By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 6, 2007; 12:50 PM
The White House's political strategy on Iraq is coming into focus.
Faced with a bipartisan rebellion against the decision to put more troops in harm's way, White House political aides are concentrating less on winning support for the president's policies -- and more on trying to maneuver the Democrats into taking action they can depict as cutting off funds to the troops.
The new strategy was neatly executed by Senate Republicans yesterday, after much consultation with the White House. They prevented the Democratic leadership from bringing to the floor a nonbinding resolution that would have put a solid majority of the Senate -- not just Democrats, but several Republicans as well -- on the record as opposing Bush's escalation plan.
With "support the president" now a losing proposition, the White House is turning to "support the troops" as their political failsafe.
Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "A long-awaited Senate showdown on the war in Iraq was shut down before it even started yesterday, when nearly all Republicans voted to stop the Senate from considering a resolution opposing President Bush's plan to send 21,500 additional combat troops into battle. . . .
"The White House worked closely with Senate Republican leaders on strategy while conducting an aggressive outreach that involved assurances from military leaders to wary GOP senators, in addition to personal interventions by Bush."
Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times that the Republican action "short-circuited what had been building as the first major Congressional challenge to President Bush over his handling of the war since Democrats took control of Congress last month. . . .
"At issue is a compromise resolution drawn up chiefly by Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, that says the Senate disagrees with President Bush's plan to build up troops and calls for American forces to be kept out of sectarian violence in Iraq.
"The deadlock came after Democrats refused a proposal by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, that would have cleared the way for a floor fight on the Warner resolution in return for votes on two competing Republican alternatives that were more supportive of the president.
"One of those alternatives, by Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, would declare that Congress should not cut off any funds for forces in the field. That vote was seen as problematic for Democrats because many of them opposed any move to curtail spending, raising the prospect that it could have attracted the broadest support in the Senate."
On the NBC Nightly News, John Harwood of CNBC told Brian Williams: "This is fascinating, Brian. We are learning that President Bush may have more ability to hold Republicans together on Iraq than many assumed after the 2006 elections."
E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "It is now a standard talking point for supporters of this war, from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard to Vice President Cheney himself, to try to block any statement by Congress of its views, except through a vote to block funds for Iraq.
"'The Congress has control over the purse strings,' said Cheney, who on most other occasions insists upon the executive's supremacy over Congress. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer last month, Cheney added: 'They have the right, obviously, if they want to cut off funding, but in terms of this effort the president has made his decision. . . . We'll continue to consult with the Congress. But the fact of the matter is, we need to get the job done.'"
Bush himself has also endorsed this view. In an interview with members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board last week, Bush for once actually championed Congress's constitutional authority to flout him in matters of war.
"WSJ: There's a lot of discussion in Congress about putting caps on troop levels or defunding or saying you can't deploy, as commander in chief, troops in Baghdad. Do you think Congress has the constitutional authority. . . .
"GWB: I think they have the authority to defund, use their funding power. . . .
"WSJ: You do?
"GWB: Oh yeah, they can say 'We won't fund.' That is a constitutional authority of Congress."
And while many Democrats seem skittish about challenging the president on funding, fearing it would play into his hands, one exception is Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, who had this to say on MSNBC last night: "[M]y concern on the Democratic side is, we're being too timid. We've got to take on this war directly."
Feingold says the public wants "legislation that says that here's a time frame during which this war needs to end, let's say six months from the enactment of the bill, and that the Congress is going to cut off the funding for the war.
"If we, as Democrats, don't start talking like that, and respond to what the public really thinks, then we're only going to have ourselves to blame for the Republican ability to sort of finesse this and massage it. . . .
"[T]his idea that somehow we're going to take away something from the troops that are there already, that's just not true," Feingold said. "Our proposal is that the troops will be out of there. That's the safest thing for the troops is to not be there.
"And that's what our proposal would do. It wouldn't take away their equipment. That's just one of the red herrings or phony arguments that the Republicans use, and usually effectively scare the Democrats into not standing up for what is right, and that is to end this mistaken war and get back to fighting the real issue, which is those that attacked us on 9/11."First Benchmark Missed?
Here's a story that has gotten almost no attention whatsoever: The Iraqi government appears to have failed to achieve the very first concrete benchmark that White House officials announced as part of the new combined US-Iraqi security push in Baghdad.
At a White House briefing on January 10 by two anonymous senior administration officials, one made this startlingly verifiable promise to a press corps highly skeptical of the administration's amorphous benchmarks for Iraq:
"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, here's -- but you're going to have to -- you're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly. The Iraqis are going to have three brigades within Baghdad within a little more than a month. They have committed to trying to get one brigade in, I think, by the first of February, and two more by the 15th. . . .
"So people are going to be able to see pretty quickly that the Iraqis are or are not stepping up. And that provides the ability to judge."
Alright, so now it's past the first of the month, and how's it going?
Steven R. Hurst reported on Thursday (Feb. 1) for the Associated Press: "Local commanders. . . . said only about 2,000 of the additional troops had reached Baghdad or were nearby. . . .
"An Iraqi army brigade from Irbil, about 3,000 men in principle, will have at most 1,500 men when it finally arrives in Baghdad. The commander says 95 percent of the men don't speak Arabic. A brigade from Sulaimaniyah, also in the Kurdish north, has reached the Muthana Airport in central Baghdad, but it is only 1,000-men strong, not the expected 3,000."
At a Defense Department briefing on Friday (Feb. 2) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace confirmed that Iraqi troop strength is not where it ought to be.
" Q Mr. Secretary, yesterday General Casey said that of the Iraqi units that have shown up with the new Baghdad security plan, they are at 55 to 65 percent strength. Do you consider that meeting the commitment that the Iraqis made?
" SEC. GATES: Well, I think that partly it will depend on how quickly they get back up to strength. . . . I guess my answer is, 55 percent probably isn't good enough. But I'm not sure that that's -- what the end strength of that unit is going to be when the time comes for it to go into combat.
" General, do you want to --
" GEN. PACE: Well, I think the secretary has it right. There's good news and bad news. The good news is that contrary to what has happened in the past, the units that were designated to arrive in Baghdad have begun to arrive on the schedule they were supposed to be there. The first brigade is there; the second brigade is en route, and the third brigade will foreclose by the end of February.
" However, you're correct in that right now, the initial units got there with about 60 percent. And therefore, they do need to continue to flesh out those units, get all those who may be home taking their money to their families, and get them in. So they're not at the level we would like them to be total strength-wise, but they are showing up on the time on they said they would.
" Q Whatever the reason, does that -- does a unit, an Iraqi unit at two-thirds strength, constitute meeting their part of the deal here?
" GEN. PACE: It needs to be stronger than that."Iran Watch
Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's tough new stance on Iran and his military buildup in the Persian Gulf recall some of the drumbeats that preceded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"As then, the Bush administration is making allegations about Iran without providing proof. . . .
"Administration critics suggest the White House is exaggerating Tehran's ties to attacks inside Iraq to justify a possible future military assault -- just as it manipulated prewar intelligence to build its case for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, they claim."
Barbara Slavin and David Jackson write in USA Today: "U.S. officials from commanders in Iraq to President Bush have stepped up claims that Iran has been supplying Iraqi insurgents with weapons and training to kill U.S. troops. . . .
"Such claims, however, are being met with denials from Iran and skepticism at home. Faulty U.S. intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which Bush used to justify in part the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has eroded much of the administration's credibility, military expert Anthony Cordesman said.
"'I'm not sure they understand how little credibility these statements have,' said Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies."
Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush administration officials acknowledged Friday that they had yet to compile evidence strong enough to back up publicly their claims that Iran is fomenting violence against U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Administration officials have long complained that Iran was supplying Shiite Muslim militants with lethal explosives and other materiel used to kill U.S. military personnel. But despite several pledges to make the evidence public, the administration has twice postponed the release -- most recently, a briefing by military officials scheduled for last Tuesday in Baghdad.
"'The truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated, and we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts,' national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley said Friday."
Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek: "U.S. officials still maintain that Iran is helping Iraqi Shia insurgents build bombs that are particularly deadly because they can penetrate armored vehicles. But three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is 'ambiguous,' in the words of one of the officials."
Gareth Smyth writes in the Financial Times: "Military action in response to Iran's atomic programme would be 'highly dangerous' with diplomacy still an option, according to a report published on Monday by a group of British non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and trade unions.
"'It cannot be said that the potential for diplomacy has been fully explored while direct talks between Iran and the US have not taken place,' says ' Time to Talk: the Case for Diplomatic Solutions on Iran', from Crisis Action.
"The report warns that US or Israeli attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities could lead to civilian deaths, radioactive contamination, heightened conflict in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda attacks stemming from intensified anti-western feeling, higher oil prices and an acceleration of Tehran's nuclear programme."
Gerard Baker writes in the Times of London: "It is important to remember that whatever is being contemplated for Iran in the recesses of the Pentagon is not even close to a rerun of the Iraq war -- which, of course, has gone so swimmingly. No one in his right mind is thinking about an invasion; targeted strikes against nuclear facilities are a different matter, however.
"There have been clear indications of late that the White House plans to bring the issue to a head in the next year or so. The deployment of heavy military hardware to the Gulf, suitable for launching stand-off air strikes, the appointment of an admiral to take over the usually land-based Central Command and the increasingly minatory language the Bush Administration has been using about Tehran's activity in Iraq all clearly suggest something is up."
Baker lists five reasons why some sort of action is more likely than it was a year ago, including this one: "Mr Bush has reached a sort of psychic calm now. He knows he is leaving office a controversial president and he is now almost entirely focused on his legacy, rather than his immediate political prospects. No amount of pleading from Republican pollsters telling him a botched attack on Iran would doom the party for decades is going to shift him if he thinks that the gauntlet has to be laid down."Iran Opinion Watch
James Fallows writes for The Atlantic: "Deciding what to do next about Iraq is hard -- on the merits, and in the politics. It's hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from 'surge' to 'get out now' and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It's just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from 'we can't afford to leave' to ' we can't afford to stay.' And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of 'cut-and-run' and 'betraying' troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.
"By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran."
A USA Today editorial asks: "How best to keep Iranian ambitions in check without incurring a new conflagration?" It recommends containment and dialogue.
Leonard Weiss and Larry Diamond write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "[W]e need Senate and House hearings now to put the Bush administration on notice that, in the absence of an imminent military attack or a verified terrorist attack on the United States by Iran, Congress will not support a U.S. military strike on that country. Those hearings should aim toward passage of a law preventing the expenditure of any funds for a military attack on Iran unless Congress has either declared war with that country or has otherwise authorized military action under the War Powers Act.
"The law should be attached to an appropriations bill, making it difficult for the president to veto. If he simply claims that he is not bound by the restriction even if he signs it into law, and then orders an attack on Iran without congressional authorization for it, Congress should file a lawsuit and begin impeachment proceedings."
Former CIA official Paul R. Pillar writes in a Washington Post op-ed that the "accelerating debate about Iran and its nuclear program shows signs of the same dangerous reductionism" that afflicted the debate on Iraq.
"Avoiding the next military folly in the Middle East requires that the agenda for analysis and debate not be so severely and tendentiously truncated as before Iraq. Not only must proponents of military action not be allowed to manipulate the answers, they also should not be allowed to define the questions."
Some of the questions Pillar raises: "How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? How would it exploit U.S. vulnerabilities next door in Iraq, where it has barely begun to exploit the influence it has assiduously been cultivating? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf? . . .
"How much would the direct assertion of U.S. hostility strengthen Iranian hard-liners, whose policies are partly premised on such hostility? How much would it add to all Iranians' list of historical grievances against the United States and adversely affect relations with future governments?"
And over at NiemanWatchdog.org, you can read my take on some of the lessons the press should have learned from Iraq that are relevant again as Bush ratchets up the rhetoric on Iran.Scooter Libby Watch
Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby told a grand jury in 2004 that Vice President Cheney did not encourage him to provide information about an undercover CIA officer to the media, but Libby also said he did not believe that the information was secret and had to be safeguarded, according to audiotapes of Libby's testimony played in court yesterday.
"Testifying to the grand jury in the probe that eventually led to criminal charges against him, Libby, Cheney's then-chief of staff, said he remembered Cheney telling him in June 2003 that the wife of a prominent war critic worked at the CIA. Libby said that it was the first time he had heard that, but that Cheney said it in 'sort of an offhand manner, as a curiosity.' . . .
"On the tapes, Libby said that Cheney did not tell him Plame's CIA identity was 'super-super-secret' and that he used a 'curious' tone unlike his regular voice, which 'was much more matter-of-fact and straight.'"
Those tapes, by the way, should be available on the Internet later today.
Leonnig and Goldstein also write: "Late last night, Libby's defense began laying the groundwork to keep him from having to testify. Walton had warned that Libby would have to take the stand in order for the court to allow his lawyers to assert his misstatements to investigators were caused by a faulty or overtaxed memory."
Blogger Jeralyn Merritt web-publishes and analyzes the defense team's latest brief: "They say that making him testify in order to present his memory defense would force him to choose between his 5th Amendment right to remain silent and his 6th Amendment right to counsel."
Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in tapes played Monday in the CIA leak trial, pressed Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff on whether Cheney had directed him to leak the identity of a CIA operative to reporters.
"The audiotapes showed that Fitzgerald, just a month into his leak investigation, was asking pointed questions about the highest levels of government."Kristof's Questions
Nicholas D. Kristof (whose May 6, 2003 column kicked off this whole episode) writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Mr. Vice President, did you push Mr. Libby to dig into Joe Wilson's background and discredit him? Mr. Libby made such a major effort to gather materials from the C.I.A. and State Department about Mr. Wilson -- both before and after you told him on June 12, 2003, that his wife worked at the C.I.A. -- that it seems likely that you commanded the effort. True?
