Bush's Mysterious Iraq Policy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 21, 2008; 1:20 PM

Editor's Note

Dan is taking Tuesday off. White House Watch will return Wednesday.


Welcome to the latest Bush Doctrine: Leave 'em guessing.

On Friday, the White House announced that President Bush and Iraqi officials had agreed to a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals" regarding the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

While this was widely interpreted as a dramatic shift in policy by a president who had previously refused to commit to a timetable in Iraq, White House officials insist it is no such thing. And it is, in fact, hard to know what the statement means: It is a masterpiece of obfuscation.

There are at least three credible options. One is that the statement represents a huge reversal but is shrouded in euphemisms. Another is that nothing has really changed and the impenetrable language is a deceptive sop to Iraqis desperate for a sense of closure. A third possibility is that the White House issued a confusing statement because it is, well, confused.

Here's the key passage from the announcement: "In the area of security cooperation, the President and [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. The President and Prime Minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal."

From the Friday afternoon gaggle with White House spokesman Scott Stanzel:

Q. "On the statement about Maliki, the conversation with Maliki and agreement to have a time -- some sort of a timetable, is this not giving into -- well, basically doing what the Democrats have been asking for?"

Stanzel: "The -- no. And as the statement says, we have reached a point in Iraq where we can have these discussions about continuing to transition more control of the security situation to the Iraqi forces. . . . [T]hese are aspirational goals, not arbitrary time lines based on political expediency. . . . "

Q. "Can you define for us a little bit what the aspirational goal might be or what it might look like in an agreement? I mean, is it a date? Is it a tentative time frame? I mean, what does it mean to have a horizon? . . . "

Stanzel: "[I]n terms of how exactly that looks, I think it's best left to the two parties and the State Department and Ambassador Crocker to discuss those things at a time that they see appropriate."

AFP reports this morning: "The White House said Monday that a planned US-Iraq long-term strategic agreement will not include a specific date for a withdrawal of US combat troops.

"'What it will not do is have any sort date tied to combat troops, like how many American troops would be in Iraq at X date. That would not be included,' spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

"But the pact is expected to include an 'aspirational date' for Iraqis to take over security for all of the war-torn country's provinces, she said amid a confused back and forth between Baghdad and Washington on the issue."

The Coverage

Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz write in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush and Iraq's prime minister have agreed to set a 'time horizon' for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq as part of a long-term security accord they are trying to negotiate by the end of the month, White House officials said yesterday.

"The decision, reached during a videoconference Thursday between Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, marks the culmination of a gradual but significant shift for the president, who has adamantly fought -- and even ridiculed -- efforts by congressional Democrats to impose what he described as artificial timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces. . . .

"Aides to Bush portrayed the announcement yesterday as consistent with the president's long-standing position that troop levels could be reduced in Iraq only as security conditions improved and as Iraqi forces showed greater capacity. However, some aides said privately that the statement was necessary for the Iraqi government, which wants to show the Iraqi public that U.S. forces are on their way out while limiting any risk from reduced troop levels."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, who has long derided timetables for troop withdrawals as dangerous, agreed to at least a notional one as part of the administration's efforts to negotiate the terms for an American military presence in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

"The agreement. . . . reflected a significant shift in the war in Iraq. More than five years after the conflict began with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the American military presence now depends significantly, if not completely, on Iraqi acquiescence. . . .

"Under pressure from political parties wanting a diminishing American role, Mr. Maliki began demanding something in the agreement that would make it clear that American troops were on the way out. Iraq's statement on Friday, reflecting those internal sensitivities, referred more specifically than the American version to 'a time frame for the complete transfer of the security responsibilities to the hands of the Iraqi security as preface to decrease the number of the American forces and withdraw them later from Iraq.'"

Julian E. Barnes and Paul Richter write in the Los Angeles Times about what they called "a marked softening of [Bush's] long-standing opposition to deadlines for reducing the American presence.

"Administration officials portrayed the shift . . . as an evolution in policy rather than a fundamental change. . . .

"But military officials acknowledged that by setting targets for troop reductions, the new agreement was a step toward a timeline.

"'The bottom line is I think there has been a little bit of a shift, or at least a shuffle,' a senior Defense official said."

The Timeline the Iraqis Want

Not long after the announcement, however, Der Spiegel, published an interview with Maliki in which he said what kind of timetable he wants: The kind Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is talking about.

The White House was none too pleased.

Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny write in today's New York Times: "Diplomats from the United States Embassy in Baghdad spoke to Mr. Maliki's advisers on Saturday, said an American official. . . . After that, the government's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, issued a statement casting doubt on the magazine's rendering of the interview.

"The statement, which was distributed to media organizations by the American military early on Sunday, said Mr. Maliki's words had been 'misunderstood and mistranslated,' but it failed to cite specifics. . . .

"But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki's office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki's interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama's position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.

"The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki's comments by The Times: 'Obama's remarks that -- if he takes office -- in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.'

"He continued: 'Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.'"

Furthermore, Brian Murphy writes for the Associated Press this morning: "Iraq's government welcomed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Monday with word that it apparently shares his hope that U.S. combat forces could leave by 2010. . . .

"Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, . . . said the government did not endorse a fixed date, but hoped American combat units could be out of Iraq sometime in 2010. That timeframe falls within the 16-month withdrawal plan proposed by Obama, who arrived in Iraq earlier in the day as part of a congressional fact-finding team."


Steven Lee Myers blogs for the New York Times: "The White House is quick to distribute its point of view in e-mail messages with headings like 'News You Can Use,' 'In Case You Missed It,' and 'Setting the Record Straight.' So it was a surprise on Saturday morning when the White House distributed an article by Reuters that offered an endorsement of Senator Barack Obama's Iraq policy by the leader of Iraq.

"' Iraq PM backs Obama troop exit plan,' the headline read. . . .

"Turns out it was a mistake by the White House clipping service, which had intended to distribute it internally but instead sent it to thousands signed up to receive the administration's press releases, transcripts, statements and other documents, drawing attention to an interview that might otherwise have received less."

Euphemism Watch

How long will it be before "time horizon" and "aspirational goal" no longer appear in quotes in news stories -- in other words, until they get treated as if they actually mean something? Here's a little background on these two phrases of calculated meaninglessness.

Karen DeYoung had previously reported in The Washington Post on July 13 that U.S. negotiators expected the agreement "to include a 'time horizon,' with specific goals for U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations."

Bush first mentioned "aspirational goals" in the context of Iraq at his press conference last week: "We're in the process of working on a strategic framework agreement with the Iraqi government that will talk about cooperation on a variety of fronts -- diplomacy, economics, justice. Part of that agreement is a security agreement, and I believe that -- you know, they want to have an aspirational goal as to how quickly the transition to what we have called overwatch takes place. Overwatch will mean that the U.S. will be in a training mission, logistical support as well as special ops."

Previously, that particular euphemism had been limited to discussion of Bush's climate-change feint, in which he proposed "aspirational goals" for emissions, rather than agreeing on an actual cap.

The phrase "time horizon" is most common among financial counselors, and refers to the length of time over which an investment is made or held before it is liquidated.

Dan Eggen writes in The Post: "In its most literal sense, of course, the horizon is the line where the sky meets the earth -- and thus can never be reached. That does not appear to be what the White House, or the Iraqis, have in mind."

Mike Littwin writes in his Rocky Mountain News opinion column: "A 'time horizon' is apparently not a 'timetable' for troop reductions. A 'timetable' would be what 'Obama' and other war critics have been calling for and a 'time horizon' is, well, 'not.'

"If you're confused, the 'time horizon,' we were told by a White House spokesman, is an 'aspirational' goal and not an 'artificial' timetable.

"I have no idea what that means, either. But I do know that when I told my editor we should no longer think in terms of artificial deadlines, but rather in time horizons, he told me exactly what I could aspire to."

Diplomacy Watch?

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "With his moves last week involving Iraq, Iran and North Korea, President Bush accelerated a shift toward centrist foreign policies, a change that has cheered Democrats, angered some Republicans and roiled the presidential campaign. . . .

"Former White House Middle East director Flynt Leverett, who has criticized the administration for being too hawkish, said the moves on Iraq, Iran and North Korea were signs of 'tactical desperation,' adding: 'It's a recognition that if they don't make these moves, they'll be left with nothing.'

"White House officials bristle at such criticisms, saying that partisans on both sides have misinterpreted tactical decisions as policy changes. Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, said Saturday that the moves were 'fruits of the diplomatic labor that we've been engaged in in the last couple of years.'

"'The actions that we've taken this week are all tactical moves brought about by the overarching strategy that the president has put in place,' he added."

AFP reports: "The White House has torn up its familiar playbook and is embracing diplomacy in addressing some of its thorniest foreign policy challenges -- among them stalemate in Iraq and Iran -- in the waning months of George W. Bush's presidency. . . .

