Not to Be Trusted

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 15, 2008; 1:20 PM

The Bush administration's latest story line about Iraq -- that Iran is now the primary problem there -- should be greeted with profound skepticism.

Not only is it the latest in a series of rationales for U.S. involvement in Iraq, most of which have turned out to be based on flawed intelligence, misrepresentations or outright dishonesty.

But there are at least two illegitimate reasons why the White House would want the American public to see Iran as a threat right now.

One is that President Bush needs a definable, demonizable enemy for public-relations purposes, to take attention away from the reality that U.S. troops remain perilously and indefinitely astride several civil wars and resistance movements.

And the other is that the White House -- or at least the Cheney faction within it -- is still eager to do something definitive to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions before the end of Bush's term. With a preemptive strike off the table, advocates of a military attack could be looking for a provocation they could turn into a casus belli.

And so, nothing these people say at this point should be taken at face value -- even when it's supported by military officials on the ground. Many sincere people with plausible-sounding assessments have turned out to be selling a bill of goods when it comes to Iraq.

When they assert that the Iranian government is intentionally arming anti-American fighters, they should be asked to back up the claim. As mideast expert Juan Cole recently told Gary Kamiya of Salon: "There's no proof for that, and whenever the U.S. Army is pressed for evidence, they always back off." Simply proving the existence of Iranian weapons in enemy hands is not enough, incidentally -- considering how widely available they are on the black market.

Similarly, anecdotal evidence shouldn't be accepted as a rationale for policy. Fool me once, as Bush says.

Laurent Lozano writes for AFP: "The US rationale for war in Iraq has morphed from ousting strongman Saddam Hussein, to countering Al-Qaeda militants to its latest incarnation -- facing down what officials in President George W. Bush's administration call the Iranian 'threat'.

"'Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: Al-Qaeda and Iran," Bush said last week, renewing accusations that the Islamic republic is backing Iraqi militias hostile to US forces and covertly seeking nuclear weapons. . . .

"With Saddam dead and Al-Qaeda weakened -- according to Bush -- Iranian-financed extremists, which top US commander in Iraq David Petraeus has called 'special groups,' have emerged as a key reason for maintaining US troop levels in Iraq.

"However, exactly what steps the United States may take to counter this 'threat' remain unclear, and depend largely on Bush's decisions in his remaining nine months in the White House."

The New Narrative

Karen DeYoung wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday: "Last week's violence in Basra and Baghdad has convinced the Bush administration that actions by Iran, and not al-Qaeda, are the primary threat inside Iraq, and has sparked a broad reassessment of policy in the region, according to senior U.S. officials.

"Evidence of an increase in Iranian weapons, training and direction for the Shiite militias that battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces in those two cities has fixed new U.S. attention on what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday called Tehran's 'malign' influence, the officials said.

"The intensified focus on Iran coincides with diminished emphasis on al-Qaeda in Iraq as the leading justification for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq. . . .

"U.S. military officials said that much of the plentiful, high quality weaponry the militia used in Basra and in rocket attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located, was recently manufactured in Iran. At the same time, the militia's improved targeting and tactics indicated stepped-up Iranian training. . . .

"Despite earlier indications that Iranian backing for Iraqi armed groups and the flow of Iranian arms have waned, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that 'this action in Basra was very convincing that indeed they haven't.' Basra 'gave us much more insight into their involvement in many activities.'"

Where's the proof? Who knows? Also left unaddressed is the widespread assumption that the Iranians actually supported both sides in the recent Shiite-on-Shiite conflict. And then there's the fact that it was Iran that brought both sides together to end hostilities.

Rather than being a cause for celebration by American officials, Iran's brokering of the cease-fire "added to U.S. consternation," DeYoung reports. "Administration officials worried that Iran appeared in control of events in Iraq, while the United States seemed weak and uninformed."

Yochi J. Dreazen reported in Saturday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Senior U.S. defense officials accused Iran of stepping up its shipments of weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq, underscoring a marked hardening of American rhetoric about Iran in recent days.

"Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iranian support for the Shiite-extremist groups had grown, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates said for the first time that he believed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knew about the shipments.

"'I find it inconceivable that he does not know,' Mr. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that Iran was playing a 'malign' role in Iraq."

Hope Yen reported for the Associated Press on Sunday: "With al-Qaida's influence diminishing in Iraq, U.S. troops have much work to do in stemming Iranian support for militias, President Bush's national security adviser said Sunday.

"'Iran is very active in the southern part of Iraq. They are training Iraqis in Iran who come into Iraq and attack our forces, Iraqi forces, Iraqi civilians. There are movements of equipment. There's movements of funds,' Stephen Hadley said. 'So we have illegal militia in the southern part of the country that really are acting as criminal elements that are pressing the people down there.'"

