Week in Review: Bush, Iraq and Congress
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Joining me now are our two regular political observers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post): Thank you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: We've just heard what happened today. In the Senate yesterday, Secretaries Rice and Gates ran into some scathing questioning. This was Condoleezza Rice describing the troop buildup in Iraq to Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.
Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): I don't see it, and the president doesn't see it, as an escalation. What he sees...
Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): You mean 20,000 more troops is not an escalation?
Ms. RICE: Well, I think, Senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in. Escalation is also a question of are you changing the strategic goal of what you're trying to do. Are you escalating...
Sen. HAGEL: Would you call it decrease? And the billions of dollars more that you need for it?
Ms. RICE: I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.
SIEGEL: David Brooks, that was a Republican secretary of state being grilled by a Republican senator. There are other Republican senators who are critical of the new moves in Iraq. Polls - the polls after the president's speech show that most Americans disapprove of sending more troops there. Where are we headed with Iraq policy?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, it is a problem. I mean the withering assault, it was unbelievable. And we all knew there was opposition, but the contempt and the fury of the opposition really does change the psychological dynamic. It's not only that 70 percent of the American people are against, but there's just incredible hostility on Capitol Hill.
Now, some of that will change, I suspect, when the administration unleashes David Petraeus, who is the general now in charge and who wrote the book on counterinsurgency. If he goes up there - and he really is an incredibly impressive person - and says I need these troops, then that will tamp down a bit. But still it is hard to promote a policy like this in the face of this sort of withering assault.
SIEGEL: E.J., the Democrats in Congress seem to be divided over whether to merely register their opposition very loudly in hearings or whether they'll try to block it. What do you think they're going to do?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think they're going to do it in two stages. I think it's very clear that there's going to be a resolution where they are hoping to have a resolution of disapproval that draws support from a half dozen or more Republicans. And it could go up much higher than half-dozen, and that will send - this is in the Senate - and I think it could draw 40, 50 votes in the House from Republicans. That would send a very clear message that this augmentation - and by the way, I do not know why Condoleezza Rice got into that argument. To argue about whether it's an escalation or an augmentation just doesn't contribute much to their credibility. But they want to do that, and they're going to hold these hearings.
I think if the president pays absolutely no attention to what the Congress does, pays no attention to what comes out of these hearings, then there would be more support for directly dealing with the funding issue. I think Democrats hope they don't have to get there because they face all those political charges that they're undercutting the troops. But I think they could.
SIEGEL: But this isn't like a tax bill where you can split the difference at the end, you know, decide instead of 18 or 22, you'll do 20. This is about a war. We've already had the blue ribbon bipartisan commission and it's been set aside. It's a pretty serious dispute, David, between two branches of government.
Mr. BROOKS: Hence the heat, though I do think it is possible to come to sort of - not compromise, but maybe an acceptable solution. Listen, when you listen to Democrats and Republicans yesterday on Capitol Hill, the thing they were most forceful about was why should we think the Maliki government can deliver on any of this? They happen to be absolutely right about that. You know, the administration said they failed, they failed up to now, but this time they'll deliver. And what the military compromise could be was, we've got a military plan B, which is to send in more troops. How about a political plan B that doesn't rely so much on the Maliki government? That would be a solution that I think some Democrats could at least tolerate, because it does change the political dynamic.
SIEGEL: Since it does depend on the Maliki government performing well, is there a prospect here of our seeing, E.J., what Zbigniew Bzrezinski and others called the blame and run strategy, which is watch Maliki fail to live up to these various expectations and then say well, we did our best, now we're leaving.
Mr. DIONNE: Right. But I don't think that works for the administration very well, and I don't think that's where Bush wants to go. I agree with David that this government is not a government you'd want to bet 21,000 more American troops on, which is why the surge is so unpopular. But at this stage I don't think it's so easy to split the difference because I think what you're seeing here are Democrats, and now a lot of Republicans led by Chuck Hagel, saying this is not a military problem anymore. More troops three years ago in large numbers may have solved the problem. More troops now trying to make up for that mistake could make the problem worse.
What you did see, and I think one of the reasons the clash was so surprising, is accountability, a clash of views, democracy. We haven't seen that on Capitol Hill in a very long time. It's a big debate, and it's finally being carried out in the way it should be.
SIEGEL: David, do you find a silver lining there?
Mr. BROOKS: It's so tiny, I can't even see it. It's microscopically silver. You know, I go back to the way this debate is going to evolve. Either there will be some compromise, which is hard to see, or else the generals who are now in charge of our operation, who have a good record all along, will come out, people like David Patraeus and Ray Ordierno, and they will come out and say we need the troops, and Democrats will have to explain why they're wrong.
The other things Democrats and the opponents will have to do is come up with an alternative strategy, and I don't just mean float the idea of getting out. Explain why getting out would lead to some better option and not a cataclysm. So far they have not filled that in. So far there is a sense that what Bush is offering is the only thing that's been fully developed.
Mr. DIONNE: Well, but I think that's only half true, because I think what you have are several Democratic alternatives. Democrats are being asked to solve a nearly insoluble problem, so nobody has a very good plan, including the president, I would argue.
What you have is the Biden idea of partition. You have Levin, who wants to take it down slowly, and you have immediate withdrawal. You may like or not like those, but those are alternatives.
SIEGEL: David, the last word on Iraq.
Mr. BROOKS: I would say not fully - I mean, the Biden thing is the one I think is the most promising. but you can't only just float it in a speech. You have to get a coalition to support it, you've got to get generals to support it, you've really got to mount it. In the way the surge has been mounted over the past month, nobody's organized that effort.
SIEGEL: Well, all right. We're going to devote our entire segment to Iraq, in that case. Do you expect to see the legislative branch of government assume responsibility for developing a war policy? I mean, this would be something extraordinary, to see that, and a great challenge to the growth of presidential authority that we've seen.
Mr. BROOKS: Well listen. Everyone has ideas, as E.J. is suggesting. I think it's everyone's responsibility as Americans to come up with - or at least propose some way out, to put their name on the line, and that is - as E.J. suggested, there could be a lot of Democratic defections, and already I think we've seen seven reject -
Mr. DIONNE: You mean Republicans.
Mr. BROOKS: Seven Republicans have already said they reject the Democratic -
Mr. DIONNE: Yes.
Mr. BROOKS: - the Republican plan. I think nine Republican senators are also in doubt. So you could begin to see failing away. I do think it is up to everybody to come up with some least-bad option. I happen to think the Biden thing, which is federating Iraq, is the most promising. But you've got to fill it in practically.
SIEGEL: But E.J., can you see the legislative branch being in the driver's seat of a question like what's our basic policy on Iraq? Should it be a strong central government, or should we accept and perhaps encourage its federalization?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think there are two issues here. Can the legislative body act as commander in chief? The answer's no, that you need some centralized decision-making in terms of running a war. But we are at a point where a lot of people in Congress are saying wait a minute. If you read the original war resolution, that doesn't authorize the war we are now in the middle of, which is a civil war.
The original war resolution speaks of Saddam's regime, weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, and so I think Congress is saying, look, we have a role in authorizing the general direction, and we think it should change, and that is a legitimate role for Congress.
Does it create huge problems to have this executive/legislative clash? It could. But I think it's entirely legitimate for Congress to say it's our turn.
Mr. BROOKS: That's not the way it works. The way it'll work is Trent Lott and John Warner will go up to the White House and say it's over, you have no support. Compromise with us.
SIEGEL: On that note, David Brooks, thank you very much. E.J. Dionne, thank you very much. Our two regular political observers, Brooks of the New York Times and Dionne of the Washington Post.
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