A Timetable By Any Other Name

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 22, 2008; 12:31 PM

In agreeing to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraqi cities by June, and from the rest of the country by 2011, President Bush has apparently consented to precisely the kind of timetable that, when Democrats called for one, he dismissed as "setting a date for failure." Bush can call it an "aspirational goal" until he turns blue, but a timetable is exactly what it is, thank you very much.

Bush has repeatedly warned that politics and public opinion should have no role in the decision about when to leave Iraq, but apparently he just meant American politics and public opinion. A clear majority of Americans has favored a withdrawal timetable for several years now, putting anti-war Democrats in control of Congress in 2006.

Bush ignored them. But in the end, he bowed to the will of the Iraqis' elected representatives. After five and a half years of occupation, it was their turn to put a gun to Bush's head: The timetable was the price they demanded for agreeing to let American troops remain in the country beyond the expiration of a United Nations mandate in December.

Bush's acquiescence pulls the rug out from under Republican presidential candidate John McCain, whose position on Iraq was largely identical to Bush's -- pre-backflip. In some ways, the new timetable is even shorter than the one proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

So how is this not exactly what Bush had previously decried as an invitation to disaster? The White House line will be that the timetable is still somewhat conditional -- and only possible because the situation on the ground has improved.

But Bush's real accomplishment here is that he has stalled long enough that none of the deadlines he has now agreed to will be on his watch. This will all be somebody else's problem.

It is hypothetically possible that an American pullout on this timetable will leave behind a peaceful, democratic and pro-Western Iraq. One can certainly hope. But it seems more likely that the sectarian fissures opened by the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation will once again explode into violence as soon as U.S. troops -- and U.S. payments -- stop creating an artificial sense of stability.

And then, of course, there's Bush's own histrionic prediction. "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," he said last May. "All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq. I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

So the next big question is this: How will Bush explain this turnaround when he finally emerges from his Crawford vacation? Will he try to downplay its significance? Or will he actually suggest that the job is nearly done in Iraq? That would be a bold move indeed, but not one with a lot of evidence to support it.

The Coverage

Stephen Farrell writes in the New York Times: "The United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011 if conditions in Iraq remain relatively stable, according to Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating a security accord governing American forces there.

"The withdrawal timetables, which Bush administration officials called 'aspirational goals' rather than fixed dates, are contained in the draft of an agreement that still must be approved by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders before it goes before Iraq's fractious Parliament. It has the support of the Bush administration, American and Iraqi officials said. . . .

"[T]he accord indicates that the Bush administration is prepared to commit the United States to ending most combat operations in Iraq in less than a year, a much shorter time frame than seemed possible, politically or militarily, even a few months ago. President Bush and many leading Republicans, including the party's presumptive nominee for president, Senator John McCain, had repeatedly dismissed timetables for pulling out of Iraq as an admission of defeat that would empower America's enemies.

"But Iraq's Shiite-dominated government demanded a withdrawal timetable as the price of legalizing the American military presence in the country after the expiration of the United Nations mandate at the end of this year. . . .

"Mr. McCain has vowed to stay in Iraq until the war is won but has suggested that he would have the troops out by 2013, two years later than the Bush administration has agreed to withdraw them if conditions in the accord are met.

"Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has argued that the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq 16 months after taking office, or by mid-2010, a faster pace for full withdrawal than envisioned in the draft accord. But the draft's interim goal of ending combat operations in Iraqi cities by next summer is faster than any commitment made by Mr. Obama."

Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan write in The Washington Post that the 2011 date is "further in the future than the Iraqis initially wanted. The deal would leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops inside Iraq in supporting roles, such as military trainers, for an unspecified time. According to the U.S. military, there are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, most of whom are playing a combat role.

"Negotiators agreed several weeks ago to reduce the presence of all U.S. forces in Iraqi cities, among the most dangerous places soldiers operate, by the end of next year. That process would entail consolidating U.S. troops now deployed in small neighborhood posts into larger bases outside city centers, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the talks.

"'They have both agreed to 2011,' Mohammed al-Haj Hamoud, Iraq's chief negotiator, said in a telephone interview."

And the only way that would change, apparently, is if the Iraqis want it to. "If the Iraqi government at that time decides it is necessary to keep the American forces longer, they can do so," Hamoud told The Post.

