Fear of Looking Weak

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 1, 2008; 11:51 AM

How would it look to the world if we left Iraq now?

President Bush and Vice President Cheney both expressed concern yesterday that it would make the United States look weak.

Here's Cheney talking to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce: "To abandon our cause in Iraq -- especially now that we've seized the initiative -- would dissipate much of the effort that's gone into fighting the war on terror. Those who have stood with America in this war, and counted on our friendship, would be newly vulnerable to an emboldened enemy. And we, the people of the United States, would bear the consequences as well because a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would validate al Qaeda's belief that we lack the stomach for the fight, that we lack the patience to complete a mission even when it's clearly in our national security interest."

Here's Bush, speaking to a conservative group in Las Vegas: "Success in Iraq will send an interesting message to its neighbor, Iran. Failure in Iraq would cause people to doubt the sincerity of the United States when it comes to keeping commitments. Failure in Iraq would embolden the extremists. Failure in Iraq would say to thugs and killers, the United States is a paper tiger. Failure in Iraq would embolden other extremists in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq would embolden Iran. It's in our strategic interests that we succeed. And we will succeed. We have done this kind of work together."

It's a central tenet of neoconservative theory that weakness invites attack. But fear of looking weak alone is not a good basis for decision-making -- especially when your misbegotten attempts to show strength actually make you look weaker than you would have otherwise.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything that could have damaged America's international reputation more than the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, combined with a bungled, divisive and horribly violent occupation with no end in sight.

As the administration's own national intelligence estimate last year made clear, the war in Iraq has actually strengthened our real enemies -- while stretching our armed forces to the limit.

In fact, there is a compelling argument to be made that leaving Iraq would restore our image and achieve more of our national security interests than staying.

Finally, America -- the world's sole hyperpower -- is hardly in danger of being perceived as a paper tiger. It's an astonishing suggestion to be bandied about by the president of the United States.

And yet only one reporter in the press corps took note Bush's use of the inflammatory term: Olivier Knox of Agence France Presse.

Speaking of Fear of Looking Weak

Scott MacKay writes in the Providence Journal: "Former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee's new political memoir is remarkable for its candor, its delicious window into life in America's most exclusive club, and its condemnation of President Bush and the combination of right-wing Republicans and Democratic enablers who plunged the nation into an ill-fated war without end in Iraq. . . .

"The book excoriates Mr. Bush and his GOP allies who repeatedly fanned such wedge issues as changing the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, abortion and flag-burning. But he saves some of his harshest words for Democrats who paved the way for Mr. Bush to use the U.S. military to invade Iraq. . . .

"'The top Democrats were at their weakest when trying to show how tough they were,' writes Chafee. 'They were afraid that Republicans would label them soft in the post-September 11 world, and when they acted in political self-interest, they helped the president send thousands of Americans and uncounted innocent Iraqis to their doom.

"'Instead of talking tough or meekly raising one's hand to support the tough talk, it is far more muscular, I think, to find out what is really happening in the world and have a debate about what we really need to accomplish,' writes Chafee. 'That is the hard work of governing, but it was swept aside once the fear, the war rhetoric and the political conniving took over.'

"Chafee writes of his surprise at 'how quickly key Democrats crumbled.' Democratic senators, Chafee writes, 'went down to the meetings at the White House and the Pentagon and came back to the chamber ready to salute. With wrinkled brows they gravely intoned that Saddam Hussein must be stopped. Stopped from what? They had no conviction or evidence of their own. They were just parroting the administration's nonsense. They knew it could go terribly wrong; they also knew it could go terribly right. Which did they fear more?'"

Richard A. Clarke writes in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed that Bush's fear-mongering continued in his State of the Union address: "Besides overstating successes in Afghanistan, painting a rosy future for Iraq, and touting unfinished domestic objectives, he again used his favorite tactic - fear - as a tool to scare Congress and the American people. On one issue in particular - FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) - the president misconstrued the truth and manipulated the facts. . . .

"For this president, fear is an easier political tactic than compromise. With FISA, he is attempting to rattle Congress into hastily expanding his own executive powers at the expense of civil liberties and constitutional protections. . . .

"While he has failed in spreading democracy, stemming global terrorism, and leaving the country better off than when he took power, he did achieve one thing: successfully perpetuating fear for political gain.

"Sadly, it may be one of the only achievements of his presidency."

Iraq Watch

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Joshua Partlow writes for The Washington Post: "Within the span of 10 minutes, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in crowded Baghdad markets on Friday, killing dozens of people in the deadliest day in the Iraqi capital in months, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials."

Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The U.S. death toll in Iraq increased in January, ending a four-month drop in casualties, and most of the deaths occurred outside Baghdad or the once-restive Anbar province, according to military statistics.

But Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post from Las Vegas: "President Bush asserted Thursday that he would not be pressured into making further troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five combat brigades already scheduled to come home by the middle of the summer."

Human Rights Watch

Nora Boustany writes in The Washington Post: "A leading human rights group said Thursday that the United States has lost its moral authority by supporting autocratic governments in strategic countries despite their continuing violations of civil liberties.

"Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, has used its past 17 annual surveys to highlight the most egregious humanitarian crises in the world and to note improvements when warranted. The latest report marks a break with that tradition by focusing on democracy and the ways in which U.S. influence have affected other countries' pursuit of it.

"The group delivers a harsh critique of the Bush administration, suggesting that by accommodating autocratic allies in the fight against terrorism, it has failed to meet its declared goal of promoting democratic values."

The report also concludes "that the Bush administration's ability to speak out effectively for human rights has suffered since disclosures about its clandestine network of CIA-run jails, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the use of secret military tribunals, harsh interrogation methods and 'rendition,' or the covert transfer of terrorism suspects. The report describes those practices as 'a troubling parallel to abusive governments around the world.'"

The World Waits

William J. Kole writes for the Associated Press: "America's extraordinary presidential campaign has captivated politicians and ordinary people around the globe. . . .

"After eight years of President Bush, the latest mantra in U.S. politics -- 'transformational change' -- is resonating across the rest of a planet desperate for a fresh start.

"'They feel there's a real chance to work with the U.S.,' said Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'America's image in the world is really on the line.'

"Non-Americans, she said, are looking for someone who can 'restore faith in the United States.'"

Signing Statements Watch

The signing statements story (see Wednesday's column, Bush Thumbs Nose at Congress) is finally gaining some traction.

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Just two hours before President Bush began his State of the Union address earlier this week, his administration quietly issued a statement indicating that four provisions in a defense bill might not be 'consistent with the constitutional authority of the president.'

"The president's action revived a controversy over his use of so-called signing statements to express his reservations about a bill even as he signs it into law."

As Reynolds explains: "Bush is not the first president to issue signing statements, but controversy over them erupted two years ago when Democrats and some Republicans argued that he appeared to be using them to lay a paper trail to expand the powers of the presidency. . . .

"Legal scholars generally credit -- or blame, depending on their viewpoint -- the office of Vice President Dick Cheney for seeking to expand the constitutional powers of the president during Bush's two terms in office. . . .

"[Georgetown University constitutional law professor Martin Lederman] said he had thought that Cheney's interest in expanding the powers of the president had been reined in by the White House's new legal staff.

"Bush's action Monday suggests otherwise, he said: 'This assertion of commander-in-chief authority to disregard statutes is the most important and increasingly prominent separation-of-powers issue in our nation -- and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.' . . .

"Neil Kinkopf, a law professor at Georgia State University, said Bush issued just 11 signing statements in 2007, compared to 100 or more each of the previous six years.

"One reason, he suggested, is that Bush has a new crop of legal advisors -- Washington veteran Fred F. Fielding as White House counsel and Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general.

"But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested it was because Democrats passed fewer significant bills than their Republican predecessors.

"'Remember, 2007 was the do-nothing Congress,' she quipped."

The Post's Abramowitz makes passing mention of the signing statement in his story from Vegas today: "Democrats have criticized White House plans to forge a long-term security accord with the Iraq government, saying Bush wants to tie the hands of the next president -- a characterization the White House sharply disputes.

"Democratic lawmakers have also complained about the 'signing statement' Bush issued Monday in signing the defense authorization bill, in which the president suggested he might ignore language that bars funding for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq as well as U.S. control over Iraqi oil resources.

"White House officials said their primary concern was that the bill's language regarding oil revenue could theoretically inhibit them from protecting Iraqi oil fields should that become necessary. 'The bottom line is this: We do not need and we will not seek permanent bases in Iraq,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. 'This is our policy and has always been our policy.'"

As I noted in August 2006, Bush's signing statements seem to spark more outrage outside the Beltway than in.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes: "If Congress shared half the public concern about the moral and security dangers inherent in pursuing a permanent military adventure in Iraq, there would already be a firestorm over President Bush's latest anti-constitutional signing statement. . . .

