MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And on that note, we turn to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
BLOCK: So Ben Rhodes there at the White House speaking about humble aspirations in Syria, but we also heard very heated language today from Senator John McCain. He's been pushing for a much more aggressive stance in Syria. He told Fox News it's disgraceful, the conduct of the United States sitting by and watching this happen. David, let's start with you. Are we seeing an overly cautious or a wisely cautious Obama administration?
BROOKS: I would go with overly cautious. Listen, we've got a humanitarian disaster as Bill Clinton said. Tens of thousands of people have died in the last 25 months. You want to be caught trying to do something, not trying not to do something. Second, the strategic architecture of the region is falling. Third, the president had said Assad has to go and now the course of the war suggests Assad is going to stay and win.
And then, finally, we've got Hezbollah tied down fighting the rebels and surely we want the Hezbollah tied down as much as possible. So to me, there are four good reasons to do something. You know, it's not disgraceful. It's a good step forward for the administration. I wish I knew what the strategy was. Giving them some small arms fire and some bullets and things like that strikes me as pretty diminimist(ph) and not sure exactly what we're getting out of this.
BLOCK: E.J., do you see a strategy that makes sense to you?
DIONNE: I don't think they have a strategy yet because I think they and a lot of people, including a lot of people in the CIA, were surprised at the turn the war took. I don't think a lot of people anticipated that Iran and Hezbollah would get involved to the degree they did and I don't think a lot of people anticipated that Assad would be in the kind of shape he is in now.
People thought he might fall earlier, certainly not be on the offensive, as he is now. But I am not of the view that he was overly cautious. I was struck by something that professor Marc Lynch wrote in Foreign Policy magazine's website today. He said the first step on a slippery slope is always easy, but it's much harder to actually resolve a conflict or to find a way out of a quagmire.
And I think the real problem here is there are two parallel arguments. Are we doing this for humanitarian purposes, that dictates one policy, or are we really worried about the spread of Iranian influence, that dictates another policy? And so I think we are trying to figure out where we go from here given some circumstances that we didn't anticipate, unfortunate circumstances if you would prefer, as I would, to see Assad out of power.
BLOCK: Well, let's move on to the revelations about NSA surveillance and the amassing of phone records. There is a bill in Congress, David, that would declassify significant opinions by the FISA court that authorized the surveillance in the first place. Good idea?
BROOKS: I don't think so. You know, I basically support the policy. I worry about its abuse in the future, but nobody, not even Snowden, could point to abuse in the present.
BLOCK: You're talking about the leaker, Edward Snowden.
BROOKS: Right, Edward Snowden, could point to abuse in the present. I think the data sweeping exercises that they do are less intrusive, frankly, than anything that happens at the TSA. It would certainly be less intrusive than getting rid of those data sweeping and forcing them to go back to the eavesdropping they would want to do otherwise. So, you know, I think the system, until we can prove otherwise, is basically working.
And I've actually been pleasantly surprised, I guess, by how much the American people agree with me. The NSA has not produced a popular outlash. On the contrary, nearly two-thirds of the American people, according to the recent polls, support the policy.
BLOCK: E.J., what do you think about those polls?
DIONNE: Well, I actually wrote in support of that proposal, which has been put out there by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and a group of seven other senators, including two Republicans. I don't see anything wrong with saying, as a country, if we're going to debate this, let's find out what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court has decided. What is the basis for this debate?
I think that this is not an all or nothing thing. We do want to be protected. I was not surprised, honestly, that the government collects an awful lot of information. But I think it's perfectly reasonable to say we want some protections around this. We want some privacy protections and we also, by the way, need to acknowledge, as David's colleague Ross Douthat noted, that we're also worried about privacy from private collectors of information.
But I think we should take some steps to make sure that we're not violating rights here.
BLOCK: On the question of intrusiveness that David raised, I'm going to play some tape of then-Senator Joe Biden back in 2006. This was a point when the Bush administration was found to have collected millions of phone records without a warrant.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing. If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talked to, I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.
BLOCK: Well, the distinction now, apparently is that the Obama administration did have authorization from the FISA court, but David, is there hypocrisy here, are the same Democrats who decried such surveillance under the Bush administration very supportive of it now?
BROOKS: Actually, there's education, not hypocrisy.
BROOKS: You get into office and you learn the threats. You get the daily intelligence brief. Maybe you get sucked in by the National Security apparatus, but I'd like to say you just learn. And so you do things you wouldn't otherwise do because you learn the truth. As for the point he made, Charles Krauthammer in a column today said it's like the outside of an envelope. The government has a right to keep track of what's on the outside of the envelope.
They do not have to read what's in the envelope and that's essentially what they're doing with the calls. I'm old enough, I can remember getting a phone bill where every single call you made was listed on your phone bill. Is that keeping track? Is that an invasion of privacy? I think a minimal one.
BLOCK: It sounds like the distinction that the director of national intelligence James Clapper was drawing when he said, well, it's not really collecting it if you're just putting it in a list. It's collecting it if you take something off the shelf and you read it. E.J., your thoughts?
DIONNE: You know, in only partial defense of Biden, I would say that we have more legal limits now than we did at the time he spoke. But I think there's been a lot of hypocrisy on this, and oddly enough, I kind of welcome it. On the one hand, you do have some liberals who were critical of Bush and now support Obama, and you have a lot of conservatives who supported Bush but now suddenly say the same things are bad.
But you also have consistency. You have liberals who are mad at Bush, mad at Obama, conservatives who support Bush, support Obama. I think the fact that there is - people have switched sides reflects a deep and intelligent ambivalence. We want to be safe. We also want to be free. And we want to have our privacy protected. And we know it's complicated to have all of those at the same time.
And I think the fact that the partisan and ideological lines have been scrambled might actually help us have a debate on the merits.
BLOCK: OK, have a great weekend, both of you.
DIONNE: And you, too.
BROOKS: You, too.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.