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Shields and Brooks on the mounting crisis in Iraq, Cantor’s defeat

June 13, 2014 at 6:31 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including the crisis in Iraq and how the United States should react, as well as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss and what that means for both parties.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, our lead story tonight, you heard, David, our expert guests talking about the problem, the huge problems in Iraq. How much of — first of all, we know it’s a crisis. How much of a problem is it for the United States?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s a gigantic problem.

The idea — and this has been talked about by experts the last couple of years in particular — that it just becomes one big war, that the borders get erased, that the Sunni-Shiite splits — people are watching this — the Sunni-Shiite splits transcend borders and spread all over the region.

And so people have been watching the Syrian civil war. They have been watching what happening in Iraq on TV. And they’re getting — their sectarian anger is growing. And then you throw in some bad players who could manipulate it one way or the other, and it could slide over.

Then you have regional powers. You got Turkey. You got the Saudis, the Iranians. Everyone’s getting involved. And I just — what I read, what I hear from the people who really are experts, it’s World War I. It’s really a very perilous, extremely perilous situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, how does one know what the right thing to do for the United States is?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think anybody knows.

I was fascinated by — to listen to the discussion. But because nobody is sure what to do today or tomorrow, most of the debate has been about what you did wrong yesterday. Did it begin in 2003, when the United States invaded and occupied and dismantled the entire Iraqi military, the entire Iraqi government, the entire Iraqi, really, public sector?

And there’s that. But then the other bookend becomes, well, no, we did give them a chance, we built them up, we trained them, we supplied them, but leaving in 2011, was that the problem?

And I don’t think, Judy — it’s sort of the default position becomes, let’s bring in airpower. And you don’t just bring in airpower. You have got — we saw that in Afghanistan this week, where five Americans were killed in friendly-fire by a B-1.

You have to have the surveillance, the reconnaissance, the information, the analytics on the ground to exactly where — especially with a shifting battlefield.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the president has said no boots on the ground, no troops on the ground, and yet you would need — you’re saying you would need…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you need either Marines or special forces. You need people there to say this is — these are the coordinates. This is exactly what we do want to — and we don’t — the last thing in the world you want to do is have civilian casualties and deaths and collateral damage.

And so it’s a Hobson’s choice of the worst kind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, you have the man who ran against Barack Obama, President Obama, in 2008, John McCain, saying the whole national security team needs to be thrown out. The president needs to fire them all and bring a whole different group in.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does the president do? How do you make a decision like this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t know about throwing them all out, but McCain’s, I think, record has been reasonably good in the last four or five years.

I think he — when the thing happened in 2011, we withdrew, he pretty much warned that this would happen. He warned very early on that the Syrian civil war would spill over into Iraq, which is exactly what’s happened.

And so I do think whatever decision he made in 2003 to support the original invasion, what he predicted has come true over the last few years, and we’re in a bad situation for it.

I do think we somehow have to get involved. As the panel said, it has to be political. I think they do have to commit to a — the Iraqi constitution is a regional constitution. It’s a federal constitution which devolves a lot of power. That didn’t happen in practice. Maliki centralized everything. And that was obviously a poisonous and terrible decision.

But it was certainly the case that when U.S. forces were there, they, A, could block Maliki from being ultra-sectarian, and Ryan Crocker and people like that, and they could simply put tanks in the way, so when the Shiites wanted to do something oppressive to the Sunnis or vice versa, they could just get in the way.

Now, we’re not going to go back to that world, but the idea that we can do nothing and allow this to spill over, and allow the ISIL to really — a completely rancid organization — to take over large swathes of the Middle East, that seems to me perilous in the extreme.

So, I don’t know the practicalities of what we do with it, and how we sequence it, as Zal Khalilzad was saying, but I do think the president’s posture, which is very forward-leaning for him, I think that’s the right posture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, are you confident the president has the right people around him to make these decisions?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, Judy.

I certainly think John Kerry and Chuck Hagel bring to him something that has been missing for most deliberations, and that is people who know combat and know the price that it involves, who aren’t armchair commandos and talk about it.

I mean, John McCain, David can argue about his consistency. In 2003, John McCain had an enormous responsibility. And he was an uncritical cheerleader of that war.

I mean, he could have — he could have — and let’s be very blunt about it. Democrats were cowed. An awful lot of Democrats were terrified at that time of being accused of being soft on terrorism, and they went along. So the Congress really abdicated in 2003. And that law is still on the books. The vote was actually in 2002. The invasion was in 2003. That law is still on the books. The president has that authority still.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn the corner to the big explosion in this country this week, David, which was Eric Cantor, House majority leader, top Republican in the House, lost. No one saw this coming. Why not? Lost nomination.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it teaches us a few things. First, you can’t buy elections.

Eric Cantor outspent him by zillions to one, I think almost outspent him on steak houses alone compared to Brat’s entire combat. And so money — the limits on money were — once again, for the eighth million time, illustrated that you can’t buy elections.

I think the core story — there are two things, the core story of what caused the defeat and then the implications people are going to draw.

The core story that I think caused the defeat was people wanting some respect, feeling that Cantor had gotten out of touch with the district, too high and mighty, and the fact that he’s spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on steak houses maybe suggests they were right. And so I think he just lost touch with the district.

