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The Public Ain't Buying

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 12:48 PM

Last week's Petraeus-Bush razzle-dazzle seems to have worked its magic inside the Beltway. The American public is not so easily confused.

The general's good-news report from Iraq and the president's token troop-withdrawal plan dampened the growing sense of urgency in Washington to get out of Iraq.

Yet the facts on the ground in Iraq haven't fundamentally changed. And neither -- according to a slew of new polls -- have the views of the American people. They still want to bring the troops home. Soon. All of them.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "A plurality of Americans say Gen. David Petraeus' proposal to begin withdrawing some U.S. forces from Iraq is on the right track, but his long-awaited testimony to Congress last week failed to change fundamental attitudes toward the war.

"A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday found essentially no shift in views on whether U.S. forces are likely to win the war -- two-thirds predict they won't. . . .

"In the days before Petraeus' appearances and President Bush's speech to the nation last week, 60% supported setting a timetable for withdrawal and sticking to it 'regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time.' Now 59% do.

"'In terms of public opinion, it seems like Petraeus didn't really change anyone's mind,' says Christian Grose, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies the impact of the war on voting behavior. 'He may have bought the president some time in Washington ... but not in the public's eyes.'"

Here are more results from Gallup.

A CBS News poll I mentioned yesterday found that the public still overwhelmingly opposes keeping any troops in Iraq longer than two years. And the percentage who feel the surge had "made things better" actually declined, to 31 percent from 35 percent a week earlier.

As Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The American public long ago reached a verdict regarding Iraq, and, for the Bush administration, it isn't a reassuring one."

A new Pew Research Center poll finds: "Last week's congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, followed by President Bush's address to the nation, has not changed bottom-line public attitudes toward the war in Iraq. . . .

"Opinion about whether to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq has remained stable for most of this year. Currently, 54% support a troop withdrawal, which is virtually unchanged from measures dating back to February."

And Pew once again asked an open-ended question, asking respondents for the word that best describes the situation in Iraq these days.

The most frequently volunteered expressions were mess, bad, terrible, sad, horrible, disaster, hopeless, chaos, confused, disappointing, bring troops home, disgusting, tragic and unfortunate.

John Whitesides writes for Reuters that a new Reuters/Zogby poll finds "[o]nly 29 percent of Americans gave Bush a positive grade for his job performance, below his worst Zogby poll mark of 30 percent in March."

Bubble Watch

That small but hardy minority of Americans who still believe in Bush's war was well represented yesterday at a special White House event. I'm not sure who was there to lift whose spirits.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that Bush was treated to "loud cheers and chants of 'USA! USA!'

"The president briefly addressed about 850 members of military support organizations who were invited to the White House for coffee, juice and pastries. With almost everyone wearing red shirts, people from several organizations gathered at picnic tables set up on the South Lawn in the morning sun. . . .

"The president's remarks were greeted with full-throated support from the crowd, including occasional shouts of 'We love you.'"

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon

Greg Jaffe writes for the Wall Street Journal: "Defense Secretary Robert Gates sketched out a long-term vision for securing Iraq that includes a continuing American military force that is a fraction the size of the one there today, no permanent U.S. bases and a significant Navy and Air Force presence in the Persian Gulf region. . . .

"What was missing from his vision for Iraq and the broader region was talk about transforming the region and spreading democracy. Instead, the Pentagon chief seemed much more focused on transforming the debate in Washington so the next president inherits a long-term strategy for Iraq and the region that both Republicans and Democrats can support. . . .

"Mr. Gates said he had made limited progress building any sort of consensus around a bipartisan approach for Iraq that would carry over into the next administration. 'I am working hard to reach out to people across the spectrum up on the Hill -- to keep the channels of communications open and build trust,' Mr. Gates said. 'I can't say we have made a lot of headway on that score yet.'"

