By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 7, 2007; 1:18 PM
Despite everything, President Bush continues to be able to set the terms of the debate in Washington.
Consider how the talk now is mostly about when to end the "surge" -- not when to end the war. How did that happen?
It's a victory for Bush and his attempts to buy time. In time, there will either be progress in Iraq -- or the war will become someone else's problem.
In December, after a Republican electoral rout and a devastating report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the debate shifted briefly to how -- not when -- to withdraw. But then Bush announced his surge of troops -- and asked the press and the public to give it time. In May, it seemed like September would be a decisive deadline, with some Republicans agreeing that, barring significant political progress in Iraq, they would join Democrats in demanding withdrawal.
Now, however, the big news is that Bush's commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, is willing to contemplate a possible drawdown of one brigade early next year -- if the circumstances are right. That's one combat brigade out of the five that make up the surge; one out of 20 such brigades in country in total; or less than 5,000 of the 168,000 troops currently in Iraq.
And this is the plan despite the fact that a majority of the U.S. public, according to the polls, favors an immediate or gradual withdrawal of all troops from Iraq -- and has for well over a year.
Nevertheless, Petraeus has apparently emboldened congressional Republicans to stand firm behind the president, and has put Democratic leaders in a tizzy. So unless those quavering Dems suddenly grow some spine, it looks like there won't even be any serious debate in Washington about a complete withdrawal until next spring or so. And at that point, of course, the race to succeed Bush will so dominate the news that he can stand back and let others talk themselves blue about it while he stalls some more and dreams of Texas.The Coverage
Robin Wright and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has indicated a willingness to consider a drawdown of one brigade of between 3,500 and 4,500 U.S. troops from Iraq early next year, with more to follow over the next months based on conditions on the ground, according to a senior U.S. official.
"The pullouts would be contingent on the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to sustain what the administration heralds as recent gains in security and to make further gains in stabilizing Iraq. . . .
"Administration officials say the president will make the final decision about the overall strategy in Iraq, but they suggested that Bush is unlikely to depart significantly from recommendations made by top military officials."
David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud write in the New York Times that Petraeus "has told President Bush that he wants to maintain heightened troop levels in Iraq well into next year to reduce the risk of military setbacks, but could accept the pullback of roughly 4,000 troops beginning in January, in part to assuage critics in Congress, according to senior administration and military officials.
"General Petraeus's view is considered overly cautious by some other senior military officials and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officials said. But they said it reflected his concern that the security gains made so far in Baghdad, Anbar Province and other areas were fragile and easily reversed.
"Beyond the gesture of pulling back one brigade, officials who have been involved in the preparation of General Petraeus's Congressional testimony to be delivered next week say he will discuss the possibility of far deeper withdrawals beyond January that, over a number of months, could bring American force levels down to about 130,000 troops, where they stood at the beginning of 2007."
As Sanger and Cloud explain: "Still, the White House is nowhere close to committing to the deep reductions being discussed by Democrats and some Republicans, which would extend beyond the additional five combat brigades that Mr. Bush sent to Iraq. Some have endorsed a recommendation by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan advisory panel, which called in late 2006 for a pullback of all combat brigades by the end of March 2008.
"There are now some 20 American combat brigades in Iraq. Administration officials have signaled that even the most aggressive drawdown being contemplated by the White House would leave at least 10 combat brigades in Iraq by the end of 2008, down from the 15 in place before the troop increase began."
Charles M. Sennott of the Boston Globe describes his e-mail exchange with Petraeus in which the general writes: "Based on the progress our forces are achieving, I expect to be able to recommend that some of our forces will be redeployed without replacement. That will, over time, reduce the total number of troops in Iraq. The process will take time, but we want to be sure to maintain the security gains that coalition and Iraqi forces have worked so hard to achieve."The Bush Turnaround
Gerard Baker writes for the Times of London: "By now Mr Bush should be a governing irrelevance, a liability to his party, the object of scorn and derision. Every Republican candidate with an ounce of instinct for self-preservation in his blood should be running away from the President as though he were a burning building.
"But what is this? Next week Mr Bush seems certain to score one of the most important political victories of his presidency. General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, will testify before Congress, along with Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador to Iraq, on the progress of the 'surge' Mr Bush ordered earlier this year to much domestic political opposition.
"A couple of months ago this event was viewed as a kind of D-Day in reverse for the war in Iraq. . . .
