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Shields and Brooks on Iraq reluctance, Nixon’s legacy

August 8, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq, how Americans are grading President Obama’s foreign policy performance, plus how men and women are hoping for different outcomes in November’s election and looking back at Richard Nixon.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Congress left Washington this week and international hot spots boiled over. And we get the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, today, it is all about Iraq.

Mark, did the president have a choice but to go back in militarily?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think he did, Judy.

Obviously, he had the choice whether that is a humanitarian act. It’s not a question of national security and defense. But the irony is that seven years ago this very week, a long-shot presidential candidate emerged to take on the royal family of the Democratic Party on the strength of one issue, because his opponents, Senators Dodd, Biden, Edwards, and Clinton, had all voted to support the U.S. war in Iraq.

And in a fiercely anti-war Democratic Party, Barack Obama stood alone. His race and his eloquence were exceptional, but that wasn’t the determining factor. And getting out of the Iraq war has been his defining mission. And today it remains an irony. And we’re reminded of Colin Powell, who reluctantly, in going into that war, said it’s the Pottery Barn rule, you break it you own it. And I think there is a certain sense of that right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you could hear the reluctance in his voice last night.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. The president wants to do two things. He wants to stay out of Iraq for probably and also certainly for political reasons.

He also wants to defeat ISIS and he wants to do both. And the problem is, if you try to do both, you are going to do both mediocrely. And that’s basically what has happened. I just don’t think you can do both. ISIS is a pretty impressive organization and they have taken over.

And for us to say we’re going to leave it to the Iraqis to take care of ISIS strikes me as probably not an option that’s going to be on the table. In the first place, getting the Iraqi government is an iffy proposition. Expecting the Iraqis to be able to beat ISIS on their own is so far unprecedented historically.

And, third, there’s a timing issue. Even if they do get a government, even if they are resolved to beat ISIS, it is going to be weeks and months. And ISIS is a pretty strong organization. They can do a lot of damage in the next weeks and months. And so I think this split-the-different policy the president has adopted of trying to be in and out at the same time is probably not going to be tenable. And I suspect he’s going to have to go in a little further.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I just would remind our listeners that, at the height of the Cold War and the height of his own popularity, Ronald Reagan could not persuade the American people to support a military effort against the armed insurgents in Nicaragua literally at our doorstep to undermine the Sandinistas.

Bill Clinton’s popularity was dropping when he went into the Balkans. The American people’s enthusiasm, support for an expanded United States war of men and women, not boots on the ground, which is the euphemism, but sending men and women into combat there, which is what would be required, is nonexistent. It just — it isn’t there.

DAVID BROOKS: What’s nonexistent is people calling for us to send American men and women into Iraq. That’s nonexistent. Nobody is calling for that.

But ISIS has become a threat, not only to the region, but to the United States. There are lots of Westerners in ISIS who declare — who want to launch terror attacks in Western Europe and the United States. ISIS is really a barbaric organization, as barbaric an organization as it’s possible to imagine on the face of the earth.

They are a threat obviously to Syria, to Jordan. The Saudis are beginning to wake up. Even the Turks, who have somewhat manipulated them, are going to beginning to wake up to the threat they pose. If you can’t build an international coalition to oppose ISIS, who can you build an international coalition for? And that seems to me what is necessary.

MARK SHIELDS: The idea of doing this without American military, we are the point of the spear. We literally are.

And the idea of doing that, of getting somehow this grand coalition and other countries to send their troops in, it’s quite obvious that the Iraqi military, which we spent years and great treasure building, and great effort, is not a functioning military unit.

And it doesn’t have a chain of command. It doesn’t have discipline. It is not an effective fighting force. The Kurds are. And that, quite frankly, is probably one of the major factors in the United States’ action today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They have needed help.

Well, I would just point out, presidents don’t look at polls, we know, on foreign policy. But there are polls this week giving the president historically low ratings on his handling of foreign policy. Striking to me that most of the people feel that the president is not — that the U.S. is not involved enough.

So, you know, what are we to make of this? And then some people are arguing the U.S. should do more, but more of them are saying we’re not doing enough, the president is not involved enough.

So, what do we take away from that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would say the general trends from the polls, it seems to me, is that people think we’re not controlling events, we’re being controlled by them.

And I think that’s the result of it’s a lot easier to do small stuff in the beginning than to do big stuff later on. And so when Syria was falling apart, many experts warned of two things, first, that the creation of a Syrian anarchic state would be a breeding ground for terror, and, third, that groups like ISIS would take hold.

And there was a debate a year or two ago about whether to put — help the moderate rebels in Syria. We decided not to. Now belatedly, we have done a little of that, but we did it very belatedly. And, as a result of that, we have this anarchic state. ISIS was able to grow. And then now they’re spreading across the region.

I think small acts of assertiveness in the beginning or constantly are better than having to do something big way after the problem is already gigantic.

