By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 28, 2008; 11:43 AM
Belittled domestically, President Bush is flexing his last working muscle: His control over the nation's military. And in so doing, he is adding one last addendum to the ever-changing Bush Doctrine, establishing yet another de facto U.S. policy on his way out the door, and leaving his successor with yet another controversial precedent to wrestle with.
By approving a U.S. military raid across the Iraqi border into Syria, Bush has changed the rules once again. On Sunday about two dozen special forces soldiers entered the country by helicopter and killed a suspected Iraqi insurgent leader, without the permission or cooperation of the Syrian government. Call it an October surprise -- if not, at least so far, the October surprise.
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "[I]n justifying the attack, American officials said the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries' consent.
"Together with a similar American commando raid into Pakistan more than seven weeks ago, the operation on Sunday appeared to reflect an intensifying effort by the Bush administration to find a way during its waning months to attack militants even beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States is at war.
"Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite 'special groups' that have fought with the American military and Iraqi security forces. . . .
"[A]dministration officials said Monday that the strikes in Pakistan and Syria were carried out on the basis of a legal argument that has been refined in recent months to justify strikes by troops and by rockets on militants in countries with which the United States is not at war.
"The justification is different from the concept of pre-emption the administration articulated immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, and which was used as the rationale for the invasion of Iraq. While pre-emption was used to justify attacks against governments and their armies, the self-defense argument would justify attacks on insurgents operating on foreign soil that threatened the forces, allies or interests of the United States.
"Administration officials pointed Monday to a passage in President Bush's speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month as the clearest articulation of this position to date.
"'As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly, and solve problems before they spill across borders,' Mr. Bush said. 'We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organized crime.' . . .
"It is not clear how far-reaching the White House may be in seeking to apply the rationale, but several senior American officials expressed hope that it would be embraced by the next president as well."
Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Selective U.S. military action across the borders of nations friendly and unfriendly reflects increasing willingness to embrace what U.S. commanders consider a last resort: violating the sovereignty of a nation with whom the U.S. is not at war.
"It's a demonstration of overt military strength that the U.S. has been reluctant to display in public for fear it would backfire on U.S. forces or supporters within the governments of the nations whose borders were breached.
"Now, senior U.S. officials favor judicious use of the newly aggressive tactics, seeing more upsides than down. They reason that whatever diplomatic damage is done will be mitigated when President Bush leaves office and a new president is inaugurated."
Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef write for McClatchy Newspapers: "It wasn't immediately clear whether an order that President Bush signed in July allowing U.S. commandos from Afghanistan to attack a suspected terrorist base in Pakistan also authorized cross-border operations in other countries.
"Pentagon officials were tight-lipped about the operation. But they were quick to defend the decision to cross the border, with one saying that if nations that sponsor terrorist networks won't go after them, 'we will.'"
Ann Scott Tyson and Ellen Knickmeyer write in The Washington Post that "officials said the raid Sunday, apparently the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria, was intended to send a warning to the Syrian government. 'You have to clean up the global threat that is in your back yard, and if you won't do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands,' said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cross-border strike."
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Some pundits have suggested that the attack is a parting shot from President Bush, his last attempt to exact vengeance on a longtime rival before leaving office. That's a bit cynical even for Bush critics, including this page, but it's notable that in the closing months of the administration, the military has grown considerably more aggressive in pursuing foreign insurgents -- especially in Pakistan, where U.S. attacks across the Afghanistan border have become almost commonplace. Bush, it appears, is conducting yet another experiment in Middle Eastern cowboy diplomacy, with the advantage (for him) that if it all blows up, someone else will have to pick up the pieces."
As for Pakistan, Marvin G. Weinbaum writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "In its eagerness to reverse the mounting insurgency in Afghanistan, the United States has embarked on a policy course that could shatter our vital strategic partnership with Pakistan. By allowing American combat forces to freely conduct raids into Pakistani territory, a move that President Bush authorized in July, the United States intends to pressure Pakistani leaders to step up the fight against militants ensconced in the borderlands. But this policy threatens cooperation between the two countries, possibly to the breaking point."
The problem, as usual, is: "There simply are no quick fixes."Iraq Watch
Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The status-of-forces agreement that would govern conduct of the U.S. military and its contractors in Iraq beyond 2008 would apparently tie the hands of the next U.S. president in some respects if it was ratified by the Iraqis before Jan. 20.
"For example, the next president would have to wait a year if he wanted to pull out of the agreement altogether, according to Article 31, the final section. The current draft says that 'cancellation of this agreement requires a written notice provided one year in advance,' according to an English translation of the Arab version.
"Even modification of the agreement's provisions would be difficult, requiring 'written approval of both sides and . . . accordance to constitutional procedures in both countries.' That means that if the new president wanted to change any provisions, he would have to get the approval of not only the Iraqi government but also its legislative body."
And you get the impression the White House wants this real bad.
Roy Gutman and Leila Fadel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The U.S. military has warned Iraq that it will shut down military operations and other vital services throughout the country on Jan. 1 if the Iraqi government doesn't agree to a new agreement on the status of U.S. forces or a renewed United Nations mandate for the American mission in Iraq.
