JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. President Bush and Iraq. David, how do you read the message of his administration now on the direct issue of when the troops are going to start coming out of Iraq and how?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I'd say there were a bunch of different constituencies here. Some in the military want to get out because it's so unpleasant. So I think some of the military people were saying "We're going to be able to draw down, we're making some progress training the Iraqis."
Then there's the constituency, the Iraqis themselves, the ones on our side, so to speak, the people in the government, sort of threatening them, you know, you can't count on us forever, time for you to start thinking about standing up for yourself. And then there's the constituents of the insurgents, which I think the president was addressing which is don't count on us leaving, you're not winning this fight, we're winning this fight, we're staying until the end.
And I think President Bush, who runs the place, is more in the third school. I think he is, we'll stay till the end. I think realistically the crucial facts will be the elections this fall, the referendum on the constitution and then the election. And if they turn out to be replications of what we saw in the last election, I think there will be a great will to stick it out and I think those elections -- and as we've seen in insurgency wars in the past -- it's only elections and the political climate that can weaken an insurgency.
JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, Mark, is it fair to say there's kind of mixed messages coming out of the administration?
MARK SHIELDS: Totally mixed messages, Jim. I mean, we were told when critics of the war said we ought to set a timetable and Walter Jones and others from Congress and 45 sponsors of that said by October of 2006 the president ought the lay a timetable out, said, no, no, that emboldens, that emboldens the terrorists and the insurgents.
Well, standing next to the Secretary of Defense last week, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said bring 30,000 troops out by the spring or early summer. He's speaking, Gen. Casey is, for the military that is overextended, overstressed, overcommitted and exhausted, literally exhausted, Jim. And they see this -- they feel, they're sensitive to it. Popular support for this war is eroding by the hour. We've seen the president's own approval rating drop 23 points since January. We've seen support for the war, a question of how Americans think they're doing, deplete by 19 percent just in two months.
We now have solid majorities who think it was a mistake to go in, who think that we're losing the war there, and you can't -- you cannot sustain a war effort over a sustained period of time. And there's just -- I think the president is living with real problems on his -- what has been his strong suit, his candor, I level with you. I mean the fact that by now there have just been too many times when they've been wrong.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree he has got a candor problem now?
DAVID BROOKS: No, I think he's been straight; we're going to try to fight the war; we're going to try to defeat the insurgency. I think two things. First of all, I don't think his approval ratings are down 23 points. The survey of surveys I saw had him up around 42, 43, 44 --
MARK SHIELDS: He was 57/40 when he was inaugurated and he's now 45/51 -- it's a 23-point drop.
DAVID BROOKS: I don't know -- 45 is not bad. Secondly, a democracy can't sustain a war if when the war goes badly -- as all wars do-- we pull out just because it's unpopular. The Civil War was unpopular, the Revolutionary War was unpopular, World War II was unpopular. The question is: Do we have a mission? Is the mission worth it? Is it good for American interests? And the war is unpopular, because as we talked about a few weeks ago, the vast majorities think it's still worth it and think we can't pull out.
JIM LEHRER: David, what do you say to those who suggest, whether they're in favor or pulling out or staying, whether they're Republicans or whether they're Democrats, whether they're hawks or doves, whether they're in the administration or out of the administration, there seems to be kind of an absence of a plan, anybody's plan, to do something -- to finish it -
DAVID BROOKS: I think I know what the plan is.
JIM LEHRER: You know what the plan is -- what's the plan?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's very simple. We're training the Iraqis as quickly as we can so they can defeat the insurgency on the basis that they'll have better intelligence, they'll be fighting for their own government and that the political process has to move forward to defeat the insurgency. And if history shows us anything, these are long wars, five years, ten years. You look at the El Salvador insurgency, they were only defeated by elections -- election after election slowly weakened the insurgency and that's just the nature of insurgency.
JIM LEHRER: So the plan is working from your point of view?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don't know if it's working. I really don't know. I don't know too many serious analysts who think the insurgents can win. They're a small majority -- a small minority, they have no positive agenda; they have no popular support. On the other hand, there could be a civil war, we don't know what's going to happen between the Sunni and the Shiites and the Kurds.
And there could just be chaos. You know, insurgencies do win by not losing. So, you know, I'm never in the position of saying how things are going because I'm not there and I don't know. But I do think it's still a worthy cause when you focus on who the enemy is, the Jihadists and Baathists, those people just have to be defeated for the good of the world.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, just facts are stubborn things -- the USA Today/Gallup Poll, Gallup has been consistently more sympathetic and its findings have been more supportive of the administration. Today, Jim, 57 percent say that the Iraq War has made the United States less safe from terrorism. That's up 19 percent in two months. 54 percent said it was a mistake to send U.S. Troops to Iraq and 56 percent think things are going badly for the United States.
Those are tough numbers for the president to deal with, Jim. And I think that, you know, to quote Henry Kissinger, I mean, who's been through situations like this, the conventional army loses if it doesn't win. And the insurgents win if they don't lose. And I'm not saying they're going to route us from the battlefield but, Jim, I'm not going to belabor the Vietnam analogy, but I do recall a combat veteran from Vietnam saying to me "the major difference between us and the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong was we looked at the clock and they looked at the calendar." And they've got a long-range view.