Charles Levinson writes in USA Today that Bush literally bought some time. "Iraq initially wanted all combat troops out by the end of 2009, but agreed to push the date to 2011 after the U.S. agreed to protect Iraqi funds in U.S. banks from being seized by creditors," Levinson writes, citing a Maliki aid.

And while the Iraqi parliament still has a chance to give the agreement a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, the U.S. Congress has no such option. Here's White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe at yesterday's press briefing: "[T]he agreement as it's working its way through the consultative process right now with the Iraqis is not one that would require congressional -- specific congressional approval because this is the type of agreement, in many cases, that we have with many countries around the world. So it's not a treaty, so it would not require Senate ratification or anything like that."

Charles Babbington writes for the Associated Press that Bush's action threatens to put McCain "still farther out on a limb. . . .

"Campaigning Thursday in Virginia, Obama said, 'They are working on a plan that looks, lo and behold, like the plan that I've been advocating. I will encourage the administration to move forward with it.'

"McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, 'We're monitoring closely and will have something to say when an agreement is finalized.'"

Good Signs and Bad

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Several factors have helped bring a withdrawal deal closer. Tribal leaders from the Sunni Muslim sect turned against the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq; the Mahdi Army called a cease-fire; and the U.S. began a new counterinsurgency strategy, deploying units to small outposts in Iraqi towns and neighborhoods.

"But above all, the Iraqi army has needed to reverse a track record of high-profile failures. In earlier years, Iraqi forces often fled and left heavy fighting to the U.S. Now the Iraqis are mounting large-scale operations in restive areas like Diyala Province, a longtime stronghold of Sunni insurgents, and holding large swaths of territory -- 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces -- largely on their own."

And yet Richard A. Oppel Jr. writes in the New York Times, following up on a Leila Fadel report for McClatchy Newspapers yesterday: "The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, the groups of former insurgents who joined the American payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation.

"In restive Diyala Province, Unites States and Iraqi military officials say there were orders to arrest hundreds of members of what is known as the Awakening movement as part of large security operations by the Iraqi military. At least five senior members have been arrested there in recent weeks, leaders of the groups say. . . .

"The government's rising hostility toward the Awakening Councils amounts to a bet that its military, feeling increasingly strong, can provide security in former guerrilla strongholds without the support of these former Sunni fighters who once waged devastating attacks on United States and Iraqi targets. It also is occurring as Awakening members are eager to translate their influence and organization on the ground into political power.

"But it is causing a rift with the American military, which contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year. United States commanders say that the practice, however unconventional, of paying the guerrillas has saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers."

Joe Klein blogs for Time: "Without true political reconciliation, the success of the Surge is, by definition, temporary and ephemeral. So now there are three possible scenarios:

"--the Maliki government comes to its senses and makes a major effort to reconcile with the Sunnis.

"--there is renewed ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shi'ites.

"--the Sunnis return to the insurgency (if not to the arms of the jihadis).

"Options two and three are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the smart betting in Iraq has always been on the side of pessimism."

Rhetoric Watch

The Associated Press tracks changes in the Bush administration's rhetoric over the past 16 months on a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Here, for instance, is Bush on April 27, 2007: "And if the Congress wants to test my will as to whether or not I'll accept the timetable for withdrawal, I won't accept one. I just don't think it's in the interest of our troops. I think it -- I'm just envisioning what it would be like to be a young soldier in the middle of Iraq and realizing that politicians have all of a sudden made military determinations. And in my judgment, that would put a kid in harm's way, more so than he or she already is."

Here's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Baghdad yesterday: "Well, we have always said that the roles, missions and size of the American forces here, the coalition forces, was based on the conditions on the ground and what is needed. We have agreed that some goals, some aspirational timetables for how that might unfold are well worth having in -- in such an agreement. ... And I have to say, if I could just make the point, the reason we are where we are going, talking about this kind of agreement, is that the surge worked, Iraqi forces have demonstrated that they are strong and getting stronger."

Russia Watch

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times about the sudden emergence of a Russia crisis: "Now Russia is the top focus in Washington and some veteran diplomats fret about the situation spiraling out of control.

