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A Ludicrous Attempt at Spin

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 22, 2007; 12:32 PM

After laboring so hard to bring a modicum of realism to its pronouncements on Iraq -- think of President Bush repeatedly acknowledging that he's not happy with the situation there -- the White House took a big PR hit yesterday as its attempt to spin the British troop-withdrawal announcement as a sign of success was widely greeted with howls of derision.

Unlike some of the White House's past assertions -- that were simply negated by the facts -- this one was affirmatively laughable. It would be Orwellian, but only if anyone took it seriously.

Remember how Bush once ascribed Vice President Cheney's unsupported assertions of progress in Iraq to Cheney's "half-glass-full" mentality? Cheney and others are watching as water is pouring out of the glass, and saying the glass is getting fuller.

There's really not much question that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement was a major blow to the White House's political strategy. Blair, whose devotion to Bush earned him the sobriquet "Bush's poodle," is doing precisely what the increasingly bipartisan collection of war critics is pressuring Bush to do: Bow to the national will, start withdrawal, and in the meantime move troops out of their deeply unpopular role as occupiers.

Support for the White House view of Blair's announcement came from all across the world yesterday -- from Belgium, Japan, Germany and Washington. But that's because national security adviser Stephen Hadley was in Brussels, Vice President Cheney was in Tokyo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Berlin, and a few White House aides were sent out to deal with the media.

The Coverage

Jonathan Weisman and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "As the British announced the beginning of their departure from Iraq yesterday, President Bush's top foreign policy aide proclaimed it 'basically a good-news story.' Yet for an already besieged White House, the decision was doing a good job masquerading as a bad-news story.

"What national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley meant was that the British believe they have made enough progress in southern Iraq to turn over more of their sector to Iraqi forces. To many back in Washington, though, what resonated was that Bush's main partner in Iraq is starting to get out just as the president is sending in more U.S. troops.

"No matter the military merits, the British move, followed by a similar announcement by Denmark, roiled the political debate in Washington at perhaps the worst moment for the White House. Democrats seized on the news as evidence that Bush's international coalition is collapsing and that the United States is increasingly alone in a losing cause. Even some Republicans, and, in private, White House aides, agreed that the announcement sent an ill-timed message to the American public."

How effective was a full day of White House spin on the press corps? For once, not effective at all.

Here's Ed Henry on CNN at 9 a.m.: "You know, this is a blow to the White House no matter how they try to play this."

And here's Suzanne Malveaux on CNN eight hours later: "On the political side, it's a blow to President Bush, who has repeatedly said setting timetables for withdrawing troops would only embolden the terrorists.

"While Mr. Bush is trying to convince the American people the war is worth it, the perception is his closest allies have concluded otherwise. . . .

"Now, the Bush administration is under even more pressure to answer the question -- when will our own troops be coming home?

"It's a question they still can't answer."

David Gregory reported for the NBC Nightly News: "Administration officials scrambled today to put the best face on the British withdrawal. . . . But the good spin masks a darker reality. Just as the U.S. is putting more troops into Iraq to secure Baghdad, America's staunchest ally in the war is beginning to pull up stakes."

On the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric asked Bob Schieffer: "Bob, the Bush administration is characterizing the British drawdown as a sign of success. Is anyone buying that?"

Schieffer's response: "Well, if that's the claim, it's going to be a very hard sell to a country and a public that has already turned against this war, and especially a hard sell with the Congress. . . . I think it's going to make the president even more isolated than perhaps he is now."

Mary Jordan and Joshua Partlow write in The Washington Post: "Even though Britain has only 7,100 troops in Iraq, compared with the 135,000-strong U.S. contingent, they carry symbolic importance as the largest allied presence. British forces make up half of the roughly 14,000 non-U.S. troops in the coalition in Iraq. . . .

"[T]he Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, announced in Denmark that its 460 troops under British command in Iraq will return home by August. In Lithuania, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said the country is 'seriously considering' withdrawing its 53 troops from Iraq in August. . . .

"Besides the United States and Britain, only five countries have 500 or more troops in Iraq: South Korea has 2,300, Poland and Georgia each have 900, Romania has 600 and Australia has 550, according to the Associated Press."

The Situation on the Ground

Blair said withdrawal was made possible by the situation on the ground.

But Jordan and Partlow write that "military and political analysts disputed Blair's upbeat description of the situation in the Basra area. They also said they believed the timing of the British drawdown may have more to do with plunging polls for Blair's Labor Party, pressure from British military officials and Blair's desire to begin an endgame for Iraq before he leaves office. . . .

