obama administration worries about Iran, the French government, the German government. Iran is a rogue nation the entire world, with the exception of maybe one or two nations, has rallied against.

And so I think that it’s not a neocon fantasy that Iran is a very aggressive state. As for what’s happened across the Middle East over the last several years, one of the things that’s happened — and to me this is the big thing that’s happened — look at the change. Look in the change in leadership across that region. Gadhafi’s gone. Saddam is gone. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is gone. The sclerotic regime in Egypt is gone. Assad is toppling.



And so we have seen this tremendous change. To me that’s a big story. Whether it turns out well or ill, we will see, but that is a tremendous change.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a tremendous change, but let’s get one thing — there’s a marvelous term in logic, post hoc, not propter hoc. In other words, because something happened after something, it’s not because of something.

Saddam Hussein falling was because the United States moved in and occupied and invaded a country that had never posed a threat to the United States, didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The United States didn’t play an active role in the Arab spring. And quite miraculous and remarkably was it occurred without us and without our active involvement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to pick up on David’s first point, that the U.S. shouldn’t be leaving, that the generals were appeared — were reported to be saying leave more troops there longer, that seems to be what the Republicans picked up on today.

Mitt Romney says it was an astonishing — I think he said astonish failure to secure an orderly transition. Is that a criticism that’s…

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, we have reached a point now where the president gets absolutely unremitting criticisms from Republicans, with the exception of John McCain. I mean, John McCain did salute the president for his leadership for the achievements in Libya.

But other than that, I mean, you can — whether they opposed the United States involvement in Libya or they supported it — Mitt Romney was for a no-fly zone and wasn’t for a no-fly zone — you know, he’s an interesting man. He’s an able man. His credentials on foreign policy are as good as mine on ballet.


DAVID BROOKS: I trust Mark on ballet. I don’t know what he’s talking about.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me — because you both have brought Libya into this, we have seen this dramatic story. We just heard Jeff interview the ambassador.

David, is this a victory for the Obama administration or not, what has happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think clearly, and a pretty personal victory for the president.

There were a lot of people within the administration, somebody I have great reverence for, Robert Gates, who was then at the Defense Department, didn’t want to do it. Many people — the Europeans just wanted to do a no-fly zone. And the president said, no, we have got to be more aggressive. We have got to use the airpower and drones and everything else much more aggressively, and we have got to do regime change. We have got to use military means to topple the regime.

And he pursued that policy. It took a little longer than he thought, but he pursued it well. He made it so the U.S. wasn’t the center of the policy, but Gadhafi and the Libyan regime was the center of policy. And they saw it through. So I think on the whole this has been an extremely well-conducted policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that translate — excuse me.

Does that translate, Mark, into something that helps him in next year’s election?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it wasn’t a flawless policy by any means.

The constitutionality of it I think remains open to question. He bet on the Congress being supine and just ignoring the War Powers Act. And he was right. The Congress was submissive, was docile. It wasn’t involved. It took no responsibility. And he went straight ahead. And the widespread use of drones is still open to question.

Was it effective? Yes. But is it a long-term strategy that is going to work well for the United States around the globe? I think that’s very much an open question.


MARK SHIELDS: In Libya, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about in terms of next year? Does it…

MARK SHIELDS: In terms of next year? Well, it’s already worked for the president in terms of the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll Judy, where the president got dismal marks on handling the economy and very mediocre marks on his job rating. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters gave him approval on the — his handling of terrorism, under which this would follow.

But it doesn’t make a difference when it comes to voting next year. It has diminished the liability of the Democrats as the party that is sort of soft on national defense. I don’t think that argument can be made in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And which was something Hillary Clinton went after Obama during the campaign.

Anyway, what do you think? Do you agree with Mark it doesn’t matter?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it may make a difference.

He’s had a very good run on foreign policy. And I think that we’re going to have foreign policy issues arise in next October, next September. It’s unimaginable to me that somehow the Middle East won’t come back. The Middle East will come back. And I think he’s been pretty strong.

