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The Ugly Truth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 20, 2006; 1:46 PM

It's often said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

But there may be nothing that goes against President Bush's nature more than doing just that.

When it comes to Iraq, Bush's political strategy in the run-up to the mid-term elections has been to stress the possible downsides of the "cut and run" approach -- civil war, increased carnage, instability at the heart of the Middle East, Iraq as a base for terror -- while refusing to acknowledge that his "stay the course" approach, ironically, appears to be delivering all those things and more.

Now, a presidency that has been all about aggression risks a major public rebuff as a sizeable majority of the Americans appears to have accepted what Bush can't: That his brassy approach has backfired -- and that it's we who are getting beaten up.

Evidently, something needs to change. But what?

The Bush White House (and its press corps) often confuse tactics, strategy and goals. Tactics are what you use in the service of the strategy you choose to achieve your goal. Even the best tactics, in pursuit of an ill-chosen strategy, will not achieve the desired goal.

Bush's goal is a stable, secure, democratic Iraq. His strategy is for American troops to stay there until that happens. The tactics are getting those troops killed.

And while the president has been talking about adjusting tactics lately, he can't accept that his strategy may need changing -- or even his goal. At least not yet.

Growing Doubts

Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "The growing doubts among GOP lawmakers about the administration's Iraq strategy, coupled with the prospect of Democratic wins in next month's midterm elections, will soon force the Bush administration to abandon its open-ended commitment to the war, according to lawmakers in both parties, foreign policy experts and others involved in policymaking.

"Senior figures in both parties are coming to the conclusion that the Bush administration will be unable to achieve its goal of a stable, democratic Iraq within a politically feasible time frame. Agitation is growing in Congress for alternatives to the administration's strategy of keeping Iraq in one piece and getting its security forces up and running while 140,000 U.S. troops try to keep a lid on rapidly spreading sectarian violence."

Abramowitz and Ricks write that "In recent remarks about Iraq, Bush has sounded a more flexible tone, saying he is open to suggestions for changes and emphasizing that his commanders adjust tactics constantly."

But that flexibility only extends to tactics, not strategy.

"Press secretary Tony Snow yesterday dismissed a dramatic about-face in policy -- such as a division of the country or phased withdrawal -- as a 'non-starter' and called the idea that the White House will seek a course correction in Iraq 'a bunch of hooey.' . . .

"Like many who have met with the president in recent months to discuss Iraq policy, author and military expert Robert Kaplan said he detected clear limits to Bush's flexibility. 'He seemed genuinely to enjoy the challenges to his policy that we threw at him,' Kaplan said, describing a session Bush held with several outside strategists at Camp David in June. 'He wasn't at all defensive. He appeared open to any new direction or tactic, except withdrawal, and yet that is what he might be faced with after November.'"

Noam N. Levey, Janet Hook and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Public anxiety over the Iraq war, already reflected in polls and demands from some Democrats to withdraw U.S. troops, is now prompting calls for change from some unlikely quarters: Republican congressional candidates. . . .

"'We haven't found one part of the country, even in the South, where it is good to say, 'Stay the course,' ' said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group for GOP centrists. But Republicans 'don't want to do a major in-your-face with the president. They are trying to work around the issue in their districts.'"

Tactical Defeat

John Ward Anderson writes in The Washington Post: "A two-month U.S.-Iraqi military operation to stem sectarian bloodshed and insurgent attacks in Baghdad has failed to reduce the violence, which has surged 22 percent in the capital in the last three weeks, much of it in areas where the military has focused its efforts, a senior U.S. military spokesman said Thursday."

John F. Burns writes in the New York Times: "Perhaps the most striking element in the news conference was General Caldwell's candor. Although American commanders have struck a generally sober tone in the past year, they have been careful not to hint in public at the increasingly gloomy view that some, at least, have taken in private. In recent weeks, some senior officers have voiced growing exasperation at background briefings for reporters, particularly when discussing the ineffectiveness, dithering and corruption, as they have termed it, in the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the prime minister's failure to act effectively on his pledge to rein in the Shiite militias that American commanders now see as the main source of instability."

Louise Roug writes in the Los Angeles Times that Caldwell "charged that Iraqi paramilitary fighters were attacking American forces more frequently because of the upcoming U.S. midterm election, in which the Iraq conflict and the American lives being lost are key issues."

But the evidence strongly suggests that this is not some sort of politically-motivated jihadi offensive. By and large, it's not the work of the jihadis at all.

"Privately, American officers say Shiite militias, some alleged to be affiliated with Iraqi government security forces, are responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. troops as well as on Sunni civilians. But commanders often find themselves stymied when going after Shiite militias, especially those affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose political bloc holds 30 seats in parliament."

