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Shields and Brooks Debate Need for National Consensus Over Syria

August 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the case laid out by Secretary John Kerry for U.S. military action in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, and whether President Obama should seek congressional approval.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, tonight joining us from Yale University in Connecticut.

Gentlemen, welcome to the program.

David, to you first. Has the Obama administration made a compelling case for going into Syria?

DAVID BROOKS: Not public. But I do think they have a compelling case.

You know, we have an international system here. We all profit from it. Trade profits from it. Peace. We can travel around the world because of it. And part of that system is certain ideas, the certain ideas you can’t invade other countries for no reason. You can’t commit genocide. You can’t — rogue regimes can’t have nuclear weapons, and you can’t gas your own people.

And so if we ignore those basic standards, then our international system basically begins to erode. And I think what he’s doing is probably the least bad options. They’re all pretty terrible. But if we armed the militia, those — the opposition, that might have been a good idea a couple of years ago, but they’re too rabid now for us to be arming.

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If we have a no-fly zone, that would just invite — look — make us look weak. So, I think what the president is trying to do is basically, one, establish the norm that you can’t gas your own people, two, try to change the cost-benefit analysis, make it more costly to gas your own people, and, finally, just to establish the idea that we will strike out and try to change your calculus.

There are certainly dangers down the road, but I think the loss of the credibility, as we try to face Iran and other countries, would be more immediate and more realizable, and, therefore, he more or less has to do what he’s doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how do you see it? Has he made — has the administration, has the president made the case?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think so, Judy.

I think the president, and particularly the secretary of state, John Kerry, today made a very strong case about what has been done is abhorrent. It is unacceptable. It does — it cannot go unnoted and unpunished. But, at the same time, I don’t think there’s a case been made as to what we will do, other than to punish in some way the Syrian regime for doing it, and to make ourselves feel better.

I mean, I don’t — I don’t see that — there’s no regime change. There’s no U.S. troops or coalition troops. There’s no coalition troops. It’s to be short and over. And I think, as General Anthony Zinni said, you can’t be a little bit pregnant. I mean, you can’t — one and done — that is you, you go in and you send in the missiles and you feel better, and you have put some damage and some hurt upon the other side — but it is not a long-term solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what about that, this argument that, yes, the United States can go in, make a point, punish Assad, the Assad regime, but not really change anything on the ground?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t know if — as awful as that regime is, I’m not sure we necessarily want to topple it, given the alternatives, which is anarchy.

The second thing is, they’re decision-makers, so you’re trying to change their calculus. If you raise the cost of doing what they’re doing, there’s a chance they won’t do it again. That does happen, and it has happened many times in world history, that you raise the cost, they don’t do it again.

Now, there is a chance that they will do it again, and then we will have to make another call. Do we want to escalate? And that’s clearly a danger. But I do think the idea, if the U.S. says something about weapons of mass destruction, about whether it’s in Iran or in Syria, and we do nothing, then the entire nonproliferation regime, which the U.S. has basically been leading for the past 70 or 80 years, that begins to fray badly, and the costs down the road are much worse.

So raise the costs for Assad, and then see what happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I’m just not sure, Judy, how the costs are being raised.

I mean, by simply hitting him with missiles one time, twice — what’s been emphasized over and over again is how short this is going to be. It’s not open-ended. It’s very brief. I just don’t understand. You know, we have gone through this. What the president is fighting is exactly what Prime Minister Cameron is fighting.

And that is, it’s the legacy, the poisoning of the well from Iraq. And it’s only 11 years ago this very week that the vice president of the United States said, I can assure you they have weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein is going to use them against us, against our allies, and against our friends.

So, I mean, there’s a skepticism about the military effectiveness, about what happens, whether it can be limited, and what it does achieve. I don’t think anybody could argue that Iraq and Afghanistan are substantially better off after all the American sacrifice, and all the American treasure, and I think you may be able to make the same case for Libya.

So I think there is a big burden of proof for the president to make in this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, is that the burden you see for the president? Is that what he’s got to do in the next few days, or however long it is, before they do something?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, if people want to take a time machine back to 2003 and have those debates again, that’s fine. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

This is a pretty clear case, I think. Now — now, having said that, I think the president and probably all Americans are chastened by how much good and how much we can possibly affect the Middle East. And, clearly, that’s the story of the Afghan surge. That’s the story of Iraq. We are keenly aware of how much good can be done, how much we can change a region which is devolving into a series of sectarian wars.

And so we’re not going to go in there and get in the middle of that. Nonetheless, I do think we can put some parameters on the wars by at least outlawing certain sorts of weapons. Now, he’s going to be perfectly free to shoot as many people as he wants, I guess.

But we can do that. The second thing we can do — and I think this is even more crucial — is put some walls around Syria. What is happening in Syria is spilling over into Iraq. It is spilling over into Lebanon. It’s turning into a regional proxy war. And if we can tamp that down a little, we will have done some good.

The probable reality is this thing is just going to have to burn itself out, and there’s probably not much we can do about it. And we shouldn’t get in the middle of it. But if we can try to put some limits on it, that’s at least some positive, small good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, on top of that, both the president and Secretary Kerry are saying it’s in the U.S. national interest to do this, that the U.S. doesn’t want chemical weapons turned around and used on us.

