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Week in Politics: Iraq Intel, and the 2008 Race

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Week in Politics: Iraq Intel, and the 2008 Race


Week in Politics: Iraq Intel, and the 2008 Race

Week in Politics: Iraq Intel, and the 2008 Race

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The week in Washington politics has included a Senate compromise on resolutions addressing the Iraq war, a fresh National Intelligence Estimate, and new contenders in the 2008 presidential race. Melissa Block talks with David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, and Ruth Marcus, columnist at The Washington Post.


And we're going to talk some more about these non-binding resolutions in the Senate and more with our guest political commentators, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi, David.

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

BLOCK: And Ruth Marcus, columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post. Welcome back, Ruth.

Ms. RUTH MARCUS (The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Let's talk about these resolutions. First, there's been a lot of wrangling, a lot of arm-twisting. The debate is going to start on Monday. David Brooks, what do you think about the prospect for the main compromise resolution, that the one from Senator John Warner?

Mr. BROOKS: They will probably not get the 60 votes which they would need to override a veto. But I think the key thing to remember about this that the resolutions are not what they seem to be about. I've heard several senators, Barack Obama, Tom Carper. I heard Henry Kissinger of Foreign Relations Committee say the core issue, and they seem to agree about this, the core issue is not the tactical issue of whether 20,000 more troops would help or hurt in Iraq.

The core issue is what is the grand strategy in Iraq for the future. Does that mean we want to split Iraq apart? Does it mean we want a regional conference, the way the Baker-Hamilton Commission wanted? Does it mean we want to just get out? The senators are focused secretly on those big discussions of grand strategy. They're having a symbolic debate about the surge as a way to talk about those larger issues. But they are much more concerned about the larger issues.

BLOCK: So on paper, at least, it is about those 20,000 troops?

Mr. BROOKS: Right. But again, they have no real expertise on whether 20,000 will help or whether 7,000 will help or whether none will help. So they are negotiating series of resolutions, which seem to shock the administration. And the way some of the Democrats and some of the prominent Republicans, like John Warner of Virginia, want to shock the administration is by saying no surge.

But what they really hope is that it will lead to a different grand strategy. And I would say the majority position is they would like something like a regional diplomatic conference.

BLOCK: Now, the same time, Ruth Marcus, you have senators like Democrat Russell Feingold saying that this compromised deal makes a deal with the devil. Do you think the Democrats have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster if it comes to that?

Ms. MARCUS: I doubt they do. And I think all of this is a very messy dress rehearsal for the real event, which is going to be the discussion about what conditions, what limitations, what benchmarks to put into supplemental. Because the notion that we're having this huge debate over a non-binding resolution, I heard Lindsey Graham on NPR this morning calling it the most consequential non-binding vote in the history of the Senate. Well, big whoop, non-binding vote.

It does send a signal, but the notion of filibustering something that, so it won't take any effect, a resolution that has no effect, seems to me to be really kind of fundamentally myopic and self-regarding, not that anybody would ever accuse the Senate of being that way. And I think really this just illustrates how hard finding some agreement on what to do is going to be down the road.

BLOCK: Well, if it really means nothing, presumably the White House wouldn't care about it. But I don't think that's the case. They are engaged in some pretty heavy-handed lobbying against these resolutions. Aren't they, Ruth?

Ms. MARCUS: Well, yes. I was asking some folks before I came over here how hard the White House had been working this. And one of the answers I got was that they are on it like a fat kid on cake.

BLOCK: Or any kid on cake.

Ms. MARCUS: Or any - yes.

BLOCK: My children on cake.

Ms. MARCUS: In other words, all over it. Sure, they don't want the symbolic loss, will interpret it as a loss. But anybody who looks at the situation understands that whether or not there were 60 votes, a majority of Congress is not happy, a majority of the American public is not happy. You don't have - yes, you don't want a loss, but no, it won't make ultimately a difference in the American mood.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the National Intelligence Estimate that was released today. Though we just heard about in Don Gonyea's piece, some language in there says even if violence in Iraq is diminished, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation, even if violence goes down. David Brooks said to me seems like there's no endpoint.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. First, let me say I'm impressed that Ruth's sources are quoting 50 Cent, I think originated that line about the fat kid with cake.

