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Shields and Brooks on turning around the VA, defining Obama foreign policy

May 30, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including the resignation of VA Secretary Shinseki and President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point.
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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 let’s pick up with the discussion Jeff was just having.

David, the resignation of Eric Shinseki, what would you add? Why did this have to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I hate these bloodlettings. It’s never obvious to me why one person is the problem.

I’m sort of a believer in experience. And it’s at least possible that somebody who’s been around there for five years knows the organization and may be in a better position than some outsider.

But it should be said that a government bureaucracy is not Microsoft. You can’t fire people. The incentive structure is not for change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean you can’t fire people?

DAVID BROOKS: You can’t do what a corporate turnaround artist can do. You just have a lot — if you’re in the military or if you’re a corporate turnaround artist, you have a lot of freedom to do fundamental restructuring, to get rid of people, to drop whole organizations, to sell off part of your company. You have a lot of flexibility.

If you’re running a federal agency, I can’t think of a turnaround. I just can’t think — I’m trying to think one, the Department of Education, Energy. I’m trying to think of one that’s fundamentally been turned around, just because the leverage is not there.

And that’s sort of the problem here is sometimes we bring in businesspeople, we bring in generals to run organizations — to run agencies. And Cabinet secretaries have potentially very limited control over the agencies they nominally head.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see going on here?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, Judy, this is a year divisible by two. That means it’s an election year. That’s why Eric Shinseki’s head had to roll.

And I just want to say a word about him. There is nobody in this town recently or today who had the integrity, had the respect and affection those whom — who worked with him. He was a man of unimpeachable — and is a man of unimpeachable integrity, a man who jeopardized his own career, put his on career, basically ended it by testifying honestly in the rush to war in 2003, when Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Under President Bush.

MARK SHIELDS: … telling us it was going to be a cakewalk. He said, no, it isn’t going to be. It’s going to require several hundred thousand troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if all that’s the case, why did he have to step down?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he had to step down because this is — it’s a tragic situation there at the Veterans Affairs and veterans care.

This is not Benghazi or this is not the IRS, which are essentially hyped-up, direct-mail conspiracy theorist scandals. This is — this is genuine. These are people who have served the country, who have paid dearly in many cases. And the medical care, it is being postponed. It’s not — it’s the access to it, and it hasn’t been there.

And he was misled by those whom he put in positions or had in positions of authority, whether David is right, he inherited them. But he believed them, as he had believed the people with whom he served in the military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, it sounds like you’re saying just the fact Eric Shinseki is gone doesn’t mean the problems can be fixed.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there seems to be universal agreement on that sense, on that proposition.

I have been struck about how much conversation there is about the whole system, just in articles. I’m not qualified to judge any of these, but should it run more like Medicare, where people are more in the private system, are given federal money to go pursue their health care in the private system?

Should the Pentagon and the VA have totally different systems which are sort of overlapping the same population at different stages in their careers? And do — should non-war wounds be treated by the VA? There’s a whole series of proposals floating out there.

And it strikes me that what we had fundamentally — and I think this seems to be well-established — a fundamental problem with supply and demand. The demand for these services, especially primary care services, were phenomenally high.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For millions and millions of veterans.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And the doctors were not there. And the doctors that were there were not getting paid enough, so the private sector was much more attractive for those doctors. And this is all at a time, it should be pointed out, since 2001, the VA budget has tripled. And so a lot of money — by current Washington standards, a lot of money has been going to the VA, and somehow it has not gone to solve this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, is the promise of the VA bigger than anything or anybody can deliver?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, the question of privatization — and I’m not qualified either to discuss — I will say veterans have opposed it.

Veterans have been by the actual measurement satisfied and more satisfied than have been Americans in — with private hospital treatment. They have been more satisfied. The problem has been one of access, basically. You’re not going to find a lot of suburban hospitals handling traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are certain — and David’s point is a good one about aging veterans with arthritis, or hearing problems, or whatever else, whether in fact they could certainly — that treatment could be available, you know, through another system, making — make it available to those who need it the most.

And veterans like to be with people who have gone through what they have gone through. And that is totally understandable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does this go back and raise, David, fundamental questions about the role of government and whether government ought to be trying to take on something as massive as this as taking care of every single person who’s ever served in the military for the duration of their lives?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it goes on to how you organize a very complex system, with rising populations and changing populations. And this is sort of the fundamental debate about Obamacare as well, is how much market mechanism should you have?

And, to me, it’s not a clear answer, to be honest. I would lean toward the market mechanism. But, nonetheless, Mark is right. The VA system is not poorly thought of. It has some real strengths. And, yet, nonetheless, when you have this supply and demand problem between the providers and the demand from the patients, that’s something the market does reasonably well.

Prices go up for the scarce doctors and you get more of them. And so that’s a problem to solve. But you’re right. Mark’s right. There are problems that a private system would also have. So it’s a complicated calculus.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I think we have seen it. That’s one of the reasons. Whether you applaud or disparage Obamacare, it’s addressing a real — it’s an attempt to address a real problem.

And that is, we do ration medical care in this country. We do it on the basis of dollars and health. If you’re poor and have a medical condition, you didn’t get medical care before. So, and I think that’s what we’re talking about here.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, just on the cooking of the books.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I — yes, nothing excuses that, of course.

Nonetheless, the people in charge of these systems were put in this — given these terrible incentives, where they were not given the right number of doctors, and yet they were evaluated completely, and so they were put in this impossible position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The earlier discussion with Jeffrey about bringing in somebody else, I mean, Eric Shinseki did two tours in Vietnam.

He was wounded, two Purple Hearts, which is two tours I think more than the four people who ran for president and vice president had among them in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk about something else on the — very much on the president’s plate this week, David, and that was the president’s foreign policy speech, billed, first one in a long time, West Point. He spoke to the graduates.

What did you make of the speech? Did we learn something new about how the president sees the U.S. — America’s role in the world?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think we learned his attitude.

Some of it is quite strong. They say the president’s an isolationist, retrenching, some of the critics. That’s clearly not true. The administration is out there building alliances on Iran and Syria. And so that’s clear.

I do think the president has two attitudes which came through in the speech. The first is that we have a lot more to fear from overreach than under-reach. They’re learning from Vietnam and Iraq we tend to mess up when we go too far. And that’s the lesson of Iraq and Iran.

I would say the lesson of the 1920s and 1930s is that we also — there’s also a problem of under-reach. And I think the president underestimates that. And I would say, for the past seven years of American foreign policy, we understood we had a responsibility to keep a global world order.

And that involved a very assertive U.S. position and sometimes the military efforts. During the Clinton and George H.W. Bush years, we had endeavors about every 17 months to try to keep the international order. President Obama clearly doesn’t want to lean forward in the way his predecessors did.

And so I think — among the many strengths of that speech, I think that leaning back creates a vacuum that people like Putin, people like the Chinese at their worst moments will fill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A danger of under-reach, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t see that.

First of all, any time — the president was criticized for this speech by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times editorial pages. The last time that those three organizations agreed on American foreign policy was when they endorsed the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2002.

So, I think that ought to tell you immediately right at the outset they’re wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And I think the president proved more than anything else in that speech, which was — my principal criticism of it, it was passionless — is that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. It was passionless.

There was no sense of a lift of a driving dream or anything of the sort to it. But I thought it was rational, as he is. I thought it was thoughtful. And I thought it was reasonable. He was elected to end wars, not to start them. And it reminded me so much of Mario Cuomo’s great line about, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.

And this was in prose. It really was. And I think David’s point is absolutely valid about, it is one of limitations, but it’s one of coalition-building. It’s one of multilateralism. It’s a George H.W. foreign policy, rather than a George W. Bush foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you’re saying? Is that what the mistake is, too many coalitions, not enough aggressive…

DAVID BROOKS: No, we need — first, I would to — Mark’s completely fallacious logic on why the editorial pages are all wrong. That made no sense.

MARK SHIELDS: Because the last time they agreed — the last time they agreed was to go to war in Iraq. If the three of them…

DAVID BROOKS: They agree spring is beautiful, and they’re right about that.

MARK SHIELDS: No, they never agree.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I forget. George H.W. Bush — where were we?

George H.W. Bush, we had a seizure of a big country seizing a small country under George H.W. Bush, Iraq seizing Ukraine — Kuwait. And we did something. Now, we had another case of Russia seizing Crimea. Now, nobody thinks we should put troops on the ground, but, nonetheless, some assertive way to control Putin’s ambitions, I think, is called for, something more assertive.

And the one thing I endorse and a couple of people have proposed, that the president goes to Kiev, in the way to JFK went to Berlin, just to make a statement. You don’t have to put boots on the ground. You’re making a statement, we stand with these people.

And that’s the kind of assertive use of U.S. power, U.S. prestige and most importantly U.S. values that I would like to see the president do a little more of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So go there and say, the U.S. is with…

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ich bin…

MARK SHIELDS: No, I — that’s an interesting idea.

And I do think, Judy, not to alienate both George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama simultaneously, George H.W. Bush, in 1991, when he put that coalition together, put a coalition of 32 nations together. People who had not spoken to each joined arms in — for a specific purpose, to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, which he invaded and occupied.

He got it ratified by a Democratic Congress and ratified by the United Nations. It was a remarkable — and paid for by the Gulf states and Germany and Japan. It was a remarkable act of diplomacy. And I think Barack Obama favors diplomacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in Europe, you have a reluctant group of…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. That’s true. And the question is, could we lean on them a little more? That’s an open question. I don’t really fault the administration too much for that.

I would like to go back to Mark’s limitation point, because I do think the president is very aware, both in domestic and foreign policy, of the limitations on American power, and I think a little overly aware. And I go back to the 2008 campaign, which really was a big-thinking hope and change campaign, and that campaign doesn’t really reflect the president we have seen recently.

And so I think he underestimates the power he does have sometimes, or at least in an ambiguous position, he plays cautious. And you salute prudence, you salute cautious. This controversial statement he made that we should hit just singles and doubles, I sometimes — I totally see the merit in that.

That’s what most of the government is. You just — singles and doubles, that’s fine. But, occasionally, there has to be a bigger vision, a bigger home run vision for the people of Kiev or the people around China, the people of Iran, the Middle East, Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very brief.

MARK SHIELDS: Singles and doubles are fine. I would rather have that than somebody swinging for the fences and striking out.

And the fact we have this overload at the VA hospitals is a testimony to 17 military encounters under both Presidents Bush and President Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you both.