MARK SHIELDS: We don’t want chemical weapons in the world. We don’t. I mean, since World War I, there has been a consensus on this.

David can talk about 2003, but, Judy, the American people are not in support of this. They are not informed on it. It is the responsibility of leadership to make that case. Eighty percent of Americans in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll today said they want the president to go to the Congress on this. And so…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that that’s a mistake, not to go to Congress?

MARK SHIELDS: I certainly do. I mean, the Congress is no day at the beach. Let’s get that straight.

From the 5th of August until the 1st of October, they will be in session nine days. At the very least, I thought — I thought Speaker Boehner raised legitimate questions that former Speaker Pelosi endorsed in the — in his letter to the president. But I think this is a debate, and I think they — that Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Reid ought to call back, say, folks, this is the end of the town meetings. Let’s come back.

This is an important national decision, and it ought to be debated openly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how do you see the question of whether they should go to Congress and public opinion?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, we have been violating the Constitution on this for my entire adult life.

The presidents of both parties have been pretty much violating the Constitution and going to war. Now, I guess the War Powers Act, as Eliot Engel said earlier in the program, gives you 60 days. But this has been trample ever since I have been covering politics. And that’s for a practical reason, that if we really did rely on Congress for all these things, nothing would ever get done.

And that would be the case in actions one supports and actions one doesn’t support. So that’s why we have fallen to this — back to this ugly de facto program. I would say, also, that if we are in a period of permanent withdrawal from the Middle East, we will have what has happened over the last really year in the Middle East, which is the devolution from the Arab spring to the Arab winter.

In retrospect — and I wasn’t a big champion of this at the time, but John McCain and Lindsey Graham had a point early on in this program — or in this — the progress of the civil war, that if we had been a little more interventionist back when the opposition was a little more moderate, a little bit more controllable, that would have been a good time to act.

And so the idea that by not acting things are always going in our direction is refuted by the facts of the past couple years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I hate to say it. David’s wrong.

And I know David is young, but he was alive in 1991. If you wanted to see a consensus forged, if you wanted to see a debate held, George Herbert Walker Bush was president of the United States. Jim Baker was secretary of state. And they debated going into drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, where he had invaded, back to Baghdad.

It won the support of 31 nations. It won the support of a Democratic Congress. It won the support of the United Nations, and it won support of the American people overwhelmingly. And that — that is the way to do it. And just because presidents have tried to short-circuit it from Grenada to Iraq now to Syria since, if anything, that’s a modern — a model for failure, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should — I mean, David…

DAVID BROOKS: I would say, I would be in favor of going to the Congress. I do agree with that.

I have no problem with that, and I think this case is actually kind of similar to the Iraq war of 1991, in that it was a clear violation of international norms. I’m not sure I would want to wait for the whole process to play out before we did anything. And the War Powers Act allows for this, because that really does look like it delays our reaction so distantly from the atrocity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about Mark’s point about having a — more of a coalition, having more countries?

I mean, Great Britain is now not going to be on board. A number of other countries have said they won’t join in. How much does it matter that there aren’t going to be many allies, and certainly there won’t be — at least, apparently, there won’t be a U.N. signing off on this?

DAVID BROOKS: Militarily, it doesn’t matter at all. I mean, you can find some British and French sailors and stick them on the thing, but they don’t really add much. These are American forces that only have the capacity to do this.

As for international legitimacy, listen, gassing your own people is not a close call, as far as I’m concerned. That demands a response. I thought that was pretty much settled since World War I. The fact that other countries don’t want to sign on — and, by the way, a lot do want to sign on, do support the idea — that — that doesn’t seem morally problematic when you have got the atrocity in a case this clear.

To me, the tough call — and I agree with Mark on this — the tough call is not whether something — some gross violation of international law was done. The tough call is whether what we do, lobbing a few cruise missiles, will do any good. And I’m certainly persuadable that it will do no good and lead to harm.

But the idea that we should do nothing, that it’s not been — international law has not been grossly violated, that to me is a debate that is pretty clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s arguing that what happened is so horrible, that even if these measures don’t change everything…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: What was done is abhorrent. It’s unacceptable, Judy.

My point is, is this the practical response? I mean, in other words, David appears to be saying there are other countries that want to hold our coat. There’s none that want to get involved. We’re with you, but don’t tell anybody we’re on your side, basically, or we’re not going to go public with our support, because it’s going to affect our own domestic population.

No, Judy, I think it is — it is — it does cry to heaven for vengeance, but I want to do this in a way that does in fact make sense for the United States and makes sense for this position, because the position that chemical weapons are unacceptable and intolerable is not, I don’t think, validated or vindicated by just a one and done, by going in and throwing some missiles at them, which are significant weaponry, but, at the same time, it’s over, and if that ends up emboldening the regime, saying, look, we withstood the West, we have withstood the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen.

DAVID BROOKS: But, Mark, do you think we should do more?

OK. Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Do I think — I think the president has a responsibility to make the case, David, on what he wants to — what he intends to do, what his objective is, beyond just getting by this sense of we have to do something.

And I don’t — I don’t get that, at least from the debate thus far. And I really think the first step is to go to the Congress. And going, doing the War Powers Act, employing the War Powers Act, acting, and then going to Congress, I think, is the worst of all possible worlds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.