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Week In Politics: Military In Iraq And Leadership On The Hill


We're going to stand subject of Iraq star Friday political commentators, columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, who joins us from New York this week. Hello guys.


E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And as we just heard, President Obama, who ran against the war in Iraq and pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, announced that he is a few hundred advisers there. And when he did so, he was careful to point out what they won't do.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq. But we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists, who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, do you think that Iraq is a manageable situation that's been mismanaged in Baghdad and Washington or was expecting a stable, democratic Iraq just expecting too much?

BROOKS: No, I think I could've been - if managed well, it you could have had a stable - somewhat stable, somewhat democratic Iraq. You know, we took apart their government right from the get-go in 2003. That was a gigantic mistake. We destroyed their army, another gigantic mistake. And nonetheless, what you saw from the Iraqi people was two things that was kind of impressive - first, a real fervor for democracy - remember the purple fingers - and a fervor to keep a Iraq whole, despite the splits. And these splits - it should be emphasized, when you get this sectarian violence, it's not organic. It's created by political leadership that wants to use sectarian violence as way to tear the country apart and to inflame sectarian passions for their own grab on power. And if we can have a political situation where - a post-government political situation, where you can get Sunnis and Shiites cooperating, probably without Maliki, I still think there's a chance at a stable, maybe not purely democratic, Iraq.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about that?

DIONNE: Well, I think, this really does call into questionable the whole strategy from the very beginning. The mistakes that David described were indeed mistakes. But I think our expectations here - the expectations of those who launched the war, turned out to be way off. But there is a lot of blame here to be put on Prime Minister Maliki. And that is why the implicit and, in some ways, explicit American policy right now is to push Maliki aside, if he will not stop dealing with the Sunni minority in a sectarian and utterly self-interested way from his own political point of view. You've got to get - if you're going to stop ISIL, you have to get to the Sunni tribal sheikhs back on the side, if not of the government, than against them and not in any way cooperating with them. And I think what the president's doing is really launching more a counterterrorism strategy some - and he used Yemen as an example - not a let's remake Iraq strategy. I think the president just decided that this terror threat is great enough that we have to act. But it's not a re-embrace of the idea that we can remake Iraq.

SIEGEL: He did mention American interests and terrorists threatening American interests. And I wonder, David, do you think that there's a broader American agreement that would back some kind of U.S. action in Iraq than there was when the question was Syria? And should the U.S. stage airstrikes?

BROOKS: Well, I hope we are little more terrified, in the first place, because ISIL is - could be a launching pad for terrorism. But secondly, a trans-regional Sunni-Shiite civil war is just a horrific thing to think about. And so I felt the Syria situation was bad enough and was already beginning of a Sunni-Shiite civil war. It's already spilled over now into Iraq. It could spill over and is spilling over to Lebanon. It pulls in Turkey. You really begin to see the Balkanization of the Middle East along sectarian lines, rather than national borderlines and, believe me, that will be a transformative and probably a horrific process. And there's a clear national interest in preventing that.

DIONNE: Well...

SIEGEL: E.J., yeah, go ahead.

DIONNE: Well, I was just going to say on your airstrikes question, there's a reason why the president has decided not, up to this point, to do airstrikes which is, we don't feel we have the information we need - which is one of the reasons why he's sending those 300 or so folks over there. And airstrikes are not a cure-all here because these forces aren't massed in a large place, where airstrikes would - you could militarily justify them. You could have a lot of civilian casualties without getting the enemy that you're trying to get. So I think they maybe down the road. But right now I think the president's wise not just jump the airstrikes for the sake of doing something.

SIEGEL: OK, one other item on our agenda this week - political development in Washington. With Eric Cantor denied re-nomination in a primary, House Republican chose his successor as Majority Leader. They chose to be second in command to the Speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California.


CONGRESSMAN KEVIN MCCARTHY: I make one promise. I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen. And we'll turn this country around.

SIEGEL: McCarthy's choice was not a surprise at all. There was a little surprise that Steve Scalise of Louisiana was chosen Whip, the number three spot. David what does McCarthy's elevation signify? And if he is the Speaker in waiting, how long is he going to wait?

BROOKS: I doubt he's the speaker in waiting, somehow. He's a terrifically sweet guy, former delegate, owns and drives around a pick-up truck, completely unpretentious, not a particularly ideological person. He was really good at knowing politics of each local district, tremendously popular, but not - I wouldn't say he's Milton Friedman or von Hayek waiting or - in the waiting. He's just a sweet, wonderful guy people like. He's not an ideological mover one way or another.

DIONNE: I think McCarthy is indeed a pragmatist, who cares about winning an election - winning elections. And he's a real extrovert who has made friends across fractions. So curiously, at a very ideological moment, the party made an un-ideological choice. But Scalise, I think, was chosen precisely because he is a Southerner and a Conservative. Although some of the Tea Party Right wasn't even happy with Scalise and sort of seized the leadership moving, maybe, slightly to the left after Cantor's defeat by the Tea Party. I think the establishment is still in control. But it's an establishment completely cowed by the Tea Party, especially after Cantor's defeat. So maybe, in a way, the worst of both worlds. You'll have the unhappy rebels on the Right, 30 or 40 of them. But nothing of substance will get done.

SIEGEL: And David, how long do you expect John Boehner to remain Speaker of the House?

BROOKS: Well, now there's - less clear - there's an alternative. So I think he may hang around. Also the tensions between Cantor and Boehner were legendary. And now they're going away and whatever was running them was- they're going to be unified. So I suspect this gives him a little bit of a new lease on life just 'cause the semi-brewing civil war in the leadership is now gone all of a sudden.

SIEGEL: He has a better now, you think.

BROOKS: I hope he's happier. He left Krell (PH) cry less.

SIEGEL: OK, E.J., thoughts - very brief thoughts on the future of John Boehner?

DIONNE: I think he still has a miserable job and he probably still wants to hang onto it anyway.

SIEGEL: OK. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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