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Shields and Brooks on Obama's Week of Diplomacy

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - September 25, 2009

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how important is this news today about the Iranian nuclear facility?

MARK SHIELDS: I'm not sure, Jim. I think it is important. I think it was revealing how the president in the United States did respond in sort of stark contrast to what had happened in the past, I mean, standing there with President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown. I mean, I thought that was sort of a signal, the gravity of it, and sort of a new approach.

I thought the words were severe and quite blunt. And maybe, just maybe, the deal on the land-based anti-ballistic missiles that was negotiated last week, removing them from the Czech Republic and from Poland, missile defense system, maybe enlisted Russia, which is going to be key. Without Russia and without China, any sanctions against Iran are going to be more form than substance.

JIM LEHRER: Is this a huge development? Do you see this...

DAVID BROOKS: I was mostly struck by the sense of urgency and by the atmospherics of it. The countries have worked together for many, many years on this issue, and they've been quite strong about it in some of their statements. Nonetheless, this was sort of like a "gotcha," "we got you" moment. And Sarkozy...

JIM LEHRER: And that's based on -- apparently based on U.S. intelligence, which he, Obama, then informed the Brits and the French about, correct?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And intelligence that we've had, apparently, for many months. But what struck me was, you don't write that check. You don't go into this level of urgency and even ultimatum, as Sarkozy did especially, unless you can cash that check, unless there's something behind that check.

So, basically, today they made a bunch of threats, and so that made me think why -- what do we have in their pockets that makes them feel comfortable making these threats? And basically, it suggests to me that somewhere in the creation of a new sanctions regime, they've got something.

And it suggests to me that, in the past week, the Russians have dropped hints that they would be supporting the sanctions. I have trouble believing they would have gone to such a level of urgency unless those hints were somehow real, because they have to be able to cash these checks. They've basically made an ultimatum.

MARK SHIELDS: "We've got this."

JIM LEHRER: That's a new -- do you think the atmosphere of the ballistic missile shield are changing the nature of that, may have encouraged that private conversation?

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody wants to say it was a quid pro quo, but I certainly think that it was, to use a Latin term, a sine qua non, "without which not," I mean, it wouldn't have happened without the ballistic missile, without the shield. I think that sealed the deal with Russia, as far as Iran is concerned.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think this puts now the Iranians more on the defensive and gives credence to the offensive language and threats of the United States and threats...

MARK SHIELDS: I think they're very much -- I think they're on the defensive, and I think they're close to being isolated right now.

DAVID BROOKS: I would differ. I wouldn't get that hopeful, actually. I mean, it's one thing for Medvedev to say something. It's quite another for Vladimir Putin to say something.

He's been quite clear that he enjoys the fact that Iran is a thorn in our side. Russia has been quite helpful to the Iranian regime in cracking down on rioters. And the Russians have -- so far, they can talk about hinting towards sanctions, but there still is some question whether they'll actually do it.

And then there's the fact that the Chinese, who have made no hints at all, and you really can't do it without them. So I'd say it's, from my point of view, a step forward, but if I were the Iranians, I still wouldn't be terribly afraid. I still think it's unlikely that we'll get in their way.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president understands that he would be open to political criticism and legitimate political criticism if, in fact, the Russians don't come along. I mean, so...

JIM LEHRER: You mean political criticism here?

MARK SHIELDS: Here at home, I mean, that he was, you know, too gullible or too believing, too trusting, that he looked into the soul of the Russians and saw...

JIM LEHRER: Oh, that again.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, one other thing that struck me about this was that -- that we've had this long debate about, do you negotiate with the Iranians or do you not? And I think there's a wide consensus that we should negotiate.

But how do you regard those negotiations? Do you think just by sitting down you're going to be able to work out a deal? I think it's clear the president sees the negotiations as a means to an end, that probably won't get anything out of the talks unless you really have sanctions, that sanctions are the big deal, and just the fact of sitting down with Iranians really doesn't get you very far.

JIM LEHRER: And there's a meeting next week on October 1st...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... that we'll get a better taste because the Iranians will be there with the Americans and the others, and we'll see.

MARK SHIELDS: And China.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, and China. Yes, absolutely right.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he certainly did things which even Mr. Bush's staunchest admirers will acknowledge his predecessor couldn't do. I mean, whether it's sitting down directly and handling the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and inserting himself right in there and playing the central role...

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