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Shields and Brooks on Syria as ‘Test Case’ for Obama’s Credibility

September 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss President Barack Obama's decision to take the Syrian crisis to Congress and the historical implications if the president is unable to win over lawmakers in a vote on national security.

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

Gentlemen, welcome.

The president, Mark, went to the Group of 20 meeting over the last few days, hoping they would support the call for military action. They didn’t. How much of an embarrassment is it?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s certainly not encouraging for the president. I mean, he did get a statement that, we will hold your coat and we will be — we will be with you, but we won’t participate. So

I, mean, it’s still basically a very, very small coalition at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of an embarrassment, and what does it look like in Congress?

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DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, internationally, it looks a little more unilateral, so it looks a little more Bush-like, to be honest.

Before, Russia seemed isolated. Now we’re looking not isolated, but with a smaller coalition, as Mark said. In Congress, I think it’s bad. I think the decision to go to Congress was a very unfortunate decision, because it made it much bigger than Syria itself.

Now it’s a test case for Obama’s credibility, credibility around the world, and credibility at home. There is a common assumption that he can rally public opinion, he can lean on Congress, and ultimately they will force Democrats to say — they don’t like the policy, but they will say you can’t let Obama go down and have his credibility destroyed.

I’m really dubious that that’s going to be the case. I think Republicans are going to be largely against. That’s really clear. The Democrats in their hearts, they’re against. The noise from their districts is going to be solidly against. Pelosi is very good at rallying votes. But I think this is a — going to be an uphill fight for them, and if he loses, it will be really bad for the administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You agree it was a mistake to go to Congress?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think it was a mistake to go to Congress, Judy.

I think I have never seen any president on the eve of initiating military action that is war action, that is hitting another country with less popular support, less public support, less political support, and less international support than the president had a week ago, when we met.

The idea of doing it then, I don’t — I mean, it just amazes me — and with all respect to David — people on the left who say, oh, ignore the Congress. The Congress is lousy.

I mean, would they have the same attitude if a President Ted Cruz were there? I mean, it is the constitutional order for a president to do that. And when you’re making a decision, there’s none more grievous than that to go to war. To involve the Congress and the country in that decision, I think is absolutely imperative.

It’s the only way there’s going to be any sense of national support, let alone unity, for this action, which is controversial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I don’t.

I mean, I certainly agree, if Syria was the main thing. I think, when you go to war, if Syria was the main thing we were worried about, and if we actually had a plan to actually change something materially for the good in Syria, then going to Congress would be fine, and that would be a good thing to do, to get popular support, so the president isn’t isolated, so you get enough people on board in the beginning, so they’re there at the end when things get complicated.

That would be fine. But this really isn’t about Syria. The policy is not going to do anything materially to affect Syria. We may lob a few missiles in there. That’s just face-saving. Let’s face it. The real issue is the broader credibility of the president, the international credibility of the United States, especially vis-a-vis Iran.

This is really about Iran more than Syria. And by going to Congress and potentially getting slapped down, then our credibility vis-a-vis Iran is in shatters, and the president’s credibility at home is in shatters.

And so I just — on substantive ground, I think Mark is right. On Machiavellian ground, I think it was a mistake.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I just look at this, and I think the president made the case himself, in which he said, a president can go and take military action.

And let’s be honest about — a Tomahawk missile weighs 2,900 pounds. This is enormous armaments you’re delivering upon a country. And we’re talking about shooting them in batches of 40. And I just think the president is right. He said, a president can act if the national security of the country is at threat. And he said, I couldn’t make that case. I couldn’t make the case that the immediate national survival of the United States was at threat, at peril unless I did act.

So it made sense to go to the Congress. It may not make political, but let’s find out. There is in this country a great resistance — and the president’s countered it didn’t begin with him and it didn’t begin with Syria. There is less trust, less confidence, and less enthusiasm for military intervention.