In last week's congressional testimony, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker focused on " special groups" -- Iranian-backed militias -- as the greatest long-term threat to Iraqi democracy.

As David Ignatius wrote in his Washington Post opinion column: "The language that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker used yesterday to describe the Iranian role in Iraq was extreme -- and telling. They spoke of Tehran's 'nefarious activities,' its 'malign influence' and how it posed 'the greatest long-term threat to the viability' of the Baghdad government.

"Iran was the heart of the matter during Senate testimony on the war. With al-Qaeda on the run in Iraq, the Iranian threat has become the rationale for the mission, and also the explanation for our shortcomings. The Iranians are the reason we're bogged down in Iraq, and also the reason we can't pull out our troops. The mullahs in Tehran loom over the Iraq battlefield like a giant Catch-22."

A rare voice of skepticism about these claims came on Sunday from Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "[I]n this hearing on Iraq, Iran kept being mentioned. The fact that the Iranians are intruding. A proxy war is being fought. In other words, it was almost as if we were justifying our continued presence in Iraq with the fact that we may be in a conflict with Iran, and furthermore, the al Qaeda, wherever they may be. It's a very confusing picture to say the least."

Nothing to Worry About

Even as Bush and his top aides step up their anti-Iran rhetoric, when reporters ask whether military action may be in the offing, the president responds with mockery.

Here's Bush speaking with ABC News's Martha Raddatz on Friday:

Raddatz: "[A]bout Iran. And are you concerned that they are infiltrating more into Iraq, clearly the Basra operation?"

Bush: "Yes, I think -- you know, I don't know about more infiltration, but infiltration, yes, I'm concerned about it and have been for quite a while. And my message yesterday was Iran has a choice. And if they choose to be a good neighbor, then, you know, we'll help the Iraqis solidify that relationship.

"However, if they -- you know, if they choose to infiltrate and send equipment, then we'll deal with them. And we'll get -- we're learning more about their habits and learning more about their routes. And make no mistake about it: We'll protect our troops and civilians and Iraqis."

Raddatz: "How do you deal with Iran? What is our strategy towards Iran?"

Bush: "On this issue, on the Iraqi issue or on the nuclear weapons issue?"

Raddatz: "Both, both."

Bush: "OK, on nuclear weapons issues, to convince the world that the capacity of the Iranians to enrich is a forerunner to what could be a nuclear weapons program. And, therefore, it's in all our interests to pressure the Iranians to get them to quit enriching or learning how to enrich.

"In Iraq, it's very simple, and (inaudible) the message to the Iranians is: We will bring you to justice if you continue to try to infiltrate, send your agents or send surrogates to bring harm to our troops and/or the Iraqi citizens."

Raddatz: "And what does that mean, 'bring to justice'?"

Bush: "It means capture or kill, is what that means."

Raddatz: "You know all the rumors that abound about your administration --"

Bush: "Getting ready to attack (laughs)"

Raddatz: " -- possibly ready to attack Iran. You're laughing. Talk about those rumors."

Bush: "I'm not suggesting you're spreading the rumors yourself, but, yes, look, there's a lot of rumors about what's in my mind. I have always said all options need to be on the table, but my first effort is to solve this issue diplomatically."

Raddatz: "So your intention is not to attack Iran --"

Bush: "Right."

Raddatz: " -- by the end of the administration?"

Bush: "Yes, I'm chuckling, because, you know, from my perch, my perspective, these rumors happen all the time -- are um -- I wouldn't say they're amusing. It's part of the job, I guess."

The Cheney Factor

As I wrote in my Friday column, Cheney on the Warpath Again?, the vice president last week seemed to step up his rhetorical assault on Iranian leaders, going on right-wing talk radio to cast them as apocalyptic zealots who yearn for a nuclear conflagration.

At the same time, the neocons who pushed so hard for war in Iraq are restless.

The View From Tehran

Who's provoking whom?

Borzou Daragahi writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A series of conflicts with insurgent groups along Iran's borders may be impelling Tehran to back its own allies in Iraq in what it regards as a proxy war with the U.S., according to security experts and officials in the U.S., Iran and Iraq.

"Dozens of Iranian officials, members of the security forces and insurgents belonging to Kurdish, Arab Iranian and Baluch groups have died in the fighting in recent years. It now appears to be heating up once again after an unusually cold and snowy winter. . . .

"None of the groups appear to pose a serious threat to Iran, but Tehran regards them as Washington's allies in an effort to pressure it to scale back its nuclear program and withhold support for militant groups fighting Israel. . . .

