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Some Withdrawal

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 12, 2007; 1:50 PM

President Bush will go on television tomorrow night to announce the likely conclusion by next summer of the temporary troop escalation he instigated in January.

But all that would do is return us to the status quo ante: With a huge force of about 130,000 troops still fighting and dying in a deeply unpopular war. And it's not like Bush actually had any choice: Pentagon officials have repeatedly said they didn't have the manpower to maintain his "surge" beyond then anyway.

That context makes it clear this barely qualifies as a withdrawal at all -- and it's certainly not an indication that the U.S. presence in Iraq is winding down. The vast majority of American troops won't be going anywhere. And for them, there's still no end in sight.

Pronouncements Before the Announcement

Matthew Lee and Anne Flaherty write for the Associated Press: "President Bush will tell the nation Thursday evening that he plans to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by as many as 30,000 by next summer but will condition those and further cuts on continued progress. . . .

"In a 15-minute address from the White House at 9 p.m. EDT, Bush will endorse the recommendations of his top general and top diplomat in Iraq, following their appearance at two days of hearings in Congress, administration officials said. The White House plans to issue a written status report on the troop buildup on Friday, they said. . . .

"In the speech, the president will say he understands Americans' deep concerns about U.S. involvement in Iraq and their desire to bring the troops home, they said. Bush will say that . . . he has decided on a way forward that will reduce the U.S. military presence but not abandon Iraq to chaos, according to the officials."

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post that Bush's plans "drew sharp criticism yesterday from Democratic leaders and a handful of Republicans in Congress, who vowed to try again to force Bush to accept a more dramatic change of policy.

"A second day of testimony by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker yielded some of the most biting GOP objections since the president announced his troop buildup in January. . . .

"After meeting with Bush yesterday at the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expressed similar dismay with the Petraeus plan. . . .

"Pelosi said she told Bush that he was essentially endorsing a 10-year 'open-ended commitment.' Reid said the president wants 'no change in mission -- this is more of the same.'"

Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "After a meeting at the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the effort to present the limited troop withdrawal as a major shift in policy amounted to 'an insult to the intelligence of the American people.'"

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Democrats who were briefed on the White House meeting said that Ms. Pelosi had told Mr. Bush that much of the public would be shocked at the prospect of an undefined, long-term presence in Iraq. They said the president had acknowledged that he foresaw an extended involvement in Iraq and was backed by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who said the nation had made a commitment to the region."

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune Washington bureau: "The president did not show his hand in his meeting with congressional leaders, but Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said it was clear from their discussion that the president is embracing Gen. Petraeus' plan for troop deployments.

"'I listened to his responses to questions, and whenever one of the members of Congress would question what Gen. Petraeus said, the president was very defensive,' Durbin told the Tribune. 'It was an indication that the president is supportive.'"

Tell Me How This Ends

Sanger writes in the Times: "The two top American military and diplomatic officials in Iraq conceded Tuesday that the Bush administration's overall strategy in Iraq would remain largely unchanged after the temporary increase in American forces is over next summer, and made clear their view that the United States would need a major troop presence in Iraq for years to come.

"Facing a day of withering questions from two Senate committees, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, were unable to argue that the heightened troop levels had made more than fragile and transitory progress. Nor could they reassure senators that American efforts could help forge political compromise among battling sectarian groups. . . .

"The recommendation by General Petraeus calls for the step-by-step withdrawal between now and next July of the 30,000 additional troops that Mr. Bush has sent to Iraq as part of what has been called a 'surge' in forces, which he announced in January. But that leaves open the question that permeated the heated discussions in the Senate on Tuesday, about whether keeping the remaining 130,000 troops would serve a purpose."

And Sanger notes: "By narrowing their testimony so carefully over the past two days, General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker have left Mr. Bush to answer, perhaps on Thursday, a difficult strategic question: What might prompt Iraq's political leaders to make the kind of political accommodations in the next year that they have refused to make during the troop increase?"

Mark Thompson writes for Time: "It took three hearings before General David Petraeus finally got asked the most important question: Is the Iraq war, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee inquired at Tuesday afternoon's session, 'making America safer?' Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was uncharacteristically uncertain. 'Sir,' he said, 'I don't know, actually.' For many watching, that answer was a stark indictment of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war over the past four years, and the logic behind it. . . .

"What is the mission of the U.S. military in Iraq, the senators wanted to know. And given the inability of Petraeus and Crocker to articulate that mission -- or say when it will end -- the lawmakers questioned whether the nation should continue investing in this war."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Maybe the Iraqi government will seize the opportunity for political reconciliation that the United States set out to buy for it with blood and treasure, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said yesterday. And maybe it won't.