Yochi J. Dreazen and Greg Jaffe write in the Wall Street Journal, recalling how: "In yet another effort to secure Baghdad, President Bush stood next to visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in July and announced plans to shift thousands of additional American forces to Iraq's capital.

"With American and Iraqi deaths rising since then, the strategy's [sic] apparent failure to stem the violence is forcing the Bush administration to weigh a host of unpalatable choices -- and leaving the White House and Pentagon with a dwindling amount of time to decide what to do next."

David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud write in the New York Times: "The acknowledgment by the United States Army spokesman in Iraq that the latest plan to secure Baghdad has faltered leaves President Bush with some of the ugliest choices he has yet faced in the war."

He can yet again change tactics. "Or Mr. Bush can reassess the strategy itself, perhaps listening to those advisers -- including some members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the advisory commission charged with coming up with new strategies for Iraq -- who say that he needs to redefine the 'victory' that he again on Thursday declared was his goal.

"One official providing advice to the president noted on Thursday that while Mr. Bush still insists his goal is an Iraq that 'can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,' he has already dropped most references to creating a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Middle East. . . .

"But whatever choices he makes . . . they will be forced by a series of events, in Iraq and at home, that now seems largely out of Mr. Bush's control, in Iraq and at home."

Cheney's World

No one -- but no one -- appears to be in a deeper state of denial than Vice President Cheney. Consider two interviews Cheney granted by satellite to local television reporters in hotly contested congressional districts yesterday.

Here's the transcript of his interview with WSBT-TV's Kirk Mason in South Bend, Indiana. Here's the video .

"Q Are you saying that you believe fighting in Iraq has prevented terrorist attacks on American soil? And if so, why, since there has not been a direct connection between al Qaeda and Iraq established?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the fact of the matter is there are connections. Mr. Zarqawi, who was the lead terrorist in Iraq for three years, fled there after we went into Afghanistan. He was there before we ever went into Iraq. The sectarian violence that we see now, in part, has been stimulated by the fact of al Qaeda attacks intended to try to create conflict between Shia and Sunni."

But Cheney's implication that an Iraq-al Qaeda link existed before the invasion is specious.

As Jonathan Weisman wrote in The Washington Post last month: "A declassified report released yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that . . . [f]ar from aligning himself with al-Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hussein repeatedly rebuffed al-Qaeda's overtures and tried to capture Zarqawi, the report said."

And here's the transcript of Cheney's interview with WFLA-TV's Bob Hite in Tampa.

"Q . . . Of course, what is getting a lot of attention, almost all the attention is the war in Iraq. The plan to have put more troops into Baghdad to suppress the violence there seems to have backfired in that it seems to only be providing more targets for the terrorists.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the fact is that we've had more troops engaged in Baghdad because that's where the biggest threat is. Most of the country is in relatively good shape at this stage."

FACT CHECK: As Burns writes in the New York Times: "Stark new videotape broadcast on Thursday by Al Jazeera from Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 80 miles west of Baghdad, showed heavily armed insurgents taking over a busy city street in broad daylight to celebrate the proclamation by their leaders of an Islamic state in wide areas of Iraq's Sunni heartland. . . .

"The insurgents' ability to strike across wide areas of the country was demonstrated anew on Thursday in the northern oil city of Mosul, when suicide bombers attacked a police station and an American convoy, killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens more, mostly civilians, a hospital official said.

"In the city of Diyala, 40 miles north of Baghdad, a bomb near a market killed 10 people and injured 20 others, an Interior Ministry official said."

And Christopher Bodeen reports this morning for the Associated Press: "The Shiite militia run by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized control of a southern Iraqi city on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by the country's powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said."

WFLA-TV's Hite, incidentally, wouldn't let Cheney cow him.

" Q Yes, sir. But the purpose of putting additional troops there was to reduce the violence, and instead it has gone up. Therefore, it would seem that our tactic to increase our force in Baghdad has not worked. In fact, it seems to be failing.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: You can't defeat the enemy, Bob, by withdrawing from them. You can only defeat them by taking them on, and that's exactly what our troops are doing."

Mike Allen and James Carney publish excerpts of their Cheney interview on Time.com today.

"TIME: What do you think a Democratic House would be like?

"CHENEY: Well, I don't expect that to happen. I'm optimistic that we're going to hold both the House and the Senate. . . .

"TIME: There's certainly a lot of talk in Washington that there will be a search for an exit strategy after the election.

"CHENEY: I know what the President thinks. I know what I think. And we're not looking for an exit strategy; we're looking for victory."

And is this the first public regret ever expressed by Cheney?