"'Outrage is not a policy,' said Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state under President Clinton and is now the president of the Brookings Institution. 'Worry is not a policy. Indignation is not a policy. Even though outrage, worry and indignation are all appropriate in this situation, they shouldn't be mistaken for policy and they shouldn't be mistaken for strategy.'"

Baker writes: "If Russia's invasion of Georgia ushers in a sustained period of renewed animosity with the West, Washington fears that a newly emboldened but estranged Moscow could use its influence, money, energy resources, United Nations Security Council veto and, yes, its arms industry to undermine American interests around the world. . . .

"In addition to escalated arms sales to other anti-American states like Iran and Venezuela, policy makers and specialists in Washington envision a freeze on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation cooperation, manipulation of oil and natural gas supplies, pressure against United States military bases in Central Asia and the collapse of efforts to extend cold war-era arms control treaties.

"'It's Iran, it's the U.N., it's all the counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs, Syria, Venezuela, Hamas -- there are any number of issues over which they can be less cooperative than they've been,' said Angela E. Stent, who served as the top Russia officer at the United States government's National Intelligence Council until 2006 and now directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. 'And of course, energy.'"

Legacy Watch

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters that the next president will inherit a foreign policy mess: "Critics say much of the decline in America's international clout can be traced to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which angered traditional allies like France and Germany and shattered the worldwide surge of sympathy for the United States after the September 11 attacks.

"About 146,000 American troops are in Iraq and about $660 billion has been spent on the war. . . .

"Bush's efforts over nearly eight years to nurture personal relationships with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Musharraf proved of little help. . . .

"Analysts list some foreign policy successes, including a new commitment to progress and disease reduction in Africa, a stronger partnership with China, renewed ties with Libya which was persuaded to abandon its nuclear program and North Korea's tentative movement away from nuclear arms.

"But critics say the failures eclipse the accomplishments.

"The next president will face a stalled Middle East peace process, an Iran which Washington says is bent on acquiring nuclear arms -- denied by Tehran -- instability in Pakistan, a renewed insurgency in Afghanistan as well as a resurgent, oil-rich Russia determined to reassert itself.

"Under Bush, the United States also failed to unite other powers to halt what it describes as a genocide in Darfur and lost international credibility on environmental issues like curbing global warming.

"Meanwhile, the rise in the price of oil has encouraged Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to preach and fund anti-Americanism around Latin America."

Spying Watch

James Oliphant blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Attorney General Michael Mukasey intends to let Congress have its say before signing controversial new guidelines that reportedly broaden the FBI's authority to conduct investigations. But he will not delay their implementation.

"In a letter to the Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said Mukasey will postpone signing off on the new guidelines until after FBI director Robert Mueller testifies before the committee Sept. 17. In the meantime, the department said it will consult with the committee on the measures.

"But the letter says Mukasey is committed to rolling out the guidelines in October.

"Thursday, the New York Times reported that the new FBI guidelines would allow the bureau to open up investigations without any indication of suspicious activity. Mukasey has said the guidelines are needed to facilitate the bureau's transition from a law enforcement agency to an intelligence-gathering one to combat terrorism."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "There is apparently no limit to the Bush administration's desire to invade Americans' privacy in the name of national security. According to members of Congress, Attorney General Michael Mukasey is preparing to give the F.B.I. broad new authority to investigate Americans -- without any clear basis for suspicion that they are committing a crime.

"Opening the door to sweeping investigations of this kind would be an invitation to the government to spy on people based on their race, religion or political activities. Before Mr. Mukasey goes any further, Congress should insist that the guidelines be fully vetted, and it should make certain that they do not pose a further threat to Americans' civil liberties. . . .

"The F.B.I. and the White House no doubt want to push the changes through before a new president is elected. There is no reason to rush to adopt rules that have such important civil liberties implications."

More Last-Minute Rule Changes

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday announced plans to implement a controversial regulation designed to protect doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who object to abortion from being forced to deliver services that violate their personal beliefs.

"The rule empowers federal health officials to pull funding from more than 584,000 hospitals, clinics, health plans, doctors' offices and other entities if they do not accommodate employees who refuse to participate in care they find objectionable on personal, moral or religious grounds. . . .

"The proposed regulation, which could go into effect after a 30-day comment period, was welcomed by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others as necessary to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways. Women's health advocates, family planning advocates, abortion rights activists and others, however, condemned the regulation, saying it could create sweeping obstacles to a variety of health services, including abortion, family planning, end-of-life care and possibly a wide range of scientific research. . . .

"The regulation drops the most controversial language in a draft version that would have explicitly defined abortion for the first time in a federal law or regulation as anything that interfered with a fertilized egg after conception. But both supporters and critics said the regulation remains broad enough to protect pharmacists, doctors, nurses and others from providing birth control pills, Plan B emergency contraception and other forms of contraception, and explicitly allows workers to withhold information about such services and refuse to refer patients elsewhere."

Civil Rights Watch

Darryl Fears writes in The Washington Post: "Democratic critics say Hans A. von Spakovsky is an odd fit for his new job at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

"Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official who pushed for the approval of a Georgia voter identification law that critics claimed made it difficult for poor people and the elderly to vote, was hired in July as a special assistant for the commission."

But as Fears notes, the commission is made up of six conservatives and two Democrats. How is that possible, for a commission that's supposed to be bipartisan? Well, as Charlie Savage wrote in the Boston Globe last year, Bush appointed two former Republicans after they conveniently re-registered as independents.

Watch List Watch

Siobhan Gorman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The government's main terrorist-watch-list system is hobbled by technology challenges, and the $500 million program designed to upgrade it is on the verge of collapse, according to a preliminary congressional investigation.

"The database, which includes an estimated 400,000 people and as many as 1 million names, has been criticized for flagging ordinary Americans. Now, the congressional report finds that the system has problems identifying true potential terrorists, as well."

Peace Corps Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials."

Albatross Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's 'third term' has become a favorite attack line for Democrats, repeated almost daily by the candidate and his surrogates. They argue that McCain favors failed Bush administration economic policies and would keep U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future. . . .

"Although he almost always supported Bush's positions in Congress, McCain has done his best on the campaign trail to shun the widely unpopular Republican president, whose job approval rating sunk to a record low 28 percent in AP-Ipsos polls in April and July.

"The last time the two Republicans were together was a closed-door McCain fundraiser in Arizona back in May. The only photo of the two was a departure shot at the airport. McCain seldom mentions the unpopular president whose job he seeks. The White House rarely talks about McCain.

"So far McCain's strategy hasn't convinced the public. Six in 10 adults think McCain will follow the policies of Bush, including more than half of whites and nearly six in 10 independents, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll in late June."

As for Bush's appearance at the Republican Convention, James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush is planning to fly to Minneapolis on Labor Day, the day the convention opens, deliver his speech, and leave town immediately that night, returning either to the White House or heading for a few low-key days in the nearly invisible setting of Camp David.

"That, of course, is just the way the McCain camp wants it -- keeping Bush as far from the limelight as politically possible."

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times about a letter McCain sent Bush in December 2006, challenging him "to show the 'will' to win the Iraq war by deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle to beat back a growing insurgency.

"Mr. Bush, who had resisted Mr. McCain's call for a troop surge for years, now praises him for persisting in his argument that expanding the war in Iraq was the way to win it.

"'John recognized early on that more troops would be needed in order to achieve the security necessary for the Iraqis to make the political progress we're seeing now,' the president told The Washington Times this week."

McCain's letter to Bush was dated December 12, 2006. As I wrote in my December 13, 2006, column, Who Cares What You Think?, there were already clear signs by then that Bush was seriously considering sending in more troops.

LL Cool J's Questions for Bush

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in their New York Daily News gossip column that LL Cool J, "subjects Dubya to a blistering interrogation on his new cut, 'Mr. President,' . . .

"'Mr. President, are you aware/Our flesh and blood is dying over there?/When the coffins come back, do you care?/When only the poor kids die, is it fair?/Don't get me wrong. I respect the flag/But it hurts to see a kid in a body bag/He fought for his country with all he had/Now we have a family without a dad.'

"The song moves on to other policy issues:

"'Mr. President, are you aware unless you're rich, you have poor health care/It makes you scream and want to pull out your hair/Discharged from the hospital soon as you get there.'"

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on McCain's greatest supporters, John Cole on Obama's secret weapon, Adam Zyglis on Bush's trap, Jeff Danziger on Bush's explosive Russian policy, and Bruce Plante on Georgia's miscalculation

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