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Warnings of Chaos Ignored

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 25, 2007; 12:52 PM

An impending report from the Senate intelligence committee is likely to revive questions about whether President Bush was so consumed with invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein that he didn't care about the disastrous consequences that could -- and did -- ensue.

Katherine Shrader reports for the Associated Press: "U.S. intelligence agencies warned senior members of the Bush administration in early 2003 that invading Iraq could create internal conflict that would give Iran and al-Qaida new opportunities to expand their influence, according to an upcoming Senate report.

"Officials familiar with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation also say analysts warned against U.S. domination in the region, which could increase extremist recruiting. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report's declassification is not finished. It could be made public as soon as this week.

"The committee also found that the warnings predicting what would happen after the U.S.-led invasion were circulated widely in government, including to the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President. It wasn't clear whether President Bush was briefed. . . .

"A former intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision to go to war had been made months before the 2003 papers were drafted and analysts had no delusions that they were going to head off military action. Rather, the official said, they hoped their warnings would be considered in the planning."

Jonathan Karl reports for ABC News: "In stark contrast to the WMD fiasco, the intelligence community was largely on target about what the United States would face in postwar Iraq.

"In January 2003, the CIA's National Intelligence Council delivered to the White House two reports predicting what the United States would face in Iraq. The reports, which until now were classified, are expected to be released by the Senate Intelligence Friday. . . .

"The first report is titled 'Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq.' It paints a picture of an Iraq beset by ethnic violence and unlikely to accept democracy. Here are some highlights:

"* Iraq is unlikely to break apart, but it is 'a deeply divided society.' There is 'a significant chance' that groups would 'engage in violent conflict . . . unless there is an occupying force to prevent them from doing so.'

"* Neighboring states could 'jockey for position . . . fomenting ethnic strife inside Iraq.'

"* 'Iraq's political culture does not foster political liberalism or democracy.'

"* 'A generation of Iraqis' who have been subjected to Saddam's repression are 'distrustful of surrendering or sharing power.' . . .

"The second report is titled 'Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq.' This report warns of potential instability in the region, especially if the war were to be long and violent. It also warns that al Qaeda could exploit U.S. focus on Iraq by re-establishing its presence in Afghanistan."

CNN's Ed Henry asked about the report at Bush's press conference yesterday:

"Q Mr. President, a new Senate report . . . contends that your administration was warned before the war that by invading Iraq you would actually give Iran and al Qaeda a golden opportunity to expand their influence, the kind of influence you were talking about with al Qaeda yesterday, and with Iran this morning. Why did you ignore those warnings, sir?

"THE PRESIDENT: Ed, going into Iraq we were warned about a lot of things, some of which happened, some of which didn't happen. And, obviously, as I made a decision as consequential as that, I weighed the risks and rewards of any decision. I firmly believe the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. I know the Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein in power. I think America is safer without Saddam Hussein in power.

"As to al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda is going to fight us wherever we are. That's their strategy. Their strategy is to drive us out of the Middle East. They have made it abundantly clear what they want. They want to establish a caliphate. They want to spread their ideology. They want safe haven from which to launch attacks. They're willing to kill the innocent to achieve their objectives, and they will fight us. And the fundamental question is, will we fight them? I have made the decision to do so. I believe that the best way to protect us in this war on terror is to fight them."

Bush also refused to answer a related question later on.

"Q Mr. President, moments ago you said that al Qaeda attacked us before we were in Iraq. Since then Iraq has become much less stable; al Qaeda has used it as a recruiting tool, apparently with some success. So what would you say to those who would argue that what we've done in Iraq has simply enhanced al Qaeda and made the situation worse?

"THE PRESIDENT: Oh, so, in other words, the option would have been just let Saddam Hussein stay there? Your question is, should we not have left Saddam Hussein in power? And the answer is, absolutely not. Saddam Hussein was an enemy of the United States. He'd attacked his neighbors. He was paying Palestinian suicide bombers. He would have been -- if he were to defy -- and by the way, cheating on the U.N. oil for sanctions program -- oil-for-food program. No, I don't buy it. I don't buy that this world would be a better place with Saddam Hussein in power, and particularly if -- and I'm sure the Iraqis would agree with that.

"See, that's the kind of attitude -- he says, okay, let's let them live under a tyrant, and I just don't agree. I obviously thought he had weapons, he didn't have weapons; the world thought he had weapons. It was a surprise to me that he didn't have the weapons of mass destruction everybody thought he had, but he had the capacity at some point in time to make weapons....