"TIME: Mr. Vice President, if you had to take back any one thing you'd said about Iraq, what would it be?

"CHENEY: I expressed the sentiment some time ago that I thought we were over the hump in terms of violence, I think that was premature. I thought the elections would have created that environment. And it hasn't happened yet."

Cheney's Visitors

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to release information about who visited Vice President Dick Cheney's office and personal residence, an order that could spark a late election-season debate over lobbyists' White House access.

"While researching the access lobbyists and others had on the White House, The Washington Post asked in June for two years of White House visitor logs. The Secret Service refused to process the request, which government attorneys called 'a fishing expedition into the most sensitive details of the vice presidency.'"

WFLA-TV's Hite actually kicked off his interview with Cheney by asking about that story.

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, it's -- apparently it's a request to the Secret Service for records of who entered vice presidential residence over a long period of time. These are not Secret Service records; these are records that belong in the Office of the Vice President. Apparently it's a FOIA request from some news organization. But that's all I know about it.

" Q I see. It's a fishing expedition of some kind you suspect?

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe it is, yes.

" Q I see, sir.

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: Goes with public life these days, Bob.

" Q Yes, yes, I'm sure."

Be Very Afraid

Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "With top Republican strategists now privately predicting substantial House losses, President Bush and top GOP officials plan to spend the final days of the 2006 campaign attempting to rally partisans and limit conservative defections with dire warnings about the consequences of a Democratic Congress.

"Amid predictions that demoralized conservative voters might sit out the election, Bush and other senior Republicans will escalate charges that Democrats will raise taxes, weaken national security and liberalize social policies. Bush struck those themes in campaign appearances yesterday in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and White House senior adviser Karl Rove said he 'will consistently refresh that message' between now and Election Day. . . .

"The mood among most GOP strategists -- with the exception of Rove and a few others -- is decidedly downbeat heading into the final 18 days."

Character Counts

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "So it has come to this: Nineteen days before the midterm elections, President Bush flew here to champion the reelection of a congressman who last year settled a $5.5 million lawsuit alleging that he beat his mistress during a five-year affair. . . .

"While representing the good people of the 10th District, the married congressman shacked up in Washington with a Peruvian immigrant more than three decades his junior. During one assignation in 2004, the woman, who says Sherwood was striking her and trying to strangle her, locked herself in a bathroom and called 911; Sherwood told police he was giving her a back rub.

"At a time when Republicans are struggling to motivate religious conservatives to go to the polls next month, it is not clear what benefit the White House found in sending Bush to stump for [Don] Sherwood -- smack dab in the middle of what Bush, in an official proclamation , dubbed 'National Character Counts Week.'"

Jim Rutenberg reports for the New York Times from the Sherwood fundraiser that "far from seeming to hold his nose, Mr. Bush strongly embraced Mr. Sherwood, firmly shaking his hand as they stood on the stage, smiling for the flashing cameras, and then telling supporters, with gusto, 'I'm pleased to be here with Don Sherwood: he is the right man to represent the people of the 10th Congressional District from the state of Pennsylvania.'

"The president also accompanied Mr. Sherwood; his wife, Carol and his daughter Maria to a local ice cream shop, ushering photographers over to take a picture of him with the Sherwoods, 'a little family-style, eating ice cream.' . . .

"The White House did not make it easy for reporters to come here and report on his message. They were offered no directions and no charter plane to get to La Plume -- far from Washington."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush campaigned Thursday for a congressman who has confessed to adultery and a senator accused of racial insensitivity, seeking to boost incumbent Republicans once safe for re-election but now in peril. . . .

"'I think the president understands that it's important to set high standards,' said spokesman Tony Snow."

More Than Allen Wanted?

Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "President Bush added a stern stay-the-course message on the war in Iraq to his buoyant endorsement of Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) yesterday. . . .

"Allen may have gotten a bit more support from the president than he wanted; after Bush departed, Allen seemed to distance himself from some of Bush's tough talk on Iraq.

"As he and his wife, Susan, stood next to Bush in front of a huge U.S. flag, the president excoriated Democrats on national security and taxes. 'They would have our country quit in Iraq before the job is done,' Bush said . 'That's why they are the party of cut and run. We will fight. We will stay. We will win in Iraq.'

"After the speech, the senator's aides brought Allen out to meet with reporters, where he softened the tone, saying that 'America needs to adjust. Our battlefield commanders need to adjust and adapt to this evolving threat.'"

Smashing Pumpkins

Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times wrote in his pool report from Richmond yesterday that Bush made an unscheduled stop at a pumpkin stand.

"The president walked over to a bin of pumpkins as he announced to the pool, 'Don't tell Laura.' He said he wanted it to be a surprise for her. He picked a nice-sized pumpkin up by the stem, promptly breaking it, but said he would buy that one.

"Stand owner Bill Gaulmyer said the pumpkin would be his gift, but the president said he was paying."

O'Reilly Factor, Part Three

Yesterday morning, I somehow overlooked part three of Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's interview with Bush.

Here's the transcript ; and the video in two segments .

This was the personal part of the interview. O'Reilly, looming gigantically over Bush as they walked around the White House together, announced: "When people criticize me, I think I'm the second most criticized person in the country. You're first by a large margin, but I'm second."

"O'REILLY: I'm just wondering, psychologically. You work hard, right?

"BUSH: I think I do. . . .

"O'REILLY: But then [Bob] Woodward says you don't listen to anybody. You just blow them off.

"BUSH: Well, that's his opinion. He just doesn't know how it works, because I've got a lot of good, strong people around me that -- you know, they walk in the Oval Office. They're not intimidated. They say here's what's on mind, but I listen to a lot of people from outside as well. Of course I listen to people."

Bush once again confirmed that he has not given any thought to how he would deal with a Democratic Congress.

"O'REILLY: But you have to plan for it, right? Worst case?

"BUSH: No, not really.


"BUSH: Because -- I mean, there will be times to adjust, but I don't intend -- I really believe we're going to hold both. I recognize it's a tough fight."

O'Reilly said he is evidently not as good as Bush at handling criticism: "You're more philosophical. See, I'm sitting there going oh, if I had this guy's neck, you know.

"BUSH: Well, I'm not as big as you are, so I can't -- you know -- I wouldn't be able to get away with that."

Then Bush endorsed O'Reilly's belief that some people hate him simply because of his faith.

"O'REILLY: The secular progressives don't like you because you're a man of faith.

"BUSH: Yes.

"O'REILLY: You know that.

"BUSH: Yes. That causes me to be sad for people who don't like somebody because he happens to believe in the Almighty.

"O'REILLY: But you know that's in play.

"BUSH: Absolutely."

"O'REILLY: They think you are some kind of evangelical. God tells you what to do and you go out and do it. And they hate that."

"BUSH: I guess that I have pity for people who believe that. They don't understand the relationship between man and the Almighty, then."

Bush on Lieberman

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman still calls himself a Democrat, even after losing the Democratic primary and running for re-election as an independent.

At the Allen fundraiser yesterday, Bush either wittingly or unwittingly encouraged speculation that Lieberman is, in fact, not a Democrat at all.

"You know, the Democrat Party made a clear statement about the nature of their party when it came to how they dealt with Senator Joe Lieberman. . . . He took a strong, principled stand, and he was purged from the Democrat Party."

Signing Statement Watch

Alicia Mundy writes in the Seattle Times: "U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who is in the midst of a tough re-election battle, sent a letter to President Bush this week, but it was no 'thank you' note.

"On Tuesday, Reichert, R-Auburn, wrote the White House, complaining that Bush is weakening a key provision in a new homeland-security bill to prevent inexperienced political cronies from running the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"After signing the legislation, which passed Congress last month, Bush issued ' signing statements ' that said he could ignore provisions that set minimum qualifications for the FEMA administrator and allow the administrator to directly advise Congress."

Twin Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "More than a month and a half after she apparently left Washington, Jenna Bush 's secretive Latin American activities are coming into focus: She is in Panama, working as an intern with UNICEF."

Big Snow Job

William Powers writes in the National Journal about how "largely positive pieces about the White House press secretary have appeared in two leading newspapers over the last few weeks. . . .

"The first, by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz , appeared on the front page of that paper's Style section last week under the headline 'Tony Snow Knows How to Work More Than One Room; It's Gloves Off (and Pass the Hat) for Bush Spokesman.' The essential message was that Snow is awfully good at his job, particularly when it comes to disarming the reporters who cover him. . . .

"The New York Times followed this week with its own Snow study, a front-pager by Sheryl Gay Stolberg . . . .

"Snow's rise is unquestionably news, and it's useful to know exactly how he tames the many-headed media beast (it's 'the megawatt smile,' one reporter told Kurtz). But because this was the kind of news that cares more about pure gamesmanship (Snow's riding high!!) than the principles underlying the game (Is he truthful? Is he doing anything to make this closed administration more open?), it wound up having less value than it appeared to have.

"Except to Snow and his No. 1 client. For this White House to pull off this kind of coverage, in two not-exceedingly-friendly papers, at this particular moment in time -- war raging, polls down, a tough election weeks away -- is a pretty massive coup."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio this afternoon from 2:10 to 2:30. Call in at 1-877-POST-1077.

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