Time to Focus on Iraq

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 16, 2005; 12:12 PM

President Bush's recent happy-talk about Iraq just isn't cutting it anymore. Even the White House has figured that out.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "White House officials acknowledged yesterday that the public's gloomy mood about the Iraq war is forcing President Bush to take a more assertive and public role to reassure nervous Americans and Republican lawmakers about the White House plan for victory.

"Bush had hoped the successful January elections in Iraq would boost the popularity of the conflict and allow him to distance himself from it. But his aides have concluded that recent events in Iraq have contributed to an erosion in support for the president -- and that he needs to shift strategies. Bush's new approach will be mostly rhetorical, however, as the White House does not plan any changes to the policy or time frame for bringing home the 140,000 U.S. troops, as some lawmakers are demanding.

" 'The president takes seriously his responsibility as commander in chief to continue to educate the American people about the conduct of the war and our strategy for victory,' said Dan Bartlett, a senior adviser. As part of the new focus, Bush will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari at the White House for the first time next week and dedicate several speeches to the war, including a major address on the first anniversary of Iraq's sovereignty this month, White House officials said.

"Bush, who had hoped to spend this summer focusing on Social Security, is instead being forced to defend his economic record and war policies in the face of growing uneasiness among the public and Republicans in Congress. His poll numbers on his handling of Iraq have dropped to all-time lows, as numerous lawmakers, including some Republicans, have accused him of not offering honest assessments about the strength of the insurgency and the slow pace of training battle-ready Iraqi forces."

Wanted: One Exit Strategy

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "With opinion polls showing a drop in support for the war, and a British memo asserting that the Bush administration had intended to go to war as early as the summer of 2002, the words 'exit strategy' are being uttered by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"The flurry began over the weekend, when Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, a conservative Republican, called for the Bush administration to set specific goals for leaving Iraq. That came from the man who was once so upset about French opposition to the war that he insisted that House cafeterias change the name 'French fries' to 'freedom fries.'

"But it does not end there."

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal: "As bad news continues to emerge from Iraq and the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, some Republicans are starting to edge away from the White House on its policies in the war on terror. . . .

"In a similar fashion, rumblings are starting within President Bush's camp about the uncertain prospects for drawing down troop levels in Iraq."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "With polls indicating that public support for the war has dwindled, more lawmakers who supported the use of force in Iraq are openly voicing their concerns about the lack of a clear, publicly stated plan to set limits on the US presence there. . . .

"Today, a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by a Republican who supported the war, plans to introduce a resolution calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq beginning in October 2006."

Bush has consistently refused to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying that would only encourage the Iraqi insurgency.

But doesn't the American public deserve, if not a strict timeline, a general idea of what our exit strategy is militarily, and some specific benchmarks against which we can measure our progress, or the lack of it?

Here are some thoughts I had on that topic several weeks ago, on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site.

Downing Street Memo Watch

Just a few weeks ago, it was being widely ignored by the mainstream press. Now it's permeating virtually all the coverage of the war. Go figure.

I'm talking about the Downing Street Memo , of course.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that liberal anger, "amplified by left-wing advocacy groups, columnists, bloggers and some Democrats in Congress, has gradually forced the mainstream media to take a second look at a document that received spotty coverage after it was reported May 1 by London's Sunday Times.

"Journalists offered various explanations for the scant attention paid to the July 2002 British memo, which, in recounting a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top aides, said that the Bush administration had 'fixed' the intelligence on Iraq and that war was inevitable. They said the memo was old, that the U.S. mobilization for war was widely reported at the time, that there was an initial distrust of a British press report. Some maintained that the memo didn't prove anything."

Well, Kurtz writes: "For the past 15 years, conservatives have used their outlets -- in talk radio, right-leaning news operations, editorial pages and, more recently, blogs -- to pressure mainstream journalists into covering stories that might otherwise be ignored. And they have had striking success. . . . Now the left can claim a similar success."

CNN political analyst Bill Schneider asked yesterday: "There were a lot of reports during the summer of 2002 that the Bush administration was intent on going to war. What's so sensational about the allegations of the British documents?"

