Week in Washington: Change and Strategy

Change is afoot this week in Washington, with Congress changing hands, significant staff shifts at the White House and anticipation of President Bush's coming speech on Iraq. Michele Norris talks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With so many changes in Washington this week and more changes to come, it's a good time to talk with our regular political observers. E.J. Dionne is with The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and he joins us from the Daytona Speedway. Happy New Year, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Reporter, The Washington Post): Happy New Year. It's very exciting. I'm a NASCAR dad for the day and I can get into one of David's books.

NORRIS: Well, we will be expecting souvenirs when you get back.

Mr. DIONNE: Absolutely.

NORRIS: And David Brooks is with us here in the studio. He's with the New York Times. Happy 2007 to you, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Reporter, The New York Times): Good to be here.

NORRIS: First of all, we have seen a lot of staff changes this week, a real reshuffle. John Negroponte, who will now move from the head of the spy agency to deputy secretary of state. Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is expected to be the new ambassador to the U.N.

Would it appear that the White House is trying to put its Iraq experts in key diplomatic positions to concentrate them all at the State Department, David?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I think what's happened is that their finally changing strategy, at least in a military sense. There's been this argument within the administration, within the military, for the past three years. The leaders, Generals George Casey and John Abizaid, have been what you might call devotees of the light footprint school, which was we should have relatively few troops, hand authority over the Iraqis as quickly as possible. That is what the president's supported for three and four years. And I think about three, four months ago he gave up on that policy.

He decided it was a disaster leading to more insecurity for the Iraqis. And I think he's in the process of shifting over to what you might call the more troops school, which John McCain has been advocating for three or four years. And so as he's done that, he's really gotten rid of the two generals, Abizaid and Casey, which were advocating the old policy. And he's embraced a new general, General Petraeus, who's much more in tune with the new policy. And I think that's the big mega change that's happened.

NORRIS: A change at the Pentagon, E.J., and also the changes in the diplomatic core at the White House. How do you read this? What signals is the president sending here?

Mr. DIONNE: I think the personnel changes are part of an effort to put a big sign up that says a new and improved Iraq policy under new management. And David is right in the sense to say that General David Petraeus has a different approach. I think one of the questions that a lot of people are asking is, is this two or three or four, three years too late? More troops, more economic aid, more job creation on the ground, these are all things that might have made a difference at the very beginning of the Iraq war.

I think the real question now whether these changes, including the personnel changes but also the policy changes, can make much difference now. And that's why Sen. Landrieu said that the burden of proof is on those who want a surge troops. I think the real argument is between those who say we can't get political peace in Iraq because there's so much violence, and those who say no, the violence is actually a political problem because of the conflict among the Shia - between the Shia and the Sunni and various other groups. And I think that's going to be the argument about the surge that we're going to hear.

NORRIS: Now all these changes in advance of a big announcement expected from the president next week. There's a strong suggestion that - real expectation in Washington that President Bush will call for a temporary increase of troops on the ground in Iraq, a so-called surge. E.J., you write that this could quickly lead to a direct confrontation with the Democrats now in control of Capitol Hill. Is that what you expect to see?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think you already saw some of that today with Nancy Pelosi - Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, now the majority leader, writing this letter to President Bush. I spoke to Senator Biden this week, who is pushing his colleagues for a resolution against the surge. And I think if that ever did come up for a vote, I think you'd find that a number of Republicans - you already have Republicans being very dissident toward the president's policy, people like Gordon Smith in Oregon, Norm Coleman in Minnesota. What they have in common is their both on the ballot in 2008.

And I think there's great skepticism of whether these 20,000 or however many the president is going to send can make a material difference on the ground given how out of hand things have already gotten. And I think there's going to be a heavy, heavy burden on the president to prove his case.

NORRIS: As we mentioned, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid wrote a letter to President Bush saying that they oppose the troop increase. Others on the Hill have said they can't support something that they don't know anything about yet. Do you think that President Bush will actually go to Capitol Hill or actually send ambassadors up that way to try to sell this before he presents it to the people?

Mr. BROOKS: I would hope so, and I happen to think the Republicans will be a bigger problem than the Democrats because there are, as E.J. suggests, a lot of Republicans who are flaking off this thing. And their argument is the same one E.J. makes: This was the right policy in 2003, and many Democrats and Republicans agree there should've been more troops all along, but it's 2007 now, and is it too late?

And I think they absolutely have a point. If we're going to try to rebuild Iraq as it was, as a unified state, one of the things all the best reporting suggests is that the Iraqis themselves have no interest in reconciliation.

But I do think if the president takes a political Plan B to go with his military Plan B, which will talk about decentralizing Iraq in the way Joe Biden has talked about it for the past three years, then I think you do have an innovative strategy that actually has a chance, not of having a unified Democratic Iraq anymore, but of having a less barbaric outcome.

And the thing that's driving all this is the possibility that you could have a genocidal civil war spilling out regionally, and that's got to affect Democrats, as well as Republicans, that awful alternative.

NORRIS: But for right now, the answer to this really does seem to be on that surge in troop strength on the ground. That term surge has taken on quite a bit of currency here in Washington. E.J., you argue that that term surge is just a gussied-up way of describing an outright escalation of war.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. Especially if the surge is serious, it can't just be two or three months. In other words, if this - as some of the more dovish senators have said - if this were a two- to three-month surge to protect troops by way of beginning a withdrawal, that will be one thing.

If this is a serious escalation designed to change the course in Iraq, then it's more than a surge. It is an escalation of the war, and I hope that in this debate we get another factor discussed, which is Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a real mess right now, and as Senator Biden said when I talked to him, if you're going to surge troops anywhere, Afghanistan would be an awfully good place to do it because of the resurgence of the Taliban.

Mr. BROOKS: It certainly is an escalation. Many of the people outside the administration who have been most prominent in proposing this have been people like General Jack Keane, a recently retired general, and a lot of people who are active in Tal Afar, which is a place where the clear hold-and-build strategy actually worked.

If the administration comes out and says this is for six months or a year, those people will oppose it. They think 18 months is the minimum. If this is a small, small surge of less than 18 months, less than 20,000 or 30,000 troops, the administration will be absolutely alone, and you'll have full-fledged flight from the administration. So E.J.'s right, this is an escalation, it's not really a surge.

NORRIS: Thank you, David.

Mr. DIONNE: And I think David puts his finger on something, which is if he did come out and say it's 18 months, I think there'd be more opposition to it from other quarters.

NORRIS: Thank you, E.J., thank you, David, good to talk to both of you as always.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

NORRIS: As always. That was David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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