"Although General Petraeus was always likely to give a guardedly optimistic report about the surge, the politics seemed increasingly hopeless for the Bush team. The Democratic majority in the Senate was backed by the momentum of overwhelming public opinion. And yet Mr Bush now looks just about certain to get his own way on Iraq."
Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Here's what will definitely happen when Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress next week: he'll assert that the surge has reduced violence in Iraq -- as long as you don't count Sunnis killed by Sunnis, Shiites killed by Shiites, Iraqis killed by car bombs and people shot in the front of the head.
Here's what I'm afraid will happen: Democrats will look at Gen. Petraeus's uniform and medals and fall into their usual cringe. They won't ask hard questions out of fear that someone might accuse them of attacking the military. After the testimony, they'll desperately try to get Republicans to agree to a resolution that politely asks President Bush to maybe, possibly, withdraw some troops, if he feels like it."
Krugman also notes that "no independent assessment has concluded that violence in Iraq is down"; "Petraeus has a history of making wildly overoptimistic assessments of progress in Iraq that happen to be convenient for his political masters"; "any plan that depends on the White House recognizing reality is an idle fantasy"; "the lesson of the past six years is that Republicans will accuse Democrats of being unpatriotic no matter what the Democrats do"; and "the public hates this war and wants to see it ended."
Tim Grieve of Salon chronicles how seriously Bush and his top aides used to take all these political benchmarks for Iraq that apparently don't seem to matter anymore.
Steve Benen blogs for the Carpetbagger Report that "by suggesting a drawdown would be possible in January, Petraeus is arguing that nothing at all will change in the administration's Iraq policy for the next four months. The reward, in other words, for failing the benchmark test, is two-thirds of a Friedman and a new spending bill from Congress."
Furthermore, Benen notes: "suggesting that we might be able to bring home one brigade in January seems a little disingenuous when we know that a few months later, the surge has to end anyway because we'll be out of troops."The Other General
Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The U.S. military should reduce its 'footprint' in Iraq to counter the impression that it is an occupying force, a prominent retired Marine general said Thursday in congressional testimony that challenged the case for continuing the troop increase backed by the White House.
"Just days before the U.S. military commander in Iraq is expected to provide a much more upbeat assessment to Congress, Gen. James L. Jones said the high-profile presence of U.S. troops has engendered animosity among Iraqis, even though the increase has brought some security gains. . . .
"While some of his testimony appeared to bolster the case for a reduced U.S. presence, he cautioned against a swift pullout or setting deadlines for withdrawal.
"'I think deadlines can work against us, and I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest,' Jones said, alluding to mainly Democratic proposals to set a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces.
"As a result, Jones' testimony provided cover for both Republicans and Democrats in the debate about the course of the war."
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It was, as more than one senator remarked, a case of what you see depending on where you stand. In that sense, Jones, a retired Marine general, served as a Rorschach inkblot for the coming Iraq debate."Bolten on Petraeus
White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten was on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer Wednesday night.
Lehrer asked how Petraeus became the "magic judger."
"JOSHUA BOLTEN: It is an unusual circumstance. But I think it is a product of so many different voices being focused on and so many different sets of eyes being focused on a very complicated problem and the president's very strong commitment that he wants to be guided by the person who is actually responsible for the deployment and supervision of our troops there.
"And that applies, also, to Ambassador Crocker on the diplomatic side. Both of them have well-deserved reputations for integrity and independence. The president's going to rely on their independent advice.
"And I think we've gotten to that point, because the debate has become so politicized, and that we need to put extra burden in this case, at this time in our history, on those who are genuinely apart from politics. I think that's the way the president will review their report. I think that's how the American people should view their report."
Apart from politics? Hardly. See, for instance, my July 16 column, " How Bush Uses His Generals."Poll Watch
A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that "just 39% believe [Petraeus's] report will honestly and accurately reflect the General's true assessment of the situation in Iraq. Thirty-five percent (35%) say it will not while 26% are not sure."
And AFP reports that in a " BBC World Service poll of 23,000 people in 22 countries, 67 percent said they backed a troop withdrawal inside a year, while 49 percent believed the United States would permanently leave troops in the country.
"Three in five Americans polled -- 61 percent -- thought US forces should leave within a year, with 24 percent favouring immediate withdrawal. Thirty-two percent said they should stay until security improves.