The he answers his own question: "The difference is, the mood of the country. In June, 2002, 61 percent of Americans favored sending U.S. troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Now only 42 percent say it was worth going to war in Iraq. That's why questions about how the U.S. got into the war are being raised now. More than they were then."

So in other words, yes it's old news -- but not to the Americans who didn't hear it back then because they didn't want to hear it. Now, more of them may be listening.

Ruby L. Bailey writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The secret British memo of 2002 that reported that President Bush was determined to go to war against Iraq months earlier than he publicly acknowledged will get its first official hearing on Thursday -- sort of.

"In the closest version so far to a congressional hearing on the Downing Street memo, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., will head a forum examining the document. That will be followed by an Internet-organized rally in front of the White House. Conyers plans to deliver the signatures of 105 congressional Democrats and more than 500,000 citizens on petitions demanding a detailed response from the Bush administration to the memo's allegations."

The memo has been supplemented by several leaked briefing papers, which you can read on the Think Progress Web site.

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek.com: "Two senior British government officials today acknowledged as authentic a series of 2002 pre-Iraq war memos stating that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was 'effectively frozen' and that there was 'no recent evidence' of Iraqi ties to international terrorism -- private conclusions that contradicted two key pillars of the Bush administration's public case for the invasion in March 2003."

How About a Follow Up Question?

The White House press corps is still failing when it comes to subjecting the White House to the sort of concerted, detailed, insistent questioning the Downing Street memos merit.

For example, here's one exchange from yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan:

"Q Scott, more official British documents are seeming to indicate that the Bush administration was trying to justify an invasion of Iraq as early as March, 2002. And tomorrow, Representative John Conyers, as you know, is holding some Democratic hearings to get testimony about this. Is the President concerned that as more documents come out seeming to indicate a decision very early on to invade Iraq and possible manipulating --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think you've asked these questions, the President has been asked these questions, and I think it's been addressed."

And that was it. It was on to the next question.

Gitmo Watch

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Key lawmakers, alarmed by international condemnation of U.S. treatment of prisoners at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said yesterday they will press Congress to intervene in detainee policies despite the Bush administration's claim that running the detention camp is the province of the executive branch and the military."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The growing strains among Republicans became evident Wednesday as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee chairman, scolded the GOP-run Congress for not doing more to clarify the rights of detainees.

" 'It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do. . . . But at any rate, Congress hasn't acted,' Specter said."

Meanwhile, Cooper notes in the Wall Street Journal: "Although other senior administration officials have held out hope that an alternative to Guantanamo Bay will be found, White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday threw cold water on such prospects, when he said Mr. Rumsfeld was 'talking for the administration' when he noted that construction projects are under way in Guantanamo Bay to make the facility more or less permanent. 'There are no plans, as we have said, for closing or shutting down Guantanamo Bay at this time,' Mr. McClellan said."

Speaking of Exit Strategies

Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "With the Senate Finance Committee at an impasse on Social Security and House leaders anxious about moving forward, Republican congressional leaders have told the White House in recent days that it is time to look for an escape route. . . .

"White House officials at the highest levels recognize the problem, congressional aides say, but to pull back from private accounts now would undermine Bush's congressional allies -- such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- with no guarantee that a compromise could be reached without the accounts. . . .

"White House aides have been locked in a debate over whether it would be a victory if Bush settled for a Social Security deal without private accounts."

But apparently Karl Rove isn't ready to give up yet.

The Patriot Act Revolt

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "The House handed President Bush the first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act, voting yesterday to curtail the FBI's ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations.

"Bush has threatened to veto any measure that weakens those powers. The surprise 238 to 187 rebuke to the White House was produced when a handful of conservative Republicans, worried about government intrusion, joined with Democrats who are concerned about personal privacy."

Medicare Days

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush will kick off an effort Thursday to help senior citizens sign up for Medicare's new prescription-drug coverage.

"The benefit doesn't go into effect until Jan. 1, but Bush will draw attention to it during a visit to the Health and Human Services Department. On Friday, he will meet with senior citizens at a community center in Maple Grove, Minn., to discuss the new coverage.