"The Constitution is clear about spending authority. Any curbing of congressional spending power threatens the founding ideas of checks and balances. . . .

"On Iraq, the public generally understands that permanent bases or U.S. control of the oil will threaten any progress toward stability. Congress should consider how to rein in the president so he cannot pursue permanent bases or oil to the detriment of the Constitution, U.S. security and the nation's international standing."

The Denver Post editorial board writes: "The next president of this country is going to have a hard enough time dealing with the bungled Iraq war.

"It would be unfair, to say the least, if President Bush were to complicate matters further by making long-term promises and negotiating the installation of a permanent U.S. military base in Iraq in the waning months of his tenure.

"Yet that seems to be the purpose of a signing statement the president issued this week after putting his signature to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008."

The Barre (Vt.) Times Argus editorial board writes: "Bush believes he's never wrong, that history will vindicate him. So to him it matters not what Constitutional experts say or what Congress says or how a majority of the American people feel. What matters to him, it appears, is that his successors -- and the people -- be saddled with the grim consequences of his leadership."

The Waltham (Mass.) Daily News Tribune editorial board writes: "The Constitution's checks and balances guard against a host of circumstances, including a weak and overreaching president. But, as columnist and constitutional scholar Nat Hentoff points out, the Constitution is not self-enforcing. Congress must find a way to reassert its authority, and those who hope to succeed Bush owe voters a clearer explanation of their position on signing statements and what they would do to reverse the damage Bush has done to the Constitution."

On his Comedy Central show last night, Jon Stewart got outraged about the signing statements: "It strikes me that if there is any power explicitly granted to Congress, it would be allocating the budget -- to decide whether taxpayer money could go to building permanent bases in Iraq."

But "senior political correspondent" Rob Riggle tried to calm him down: "Oh Jon, I hear you. It's crazy. But at this point, really, I'd just let it go. . . . Look, this guy hasn't listened to anyone for seven years. He's got a year to go. You're just going to make him madder."

Job Numbers

Howard Schneider writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. economy shed jobs in January, a rare monthly dip in the number of people working and an additional sign of weakness amid debate about a possible recession. . . .

"It is the first such contraction in four years and ends a run of job creation that President Bush touted only Monday in his State of the Union speech."

The Sacramento Bee editorial board notes that (even before today's drop) Bush's job creation numbers were unimpressive. The editorial and accompanying chart show that "the economy has produced jobs -- but not nearly enough jobs to keep up with growth in the working-age population."

Budget Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's $3 trillion budget for fiscal 2009, scheduled for release Monday, will seek a virtual freeze on domestic spending programs while cutting billions of dollars from federal health programs. . . .

"Some programs would be favored. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday that Bush will seek a 19 percent increase in funding for border security and border enforcement. . . .

"But such increases would have to come out of other programs to hold discretionary spending by Congress just below $1 trillion for 2009. Senate aides said a freeze on domestic discretionary programs would mean deep cuts to grants for education and law enforcement to states and localities. First-responder grants would be cut nearly in half, the aides said."

Bush's proposal ostensibly projects a balanced budget by 2012, but the absurdity of that projection is betrayed not only by unrealistic expectations for this year, but by the fact that, as Weisman notes, "beyond 2009, the budget will not include any funds for the wars or to fix the AMT, which was enacted in 1969 to ensure that the rich pay income taxes but now would cover tens of millions of middle-class families."

Michael M. Phillips and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) with this sobering reminder: "George W. Bush took office in 2001 with budget surpluses projected to stretch years into the future. But it's almost certain that when he returns to Texas next year, the president will leave behind a trail of deficits and debt that will sharply constrain his successor."

Stimulus Watch

Senate Democrats are still trying to alter the stimulus package negotiated by House Democrats and the White House, clearly believing their House colleagues gave in too easily to White House demands that it consist almost entirely of tax rebates.

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times that top items on the Senate Democratic agenda "include increased benefits for the elderly and veterans; subsidies for low-income families struggling with home heating bills and other energy costs; mortgage counseling for distressed homeowners; extended unemployment benefits; increased food stamps; and tax credits for alternative energy sources. . . .

"'I can give you their own speech on unemployment compensation, on food stamps,' the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said of his numerous conversations with the administration. 'They don't believe in them, O.K.? So there was no way to agree when they don't believe that food stamps are important, when they believe that if you extend unemployment benefits it only keeps people from looking for a job, which is a little hard to comprehend. So the answer is, we tried to work something out with them and we weren't able to do that.'"