Speaking of the Hill

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "With a difficult war debate looming and presidential vetoes for a host of popular legislation threatened, moderate Republicans in Congress are facing a tough choice: Stand by President Bush or run for their political lives.

"Votes are due soon on Iraq, an expansion of a children's health insurance program and an array of spending bills. GOP leaders hope to use them to regain credibility with their base voters as a party for strong defense and fiscal discipline. But moderates, many of them facing the possibility of difficult reelection bids next year, are dreading the expected showdowns."

And yet, at least as far as Iraq is concerned, very few Republicans are breaking with Bush so far.

As Murray herself writes in a separate story: "Unable to garner enough Republican support, Senate Democratic leaders said yesterday that they are abandoning a bipartisan effort to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by next spring.

"Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that Democrats had been willing to make the troop withdrawal a 'goal' in order to attract GOP support, but it never materialized. Instead, Reid will again push for a firm deadline, this time June 2008, along with a stronger effort at cutting off war funding."

Iran Watch

Philip Sherwell and Tim Shipman write in the Telegraph: "Senior American intelligence and defence officials believe that President George W Bush and his inner circle are taking steps to place America on the path to war with Iran, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

"Pentagon planners have developed a list of up to 2,000 bombing targets in Iran, amid growing fears among serving officers that diplomatic efforts to slow Iran's nuclear weapons programme are doomed to fail.

"Pentagon and CIA officers say they believe that the White House has begun a carefully calibrated programme of escalation that could lead to a military showdown with Iran. . . .

"In a chilling scenario of how war might come, a senior intelligence officer warned that public denunciation of Iranian meddling in Iraq - arming and training militants - would lead to cross border raids on Iranian training camps and bomb factories. . . .

"Under the theory -- which is gaining credence in Washington security circles -- US action would provoke a major Iranian response, perhaps in the form of moves to cut off Gulf oil supplies, providing a trigger for air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities and even its armed forces."

As if that weren't enough: "The vice president is said to advocate the use of bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear sites," Sherwell and Shipman write.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is said to be putting her foot down: "The Sunday Telegraph has been told that Mr Bush has privately promised her that he would consult 'meaningfully' with Congressional leaders of both parties before any military action against Iran on the understanding that Miss Rice would resign if this did not happen."

Steven Clemons writes in Salon: "In the national debate about America's next moves in the Middle East, an irrepressible and perhaps irresponsible certainty that America will attack Iran now dominates commentary across the political spectrum."

Writes Clemons: "Bush does not plan to escalate toward a direct military conflict with Iran, at least not now -- and probably not later. The costs are too high, and there are still many options to be tried before the worst of all options is put back on the table. . . . [A] classic buildup to war with Iran, one in which the decision to bomb has already been made, is not something we should be worried about today."

But just because Bush isn't planning an attack doesn't mean it's out of the question.

"[T]here are several not-unrelated scenarios under which it might happen, if the neocon wing of the party, led by Vice President Cheney, succeeds in reasserting itself, or if there is some kind of 'accidental,' perhaps contrived, confrontation."

An "engineered provocation" would effectively be an "end run" around "the president's diplomatic, intelligence and military decision-making apparatus," Clemons writes. "It would most likely be triggered by one or both of the two people who would see their political fortunes rise through a new conflict -- Cheney and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"That kind of war is much more probable and very much worth worrying about."

Via TomDispatch, Peter Galbraith writes in the New York Review of Books about how ironic it is for Bush to warn of an Iranian threat should the United States withdraw from Iraq.

Here's what Bush told the American Legion on Aug. 29: "For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country."

But Bush, writes Galbraith, has himself "facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia."

Galbraith also writes that the war in Iraq has undercut the effectiveness of diplomacy with Iran, but that a military approach wouldn't work either: "Sustained air strikes probably could halt Iran's nuclear program. . . . But the risks from air strikes are great. Many of the potential targets are in populated places, endangering civilians both from errant bombs and the possible dispersal of radioactive material. The rest of the world would condemn the attacks and there would likely be a virulent anti-U.S. reaction in the Islamic world. In retaliation, Iran could wreak havoc on the world economy (and its own) by withholding oil from the global market and by military action to close the Persian Gulf shipping lanes.

