Week in Review: Gaza, Iraq, Cindy Sheehan

Scott Simon reviews the week's news with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Topics include the Gaza evacuation, Iraq's constitution and anti-war mother Cindy Sheehan.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Unidentified Israeli Woman: Bringing soldiers--bringing battalions--for what? To take these grandchildren, throw them out of their house? What for? Why? What is the reason behind this?

Unidentified Palestinian Man: They took our land. They took our water. They left us jobless, and you want me to feel bad about ...(unintelligible).

SIMON: An Israeli woman speaking first, then a Palestinian man react to this week's evacuation of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr is on vacation, and we're pleased to be joined this week by Washington Post columnist and novelist David Ignatius.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DAVID IGNATIUS (The Washington Post): Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And certainly, let's talk first about Gaza. Those wrenching scenes of Israeli soldiers--sometimes weeping even as they remove people. Some of the protesters shouting--I think it's safe to say the most kind of intimate and personal denunciations of the soldiers. And, yet, methodically, deliberately the job went ahead and it is almost complete.

What has been achieved by this evacuation?

Mr. IGNATIUS: Well, I think, despite those painful scenes of confrontation this certainly has gone more quickly than people expected, and in that sense it's gone better. Even a few weeks ago people talked in fairly dire terms about a civil war among Israelis, a long process of eviction. And, in fact, a process that was expected to take weeks will probably be over early next week, so in that sense it's been a success. In terms of where it goes next, in terms of whether this is really building toward something you could call a peace process, that's much more uncertain. And I still think that one should characterize it as separation, not yet as peace.

SIMON: Well--and, of course, what becomes the challenge for the Palestinian Authority now? Let's take it in two parts.

Mr. IGNATIUS: Well, to stabilize Gaza and find out a way to govern this--this just impossibly crowded, unruly area. The scenes this week among Palestinians were mostly of jubilation. The Palestinians, after all, are on a 60-year losing streak, you might say, and the scenes of Israelis pulling out obviously filled people with the sense that maybe things are turning their way. What worries me is that many Palestinians and the militant factions are treating this as a victory caused by their tactical suicide bombing. And if they have that in their minds firmly, that's dangerous.

SIMON: Let's turn now to events in Iraq. And every now and then maybe we should just draw a line arbitrarily and decide what is maybe worse than it seems, what might be better than it sometimes seems in the daily toll of death that we get from there. What's your assessment now?

Mr. IGNATIUS: Well, I think, you're right that you can never fix this precisely the right way. My rule is things are never as bad as they seem and the bad times are as good as they seem in the good times. I think that this was a week when the constitution seemed very difficult to get written. The deadline was missed; the new deadline is Monday. My expectation is they will get some kind of constitution cobbled together with acceptable compromises. But I think it's a mistake to take these milestones that have been established largely by the United States--the elections on January 30, the constitution--and make them substitutes for the underlying health of Iraqi society. The reality is that it was broken. The old regime was broken when the United States invaded and nothing new that's stable has yet been put back together.

SIMON: Was it unrealistic to expect a constitution to be written as quickly under these circumstances with--I think it's safe to say divisions in this society that exceeded certainly what Americans confronted in 1776.

Mr. IGNATIUS: It's unrealistic to imagine that any document on paper is going to paper over, if you will, the divisions in this society that are so deep. I mean, you know, dozens, sometimes hundreds of people are being killed every week and there's that kind of deep gap, a widening gap in Iraq. And I don't think the constitution is going to solve that. Iraqis have to solve it. But it's a much longer process.

SIMON: I want to ask about Cindy Sheehan, the mother whose son was killed in Baghdad. She has been camped out on the road to President Bush's Texas ranch demanding an audience with the president. She is, I believe, back in California now with her mother who has an illness at the moment. She did meet with President Bush after her son died, and there were a couple of people from the White House staff who have met with her, but did the White House miss an opportunity just to have a brief, respectful meeting with a mourning mother?

Mr. IGNATIUS: To me, Scott, this was a no-brainer when she first arrived, in part because she was a critic, for the president to open his arms, take her in and see her a second time; I think would have been seen as a gesture of magnanimity. And they decided to go the opposite direction, as you say, sending out surrogates to talk to her. It's now more difficult to meet with her, she's left. I worry that this White House has a tendency to treat any concession to a critic like Cindy Sheehan as a sign of weakness, a threat to the White House. And that kind of psychology is dangerous.

SIMON: What's your assessment of what seems to be changing public attitudes towards the war in Iraq--or the US mission in Iraq? Let me put it this way now.

Mr. IGNATIUS: This was a week when I think we all felt a sense that support for the president in the war was slipping away. Certainly, the public opinion polls seem to show that. The president's approval rating is down in the low 40s, support for the war is falling, and this is just a general sense of uneasiness. I think the real problem for the White House, for the president, is that the public's views are not driven by casualties. We have to remember less than 2,000 people have died in Iraq; over 50,000 people died in Vietnam, a whole different order of magnitude. The problem is that people are beginning to sense that there's no plan to win the war. And once they sense that, I think, the president really is in trouble, so I think he has to somehow go to the country and say more than, `Stay the course.' Stay the course for what? What is this really leading to? What is his strategy? I think it's his mission for the fall.

SIMON: Somewhat to get an expectation. The latest economic numbers show some gains in jobs and home sales, and the federal deficit is shrinking more quickly than had been supposed. Yet, at the same time, does this translate to public confidence in the economy?

Mr. IGNATIUS: It doesn't seem to translate to the kind of confidence that you'd expect. There is more underlying strength than we often expect. This has been a tough year, Scott, for doomsayers. People keep expecting that because of imbalances in our fiscal deficit, in our trade deficit, that we're heading for some kind of crackup and it never comes. And, in fact, as recent numbers show the economy is actually fairly strong. I think it's an anxious time in large part because of globalization here as in Europe and as around the world, so that there's a sense of vulnerability that workers feel, investors feel. So...

SIMON: Anybody who buys gas.

Mr. IGNATIUS: Anybody certainly who buys gas feels.

SIMON: Which we learned this week even applies to the cost of ice cream cones because, of course, you need a lot of fuel to run those ice cream trucks on the streets of New York.

Mr. IGNATIUS: It gets me hot thinking about it.

SIMON: I want to ask you about what you've seen in this country as Americans take our summer vacations. You lived overseas for years; you were editor of the International Herald Tribune. Getting reconnected with the United States, what do you notice as you've moved around?

Mr. IGNATIUS: My family had a summer where in addition to the usual worries about bug spray and hot dogs, we had a chance to travel and see the country as a country of what I would call passionate amateurs. We went to Boston and saw 300 young dancers in a program at the Boston Ballet, including my young daughter. We went to Falmouth, Massachusetts, and saw some college kids performing Gershwin's "My One and Only," a charming old musical--that's something with a delightful name--the college-light upper society. We went to see a review in Bethesda of some young musicians and I--even this summer of war and terrorism, we are a nation of improvers, cello players, singers, and it was quite lovely.

SIMON: Thanks very much, David Ignatius.

Mr. IGNATIUS: Thank you.

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