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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s war authority request, Islamic State’s threat

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Obama’s request to Congress to engage in military action against the Islamic State group, Congress’ tangling over the president’s immigration order, and the uproar over Brian Williams’ error and subsequent suspension from NBC.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's been a busy and a serious news week. President Obama asked Congress to approve military force against the Islamic State group. Congress is struggling and near a deadline to fund the Department of Homeland Security. And the media world faced multiple surprising headlines.

    To analyze it all, Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    So, a lot to talk about.

    The toughest news of the week had to be the confirmation of the death of the American aid worker Kayla Mueller at the hands of ISIS.

    Mark, it raises the question, how is this administration, how is the United States doing at dealing with ISIS and specifically this authorization of force, for the use of force the president sent to Congress? Does it look like they have struck the right formula there?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, first on Kayla Mueller, I mean, this is a woman who devoted her life generously, from every report, just comforting the afflicted. And so the tragedy of her death is even compounded more by the life she led and the loss she leaves.

    Judy, ISIS and the Middle East remain a Rubik's Cube that the United States has not figured out. Everything over there is five-sided, and we just — we haven't figured out — and this is not a war to be won. They are a force to be controlled, to be reduced, to be managed.

    But this is not — we are really not going to reintroduce American ground troops into the area. We can to some degree restrict their military effectiveness. But that is the reality. We have already done that once in this century. We sent American ground troops in. And we're not going to do it.

    As far as the authorization of force, a shout-out to Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Alone, he's been a voice for several months saying, we're sending Americans into combat, into harm's way. We are at war. The Congress has abdicated its responsibility by not declaring or confronting that or dealing with it or passing any sort of resolution. It's the most solemn responsibility the Congress has, and they have ducked it. They ducked it through the election.

    The White House was thrilled not to have a vote. Every White House, including this one, doesn't want — they want carte blanche. They want to decide when to use power. They don't want their — quote — "hands tied."

    And so we're finally going to have a debate in this country. And I think Senator Kaine deserves — of Virginia — deserves a lot of credit for forcing the hand of the administration.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David, the language in this request that the White House sent over for authorizing it, does it get us, the United States, any closer to handling all this?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    No, it's ambivalent.

    I don't understand why we have an authorization of use of force that includes not only the ends, which seems to me legitimate — that is what should be in this — but the means and the process and the duration. I don't know why we need to put that in the use of force. It lasts three years, we're not going to this, we're going to do this.

    If we're going to use force, then we should do what the president and the military leadership think is proper. And that shouldn't be in the authorization, it seems to me.

    The killing of the hostages is an outrage, but not really the most important thing that's going on over there. I happened to be in conversation with a bunch of financial analysts this week. And I asked them, what's the biggest threat to the world economy? And I expected them to say the Greek — euro crisis, whatever.

    They both independently said ISIS. If ISIS takes over the Middle East or destabilizes the Middle East, that is an economic cataclysm with human suffering.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Because of oil?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Because of oil, because of just the destabilization of this most fragile region of the country.

    And so I think I disagree with Mark a little. The Middle East has always been the Middle East. For 5,000 years, it's been a troubled zone. The Islamic State seems to be a new order, a new order of magnitude, a new sort of threat building an ideological threat, a unique level of evil, even by the standards of the Middle East.

    And so I think taking them on and containing — I agree. We're not going to put in land troops and all that kind of stuff. But containing them seems to be a higher order than anything we have faced in the Middle East for a long, long time. And the president and future presidents should do what they need to do to do that. And they shouldn't have sort of resolutions which are really resolutions of ambivalence.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But the administration is being criticized, Mark, at least what I am reading, for not being specific enough, I mean, for — they need to say more about what they're going to do. David's point, it seems to me, is they didn't need to say as much as they did.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, they have said whatever — they wouldn't have a permanent land force is what they have said, but they would have freedom, the next president, including this one, for the three years it would be in force, would have the authority to pursue ISIS or its sister-brother groups throughout the region.

    So there isn't a geographical restriction. So he's facing some criticism from both sides, from both Democrats, who want it more limited, and Republicans, who want this large mandate still uncharted.

    Judy, I just don't understand where this fits in in terms of how we define what the objective is. I mean, how will we know when we have won? I mean, for thousands of years, it's been the dream of a caliphate in that area, of a Muslim caliphate throughout that area.

    And we're not going to end that dream or that — we might — this latest iteration, we can control it, we can debase it, but we're not going to totally eliminate that. And I just think that is something that — I welcome the debate. I really want to hear everybody be heard on this, because it is really an unsolvable — unsolvable mystery now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You're saying nobody has the correct formula?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, I think there are certain things about which there is a national consensus.

    We're not going to stick ground troops in. There is a national consensus. Nobody wants to do that. We need to degrade ISIS. There is a national consensus about that. I just would like to see leadership which affirmatively for that goal, not one foot in and one foot out.