"In some of the countries in the US-led coalition a majority supported a pullout within a year -- 65 percent of Britons, 63 percent of South Koreans and 63 percent of Australians."President Goofball
As of today, there are exactly 500 days left in Bush's presidency. Here's hoping they won't all be a repeat of today.
Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "He'd only reached the third sentence of Friday's speech to business leaders, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, when he committed his first gaffe.
"'Thank you for being such a fine host for the OPEC summit,' Bush said to Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
"Oops. That would be APEC, the annual meeting of leaders from 21 Pacific Rim nations, not OPEC, the cartel of 12 major oil producers.
"Bush quickly corrected himself. 'APEC summit,' he said forcefully, joking that Howard had invited him to the OPEC summit next year (for the record, an impossibility, since neither Australia nor the U.S. are OPEC members).
"The president's next goof went uncorrected -- by him anyway. Talking about Howard's visit to Iraq last year to thank his country's soldiers serving there, Bush called them 'Austrian troops.'
"That one was fixed for him. Though tapes of the speech clearly show Bush saying 'Austrian,' the official text released by the White House switched it to 'Australian.'"
And that wasn't all.
Reuters reports: "Upon finishing his speech, Bush took the wrong way off-stage and, looking slightly perplexed, had to be re-directed by Howard to a centre-stage exit.
"But not before a veteran White House correspondent seized the opportunity to ask Bush whether there had been any new message in his speech. Apparently misunderstanding the question, he bristled and asked, 'Haven't you been listening to my past speeches?' before turning away."More Comedy
Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A comedy team impersonating a Canadian government delegation -- and one member wearing an Osama bin Laden costume -- breached security cordons around the hotel where President Bush is staying, embarrassing Australian authorities. . . .
"The comedy stunt, by an Australian state television program called 'The Chaser's War on Everything,' succeeded in needling authorities, who pledged even stronger security measures."Talking Back to Bush
Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "In a testy public exchange Friday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, President Bush said the United States would consider the Korean War formally ended only when North Korea halts its nuclear weapons program."
Raum calls it "a before-the-cameras back-and-forth that was remarkable in the diplomatic world of understatement and subtlety. . . .
"Roh pushed Bush to be 'clearer' about his position on an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War. The two Koreas were divided by the conflict, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meaning they still remain technically at war."
Bush started off by describing the private talk that had just concluded as a "very friendly and frank discussion about important matters."
He noted that "I reaffirmed our government's position that when the North Korean leader fully discloses and gets rid of his nuclear weapons programs, that we can achieve a new security arrangement in the Korean Peninsula, that we can have the peace that we all long for."
When it was Roh's turn, he spoke directly to Bush: "I think I might be wrong -- I think I did not hear President Bush mention the -- a declaration to end the Korean War just now. Did you say so, President Bush?"
Bush replied: "I said it's up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War. He's got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion. And we're making progress toward that goal. It's up to him."
Roh didn't let it drop: "I believe that they are the same thing, Mr. President. If you could be a little bit clearer in your message," he said, to nervous laughter from the U.S. delegation and a look of annoyance from Bush.
Bush: "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end -- will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons.
"Thank you, sir. "
The White House tried to downplay the exchange. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said "there was clearly something lost in translation during the photo op."
At a press briefing afterwards, officials faced many questions about the incident. Said spokeswoman Dana Perino: "I think that there might be just a little bit of over-interpretation of what happened in there. I can tell you, they had a very warm meeting. The President made a clear statement of his support for ending the Korean War once and for all. And both leaders agreed on that. And there was no tension in the meeting, there was no tension after the meeting amongst staff or amongst the leaders. And I think that everyone is trying to make a little bit too much of it.
" Q Well, Dana, when we hear the President saying -- what, three times -- 'thank you, sir,' 'thank you, sir,' to those of us who have covered him that sure sounded tense.
" MS. PERINO: The President was not tense. I think the President made it -- reiterated his statement. You heard it, you can go back, he said the exact same thing three times. And I think that that was enough. And he did, too."Bush and the Beijing Olympics
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: " President Bush has accepted an invitation from President Hu Jintao of China to attend the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, a move that drew condemnation from human rights advocates and a Republican member of Congress, who are calling for a boycott of the Games.
"Mr. Hu extended the invitation -- reiterating an offer he had made -- during a private meeting with Mr. Bush here late on Thursday, on the eve of an economic meeting of leaders of Asian nations. Their 90-minute talk touched on a variety of issues, including climate change, the recent recalls of tainted toys made in China and a new plan for a hot line to link the Chinese and American militaries.
"But it was the Olympics announcement that grabbed the most attention."
Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Sensitive to concerns about China's human rights record, a Bush aide added a caveat to Bush's acceptance. The president would be attending 'for the sports' and not to make any political statement, said James F. Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser."So Gonzales Was Pushed?
From chief of staff Bolten's talk with Lehrer on PBS on Wednesday:
"JIM LEHRER: New subject. There have been several published reports that it was you who finally convinced President Bush that Alberto Gonzales should go as attorney general. Is that true?
"JOSHUA BOLTEN: Attorney General Gonzales came to his own conclusion, and I think it was a courageous decision on his part that the president reluctantly accepted. I think Alberto came to the realization that, as unfair as the attacks on him over the last several months have been, that at some point you need to let that unfairness, in a sense, stand and step aside for the good of the department, which I know he loves and wants to succeed, more than concern about what might happen to him personally.
"JIM LEHRER: Same or similar circumstances lead to the resignation of Karl Rove?
"JOSHUA BOLTEN: No. This was completely an independent decision by Karl about the time that he wanted to leave. . . . And that's a circumstance in which the timing was not dictated by any sort of outside forces. That was completely up to Karl."Book Watch
Tim Rutten reviews two of the latest Bush books for the Los Angeles Times: "Robert Draper's 'Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush' . . . is a shrewdly observed and very engagingly written exploration of the president's enigmatic personality. Charlie Savage's 'Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy' is a gifted reporter's exposition of how and why the Bush administration has conducted itself and of that conduct's disturbing legacy.
"Read together, these two books give a fascinating account of how Bush's character has shaped his presidency and of how a radical and historically revisionist theory of presidential powers provided the perfect tool with which to do that."
Wayne Slater writes in the Dallas Morning News about Draper's book: "An early burst of publicity seemed to cast Mr. Bush in a bad light. But a thorough reading suggests the book is exactly what the White House had in mind when it granted extraordinary access to Mr. Draper, a reporter for GQ magazine. . . .
"In this take on the Bush presidency, it was administrator Paul Bremer who dismantled the Iraqi army contrary to the president's expectations. It was Chief Justice John Roberts who recommended Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court (a claim Justice Roberts denies).
"The George W. Bush depicted in the book Dead Certain is the consummate leader, cool, transcendent, in-charge. . . .
"For Mr. Bush and his longtime political guru Karl Rove, the book is a first step in framing the legacy of a president who famously claims not to be thinking about his legacy."
And Slate has a fascinating excerpt from "The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration," the new book from former top Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith.
(See my Wednesday column for more on Goldsmith and David S. Addington, the redoubtable Cheney aide at the center of the Bush White House's most extreme overreaches.)
Writes Goldsmith: "Addington once expressed his general attitude toward accommodation when he said, 'We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.' He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president's strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies. They believed cooperation and compromise signaled weakness and emboldened the enemies of America and the executive branch. When it came to terrorism, they viewed every encounter outside the innermost core of most trusted advisers as a zero-sum game that if they didn't win they would necessarily lose. . . .
"Addington's hard-line nonaccommodation stance always prevailed when the lawyers met to discuss legal policy issues in Alberto Gonzales' office. During these meetings, Gonzales himself would sit quietly in his wing chair, occasionally asking questions but mostly listening as the querulous Addington did battle with whomever was seeking to 'go soft.' It was Gonzales' responsibility to determine what to advise the president after the lawyers had kicked the legal policy matters around. But I only knew him to disagree with Addington once, on an issue I cannot discuss, and on that issue the president overruled Gonzales and sided with the Addington position."
Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column on her "key takeaways" from Goldsmith's book: "Bush and Gonzales had little appetite for substance; Cheney's staff ruled the roost and insisted that the law was supposed to bend to their wishes; and top Cheney aides such as David Addington were every bit as contemptuous of their GOP colleagues in the executive branch as they were of Congress, the courts and their Democratic critics. . . .
"Like so many other recent accounts of life inside the bubble, Goldsmith's raises the question of how the Bush administration juggernaut lasted so long. From the outside, the administration looked powerful and dangerous, a finely tuned machine capable of rolling over any opposition. But it was hollow and illusory -- and on the inside, many knew it."Cartoon Watch