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Week In Politics: Syria, Immigration Reform


And we're joined now by our Friday political observers, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of the New York Times, good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

CORNISH: So we're going to go back to the news we heard at the top of the hour about Syria. We heard Tom Bowman talk about three U.S. options all having downsides. Here's President Obama on this topic today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've been very clear publicly, but also privately that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues.

CORNISH: So given what we've been hearing, I mean, how do you guys see this calculus changing? I mean, is the president being drawn into having to act in a way that they don't want to act?

BROOKS: I'm against red lines, you know. If we tell a country if you do X, we'll do Y, then we're giving them control of our policy. And we should never do that. He sort of adjusted today by talking about it would change my calculus. So I think whether they use chemical weapons or some other kind of weapons should be part of the calculus.

But we've got to think about what kind of Syria we want or what kind of Syria we can possibly envision. It's telling, as my colleague Tom Friedman has written, that Assad has managed to hang in there. There's some strength there in the government. It's telling that the Christians seem to have thrown their lot in with him. And as Tom has written, there's a good chance we could get chaos if the insurgents win. And that's another part of the equation that, to me, speaks to caution.

DIONNE: Red lines are dangerous because once you set them and then don't act, you look weak. And so the president is trying to be very careful about that. I agree with David on that. And it's also clear that the ghosts of Iraq lurk all around this discussion. First, there's the obvious concern about getting involved in a war in the Middle East one way or another. Second, in light of the problems with the intelligence about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there's a concern to make absolutely sure that what we're hearing about chemical weapons is true.

Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain alluded to that today, saying basically, we might have to act, but we want to make sure we're right. And obviously - and the argument about intervening is really very much about what's going to happen after. If we don't intervene and Assad falls, is the regime worse? If we do intervene, do we bring about a terrible regime?

It's very hard for me to see, despite all the problems, how a regime could be a whole lot worse than Assad, but I made mistakes on that calculation myself before.

CORNISH: And, of course, bringing up the name of President Bush, obviously, the George W. Bush Presidential Library opened up this week and, David, to you, kind of along the lines of what E.J.'s talking about here, are there callbacks, echoes of this legacy especially when it comes to the intelligence community?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, Bush forever altered our epistemology, as we knew he would. And that means, he makes us think about our own thinking and be more skeptical of confidence levels of intelligence. So that's the first thing. Second, we've learned from the chaos in Iraq that chaos can happen and the choice in the Middle East is often between autocracy and chaos. And so that's a horrible choice, but it's a classic one in Syria.

I would say, on President Bush's behalf, he did keep us safe and he created a domestic security state that President Obama has basically endorsed.

CORNISH: Now, turning to the domestic news now, the investigation following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the prime suspects turned out to be immigrant brothers, ethnic Chechens. And we saw lawmakers in some ways tie this to security concerns within the debate over immigration reform. Here's a clip of things getting heated between New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa during a hearing on the bill.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: I say that particularly those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as a - I would say excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: I never said that.

SCHUMER: I didn't say you did.

GRASSLEY: I never said that.

SCHUMER: I didn't say you did, sir.


CORNISH: You know, Grassley came out of this later and also said that he wanted people to notice - he thought it was hypocritical that Democrats were talking about Newtown when it came to gun legislation, but somehow he wasn't allowed to talk about immigration in the context of the bombing. E.J., I see you raising your finger there.

DIONNE: Yeah, no, I thought it was first of all remarkable that Grassley just lashed out like that, even though Schumer hadn't mentioned his name, which showed he was a bit on the defensive. And I think there is a difference here, which is that Newtown had to do with actual weapons used, whereas what does this have to do with immigration reform one way or another? Are we going to keep all kids out of the country who might later in life commit a terrorist act?

And so I think it's - I think there's a legitimate difference. But immigration reform is moving ahead, and I think people want to use Boston to push it back. It was very significant at that Bush event, that President Obama praised Bush for those things he agreed with him on, and one was immigration reform, and he was trying to turn this into Bush's legacy as well as his own.

CORNISH: Any news is fair game for politics, right, David? So what about this one?

BROOKS: I think it's completely irrelevant. These kids were not illegals. It had nothing to do with the immigration issues we're talking about. Second, if the anti-immigration forces want to use these supposed terrorists to bash immigration, then I'll take every terrorist and you give me every one who starts a business, every one who teaches in a school, every one who invents a product. So we'll see whether immigration is a net benefit or net loss.

On the politics, I think I may disagree with E.J. I think the odds of its passing are sharply diminishing by the week. The Republican side is hardening against - especially in the House they're going to try to pick it to pieces. And I would put immigration passage at about 50-50 right now.

DIONNE: The reason I disagree with that is that I still think there are - there's a substantial number of people in the Republican Party who know that the party has to get right with Latinos. And so I agree it's probably more complicated today than it was a couple weeks ago, but I still think there's a lot of sentiment inside the Republican Party to get this done.

And Senator McCain, by the way, has been particularly outspoken over the last few days in trying to push the House.

CORNISH: Go ahead, David.

BROOKS: Yeah, I would say in the Senate, that's true, but every argument in favor of immigration reform from the Republican point of view was made election night November 2012. All the arguments forthcoming are now moving things in the other direction. And I see what the House has decided to do, not to oppose but just to say, oh, let's do this gradually, which is effective opposing. And I just see no evidence from the Republican base that they want to do what Karl Rove thinks they should do and what I think they should do, which is get behind this thing.

DIONNE: And, of course, I think the gun bill is going to come back. So we'll see.

CORNISH: OK, we will see. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.