MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome to you both.
DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.
E.J. DIONNE: Yeah.
BLOCK: And let's start with reaction to the president's announcement today about the troop withdrawals from Iraq. Mitt Romney very quickly responded. He called it either a naked political calculation or, he said, it reflects simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. E.J., what's your take?
DIONNE: That Mitt Romney would say that, wouldn't he? I mean, I think this is a very good thing. There will never be a perfect moment in Iraq of when we can withdraw. Obama promised to withdraw by the end of the year. The agreement President Bush signed called for withdrawal by the end of the year. And it's not as if the United States is disappearing. The State Department is building up its capacity to help Iraqis build democratic institutions there, build on what they've done already.
And I think you saw in Libya in the end that we are better off when we do not have boots on the ground to bring about democratization. We're very popular in Libya. And as we just heard, our presence there is still divisive in Iraq. So, I think Obama did the right thing.
BLOCK: David Brooks, a lot of concern from a neoconservative Frederick Kagan who weighed in today. He was one of the architects of the troop surge under President Bush. He warned that this decision will come at great cost and that it effectively throws Iraq into the arms of Iran, which you were raising concern about last week before this announcement. What do you think? Is he right?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think I more or less agree with him. Our commanders on the ground, it's been widely reported, would like to keep 14 to 18,000 troops. They think that's needed to keep doing the support jobs we've been doing, the training, the infrastructure, the air support. E.J.'s colleague, Michael Hamlin(ph), who spent a lot of time in Iraq, points out that in half the situations where there has been a civil war, they tip back into civil war.
Iran is funding at least three militias there. I think it's very useful to do what the military wants to do, which is to keep some support troops there. I understand politically, both in Iraq and in Washington, why it's politically easy to do this. But I agree with Kagan. I think it's a big mistake.
DIONNE: It would've been better to think about how this war might increase Iran's influence before we started it. And I think it's odd that people who are the architects of this are now worried about Iranian influence.
BLOCK: It's a whole other conversation. The president also today mentioned the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders and the U.S. military role leading up to the death yesterday of Moammar Gadhafi. E.J., what are the implications of this, if any, for the presidential campaign and how Republicans now position themselves?
DIONNE: You know, I found it striking, with some exceptions. I think Senator McCain was an exception, who credited Obama with doing, more or less, the right thing, even though he had been very critical. There were so many Republicans who didn't want to even give Obama this. This is a very good outcome for us. We achieved it without putting American forces in Libya. I doubt there's an Arab country in the world where we are more popular right now. Yet, there's very little credit coming Obama's way. And I'm not sure it will play very well - I'm not sure it will play much at all in the election.
But I think looking back, assuming Iraq stays stable, Obama will surprise people by having run a very effective foreign policy. He would find it easier to run on a foreign policy than, say, 9 percent unemployment. I don't think that's what people expected with his going in - when he came in.
BLOCK: And, David, does the president deserve credit here?
BROOKS: Yeah, I have to - he deserves an enormous amount of credit. The Europeans wanted a no-fly zone, which would have been ineffectual. I think Robert Gates, who I regard as the best civil servant of our age, didn't want to do it at all. So, he faces a lot of opposition but he adopted a policy, which I think is the right one, of embracing regime change using military means. And he pursued that policy very subtly, very effectively. It took a lot longer than we thought but it's so far achieved a very satisfying solution. And if he can bring E.J. around to regime change...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BROOKS: ...I'm happy for it.
DIONNE: I like regime change without American troops on the ground. I like dictatorships to fall.
BLOCK: There was yet another Republican presidential debate this week. And besides the amped up feistiness between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, David, did you hear any new themes emerging, anything new that you're learning?
BROOKS: I'm not sure I'm learning anything. I guess even on Mitt Romney's worst night, he's still the only plausible president. You know, people took him down, they took down Herman Cain - I think we've begun to see the eclipse of that fine moment. That was one we'll cherish.
But I think Rick Perry was more aggressive. Romney lost his cool a little. But even at the end of the day, no one emerged - no one rose. Romney fell a little, but no one rose. So, at the end of the day, Romney still strikes me as the only plausible one.
BLOCK: E.J., what do you think?
DIONNE: I think Romney made a strategic error in kind of letting Rick Perry back into the race. I do not think he looked good when he confronted Perry and basically told him to shut up. It was...
BLOCK: And physically put his arm...
DIONNE: ...and physically put a hand on him.
BLOCK: Hand on him, right.
DIONNE: And I think he looked petulant and even a little bit arrogant at that moment. And he had been very good in these debates keeping his cool. So that I think Perry now has a shot of making a race of it, which he didn't have it all before that debate began. He's still, Perry is, not great in debates, so that's being kind of charitable. But he landed some blows and Romney let him do so.
BLOCK: I want to end by talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests and how broad a swath of anger you think they represent. Does this become, in any way, a galvanizing force in the upcoming election? David Brooks?
BROOKS: Yeah, they represent - there is a broad swath of anger at Wall Street. There's a broad swath of anger at concentrated power. There's obviously pessimism in the country. I don't think Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, for that matter, represents regular - let me withdraw that - mainstream America. I think the Tea Party is, like, 11 percent of the country. My estimate is that Occupy Wall Street is 2 or 3 percent of the country in what they actually want to do. And it's extremely dangerous to extrapolate from these edges to what the rest of America wants to do. It's a powerful subculture, but it is a subculture.
BLOCK: Subculture though, but the people who are actually joining the protest, does that represent a broader stratum of society that would agree with a lot of what they're protesting, what they're angry about?
BROOKS: They would agree with the anger. But every survey I've seen of the group suggests it's a left-wing group, somewhat significantly to the left of the Democratic Party. When Ralph Nader ran, he got 2 percent of the vote, that's a lot of people. So, there are people with a fundamental critique of capitalism, but I don't think it represents, you know, 90 percent of the country.
BLOCK: And, E.J., briefly, the last word to you.
DIONNE: I don't think that everybody in that crowd wants to tear down American capitalism. I'm not surprised that more radical people show up for an event like this. Screaming moderates tend not to show up at events like this. But I think they've already had an enormous success. We are talking about economic inequality in a way we weren't just two months ago. We're only talking about deficits. We're talking about the abuses on Wall Street. So, I think they can claim a big win already.
BLOCK: OK, thanks to you both. Have a great weekend.
E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.