The Jordanian Charade

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, November 28, 2006; 12:06 PM

President Bush tomorrow heads to Jordan for two days of face-to-face meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But far from being a consequential summit of giants, it's more likely to turn out to be a big charade.

Bush does not approach Maliki from a position of strength. Back in Washington, all eyes are on the independent bipartisan Iraq Study Group, in anticipation of its recommendations about what to do. An angry electorate is increasingly demanding an exit strategy. And practically speaking, Bush has no good options in Iraq anymore. He's in a real pickle.

Bush said today that his goal for the meeting is to press Maliki for a plan to end the sectarian violence. (See Michael Abramowitz's story at

But Maliki is not exactly bringing a lot to the table either. He has only a tenuous hold on a central government that is largely incapable of exercising any authority outside the walled-in Green Zone.

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "This is supposed to be a pivotal week for the U.S. venture in Iraq: President Bush is to meet Thursday in Jordan with Iraq's prime minister, and the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group has begun debating its final recommendations to the White House.

"But does any of it matter?

"Not really, according to a growing number of Middle East analysts, who say that Iraq's cascading civil war has spun out of Washington's control. . . .

"Maliki's government is seen as increasingly ineffectual, particularly by Iraqis, who are turning more and more to local militias to protect them. What's more, Maliki needs the support of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is one of the powerful Shiite militias. Sadr's political party controls four ministries and the largest bloc of votes in parliament."

But never fear, the White House communications strategy -- if nothing else -- is coming into focus.

Mike Allen blogs for Time: "Republican officials briefed by the White House tell Time that the president will have something big to say in coming weeks. The president plans to combine the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group with findings from his administration and advice from Capitol Hill into what is being dubbed 'a way forward' for Iraq. . . .

"Bush seems headed toward coming with his own strategy, based on an array of recommendations. The officials would not say, and perhaps the White House has not decided, whether the president's plan will take the form of a single announcement or a series of speeches about helping Iraq make progress toward governing, sustaining and defending itself -- the White House's three-part goal."

There are no signs that the rhetoric is changing. Bush today said in a speech it Latvia: "There's one thing I'm not going to do, I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete. . . . We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren."

So what will Bush announce in the coming weeks? Who knows? But whatever the decision is, it's critical that the president look decider-y.

About That Civil War

Yesterday's column was about the long-overdue decision by some news organizations to call the conflict in Iraq what it is: civil war.

Bush himself ducked a question on the topic yesterday in a brief press availability with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia.

" Q: Mr. President, thank you, sir. What is the difference between what we're seeing now in Iraq and civil war? And do you worry that calling it a civil war would make it difficult to argue that we're fighting the central front of the war on terror there?

" PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, the plans of Mr. Zarqawi was to foment sectarian violence. That's what he said he wanted to do. The Samarra bombing that took place last winter was intended to create sectarian violence, and it has."

Or, as Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Tuesday that an al-Qaeda plot to stoke cycles of sectarian revenge in Iraq is to blame for escalating bloodshed, refusing to debate whether the country has fallen into civil war."

Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "The White House again resisted assertions that Iraq is now in a civil war, but that stance is increasingly hard to defend, according to analysts, diplomats and even some U.S. officials in private. . . .

"'It's worse than a civil war. In a civil war, you at least know which factions are fighting each other,' lamented a senior member of Iraq's government in an interview. . . . 'We don't even know that anymore. It's so bloody confused.'

"Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the damage that the conflict in Iraq is doing across the region that it basically summoned Vice President Cheney for talks over the weekend, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. The visit was originally portrayed as U.S. outreach to its oil-rich Arab ally."

Wright and Ricks quote a senior U.S. intelligence official as saying that the militia of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr is more effective than the Iraqi government's army. "Iraq's prime minister 'doesn't have any coercive powers of his own,' he said, calling Maliki 'beholden to Sadr.'"

The Media Turnaround

NBC's decision to go with "civil war" yesterday sparked a lot of coverage today.

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "Some media analysts compared it to CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite's declaration in 1968 that the United States was losing the Vietnam War -- a pronouncement now considered a turning point in public opinion -- and Ted Koppel's ABC updates on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980 that infuriated Jimmy Carter's White House.