"It was not clear however how deep the embrace of diplomacy is, or how long it will last.

"White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that little, in fact, has changed.

"'The president has always believed that we don't want American troops in Iraq one day longer than they're needed,' he said. . . .

"Meanwhile, Graham Allison, a security expert who teaches at Harvard University, suggested that the administration's recent readiness to talk could be a prelude to a return to a reliance on military solution to some of Washington's intractable foreign policy problems.

"'The hard-liners in the Bush administration, for example, will do their best to insist on unachievable objectives that will ensure failure of negotiation,' he said.

"'If talks collapse, they will be able to argue that the US went the extra mile and exhausted all reasonable alternatives' leaving the military option squarely on the table, he said."

Iran hawk Michael Rubin writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "Diplomacy is not wrong, but President Bush's reversal is diplomatic malpractice on a Carter-esque level that is breathing new life into a failing regime."

Pardon Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "Felons are asking President Bush for pardons and commutations at historic levels as he nears his final months in office, a time when many other presidents have granted a flurry of clemency requests."

Savage suggests it may be an uphill battle for those seeking clemency: "Mr. Bush has made little use of his clemency powers, granting just 157 pardons and six commutations. By comparison, over eight years in office President Ronald Reagan granted clemency 409 times and Mr. Clinton 459 times. More than half of Mr. Clinton's grants came in his final three months."

But my ears really pricked up when Savage raised this question: "Will Mr. Bush grant pre-emptive pardons to officials involved in controversial counterterrorism programs?

"Such a pardon would reduce the risk that a future administration might undertake a criminal investigation of operatives or policy makers involved in programs that administration lawyers have said were legal but that critics say violated laws regarding torture and surveillance.

"Some legal analysts said Mr. Bush might be reluctant to issue such pardons because they could be construed as an implicit admission of guilt. But several members of the conservative legal community in Washington said in interviews that they hoped Mr. Bush would issue such pardons -- whether or not anyone made a specific request for one. They said people who carried out the president's orders should not be exposed even to the risk of an investigation and expensive legal bills.

"'The president should pre-empt any long-term investigations,' said Victoria Toensing, who was a Justice Department counterterrorism official in the Reagan administration. 'If we don't protect these people who are proceeding in good faith, no one will ever take chances.'"

Bush Legacy Watch

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House wants the American public to think it's on the rebound, scoring important triumphs in Iraq and North Korea and on domestic spying while taking tough stands on oil drilling and relief for homeowners.

"The White House, the experts and the polls say, however, is wrong. President Bush hasn't begun a comeback.

"'All this is pretty much a lot of noise. He's going out with a whimper,' said Erwin Hargrove, presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University and the author of 'The Effective President.' . . .

"Analysts say that unless the president's approval rating jumps -- unlikely as long as the economy wobbles and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue -- his clout is likely to remain diminished.

"'It's not clear he's turned anything around, so the current view of him will probably endure for a while,' said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas."

Matthew Benjamin and Heidi Przybyla write for Bloomberg: "When George W. Bush became president in 2001, his main goals included restoring 'honor and dignity to the White House' after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, raising school-test scores and figuring out how to spend a record budget surplus.

"The next White House occupant will inherit the deepest housing recession in a generation, growing fears of bank failures, a sinking dollar, $4 gasoline and an economy bleeding jobs. He'll confront wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mounting tensions with Iran and the U.S.'s flagging international reputation.

"Historians say the economic and foreign policy crises in Bush's wake will present either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain with the biggest challenges to a new president since Herbert Hoover left office during the Great Depression.

"'What a burden the next president is going to confront,' says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and biographer of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. 'It'll be like Franklin Roosevelt coming in, in 1933.' . . .

"In 2000, the last time no incumbent was running, consumer confidence was at record levels and the economy had created 1.3 million jobs in the year's first six months. In August 2000, 89 percent of Americans said the economy was doing well, according to a Los Angeles Times poll."

Pete Davis writes for Niemanwatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) about how Bush broke the government: "Bush and his appointees have attacked the heart and soul of agency after agency and have soured relations with both parties in Congress, almost like Lou Gehrig's disease, an autoimmune response gone awry.

"It's one thing for a presidential appointee to order a policy change. But it's quite another to ignore the law. It's quite another thing to rid the government of the people needed to make it function. It's quite another thing to flout Congress's oversight, so public opinion only focuses on governmental failure and wrongdoing well after the fact."

