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President Bush Prepares for Speech on Evolving Iraq Policy

January 10, 2007 at 4:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to some pre-speech perspective on what the president will say on Iraq tonight. It’s from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

State the stakes for the president tonight.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: First, if I could pick up on something John Burns just said…

JIM LEHRER: OK, you may.

DAVID BROOKS: … he said that Maliki doesn’t like this plan being imposed upon him, the embeds, the troops, the generals standing over his shoulder.

At the White House and the State Department, there were a whole series of briefings today for reporters and columnists. They went over the top to say, “This was Maliki’s plan. He designed the plan. This is an Iraqi-led plan. It’s Iraqi, it’s Iraqi, Iraqi,” trying to soothe the way for him to accept this, to buy into this.

And that is one of the tensions. And it seems to me there are a couple of tensions the president has to deal with tonight.

It’s a skeptical public. He’s got to show, in the military sense, this offers something new and different. I think that’s possible.

But then he’s also got to show in the political sense that the Iraqis are going to be different, that they are actually going to be nonsectarian. He’s got to do both those things in a persuasive way.

And then the third thing he’s got to do, honestly, is say how bad things are. And that I think he’ll do. It’s the political element that’s the most problematic for him tonight.

Prime Minister al-Maliki's role

JIM LEHRER: What do you see, Mark? What do you see what the president has to do?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: He has an almost impossible task, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Impossible?

MARK SHIELDS: Impossible. The president is speaking tonight to an electorate, to an audience that has run out of or is fast running out of confidence in his leadership, patience in the mission, and belief that the United States should be there or the thing can be turned around and made better.

JIM LEHRER: What about prime minister -- do you agree that Prime Minister al-Maliki is the key to this, whether or not -- it's interesting about -- where do you come down on what David said?

Because I heard the same thing. I heard a briefing that, "Oh, this was all Maliki's idea. None of this would have happened if Maliki hadn't had the idea." Now, John Burns says no, no, no, no, just the opposite.

MARK SHIELDS: I'll take John Burns over the briefers any day of the week. And I think that he has an enormous responsibility, Jim, but I'm not sure that even a strong man -- and no one has accused Maliki of being a strong man -- could bring it off, could end that sectarian violence.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree speeches, one side or the other, Maliki is the key to this? He either delivers, does something that needs to be done, and something changes on the ground, or it's...

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think the oil revenues is something that has to be done. I'm just not sure that he is the leader or there is a leader who can end that sectarian violence right now.

I mean, I think something has been unleashed there that our presence is tamping down. I think John Burns put it very well, that they don't like us being there, they don't want us to leave. They know the whirlwind that is being reaped.

Military power vs. other strategies

JIM LEHRER: The one thing that none of the briefers wanted to talk about, of course -- nobody wants to talk about, obviously -- is, what if? What if? I mean, what is the "or else"? Al-Maliki, you do this or else? What's the "or else"? Do you have any thoughts...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, someone explained it to me as, "Al-Maliki, you do this, or we'll shoot ourselves in the head," which is not a particularly effective threat to make, as they well understand.

I think one of the things the Americans are going to stress and Bush is going to stress tonight is, if this fails, how bad things are going to be. And so, listen, the best thing he has going for him is, a, there's really no other serious plan on the table right now. The Democrats haven't come up with anything. Dissenters in the Republican Party haven't come up with anything.

And, b, if you just give up and we go away, things could get really awful. So that is the one strength he has. The second strength he has is the new generals there, Gen. David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno, who are well-respected, aggressive counterinsurgency fighters.

The military thing, I think, it is plausible. As Burns said, Iraqis understand more troops on the ground does equal more stability, if they can stay there. But militarily it seems to me what the president is going to do is maybe not lead to success, but plausible. The political element is still just hanging out there, though.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, if there's one lesson that has to be learned from this, is that defeating an enemy on the battlefield is not synonymous with or not to be confused with winning the war.

