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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column incorrectly attributed a quote from a James Klurfeld column criticizing President Bush for "consistently making the wrong decisions" to Alan Abramowitz. The attribution has been corrected in this version of the column.
A Civil Question

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 7, 2006; 12:15 PM

President Bush won't talk about the prospect of civil war in Iraq and what it would mean to the U.S. troop presence. But it's becoming increasingly clear that he needs to.

Prompted by a new Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war, I wrote in yesterday's column about how Bush waved off any talk of civil war in his interview last week with ABC News's Elizabeth Vargas .

But it seems like everyone else is talking about it but him -- even his top envoy to Iraq.

Borzou Daragahi writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In remarks that were among the frankest and bleakest public assessments of the Iraq situation by a high-level American official, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the 'potential is there' for sectarian violence to become full-blown civil war.

" 'We have opened the Pandora's box and the question is, what is the way forward?' Khalilzad said. 'The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across [Iraq's] communities.' . . .

"Khalilzad said the U.S. has little choice but to maintain a strong presence in Iraq -- or risk a regional conflict in which Arabs side with Sunnis and Iranians back Shiites, in what could be a more encompassing version of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, which left more than 1 million dead.

"The ambassador warned of a calamitous disruption in the production and transport of energy supplies in the Persian Gulf. He described a worst-case scenario in which religious extremists could take over sections of Iraq and begin to expand outward.

" 'That would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play.' "

Mariam Karouny writes for Reuters: "After two weeks teetering toward sectarian civil war, Iraq is seeing something of a lull.

"Yet behind upbeat rhetoric that the crisis is over and a national unity coalition is in the works, Iraqi leaders are talking ever more gloomily in private about the country breaking apart. . . .

"A senior Shi'ite politician close to the interim government said talk of an impending civil war was misplaced. 'It depends what you mean by civil war,' he said. 'But as far as I can see we are already in an undeclared civil war.' "

Indeed, the idea that Iraq is already in a state of civil war is taking on more and more credence.

Jake Tapper reported for ABC News on Sunday: "As Pentagon generals offered optimistic assessments that the sectarian violence in Iraq had dissipated this weekend, other military experts told ABC News that Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq already are engaged in a civil war, and that the Iraqi government and U.S. military had better accept that fact and adapt accordingly.

" 'We're in a civil war now; it's just that not everybody's joined in,' said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a former military commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 'The failure to understand that the civil war is already taking place, just not necessarily at the maximum level, means that our counter measures are inadequate and therefore dangerous to our long-term interest.' . . .

"Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News, 'If you talk to U.S. intelligence officers and military people privately, they'd say we've been involved in low level civil war with very slowly increasing intensity since the transfer of power in June 2004.' "

Larry Diamond , the Stanford University scholar who briefly advised U.S. authorities in Iraq, writes in the New Republic: "Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. Indeed, by one common social science definition -- at least 1,000 dead (with at least 100 on each side) from internal hostilities in which one side tries violently to change the state or its policies -- Iraq's civil war began in the first year of the 'postwar' era and has been particularly bloody."

Paul Starobin wrote in a National Journal cover story in December: "An active, if not full-boil, civil war is already a reality. The principal combatants are drawn from the Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab communities, which together comprise about three-quarters of the Iraqi population of 26 million. In this picture, U.S.-led coalition forces tend to be viewed by 'rejectionist' Sunni Arabs as protectors of the Shiites, who dominate the new, U.S.-backed, Iraqi government and who operate militias with close ties to the new Iraqi regime."

And General William E. Odom , former director of the National Security Agency, wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org back in August: "Iraqis are already fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That's civil war. We created the civil war when we invaded; we can't prevent a civil war by staying."

So what to do?

Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register: "Sen. Tom Harkin said in Iowa Friday that Iraq has deteriorated into 'civil war,' declaring it no longer manageable by U.S. forces. . . .

"The senator, an opponent of the war, said the only solution to the surge of sectarian violence is to begin withdrawing U.S. forces."

By contrast, Diamond writes: "This is not a time for the United States to throw in the towel in Iraq. The consequences of all-out civil war -- which would now surely follow a precipitous U.S. withdrawal -- would be too disastrous for everyone except the extremists."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't -- that's not an enviable state of affairs for a commander in chief. Is Bush reassessing his plan? Does he have a contingency plan? Hasn't he learned the hard way that it's worth preparing for the worst?

Line-Item Veto

Amid all sorts of legitimate questions about timing -- and skepticism about his true budget-cutting fervor -- the fact remains that Bush yesterday proposed a fascinating variation on the age-old line-item-veto issue.

Rather than asserting some sort of extra-Constitutional power to amend Congressional bills post facto, Bush is asking for the power to pull out individual items tucked into massive spending measures and force Congress to take a public up-or-down vote on each one.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Bush has asked for the line-item veto in years past as part of his overall budget requests. But he has never before offered specific legislation seeking the authority. White House aides said the proposal is timely because of growing outrage over the widening budget deficit and the growth of legislative earmarks, which has threatened to undermine the image of Republicans as proponents of small government. Some conservatives said Bush's own credibility on the issue is open to question.

" 'Under President Bush, the government has expanded by 45 percent in five years,' said Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. While he praised the line-item veto as a good 'common-sense' tool, Riedl said that 'there is no substitute for vetoing expensive spending bills.'

"Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the number of home-district earmarks has jumped from 4,155 valued at about $29 billion in 1994 to 14,211 worth nearly $53 billion 10 years later, according to the Congressional Research Service. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has forecast a record budget deficit for 2007 of $439 billion."

Here's the transcript of a press briefing on the proposal by Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten. "The legislation is designed to do two things: one, to give the President a scalpel to reduce unnecessary or wasteful spending; and, second, to improve accountability and cast a brighter light on the practice of slipping earmarks into bills at the last minute."

It sounds quite noble, in some ways. But of course the devil's in the details -- and the execution.

So here's a question that would help the American public determine how Bush would wield such a tool: Can the White House please give some examples of what Bush would have cut in previous years, had he had this authority?

That would help us understand the sense of scale here, and also the potential for partisan chicanery. Would this all just amount to chump-change compared to Bush's multi-hundred-billion-dollar deficits? And would it simply become another way for the White House to punish political opponents?

Meanwhile, Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "George W. Bush will hit an historic milestone this month: On March 20, he'll pass James Monroe for second place, behind Thomas Jefferson, among U.S. presidents who went the longest without vetoing legislation."

Competence Watch

Alan Abramowitz wrote in The Washington Post Outlook section on Sunday: "The problem for President Bush is a growing perception that he simply isn't competent. That's the story behind the polling numbers that have declined -- bad week by bad week -- since February 2005 when the president's approval rating stood at a respectable 52 percent.

"The predecessor whom Bush has begun to resemble isn't, as many liberal Democrats seem to believe, Richard Nixon. It's Jimmy Carter. Carter's political demise began when the American people, including many Democrats, started to perceive him as in over his head in the Oval Office. That's what may be happening now to Bush. . . .

James Klurfeld writes in a Newsday opinion column: "An old acquaintance in Washington - a former member of Republican administrations whose foreign policy views are decidedly hard-line - recently had this to say to a friend about the Bush administration: This might be the most inept administration in American history."

"His lack of historical perspective, his crusading religiousness, his Texas-style shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to complex problems - that is, all the shortcomings that were obvious from the beginning of his presidency - seem to be catching up with him now. It's one thing to be a decisive leader. It is quite another to be consistently making the wrong decisions."

Thinkprogress.org caught Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol talking about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina on Fox News Sunday: "I think it's become in people's minds an emblem of the administration that just isn't as serious about the competent execution of the functions of government as it should be. And even -- I'm struck talking to conservatives and Republicans -- they agree with the president on basic political philosophy, they agree with his basic policy agenda, but they are worried that they just don't seem to be able to execute as well as they should be."

And Robert D. Novak writes in his syndicated column: "President Bush's visit to Katrina-ravaged Louisiana Wednesday follows six months of bungling that threatens political catastrophe for the state's Republicans. He will boost his belated $4.2 billion plan finally to provide housing for people made homeless by the storm, but it may be too little, too late."

The Two Economies

John M. Berry asks in his Bloomberg column: "Why does the Bush administration get such little credit for what appear to be good economic times with solid growth and falling unemployment?

"Read the Federal Reserve's latest Survey of Consumer Finances and find out.

"It paints a picture of families whose inflation-adjusted incomes and net worth barely rose over the 2001 to 2004 period, a sharp contrast with large gains in both over the three prior years. That difference has underscored the feeling in many families of not getting ahead."

Just yesterday, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked the very same question in the New York Times (subscription required): "Why doesn't Mr. Bush get any economic respect? I think it's because most Americans sense, correctly, that he doesn't care about people like them. We're living in a time when many Americans are feeling economically insecure, but a tiny elite has been growing incredibly rich. And Mr. Bush's problem is that he identifies so totally with the lucky, wealthy few that in unscripted settings he can't manage even a few sentences of empathy with ordinary Americans. He doesn't feel your pain, and it shows."

In a few recent speeches, such as this one in Minnesota last month, Bush acknowledged what he called the "uncertainty" in the American workplace due to global competition. But that was about as sympathetic as he got. His only suggestion was that people not succumb to protectionism.

Just this past week, in India of all places, Bush added on what may be an equally unhelpful bit of advice: Go back to school.

Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "When President Bush met with a group of business school students in the Indian city of Hyderabad last week, he came face to face with the very people whose first-rate educations, rising aspirations and readiness to work for a fraction of U.S. wages were tugging jobs overseas, away from even well-educated Americans.

"Bush used the occasion to offer some pointed advice to workers back home: Get more training. . . .

