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Columnists Look Back on Three Years of War

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Joining us now for some reflection on what's happened over the past three years, our two regular political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and also Georgetown University, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, David, you wrote this week about the week of March 24, 2003, when a new kind of war was evident to the pundit class, not the policymakers, though, and you wrote this: "The week of March 24, 2003 is vital because if Rumsfeld had made adjustments to the new circumstances then, much of the subsequent horror could have been averted." Why didn't he, and why is he still secretary of defense if he didn't?

BROOKS: That's a good question. March 24 was a couple of days into the ground war. The U.S. troops were surging northward. They hit a town called Nasiriyah, where they found guerrilla resistance. It was clear to the embedded reporters, to columnists and to most of the commanders on the ground that we were not facing a conventional war against the Republican Guard, we were facing guerrilla warfare, and we would need a lot more troops. Rumsfeld rejected both of those ideas and stuck with the idea that we're going to face the Republican Guard and we can get in and out with few troops.

The fundamental reason I think he did not change was because he had an ideology which was transforming the military. It was the idea that future wars are going to be fought with light, short troops. It was a colossal failure. It wasted really two years. And we've had insufficient troops ever since. The reason I think he hasn't been fired, though richly deserving, is because George Bush and Dick Cheney were in the room when he made all the decisions. They made the decisions together, and I think Bush, who has some sense of decency, says I can't fire the guy for decisions I was involved in.

SIEGEL: And yet, E.J. Dionne, as — well, you were writing at the time. There was a fairly broad debate, as David Brooks wrote in that column, outside of the administration, even if it was a narrow debate inside the administration.

DIONNE: And it was a debate that took place before the war. I agreed with all of David's criticisms, but I think that what's really important is that there were people out there, including General Shinseki, before the war started.

SIEGEL: The former Army Chief of Staff.

DIONNE: Yes, who, the former Army Chief of Staff, who said that in order to pacify Iraq, in order to keep order in Iraq, we needed many, many more troops on the ground. He talked of two or three hundred thousand troops. And it wasn't Secretary Rumsfeld that was forced out. It was Shinseki who was forced out. And it turned out that he was quite right. And I think in retrospect what the administration has to answer for is a whole series of wildly optimistic assumptions going into the war.

The first, which David wrote about, that an occupation would take a lot of troops because an insurgency is very hard to defeat, but also the administration consistently said before the war started don't worry about conflict among the Shia and the Sunnis and the Kurds. Vice President Cheney was very clear in being so optimistic about this when he did his interview with Tim Russert before the war. The costs will be low. It won't last a long time. They didn't prepare the country for what a difficult war this was going to be.

SIEGEL: I want to hear what both of you have to say about something that the former National Security Advisor to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said today. This is from a speech that he gave, or yesterday, in Washington. First he faulted President Bush. "To describe America repeatedly as a nation at war, implicitly, of course, with the Commander in Chief in charge, is to contribute to a view of the world by America that stimulates fear and isolates us from others." And then he said, "Democratic leaders have been silent or evasive. They have not offered an alternative to the war in Iraq, and they have not seriously challenged the view of the world that's being propagated from the top." He calls that a case of political desertion. Is he right, David?

BROOKS: I guess I think he's wrong on the first thing. I think we are at war. I think what we've seen in the cartoons and a whole series of attacks in Madrid and London and elsewhere is there's a significant portion of Iraqi extremists who are at war with the West, who are at war with the United States. And I think we have to take it with that level of seriousness.

As for the evasion, I think actually what we've seen over the past year is an evolution toward a policy that most people generally agree with, training the Iraqi troops. We've gotten a lot better at fighting counterinsurgency. We're beginning to make progress in uniting the Sunnis and the Shia into a unified government. The question is whether it's too late, whether the cycle of instability has become so violent that you can't catch up. But I don't think it's necessarily an evasion. This is pretty much consensus policy now.

SIEGEL: And, E.J., let me intensify this a bit, because Brzezinski is in favor of getting out of Iraq. New poll this week found 50 percent of Americans now are. That number has been rising, they essentially take the John Murtha position. Where are the Democrats? Do they in fact share the same assumptions as the administration or the same assumptions as 50 percent of the public?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I don't think they share the same assumptions as the administration, but I don't think they share the same assumptions with each other. I think there are big differences within the Democratic Party about what to do. Where I think there's agreement is in a sense that this is a failed policy. I was talking earlier this week with Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat whom I think has thought more clearly on the war than a lot of people, and he said that the definition of a bad policy is one that leaves you with no good options.

And I think the grave concern right now is that unless our ambassador over there, Mr. Khalilzad, can really get these folks together to create a unity government that actually holds and can bring some peace in this almost civil war that we are facing, then the United States will be in the worst possible position, which is the armed referees in a civil war. It seems to me that if there is a consensus within the opposition right now, it's something just short of Murtha, which is to say the U.S. should use the fact that its withdrawal would cause huge problems to those now in power and to say you guys have to reach an agreement or then we will get out.

SIEGEL: But in our government, David Brooks, is there room in the situation you've described for self-scrutiny and self-correction?

BROOKS: No, because we don't have a normal conversation in Washington. No one wants to admit mistakes and that's true on both sides and we don't have a normal conversation.

SIEGEL: And no one is sacked for making disastrous decisions.

BROOKS: Right, there's been no accountability.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thank you very much for talking with us today about three years of the war in Iraq.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.