"Many Iraqi politicians view the move as akin to political blackmail, a top Iraqi official told McClatchy Sunday.
"In addition to halting all military actions, U.S. forces would cease activities that support Iraq's economy, educational sector and other areas -- 'everything' -- said Tariq al Hashimi, the country's Sunni Muslim vice president. 'I didn't know the Americans are rendering such wide-scale services.'"
Fadel has more about the specific threats.
So why do the Iraqis continue to resist? As Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "A deal to authorize the presence of American forces in Iraq beyond 2008 is forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to choose between two influential powers in this country: the United States and Iran.
"U.S. officials had hoped Iraq would quickly approve the accord put before the cabinet this month, which would give 150,000 American troops legal authority to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31. But Iraqi political leaders have balked. Maliki has not openly supported the agreement forged by his negotiating team.
"As the U.S. ponders withdrawal, it is clear that American political capital in Iraq is waning as Iran's grows."Legacy Watch
Richard N. Haas writes in an 'open letter' to the next president, in Newsweek: "When George W. Bush became president nearly eight years ago the world was largely at peace, the U.S. military was largely at rest, oil was $23 a barrel, the economy was growing at more than 3 percent, $1 was worth 116 yen, the national debt was just under $6 trillion and the federal government was running a sizable budgetary surplus. The September 11 attacks, for all they cost us as a nation, increased the world's willingness to cooperate with us. You, by contrast, will inherit wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tired and stretched armed forces, a global struggle with terrorism, oil that has ranged as high as $150 a barrel, a weaker dollar (now worth 95 yen), substantial anti-American sentiment, a federal budget deficit that could reach $1 trillion in your first year, a ballooning national debt of some $10 trillion and a global economic slowdown that will increase instability in numerous countries.
Laurent Lozana writes for AFP: "On January 20, US President George W. Bush hands over the keys to the White House and turns out the lights on an eight-year span of war and, as one ally put it, 'mind-boggling and hair-raising' episodes.
"The Bush presidency, forged in the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, now melts away with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and fears of recession and widespread unemployment.
"In between, he began the still-unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two fronts in a 'war on terrorism' whose tactics have at times worried allies and drawn widespread condemnation at home and overseas.
"He drove mammoth tax cuts through the US Congress, which he credits for spurring the US economy despite soaring deficits, and oversaw an unprecedented expansion of aid to Africa to battle disease and poverty.
"After scaling historic heights of popularity, Bush leaves office with abysmally low standing with a US public that still recalls the nightmare images from the botched government response to killer Hurricane Katrina.
"But he survived political storms whipped up by foes of an administration seen by its critics as one of the most partisan and secretive in US history.
"Bush, who never stopped talking about the need to protect the United States, faced charges of betraying core US values with a network of secret prisons, or by putting detainees in the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay, or green-lighting interrogation practices long seen as torture, or spying on Americans."
Newsweek's Matthew Philips interviews author Ron Suskind, and concludes: "In the midst of the current financial meltdown, Suskind has developed a sort of Unified Theory of Everything, believing the same ends-justify-the-means mind-set that formed the basis for so much of the Bush administration's post-9/11 actions is also at the heart of the financial meltdown. Suskind argues this convergence has had a two-pronged effect: not only has the U.S. lost its standing as an exporter of freedom and democratic ideals, but its supersized brand of capita lism has ruined balance sheets around the world."
Says Suskind: "Eras get defined by presidents. In a very basic way, people--even against their will--tend to channel their leaders. Bush is a confidence man. He believes in the transforming power of confidence, which typifies these last eight years and defined so many of our engagements in the world. Confidence has ruled all. Was it earned confidence, based on evidence, or willed confidence, based on desire? We decided we'd rather not draw that line and instead simply said, 'I am confident, I'm certain, therefore you should trust me. Don't ask questions because it will slow me down.' A moral slope, for sure, and, as a nation, we've slid down it. Now, it may be time to start climbing back up that slippery slope, back to the high ground."Transition Watch
John Brinsley and Edwin Chen write for Bloomberg: "Whoever wins will come under intense, immediate pressure - - unmatched since Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932 -- to begin participating in policy making over which he'll have no formal control for 2 1/2 months."
They suggest that "either Obama or McCain would have to abandon the president-elect's traditional hands-off role in the months leading up to Inauguration Day, on Jan. 20. . . .
"'There's only one president at a time,' says John P. Burke, a University of Vermont professor who has written two books about presidential transitions. 'But maybe we've got to think about an exception here.'"The Way Out
The American Civil Liberties Union announces: "In anticipation of the presidential election, the American Civil Liberties Union today released a set of detailed recommendations on steps that the new president should take to 'clean house,' renew freedom, and restore the nation's reputation. . . .
"The new ACLU document, entitled, ' Actions For Restoring America,' . . . consists of actions that the executive branch could take on its own.