"With his plans for overhauling Social Security in trouble, the president's shift in focus gives him a chance to celebrate a legislative victory from 2003 that's intended to improve life for seniors. But critics say the new drug plan may be a costly disappointment."

Wealthy -- and Wealthier -- Bunch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Most of President Bush's top aides reported having mutual funds, stocks and real estate holdings worth millions of dollars, according to 2004 financial disclosure reports released yesterday.

Nedra Pickler does a nifty analysis for the Associated Press, and finds that the value of their holdings is in some cases up dramatically year over year.

Maybe that's why Bush thinks the economy is going so well.

Dina Powell Blocked

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Opening a new battle with the White House, Senate Democrats on Wednesday abruptly blocked the approval of President Bush's nominee for a top public diplomacy job, charging that the administration had injected partisan politics into the drive to improve the United States' image overseas.

"The nominee, Dina Powell, the White House personnel director, had been expected to win broad approval to become deputy under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to be the second-in-command to Karen P. Hughes in charge of repairing the United States' reputation, especially in the Muslim world."

And what ever happened to Hughes? Weisman writes: "Committee Republicans say they have been told that Ms. Hughes, who left the White House as a close adviser to President Bush in mid-2002 to be with her family back in Texas, will not be ready to start until fall because she wants to wait until after her son starts college."

Energy Talk

Michael A. Fletcher and Justin Blum write in The Washington Post: "President Bush issued a vigorous call yesterday for the enactment of his energy plan, arguing that it offers a balanced approach for securing the nation's energy future while warning that 'tempers will really rise if Congress doesn't pass' the measure."

Here's the text .

On CNN, they called it "a case of bad timing for the Bush White House."

Said Dana Bash : "The president argued long-stalled energy reforms would help consumers and the environment. . . . But Mr. Bush's critics revived their charge his main goal is to help the oil industry where he once worked, seizing on word the official who set climate change policy, Phil Cooney, traded his administration job for a post at Exxon-Mobil."

United Nations Snub Watch

The New York Times reports that organizers of a celebration in San Francisco to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations were worried that they would get snubbed by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Yesterday, they got word that the administration is sending (drum roll please) Ambassador Sichan Siv, the United States representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

White House Picnic

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush, frustrated that some of his legislative initiatives are stalled in Congress, was all smiles Wednesday evening as he hosted a congressional picnic where jugglers and a merry-go-round turned the South Lawn into a carnival. . . .

"Bush arrived at the picnic in shirt sleeves and no tie. Vice President Dick Cheney came wearing a navy blazer, which he quickly shed as he disappeared into the crowd, followed by a man wheeling a unicycle."

Porn Star Watch

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in the New York Daily News: "Porn star Mary Carey kept her word that she would keep her clothes on during the fat-cat GOP fund-raiser Tuesday night in Washington, but the Republican Party took no chances.

"With President Bush the guest of honor, the GOP made sure the evening remained PG by assigning a handler to the triple-X actress."


My June 9 column incorrectly reported that Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto contributed to President Bush's campaign. Cavuto was a donor to the 2002 President's Dinner Committee, a joint fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Here's a record of Cavuto's contribution.

Thanks to L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center for calling this to my attention.

The First Pets

How in heaven's name did I miss this?

Today show anchor Al Roker last Friday broadcast an interview with the president and first lady -- exclusively about their pets. Here's the text ; here's the video .

The fur wasn't exactly flying.

Roker on Barney: "He's got the top security clearance, doesn't he?"

President Bush: "He does, Barney, plus he knows a lot about policy."

Roker: "Really?"

President Bush: "Yeah."

Roker: "He's a wonk."

President Bush: "He's a wonk." . . .

Roker: "Do you guys ever talk baby talk to the pets?"

Laura Bush: "I do to Beazley a lot."

President Bush: "I will never admit it."

Roker: "Does he talk baby talk?"

Laura Bush: "No, not really."

President Bush: "Well-- "

Roker: "Uh-oh."

President Bush: "Of course everybody talks baby talk to their pets."

Roker: "Sixty-three percent of people admit to kissing their dogs."

Laura Bush: "We kiss ours."

Roker: "Yeah? You're a part of that group?"

President Bush: "I wouldn't say on a regular basis. But yeah, I've been there."

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