I mean, we haven't lost a battle. I mean, we can talk about -- there is not a military solution to this. There is not a military solution. Regardless of how many, how good, what kind of great leadership the American military has, there is no military solution.

There has to be -- and, I mean, this administration has been bereft of diplomatic, and political, and economic imagination in dealing with this area, I mean, and with terrorism in general.

The position of the Democrats

JIM LEHRER: What's the element -- or what's your reading of the imagination that is now available to Democrats tonight and after tonight, what the president says and does afterward?

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats did not win in November; the Republicans lost. The Republicans did not lose because of Jack Abramoff, and Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham. They lost because of Iraq, and because of this president's failed leadership, and the perception that the administration had either intentionally or unintentionally led us into a war that was not justified by the reasons they gave, and had been run miserably.

So the Democrats have a very brief honeymoon. That's all. The people did not elect the Democrats to have them say, "We can't do anything." I mean, by a seven-to-one margin, this is the most important issue to Americans.

It's 20 times more important than taxes. It's seven times more important than health care, by actual measurement, Iraq, and resolving Iraq this year. So the Democrats can't just say, "We're going to have resolutions. We can't do anything." They can get by with that tonight, but that will not be an acceptable answer after tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Democrats have got to do things?

DAVID BROOKS: I absolutely do. There are millions of Republicans and independents who are disaffected with the Bush White House and the Bush Iraq policy. They're looking for something different.

The Democrats have offered them absolutely nothing, no serious counterproposal. Some think we should get out quickly, but you've got to explain why it wouldn't be so bad if we got out quickly, that the future in the Middle East would be fine.

Some think we should get out gradually. You've got to understand why that isn't like pulling a tooth slowly.

Some people like Joe Biden, who I think is in the most intelligent framework, say you've got to think about federalizing the problem. But you've got to make that practical.

Somehow you've got to take these different approaches and actually put together a serious proposal that people can weigh against the president's proposal. There has been no serious Democratic proposal.

The president's proposal is the only serious one sitting out there. And as a result, there's no alternative.

Alternative proposals?

JIM LEHRER: But why is it the Democrats' job to come up with a proposal?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, because they're Americans. You know, it's not their job politically. Listen, I understand the Democratic impulse, "I don't want to have come up with a proposal. I might get -- I didn't make this mess. I don't want any of the blame."

And I understand that politically. But for the sake of the country, for the sake of the next 30 years, having an alternative proposal that makes sense would be a good thing. Listen, enjoying Bush's humiliation will be fun for a year or two, but the morass in the Middle East could go on for a generation. And so, you know, it's everybody's job to have a proposal.

JIM LEHRER: But the Democrats are going to have to react to a plan, they're going to have to react to a 20-minute speech.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: And do they then say, "Well, we've give it two weeks, we'll give it two months, we'll give it 18 months. We'll do what, and just see what happens on the ground, and pass some resolutions otherwise"?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think they'll pass a resolution, and I think they'll get Republican support for it. I think the reality...

JIM LEHRER: Several Republican senators are already...

MARK SHIELDS: ... Gordon Smith and Susan Collins and others. And I think the reality is right now is not quite the way, the picture David presented.

The Democrats are more united in opposition and, I think, with the American people to what the president is proposing tonight than are the Republicans in support of him. One out of three Republicans opposes, even before the president speaks tonight, what he...

JIM LEHRER: You mean, bringing in 20,000-plus more troops?

MARK SHIELDS: ... bringing 20,000 more troops. And the president and his side, his supporters, have to explain why leaving now would be a disaster, but why leaving in six months, or 18 months, or two years is going to be better, that somehow eventually we're going to leave.

Americans are going to leave. And the reality is that, unless there are profound and dramatic changes -- and that's why I say reality trumps rhetoric here -- the president has a very brief window of opportunity. Things have to improve and have to change, or his lease and the public's confidence in his lease is just running out.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the Democrats are united in opposition, but it's opposition. It's not positive; it's solely negative.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We'll see what happens tonight. Thank you.