JIM LEHRER: And to analysis by syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry.
Mark, how did the president handle the heat over Iraq?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, he went with the strong suit that he had, which is the elections, and I don't think anybody, given the turnout that we have in this country, could do anything but admire the bravery of people who are willing to risk if they do on Sunday, risk the security of their family, the safety of their neighborhoods and their own families to vote.
He did lower the bar in terms of what the turnout was and would be; that if, you know, a dozen people showed up, it is going to be a victory of sorts. I mean, it's a difficult thing for the president because he's had to reinvent the reason for going there. You know, now it's elections and democracy for the Iraqis.
Quite bluntly, if he had come to the Congress when he the three years ago and said I'm going to ask for $200 billion and 12,000 American casualties to secure free elections in Iraq, there wouldn't have been a vote.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Rich Lowry, how did you think the president did on just generally on Iraq? And then we'll go through some of the specifics on Iraq.
RICH LOWRY: Sure. Well, I think Mark is basically right. He emphasized the fact; the very fact of having an election constitutes a victory. At least that's how President Bush was trying to set the standard, rather than getting into any turnout... any specifics about turnout and try to set the bar for success more specifically.
But the fact is, we are going to see millions of people vote in Iraq. The Sunni turnout will very likely be disappointing. But about 80 percent of the country, the Shiites 60 percent, the Kurds roughly 20 percent, are broadly, with differences, but broadly on board a new Iraq.
And you are going to see almost every Shiite in that country vote. So I think the administration is looking forward to coming out Monday and being able to tout this election -
JIM LEHRER: Sure -
RICH LOWRY: -- as a step forward in its vision for Iraq and President Bush today was trying to set the predicate for that.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see that, Rich, as false optimism on the president's part, or is it even possible to even tell at this point?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it's very difficult to tell. You know, Iraq is basically a 50-50 proposition, I think, in whether it turns out to be a success or failure. But a key point, Jim, to remember, is that this is a rolling process.
And the election Sunday is, in some ways, the first step, and even if the Sunnis do not turn out for this election, and they're certainly not going to turn out in the kind of numbers that the Shia are, the question is: Will they be bought into the process further down the line? And so far the united Shiite slate, which by the way, its very creation itself, I think, is a significant act of political pluralism, that slate includes religious parties, includes secular parties.
It includes some Sunnis. And the leaders of that slate have made it absolutely clear that they consider it imperative to reach out to responsible Sunni leaders in the wake of the election to give them leadership of some of the ministries, to probably include a Sunni, I'd imagine in this three-part presidential council and to certainly include them in the writing of the constitution going forward.
Now whether actually the Sunnis buy into any of that or not remains to be seen, and that's the key question in terms of whether we'll be able to bleed this insurgency of its support, is whether you'll be able to erode the Sunni support for the insurgency by buying them into the political process.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, and of course following up on that, what Rich just said, the president spoke directly to the Iraqi people today. He said, you know, please go out and vote if you can. I understand why it is going to be difficult, what you said earlier.
But he was also talking to the American people today as well. This was a tough day, as I've just reported and as he knew when he was talking this morning, that over 30 Americans died today, which is more than on any other day of the war since March 2003.
But he was asked specifically about whether he was concerned about the lessening of support for the war. Didn't take that on directly, but do you think he spoke to it indirectly?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it was John King of CNN who put the question right to him. When the president entered this war, Jim, and I think again it goes to the case for the war and the fact that Colin Powell is so vehemently persuasive, there was an overwhelming majority of Americans who favored that war. And he's now lost that.
And there is a majority now who question the wisdom of the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq and its end. I think - I don't think the president stopped the erosion today. I do think that it was a message to the Iraqi people, and you've seen it in the administration the last couple of days, we are going keep our troop level; as soon as the voting polling was closed on Sunday, that the United States isn't going to break camp and haul tail out of there.
I think that message was something the president felt was important to deliver to the Iraqis today. I don't think there was a message to the American people that made the case convincingly.
JIM LEHRER: Would the case to the American people be following up on Rich's point, that these elections are crucial and if the elections go well and are seen as having gone well and being democratic, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, that's the message for the American people?
MARK SHIELDS: It is a message but I don't think it's a persuasive message.
JIM LEHRER: Could be?
MARK SHIELDS: Could it be.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MARK SHIELDS: I, you know, I don't think so. I really think, Jim, that we've had too many turning points in this war already. I mean it was the capture of Saddam. It was turning over of control to them. It was the formulation of their own security guards.
Now it's the election, this is the election of -- remember these are people who are going to write the constitution. We are not talking even about election of office holders. So I mean, you know, I think each time there's a hope that that's going to be the turning moment.
JIM LEHRER: Rich, is it overstating the thing to say that, in terms of support of the American people, that what happens in the Sunday elections is crucial?
RICH LOWRY: It's important. It's not the beginning and end of the question. And this is where, Jim, I'd like to agree with two points Mark has made. But I'd like to amplify them a little bit -
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
RICH LOWRY: -- or add on to them. One is Mark is right. There's nothing President Bush is going to say at any press conference and nothing he said at this one that's going to convince the American public that the Iraq War was the correct thing to do and was not a mistake.
The only thing that will convince Americans is events on the ground. And Sunday is a crucial part of that and this whole next year is going to be a crucial part of that. If a year from now you have a legitimate mostly democratic Iraqi government that has taken significant steps in being able to provide for its own security and army, well, then you'll see those numbers change, but it won't have anything to do with the verbiage of President Bush.
And just one other point: Mark is correct; if President Bush had gone to Congress two years ago and said we are doing Iraq entirely to spread democracy, we don't care about WMD, we don't think he has WMD, this is an entirely idealistic enterprise, he wouldn't have gotten the vote. Let me make this point about why this enterprise is still connected to the war on terror even though the WMD wasn't there.
And that is we are engaged in a political and ideological struggle against al-Qaida, not just a military one. And al-Qaida will be defeated when they are discredited politically. And so that involves a fight over the future of Islam. That's something we don't decide. It's something Muslims are going to have to decide.
And in Iraq right now, you have a stark presentation of the two different views of Islam. You have Ayatollah Sistani saying vote; it is your religious duty to vote. Democracy is a good thing. Then you have Zarqawi saying democracy is evil and against Islam. Iraq is a proving ground for that debate.
And what Iraqis decide, not just Sunday but over the course of the next year or so, I think will go a long way to telling us whether Muslims themselves will reject al-Qaida and that backwards ideology and embrace modernity.