Columnists Friedman and Brooks Discuss Iraq, Back Reporters There, In Chat With Russert

By: E&P Staff

Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, columnists for The New York Times (and others newspapers via syndication), appeared with Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Mainly they discussed alleged plans by President Bush to add 20,000 or more troops in Iraq, plus charges this week by Laura Bush and Donald Rumsfeld that the media were still not offering a balanced treatment of the war.

Friedman called it a “civil war” but Brooks preferred calling it “disintegration.”

“What I think the administration is about to do is to embrace an idea promoted by a retired general, Jack Keane, and Fred Kagan, a think-tanker, which is to surge 20,000 or 30,000 troops into key Baghdad neighborhoods,” Brooks said. “We?ve been fighting this war just enough to lose, and they?re going to make one last effort, and this is the, the plan that?s been laid out before the president, is a two-year plan. And it?s going to involve significant commitment of troops and significant sufferings and probably casualties. And they?re, they?re going to try to, for the first time, devote just enough sources?resources to win.

Here is the relevant portion of the transcript.

*

MR. RUSSERT: Tom Friedman, your column December 8th. Let me show you and our viewers what you said. ?Our real choices in Iraq are 10 months or 10 years. Either we commit the resources to entirely rebuild the place over a decade, for which there is little support, or we tell everyone that we will be out within 10 months, or sooner, and we?ll deal with the consequences from afar. We need to start the timer – today, now.? What happened?

MR. TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, basically what happened, Tim, is that, in some ways, Zarqawi won, the arch-al-Qaeda Sunni terrorist. Iraq was always a long-shot, but I was of the view that, after the invasion, the Shia of Iraq?or the majority?were basically ready to work with the Sunnis. They were basically ready to write off the last 30 years as Saddam?s problem. And the Sunni al-Qaeda strategy was to provoke the Shia with murderous, really outrageous attacks on their mosques and on their markets until they finally rose up and said, ?No more.? And we basically split Iraq into a sectarian war. And that?s where we are right now.

And therefore, it seems to me that?you know, there?s a lot of talk now about a surge of troops or whatnot. I?m for trying anything, basically, but, but here?s the problem, it seems to me, Tim: The issue that we need to be focused on is what would be self-sustaining. We can put in 30,000 or 300,000 more troops now, and yes, we?ll tamp down the violence. But can you produce something that is self-sustaining so the minute we pull them out, it doesn?t just revert to form? And that self-sustaining solution requires an understanding, a political understanding, at the core between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. And right now, we do not have that. So more troops, necessary but not sufficient. Without that understanding at the core, nothing is possible.

MR. RUSSERT: Is that understanding attainable?

MR. FRIEDMAN: I?m not sure anymore, you know, is the real problem. When, when I look at the Iraqi factions today, it seems to me, Tim, they want?democracy, that?s not their first choice, they want justice. They want justice before democracy. The Shiites want justice for the last 30 years. The Kurds want justice. The Sunnis want justice for a war that overturned their, their dominance. My, my fear about Iraq right now and the reason I wrote that column is that I get the sense, Tim, that our vision of Iraq, a democratic, or democratizing pluralistic Iraq, is everyone?s second choice there, all right? Their first choice is a Shia theocracy in the south, a Sunni return to power, an independent Kurdistan. And we cannot go on having our first-choice boys and girls dying for Iraqis? second choice.

MR. RUSSERT: David Brooks, you wrote a column which was a, last Sunday, a prediction, in effect. You say ?In fall 2007, the United States began to withdraw troops from Iraq, and so began the Second Thirty Years? War. This war was a bewildering array of small and vast conflicts, which flared and receded and flared again across the entire Middle East, but which were joined by a common theme.? Is that what you see happening, playing out?

MR. DAVID BROOKS: If things continue to go badly. I think there are two big things happening in the Middle East. The one is the nuclearization of the Middle East, starting with Iran but soon, then Saudi Arabia and possibly a nuclear weapon under every tent.

And the second big thing is the collapse of a lot of nation states. We see it in Iraq with subnational groups and supernatural groups thriving, but the nation states falling apart. Whether they?re Shia and Sunni, whether it?s Hezbollah in Lebanon. We see it this week in Palestine with Hamas and Fatah fighting each other. So these are subnational organizations.