"What did you mean when you wrote, in a note to Scott McClellan that has been entered into evidence, 'not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres. that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.'
"First, you wrote that it was 'the Pres.' who had asked Mr. Libby to do this, and then you crossed out those two words. Did President Bush indeed ask that Mr. Libby take charge of the effort to discredit Ambassador Wilson? And is it true, as was hinted at in the trial, that the White House tried to block the release of this document? . . .
"Mr. Cheney . . . did you specifically tell Mr. Libby to leak to reporters the fact that Mr. Wilson's wife worked at the C.I.A.? . . .
"During the leak investigation, were you aware that Mr. Libby was telling the F.B.I. apparently false information? . . .
"Were you trying to cover up your own reliance on misinformation about Iraqi W.M.D. by blaming the C.I.A. and anybody else within range, like Mr. Wilson?"
Kristof concludes: "If you continue to stonewall, then you don't belong in office and you should resign."Budget Watch
Michael Abramowitz and Lori Montgomery write in The Washington Post: "With the $2.9 trillion budget he submitted to Congress, Bush signaled he would attempt to squeeze spending on health care, education, housing and other domestic programs important to the Democratic majority for the duration of his term. Overall domestic spending would be held below the rate of inflation in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and frozen thereafter.
"The new Bush budget would also seek to reduce the rapid rate of growth in Medicare and Medicaid, trimming $101 billion from the two programs over the next five years by reducing payments to health-care providers and forcing wealthier seniors to pay more for physician services and prescription drug coverage. And it would provide additional funds for the Children's Health Insurance Program, but not enough to maintain the same enrollment over the next five years, according to independent analysts.
"Bush said his plan would bolster national security while 'keeping the economy strong with low taxes and keeping spending under control.' But Democratic leaders, who will control the budget process for the first time since Bush took office, immediately denounced the plan as an irresponsible attempt to make costly tax cuts for the wealthy permanent and to finance the war by shortchanging children, the elderly and the nation's long-term fiscal health."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The budget, in four volumes and 2,500 pages of text, charts and tables, made few concessions to the political realities facing Mr. Bush.
"For a president less than two years from the end of his second term, and with his poll numbers low, it was a defiant statement of the principles he has championed for years: the power of tax cuts to drive the economy, the need to spend what it takes to succeed in Iraq and in the broader struggle against terrorism and the necessity of reining in spending on much of the rest of what government does."
But Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times that "while Democratic critics may wish to challenge the administration's blueprint, political and fiscal constraints will make it hard for them to assert their own priorities.
"In theory, the budget presents the Democrats their first real opportunity to rewrite the administration's policies, especially on tax cuts, that they have been attacking for six years.
"But in practice, Democrats know that the only way they can find the revenue to restore the administration's proposed spending cuts would be to cut back on military spending, delay their stated intentions to balance the budget or rescind the Bush tax cuts in future years. They are not especially eager to do any of these."
And here is an analysis by Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
From a Washington Post editorial this morning: "He squeezes social programs while his tax cuts remain untouchable. An administration serious about fiscal prudence would have acknowledged that political and fiscal reality -- a new Democratic Congress, the ever-mounting costs of war -- demand reconsideration of some of the tax cuts."
And a New York Times editorial encourages pushback on those parts of the proposed Pentagon budget not going to troops under fire.Waxman Watch
Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is promising the sort of oversight that the Bush administration has not experienced before.
"'There has been no cop on the beat,' said Mr. Waxman, who accuses Congressional Republicans of having abdicated their responsibility for oversight in recent years. 'And when there is no cop on the beat, criminals are more willing to engage in crimes.'"Poll Watch
Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup: "A new Gallup Poll finds George W. Bush with a 32% approval rating. That is down slightly from his readings in January, and is within one point of the low rating of his entire administration. . . .
"The new approval rating nearly matches the low for his administration, 31% in May 2006, and the 65% disapproval rating ties his highest negative rating, from that same May poll.
"Bush has not had an approval rating above 40% since last September, and has not been above 50% in any Gallup Poll in nearly two full years (March 2005). . . .
"Bush's approval rating among Democrats has been below 10% in every Gallup Poll since mid-October 2006. By comparison, Gallup never recorded a sub-10% approval rating for Bill Clinton among Republicans. His lowest support among the opposition party's supporters was 13% during the late summer and fall of 1994."Always Time for Taunting
Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "President Bush found a moment today to lob a good-natured barb or two at David Gregory, NBC's White House correspondent and sometime substitute 'Today' show host."
Said Bush, fresh from taking a few questions after his Cabinet meeting: "You're a big shot. You're trying to get in the big time. You're leaving us. Leave no administration behind. Let us know when you get to be like the 'Today' show thing and all that. That way we can say we knew you when, we knew him when.'"Cartoon Watch