    And this has been symptomatic of the Obama presidency with a lot of issues on foreign affairs, that we're going in, we're not going in. We put some boundaries about what we're going to do, but we crash through those boundaries. We declare red lines, but we don't act on the red lines.

    There's just been a lot of half seesaw action. And it seems to me, if ISIS is worth going after, it's worth going after. If you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And so I don't know what the war will involve. I don't think anybody can know what the war will involve in the years coming forward, but it seems to me there's nobody been like ISIS before.

    Hafez Assad was not like ISIS. The Saudi regime was not like ISIS. Yasser Arafat was certainly not like ISIS. This is something different and more threatening.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Just one quick thing, Judy. There's a lot of politics involved here, the unwillingness to take a stand and to be heard and to vote.

    The last time the Congress did this, you will recall, was 2002, when they gave up the authority to President Bush to go into, invade and occupy Iraq. And the Democrats who voted for that, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd basically killed their presidential chances. And that gave the opening for Barack Obama.

    So, they're mindful of this. In 1964, the Congress, 535 people, two, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, were the only two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which led to 550,000 Americans in Vietnam.

    So there is some history, there's some precedent, and there's understandably some political wariness.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Two other things I want to ask you about.

    One is Congress wrestling, David, with the president's immigration executive order. It's gotten tied up in funding for the Department of Homeland Security at a time when you would think the country would be focused on homeland security. The Republicans are pointing fingers at the Democrats, saying they're holding all this up, but Republicans aren't agreeing with each other about what to do about it in the House and Senate.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes. And the Republicans run the Congress, so they get ultimate responsibility.

    It is turning from sort of a comedy to a farce to a travesty. Why have they started their reign as majority parties in both houses with this, with, A, something they're bound to lose? They do not have 60 votes in the Senate, so they're bound to lose.

    Why have they started with this, with a measure where the House and the Senate, even on the Republican side, can't get together, and then in the atmosphere of the past three or four years in which shutting down the government has turned into a code word for dysfunction?

    And so why do you want to walk into this, something you're not doing well, something badly you're not doing well? And so just as a question of leadership, not even ideology — it's just competent leadership. I don't understand why they're here.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I agree with David.

    The Wall Street Journal, scorching editorial this week on the Republican leadership in its first month, and not flying well and dividing themselves, rather than Democrats. The Wall Street Journal editorial page attacking Republicans is like L'Osservatore Romano going after the pope.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    This is not where you expect to take incoming criticism.

    So I think it's — they are going to have to back down. The House has done what it does. It passes symbolic legislation that is going nowhere; 57 times, they have repealed Obamacare. That's what they did in this case. And they sent it over to the Senate, and it's going to die there. It's on the Republicans' doorstep.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One last thing I want to make time for is just a tumultuous and in many ways bad week for the media, Brian Williams suspended at NBC News, the death of David Carr, of Bob Simon with CBS, but David Carr, the media critic for The Times, and of course the news from Jon Stewart.

    David, on the Brian Williams question, I guess what I'm curious to know is, does that reflect on everyone in the media? How does the media come out of this episode?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes.

    I don't think it reflects us broadly. It speaks to a couple truths. The one is that no amount of public success is satisfying. You can have all the accolades in the world, be where Brian Williams was, at the tippy-top. Public fame is still empty and it still leaves you hungry, and you still want to brag a little more, on the hope that you will get what you want, which is some sort of adulation that will satisfy you.

    But that never happens. That never comes. And so it just leaves you hungrier and hungrier. And I think that's what we saw with Brian Williams, somebody who just wanted to be seen a little cooler and so made up some stuff.

    I personally think the reaction against him is way out of proportion to what he did. And I think we all have to cultivate a capacity for forgiveness, a rigorous forgiveness for what he did. And I personally hope he continues his job.

    Just quickly on my colleague David Carr, who I wasn't close with at all, it's one — two lessons. There are second acts in American life. He had a drug-riddled first act. Second, it's an encouragement to be yourself. He had an amazingly large personality, which he did not check ever. And it glowed in his prose and in his presence.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark, you wanted to comment on David Carr.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    David Carr — David Carr was the anti-New York Times man, if The New York Times is the guy who went to the best boarding schools, and knows the best wine and has two last names, basically.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    He's talking about me.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes, my friend David.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    David Carr was larger than life. He was totally authentic. He was a brilliant journalist, a great reporter, unflinchingly honest, and incredibly thoughtful of everybody he came across, whether it was a waitress or the youngest intern.

    He was just a wonderful, wonderful person, in addition to being this larger and colorful character.

    As far as Brian Williams, I just want to echo what David said. Yes, it was self-inflicted, Judy, but this is a good and decent man. And the people in a rush to tap dance on his grave and provide the gallows and the rope to hang him, it just really is disturbing and unseemly.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I don't think we have seen a week like this one in a long time.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Thank you.

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