"'How you frame a problem frames what the public thinks is the right thing to do,' said James Steinberg, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. 'If Iraq is a democracy struggling against insurgents and you describe it that way, people might still support you. If it is a civil war, it is indisputably the case that Americans will say, "What are we doing in the middle of a civil war?" ' . . .

"Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said in a statement yesterday that 'after consulting with our reporters in the field and the editors who directly oversee this coverage,' the paper has decided that the term 'civil war' is now appropriate."

The Think Progress blog has video of Washington Post reporter Dana Priest talking to MSNBC's Chris Matthews yesterday:

"MATTHEWS: It seems to me the president's afraid that people will begin to think it is a civil war and not the way he wants to define it, which is we gotta fight them there before they fight us here.

"PRIEST: Well, I think one of the reasons the president resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what's the thinking on that and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly -- and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this -- absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war."

Editor and Publisher reports that Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post's executive editor, said: "We just describe what goes on everyday. We don't have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is 'close to a civil war,' but we don't have a policy about it."

Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times that her own paper "was the first major news organization to formally adopt the description when it began to refer to the hostilities as a civil war in October, without public fanfare. No other major media outlet has made the phrase a matter of policy, although it has cropped up in various news reports. . . .

"'For some time now we believe it has been a fairly simple call: Inside one country you have different armed groups fighting with each other,' said Marjorie Miller, the newspaper's foreign editor. 'That is the definition of a civil war.'"

So why the hesitation elsewhere? Gold writes: "The White House has exerted pressure on the media not to use the term, journalists said, which led to newsroom caution over the issue. NBC's announcement spotlights a shift in semantics that has quietly taken place on the airwaves and in newsprint as the violence has worsened along with the public's view of the situation in Iraq. . . .

"The midterm election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the administration and its policy in Iraq, may have emboldened news organizations to adopt a characterization the White House has rejected," said Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication who studies political rhetoric.

"'The media has, by and large, been very fearful of being perceived of being liberally biased,' Hollihan said. 'Now that the election has occurred, there may be more license on the part of the media to say what the public has been feeling.'"

The 'New Phase'

National security adviser Steve Hadley explained the official White House line to the press corps yesterday: It's not a civil war, it's just a "new phase" of the conflict.

Press secretary Tony Snow then weighed in with his latest hairsplitting: "[Y]ou have not yet had a situation also where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power, but for territory. What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy -- which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy."

Reality Check

Solomon Moore writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Retaliatory attacks sparked by last week's massive bomb assault on a Shiite neighborhood here are driving more Iraqis into the ranks of sectarian militias amid rising distrust of government security forces, newly recruited gunmen and residents said Monday."

Dafna Linzer and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province."

On Talking to Iran and Syria

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "As President Bush and his top diplomats try to halt the downward spiral in Iraq and Lebanon, they seem intent on their strategy of talking only to Arab friends, despite increasing calls inside and outside the administration for them to reach out to Iran and Syria as well. . . .

"Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political strength necessary to take on Mr. Sadr's Shiite militias. . . .

"But getting Sunni Arab nations to urge Iraqi Sunnis to back Mr. Maliki in the hopes of peeling him away from Mr. Sadr is a tall order under any circumstances, and it was made even taller last week after the killing of more than 200 people by bombings in a Shiite district of Baghdad, the deadliest single attack since the American invasion. The attacks led to violent reprisals; vengeful Shiite militiamen attacked Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baquba."

Mike Allen blogs for Time with the back-story: "Vice President Cheney, among others in the White House, is prepared to fight the recommendation about Iran and Syria. 'He's against engagement with Iran and Syria, and he's very serious about waging policy battles when he disagrees,' one official said."

And here's the spin, from yesterday's briefing:

"Q: Is President Bush going to bring up the idea of embracing talks with Iran and Syria, with Maliki?

"MR. HADLEY: I think you're going to find that Prime Minister Maliki is going to bring that up with the president. He has some strong views on that subject. As you know, the Iraqis have been talking to the Syrians, the Iraqis have been talking to the Iranians. Their view is that the future of Iraq, if it is a subject of conversation with Syrian and Iran, ought to be a conversation by Iraqis, not by others on the outside."