"The main risk to the U.S. comes in Iraq. Faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq's government may not choose its liberator. And even if the Iraqi government did not openly cooperate with the Iranians, pro-Iranian elements in the U.S.-armed military and police almost certainly would facilitate attacks on U.S. troops by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia or by Iranian forces infiltrated across Iraq's porous border."

And here's another reason not to trust the neocons: "Before the Iraq war began, its neoconservative architects argued that conferring power on Iraq's Shiites would serve to undermine Iran because Iraq's Shiites, controlling the faith's two holiest cities, would, in the words of then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, be 'an independent source of authority for the Shia religion emerging in a country that is democratic and pro-Western.' Further, they argued, Iran could never dominate Iraq, because the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs and the Iranian Shiites Persian. It was a theory that, unfortunately, had no connection to reality."

Bush's Deficit Whopper

Defending himself from an attack from former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan yesterday, Bush uncorked a real whopper.

Bush has in the past found all sorts of artful ways to suggest that his tax cuts have been good for the economy and for government revenues -- without going so far as actually asserting that they paid for themselves or that they reduced the federal budget deficit.

But here he is, in a video clip from an otherwise embargoed interview with Brett Baier of Fox News: "Cutting taxes made a significant difference, not only in dealing with the recession and the attack in our country, but it made a significant difference in dealing with the deficit because a growing economy yielded more tax revenues, which allowed us to shrink the deficit."

The idea that his tax cuts helped shrink the deficit, however, is bunk.

Yes, the economy has grown and tax receipts have risen. But there is near unanimity among economists that the Bush tax cuts played a small role in that process and came at a huge net cost to the Treasury.

Tax cuts cause deficits, they don't reduce them.

You may recall that Bush inherited a surplus, then quickly turned it into a deficit. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: "Congressional Budget Office data show that the tax cuts have been the single largest contributor to the reemergence of substantial budget deficits in recent years. Legislation enacted since 2001 has added about $2.3 trillion to deficits between 2001 and 2006, with half of this deterioration in the budget due to the tax cuts."

And as Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post in October 2006, even the Bush administration's own economists don't claim the tax cuts paid for themselves -- never mind led to increased revenue.

"Robert Carroll, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax analysis, said neither the president nor anyone else in the administration is claiming that tax cuts alone produced the unexpected surge in revenue. 'As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves,' Carroll said."

Greenspan responded to Bush's comments on Fox News, saying: "My problem with the president is that he did not use the veto sufficiently." He added: "I think we've lost our way. I think Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we've had in a while."

The Washington Post has a partial transcript of Bush's comment and Greenspan's response.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this morning, Cheney also fires back at Greenspan's assertion that the Bush/Cheney economic and budget policies have been fiscally irresponsible.

"[H]is assessment is off the mark," Cheney writes. "The combined effects of recession and national emergency could have been devastating for America's economy. Yet President Bush's tax cuts -- following through on a promise he had made to the voters -- resulted in a shallower recession, a faster recovery, and a platform for growth that remains sturdy to this day."

Wiretapping Watch

Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The fight over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program began anew Tuesday as the nation's top spy urged Congress to make permanent the law that gives intelligence agencies more latitude to monitor overseas phone calls and e-mails."

Legislation passed in a mad rush before the August recess (with Democrats cowering at the prospect of being blamed if there was a terrorist attack while they were on vacation) temporarily gutted the nation's wiretapping laws. (See my Aug. 7 column.)

Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell argued on Tuesday that the expanded surveillance powers granted under the temporary measure should be made permanent.