BLOCK: I eat it.

Ms. MARCUS: Professor, that you know 50 Cent is very impressive.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. The world has come to an end if Washington's policy wonks notice this. No, I think what the NIE report indicates, well, a lot of people in the Senate and a lot of people around town are talking about, that there is a psychological vortex in Iraq which has fundamentally split the communities -Shia, Sunni and Kurd. And there's just no putting it back together. Which is why people, like Joe Biden and (unintelligible). But I heard Barbara Boxer support this. I heard Kay Bailey Hutchison support this. The idea of a soft partition of Iraq.

Face the fact the central government of Iraq is never going to come back together. It's never going to oppose order. You got to get the people separated into different zones. Henry Kissinger appeared this week and he said he was sympathetic to the idea as long as we didn't seem to be promoting it.

BLOCK: Without hearing anybody within the administration saying this.

Mr. BROOKS: No. Because they are wedded in public to the central government, the Maliki government in Iraq. In private, they're extremely dubious that he can do anything of substance. We are going to get to this idea of a soft partition. It'll just be sooner or later.

BLOCK: Ruth Marcus, the intelligence estimate also predicts that if U.S. troops leave, sectarian violence will increase significantly. How - isn't that a problem for Democrats who are saying look, quick withdrawal, get these troops out fast.

Ms. MARCUS: I don't think this intelligence estimate really bolsters the Democrat's case because of that very, very sobering paragraph in there about just an explosion of violence and chaos and involvement of neighboring countries. And so, yes, it tells us that there is a terrible situation.

No, it doesn't tell us what to do. And in fact, it does argue fairly forcefully against the kind of rapid withdrawal that Democrats are increasingly calling for. If you listened to the Democratic presidential candidates who are at the DNC today, it was out, out, out, and the only question was how quickly.

BLOCK: Let's talk about some of those Democratic presidential candidates, specifically Joseph Biden, who threw his head in the ring this week, also managed to put his foot in his mouth - I'm mangling metaphors terribly here. But he called his would be opponent, Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate, he said he would be the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy. Ruth Marcus, I don't even know where to start.

Ms. MARCUS: Well, let's start with his mother. He said his mother - he'd gotten that line from his mother, clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack. Well, my mother used to tell me to think before I spoke. And I think Joe Biden should have listened to my mother and not his mother. This was not a good way, to put it mildly, to start a presidential campaign. And I have been thinking of it as Joe Biden's Macaca moment.

And I don't mean that it is a racist moment. I mean that the most dangerous thing for politicians is to say things in front of reporters or to reporters that really fundamentally underline a weakness that reporters and the public already think they have. Biden's weakness was not alleged racism, it's alleged motormouthism. And everybody has seen it in action. I've sat there covering a lot of confirmation hearings where he just goes on and on and on, and that was his mistake.

BLOCK: And David Brooks, I think you're chomping it a bit. Do you have something to say?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, this is what's wrong with Western civilization. Joe Biden is a faucet of words. But he's a faucet of honest and interesting words. Sometimes the mouth gets ahead of the mind. But he is one of the few candid people in Washington who just lets it all hang out. And to be around him is to be around an interesting individual who always has intelligent thoughts. And if he has to stop, like all the other drones around here, watching every word, then he's not going to be Joe Biden, he won't be the interesting person he was - he is, and he won't be as effective as senator.

I just think that the idea that one stupid gaffe crushes a presidential campaign, not there was a - have a lot of hopes anyway. But it's just what's wrong with Washington. The problem in Washington is not the people are too candid and too honest. The problem is they're calculating and guarded. And the punishment of Joe Biden around this is going to make everybody, even Joe Biden, the last interesting man in Washington, more calculated and guarded.

BLOCK: Great. Well, thanks to you both. David Brooks of the New York Times, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. Have a good weekend.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.


And our coverage of the debate over Iraq continues online, along with our coverage of the war there. There is a new interactive feature on our Web site called "The Toll of War," and it allows you to track both American and Iraqi deaths, along with key events in the conflict. That is of course at

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