"But the president's assertion that the answer to foreign outsourcing is education, a mantra embraced by Democrats as well as Republicans, is being challenged by a growing body of research and analysis from economists and other scholars."

Plus, Gosselin writes: "In Bush's case, arguing for more schooling draws particular fire from some educators, because the administration's record of providing money to support the kind of training he advocates has been weak."

Here's the transcript of Bush's talk in India. "People do lose jobs as a result of globalization, and it's painful for those who lose jobs. But the fundamental question is, how does a government or society react to that," he said.

Bush's answer: "Let's make sure people are educated so they can find -- fill the jobs of the 21st century. And let's make sure that there's pro-growth economic policies in place. What does that mean? That means low taxes; it means less regulation; it means fewer lawsuits; it means wise energy policy."

And here, by the way, is Krugman's response: "O.K., so you're a 50-year-old worker whose job has just been outsourced, and Mr. Bush tells you that you should go get a 21st-century education and rejoice in the joys of a lawsuit-free economy. Uh-huh."

Poll Watch

Richard Morin writes in The Washington Post that, in contrast to some other national polls, The Washington Post/ABC News poll found Bush's job approval rating at 41 percent, essentially unchanged from January.

Here are the poll results .

Incidentally, a reader alerted me to the fact that in my item yesterday on Vice President Cheney's ratings, I compared apples and oranges -- or rather, job approval ratings and favorable ratings.

My point was that Cheney's much-mocked 18 percent favorability ratings in the CBS News poll might turn out to be a statistical outlier.

And according to the new Post poll, Cheney's favorability is at 41 percent, with 56 percent having an unfavorable impression. That's actually a higher favorable rating than his all-time low of 35 in The Post poll in March 2004. But back then, only 43 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him; 23 percent had no opinion. Now, only 4 percent have no opinion.

And a new Gallup Poll finds Cheney's hunting accident having no significant effect on his job approval rating: "Forty percent of Americans approve of the way Cheney is handling his job, compared with a 41 percent rating prior to the accident. Cheney's approval rating is now two points higher than President George W. Bush's rating, the first time this has happened since the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

A new Zogby poll finds Bush's job approval dipping slightly to 38 percent, down from 40 percent two weeks ago.

Brett Kavanaugh Watch

Emma Schwartz writes for the Legal Times that Senate Democrats are girding for a knock-down, drag-out fight over White House staff secretary Brett M. Kavanaugh's nomination as a D.C. Circuit Court judge.

Kavanaugh was first nominated in 2003, but blocked by Democrats. Bush renominated him in January.

Kavanaugh, who is married to Bush's former personal secretary, is responsible for every piece of paper that lands on Bush's desk. But that's not why Democrats hate him so.

As Schwartz writes: "Kavanaugh's conservative credentials are etched indelibly into his résumé. In fact, he's something of the Zelig of young Republican lawyers. A protégé of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, he was a key figure in the Whitewater investigation."

He also co-wrote the Starr Report on the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Schwartz continues: "In the recount fight after the 2000 election, he served as a foot soldier in the legal army that descended on Florida and gave Bush his presidency. As a lawyer for Bush in the White House counsel's office, he shepherded most of the administration's contentious federal court nominees."

Briefing Room Follies

From yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan, two questions from briefing-room eccentric Lester Kinsolving:

"Q Scott, while you were gone the Internet reported the President's statement to Bill Sammon : 'I find it interesting that the old way of gathering news is slowly but surely' being - 'losing market share. It is interesting to watch those media conglomerates try to deal with the realities of a new kind of world.' And my question first: Considering this presidential statement, when can we expect that what he termed the old and market-losing media will have their reserved seats in the two front rows of this press room reassigned to the new media?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Boy, that's one I don't really want to open up right now. (Laughter.) I don't get into book promotions -- obviously, you do. But I do look forward to reading that one.

"Q Did the President watch any of the Academy Awards for prostitution and sodomy last night?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware that he caught any of it. I don't know -- I don't know what you're referring to, either. Les, I'm going to move on."

All About the Rug

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For whatever reason, Bush seems fixated on his rug. Virtually all visitors to the Oval Office find him regaling them about how it was chosen and what it represents. Turns out, he always says, the first decision any president makes is what carpet he wants in his office. As a take-charge leader, he then explains, he of course made a command decision -- he delegated the decision to Laura Bush, who chose a yellow sunbeam design.

"Elizabeth Vargas, the ABC News anchor, was the latest to get the treatment. She went by last week to interview Bush before his trip to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Sure enough, she wasn't in the room but a minute or two before he started telling her about the carpet. . . .

" 'He loves his rug,' said Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director. 'I've heard him describe it countless times.'

"Sometimes Bush describes it as a metaphor for leadership. Sometimes he relates how Russian President Vladimir Putin admired the carpet. Sometimes he seems most taken by the lighting qualities."

Here, from the White House Web site, is Bush's virtual tour of the Oval Office -- and the rug: "It helps make this room an open and optimistic place," he tells viewers.

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