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Shields and Brooks on Mideast Turmoil, Obama in Asia, Giving Thanks for Politics

Jeffrey Brown and NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week’s top political news, including the U.S. role in an evolving and conflicted Middle East, President Obama’s trip to Asia, criticism of Ambassador Susan Rice, Jesse Jackson Jr.’s resignation and what they are thankful for in U.S. politics.

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    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who's in Philadelphia tonight.

    So, David, far-flung correspondent, we will start with you.

    Mohammed Morsi is the essential mediator one day, and then seen by some as a potential dictator the next. What do you take from this week about the implications for the continuing American role in the Middle East?



    Well, first, I thought President Obama deserves a great deal of praise for how he's handled this. He could have really taken it out on Israel. Some people thought he has not been supportive of Israel. Some people thought that since Benjamin Netanyahu was a little pro-Romney, it seemed, during the campaign, there might be some bad blood there.

    But I think it has to be said, over the last couple of weeks, the Obama administration has been extremely supportive of Israel. And so that's one thing.

    And then the second thing they have done is, they have worked with the new Egyptian government. And that wasn't necessarily a done deal either. And so they have given us this cease-fire.

    And so we had a pretty, you know, serious military exchange. But the American-Egyptian relationship wasn't frayed. The American-Israeli relationship wasn't frayed. And, importantly, the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, while frayed, is still functioning.

    And so I think they have done a reasonably good job of stabilizing things. Now, Morsi has taken this opportunity to create a bit of a constitutional crisis there, and there we're going to have to stick to our guns and be the pro-reform force, even for somebody who is trying to usurp power.


    Mark, does it suggest that President Obama might have to spend more capital and time on the Mideast than perhaps he wanted in his second term? This actually happened while he was in Asia.


    It did happen while he was in Asia. And I agree with David.

    The irony, of course, was that during the campaign between him and Hillary Clinton, which turned bitter in 2008, one of her most famous needles of him was the 3:00-in-the-morning phone call. Was he up to it?

    Well, we found out he was making phone calls at 3:00 in the morning which apparently contributed to the resolution David has just described.

    And he was in Asia, you're right, Jeffrey, because we have been preoccupied with this region for the past 20 years, of the Middle East, I mean, starting with the Iran — the Iraq invasion, driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the administration of the first George Bush, all the way through the past 12 years of wars. There's just — and continuing with Iran.

    So, I think that the president did show restraint. I would go a little bit further than David. I thought Benjamin Netanyahu did everything except put a Romney button on his lapel and a Romney bumper sticker on his car. There was no question about it.

    But I think he understands — he's up for re-election — the people of Israel do not want to see relations with the American people and the American administration in any way strained. And I think he understood his position as well.

    And we have got people not being killed right now, and that is good.


    David, just thinking again about the president being in Asia for what they have called his pivot to that region, to China, and then, of course, the Middle East bubbles up again. Do you — what does that portend, do you think, for his foreign policy and his attentions?


    Yes. Well, I have to say we didn't really talk much about foreign policy in the campaign. And there was sort of, I think, an underground consensus on what to do.

    But one certainly had the sense this week that foreign policy was going to be a big theme in the second term. Basically, you look around the world and the global project is in crisis all over the place.

    The Middle East is what it is. And I still think the fundamental issue is the Arab Spring and whether it turns into an Islamist spring. Europe today is still at a bit of a pass where they can't get their fiscal house in order. That's really a long-term problem.

    You look over in China, first, the Chinese experts I speak to are pretty pessimistic about the Chinese economy, some thinking growth could fall to as low as 3. Political reform is certainly not on the acceleration there. It's probably on the deceleration. And who knows what effects that could have.

    The global project has sort of been a problem, and it could be what Obama spends the next four years on. And I have to say, as someone who is critical of a lot of his domestic policies, I think he's been pretty good.

    He's certainly someone who has a very cautious, nuanced and prudent foreign policy. He doesn't try to simplify complicated issues. And sometimes it's overly cautious, but in mysterious times like these, overcaution is not the worst of sins.


    Mark, he does, the president, that is, find himself still embroiled in this question of Benghazi, and particularly focused on Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador.


    He does.

    And just one point that David made I wanted to follow up on, and that is, the Arab spring has made it impossible for any leader — Mubarak could really ignore Hamas.

    But now, given the Arab spring and the democratization of policy, even though we see Mr. Morsi today sort of reversing that policy, proving that both elected and unelected leaders can be dictatorial, that Hamas got a preeminence and a prominence that it had not had before in this showdown, that we had Tunisia, we had Egypt, we had Turkey all basically endorsing, much to the demise and disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority and its decline.

    So, I think that's a real — the Benghazi thing is fascinating to me, basically because I think the charge against Lindsey Graham, for example, is unfair, that somehow he's driven by terminal sexism. This is a senator, a Republican senator from South Carolina, who did vote for the confirmation of Elena Kagan and for Justice Sotomayor as well.


    You're referring to him coming out against Susan Rice.


    Coming out and threatening — threatening this filibuster with John McCain, which I think is an irrational act on their part. I really do, not simply because presidents have an option and should have the benefit of the doubt on a confirmation to the Cabinet.

