Turning Point?

February 18, 2007

Turning Point?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, February 18, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: John McLaughlin asked his panelists ‘Is this the turning point in the war?’ He’s referring to the congressional votes this weekend. The House passed a resolution disapproving of the troop surge in Iraq. The Senate was not able to muster the votes, but came within four votes of doing so. Says McLaughlin, ‘The tide is turning and this is the hinge moment.’ Would you agree?

Newman: Presumably he knows that the war has been losing support for some time now. So, is this another turning point? Yes. But, if you’re talking about a real turning point, the November election was the turning point.

Salit: In more material terms.

Newman: Yes. And I think everything’s followed that. And, Congress and the White House will continue to redescribe the war and everyone will be focused on that. And then we’ll have a presidential election, to find out what actually happened, where the American people have come to in their judgment of the war, congressional efforts to de-escalate the war, etc. So if I had to give a hard answer to the question, ‘Is it a turning point,’ I’d say no.

Salit: Richard Engel, the NBC News bureau chief based in Iraq, was interviewed on “Meet the Press” today. He also made the point about the various descriptions of the war and how different forces use those descriptions to bolster their cause. Tim Russert asked him ‘Where are things going to be in a year from now?’ And Engel said, ‘The Shia will be in complete control of Baghdad and they’ll claim victory, and U.S. troops will be fighting Al Qaeda in Basra and Bush will claim victory because we’re pursuing the war on terrorists.

Newman: And then Bush will claim that the war on terror must continue.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, we have to continue with our policies.

Salit: I have some questions about how this is rolling out into the presidential process so far. After spending a week on the campaign trail, including a lot of time in New Hampshire where she was cross-examined by voters on the question of not having apologized for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, Hillary Clinton made a slight shift in the last few days. She’s now trying to go on the offensive and is saying, ‘If your criteria for a candidate is to vote for somebody who apologized, then there are choices out there other than me. If your choice for a candidate is someone who will get us out of Iraq and into a better foreign policy, that candidate is me.’ This question is not about Hillary’s strategy per se – it’s more about where the American people are at. The American people want out of Iraq. That was clear in the midterm vote, in all the polls, etc. How important do you think it is to Americans that the process of getting out of Iraq includes some kind of national reconsideration of how we got in, who was where in the process of getting in and what they’re saying about that now?

Newman: Who knows? For the moment, the focus is on looking at inconsistencies, like who voted for the war, but now opposes it. I think that’s a step forward, from a historical point of view. I don’t think it will go on to a more advanced logical level, though.

Salit: Meaning more than just looking at the inconsistencies?

Newman: Right. It’s hard to say. I think we’ll find out in the 2008 election.

Salit: Here are some ways that this weekend’s congressional actions have been described: it’s the first time there’s been a bipartisan coalition against the president’s policies; however small the numbers of Republicans that abandoned the president – seven in the Senate and 17 in the House – it was significant. Some people say ‘What’s meaningful here is that you’re seeing for the first time a real bipartisan coalition here.’ So, do you share this sense of the importance of the bipartisan coalition?

Newman: It’s hard to judge whether it’s important or not. The Democrats took control of both the Senate and the House. And they had to do something, they had to shape something that exercised that power but that drew some Republican support.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So this is the avenue that they chose.

Salit: Right.

Newman: And they did alright with it. It wasn’t a slam dunk, but it was okay. Now that they’ve done that, they’ll move on to the next phase of their political play. It’s almost pro forma, even if it’s a very paralyzing game for the country. Nonetheless, it is going to play itself out until the ’08 election.

Salit: Maybe once in a while they’ll have a discussion of healthcare.

Newman: This is how their game works. Whether the vote means anything for our relationship to the world, is quite another matter. So, periodically, we’ll get back to a serious debate, or a somewhat more serious one, like the one on “The McLaughlin Group” about Vladimir Putin.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But I don’t know if we’re going to do much about our relationship with Russia until after ’08 either.

Salit: Well, in answer to McLaughlin’s question, ‘Is this the turning point,’ Pat Buchanan said, ‘The American war is over or about to be over, but we’re at the beginning of what’s going to be a huge explosion in the Middle East,’ essentially a long-term struggle for political power.

Newman: Which has been going on for a long time. And, it will continue. There’s been a war in the Middle East for a long time. This will continue.

Salit: The discussion about Putin was about several different things: 1) Has U.S. policy within NATO, which includes pushing its expansion right up to Russia’s borders, been too provocative for a healthy relationship with Russia? 2) Is the growth in Iran’s role in the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East and in the world – in part, as a result of the Iraq War – setting up a potential for coalitions that the U.S. is not a part of? For example, is Putin more motivated to have a coalition with Iran than with the United States?

Newman: In general, we’re seeing George Bush move back towards the center relative to international relationships and European relationships in particular. He had to make this move because of his newfound position with the Democrats. Meanwhile, Putin says, ‘If you’re going to keep taking these shots at me, well, I’ll change how my eyes look when you look into them!’

Salit: Right.

Newman: Iran remains friendly with Russia, and Russia with Iran. The Europeans are not necessarily particularly friendly with Washington. But they’re more friendly now – the Democrats are “back in power” – in terms of control of Congress. And they’re all thinking that probably means the Democrats will win in ’08. And that might be so. I still say it’s going to be a crapshoot in ’08. But, we’ll see.

Salit: Well, I’m thinking you weren’t surprised at the Matthews Meter vote on Chris Matthews – Will Bush launch some kind of military action against Iran during the remainder of his term? 11-1 say no.

Newman: But, everyone keeps underestimating Bush on these matters. Everyone keeps saying that he won’t take military action when in fact it turns out that he’s fairly prone to taking military action. But, I happen to think that he won’t either. Politically speaking, I don’t think he wants to burden the next president – if he’s a Republican – with more than what is already his legacy in Iraq. But, it depends on whether he thinks Iran is seriously trying to play us. If he does, I think he’ll take military action.

Salit: How extreme?

Newman: I don’t think he’ll invade Iran. He might shoot down a plane that’s carrying materials to southern Iraq, which he has reason to believe, with his incompetent security team, are being used against American forces. Then he’ll put the ball back in Iran’s court. But, I think the bottom line in the war scenario is that the U.S. is not in a position to fight another war.

Salit: There’s not public support.

Newman: There’s not enough troops.

Salit: How do you think Bush is doing in handling his new position, i.e. having to work with a Democrat-controlled Congress?

Newman: He’s done this kind of thing before. I think he enjoys the commander-in-chief role better, the “I decide everything” role. But this isn’t a new thing. He did it when he was governor of Texas, where he had a Democrat-controlled legislature. He’s a politician. He’s good at it. He knows how to play in these situations when he has to. He’s also very committed to the war. He’s one of those people in Washington – and he’s not alone in this – who thinks that soon, if not right now, the U.S. is going to have to fight for its hegemony.

Salit: And if we don’t?

Newman: If we don’t fight, we’re just going to lose by default. I think he thinks that the question boils down to where to do it, when to do it, and how to do it. And he might be right.

Salit: Because?

Newman: There are a lot of challenges out there to the American position as a world power. We might be in a period, strategically speaking, where if you want to preserve it you have to fight for it. Who knows the answer to that one? I don’t think we should fight for world hegemony. I don’t even think we should necessarily want it.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Wanting it is more problematic than anything else – it’s over-determining of what you can and can’t do.

Salit: It certainly has been for America. Thank you.