"So the heart of your question is, shouldn't you have left Saddam Hussein in power? And the answer is, no."

The Press Conference

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush faced reporters for his first full-scale, solo news conference in three months savoring what may be a last victory in his battle with Congress over the course of the war in Iraq. . . .

"There was little gloating over his victory in Congress, only praise of bipartisanship and a sober new warning to the Iraqi government to shape up. . . .

Abramowitz concludes, however: "In some respects, yesterday's news conference seemed like a package of familiar White House refrains on Iraq, as Bush once again offered no regrets for his campaign to evict Saddam Hussein and spoke extensively of the threat to this country from al-Qaeda."

Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that once his troop buildup improved security in the Iraqi capital, he intended to follow the withdrawal plan proposed by a bipartisan study group, embracing recommendations previously spurned by the administration.

"Speaking at a White House news conference, Bush for the first time adopted the blueprint outlined in December by the Iraq Study Group, saying he envisioned U.S. troops gradually moving out of their combat role and into support and training functions."

That, Spiegel writes, "represented a significant shift in his public position on the study group's recommendations, which when they were unveiled were embraced by war critics but largely ignored by the White House.

"According to people familiar with internal administration discussions, senior officials were even more dismissive in private, suggesting the group's report was a recipe for defeat."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush warned Thursday that casualties in Iraq could increase over the summer as the United States completes its troop buildup there. . . .

"Mr. Bush made his comments during a news briefing in the Rose Garden at which he was occasionally combative but mostly good humored, clearly relishing the expected end -- for now -- of his fight with Congress over war funds.

"But his statements about his new Iraq plan reflected deep concern at the White House that an intense summer of fighting and higher casualties could further undermine support for the war and lead Democrats to take a harder line in future legislative clashes over how to proceed in Iraq."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Defending his widely criticized stance that Iraq has become the central front in a global war on terror, the president said, 'This notion about how this isn't a war on terror, in my view, is naive. I would hope our world hadn't become so cynical that they don't take the threats of Al Qaeda seriously, because they're real.'"

Rutenberg called Bush "mostly good humored." Silva didn't think so: "At times during the news conference, Bush appeared frustrated, combative and tired in answering questions about a lingering war that many in his administration had thought would be far shorter and more decisive. The president seemed especially annoyed when a reporter asked why bin Laden was still free."

That reporter, as it happens, was Rutenberg. Bush's reply: "Why is he at large? Because we haven't got him yet, Jim. That's why. And he's hiding, and we're looking, and we will continue to look until we bring him to justice. We've brought a lot of his buddies to justice, but not him. That's why he's still at large. He's not out there traipsing around, he's not leading many parades, however. He's not out feeding the hungry. He's isolated, trying to kill people to achieve his objective."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that Bush invoked al Qaeda "19 times and even suggested it was going after individual reporters' kids.

"'They are a threat to your children, David,' he advised NBC's David Gregory.

"'It's a danger to your children, Jim,' Bush informed the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg.

"This last warning was perplexing, because Rutenberg has no children, only a brown chow chow named Little Bear. It was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased 'chatter in the system' about chow chows in general."

A Possible Contradiction

ABC News's Martha Raddatz exposed a possible contradiction in Bush's views about Iraq.

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. You say you want nothing short of victory, that leaving Iraq would be catastrophic; you once again mentioned al Qaeda. Does that mean that you are willing to leave American troops there, no matter what the Iraqi government does? I know this is a question we've asked before, but you can begin it with a 'yes' or 'no.'

"THE PRESIDENT: We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It's their government's choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.

"Q -- catastrophic, as you've said over and over again?

"THE PRESIDENT: I would hope that they would recognize that the results would be catastrophic. This is a sovereign nation, Martha. We are there at their request. And hopefully the Iraqi government would be wise enough to recognize that without coalition troops, the U.S. troops, that they would endanger their very existence. And it's why we work very closely with them, to make sure that the realities are such that they wouldn't make that request -- but if they were to make the request, we wouldn't be there."

Iraq's current leadership -- dependent on American troops for its power -- shows no signs of asking the U.S. to leave. But as for the Iraqi public -- and even, according to recent reports, the Parliament -- that may be a different story.

Why Such Short Notice?

I pointed out in yesterday's column that the White House gave reporters less than two hours' notice of the conference.

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "They give short notice on purpose -- Bush really hates long, pompous questions and he feels if he gives us too much lead time, we will go rancidly thespian and grandiose at his press conferences. He's probably right."