"'My level of confidence,' Crocker replied dryly to a question from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), 'is under control.'"

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "They sat behind burgundy-covered witness tables for more than 16 hours of testimony and answered hundreds of questions about the Iraq war, some of them pointed, some of them softballs.

"But there was one question that Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, couldn't, or wouldn't, answer.

"It was the question that Petraeus himself posed rhetorically back in 2003 when he led the Army's 101st Airborne Division into Iraq: 'Tell me how this ends.'

"Much to the frustration of the senators -- mostly Democrats, but including a few Republicans -- who grilled them Tuesday, neither the general nor the diplomat outlined a strategy for putting Iraq back together or a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home."

Julian E. Barnes and Noam N. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times that Petraeus and Crocker "made few inroads in their effort to convince skeptical lawmakers that the White House war strategy was working. . . .

"Especially concerned were GOP senators who face reelection next year. They seemed worried by the increasing likelihood that there would be little political progress in Iraq and high levels of U.S. troops there come election day 2008."

War of Words

Some excerpts from the transcript of yesterday afternoon's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.): "I hope in the recesses of your heart that you know that strategy will continue the casualties, stress on our forces, stress on military families, stress on all Americans. Are you able to say at this time if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"

Petraeus: "Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq."

Warner: "Does that make America safer?"

Petraeus: "Sir, I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind. What I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the Multi-National Force-Iraq."

  • Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.): "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, it's getting to be like the change of seasons around here. Every few months, someone from the administration comes up and says, Just give us six or 12 more months, and things will look better.

    "The argument for the surge back in January was that military success would create space for political progress. That didn't work. Now the new buzzword is bottom-up.

    "You've talked about military success, but by the president's own reckoning, that success is meaningless without political reconciliation. Are six months or 12 months really going to make a difference on the big questions? Why should we keep giving you more and more time? Why? Why should we keep giving you more and more time?"

  • Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine): "If, a year from now, the Iraqi government has still failed to achieve significant political progress, what do we do? How long should we continue to commit American troops, American lives, American treasure, if the Iraqis fail to make political gains that everyone agrees is necessary to quell the sectarian violence? . . .

    Petraeus: "Senator, if we arrived at that point a year from now, that is something I would have to think very, very, very hard about. And that is my honest answer to you right now. That would be a very, very difficult recommendation to make at that point in time."

  • Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.): "You have been made the de facto spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

  • And from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)'s remarks at the morning session: "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And it's not. . . .

    "And this is not a criticism of either of you gentlemen, this is a criticism of this president and the administration which has set a mission for the military and for our diplomatic forces that is extraordinarily difficult now to achieve."

    Opinion Watch

    The Boston Globe editorial board writes that the "most acute summary" of the situation in Iraq at yesterday's hearing "came in a sequence of stark questions from Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. 'Where is this going?' Hagel asked Petraeus. 'Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what?' . . .

    "Hagel's question also pointed to the central flaw in the case Petraeus and Crocker were trying to make for patience: There is no clear link between Petraeus's tactical gains in clearing and holding a few Baghdad neighborhoods and any achievable, worthwhile strategic aims. . . .

    "The answer to Hagel's question is simple and grave. No worthwhile strategic goal can be achieved by continuing indefinitely to expend American blood and treasure in Iraq."

    The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Iraq is too important to lose, so we've got to keep on trying, no matter the cost, and though it's not clear when we will succeed.

    "This is the essence of the two-day report to Congress by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. . . .

    "The president will ask the nation to pay for the next 11 months in Iraq with billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. We think this sacrifice will be in vain, because only Iraqis can heal their national wounds."

    In the liberal blogosphere, the general thinking is that even if Bush gets good press for his announcement tomorrow night, it won't have a longterm effect.

    Duncan Black, also known as Atrios, writes: "People hate George Bush and hate this war. 6 weeks of media-led propaganda about how Petraeus was somehow going to change the debate hasn't moved public opinion at all. A prime time speech by a hated president with negative charisma and speaking skills isn't going to move public opinion."

    And John Aravosis writes on Americablog: "Bush may think he's buying time with these cute little conditional maybe-kinda-sorta troop cut promises, but nothing will change the fact that come the election in one year if we have any more than a few token troops in Iraq - and that means, maybe, ten thousand, max - voters are going to feel betrayed once again, lied to once again."

    Hiding Behind the General?