The implication that will be drawn is a much more ideological one, which was the Republicans cannot touch immigration, the Republicans could not compromise, and it is simply a fact that — the group The Third Way did a study where they asked Republican voters to analyze their own members of Congress. And Republicans voters think their members of Congress, Republicans, are much more centrist than they are.

Democrats line up pretty — the voters line up pretty well with their members of Congress. Republican voters do not think that. And so they’re of a mind to fire a certain number and Eric Cantor was one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does that say? Mark, what does all this say about the Republican Party?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you put the question best. You said nobody predicted it. Nobody did, all the pundit class.

And ever since, the pundit class — as soon as the polls closed, the pundit class, all card-carrying members, two of them sitting here, but, with rare exceptions, had a total explanation as to why it happened, why Eric Cantor lost, and why Brat won, Dave Brat won.

And, Judy, it just strikes me that Mr. Churchill said it best. The winners get to write history. And Dave Brat said what his campaign was about. And he said that the principal difference between himself and Eric Cantor was immigration. He said that was what defined him.

And the reality is that he won, Eric Cantor lost. I think David’s statement — he spent a million dollars, Eric Cantor did, advertising Dave Brat’s name, which Dave Brat didn’t have.

MARK SHIELDS: But I think there’s one factor that comes out of this, and having been up on the Hill yesterday, and that is, every member is terrified.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In both parties?

MARK SHIELDS: In both parties, but particularly because they know — immigration is dead. Let’s be very honest about it.

Some people have tried to put a spin on it. There is no Republican who is going to raise this issue and say, we have to cooperate, we have to somehow accommodate the other side. We can work it out. That — if anything, Eric Cantor was accused of being squishy on that subject.

There is — the spines are absolutely terrified on the Republican side right now. And they just — they don’t know.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And it should be pointed out. We have been sitting here — at least I have been sitting here the last several weeks saying the establishment is winning this, the Tea Party is weaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly. We were all saying the Tea Party was losing.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: And — but, nonetheless, if you take all those victories on one side and this one here, if you take in total the message, Tea Party.

MARK SHIELDS: No question.

DAVID BROOKS: And so, to me, it’s really a horrible outcome for the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

DAVID BROOKS: And I think there is overwhelming data on this, that if the Tea Party — if the Republican Party doesn’t get right on immigration, it’s a threshold issue. They really do not do well in a national election for a long, long time.

And every day, there’s more evidence that comes out, more survey data and everything. And so I think this makes it extremely unlikely the Republicans does get right or some sort of immigration reform.

MARK SHIELDS: Could I say, I agree with David?

2016 should be a Republican year. You have got a president who is in a third term — second year of his second term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean by historical…

MARK SHIELDS: By historical — there’s no Democratic third term. His numbers are a lot closer to George Bush’s than they were to Ronald Reagan’s or Bill Clinton’s.

And so it should be a Republican year. And yet the Republicans just gave the Democrats an enormous advantage for 2016. If they are…

JUDY WOODRUFF: With just one congressional primary win?

MARK SHIELDS: If immigration is going to be off the — no, Jeb Bush is no longer a hot property for 2016, because he is the pro-immigration candidate.

And, all of a sudden, if that becomes the third rail of Republican politics, that you can’t raise that in the 2016 primaries, then you’re going to be an older, whiter, more narrow, limited, minority party, and the Democrats just got unearned grace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how do you know this is going to last, I mean, that this nervousness about immigration — is this something that has legs, that is going to stick?

DAVID BROOKS: My instinct is that it will.

Now, it’s complicated. Rand Paul, he is sort of welcoming to immigration. Christie, a lot of the leading candidates are much more pro a comprehensive — some of comprehensive reform than the vote we just had.

Nonetheless, this vote underlines what will be evident in town halls as people are running, which is a lot of fervor on this vote side, on the anti-immigration side or anti-reform side. And it’s going to be hard for any candidate, especially a whole bunch of them, to resist that.

MARK SHIELDS: And the message is, we come in the night, we travel night, we don’t have a big media buy, and we come upon you, and we don’t need millions of dollars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Tea Party.

MARK SHIELDS: The Tea Party, and we will beat you. And we just beat Eric Cantor, and the only time the House majority leader has ever lost a primary. And this was unthinkable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it matter whether they elect one of their own to be a leader, to hold the leadership position in the House of Representatives?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they’re a party — I think the Tea Party, all due respect, is a party of opposition. It identifies grievances. It’s not much of an advocate. I don’t know what…

DAVID BROOKS: It’s very interesting.

I read — because I’m me, I read Dave Brat’s book, political theory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Economic — oh, oh.

DAVID BROOKS: And it’s a very bold, very good book, by the way. He’s very smart, very — really good book.

But it’s very intellectual. It’s very oppositional, very bold, and that’s the style we have here. If I could just make one point wrapping up, Hillary Clinton, she’s had a very mixed weak, because the Tea Party, if she’s the nominee, makes it much more likely the Democrats will win.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: But if she’s sort of there and Iraq is exploding, that’s really bad for her. So it’s interesting to see the world from her vantage point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re postponing Hillary Clinton until next week. We were going to talk about it tonight. Too much else.

Before we go, happy Father’s Day to both of you, David and Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.