The NATO Meeting

Michael Abramowitz and Pamela Constable write in The Washington Post: "President Bush will seek fresh troops and equipment for the fight in Afghanistan, and fewer restrictions on how they can be used, when he sits down this week with NATO allies to review the state of the dangerous mission there, according to senior U.S. officials. . . .

"Privately, U.S. officials are playing down the prospects of any breakthrough this week."

Rove Watch

Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times writes in his pool report: "Also note that Karl Rove is making an unusual overseas appearance. Tony Snow said Rove was aboard because, 'There's still plenty of politics going on back in Washington.' Snow said Rove was e-mailing and calling Republicans trying to hash out an agenda for the lame-duck session, and that he was monitoring the special House race in Texas."

Justice Investigation

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Justice Department's inspector general yesterday announced an investigation into the department's connections to the government's controversial warrantless surveillance program, but officials said the probe will not examine whether the National Security Agency is violating the Constitution or federal statutes.

"In a letter to House lawmakers, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said his office decided to open the probe after conducting 'initial inquiries' into the program. Under the initiative, the NSA monitors phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and others overseas without court oversight if one of the targets is suspected of ties to terrorism.

"The 'program review' will examine how the Justice Department has used information obtained from the NSA program, as well as whether Justice lawyers complied with the 'legal requirements' that govern it, according to Fine's letter. Officials said the review will not examine whether the program itself is legal. . . .

"Fine has previously declined requests from lawmakers to conduct a broader probe into the legality of the NSA program, arguing that such an inquiry is beyond his jurisdiction. Those requests were referred to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which was forced to abandon its effort after President Bush refused to grant security clearances to lawyers who needed them."

For more on that earlier stymied investigation, see my July 19 column, Cover-Up Exposed?

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times that "several Democrats suggested that the timing of his review might be tied to their takeover of Congress in this month's midterm elections as a way to pre-empt expected Democratic investigations of the N.S.A. program."

Meanwhile, John Solomon writes for the Associated Press: "Several members of a government board appointed to guard privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror say they're impressed with the protections built into the Bush administration's electronic eavesdropping program.

"The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board received a long-awaited briefing on the secret program last week by senior members of the National Security Agency."

Twin Watch

Joe Goldman and Rhonda Schwartz blog for ABC News: "Amid a growing barrage of front-page headlines, U.S. embassy officials 'strongly suggested' President Bush's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush, cut short their trip to Buenos Aires because of security issues, U.S. diplomatic and security sources tell ABC News.

"But the girls have stayed on, celebrating their 25th birthday over the weekend and producing even more headlines about their activities. . . .

"The Argentinean press blitz followed a report on 'The Blotter' last week that Barbara Bush's purse and cell phone were stolen last weekend while dining at the popular San Telmo outdoor marketplace despite being guarded by the Secret Service.

"Stories of the twins' visit took on wild proportions in the Argentinean press. One tabloid headline had the young women running nude in the hallway of their hotel, a report the hotel staff denied to ABC News."

Goldman and Schwartz later filed this update: "As one of the Bush daughters left Argentina, a U.S. embassy spokesman denied reports they suggested the twins leave in an official statement issued this evening."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "President Bush's approval ratings, as tracked by Harris Interactive, fell to the second-lowest of his presidency, according to a new poll.

"According to the telephone poll, conducted between Nov. 17 and Nov. 21, 31% of U.S. adults called Mr. Bush's job performance 'excellent' or 'good' -- down from 34% who gave a positive assessment in a late-October poll. . . . The president's lowest approval rating in a Harris poll was 29% in May 2006."

Late Night Humor

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart commemorates the big Iraqi nomenclature shift.

Here's a video excerpt: "With the situation spiraling out of control, something has got to change! [Pause.] All right, how about just the words we use to talk about it?"

From Atrios, here's an excerpt of Stewart's discussion with senior analyst John Oliver over terminology. And from, a clip of Oliver suggesting various alternatives for the words "civil war," including "internal sovereignty challenge" and "faith-based melee."

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive