By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 26, 2008; 12:10 PM
President Bush yesterday telegraphed in the clearest possible way that he's not interested in turning down the heat on the simmering geopolitical conflict with Russia. Quite the contrary. He's sending Vice President Cheney to harry Russia's borders.
The White House announced that Cheney is headed to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Ukraine -- as well as Italy -- as soon as he's done speaking at the Republican convention Monday night.
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The trip will put the Bush administration's most prominent hawk in a war zone still occupied by lingering Russian troops, and is likely to irritate leaders in Moscow, who have condemned the United States for siding with Georgia in the conflict.
"It will also underscore the extent of disagreement within the Bush administration over how forcefully to confront Moscow. Cheney and his aides unsuccessfully argued in favor of increasing military aid to the fledgling Georgian democracy, according to officials familiar with the debate. . . .
"Cheney's visit is likely be watched closely in part because he is widely seen as a representative of the Bush administration's most hawkish tendencies. During a trip to Lithuania in May 2006, Cheney accused Russia of 'unfairly and improperly' restricting the rights of its people, and of using oil and gas as 'tools of intimidation or blackmail' against its neighbors. The comments enraged Russian officials and complicated ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. . . .
"Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Cheney's visit will probably amplify the 'mixed messages' coming from Washington over the Georgian crisis. 'Cheney certainly has had a tougher view on Russia than some others in the administration,' he said.
"While Bush and others from both parties have railed against Russia for its actions, the official U.S. response has been limited primarily to diplomatic efforts and humanitarian aid. The Pentagon has explicitly ruled out a military confrontation with Russia."
In a story that the White House press office called attention to in its morning e-mail blast, the UK Press Association reports: "In a direct challenge to Russia, the US has announced it intends to deliver humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Georgian port city of Poti, which Russian troops still control through checkpoints on the city's outskirts.
"The aid will be delivered on Wednesday by ship, a US embassy spokesman said.
"While Western nations have called the Russian military presence in Poti a clear violation of an EU-brokered cease-fire, a top Russian general countered on Tuesday that using warships to deliver aid was 'devilish'.
"'The heightened activity of Nato ships in the Black Sea perplexes us,' Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said in Moscow."
Of course, the Russians aren't exactly waving olive branches, either.
Philip P. Pan and Jonathan Finer write in The Washington Post: "The Russian parliament unanimously urged President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia, a move that would escalate what has become one of the most serious conflicts between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War. . . .
"In a statement issued at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., President Bush said that he was 'deeply concerned' by the move and that recognition would violate both a cease-fire agreement and United Nations resolutions. 'I call on Russia's leadership to meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions,' Bush said."
Sergei L. Loiko and Megan K. Stack write in the Los Angeles Times: "Recognition of the rebel republics as independent countries would amount to an attempt on the part of Moscow to redraw the borders of the former Soviet Union. By attempting to chop away territory from a neighboring nation with close ties to the U.S., the declaration would also be viewed as a challenge leveled at Washington."
From yesterday's press briefing with White House spokesman Tony Fratto:
Q. "Tony, earlier this month, the Vice President's office said that Russian aggression must not go unanswered. And he talked about serious consequences for the relationship with Russia, as have other leaders in the government. Is it clear yet how the White House wants to answer Russia's aggression?"
Fratto: "Well, it hasn't gone unanswered. In fact, I'd say it's been loudly answered both by the United States -- but really, this isn't really about the United States and Russia; this is about Europe and Russia, and our relationship with Russia and Georgia. And I don't think there's any question that Russia's reputation has suffered since it took these disproportionate military steps in Georgia. And you see that in various ways.
"Now, I know a lot of people have asked the question as to what is the cost to Russia. There's been costs in terms of their reputation; there's costs in terms of the ability and willingness to do business in Russia, for example. But what we're focused on, and I think it's shown by Secretary Jeffery's trip to Georgia, is how can we best help Georgia right now, and how can we help them and support them and preserve that democracy in this critical region, and also help their economic development. . . . "
Q. "Any chance the Vice President might go to Russia to make the West's case directly, face to face?"
Fratto: "I'm not expecting that, no."
The Washington Post editorial board advocates for economic and political warfare: "There is, in fact, much that could be done to raise the cost of the ongoing occupation and to weaken Mr. Putin and the sinister circle around him. . . .
"There is certainly no reason why U.S. and international agencies should not vigorously pursue the numerous allegations of corrupt practices by Russian firms. If Kremlin-connected companies violate Georgian or international law through their actions in the occupied provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, their assets -- gas stations in the United States, for example -- could be subject to seizure.
"The Bush administration, we're told, is planning to withdraw a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia from Congress. It retains the options of abrogating the bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement needed for Moscow's membership in the World Trade Organization and suspending negotiations on arms control. If Mr. Putin does not comply with the cease-fire agreement in the coming days, such bilateral sanctions will be needed."
Cheney's preparation for the trip is apparently so intense that he canceled a fundraiser in Bozeman, Mont., that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones: "Looks to me like Bush thinks Cheney is the perfect guy to get the Cold War started back up. Unless, that is, you can think of any other issue that's of 'mutual interest' to those three particular countries."Timeline Watch
Just how solid is that timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq that Bush has reportedly agreed to?
Pretty solid, says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
"There is an agreement actually reached on a fixed date, which is the end of 2011, to end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil," Maliki said yesterday. "An open time limit is not acceptable in any security deal that governs the presence of the international forces," he added. "No pact or an agreement should be set without being based on full sovereignty, national common interests, and no foreign soldier should remain on Iraqi land, and there should be a specific deadline and it should not be open," he explained.
Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Robert H. Reid write for the Associated Press: "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dug in his heels Monday on the future of the U.S. military in Iraq, insisting that all foreign soldiers leave the country by a specific date in 2011 and rejecting legal immunity for American troops. . . .
"Al-Maliki said the U.S. and Iraq had already agreed on a full withdrawal of all foreign troops by the end of 2011 -- an interpretation that the White House challenged. Until then, the U.S. would not conduct military operations 'without the approval' of the Iraqi government, al-Maliki said.
"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said negotiations with the Iraqis were continuing and repeated the U.S. position that the withdrawal must be linked to conditions in Iraq -- a clear difference with al-Maliki's interpretation of what had been agreed.
"'Any decisions on troops will be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq. That has always been our position and continues to be our position,' Fratto said Monday in Crawford, Texas. 'There is no agreement until there is an agreement signed.' . . .
"President Bush has long resisted a timetable for removing troops from Iraq, even under strong pressure from an American public distressed by U.S. deaths and discouraged by the length of the war that began in 2003.
"Last month, however, Bush reversed course and agreed to set a 'general time horizon' for bringing troops home, based on Iraq's ability to provide for its own security. But the Iraqis insisted they want a specific schedule.
"'We find this to be too vague,' a close al-Maliki aide told The Associated Press on Monday. 'We don't want the phrase "time horizons." We are not comfortable with that phrase,' said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations."
Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "Maliki's comments appeared to be an attempt to extract further concessions from American officials, less than a week after both sides said they had agreed to remove all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011, if the security situation remained relatively stable, but leave other American forces in place. The U.S. plan is to leave as many as 40,000 troops to continue to assist Iraq in training, logistics and intelligence for an undefined period. . . .
"Underlying Maliki's remarks is the political reality that he must sell the accord to a fractious political establishment and the Iraqi public, which to a large extent views the U.S. military presence as an occupation that should end as soon as possible. . . .
"U.S. officials . . . have signaled willingness to compromise with Maliki's government in order to sign an agreement by the end of President Bush's term. There is additional pressure because the United Nations' authorization for American troops to remain in Iraq expires at the end of the year; if no accord is signed before then, U.S. troops will have no legal basis to remain in the country."
The Financial Times editorial board notes that "only a month ago the Bush administration was furiously opposed to a time-table, insisting it would reflect an admission of defeat and play into the hands of its enemies.
"Faced with a surge of Iraqi nationalism, however, it has agreed to a plan that looks embarrassingly closer to the position of Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, than to the 2013 withdrawal date supported by John McCain, his Republican rival."
The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "If Bush continues refusing to accept the timetable that Iraqis want, he will make a mockery of his claim to have invaded and occupied Iraq in order to spread democracy there. Iraqis have pretty well crushed Al Qaeda with American help, and they are beginning to sort out their factional power struggles. If they want a sure date for US withdrawal, they should get it. Otherwise, Bush will only vindicate those critics of the war who said he invaded Iraq to establish permanent military bases and gain control of the country's enormous oil reserves."
The USA Today editorial board writes: "Obscured by the Olympics and U.S. presidential politics, the situation in Iraq could be reaching another turning point. The United States needs to disengage in a way that preserves American security interests and hard-won gains. But if the Iraqi people want a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and the American people want U.S. forces out, it will be increasingly awkward for Bush or his successor to argue that they should stay a day longer than they're welcome."Iraqi Storm Watch
Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "There is a gathering storm on Iraq's horizon. Over the last several weeks, its central government has embarked on what appears to be an effort to arrest, drive away or otherwise intimidate tens of thousands of Sunni security volunteers -- the so-called Sons of Iraq -- whose contributions have been crucial to recent security gains. After returning from a trip to Iraq last month at the invitation of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, we are convinced that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his advisors persist in this sectarian agenda, the country may spiral back into chaos. . . .
