Week In Politics: The Fall Of Mosul And The Defeat Of Eric Cantor

Regular political commentator David Brooks of The New York Times speaks with Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation about Iraq's disintegration and ramifications of Rep. Eric Cantor's defeat.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For more on U.S. options on Iraq and this week in politics, I'm joined by David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

BLOCK: And filling in for E.J. Dionne this week, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. Katrina, welcome.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And first, let's listen to a little bit more of what President Obama said today about Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they're prepared to work together.

BLOCK: Katrina, let me start with you. We just heard about Shiites arming themselves, Sunni extremists on the march. Is it simply too late to be talking about a political plan to bring Iraqis together?

HEUVEL: No, I don't think so. I think the president is right to say that the Iraqi government must be responsible for security in Iraq. I think the crisis in Iraq demands a political solution, not a military one which will pour arms into spreading cauldron of war and risk exacerbating the crisis in Iraq and enflaming the militant extremism. I don't want us to forget that the resurgence of sectarian violence stems not from 2011 and the U.S. withdrawal, it's rather the fruit of the United States 2003 invasion and the subsequent occupation. And as we heard from your correspondence, this is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shiite political forces. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interest of all the major factions and it must involve Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. Perhaps the most promising development is that Saudi Arabia is now willing to tone down sectarian war and possibly even cooperate with Iran on Syria and Iraq.

BLOCK: Well...

HEUVEL: And I think these are efforts we need to make. And I think that, you know, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin was correct calling for caution. It's unclear, he said, how air strikes on our part can succeed unless the Iraqi Army's willing to fight and that's certainly uncertain, given the fact that this is now a sectarian, brutal civil war and that the United States really, simply should not be sucked into another round of war in Iraq.

BLOCK: Well, David, let me ask you about one of the points that Katrina raised there because there has been a lot of second guessing about whether the U.S. pullout of troops in 2011 was a mistake, whether there should have been a residual force left behind and whose timetable that was anyway.

BROOKS: Right. Well, there's plenty of blame to go around. Obviously, in the Bush invasion in 2003, we basically destroyed the government of Iraq and that left a power vacuum. We slowly learned from that, and over the next eight years began to build a state. And with measurable results, the military, the Iraqi military performing at a much higher level. We had great ambassadors really urging Maliki and creating opportunities for Maliki to do, act in nonsectarian ways. And there really was, as President Obama said in 2011, in 2011 he said it was a stable, secure country. And so we weren't there yet, but it's clear progress was being made on every measurable level. Starting in 2011, we withdraw and then it all just slides backwards. So you have to blame Bush, you have to blame Obama, you have to blame Maliki, there's plenty of blame to go around. But the fact was that the nation building that did occur around the time of the surge did create a semi-stable state that we'll never know if it would have been completely stable, but it was heading in the right direction.

BLOCK: Is there a cautionary tale here? When we think about Afghanistan, the president has laid out a very specific timetable for withdrawal of forces there and drawn criticism from those who say that is an invitation for disaster and we're seeing exactly that in Iraq. Katrina first.

HEUVEL: No, I don't think so. Again, I disagree with David. The invasion of 2003 just can not be - no equivalence can be drawn between that and withdrawal. The invasion was not just a mistake, at best a fool's errand, at worst a criminal act. And I think what we need to ask ourselves is after the Iraq misadventure, which will eventually cost this nation in excess of $2 trillion, not to mention tens of thousands of lost, maimed, shattered lives and thousands of Iraqi deaths, how much more is the United States supposed to sacrifice for a government in the case of Iraq, a country unwilling to go beyond it's sectarian differences or unable to? And I think we need to ask these questions because the president, rightly in his foreign policy speech a month ago, spoke well of restraint in terms of U.S. military action. Of course we need to look forward and I again come back to the idea of tough diplomacy, tough political work that will be of clearer resolution. To pour in arms - listen, a lot of these arms, as David, I think, and some of his allies wanted to do more in Syria, you know, that country's already awash in arms. A lot of it, those arms, have fallen into extremists, militant extremists, not the so-called moderates. So I think we make a mistake in not learning the lessons of unintended consequences as we pour arms into this region.

BLOCK: And David, the question of Afghanistan, what do you think?

BROOKS: Well, you know, I guess just - I thought the president actually - Katrina and I may agree a little more on this - on what the president said today, I think that's right, we're not going to send ground troops, that's completely impractical. And the president does call - there does have to be some sort of political solution, Maliki does have to bring the Sunnis in. They probably do have to regionalize the government a lot more than they've done, it's very centralized right now. But the idea that we can crush the ISIS, which basically needs to happen with diplomacy, seems, to me, wrong. And so I do think there has be both the political side, some real bisectarianism, but also there has to be some military work to be done, simply because it is a rancid, awful terrorist army.

BLOCK: Katrina?

HEUVEL: I think if we go in and make a military crusade out of this, and when I say we go in, talking about military strikes or allocation of weapons to various sides, I think we risk, again, leading the ISIS to see us. At the moment, they don't see the West. It's really very regional. It's really Sunni, Shiite political forces. And I think we risk disrupting that dynamic and endangering our security even more if we get more intrusive. So again, I think it is wrong to dismiss the possibilities of political diplomatic work. And I think you see in, as I mentioned, Saudi Arabia toning down its sectarian politics around this, that Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia understand the crisis this region is in and that there is a possibility that it could be moved to a different level through the Arab League, even through the United Nations, which admittedly has been stalled in various ways.

BLOCK: And David Brooks, briefly you get the last...

HEUVEL: My last point is humanitarian. The humanitarian efforts must be redoubled because displacement of people is just at a catastrophic level.

BLOCK: And I lied. David Brooks, you're not going to get the last word because Katrina just did. Thank you very much to you both. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. David Brooks of the New York Times. Thanks, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: Thank you.

HEUVEL: Thank you, Melissa.

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