    This isn't a judicial lifetime appointment. And I don't think either Senator Graham or Senator McCain was particularly vocal when Secretary Condoleezza Rice was nominated for that position, having been national security adviser, and predicted the arrival of the mushroom cloud because of the nuclear weapons that Iran — that Iraq was then, under Saddam Hussein, harboring.

    So, there seems to be a degree of irrationality. The president has now made it a big fight. And we have seen liberal press people come out citing the shortcomings, personality shortcomings of Susan Rice. I mean, it's just a — it's sort of a bizarre season, and I can't figure out where this is going.


    Well, David, what do you think? Why have Republicans made this such — made her such a focal part and made this such a fight?


    I guess my theory is that she's a sharp-tongued, blunt person, and, in the past, she has taken some shots at John McCain and others. And so this is their chance.

    They have no wellspring of sympathy with her, the way they actually probably do with John Kerry, her potential rival to be the next secretary of state, having taken a bunch of delegation trips with Kerry around the world. And so I suspect there's a lot of old history here that is bubbling up.

    Personally, I don't think it should be disqualifying if Obama decides to choose her as the next secretary of state. Listen, she's ambassador to U.N. She's not in charge of intelligence, and she's not in charge of intelligence reports.

    It is simultaneously true that they do seem to have scrubbed the intelligence report that she got of any al-Qaida mention. That was probably done within the intelligence community herself.

    Her job as U.N. ambassador was just to tell what that intelligence report said on the Sunday shows, and that's what she did.

    So, I don't think there's any reason to disqualify her based on anything that's happened in the last year. And, frankly, I guess I would cut her a little slack for some of the political attacks she's taken. So, I guess I don't agree with Graham and McCain on this one.

    But if you're going to be a diplomat, you should probably be diplomatic all the way around.



    And if not, you're going to come in for a little criticism.




    And Benghazi has almost taken on a Yalta-like fascination, or who lost China. I mean, that it seems to — there's no question there are legislate questions about why the security was so inadequate, but the idea that this was some master conspiracy hatched in some foreign capital just seems a little bit beyond…


    All right, guys, I just…




    Yes, go ahead. Go ahead. David, you wanted to jump in?


    Oh, I just would say I think this is echoes of the WMD thing, where the Bush administration was accused of lying when I think they were just being led by — misled by intelligence, and now they're trying to put the glove on the other hand.


    All right, I just wanted a pivot of our own to domestic politics for — in our last couple minutes, because this week also saw the resignation of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., Mark.

    He resigned Wednesday, citing health reasons. We know he's been treated for bipolar disorder. He has said he's under federal investigation. He came in with all kinds of promise. This seems to be the end of a career, political career.


    Yes, he did.

    And I liked him. I thought he was an able legislator, elected in 1995. I mean, he was only 30 when he came in and went on the Appropriations Committee, and moved beyond his father's shadow, was involved in bringing clean water to his own community and scholarships for and funding for preparatory schools.

    He really — he did something beyond what was predicted for him. But he got — he got sucked up in one of the terrible scandals in not simply Illinois. When a governor, especially a corrupt governor like Rod Blagojevich, wants to appoint a United States senator, and the bidding and auction gets in, and he allowed himself, apparently, or seemed to, become involved in the auctioning of that seat to replace Barack Obama.

    And the irony is that nobody has moved, Jeffrey, from a congressional black district, overwhelming majority minority district in this country, to a statewide office like the United States Senate. And if Barack Obama had beaten Bobby Rush in 2000 in that primary, he probably never would have been — grew from it as well. That was the best thing that ever happened to his career.

    And I just — I think Jesse — Jesse Jackson Jr. had five press conferences in his first five years in the Congress. He wasn't a publicity hound. He was a real legislator. And it's sad.


    David, what do you make of that?


    Well, there are two issues here.

    There is the use of the campaign funds, which we put off to the side, and we don't know how serious that investigation is. And that may have been enough for him to resign.

    Then there's the mental health issues. And I guess I think we should adopt a posture of extreme tolerance on those mental health issues. A lot of fine people, including Abraham Lincoln, I'm thinking about it, had some mental health, periods of depression, Winston Churchill, and they seemed to do OK.

    So, if at all possible you have a public servant who has some mental health issues and maybe has to take some time off, I do think we should try to be tolerant of that.

    And so I was saddened that he had to leave, if that was the reason, rather than the investigation.


    All right, David, both of you, in a word here, because we're really at the end, last week, David, you and Ruth were so negative about the campaign. You called it the worst campaign I ever covered.

    We're in the glow of family Thanksgiving, turkey, all that. What are you thankful for in American politics?


    Well, I'm thankful for politics.

    And I have been raving about the Steven Spielberg "Lincoln" movie, which takes you — shows what you politics really can do. And it involves some nastiness, some dirtiness, but it shows why politics is still a noble profession.


    Aha, a movie.



    I think it's great. I endorse "Lincoln," which I have seen.

    I still like the humor of politics.

    We didn't see much from either presidential candidate. But Rick Perry, an unlikely source, produced great humor when he said standing next to Mitt Romney in all the debates, he kept expecting Mitt Romney to lean over and say, excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?



    I mean, now, that's a funny line, and coming from Rick Perry.

    And I just like the fact that we can still laugh at ourselves…


    All right. OK. Thank you for injecting — keeping the humor in politics.


    Thank you.


    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thanks so much.

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