Political Roundup: Iraq War, Torture Ban
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
With the elections in Iraq today and the culmination of the president's home front offensive to boost public support for the war, we thought we'd turn to our regular political analysts. There are E.J. Dionne, a columnist with The Washington Post, and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times.
Hello to both of you.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post; The Brookings Institution): Hello.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Hello.
NORRIS: Let's begin with the president's series of speeches, the last of which he delivered yesterday. He was trying to explain, define, justify and ultimately win more support for the war. Let's take a quick listen to part of the most recent speech.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our men and women in uniform deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and bad and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory.
(Soundbite of applause)
NORRIS: David, the president's statement raises the question: What constitutes victory?
Mr. BROOKS: Good question. First of all, I thought they were the best speeches he's given in quite a long time. They were granular, they were detailed and they admitted mistakes. They were as honest as a president can be and they reflected what they're saying within the White House. As for victory, I think that's evolved, you know, the--because the war has evolved. The war used to be really the insurgents vs. the Americans basically, and victory used to be we defeat the insurgent army. But now the primary dynamic in Iraq is Sunni-Shia. Now we're sitting atop of a potential civil war. And so the American task--and it's clear in everything Zalmay calls that--our ambassador there--says is managing that conflict so there's some violence, as there's bound to be in this sectarian country, but so it's managed and so we're on the glide path toward some sort of civil understanding between the Sunni and Shia. So it's less triumphing over evil, our enemies. It's more managing this sectarian conflict.
NORRIS: Well, that definition of victory, when compared to victory as most Americans know it, is somewhat fuzzy, and, E.J., I'm wondering if the president would have been better off in terms of managing expectations if he had used a less expansive definition of victory; instead of saying complete victory, to say something shy of that.
Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think that's right. If you accept the president's grand dream, these were inspiring speeches 'cause they operated at a very high level. Yes, we're all for democracy. We'd like the United States to expand democracy. If you were looking for specifics about how we were going to achieve that victory that the president talked about over and over and over, there wasn't much beef there. I think, like it or not, the truth is that the president has a year to achieve a result there, to persuade Americans that it's worth keeping our troops there. The key is whether these elections held today help produce a government that gives the Sunni minority, once dominant in Iraq, a sense that their rights and interests will be protected. I agree with David that it's largely about how that balance is achieved and also whether they produce a coalition government or a kind of quasi-fundamentalist government sympathetic to Iran.
It was inspiring to watch Iraqis try to take control of their destiny. I think the key is whether this will not be one of those one-election, one-decision, one-time situations that ends up installing a government that never goes to the voters again. And, of course, can the insurgency be pushed back? Senator Joe Biden said in Iraq today that we don't want to replace dictatorship with chaos, and I think that's a good point.
NORRIS: Yesterday we also heard the president's direct admission about the use of flawed intelligence leading up to the war. Before we go on, let's take another quick listen.
Pres. BUSH: And it is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. And I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities, and we're doing just that.
NORRIS: Now this is quite a high-wire act to admit that the president led the nation to war using flawed intelligence and in the same breath saying the war is justified, necessary and will ultimately be successful. A quick assessment from both of you: Did he pull that off?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, I don't think anything he can say now will change American opinion dramatically, I think, of what's happening in Iraq. You know, when you look at what's happening in Iraq, what's so impressive is how happy everybody feels to vote, how democracy really is fundamental in these people's genes and in their ethic and the value system, and so that is the path to success. We have to get through the civil strife to get to that success.
But I think that dream, which he sketched out all along, of transforming the Middle East in order to drain the swamps of terror is still his long-range idea. I think the president has been sustained, and he's stubborn about this, over the long term that the Middle East fundamentally has to be changed and it has to be changed against tyranny but also against the Sunni-Shia violence that we've seen and really the fight we see all around the Middle East there.
NORRIS: And in terms of changing the Americans' opinion about the war, did he achieve his objective there, E.J.?
Mr. DIONNE: I think he might have won back a few of the people on his own side who had strayed. I'm not sure he persuaded anyone else. President Bush said famously that he is often misunderestimated. So that to hear him admit any mistakes was a relief to a lot of people. But fundamentally he didn't want to take on anything except to say, `Well, our intelligence agencies were flawed.' So I don't think that level of admission is going to persuade anybody who was against him in the first place.
Mr. BROOKS: He admitted a million mistakes. I mean, I thought he would never end. You know, the economics, he talked about the way that we were training badly in the beginning. It was a whole series of very detailed admissions, which I just think they have to be--after years of stubbornly not doing this--they have to be applauded for finally doing this sort of thing.
NORRIS: Just quickly before we move on, realistically can speeches like these move numbers?
Mr. BROOKS: No, no, I don't think so.
Mr. DIONNE: I think it all depends on what happens on the ground. I think most Americans would actually--including critics of the president--would still like this thing to turn out right. And it depends on what happens over there, and I don't think the president's words can overcome what happens over there.
NORRIS: There's big news today on the so-called torture amendment. The White House after months of resisting has agreed to accept Senator John McCain's call for a law banning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreign suspects. E.J., why do you think the administration made this about-face?
Mr. DIONNE: Because public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of this shift, 'cause Senator McCain got 90 votes in the Senate. I mean, it's--we are in a time of extreme polarization and here was Senator John McCain, himself a former POW, who really understands the dangers American troops can be in if there aren't rules about how POWs and others captured are treated by our enemies, and I think it was irresistible. I think this is a great victory for the United States' standing in the world. It's also a great victory for our values.
NORRIS: There was a presser outside the White House today with Senators John McCain and John Warner. John McCain had an Arizona-sized grin on his face. Does this lift his ambitions, David?
Mr. BROOKS: Well, he's had a great month and I think even among conservatives now he's very popular for spending, for this, for a whole bunch of reasons. You know, what happened on this issue is as obvious as night following day. People in the White House knew we're going to put up a stink, we're going to take a big hint and then we're going to cave in. They knew that was going to happen and yet they went ahead and put up a stink anyway. And I think it has a lot to do with intra-White House politics. The vice president on one side, other people, including the secretary of State, I suspect, on the other side, and it took them a while to get together and to see, A, it was politically necessary, B, it was the right thing to do.
NORRIS: David, E.J., always good to talk to you.
Mr. DIONNE: And you, too.
Mr. BROOKS: Good to talk to you.
NORRIS: David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times; E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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