Let's be very blunt, Jim. When they talk about troops coming out next year, that pressure is coming from the public and congressmen who are running for reelection. Nov. 7, 2006, there'd better be a movement of U.S. troops home.
DAVID BROOKS: I completely agree. We cannot run a war on public opinion polls. Run on the merits. And that's why I think the president is right to say we're in there for a long haul. But one thing that bugs me about the whole debate is we've talked about the casualties, as we should.
The focus on the enemy has not been there. Who is the enemy? What are their motivations? Once you start thinking about who the enemy is, then you start realizing their victory, which would either be a victory for the Baathist tyranny or for the Jihadist, would just be a calamity. And that's why we're there in the first place. And so as you focus on the enemy I think you begin to see that withdrawal would just be ruinous.
JIM LEHRER: Back to the question of the president's handling, should he have gone to the memorial service in Ohio for the dead Marines?
MARK SHIELDS: He certainly should have gone. He should have gone to Brook Park. I don't think David would disagree with that. I mean -
JIM LEHRER: David, do you disagree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: No. I mean, he goes privately -- he's gone to hundreds of aggrieved families. I think in this case he should have gone publicly.
JIM LEHRER: Why does he not do that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, there's a couple of factors involved. Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, there was always the sense - there was always the sense in the Lyndon Johnson administration that as political and popular and public opposition to that war grew that there were people he was exposed to who were delivering that message to him, whether it was Clark Clifford, his Secretary of Defense or George Ball, the Undersecretary of State, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, Bill Fulbright, senators - you know, he confronted it.
With George Bush, with the departure of Colin Powell and Dick Armitage, there's a sense that nobody that he ever talks to, he never goes anywhere where there's any dissent. I mean, the crowds he talks to are all pre-filtered, they're pre-cleared, pre-homogenized; and I think for some reason the sense if we go to one of these, we'll have to go to all of them.
Grieving is not something private. There is a need for public grieving. We do it with presidents, we do it at times like Oklahoma City. And that was certainly a time when the president is not only the commander-in-chief, he's the consoler in chief.
DAVID BROOKS: I sort of agree. As I say, he's gone to hundreds of families of -- who've lost children. But he always does it privately and they never allow it to be covered in any way. Their thinking is -- and I think this is Bush's sensibility -- is that if you do it publicly, a, you take over the funeral and you don't want to do that. And, b, they have sort an anti-Clinton psychology. Clinton went and was publicly empathetic, they don't want to do that; they see that as sort of ethos.
JIM LEHRER: Ronald Reagan did it.
DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. And I think Reagan was right to do it. And I think in some cases Clinton was right --
MARK SHIELDS: Bill Clinton was right to do it.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree. Because one of the things that's happened in this country over the past few months and years, really since 9/11, is that there's been a remove of the American people from the war.
MARK SHIELDS: That's absolutely true.
DAVID BROOKS: That you see maybe pictures of an explosion here or there but the feeling that we're all in it together, the feeling -- and Mark has talked about this, you know, a lot, that it's something we're all going through, whether you agree or not with the war, has been removed. And so it's become sort of this horrendous abstraction rather than this thing where you see the ebb and flow, you see the sacrifice, you see the end.
JIM LEHRER: You said you were in San Antonio, Texas, this last week, which is a military town.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: You saw evidence of the war there.
DAVID BROOKS: I found this as I travel around the country that here in Washington, to be honest, it's not a daily event. But I was in San Antonio for a week; I met three people who were either going, just come back, or were come back and going, and it's just a daily event in certain parts of America.
MARK SHIELDS: That's true, Jim. And I mean it's a unique war in this sense and that is that the people who made the decisions to go to war, the people who did make the case, who were wrong, I mean, and totally wrong. I mean, Paul Wolfowitz said the oil revenues of Iraq were going to pay for it. Andy Natsios sat on this set and said it was going to cost 1 to 2 billion dollars. Dick Cheney said we were going to be welcomed as liberators.
I mean at every point they've been wrong. There is no accountability. There's no sense because there's nobody here -- you know, sure there are people in Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia, but they aren't in the same circles who are exposed to this.
DAVID BROOKS: We did have an election.
JIM LEHRER: Quick question. Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq, is camped out in front of the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Should he meet with her?
MARK SHIELDS: I think he should. I mean, I think it's in his interest to do so. I mean, she is -- she's the face of a grieving public.
JIM LEHRER: And she's becoming increasingly a larger face.
DAVID BROOKS: Apparently she has -- according to her they have met at one point. They had some conversation. But you know there's diversity in America of opinions on this war, diversity on this set on the war and she represents a point of view that's legitimate, a point of view. I think he should in general meet the people who sons are paying this incredible sacrifice. Whether her in particular now she that she's become such a political figure, I don't know. I'm not sure.
MARK SHIELDS: I'll say this, Jim. I mean, she's a compelling -- she's a compelling advocate and a gold star mother for peace is a credential you can't go after in a Swift Boats ad.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you both very much.