"'While the British zone is much quieter,' [said Michael Williams, head of the transatlantic program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies,] the Basra area 'still has a number of security issues' and it 'is foolhardy' to believe that Iraqi forces are ready to assume total control of the area. He also noted that if Blair had the political will, he could deploy some troops to help out the Americans in Baghdad instead of sending them home."

Ian Black and Richard Norton-Taylor write in the Guardian: "Behind Tony Blair's claim of relative success in Basra there remains deep uncertainty about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the risk of intensified violence in the southern city, UK military overstretch - and a political imperative to pull out without an open rift with the US."

Kim Murphy writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Britain's decision to pull 1,600 troops out of Iraq by spring, touted by U.S. and British leaders as a turning point in Iraqi sovereignty, was widely seen Wednesday as a telling admission that the British military could no longer sustain simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Rick Jervis writes in USA Today: "Britain's planned reduction in its force in southern Iraq could empower Iran and lead to more bloodshed between rival Shiite Muslim groups, analysts warned Wednesday.

"The area around Basra is less violent than Baghdad, and sectarian killings are rare, in part because it is overwhelmingly Shiite. But the government's authority there is rivaled by armed groups that are 'thoroughly intertwined with criminal enterprises,' according to a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy."

Alan Cowell writes in the New York Times that "senior Defense Department official said that, if security conditions deteriorated in the south, American commanders might need to send in their own forces to help remaining British units and Iraqi troops. He noted that the United States also usually keeps reserve forces nearby in Kuwait that could be sent into Iraq as well."

Patrick Cockburn writes in the Independent: "It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe."

Back and Forth

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid bluntly said Britain had 'acknowledged a reality' that Bush 'still stubbornly refuses to accept' as he sends thousands more American soldiers into Iraq.

"'There can be no purely military solution in Iraq,' Reid said in a statement.

"The White House later issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Reid's statement, complete with quotations from Blair's speech which said the partial redeployment was not based on an artificial timeline."

National Guard Watch

David S. Cloud writes in the New York Times: "The Pentagon is planning to send more than 14,000 National Guard troops back to Iraq next year, shortening their time between deployments to meet the demands of President Bush's buildup, Defense Department officials said Wednesday. . . .

"The accelerated timetable illustrates the cascading effect that the White House plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq by more than 21,000 is putting on the entire Army and in particular on Reserve forces, which officers predicted would face severe challenges in recruiting, training and equipping their forces.

"It also highlights the political risks of the White House's Iraq strategy. Sending large numbers of reservists to Iraq in the middle of next year's election campaign could drive up casualties among part-time soldiers in communities where support for the administration's approach in Iraq is already tenuous, according to opinion polls."

What Bush Has Wrought

Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank write in Mother Jones that Bush's theory that the war in Iraq is reducing the overall pool of terrorists is wrong.

"Our study shows that the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column, from Qatar: "We are in the ditch in the Middle East. As bad as you think it is watching TV, it's worse. It's not just Iraq but the whole pattern of America's dealings with the Arab world. People aren't just angry at America -- they've been that way to varying degrees since I first came here 27 years ago. What's worse is that they're giving up on us -- on our ability to make good decisions, to solve problems, to play the role of honest broker."

Cheney's Trip

Holly Rosenkrantz and Brendan Murray write for Bloomberg: "Vice President Dick Cheney is finding it harder and harder to locate a welcome mat.

"Cheney arrives today in Australia to meet with Prime Minister John Howard, a U.S. ally in the Iraq war who has resisted calls to withdraw his country's 1,600 troops. The visit comes two days after the vice president's meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when he was greeted by shouts of 'Yankee go home' from a loudspeaker outside the U.S. embassy and a controversy over Japan's defense minister terming the war a 'mistake.'

"Even today, Cheney will have to tread carefully: A Feb. 16-18 poll in the Australian, a national newspaper, showed that 68 percent oppose the war. 'The vice president won't be walking the streets of Australia, so he won't have to be worried about being subjected to verbal abuse on this stop,' said Stephen Yates, who served as his national security adviser until 2005. "

Cheney and Pelosi

Here's what Cheney had to say about the Democrats in his interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News yesterday: "I think, in fact, if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy. The al Qaeda strategy is to break the will of the American people -- in fact, knowing they can't win in a stand-up fight, try to persuade us to throw in the towel and come home, and then they win because we quit.

"I think that's exactly the wrong course to go on. I think that's the course of action that Speaker Pelosi and Jack Murtha support. I think it would be a huge mistake for the country."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "'I hope the president will repudiate and distance himself from the vice president's remarks,' Pelosi said. She said she tried to complain about Cheney to President Bush but could not reach him.

"'You cannot say as the president of the United States, "I welcome disagreement in a time of war," and then have the vice president of the United States go out of the country and mischaracterize a position of the speaker of the House and in a manner that says that person in that position of authority is acting against the national security of our country,' the speaker said."