The alternate package would also "provide payments of $500 each to some 20 million low-income Americans living only on Social Security benefits, and to about 250,000 veterans dependent on government benefits. None of them would receive checks under the House plan, which is aimed mainly at wage earners."

FISA Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed a 15-day extension for a temporary surveillance law yesterday, signaling a brief reprieve in an ongoing battle with Democrats in Congress over whether to immunize telephone companies from lawsuits alleging invasions of privacy for helping the government conduct warrantless wiretaps.

"The delay marked a partial concession to Senate Democrats who wanted to continue deliberations, but Bush said during a campaign swing through Las Vegas yesterday that he will not agree to further postponements."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann unleashes an argument that "President Bush has put protecting the telecom giants from the laws ahead of protecting you from the terrorists."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald sees another Democratic cave-in in the works next week.

Federal Government Incompetence Watch

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. military is not prepared to meet catastrophic threats at home, and it is suffering from an 'appalling gap' in forces able to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear strikes on U.S. soil, according to a congressional commission report released yesterday.

"The situation is rooted in severe readiness problems in National Guard and reserve forces, which would otherwise be well-suited to respond to domestic crises but lack sufficient personnel and training, as well as $48 billion in equipment because of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves."

"'We think there is an appalling gap in readiness for homeland defense, because it will be the Guard and reserve that have to respond for these things,' [Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, the commission chairman,] said in an interview."

More From the Kondracke Interview

I wrote in yesterday's column about Bush's cocky interview on Tuesday with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke, and Kondracke was kind enough to let me Web-publish the full transcript.

In the interview, Bush talks about what he considers his bipartisan successes: "But we have found common ground," he tells Kondracke. "You know, I know the story line has divided Washington, but if you think about it, we have found common ground. We found common ground in fighting the terrorists. We have debates over certain aspects of it, but most members understand that we've got to have good front lines here in America to protect America from attack.

"We'll get a FISA bill, which is a sign of -- you know, there's enough common ground to recognize these professionals need the tools. We got tax cuts."

He spoke repeatedly about Abraham Lincoln, including this astonishing comparison: "[A]pproval ratings on war are not necessarily an accurate reflection about people's admiration for America. When Abraham Lincoln was President, if they had approval ratings, I bet the approval rating would be extremely low because of the war. On the other hand, when people think about what he stood for, the principles on which he stood, it was inspiring."

And he refused to address what many Middle East observers say is a distinctly possible scenario in the coming months, regarding a possible replay -- in Iran -- of Israel's 1981 bombing attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility.

Kondracke: "I understand. If the Israelis come to you and say, Mr. President, we've got to deal with this threat, what are you going to say?"

Bush: "I say we are dealing with the threat. And I will remind them what I said -- I was asked that very question in Jerusalem. My answer was, we're working on this issue every day. We recognize there's a threat. Part of the issue was whether or not I even recognize there's a threat is a result of recent -- an intelligence issue. And I did confirm how seriously we take this issue. And they confirmed to me how seriously they take it."

Kondracke: "Exactly. And in order for them to attack, do another Osirak, if they wanted to do it, they presumably would have to get our permission."

Bush: "To the extent that we're talking -- I'm not going to comment on any of the wild speculation that's going on about how this issue should be dealt with."

SOTU Redux

Bush also told Kondracke about his warm reception when he delivered his State of the Union Address to members of Congress on Monday.

"I found the atmosphere in the hall to be very amenable," Bush said. "I didn't feel any tension in there, like we had in the past, which is an interesting feeling. And I ascribe some of that to the notion that there are common -- there's just a common call now, there's a need to work together to deal with the economic uncertainties. And frankly, I hadn't found that before.

"Secondly, Iraq has improved to the point, it felt like to me, that there was a lot of tension out of the air."

Joseph L. Galloway, writing in his McClatchy News Service column, has an alternate explanation: "Perhaps it was the welcome thought that it was George W. Bush's last State of the Union message that turned the legislative giants on Capitol Hill absolutely giddy this week and provoked a spectacle of fawning, applauding, cheering and jumping to their feet by lickspittles of both political parties.

"They assembled worthies treated President Bush like a conquering hero, cheering his recycled fear-mongering, his stern demands that Congress give him everything he wants or else, even the very smirks on his face."

Karl Rove Watch

Inside Cable News reports that Karl Rove is joining Fox News Channel as a contributor.

Cartoon Watch

Kal on the State of the Union.

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