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Doing It for the Soldiers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 14, 2006; 11:32 AM

One of President Bush's most emotional arguments against cutting our losses in Iraq and coming home is that doing so would be a betrayal of those soldiers who have already made the ultimate sacrifice there.

For instance, at his October 25 press conference, Bush spoke of having met "too many wives and husbands who have lost their partners in life, too many children who won't ever see their mom and dad again. I owe it to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm's way to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain."

Yesterday, after a meeting at the Pentagon, Bush again repeatedly invoked the troops and their sacrifices, even as he continued to drop clues that his much-anticipated "way forward" in Iraq will amount to little more than another tactical change in support of what many experts -- and most Americans -- now think is an unattainable goal.

Here's the text and video of his remarks.

"I do want to say something to those who wear our uniform," he said. "The men and women in uniform are always on my mind. I am proud of them. I appreciate their sacrifices. And I want them to know that I am focused on developing a strategy that will help them achieve their mission."

Pool reporter Finlay Lewis of the Copley News Service, who was watching from nearby, wrote to his colleagues that Bush "seemed to become particularly emotional in addressing the troops in Iraq -- his eyes seeming to redden somewhat as he spoke."

Bush is certainly far from alone in being moved by the sacrifices of those in uniform. And nobody wants to believe that soldiers have died in vain.

But if they have, sending more soldiers to die after them doesn't make it better -- it only makes it worse.

And according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, even this potent attempt to pull on American heartstrings isn't enough to overcome the public's profound distaste for the current effort.

The poll asked: "Do you think the United States has an obligation to American soldiers who have been killed or wounded in Iraq to remain in Iraq until the mission there is completed, or not?"

A stunning 53 percent of respondents said the U.S. has no such obligation, compared to 39 percent who say it does.

Yesterday's Meeting

Bush is showing little change in his the-only-way-we-lose-is-if-we-leave rhetoric.

Offered the chance after yesterday's meeting to talk about ways in which he has changed his thinking, Bush instead lashed out at defeatists.

" Q: Mr. President, thank you. You've been gathering advice, as you said, from leaders here and from leaders in Iraq. As you've gone through that extensive process, have you heard any new ideas at all, anything that would change your thinking?

" THE PRESIDENT: I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat, and I reject those ideas -- ideas such as leaving before the job is done; ideas such as not helping this government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The president's comments offered clues to his thinking as he prepares to announce a revised policy for Iraq early next month. He said he's looking for a plan that combines military action, political reconciliation, economic development and diplomatic efforts to get more help from Iraq's regional neighbors.

"The resolute tone of his remarks may have delivered his clearest message: Standing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, Bush assured U.S. troops that he has no intention of leaving Iraq until they finish the job of establishing a stable democracy."

David S. Cloud writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Wednesday that he was 'not going to be rushed' into making decisions on a new strategy in Iraq but intended to press Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government to reach out to Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim population."

What Bush Was Told

As for what Bush heard at the Pentagon, Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "The nation's top uniformed leaders are recommending that the United States change its main military mission in Iraq from combating insurgents to supporting Iraqi troops and hunting terrorists, said sources familiar with the White House's ongoing Iraq policy review.

"President Bush and Vice President Cheney met with the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday at the Pentagon for more than an hour, and the president engaged his top military advisers on different options. . . .

"Administration officials stressed that Bush, under pressure from Congress and the electorate to abandon the United States' open-ended commitment, has made no final decisions on how to proceed in Iraq. But the new disclosures suggest that military planning is well underway for a major change from an approach that has assigned the bulk of responsibility for security in Iraq to more than 140,000 U.S. troops. . . .

"A constant subtext in the meeting yesterday, and in the ongoing White House review, is the Joint Chiefs' growing concern about the erosion of the U.S. military's ability to deal with other crises around the world because of the heavy commitment in Iraq and the stress on troops and equipment, said officials familiar with the review."

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "Although Bush declined to comment on the advice he received from the military leaders, Pentagon officials have said in recent days that top uniformed officers largely have rejected recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group to withdraw most combat forces over the next 15 months, a rejection Bush appeared to agree with."

More About That Delay

Bush was initially set to make a major announcement about Iraq before Christmas, but it has now been postponed until after the new year.

Cloud writes in the Times: "A senior administration official said that Mr. Bush had decided to postpone a national address on Iraq strategy until early next year after having breakfast with Mr. Gates early on Tuesday and realizing that his new defense secretary was not being given much time to get up to speed."

But Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey, writing for Newsweek, see the delay as more a function of a long, slow process to get Bush up to speed.