It has not — it can knock a despot out. It doesn’t bring peace. It doesn’t bring democracy. It doesn’t establish a civil state. We have lost confidence in military intervention as a solution, especially in the Middle East.

I mean, Margaret just reported from Egypt. That’s — if that’s the best that we have produced, after billions and billions of aid and support, and 30 years, I mean, that’s a tragedy.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s important to remember, the president is now locked into a major, major effort to champion a policy he doesn’t really believe in, in a region he wants to get out of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how did he get into that situation?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a whole series of mistakes, the red line mistake, the going to Congress mistake, in my view.

And I’m — again, I’m just speaking politically. I understand Mark’s case on substantive ground if Syria was the real case. A whole series of mistakes he made where he wasn’t thinking more than one step ahead, and so he’s locked in. So, now we’re having a big debate about Syria, which is derailing immigration and everything else he wants to do, when his whole policy was to get out of the Middle East.

So, how did he get himself locked in? So, my point of view, if I’m the president, get myself out of this box. Just do whatever you have to do in Syria. It won’t do any good, probably, but at least it won’t destroy the credibility of the office. Now he has raised the stakes and made the stake — and make the downside just tremendous.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s going to be a big struggle. Part of the problem…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean to get this through the Congress?

MARK SHIELDS: To get Congress, no question.

But part of the problem, we saw in Paul’s piece with Lisa Lynch on the economy. The U.S. household median income has gone down every year since 2007. You heard them say there are fewer — a smaller percentage of Americans in the work force today than any year since 1978.

And so Americans are understandably turning inward and saying, look, we have got problems here. We have got problems that haven’t been solved. We don’t need to go, whether it’s to Syria or to Egypt or to Afghanistan or — and the bad reports every day from Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, what about the president’s argument, this would be a targeted, narrow strike, that it’s all about the chemical weapons…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and reaching international…


And I think the president has high moral ground there, but he’s got he’s got to make the case. He’s not — to the country, Judy. It’s a skeptical country. The people who have made up their mind are against it. He’s speaking to a Congress that is skittish.

We’re talking right now — there are 200 Democrats in the House of Representatives. I think the real fight, both of us agree, is in the House of Representatives. You have got the speaker of the House…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think it will pass the Senate vote?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the chances of it passing the Senate — if it doesn’t pass the Senate, then the whole thing is over.

But, Judy, there are 200 Democrats in the House. All right? And they’re counting right now — they need at least 85 percent of them. Now, that’s 170 Democrats out of 200. That’s saying that 30 people who have careers, only 30, who voted against every military intervention are going to come over. Many of them will have to come over.

And then you have only got the Republicans delivering something like 48 out of 233, with the speaker and the majority leader for it. I mean, it’s going to be a tough slog.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what happens if he doesn’t get the vote? Can he go ahead? I mean, that was what — he was asked that three times today at a news conference, and he said, I’m not going to answer that.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think he can go ahead.

And then — I don’t know then what he does, because he will — in Iran, in the Middle East, in the region, the Chinese will be watching. The Iranians will be watching. The whole world will be watching this. And they will see that he couldn’t even rally a majority for this, and they will have noticed that. The Americans will be watching.

Within the Republican Party, by the way, there will be — and it’s already happened within the Republican Party — the opponents, the noninterventionists, are on the offensive against the establishment, which wants to support this thing. And they’re already probably going to crush the establishment. If they win on this, then that will further tilt things within the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But where does it leave the president if he can’t — I realize I’m asking you to speculate, but if he doesn’t win, where…

DAVID BROOKS: I think his credibility would be in tatters. I really think it would affect the second term in a very significant way.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I don’t recall a president losing a national security vote in my lifetime.

I mean, when Bill Clinton had his economic package in 1993, the key to his entire first term, to his domestic program that raised taxes and cut the deficit, the day they voted, Judy, they were 18 votes short in the House. Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice and say, OK, we’re going to take a chance, and people are going to come over.

This is going to be a tough one to get, because a war vote sticks with you for the rest of your career. Make no mistake about it. In 2008, the out-party nomination for president was fought, and the winner’s campaign was energized, Barack Obama, because Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton had all voted in 2002 to go to war against Iraq. And it was unpopular.

Now, if you vote with Barack Obama in 2013, will it be the kiss of death in 2016 for the Republicans? So, I mean, it’s a very, very — politically, it’s an incredibly thorny bush.

DAVID BROOKS: And it should be said, historically, presidents have been able to rally public opinion and rally congressional opinion.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s much less true today, especially in Washington. This is not that Washington anymore, where you had a whole bunch of Republicans especially who were basically national security Republicans, who were going to support an intervention.

Those Republicans are really a very small number here. The Democrats have moved because of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iraq changed that.

DAVID BROOKS: Before Iraq, on the Democratic side, you had a number of Democrats who would support intervention for human rights and humanitarian.

But now Iraq has changed that. So that number is smaller. And so, on both Republican and Democratic side, you have less instinctual support for a presidential intervention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, you’re arguing he should have gone to Congress to get authorization, to ask for authorization, but it’s very unlikely he’s going to get that…


MARK SHIELDS: No, I’m not — I don’t think it’s unlikely. I wouldn’t bet against the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think he…

MARK SHIELDS: He has got a tough job on Tuesday night, Judy, to make the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does he need to say speaking to the country?


MARK SHIELDS: What he needs to do, we just had story after story on the trillions of dollars we’re spending on all this national security stuff.

We can tell whether David’s credit card was used. If he can’t present graphic evidence, compelling evidence to the country about what has gone on in Syria, and the suffering that’s happened, I mean, he’s really — I just think he’s got to make that case. Do you remember when Adlai Stevenson stood in the U.N. and showed the pictures of the Soviet missiles in Cuba?

I mean, that — you have got to do something…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Actually, I don’t remember that, but I will take your word for it.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, you don’t. Well, I do.


MARK SHIELDS: But it was — and it was persuasive.

And Barack Obama — and, at the same time, he has that to reestablish his congressional as the anti-war candidate that the Democrats twice nominated and elected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think they’re going to have more evidence to show?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No, they don’t.

My understanding from speaking to them is they don’t have more evidence. And my understanding is that I wouldn’t emphasize Syria all that much particularly. I think there’s some evidence that the regime did it. I don’t think there’s much strong argument that whatever we do in Syria is going to make some fundamental difference in Syria.

So you have a policy that’s kind of ineffective, even to those of us who believe in it, and we believe in it not because it’s a great policy, because the alternative is much worse. And so that would be my case, that if we don’t do this, then the credibility with — on arming Iran just is very bad.

And the second thing I would say — and to go back to Mark’s argument about the economy, I do think the president should make a case that, yes, the economy needs to be refurbished and we do need to invest at home, but America just can’t withdrawal from the world, and the world becomes a much more dangerous place unless we’re an aggressive force in the world. And that aggressiveness, that assertiveness will be gone, at least for a time, if he loses this vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that an argument that will win votes?

MARK SHIELDS: It may win votes in the Congress. I’m not sure it wins votes in the country. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we haven’t even talked about that.

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, I think that’s where he’s — the Congress has to hear from that.

And let’s be very blunt about this. There are people in Congress in the Republican Party who wouldn’t vote for Barack Obama if he voted — if he initiated support for the fire department at the time of arson, if he pushed for a Mother’s Day resolution.

I mean, there is that — and there were, you will recall, when Bill Clinton was president, Kosovo and Bosnia. There was a large body of Republicans in the House, Tom DeLay leading them, who wouldn’t support the president. So, this is partisan and polarized, but it’s not the first time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the polls are overwhelmingly against.


MARK SHIELDS: Strongly against at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we shall see. Tuesday night, he speaks to the nation.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.