    Fred Kaplan writes in Slate that Petraeus's initial refusal to say whether the war was making Americans safer was hugely significant: "Two things stand out in Petraeus' response. First, he refused to indulge in President Bush's spurious rhetoric about how we're fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here. Second, he was, in effect, telling the senators: I am doing what soldiers do; I am trying my best to accomplish the mission; the mission is related to the policy, and the policy isn't mine. . . .

    "In one sense, today's hearings dealt President George W. Bush a harsh blow. Many of the senators' questions dealt with strategic issues, which Petraeus and Crocker -- through no fault of their own--could not really answer to anyone's full satisfaction. Even the vast majority of Republican senators at least cocked their eyebrows."

    Peter Beinart writes for the Council on Foreign Relations: "This is what happens when presidential leadership breaks down. David Petraeus is, by all accounts, a gifted soldier and an honorable man. But it is not his job to decide how much longer America should keep troops in Iraq. That decision, at its core, is political. It requires balancing the occupation's costs -- financial, institutional, diplomatic, and human -- against the potential costs of withdrawal. And thus, it requires views on the broad scope of American foreign policy. For instance, how much damage is America suffering in Asia because our top policymakers are so preoccupied with the Middle East? What would a withdrawal mean for America's relationships with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey? George W. Bush is paid to have opinions on those topics; David Petraeus is not. But since most Americans no longer trust President Bush on the subject of Iraq, he and his advisors have made it seem as if the president is following Petraeus's lead when constitutionally, it's the other way around."

    The Link That (Still) Isn't There

    Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The television commercial is grim and gripping: A soldier who lost both legs in an explosion near Fallujah explains why he thinks U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq.

    "'They attacked us,' he says as the screen turns to an image of the second hijacked airplane heading toward the smoking World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. 'And they will again. They won't stop in Iraq.'

    "Every investigation has shown that Iraq did not, in fact, have anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. But the ad, part of a new $15 million media blitz launched by an advocacy group allied with the White House, may be the most overt attempt during the current debate in Congress over the war to link the attacks with Iraq. . . .

    "Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, one of the group's founders, said the ad is not misleading by saying 'they attacked us' in the context of Iraq and showing the image of the Sept. 11 attack. 'Iraqis did not attack us on 9/11,' he agreed. But it does not matter, Fleischer added, because some of the same sorts of people who did are now fighting U.S. forces in Iraq."

    As Baker explains, "the White House still views al-Qaeda as its most successful justification for remaining in Iraq. After some critics accused Bush of overstating the connection between bin Laden's group and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the White House quickly arranged a presidential speech to defend and reinforce its assertions.

    "The reason to emphasize al-Qaeda, aides said, is simple. 'People know what that means,' said one senior official who spoke about internal strategy on the condition of anonymity. 'The average person doesn't understand why the Sunnis and Shia don't like each other. They don't know where the Kurds live. . . . And al-Qaeda is something they know. They're the enemy of the United States.'"

    By contrast, Democratic Senator Russell Feingold said yesterday that "it is simply tragic that six years to the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, our attention is so focused on what has been the greatest mistake in the fight against Al Qaida, and that's the Iraq war. . . .

    "The question we must answer is not whether we are winning or losing in Iraq, but whether Iraq is helping or hurting our efforts to defeat Al Qaida. That is the lesson of 9/11, and it's a lesson we must remember today, and I would say every single day."

    And Gary Kamiya writes in Salon: "Six years ago, Islamist terrorists attacked the United States, killing almost 3,000 people. President Bush used the attacks to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he has been using 9/11 ever since to scare Americans into supporting his 'war on terror.' He has incessantly linked the words 'al-Qaida' and 'Iraq,' a Pavlovian device to make us whimper with fear at the mere idea of withdrawing. . . .

    "Sept. 11 is a totemic date for the Bush administration. It justifies everything, explains everything, ends all argument. It is the crime that must be eternally punished, the wound that can never heal, the moral high ground that can never be taken."

    Justice Watch

    Philip Shenon and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "The White House is closing in on a nominee to replace Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, with former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson considered one of the leading candidates, administration and Congressional officials said Tuesday.

    "Reports of Mr. Olson's candidacy suggested that President Bush, in choosing the third attorney general of his presidency, might defy calls from Democrats and choose another Republican who is considered a staunch partisan to lead the Justice Department. Mr. Gonzales is departing after being repeatedly accused of allowing political loyalties to blind him to independently enforcing the law."

    In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy outlines the qualities he wants to see in the next attorney general. Among them: "A willingness to apply the law without fear or favor, without regard to partisan politics, and to stand up to the White House when necessary. The attorney general is the people's lawyer, not the president's."

    Alongside Leahy's piece, Richard A. Viguerie writes: "Rather than appease the Democrats -- or, just as bad, pick another Gonzales, someone selected for his personal ties to the Bush organization -- the president should use this appointment to restore his relevancy and revive the Republican coalition by deliberately picking an ideological fight with the Democrats. . . .

    "If they don't confirm the first nominee, send up another, making sure that he or she is 'worse' (from the Democrats' perspective) than the first one. If they block that one, do it again."

    Presidential Power Watch

    Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage blogs on TPM Cafe about how his new book about the Bush-Cheney administration's efforts to expand presidential power ("Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy") generally dovetails with Jack Goldsmith's new memoir of his tenure as head of the Office of Legal Counsel ("The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration").

    But, Savage writes: "In one important respect, our two accounts diverge. Goldsmith argues that the Cheney-Addington effort to expand presidential power has backfired, and the ironic result is that future presidents will be weaker. I argue that their push has been the administration's most successfully implemented policy, and that future presidents will be stronger as a result.. . . .

    "Goldsmith argues, the administration created a backlash that will leave a lingering mistrust of executive power in Congress and the Supreme Court. . . .

    "In the short-term, I'm not as sure as Goldsmith about the backlash. Witness the Democratic Congress' recent willingness to pass the White House's preferred version of the Protect America Act, expanding its power to wiretap without warrants and providing for little in the way of oversight, even after-the-fact.

    "But whatever the short-term difficulties, in the long term it seems likely that Dick Cheney and his aide David Addington have succeeded. History has shown that backlashes against executive power are short-lived, and that precedents established during periods of expansion survive to resurface once political winds have shifted again."

    Press blogger Jay Rosen lauds Savage for supplying "the missing master narrative for the Bush years: 'The agenda of concentrating more unchecked power in the White House.'"

    Rosen writes that "if we can't get the presidential candidates of both parties on record about steps to reverse this agenda, if we can't make a proper issue out of it in 2008, we're probably screwed.

    "Unbuilding the Bush presidency: does your candidate support that? Which parts? And if you don't know, isn't that a case of: Iowa, we have a problem?"


    Michael Abramowitz wrote in Monday's Washington Post about the "quizzical reaction around town among the president's Jewish friends and supporters after the White House sent out Bush's official Rosh Hashanah greetings on Sept. 5 -- one week before the start of the Jewish New Year. "

    Rosh Hashanah starts tonight.

    "Onetime Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, who, like [Chief of Staff Josh] Bolten, is Jewish, sent Bolten an e-mail asking why the White House had seemingly flubbed the date," Abramowitz wrote.

    "Bush spokesman Tony Fratto said the White House typically sends out such greetings four to seven days before the actual holiday, so that churches and synagogues have an opportunity to print them in their newsletters."

    But that's demonstrably not true. Allow me to demonstrate:

    In 2001, the White House greeting was issued on September 17, with Rosh Hashanah starting that very night.

    In 2002 and 2003, the greeting also came just hours before the sunset celebrations began.

    In 2004, the greeting came one day early; in 2005, three days early; in 2006, one day early.

    So Fratto's excuse is a lot of schmegegge.

    No Problem

    In a washingtonpost.com Live Online yesterday, Bush biographer Robert Draper was asked how he remained fond of Bush. His response: "For Texas Monthly and GQ, I've profiled pedophiles, stalkers, serial rapists, prison gang members and corrupt politicians. I didn't find it difficult to suspend judgment about President Bush and take him on his own terms. And I have to say, he's a likable fellow, whatever else one thinks of his deeds."

    Cartoon Watch

    Dwane Powell on bin Laden and Bush; Signe Wilkinson on Bush's predictions; John Sherffius has a petition for you.

    Jon Stewart Watch

    Jon Stewart on Petraeus's testimony:

    "The general had a cautionary word for those are impatient for the surge," Stewart says.

    Then he shows Petraeus saying: "Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous."

    Back to Stewart: "Don't criticize the surge, because no one can know what's going to happen -- unless you're talking about not sticking with the surge."

    Back to Petraeus: "A rapid withdrawal would result in disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, rapid deterioration of local security initiatives. . . . Al Qaeda in Iraq regaining lost ground. . . . A marked increase in violence. . . . Further ethno-sectarian displacement. . . . and exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran."

    Back to Stewart, who pauses, looking confused: "That's what happened when we went in to Iraq."


    Two of the seven active duty soldiers who wrote a recent New York Times op-ed expressing opposition to the war were killed in Baghdad on Monday, reports Joe Strupp of Editor and Publisher.

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