And I think the Republicans field, even Mitt Romney, who is the most plausible candidate, is not exactly a foreign policy — you don’t look to him for foreign policy. And so there’s an advantage there. And presidential elections, foreign policy tends to make a difference. Until recently, it was the major issue for president.

And so I’m beginning to think that — you know, I thought, oh, it’s the economy, the economy. I’m beginning to think the foreign policy issue will loom surprisingly large next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there was another Republican debate this week, the rumble in Las Vegas, some have called it, Mark. Did it have a material effect? It was pretty feisty.

MARK SHIELDS: It was feisty, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that have an effect on the race?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought I was watching the combination of two reality shows on cable, sort of “The Housewives of Jersey Shore.”


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it really got kind of nasty and a little spiteful. And we saw the unflappable, the preternaturally unflappable Mitt Romney flap, to the point where he reached across, as I would reach across to David, to Rick Perry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I don’t think you have ever done that here.

MARK SHIELDS: No. And I have to smile if I’m doing it.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m a little afraid now. I feel intimidated.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it’s Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton.

But the other thing was that Rick Perry, who — they took him off the decaf.


MARK SHIELDS: He showed up with three double lattes, and he was very much involved, engaged. Now, whether in fact he helped himself or maybe just shook up Romney, I don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He took Romney on, on whether he had hired illegal immigrants to cut the grass.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, I think it was Charles Krauthammer who wrote today, one of Romney’s hair moved a millimeter, which as much as we see.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think they took down Romney. I don’t think they helped themselves, I don’t think anybody.

And so, Romney, even in his worst debate so far, to me still remained the only plausible candidate. And so they hurt him, there’s no question. But you didn’t go in through that debate and think, oh, Perry, actually, he’s pretty good. You think, oh, he landed some blows. And so I still think it didn’t fundamentally alter the race. It just made Romney look a little less impressive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you think it hurt him, Romney?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the flip-flopping, I mean, these are issues which, believe me, he ain’t seen nothing yet. Obama is going to go after him in a big major way. They’re going to turn Romney into John Kerry, or least the perception of John Kerry that the Bush campaign ran. They’re going to run that kind of campaign.

But the flip-flopping on health care and those issues…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which they have spent a lot of time on.

DAVID BROOKS: … which they have spent a lot of time on, that’s going to be a big issue.

And Romney has to — you know, he’s obviously been preparing for this for a long time, preparing for the Bain Capital attacks. And he’s got to do a little better job of responding.

MARK SHIELDS: Kellyanne Conway, the Republican pollster, told The Wall Street Journal — I thought it was a good point — she said, what Romney has to do is explain his epiphanies, in other words, how he moved from being a pro-choice Republican running against Ted Kennedy and pro-gay rights to the point where he is against same-sex marriage in any form and now is ardently pro-life.

He’s got to give some explanation, which is not…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he’s on tape in some of those old…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and — but to say what he’s gone through, and sort of give a sense of this is — this is how I got to where I am. This is the voyage I have taken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, in the last 40 seconds, Herman Cain, he still lives in the campaign? He’s still leading in a couple polls, David.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s just — it’s like an entertainment ship. It’s — the ratings are waning. He doesn’t have substantive policies. He doesn’t know anything about foreign policy. The 9-9-9 plan is not politically saleable.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Herman Cain is the remarkable story of this campaign in the sense that he was — for months, he was at single digits. He quintupled in a month-and-a-half, and he did it because in a time when people are absolutely pessimistic, terminally pessimistic about their children’s future, their own future, their country’s future, their family’s future, he is just this sense of optimism in his politics and biography, the son of a chauffeur, the son of a maid, a cleaning lady, I mean, a total bootstrap story.

Politics of biography does count. He’s irrepressibly optimistic, and he speaks in a language that is so un-Washingtonian and so free of any pre-tested, pre-cooked answers. I agree with David. He’s very short on substance and he’s certainly short on campaign structure.

But he has touched something on the Republican side, when not having held any office becomes an asset in an anti-politician year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, nothing short on substance with the two of you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.