"The 'surge' strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq's leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki's weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America's blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris."North Korea Watch
Barbara Demick writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Less than two months after it blew up the cooling tower of its main nuclear plant in a televised spectacle, North Korea announced that it has suspended the dismantlement of its nuclear program.
"North Korea's foreign ministry said Tuesday it was responding to the United States' failure to live up to its promises of removing it from a blacklist of 'terror-sponsoring' states. It said the suspension had taken place as of Aug. 14 and that it would next consider restoring some of what it had dismantled already at its main nuclear compound in Yongbyon. . . .
"This latest development is a blow to the Bush administration's dream of claiming for his legacy the removal of the North Korean nuclear threat. The spectacular demolition of the cooling tower, which was witnessed by a State Department official and a CNN crew on June 28, raised hope that the long-running tussle over nuclear dismantlement might be coming to a conclusion."Cheney and the Whales
David A. Fahrenthold writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday proposed scaling back protected zones for endangered whales in the Atlantic Ocean, yielding to cargo companies' concerns about new speed limits for ships in these areas.
"The proposal, unveiled yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, could end more than a year of wrangling between federal fisheries scientists and the White House over new measures to protect the North Atlantic right whale. About 300 of the whales remain, and researchers say their tiny population has been reduced further by fatal collisions with large ships.
"In July 2006, NOAA announced plans to create 30-nautical-mile buffer zones off of several East Coast ports, in which ships would be required to slow to 10 nautical miles per hour during certain times of the year.
"But cargo companies said that this would cause their ships to lose time and burn more fuel, and the proposal was held up for months by the administration.
"Yesterday, in a document called an environmental impact statement, NOAA announced a change. Its new plan would reduce the buffer zone to 20 nautical miles, or about 23 standard miles."
So once again, Cheney gets his way. As Juliet Eilperin wrote in The Washington Post last week, Cheney senior aide F. Chase Hutto III was a key player in setting the new policy: "Acting on Cheney's behalf, Hutto questioned whether there was sufficient scientific evidence to justify the economic costs that the rule would impose on shippers. . . . New England Aquarium research scientist Amy Knowlton said those changes would 'undermine the scientific integrity of the rule,' since right whales have been spotted within 30 miles of the ports."On the Other Hand
Rosalind S. Helderman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush announced Monday that three isolated stretches of the Pacific Ocean are under consideration for national monument status, a designation that could provide vast new protections for the regions' fragile coral reefs, seabirds and ocean creatures. . . .
"One area under consideration is the waters off the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, including the Mariana Trench, at 36,000 feet the deepest canyon in the world.
"'It's like Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon rolled into one,' said Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, an advocacy organization that has urged the designation. . . .
"Reichert said that if the same kind of protections Bush granted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands preserve are extended to the Northern Mariana Islands region, Bush will have established environmental protections for more of the Earth's surface than anyone in history.
"'He will have led the nation into a new era of ocean conservation,' he said."
Kenneth R. Weiss writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House memo has unleashed a scramble among officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Interior and Defense departments, to gather information and make recommendations to meet the president's timeline to finalize plans in the next few months. . . .
"Two other candidates for increased protection -- a stretch of deep-water corals off the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida and areas especially rich in marine life in the Gulf of Mexico -- were knocked out of consideration because of opposition from the fishing and oil and gas industries."Dueling Covers
On the cover of Rolling Stone: How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party. The article by Sean Wilentz is only partially online, but in an accompanying video, Wilentz ticks off the Five Ways Bush Sunk the GOP. No. 3 is Dick Cheney; No. 2 is Karl Rove; No. 1 is Hurricane Katrina.
Luiza Ch. Savage writes: "Bush is the tax-cutting conservative who nonetheless grew the federal government in size and power. He is the former governor who championed states' rights while centralizing more power in Washington. He is the proponent of race-neutral policies who did more than any president before him to measure, track, and invest in the achievement of black and Latino children. He is the advocate of human dignity who authorized interrogation techniques that amount to torture. The passionate defender of liberty who circumvented laws to spy on his own citizens. The lover of freedom who toppled one dictator while propping up others. The progenitor of wars that killed thousands on one continent, and the humanitarian who spent unprecedented sums to save millions from disease on another."Live Online
I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation!Cartoon Watch
Lee Judge on Bush's missile-defense program.