MR. RUSSERT: You see it spreading to Saudi Arabia, Egypt?

MR. BROOKS: Absolutely. And Bahrain, where there?s a Shia majority. A great historian, Michael Oren, says there are three authentic nation states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran and Egypt. All the rest are phony nations. Sometimes with family?run by families with armies. And that?s?that is fragile. And that could all come undone and that could all be part of the spreading wave of chaos. And that, that is the worst-case scenario, but completely plausible these days.

MR. RUSSERT: Your paper framed the issue this way on Wednesday: ?A central thrust of the discussions at all levels of the administration is how to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move faster to provide basic services and quell sectarian violence – some of which stems from his powerful supporter, the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr – and whether to force him to meet certain benchmarks or face penalties and rewards, also to be determined.? Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, wrote a memo which questioned Maliki?s abilities. The president says he?s the right guy for Iraq. Is Maliki capable of doing what has to be done in order to secure that country in time?

MR. BROOKS: You know what?s changed about the administration? Used to be you?d go in and you?d talk off the record to one person and you got a sense of what they all thought. Now you talk to one and then you hear 180 degrees from the other. So now there?s no consensus on the Maliki government. And no sense that they really can control the government from the center?the country from the center in any case.

What I think the administration is about to do is to embrace an idea promoted by a retired general, Jack Keane, and Fred Kagan, a think-tanker, which is to surge 20,000 or 30,000 troops into key Baghdad neighborhoods. We?ve been fighting this war just enough to lose, and they?re going to make one last effort, and this is the, the plan that?s been laid out before the president, is a two-year plan. And it?s going to involve significant commitment of troops and significant sufferings and probably casualties. And they?re, they?re going to try to, for the first time, devote just enough sources?resources to win.

Whether it can work goes back to something Tom said: Do the Iraqis want to?want to have a unified country? Does the butcher in Baghdad who lost his brother because he got drilled in the back of the head, does he want to forgive or does he want to kill? And ultimately, I think the success of any strategy, as Tom indicated, depends on the Iraqis.

MR. RUSSERT: Tom, the–71 percent of the American people do not approve of the president?s handling of the war. Can you have a new commitment of more troops to Baghdad, a surge if you will, two years as defined by David Brooks? Will the American people accept that?

MR. FRIEDMAN: I don?t think for very long. I mean, I?m sure the president can try something for a while, but I don?t?I don?t think for very long. You know, the vision David sketched out in his column I think has, has a real plausibility to it. We?re seeing a civil war in Iraq, and in that part of the world, Tim, you know, if you step back, look at what?s been going on there for the last year. In Iran, they just had a conference on why the Holocaust didn?t happen. In Iraq, you have people fighting over who is the proper heir to the prophet Mohammed. And in Syria, the ? basically, the government of Syria killed the prime minister next door, and wants to get off with a parking ticket. This is a freak show, OK? There?s no other part of the world that?s behaving like this.

And it gets back to something, you know, I, I argued, you know, before the war, which is that some things are true, even if George Bush believes them, and one of them is that this part of the world is really falling off, all right, in a dangerous way. As David alluded to, that if this cracks up, you know, what you get, they actually need a civil war.

We had a civil war in our country. We had a civil war because we thought some people in our country believed really bad things. Really bad things about human dignity and equality, about, you know, the right of one people to enslave another. They?re having a civil war in Iraq, only it?s not about ideas, it?s about tribal issues. There is no Abe Lincoln there. It?s the South vs. the South, that?s the problem with the fight right now.

And so, you know what? When I?when I think of the president, he?s met with all of these people from Iraq in, in the last, you know, few months, I think of a rule I learned, and maybe forgot the past few years, as a reporter in Beirut. And that?it goes like this, Tim: What people in the Middle East tell you in private is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their language. So they come over here and say, ?Mr. President, we?re really with you. We?re for a democ??but then they go back there, it?s what they say in public. You know, in Washington, Tim, people tell the truth off the record and lie on the record. In the Middle East, they lie off the record and tell the truth on the record.

MR. RUSSERT: It?s been an interesting week in terms of the media and our coverage of Iraq. Both the first lady and the secretary of defense made suggestions as to what we should be doing. Let?s watch the first lady first on MSNBC.

(Videotape, December 14, 1006):

MRS. LAURA BUSH: I do know that there are a lot of good things that are happening that aren?t covered, and I think the drum beat in the country from the media, from the only way people know what?s happening, unless they happen to have a loved one deployed there, is discouraging.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The drum beat that is discouraging. Here?s the secretary of defense on Friday.

(Videotape, December 8, 2006):

SEC?Y DONALD RUMSFELD: I mean, if you, if you just watched what?s happening every time there?s a bomb going off in Baghdad, you?d think the whole country?s aflame. But you fly over it, and that?s just simply not the case. There are people out in the fields working, and there?s cars in the gas lines waiting to get fuel.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think?

MR. BROOKS: Get off of it. I mean, we?ve got a hero in our newspaper, John Burns. Another hero, Dexter Filkins, there?s a whole series of heroes over there. They?re not biased about this. They want the best for the Iraqi people, they want democracy. Listen to what they?re reporting, they?re reporting chaos. You have 100–I don?t know what it is, 1.6 million people leaving Iraq. You?ve got 9,000 Iraqis every week who are moving to their Shia homeland, or to their Sunni homeland. This is a country?it?s not civil war, it?s just disintegration. So the idea that this is some media concoction, you?I said that a year ago, two years ago. But at some point, face reality.

MR. RUSSERT: Face reality?

MR. FRIEDMAN: You know, Tim, if I can share with you another rule I had about the Middle East, it was that any general going to the Middle East?or reporter?should have to take a test, and it would consist of one question:

Do you believe the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? If you answer yes to that question, you can?t go to Iraq. You can go to Korea, you can go to Germany, you can go to Japan. You can?t go to Iraq.

And the problem is, when you hear the first lady, when I think of the way Bush is running this war, he thinks that in the Middle East the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It?s all straight, it?s a matter of just add a little more force here, and a little more, you know, give another speech there. It?s insane. I wanted this to succeed, you know, as much as anybody, all right, because I thought it was really important. But I thought it was really important and really hard. And to me, what history will damn these people for is they thought it was really important and really easy….

MR. RUSSERT: What?s your sense (about the 2008 presidential race)?

MR. FRIEDMAN: Well, I think that one thing Republican voters will want, Tim, if I, if I?m right, and Americans in general, is something that the Baker-Hamilton commission gave us, which is at least an honest diagnosis of where we are. You can agree or disagree with their recommendations, but people wanted an honest bipartisan diagnosis. Not Rumsfeld?s nonsense about flying over Iraq at 30,000 feet and see, see people farming.

Think of what happened this week. OK, Dick Cheney, the vice president, stood up at a massive farewell ceremony for, for Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and said he was the greatest secretary of defense in American history. Now, if that is true, either George Bush is a fool or Dick Cheney is a liar, all right? Because either George Bush just fired at the height of a war, at the greatest national security threat of our country?s current era, the greatest secretary of defense in history, or Dick Cheney thinks we?re all walking around with a sign that says ?Stupid? on it.

But I can stand up and say this: After this incredible fiasco?you know, just to go back to David?s point?and tell people that this guy was the greatest secretary of defense in history?people are tired of that, Tim. Too much is at stake now. The first lady says, you know, ?Things are going well in Iraq.? If things are going so well in Iraq, why are there a million Iraqi refugees in Jordan now, and 600,000 in Syria? Because we misreported it? They?re not reading The New York Times.

MR. BROOKS: If I could say something about internal Republican politics and about this show. I hope Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, was watching Gingrich this first half of this show. Gingrich said, ?Unless we fundamentally restructure what we?re doing in Iraq, we will not win.? He is not far off from where a lot of Republicans are. Probably where most elite Washington Republicans are.

So what?s going to happen? These Republicans do not want to run in 2008 with Iraq hanging over. They never want to face another election like that. So at some point, six months, eight months, there?s going to be men in gray suits. There?s going to be a delegation going into that White House saying to President Bush, ?You are not destroying our party over this.? And Bush will push back. But that?s going to be the, the tension. Talk about world?American support for the war, it?s Republican support in Washington for the war that the president needs to worry about.

MR. RUSSERT: We have to leave it there. David Brooks, Tom Friedman, thank you.

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