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Shields and Brooks on Islamic State as ‘cancer,’ Crist’s campaign

August 29, 2014 at 6:36 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week’s top news, including the threat of the Islamic State, the struggle to unify allies in the Mideast, the prospects of immigration reform and the Florida gubernatorial race.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: And that brings us to the weekly analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So the phrase from yesterday’s press conference that everybody left on was that we have no strategy. But since we’re the “NewsHour,” we will go a little deeper than that.

So, is there a time right now in this country in the appetite for a national conversation, a congressional debate about whether or not to use force and what sort of force?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if there’s an appetite. There’s a need. There’s an urgency.

And I want to start off by giving the props or the shout-out to three members of the House, which is usually an institution that gets much scorn and abuse from those of us in the press.

Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat of California, Congressman Walter Jones, a Republican of North Carolina and Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the three of them wrote a letter to John Boehner, urging the speaker, upon return to the House on September 8, that they take up the question of Iraq and Syria, and the authorization of added force, or whatever it is, and to define the mission, to debate and to determine just exactly what the United States’ policy is and to vote on it.

This makes them unpopular with their colleagues. As Bob Dole said once, members of Congress love — we members of Congress love to make tough speeches. We don’t like to cast tough votes.

And this will be a tough vote, especially on the eve of election. Most people don’t want to do it. It is necessary. We didn’t do it 12 years ago. We had a hurried, rushed election, a debate when Democrats were terrified of being accused of being soft on terrorism, and they were cowed. And we had misinformation and misdirection, and tragedy result.

And I just think that it’s absolutely imperative and — and urgent.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I agree.

I’m a big fan of presidential action. I think, legally, the president has the right to take action in this case. Nonetheless, for the effectiveness of the action, for the good of the country, I do think we need a big national debate about it.

And I think you could probably get a bipartisan support for something. To me, the crucial issue is how we frame this. Do we see these as a distinct war in Syria, something distinct in Lebanon, something distinct in Syria, something distinct in Iran?

And, to me, it’s — what we need in this debate is an appreciation — a step-back and appreciation of the problem. And this is not what the administration has given us so far. Hisham Melhem earlier in the program had a very good analogy of the Spanish Civil War, that you had a global — people coming in on two different sides.

And that’s scary because the Spanish Civil War really was the precursor to World War II. Other people, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, have called it a Thirty Years’ War, this big religious feud. The Thirty Years’ War was a horrifically destructive war in Europe in the 17th century.

And so to figure out what it is we’re dealing with, why al-Qaida, and ISIS, what’s the — what’s the relationship between the two, what’s the relationship to other jihadi organizations, and how do we get involved in what will be a long-running, probably medium-level conflict for a long time to come?  We haven’t really had that post-Iraq debate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, let’s shift gears now to the Ukraine.

Each day, President Vladimir Putin is able to increase the rhetoric. Whether these are video game or actual satellite images of 1,000 Russian troops crossing the border into Ukraine, whether it’s called an invasion or an incursion, how does the West, how does Ukraine deal with this, but how — what is the American role, if there is one?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, American role is an obligation.

I mean, in 1994, for — for Ukraine to surrender its considerable nuclear arsenal at that time, there was a guarantee given by the United States and Western democracies and European nations of support and defense and security.

And I don’t think there is any question that that obligation is on the table right now. I mean, the plausible deniability that Putin could sort of hide behind has just been totally exposed, totally sabotaged, totally revealed for the fraud that it is. This, quite frankly, is an attempt on his part, whether it’s an alley or an avenue, down to Crimea and his concern about the water port and openness there.

But I think the obligation is there. And I think the world is watching. And NATO next week will bring it to a front.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is this NATO’s responsibility more than ours?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s everybody’s.

This is — both the Middle East and what is happening in Ukraine are symptoms of the vacuum, a vacuum in the post — or in the 21st century order, and it’s partly an American — a vacuum of American power. It’s certainly a vacuum of European cohesion, power. It’s certainly an inability of the major countries of the world, including China, to get together and actually impose an order that will be good for everybody.

And so, when you have no order, then the wolves get more aggressive. And Putin has gotten more aggressive. And I think the administration, I think a whole lot of people in the administration have been very aggressive verbally, rhetorically. They understand the source of the problem.

I think the president has not been aggressive enough. This is an invasion. When you take over a part of the country to get — so you can have a land route to Crimea, that’s an invasion. It’s not a continuation of what they have been doing. It’s not low-level harassment. It’s a major invasion on European soil.

And so you just can’t allow that to happen. And, so, to me, the first step has to be, if the Russians are pouring sophisticated material into the — their proxies, then the West has to pour some more sophisticated material into our proxies, essentially. And that’s been an issue that has been debated over and over again. But I think raising costs for Putin, showing some commitment to the Ukraine, both financial and militarily, has to be at least the first step.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, we have had definition of invasion. Let’s — let me just pivot back towards Syria for a second.

If the U.S. makes attacks inside Syria, a sovereign nation, is that not a declaration of war?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think it meets certainly one definition of a declaration of war.

That’s why I think the debate — I mean, the debate that we didn’t have 12 years ago was — for example, if we’re going to do this — David is talking about 30 years or 20 years or whatever it is, a long twilight struggle, call it what you will — I mean, this is going to — it’s a country fights a war. An army doesn’t fight a war.

And if this country isn’t willing to fight a war, then we should never send an army. That is really — it’s not just something that we’re rooting or supporting the troops and standing up at a ball game.