"It may be the party season, but there's no mood of celebration among White House aides. Between the endless photo lines and the back-to-back holiday receptions, President Bush is sitting down for extensive briefings on Iraq that go well beyond the highly staged statements and pictures seen to date on TV. . . .

"Bush's aides have chosen not to overload the president's schedule with the internal review. 'We haven't tried to do it all in one session,' said one senior White House official. 'We've been going through it methodically, and all the issues individually.'"

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek with yet another explanation: "Inside the Pentagon, some experts think he may intend to launch a new offensive in Baghdad, and that he doesn't want to talk about it until it happens. It's a safe bet that, faced with irreconcilable advice, this president will always revert to his default position, which is to do whatever makes him look leaderlike and tough. In this case that could mean a temporary surge."

On (Not) Taking Responsibility

Here's how Bush opened his remarks yesterday: "I thank these men who wear our uniform for a very candid and fruitful discussion about the -- about how to secure this country, and how to win a war that we now find ourselves in."

A Reader Asks

White House Briefing reader Clayton Esterson write: "To me, the important and unasked question (by the MSM) is: 'Mr. President, do you plan to work through Christmas to expedite the formation of a new Iraq war plan?' After all, our troops are in Iraq 24x7 with no time off for the holidays. Everyone agrees the longer we 'stay the course' the worse the situation in Iraq gets. Every day in Iraq means another three Americans die and another $200 million must be borrowed. Doesn't this lend a sense of urgency to this issue? Doesn't this warrant working through Christmas break?"

Poll Watch

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "As the White House searches for a way to move forward in Iraq after the midterm elections and the Iraq Study Group's recent recommendations, the American public has grown increasingly pessimistic that the war there can be won, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds. . . .

"Only 23 percent approve of Bush's handling of Iraq -- his lowest mark on this question and an 11-point drop since the last NBC/Journal poll in late October. Even a third of Republicans say they disapprove of the way in which Bush is dealing with Iraq.

"Bush's overall job approval rating is 34 percent, which is another all-time low for the president in the poll. . . .

"'For the public, there is no confidence left,' says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff. 'It is just not going to happen -- that we're not going to be victorious, that we're not going to be able to stay the course, that we're not going to be able to have a successful conclusion to the war.'"

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Seven in 10 say they want the new Congress to pressure the White House to begin bringing troops home within six months."

Tim Russert tells Brian Williams on the NBC News: "The words the Iraq Study Group used to describe the situation in Iraq: 'Grave and deteriorating.' Those are the words I would use to describe the president's political condition tonight."

Here are the complete results.

Charles Babington and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Americans trust Democratic lawmakers more than President Bush to handle the nation's toughest problems, including the Iraq war, and a quarter of Republicans are glad that Democrats have won control of Congress, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finds."

Oversight Watch

David Rogers writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving to establish a new House intelligence oversight committee that will have unusual authority over funding for the nation's major spy agencies. ...

"Additional investigative staff will be hired for oversight, and the new panel would prepare the classified section to the annual Defense Department appropriations bill that covers much of the annual intelligence budget. . . .

"Ms. Pelosi said her focus is on making Congress function better as recommended by the 9/11 panel, and not spoiling for a fight with the White House.

"'I didn't even think of [President] Bush in this,' she said, nor did she want the new panel to focus on past errors in intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. 'It has nothing to do with the past. This is about the future,' she said. 'It's our responsibility and I would hope this not be adversarial . . . between the [intelligence] community and Congress.'"

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Frustrated by the Bush administration's piecemeal financing of the Iraq war, Democrats are planning to assert more control over the billions of dollars a month being spent on the conflict when they take charge of Congress in January.

"In interviews, the incoming Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees said they would demand a better accounting of the war's cost and move toward integrating the spending into the regular federal budget, a signal of their intention to use the Congressional power of the purse more assertively to influence the White House's management of the war. . . .

"Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spending on the military outside of the regular budget process, primarily for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has totaled more than $400 billion. For the 12 months ended Sept. 30, spending on the Iraq war alone ran at an average rate of $8 billion a month, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service."

Leahy Speaks

The sudden illness of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has cast a degree of uncertainty over control of the Senate. But assuming he recovers, then Pat Leahy will in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee come January. And in a major address yesterday (here's the text as prepared for delivery; here's the video.) Leahy made it clear that would mean a return to oversight.

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to create a Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law to examine issues like torture, war crimes and human trafficking, the incoming chairman of the panel said on Wednesday.

"In a speech outlining an agenda of 'restoration, repair and renewal,' the new chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said that the new subcommittee would bring a focus to efforts to protect civil liberties.

"The announcement seemed to underscore Mr. Leahy's intention to use oversight more aggressively than Republicans had.