They Won't Follow Us Home

Jeff Greenfield reported for CBS News: "It is the key premise behind the president's Iraq approach: That we fight them there so that we will not fight them here. . . . But is it a legitimate fear? Would the people fighting U.S. forces in Iraq somehow find their way to our shores?"

To answer the question, Greenfield quoted several experts who said Bush is wrong, including James Jay Carafano of Heritage Foundation, who told CBS: "The President is using a primitive, inarticulate argument that leaves him open to criticism and caricature."

Greenfield also noted: "The argument that we fight them there so we don't fight them here may have political clout, but it also represents a striking retreat from the original case for the war. . . . Instead of arguing for the good things that would happen if America were to act, the argument now seems to be based on the dreadful things that would happen if America leaves."

Bush's Big Win

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Congress sent President Bush a new Iraq funding bill yesterday that lacked troop withdrawal deadlines demanded by liberal Democrats, but party leaders vowed it was only a temporary setback in their efforts to bring home American troops.

"War opponents dismissed the bill as a capitulation to Bush and said they would seek to hold supporters in both parties accountable. But backers said the bill's provisions -- including benchmarks for progress that the Iraqi government must meet to continue receiving reconstruction aid -- represented an assertion of congressional authority over the war that was unthinkable a few months ago.

"Bush, who had vowed to veto any legislation with restrictions on troop deployments, announced he would sign the $120 billion package, which was approved 80 to 14 last night in the Senate, after a 280 to 142 House vote. . . .

"Bush's first report to Congress on the Iraqis' progress in meeting the benchmarks is due on July 15."

Iran Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that the administration will press the United Nations to adopt new, expanded sanctions against Iran, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran would 'never retreat even one step' from its nuclear enrichment program."

But as DeYoung wrote in The Post yesterday, there is "tension within the administration over how aggressively to respond to the continued Iranian defiance on a range of issues, including its nuclear program and support for international terrorism and violent insurgents in Iraq. Vice President Cheney's office and hard-liners on the National Security Council staff think the current carrot-and-stick strategy leans too far in the direction of carrots.

"'Standing two weeks ago aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, 150 miles off the Iranian coast, Cheney said he wanted to 'send a clear message to our friends and adversaries alike' that the administration will protect its interests and honor its commitments. Arab states have pressed for U.S. protection of oil supply routes. Yesterday, nine U.S. warships sailed through the Strait of Hormuz toward Iran to begin an unannounced exercise in international waters.

"'At the same time, the State Department recently succeeded in getting President Bush's authorization to hold direct talks with Tehran on the situation in Iraq -- something the president had repeatedly said he would not permit without a change in Tehran's behavior. The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq are due to begin a dialogue in Baghdad on Monday.'"

Well-connected Washington blogger Steven C. Clemons has a much more alarming read on things: "There is a race currently underway between different flanks of the administration to determine the future course of US-Iran policy.

"On one flank are the diplomats, and on the other is Vice President Cheney's team and acolytes -- who populate quite a wide swath throughout the American national security bureaucracy."

Clemons writes: "Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been . . . explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.

"This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an 'end run strategy' around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument.

"The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles). . . .

"The zinger of this information is the admission by this Cheney aide that Cheney himself is frustrated with President Bush and believes, much like Richard Perle, that Bush is making a disastrous mistake by aligning himself with the policy course that Condoleezza Rice [and others] have sculpted.

"According to this official, Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the 'right decision' when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President's hands."

Poll Watch

Bush seems to think that most Americans are opposed to a troop withdrawal from Iraq. "I recognize there are a handful there or some who just say, get out, it's just not worth it, let's just leave," he said yesterday. "I strongly disagree with that attitude. Most Americans do, as well."

But as Dalia Sussman writes in the New York Times: "Americans now view the war in Iraq more negatively than at any time since the invasion more than four years ago, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"Sixty-one percent of Americans say the United States should have stayed out of Iraq and 76 percent say things are going badly there, including 47 percent who say things are going very badly, the poll found. . . .

"Most Americans support a timetable for withdrawal. Sixty-three percent say the United States should set a date for withdrawing troops from Iraq sometime in 2008.

"While troops are still in Iraq, Americans overwhelmingly support continuing to finance the war, though most want to do so with conditions. Thirteen percent want Congress to block all money for the war."

Sussman notes that "Bush's approval ratings remain near the lowest of his more than six years in office. Thirty percent approve of the job he is doing over all, while 63 percent disapprove."

Here are the results. Bush's rating on handling of foreign policy ties his all-time low of 25; his rating on Iraq is 23 percent. Dick Cheney's favorability rating is 13, an all-time low for that poll.

Showing just how disillusioned the public is about Bush, his rating on immigration is 27 percent -- even though, as Julia Preston and Marjorie Connelly write in the Times, "there is broad support among Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents alike -- for the major provisions in the legislation, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."

Gonzales Watch

David Johnston and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "President Bush said Thursday that he would correct any problems uncovered in the investigations of last year's dismissals of federal prosecutors, but he added that nothing had undermined his support for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales."

Meanwhile, Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Justice Department has broadened an internal investigation into whether aides to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales improperly took into account political considerations in hiring employees, officials familiar with the probe said Thursday."

Editorial Watch

The Los Angeles Times writes that "the Bush administration has invited dark speculation with its shifting explanations of the dismissals and Gonzales' assertion that he was essentially AWOL in the process. That's why it remains vital that Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers testify on the record before Congress about their involvement, if any, in the purge."

The Denver Post writes: "In an interesting moment in her testimony, Goodling said she heard about the potential firings in 2005 from Tim Griffin, who was then an aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove. She said Griffin told her he might get the chance to go home to Arkansas because some U.S. attorneys might be replaced. If the prosecutor who held the job in Little Rock, Bud Cummins, was one of them, perhaps Griffin would get that job. As it turns out, he did.

"Her account raises an important question: How could the White House aide have known that at that early date?

"It's a question that clearly leads to the White House and to Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. It's high time they testified before Congress -- under oath and on the record -- about their roles in this festering scandal."

The Boston Globe writes: "Goodling, a former top aide to Gonzales, admitted in her testimony to Congress that she had 'crossed the line' in using the political backgrounds of applicants for lower-ranking positions in the department as a factor in hiring decisions. . . . The freedom she felt while serving under Gonzales to violate the no-politics law is a strong indication that Gonzales would not object if he got marching orders from a White House that was unhappy with some US attorneys' lack of political zeal.

"Congress should find out who issued those orders. A lack of cooperation from the White House has turned this inquiry into a game of Clue. If Congress confirms the list was compiled 'in the West Wing, with a pen,' it could force Bush to a housecleaning of his own."

The Houston Chronicle writes: "The more Justice Department officials and former officials testify before Congress, the dimmer the picture of the department's inner workings grows. . . .

"What would best serve the Justice Department, the administration and the nation is an honest account of how and why the U.S. attorneys came to be replaced. If no wrongdoing took place, as the president states, there is no reason for the administration to keep the facts from the public."

Wooing Democrats

Edwin Chen and Laura Litvan write for Bloomberg that Bush has suddenly started having members of the opposition over to the White House.

"Only 20 months before the end of his term, Bush has begun a cross-party charm offensive that many had expected at the dawn rather than the twilight of his presidency. His aim is to make bipartisan progress on a few big issues -- such as an overhaul of immigration laws -- before he leaves office. . . .

"Attendees typically gather in the Yellow Oval Room, an informal sitting and entertainment area that opens onto the Truman Balcony. Bush conducts some of the meetings after-hours, to foster bonhomie. . . .

"Bush now targets more Democrats than Republicans for private meetings, -- a departure from before, said Candida Wolff, the White House legislative-affairs director.

"Wolff said she and her staff typically choose guests with an eye toward the issues of the day. She wouldn't say how many sessions have taken place in recent months or identify the participants. 'Some people don't want it known that they've been down to the White House,' she said."

Cabinet Blues

Rich Miller and Kevin Carmichael write for Bloomberg: "U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson came to Washington with a Wall Street reputation for overcoming all obstacles in the way of a deal. He may have found the one hurdle he can't surmount: George W. Bush's damaged presidency.

"On issues ranging from defusing trade tensions with China to overhauling Social Security, the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chief executive officer is playing down the notion of breakthroughs. Instead, he's talking about laying foundations for his successors. . . .

"'It would be a tough time for any Treasury secretary,' said Glenn Hubbard, a former chief White House economist for Bush who's now dean of the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University in New York.'"

When Ex-Presidents Attack

Newsweek chronicles the "rich history of presidential catfights."

Bird Gets the Bush

Ann Compton reports for ABC News: "As President Bush took a question Thursday in the White House Rose Garden about scandals involving his Attorney General, he remarked, 'I've got confidence in Al Gonzales doin' the job.'

"Simultaneously, a sparrow flew overhead and left a splash on the President's sleeve, which Bush tried several times to wipe off."

Here's the video.

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