"On Day One, the next president should, by executive order, direct all agencies to prohibit the use of torture and abuse; direct the new Attorney General to appoint an outside special counsel to investigate, and, if warranted, prosecute any violations of federal criminal laws; close down Guantánamo and either charge and try detainees in criminal or traditional military courts or transfer them to countries where they won't be tortured; and end the practice of extraordinary rendition.
"In his first 100 days, the president should take actions, as detailed in the ACLU document, to end illegal spying and surveillance, to protect Americans from privacy violations and discrimination, to end the federal death penalty, and to increase government transparency."Bypassing the Law
Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration has informed Congress that it is bypassing a law intended to forbid political interference with reports to lawmakers by the Department of Homeland Security.
"The August 2007 law requires the agency's chief privacy officer to report each year about Homeland Security activities that affect privacy, and requires that the reports be submitted directly to Congress 'without any prior comment or amendment' by superiors at the department or the White House.
"But newly disclosed documents show that the Justice Department issued a legal opinion last January questioning the basis for that restriction, and that Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, later advised Congress that the administration would not 'apply this provision strictly' because it infringed on the president's powers. . . .
"Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the move 'unconstitutional.' He said Mr. Bush should have vetoed the bill if he did not like the provision, and compared the situation to Mr. Bush's frequent use of signing statements to reserve a right to bypass newly enacted laws.
"'This is a dictatorial, after-the-fact pronouncement by him in line with a lot of other cherry-picking he's done on the signing statements,' Mr. Specter said in a telephone interview."Last Minute Rule-Making Watch
Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration on Monday said that changes it wants to make to endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office will have no significant environmental consequences.
"That's the conclusion of a draft assessment released by the Interior Department that represents one of the last remaining hurdles for the regulations to become final before Jan. 20."
Robert McClure blogs for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "It wasn't unexpected, but today the Bush administration said it's going ahead extremely quickly with a proposal that has enraged environmentalists -- and is giving the public just 10 days to comment on it. I guess the Bushies can see 1/20/09 coming up very fast."
Renee Schoof writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "At the Bush administration's direction, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a new rule that would weaken pollution regulations for power plants, allowing them to increase emissions without adding controls."Poll Watch
Jonathan Darman writes for Newsweek that "dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and despondency over the direction the country is headed seems to be the biggest factor driving McCain's poor showing in the poll. Only 23 percent of voters now say they approve of the job that George W. Bush is doing as president, a new low for any president in the Newsweek Poll."McCain on 'Meet the Press'
Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. John McCain said Sunday that he and President Bush share a 'common philosophy' but insisted that he is his own man in his first appearance on NBC's 'Meet the Press' in more than nine months. . . .
"On 'Meet the Press,' Brokaw noted that McCain had blasted Bush in a recent interview. He then played part of an interview from three years ago.
"'The fact is that I'm different, but the fact is that I've agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed,' McCain said at the time. 'And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I have been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.'
"The June 2005 interview concluded with McCain stating that 'I strongly disagree with any assertion that I've been more at odds with the president of the United States than I've been in agreement with.'
"A somewhat flustered-looking McCain asserted that he was 'the harshest critic of the failed strategy in Iraq' and that 'I've supported action to address climate change since 2000 and said we've got to do something. Sharp disagreement there.'"
Here's the video.Pardon Watch
One more for the potential-pardon list?
Neil A. Lewis, writing in the New York Times about yesterday's conviction of Senator Ted Stevens for violating federal ethics laws, notes: "In addition to his expected appeal, his supporters are also likely to explore the possibility of obtaining a pardon, or some form of executive clemency like a commutation of any sentence, from President Bush, a fellow Republican, before he leaves office."Relating to Roosevelt
Eileen Sullivan writes for the Associated Press: "Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's birth, President Bush on Monday called him an inspiration and one of the greatest statesmen in the nation's history.
"Bush listed some of the 26th's president's most famous attributes: He was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize; he was a decorated soldier; he read several books a day; and he was committed to physical exercise, which Bush said he could relate to.
"Roosevelt also advocated the simplification of spelling in America, the president said. 'During his presidency, one member of Congress said that President Roosevelt's efforts would create confusion and discord in the English language. I can relate to that,' Bush said."Book Watch
Alex and Christopher Beam write in the New York Times with a post-mortem on anti-Bush books, from Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America to Goodnight Bush: A Parody.
They write: "One segment of the economy will crash for sure on Jan. 20, 2009: the land-office business in anti-George W. Bush books. Through every fault of its own, the Bush-Cheney White House has been a money-belching milch cow for serious critics and random freebooters who understand that a catchy Bushophobic book title generally translates into solid sales."The Other Bush's Legacy
Ken Herman blogged for Cox News Service yesterday: "It was luncheon and legacy in the White House family dining room today as First Lady Laura Bush and invited guests (journalists, academics, historians) talked about Mrs. Bush's years in the building.
"Says Sally McDonough, Mrs. Bush's press secretary: 'It was a small luncheon to talk about Mrs. Bush's initiatives with some historians, some authors, some feature-writers.' It was, McDonough says, an 'off-the-record nice get-together.'"Cartoon Watch