"'This has been an unfortunate chapter in Congress's history,' Mr. Leahy said of the recent years of Republican control.

"'I have never seen a Congress so willfully derelict in its duties as during this administration,' he added.

"Mr. Leahy, in an appearance at the Georgetown University law school, accused the White House of 'corrosive unilateralism' in refusing to cooperate with Congress. After the September 2001 attacks, he said, 'the White House accelerated its power plays at the expense of the other branches of government -- all in the name of fighting terrorism.'"

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that he would subpoena Bush administration officials if they refused requests for documents and testimony, including two long-sought memos detailing its detention and treatment of terrorism suspects overseas. . . .

"Leahy's threat shows the depth of frustration among Democrats who believe the administration has withheld crucial details about some of the most provocative anti-terrorism moves since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"'I expect to get the answers. If I don't . . . then I really think we should subpoena,' Leahy said after a speech at Georgetown law school. 'If the president wants to claim executive authority, then let him do so, and then we can determine where we go from there.' . . .

"Leahy has his sights set on two administration documents that have been among the most controversial for human rights and civil liberties groups concerned about the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war.

"One is a presidential order signed by Bush authorizing the CIA to set up secret prisons outside the United States to house terrorism suspects. The other is a 2002 Justice Department memorandum outlining 'aggressive interrogation techniques' that could be used against terrorism suspects."

Wiretapping Watch

Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post yesterday: "Two-thirds of Americans believe that the FBI and other federal agencies are intruding on privacy rights as part of terrorism investigations, but they remain divided over whether such tactics are justified, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday.

"The poll also showed that 52 percent of respondents favor congressional hearings on how the Bush administration has handled surveillance, detainees and other terrorism-related issues, compared with 45 percent who are opposed."

Cheney's Records

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration asked an appeals court Wednesday to overrule a federal judge and allow the White House to keep secret any records of visitors to Vice President Dick Cheney's residence and office.

"To make the visitor records public would be an 'unprecedented intrusion into the daily operations of the vice presidency,' the Justice Department argued in a 57-page brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

"The government was responding to an October order, by U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, to release two years of White House visitor logs to The Washington Post. The newspaper, researching the access lobbyists and others had on the White House, sought Secret Service records for anyone visiting Cheney, his legal counsel, chief spokesman and other top aides and advisers."

Syrian Broadside

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The White House lashed out at Syria yesterday, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) defied pressure from the administration and went ahead with talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Afterward, Nelson said he sees a new 'crack in the door' for U.S.-Syria relations and help in stabilizing Iraq. . . .

"Both the White House and the State Department discouraged the trip. 'We certainly do not encourage members of Congress to be traveling to Syria,' White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday.

"In a statement in President Bush's name, the White House said yesterday that Syrians deserved a government grounded in 'the consent of the people, not brute force.'"

Detainee Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "A previously undisclosed Pentagon report concluded that the three terrorism suspects held at a brig in South Carolina were subjected to months of isolation, and it warned that their 'unique' solitary confinement could be viewed as violating U.S. detention standards.

"According to a summary of the 2004 report obtained by The Washington Post, interrogators attempted to deprive one detainee, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari citizen and former student in Peoria, Ill., of sleep and religious comfort by taking away his Koran, warm food, mattresses and pillow as part of an interrogation plan approved by the high-level Joint Forces Command."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "For the first time, a court has affirmed that a law enacted this fall accomplishes what the White House and its Congressional supporters sought: stripping the federal judiciary of the authority to hear challenges from detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

Malaria Summit

John Donnelly writes in the Boston Globe: "Laura Bush will open a White House summit on malaria today to rally global partners and ordinary Americans, including schoolchildren, to work together to eliminate the scourge, which kills about 1 million people a year, mostly in Africa.

"In an interview with the Globe yesterday at the White House, Bush also said the health of African mothers and children has become personal for her -- so much so that a group of HIV-positive mothers in South Africa refer to her as 'Grand Mama Bush.' And their connection through the universal bond of motherhood took on an added dimension, she said, when her daughter witnessed the deaths of AIDS-ravaged babies while volunteering in a South African hospital last year."

Twins Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post that the White House is officially denying this report in an Argentinean magazine that Jenna Bush has hooked up with a Buenos Aires hottie.

The Media's Turn

Doesn't this sound like fun? President Bush held back-to-back holiday receptions at the White House yesterday -- for the media. The first wave was for print and radio journalists, the second for television.

Houston Chronicle White House correspondent Julie Mason is promising a full report on her blog.

And no, I wasn't invited. (Although Howard Kurtz was.)

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on Bush's plan; Tom Toles on Bush's letter to Santa; Matt Davies on Bush's Christmas stocking.

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