He also made some news. James Risen writes in the New York Times: "The National Security Agency has not conducted wiretapping without warrants on the telephones of any Americans since at least February, the nation's top intelligence officer told Congress on Tuesday.

"Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told the House Judiciary Committee that since he took office that month, the government has conducted electronic surveillance only after seeking court-approved warrants.

"In January, the Bush administration announced that it had agreed to allow a secret intelligence court to oversee the N.S.A.'s eavesdropping program, and that it would comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 30-year-old law that regulates the government's domestic spying activities. The administration's decision appeared to end the basis for the warrantless wiretapping program secretly begun by President Bush just after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Mr. McConnell's testimony Tuesday was the first time he has publicly said that the warrantless wiretapping of Americans has actually been ended."

Glenn Greenwald picks up on one line of the Times story, in which Risen writes that "Democratic Congressional aides say they believe that a deal is likely" to provide retroactive legal immunity to the telecommunications companies that secretly cooperated with the N.S.A.

Writes Greenwald: "Granting retroactive immunity to telecom companies for past lawbreaking is so plainly unjustifiable, even dangerous, that it ought to require no real debate. That Congressional Democrats are even considering submitting to this demand, let alone that they are likely to do so, dispels any doubt about what they really are."

No Threat

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday publicly renewed his call for long-sought White House documents but did not threaten to delay President George W. Bush's attorney general nominee to force cooperation.

"Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said information about the administration's domestic spying program and firing of federal prosecutors would help prepare for confirmation hearings for Michael Mukasey, whom Bush nominated on Monday to replace Alberto Gonzales as chief U.S. law enforcement officer."

Erin P. Billings and John Stanton write in Roll Call (subscription required): "Senate Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that Democrats were unlikely to hold up hearings over the document issue. 'I don't think it's a deal-breaker for us to start [hearings], but if it's going to proceed quickly . . . we're going to need cooperation,' Durbin said."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Mr. Mukasey, a retired federal judge, promised in a meeting with him on Tuesday that the rules would bar virtually all political appointees, including United States attorneys, from discussing specific cases with lawmakers.

"The rules would be intended to prevent the contacts that were perceived to be involved last year in the dismissals of several United States attorneys. The resulting furor focused intense scrutiny on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

"'Mukasey said he wanted to depoliticize the department,' Mr. Schumer said in an interview. 'He said he would promulgate a rule that if any political official called about a specific case in the Justice Department, they would have to refer it to one or two high-up officials in Washington. Anybody who would not follow the rule would be fired.'"

D.C. Voting Rights Watch

Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "Republican lawmakers yesterday blocked the Senate from taking up the D.C. vote bill, a potentially fatal setback for the District's most promising effort in years to get a full member of Congress."

Just before the vote, the White House issued a statement reiterating that Bush's "senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill" if it came to his desk.

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "A few Republicans showed enough gumption to vote for principle and against party interest. Most Republicans, led by their leaders and egged on by President Bush -- who talks about democracy from Burma to Zimbabwe but not for his own neighbors -- did the reverse."

Amigos Watch

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Vicente Fox once portrayed themselves as diplomatic allies and close friends, but the former Mexican president takes some jabs at Bush in a new autobiography, calling him 'the cockiest guy I have ever met in my life' and a 'windshield cowboy' afraid to ride a powerful horse."

Maher's View

Comedian Bill Maher talking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday: "What can you do with a situation where there's one man who stubbornly has the power and will not relinquish it?

"And he's such a liar, you know?

"I think that -- if he would just be straight with the American people instead of saying things like the people who are attacking us in Iraq are the same people who attacked us on 9/11 -- what a blatant lie. Or every day, every month since January, we've killed over 1, 500 terrorists and other extremists.

"Who is a terrorist? Who are extremists? Who are the enemy? What do these terms mean? Would they even be the enemy if we weren't in their country?"

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Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Cheney's latest idea; Ann Telnaes on paper tigers; Stuart Carlson on Greenspan's critique.

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