MARK SHIELDS: We did big things in Iraq. We did really big things in Iraq. And we removed the head of their government. We changed their entire structure. That wasn’t a small thing.

And the jury is not out on Iraq. The American people believe we made a serious mistakes there. And the idea — we did go in partly in Libya. And that has not turned out to be such an enormous success.

I don’t in any way underestimate the serious charge of ISIS. I think, quite frankly, by what the president has done today, it probably raises the stakes that the United States will become part of their target and increases our vulnerability.

But I really don’t see — as far as foreign policy, your original question, Judy, according to Andy Kohut, our former colleague, our great colleague, former Pew head, you have got 3 percent of the American people saying that foreign policy is the matter of concern to them.

Yes, it’s hurt the president’s ratings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three percent?

MARK SHIELDS: Three percent.

It’s hurt the president’s rating — as a priority of their concerns. It’s hurt the president’s ratings, no question about it, but it is not a matter of great urgency to them.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s why you can never run a foreign policy on the polls.

The polls would have been against Hitler in 1933. That was clearly the wrong thing to do against doing anything against Hitler in the 1930s. The American people are not — that’s not their daily life, what is going on around the world. That’s why you need foreign policy leaders who will get out in front, look abroad.

I would say two things. First, you know, I agree with you about Iraq now. But we can’t have all our decisions today be based on what should have been done in 2003. And we do actually have this completely monstrous organization, which is going from strength to strength to strength.

It seems to me it’s simply not an option to let them continue. So we have to somehow absorb the lessons of 2003 and 2006 and the Iraq war and still somehow have an effective presence to prevent this sort of barbarism. And so accepting the case you make against the Iraq war to me doesn’t foreclose doing anything about ISIS, and learning and then moving on seems to me what we have to learn to do now.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. If we can agree on what we have learned, I think that’s important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn you quickly to the primaries. They’re almost over.

Interesting poll — again, polls, we usually don’t talk about polls — but showing women, Mark, by a — support — a majority of women want Democrats to be in majority in the Congress. Majority of men want Republicans.

What does that say? Does it affect the way the candidates are going to continue to fight for these Senate and House seats for the rest of this year?

MARK SHIELDS: That very same poll you referred — this is The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, I believe, Judy — revealed that the pain, the open wound that was the great recession is still very much with us.

And I think it’s fair to say that women experienced that more and are — not all women are mothers, but all mothers are women. They’re at the center of the family. And 40 percent of Americans live in households where somebody has lost his job in the last five years.

One out of five Americans lives in a household where somebody, either younger or parent, has moved in because of economic or health reasons. Who bears that burden? Women bear that burden disproportionately to men. And women are — that sense of security, of nurturing, empathy, call it what one will, is very much in play right now and called upon by the reality.

When we talk about 40 percent of Americans having lost their job, household, that’s 126 million people who live in a household where somebody has lost a job, and people have taken jobs at lower wages. So I really think that contributes to the Democrats’ advantage, because increasing minimum wage, equal pay and those issues.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I guess I see it more of a paradox.

If you actually look at who was decimated in this recession, women took enormous hits. But men really got decimated. Remember, there was a phrase. They called it the “mancession” because it was white working-class men who just got decimated. And those jobs are just not coming back.

And so I think they have suffered more of the economic pain, but, nonetheless, have more of a mentality I can do it myself and I don’t need community. I don’t want help. I can do it myself, whereas women have — clearly, as the polls show, want more economic security provided by government.

And if I were on the left, I would say the men are suffering from false consciousness that they can’t probably do it themselves and they should be looking to community. But I’m not on the left, so I will say something else, which is that the feelings of economic insecurity are just more socially acceptable to say maybe. Maybe it’s just harder to say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For women than it is for men.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t want to make this overgeneralization, but the polls suggest something like that is going on, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question, less than a minute.

Mark, this — today is the 40th anniversary of the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Could something like that happen again? Could we have a president who violated the Constitution and did the kind of that happened…

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. That’s what the Republican House case is about, right, that the president has broken the law.

But Richard Nixon, Judy, was a remarkable, dominant figure, five times ran for national office. Four times, he won. Only — Franklin Roosevelt was the other one. Just a dominant figure and a central figure.

And thank God, when he did leave, there were no tanks in the streets of Washington. We did it peaceably and we did it peacefully, because of political leadership of men like Barry Goldwater.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Some of his policies remind me that bad people can do good things. He did some good things while in office, until the Watergate thing.

MARK SHIELDS: He did a lot of good…

DAVID BROOKS: But I certainly think it could happen again.

And, you know, every president has tiptoed around the Constitution, expanded executive power. I think conservatives make a good case these days that, if the president gives this temporary status to immigrants on his own without a law, that really is trampling the Constitution in some significant way.

And I’m not saying President Obama is doing anything remotely like Watergate, but all presidents have a temptation to want to extend beyond Congress. And so it could. If something like this, where we have a worse man in office than we have now, it could happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sobering.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, we thank you.