Cheney and McCain

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney objected yesterday to Sen. John McCain's assertion that Donald H. Rumsfeld 'will go down as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history' and added that the senator had apologized to him for saying Cheney had misled President Bush on Iraq."

Cheney and Nixon

Will Bunch blogs for the Philadelphia Daily News about Cheney's resonant assertion in his Tokyo speech: "We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor."

Bunch writes: "For Richard Nixon, 'peace with honor' was not synonymous with 'peace.' It meant 'war.' A lot of war."

Scooter Libby Watch

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post that the Scooter Libby case went to the jury yesterday.

Evan Perez and Jay Solomon write in the Wall Street Journal: "The case has added fuel to calls for a broader examination of how intelligence was used in political arguments in the past six years.

"Moreover, some current and former administration officials say, the trial's airing of the use of intelligence -- especially over the Iraq war -- threatens to further undermine confidence in American claims on other sensitive matters. That could be a particular problem in the U.S. campaign to convince the world to curb Iran's nuclear program. . . .

"[T]he trial has provided congressional intelligence officials with extensive information on how the vice president's office functioned semi-autonomously in pushing foreign-policy initiatives. These officials said the information could prove helpful in continuing investigations into how public statements made by the president and vice president differed from the underlying intelligence provided by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

"Richard Ben-Veniste, former Democratic counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee and head of the Watergate special prosecutor's office, says the trial has served 'to reveal the inner workings of the vice president's office, and particularly the willingness to declassify information to assist in the damage control effort that appeared to be entirely political in nature.'"

Perez and Solomon also report that the "Senate Armed Services Committee seeks further interviews with Mr. Libby."

Keith Olbermann talks to Dana Milbank on MSNBC, and Milbank declares: "What does get interesting here, if there is a conviction, is the question of a pardon. . . . The president will be under a lot of pressure from Vice President Cheney, and the president who relies on a sense of loyalty will feel an awful lot of pressure to give Libby that pardon."

Olbermann asked if that would be politically damaging to Bush.

Milbank: "When you've got 35 percent of the American public supporting you, what's the harm in losing another percent or two? The president is well into his lame duck years here. . . . So sure, he can take that kind of hit."

Jane Hamsher blogs for Firedoglake about the overarching narratives that emerged from the case:

"1. The administration lied us into war and tried to abuse its power to punish the whistleblower who told the American public the truth.

"2. Scooter is the firewall to Shooter. ["Shooter" is Hamsher's nickname for Cheney.]

"3. Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and other members of the administration conspired to keep federal investigators from uncovering their crimes.

"4. The media was complicit in spreading administration propaganda rather than doing investigative journalism, and are now helping to set the table for a pardon.

"5. The journalistic standards that have been exposed in the case (witness Tim Russert, Judy Miller, Andrea Mitchell, Robert Novak and others) are reprehensible, and have undermined the public trust in the media.

"6. The degree to which this story about the lies that lead to war has been ignored by the media (relative to the feeding frenzy over a Clinton [sex act]) left a huge opening that the blogs have filled."

Bush on Health Care

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times from Chattanooga: "President Bush's plan to expand health coverage by revamping the tax code has been pronounced dead by leading Democrats on Capitol Hill. But Mr. Bush, ever the optimist, forged ahead Wednesday, conducting a chat session here in Oprah Winfrey style with people who are uninsured.

"Mr. Bush held forth for nearly an hour, cracking jokes about everything from the age of one of the participants -- 'You don't look a day over 34,' he said after learning that she was 35 -- to 'the hair follicle benefit,' a wry reference to what he views as luxury health plans. The participants had been carefully selected, the tone was confessional, and the president, describing himself as the 'educator in chief,' sounded more like talk-show host in chief."

Back in D.C., however, Rep. Pete Stark of California, chairman of a subcommittee overseeing health policy, called Bush's proposal "'a farcical move' that was 'primarily designed to encourage employers to drop group coverage.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Many health economists say they think Bush is overstating the impact of the tax code changes, but they say he might have a bigger bang if he were to give low-income people tax credits to buy insurance, an idea the White House considered and rejected. A study released this week by the Community Research Council of Chattanooga concluded that very few of the uninsured in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga and its suburbs, make enough money to benefit under the current Bush plan."

On Tuesday, Bush held a photo op after a closed-door discussion on his proposal with a group mostly made up of friendly health-care executives.

And the Wall Street Journal reports on its latest poll: "When asked much they trust the president to come up with good policies for improving and reforming the U.S. health-care system, 49% said 'not at all,' while 16% said 'not much,' according to the online survey of 2,482 U.S. adults. By comparison, 18% said they trust Mr. Bush 'to some extent' and only 9% trust him 'a great deal' on the issue. The survey was conducted Feb. 7-9."

Pit Stop

Stolberg of the New York Times filed a pool report yesterday on Bush's "surprise halt in downtown Chattanooga outside Porker's Bar-B-Que, a two-story brick place that evoked memories of the 50s, with Coca-Cola signs and some neon decor. As the name implies, it's a barbecue joint. The hand-painted picture on the glass front window shows a pig reclining atop flames, above the motto: 'We don't squeal.' (Your pooler could make the obvious joke about squealers and leaks, but she will refrain.)

"POTUS was in full campaign mode inside . . . 'Sorry to interrupt your dinner,' he said to several diners at one wooden booth, seeming not sorry in the least. . . .

"Then Mr. Bush threw his arm around a pink t-shirted waitress, Becky Roden, 35, for a quick snapshot. Ms. Roden, to put it delicately, amply filled the pink t-shirt, and smiled happily as she and POTUS squeezed in close for their photo. POTUS smiled happily too. Ms. Roden promised to bring the diner-in-chief some food, to which he replied: 'Go get it. I'm starved. I'm hungry. I do want food.'"

Bill Poovey writes for the Associated Press: "Roden, 35, said she boldly asked for the peck when Bush and his entourage rushed in to eat a buffet that included ribs, smoked chicken, potato salad and slaw.

"'He ate a whole lot,' Roden said afterward."

Seth Seymour reports for WTVC-TV in Chattanooga: "Some found it funny Bush was here for a health care summit, then had a meal like this," Seymour writes.

"But to his credit, the servers said he did have a Diet Coke."


Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about the National Press Club event Tuesday night at which press secretary Tony Snow was given the chance to turn the tables on a panel of White House correspondents.

See yesterday's column for previous coverage.

As Milbank writes, it was billed as "man bites dog." But "the hour turned into a mutual rehabilitation session. Snow argued that reporters are not the jackals that the public supposes them to be. The reporters reciprocated with warm tales about covering the Bush White House. . . .

"The New York Times' Sheryl Stolberg smiled sweetly at Snow as she confided to the crowd, 'I often tease Tony and tell him that he's the most useless press secretary ever.'

"'Thank you,' Snow responded with an aw-shucks look."

Milbank, who was anything but a White House favorite when he covered the president's first term, seemed to feel something was missing from the cloying love fest.

He concluded: "Will somebody please release the hounds?"

Abuse Watch

Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel of the CIA, writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Congress should reconsider the detainee legislation passed last fall. Last-minute changes rammed through by the White House watered down many of the bill's key provisions. On the treatment of detainees and interrogation techniques it created two standards -- one for the military and another for the CIA. The standards for the military are in an Army Field Manual, but the CIA standards are to be enumerated in a presidential executive order. Rumors suggest that the White House is struggling to develop those rules. Congress should relieve the president of that task before he makes a bad situation worse.

"If Vice President Cheney has his way, a good dunking may be among the approved CIA techniques, even though 'waterboarding' is prohibited by the Army Field Manual. Cheney's October remarks that dunking a detainee was ' a no-brainer' were irresponsible and added to the confusion in the field (and around the world) about the rules for treatment of detainees."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "'Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,' a new HBO documentary produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, daringly approaches a scandal that hardly anyone wants to see reexamined -- least of all, one can safely assume, the Bush administration and the Pentagon.

"The reason is not just that what happened at Abu Ghraib is, to understate in the extreme, unpleasant. The documentary says it's also because this breakdown was not so much nervous as inevitable -- and not so spontaneous, having been sanctioned by the top brass, including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld."

Bush's Loyalists

Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in Wednesday's New York Times: "Six years into Mr. Bush's presidency, the corps of loyal Texans who accompanied him to Washington from Austin remains a powerful force inside the administration, a steady source of comfort for an increasingly isolated president. No matter how grim the polls or dire the news in Iraq, they have stood by Mr. Bush -- and been rewarded with plum jobs -- as their lives have grown increasingly intertwined with one another's and with his. . . .

"[T]hese Texans are increasingly angry at criticism leveled at him. . . .

"Scholars say Mr. Bush has been more strategic than most presidents in sprinkling loyalists throughout the administration. Paul C. Light, an expert in public service at New York University, says it has created an 'echo chamber' in which the president gets advice he wants to hear."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on how the British are leaving; Stuart Carlson on Bush's Iraq plan; Tom Toles on Bush and Walter Reed.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "The British announced they were pulling their troops out of the Iraq. Dick Cheney immediately called it good news. He said, 'It's a sign that we're winning.' How come when our allies pick up and leave, that's a victory for us? But when we leave, it's a victory for al Qaeda? How does that work?"

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