"Analysts say the anti-Iranian groups are tempting assets for the U.S. They say it would be a surprise if the groups were not receiving U.S. funding."

Poll Watch

Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "At 39 months in the doghouse, George W. Bush has surpassed Harry Truman's record as the postwar president to linger longest without majority public approval.

"Bush hasn't received majority approval for his work in office in ABC News/Washington Post polls since Jan. 16, 2005 -- three years and three months ago. The previous record was Truman's during his last 38 months in office. . . .

"In the latest ABC/Post poll, just 33 percent of Americans approve of Bush's work, a point from his career-low 32 percent earlier this year. Sixty-four percent disapprove, with those who 'strongly' disapprove outnumbering strong approvers by a 3-1 margin."

Jon Cohen writes for The Post: "Public disapproval of the way President Bush is handling the nation's economy has hit a new high in Washington Post-ABC News polling, and his overall favorability rating remains near an all-time low.

"Seven in 10 Americans now give negative ratings to the president's stewardship of the sinking U.S. economy. Only 28 percent approve of his performance in this area, a double-digit decline from a year ago, and even core Republicans have begun to abandon the president on the issue."

I generally avoid mentioning unscientific polls here, but this one, conducted by Robert S. McElvaine on the History News Network site, is getting a lot of attention elsewhere. The 109 self-selected respondents are professional historians.

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "History News Network found that 98 percent rated the Bush presidency a failure and only 2 percent saw it as a success.

"Even more deflating, more than 61 percent of the historians said the current presidency is the worst in American history. In 2004, only 11.6 percent of the historians questioned rated Bush's presidency in last place."

The New York Times editorial board blogs: "We take most unscientific surveys with a large grain of salt, and this certainly falls into that category. On the other hand, we like the idea of historians starting to think about the George W. Bush presidency, and how it fits into larger patterns of American history.

"We'd be interested in knowing more about the 1.8 percent of historians who regard this presidency as a success."

Food Wars

Andrew Martin writes in the New York Times that "a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people. . . .

"In some countries, the higher prices are leading to riots, political instability and growing worries about feeding the poorest people. Food riots contributed to the dismissal of Haiti's prime minister last week, and leaders in some other countries are nervously trying to calm anxious consumers."

Investment consultant Pete Davis blogs: "It's not often that a U.S. domestic policy change causes worldwide food riots, but that's what our ethanol subsidies have done according to a World Bank analysis. On December 19, 2007, President Bush signed H.R.6 into law with a five-fold increase in the mandated use of ethanol in gasoline. That stood on top of another large ethanol mandate in another H.R.6, enacted on August 8, 2005. Corn prices have jumped from $2/bushel in 2005 to $4/bushel last year, and they've just crested $6/bushel. In 2005, 6% of U.S. corn production went to ethanol; now it's up to 23%. Only now are we beginning to realize that we're not achieving any overall energy efficiency with our heavy ethanol subsidies and mandates, we're just helping U.S. corn growers and starving the world's poor."

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush on Monday ordered the release of $200 million in emergency aid to help nations where surging food prices have deepened hunger woes and sparked violent protests.

"The move comes one day after the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, called on the international community to act urgently in helping needy people and 'put our money where our mouth is.' Haiti, Egypt and the Philippines are among the countries facing civil unrest because of food prices and shortages."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "Corn should be used for food, not motor fuel, and yet the United States is committed to a policy that encourages farmers to turn an increasing amount of their crop into ethanol. This may save the nation a bit of the cost of imported oil, but it increases global-warming gases and contributes to higher food prices."

Global Warming Watch

Stephen Power and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The Bush administration -- under pressure from Congress, some big businesses and overseas allies -- is weighing proposals to curb U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. . . .

"The White House said President Bush might make a statement in the next few days. Ms. Perino was responding to a report in the Washington Times that Mr. Bush was poised to call on Congress this week to pass legislation to combat global warming."

But is this a sincere move to address a significant threat -- or a feint to fend off any substantial action? The devil, of course, is in the details. And here's one of the details Power and McKinnon report:

"One option administration officials have discussed, according to individuals close to the administration, is a statement endorsing caps on carbon-dioxide emissions on the condition that such caps wouldn't take effect until technology capable of capturing and storing carbon-dioxide emissions at large power plants is proven commercially viable. . . .

"Many experts say the technology is at least a decade from being commercially viable on a large scale."

Bush and the Pope

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that Bush "has come to identify closely with Catholics and the powerful men who have led the church during his tenure in the White House. . . .

"Building strong ties with Catholics in general -- and Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in particular -- has been a major element of the president's agenda since the 2000 political campaign. Former aides say his 'compassionate conservative' agenda and emphasis on a 'culture of life' have been shaped by the teachings of the church, while his political advisers have seen an opportunity to wrest Catholic voters from the Democratic Party.

"But recently these efforts have met with the same mixed success Bush has experienced with other groups. In 2004, Republican identification ticked up among Catholics, and for the first time in exit polls dating to 1972, more Catholics by a narrow margin -- 38 to 36 percent -- called themselves Republicans than Democrats. But in the 2006 midterm elections, 41 percent identified as Democrats, 34 percent as Republicans. And that year, 55 percent of Catholics supported Democratic House candidates.

"Bush's approval rating among Catholics stands at 33 percent in Washington Post-ABC News polling, matching his rating among the general public."

I have to wonder if, while Bush and the pope talk about their shared values, the subject of human dignity and torture will come up.

Here's Benedict in a Sept. 6, 2007 address, stating: "I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances."

Blogger P O'Neill calls attention to an exchange in Bush's "sycophantic" interview with Raymond Arroyo of the Eternal Word Television Network last week:

Arroyo: "You said, famously, when you looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes you saw his soul."

Bush: "Yes."

Arroyo: "When you look into Benedict XVI's eyes what do you see?"

Bush: "God."

Future Prosecution Watch

Will Bunch blogs for the Philadelphia Daily News: "Tonight I had an opportunity to ask Barack Obama a question that is on the minds of many Americans, yet rarely rises to the surface in the great ruckus of the 2008 presidential race -- and that is whether an Obama administration would seek to prosecute officials of a former Bush administration on the revelations that they greenlighted torture, or for other potential crimes that took place in the White House.

"Obama said that as president he would indeed ask his new Attorney General and his deputies to 'immediately review the information that's already there' and determine if an inquiry is warranted -- but he also tread carefully on the issue, in line with his reputation for seeking to bridge the partisan divide. He worried that such a probe could be spun as 'a partisan witch hunt.' However, he said that equation changes if there was willful criminality, because 'nobody is above the law.'"

Trade Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that a trade agreement with Colombia is 'dead' unless House Democrats agree to hold a vote on the pact, effectively admitting defeat on a White House priority.

"After meeting with his Cabinet, Bush lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for putting off a vote on the free-trade pact, which the administration views as important for U.S. national security and the economy. 'This free-trade agreement is in our national interests,' Bush said. 'Yet that bill is dead unless the speaker schedules a definite vote.'

"Pelosi fired back by accusing Bush of being 'out of touch' with the 'concerns of America's working families.' She said the House will take no action on the Colombia pact until it considers other legislation aimed at aiding the U.S. economy."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Lauren R. Dorgan writes in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor: "Calling President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney 'domestic enemies,' Pentagon Papers icon Daniel Ellsberg headlined a rally in Concord last night calling for their impeachment.

"The rally, which drew more than 200 people to the Capitol Center for the Arts, was aimed at the New Hampshire House, which is considering a resolution that would call on Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. The resolution may come to a vote on the House floor tomorrow. . . .

"The event drew a variety of entertainment.

"An Ethan Allen impersonator from Vermont kicked off the show by proclaiming Cheney and Bush 'vain, arrogant, corrupt, unelected and impeachable.'

"Next up came a music video featuring images of Cheney in a devil suit and Bush as a vampire looming over the neck of the Statue of Liberty and a song with the line: 'You lied, you lied, you lied - and because of you thousands of people have died.'

"Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame played acoustic guitar and led the crowd in a sing-along of 'Blowin' in the Wind' (before accompanying Rebecca McCall in a rendition of her song 'Impeach the Bastards' - 'Put 'em both on trial/Let's tell the U.S. Congress to play grown-ups for a while')."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: "The Pope will be here tomorrow. . . . You know who's picking him up at the airport? President Bush. This is true. It's the first time the President has ever picked up a visiting leader at the airport. See, that's when you know your presidency is winding down, when you're picking up people at the airport."

Jon Stewart shows clips from Bush's speech last week outlining what will happen if we leave Iraq -- you know, how it would "diminish our nation's standing in the world, and lead to massive humanitarian casualties," how "Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region," and how "[t]he Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaeda in Pakistan would grow in confidence and boldness."

Suddenly, it hits him: "I just noticed something, wait a minute. Everything that he says will happen if we leave, already happened by going there. . . .

"I invented a new game! Take a prediction by the president of what might happen if we fail in Iraq, and replace it with a warning of what might happen if we invade. . . .

"Wow! When you do that, it's like he can see into the present."

(And with all due respect to Stewart, Gen. William Odom has been saying the same thing for more than two and a half years.)

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the torture president; Steve Sack on Cheney and history; Joel Pett on the hypocrisy medals.

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