This — we would be the first Americans since the Civil War not to accept the responsibility of paying for a war. In every war since the Civil War, Americans have increased their taxes. we need a debate on sacrifice being — the quality of sacrifice in war, as well as what the objective is. How do we know what our mission is?  How will we know when we have achieved it?

I just — I think it’s a — this debate is so urgent and so necessary to understand and to agree upon what we’re undertaking.

DAVID BROOKS: I do agree with that.

And the president has to — is playing a role. I thought the important statement he made was not the one that got all the attention, that, “I have no strategy.”  He keeps calling ISIS a cancer. And I think that’s the right metaphor. That suggests it’s going to spread, and it will spread unless you stop it, which if you diagnose this as a cancer, which I think is the right diagnosis, then you have got to do something about it.

And the paradox of the Obama presidency will be, it will be a much more militarized presidency in its final two years than any of us could have imagined. But the alternative is a Middle East that is much worse when he leaves office than when he took off — over, a Europe that is in much worse shape than when he leaves office than took over, a global world order that is in much worse shape.

And so figuring that out — and it’s not going to look like the wars of World War II. It’s not going to look like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s going to be sort of a low-level war fought on all sorts of fronts, militarily, financial, otherwise. Figuring that out is still in the future for us all.

And so that’s why I do think we ought to link all these things and think as broadly as possible and have this debate Mark…

MARK SHIELDS: To his credit, the president doesn’t have about him that sort of counterfeit, synthetic macho that Americans leaders oftentimes affect at a time of national emergency.

He doesn’t have a swagger about him. And I think that is to his credit. At the same time, a president’s job, especially at a complex time like this, a confusing, confounding fast-changing world, is to be the explainer in chief. And he was anything but that yesterday. And that’s a responsibility that he has to fulfill.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s because he’s being dragged in against his will. He doesn’t want to be here. I don’t blame him. Nobody wants to be here.

But even within his own administration, within his own party, there are lot of foreign policy experts who take a more aggressive stand. His posture on foreign affairs has always been to dig in his heels and get dragged often against his will. And he’s going to dragged against his will to be much more assertive around the world in the final two years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, let’s talk about a domestic policy issue that he might not want to be there for. This is immigration.

Now, should — does the president have the authority and should he go it alone right now, given where his support is, given the midterms coming up?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, let’s do — let’s take the high road and go directly to the midterms.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: The Senate is in balance. And for the president to act unilaterally at this point through executive action on immigration would be, in I think the judgment of most Democrats, a disservice to service in tough races, people like Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and states that do not have either a large Hispanic population or where this issue is not front burner.

It would — Mark Udall, where the Latino vote has been crucial to the president in carrying it twice and to Mark Udall’s own election in ’08, and Michael Bennet’s as well, is the exception. But I think that the more the Democrats raise this issue and this possibility, it brings out the worst in the Republicans. This is a race that is really about defining and putting a face on your opposition.

And to the degree that Senator Ted Cruz on this issue or Steve King, the congressman from Iowa, become the voice and the face of the Republican Party, it probably helps — it undoubtedly helps the Democrats, because it’s — they are not seen as rational leaders, people who have voted to close down the government. And I think the Democrats can play — Barack Obama does not scare people, but the prospect of closing down the government does scare people.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

This is a debate within the White House apparently, that some people think it will hurt Democrats in red states if the president sort of takes away the threat of deportation. Some people think, no, it may — the Republicans will overreact, and it will help us nationally.

I happen to think the people who think the red state issue, that think this will be bad in the midterms probably have the more persuasive case. But you could easily make the case it will really hurt us in the short-term, if we’re a Democrat, but it will help us in the long-term, because it will further solidify Latino votes for us if the Democrats — if the Republicans go really bananas over this deportation issue.

But it interesting. It’s all being fought out on politics grounds. On matters of substance, I agree with the policy. I do not think the White House has the right, the constitutional right to impose a major legislative change on its own. I do not think this is a legitimate act for the White House to do, as much as I think, on policy grounds, it’s a good act.

MARK SHIELDS: There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, some of whom stayed — overstayed a visa, some of whom were brought here as children, had nothing to do about it. But we are not going to — so it is somewhat of a manufactured issue.

We’re not going to export, deport, round up 11 million people. So, I mean, this is really — it is a political issue. And it’s being…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, you can’t really — you can’t — it’s effectively changing the law if you say, OK, this is officially not going to happen. And that’s — Congress has to be involved.

I just hate the idea of president doing this all by himself, any president.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

And, finally, in Florida, interesting governor’s race. As the Morning Line e-mail noted this — today, that it would be — if Charlie Crist was able to win, it would be the first time in Florida that a governor has been able to switch parties and succeed twice. Could he be successful here?

MARK SHIELDS: He could be.

The irony of this — I mean, Charlie Crist was elected as a Republican, as you know, and ran as an independent for the Senate, and was trounced by Marco Rubio, and now is running, won the Democratic primary, very convincing.

This is a state where, ironically, President Obama, who is not sought by most Democratic candidates to come in on their behalf, except to raise money this year, could be of help. I mean, when he carried the state, the turn — the composition of the electorate was 67 percent white, the turnout among Latinos, African-Americans and Asians.

And it was three-quarters white when Rick Scott was elected in 2010. So, the president, if he can generate enthusiasm on those constituencies, could be a help to Charlie Crist.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I’m just…

HARI SREENIVASAN: In five seconds.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m just a little more skeptical. It’s hard to — it’s too left for the Democrats — too left for the Republicans, too right for the Democrats.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: Stuck in the middle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks so much.