Eric Lotke writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Some government regulatory agencies that we trust to protect us have shrunk to insignificance or serve private industry rather than consumers. . . .

"How many more people have to get sick before the government reclaims its mission to serve the people?"

The Bush Effect

Somini Sengupta writes in the New York Times: "A deepening friendship with the Bush administration has pushed the elected government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the brink of its own demise. Now, with a confidence vote in Parliament scheduled to begin this week, the government's scramble to stay in power and its rivals' efforts to oust it have set off an intense and often brazen round of political bargaining."

Contempt of Congress Watch

House Democrats last week announced that Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) "introduced the Special Criminal Contempt of Congress Act. The bill provides for a Special Division of the U.S. Court of Appeals to appoint an independent, 'special advocate' to investigate and prosecute alleged Contempt of Congress against current and former Executive Branch employees when the U.S. Attorney refuses to act. The bill is co-sponsored by Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, and Subcommittee Chairs Linda Sanchez and Jerrold Nadler. . . .

"'The law explicitly requires the Justice Department to present Contempt of Congress charges to the grand jury, but the Bush Administration claims Congress can not compel a U.S. attorney to prosecute contempt cases where the White House claims executive privilege,' said Rep. Miller. 'Other presidents have made bodacious claims about their powers, but always compromised in the end. No president, not even Nixon, has gone this far before.'"

The above-mentioned Linda Sanchez writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "[W]e saw the arrogance of former White House advisor Karl Rove when an empty chair sat for him in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee where he was required by subpoena to testify. Not only did he refuse to appear before the committee -- let alone testify -- but he defiantly left the country thereby blatantly ignoring his obligations under the congressional subpoena served on him. When he did return to the country, Rove found the time to gab with TV reporters on a summer press tour in Beverly Hills, but failed to stop by the Judiciary Committee in Washington....

"Mr. Rove needs to understand that he is not above the law and should obey a subpoena just like any other American is required to do.

"Mr. Rove should not be able to hide behind the president to avoid the American public. Americans are fed up with this administration flaunting the law. They expect Congress to hold people accountable and that is exactly what we intend to do. Letting Mr. Rove get away with this would set a dangerous precedent. I have recommended that we hold Mr. Rove in contempt of Congress. If we need to revive the inherent contempt procedure which gives Congress the authority to arrest those who defy Congressional subpoenas, then so be it."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "House Democrats were fuming recently when Karl Rove defied a congressional subpoena and refused to show up at a House Judiciary Committee hearing into whether he meddled in Justice Department prosecutions. Instead of grilling the former White House political chief under oath, the members found themselves talking to an empty chair. What they didn't know is where Rove was that day: on a jet flying to a speaking engagement at Yalta, the historic Black Sea resort in Ukraine. Rove, who generally charges a reported $40,000 per talk, appeared on a premier panel (along with Democratic strategist Bob Shrum) on the upcoming U.S. election at the fifth annual conference of the YES Foundation, a confab of world luminaries bankrolled by billionaire Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian steel magnate and son-in-law of the country's former autocratic president, Leonid Kuchma."

Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's appearance at Netroots Nation, the gathering of progressive bloggers. "Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, appeared on stage with Gina Cooper, the moderator and an organizer of the conference. The bloggers had submitted questions in advance and voted on them; the first was why Democratic leaders in the House were reluctant to take up impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Ms. Pelosi said the House was considering contempt resolutions against Karl Rove, the president's former top adviser.

"Ms. Cooper asked Ms. Pelosi whether Mr. Rove, if found in contempt of Congress, would be put 'in that little jail cell that's in the basement of the House.' The audience cheered. Ms. Pelosi replied that Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had told her, 'Leave it up to me.' "

Poll Watch

"George W. Bush's overall job approval has dropped to 21% as 76% of American say the national economy is getting worse according to the latest survey from the American Research Group.

"Among all Americans, 21% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 72% disapprove. When it comes to Bush's handling of the economy, 17% approve and 77% disapprove."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Human rights activists have sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to raise human rights issues with the Chinese government during the Olympics. Unfortunately, they also sent a letter to the Chinese government asking them to bring up human rights issues with President Bush. So, it's pretty much a wash. . . .

"The Dalai Lama says while he loves President Bush, he feels President Bush has a lack of understanding about reality. And in response, President Bush said today, 'Yeah, right, like there's such a thing as a talking lama."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich and Tom Toles on appeasement; Ron Rogers, Lee Judge, Joel Pett and Nick Anderson on Bush's energy policy; Scott Bateman on Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive