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Fact-Checking the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 1, 2005; 12:36 PM

Let's hear it for the fact-checkers.

The Washington Post

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's 'strategy for victory' catalogues progress in Iraq over the past 32 months, but also omits or glosses over complications, problems and uncertainties in the most ambitious U.S. military intervention since Vietnam.

"Analysts agreed with Bush that a politically motivated withdrawal could embolden extremists to believe the United States will 'cut and run in the face of adversity'-- and risk the implosion of a strategic oil-rich country. But they disagreed with key assessments made by the administration on Iraq's military, on how important the U.S. mission in Iraq is to promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, and how much of Iraq has been rebuilt.

"Little is new in the 35-page document, titled 'National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,' which covers three broad fronts: security, political development and economic issues. The interpretation it yields depends heavily on viewing the glass half-full rather than half-empty -- and doing so in defiance of daily suicide bombings, abductions or deaths."

The New York Times

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, like other officials, repeatedly said that Iraqi soldiers or police now 'control' swaths of Baghdad, as well as central Iraqi cities like Najaf and Karbala. 'Other Iraqi battalions and brigades control hundreds of square miles of territory in other Iraqi provinces,' declared the strategy paper released before the speech.

"But leaving aside the fact that Iraq comprises more than 160,000 square miles (much of it thinly populated), the areas said to be under Iraqi control are still wracked by violence, much of it aimed at Iraqi security forces."

And, Schmitt notes: "In Najaf and Karbala, the Iraqi security forces are totally made up of militiamen loyal to Shiite political leaders like Moktada al-Sadr. President Bush's strategy document explicitly warned against this approach to security."

USA Today

"Optimism and other assessments at odds," reads the headline over Matt Kelley, Steven Komarow and Jim Drinkard's story in USA Today.

While Bush "acknowledged some of the challenges that lie ahead in his speech and written plan, critics say the picture Bush painted was missing crucial elements: the ethnic divisions that pose daunting roadblocks to his ideal of a unified democracy; the slow pace of creating military and police units that can operate independently; the resentment engendered by the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq; and an economy hampered by lack of security and by devastated electric and water systems. . . .

" 'The terrorists have made it clear that Iraq is the central front in their war against humanity, and so we must recognize Iraq as the central front in the war on terror,' he said.

"But the president did not mention that al-Qaeda and its allies were drawn to Iraq after the U.S. invaded the country and, in the view of some, underplayed the U.S. presence as a provocation.

" 'Polling data shows the vast majority of the Iraqi people resent being occupied by a foreign military,' says Charles Pena, a conservative defense analyst and critic of Bush's Iraq policies."

The Wall Street Journal

Yochi J. Dreazen and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush sought once again to convince Americans he has a victory strategy in Iraq. But the speech was as notable for what he left out.

"Mr. Bush said that the number of battle-ready Iraqi army and police battalions has grown markedly -- but didn't address accusations that Shiite and Kurdish security forces are torturing and killing Sunni civilians. He said continued progress means 'we will be able to decrease our troop levels' -- but declined to offer a general timetable for when. He said U.S. forces are 'learning from our experiences [and] adjusting our tactics' -- but outlined no new administration strategy. . . .

"In his remarks, Mr. Bush compared the roles played by Iraqi forces in coalition-led assaults on a pair of insurgent strongholds. He noted that, when coalition forces swept into Fallujah last year, American forces did virtually all of the combat and used the Iraqis mainly as backup. During the recent battle in Tal Afar, by contrast, Iraqi forces outnumbered American ones and 'primarily led' the assault, Mr. Bush said.

"But experts warned against extrapolating too heavily from the Tal Afar assault. They noted that Iraqi forces used in the attack were battle-hardened Kurdish fighters, not new recruits trained by Americans. Iraqi forces played an active role, but the experts said American commanders planned the overall assault and sent U.S. forces into areas where the insurgent presence was believed strongest."

Washington Post reporter Jonathan Finer , who covered the battle for Tal Afar for The Washington Post, told MSNBC that Bush didn't tell the whole story. "The president didn't mention that the Iraqi units at the very small unit level . . . were led every step of the way by U.S. special forces soldiers. . . . All those units were also supplied very much by U.S. logistics operations. . . . So I think that to say that progress was made is probably a fair statement, but to say that they are capable of conducting an operation like that on their own, I don't think anyone's ready to make that case just yet."

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush failed to address one of the most vexing issues on the security front -- how to deal with tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Sunni Arabs say they're often brutalized by Shiite security forces, and widespread anecdotal evidence supports their complaints. At the same time, Sunni killing squads tend to target Shiites. And both groups distrust Iraqi Kurds, who want autonomy for their northern region."

Hutcheson also notes: "In his speech, Bush also rolled back some of his earlier rhetoric.

"In November [2004], the president praised Iraqi security forces for their efforts against insurgents in the city of Fallujah. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that Iraqi troops played only a minor role in Fallujah, but said they took the lead in more recent operations in Tal Afar."

And, he writes: "Although Bush's determination to stay the course echoed his previous comments, Wednesday's speech and the newly released war plan effectively repudiated the administration's earlier optimistic predictions that grateful Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops and embrace democracy.

"As recently as June, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the Iraq insurgency was 'in the last throes.'"

The Associated Press

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's depiction of Iraqi security forces as 'helping to turn the tide' is difficult to square with persistent setbacks in handing control of the country back to its own people."

"His suggestion that Americans are solidly behind the mission also understates opposition at home, and his hard sell on the rising quality of Iraqi forces overlooks complexities on the ground."

The San Francisco Chronicle nicely boils down some of Woodward's findings. For instance:

"Bush: 'When you're risking your life to accomplish a mission, the last thing you want to hear is that mission being questioned in our nation's capital. I want you to know that, while there may be a lot of heated rhetoric in Washington, D.C., one thing is not in dispute: The American people stand behind you.'

"Assessment: An AP-Ipsos poll taken in November show 62 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush's Iraq policy, and a majority believe the nation was led falsely into war."

Original Documents

Here is the text of Bush's speech and the White House document titled: "Victory in Iraq."

Insta-Poll Watch

CNN reports: "As President Bush launched a new effort Wednesday to gain public support for the Iraq war, a new poll found most Americans do not believe he has a plan that will achieve victory.

"But the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday night also found nearly six in 10 Americans said U.S. troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq until certain goals are achieved.

"Just 35 percent wanted to set a specific timetable for their exit, as some critics of the war have suggested."

Here are the results.

Asked how they rate the job Bush has done handling the situation in Iraq, 15 percent said very good; 29 percent said good; 25 percent said poor; 29 percent said very poor.

A Step Closer to Reality?

John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins write in the New York Times from Iraq: "For anyone who has spent time in the field with American officers here, President Bush's speech on Wednesday was a watershed: for the first time in the two years since the conflict here turned brutal, the war Mr. Bush described sounded much like the one his generals grapple with every day.

"The president acknowledged problems that have hobbled the American enterprise since the 2003 invasion: An American effort to build up Iraqi forces that went through a top-to-bottom makeover after early deployments of Iraqi troops saw them 'running from the fight.' Iraqi units that are 'still uneven,' despite the new American effort to train and equip them that has cost more than $10 billion. A Sunni Arab community that remains largely unyielding, despite months of efforts by Americans seeking to draw them back into the corridors of power. . . .

"These generals contend the war is winnable, though they do not says so with the tone of certainty that Mr. Bush mustered Wednesday at Annapolis. But they recognize, privately, that for winning to be an achievable goal within the time frame that American politics is likely to allow, things that have rarely gone America's way so far will have to improve steadily over the next 6 to 12 months."

Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti, writing in the Los Angeles Times, read a lot in to the speech that I didn't see, but they may be right:

"Much of the rhetoric was familiar. But in his U.S. Naval Academy speech Wednesday, President Bush seemed to accept the hard realities both on the ground in Iraq and politically in the United States by pledging a smaller American force.

"After months of a lingering disconnect between the White House and senior military commanders, Bush's comments at the academy in Annapolis, Md., seemed to bring him into line not just with America's military but with much of his administration.

"Repeatedly, military commanders have made the case that only a drawdown of U.S. troops would make Iraqi forces take control of their nation's security.

"On Wednesday, Bush finally seemed to buy into the argument. The revised mission would reduce the exposure of U.S. troops to enemy attack and the potential for U.S. casualties."

Or Maybe Not

Doug Struck writes in The Washington Post from Baghdad: "Through the smoke of car bombs on the streets of Baghdad, Ali Kathem has trouble seeing the progress that President Bush described Wednesday in a speech in Annapolis. . . .

"Bush, in his speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, spoke of progress toward independence, of land restored to Iraqi control, of gains in stability and democracy, and of the 'skill and courage' of newly trained Iraqi security forces.

"But on the streets of Baghdad, such optimistic rhetoric contrasts sharply with the thunder of suicide bombs, the scream of ambulance sirens, the roar of racing police cars bearing men with masks and machine guns, and the grim daily reports of assassinations, murders and hostage-taking."

The Analyses

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Thirty-two months after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, President Bush's advisers concluded that his message of 'stay the course' has been translated by a weary American public as 'stay forever.' And so yesterday the president tried to reassure the nation that he has a comprehensive vision for beating the insurgency and eventually bringing U.S. troops home.

"The message was hardly subtle as the White House posted a 35-page 'National Strategy for Victory in Iraq' on its Web site and hung dozens of 'Plan for Victory' signs behind Bush as he addressed midshipmen in Annapolis. But it was intended to reshape the argument against critics who have been gaining traction with congressional calls to withdraw troops immediately or at least set a timetable for pulling out. . . .

"But broadly Bush gave no ground to critics who want a major course change, and the plan he released yesterday offered nothing new substantively. Short of changing conditions on the ground, Bush faces enormous challenges in turning around public attitudes on the war. The American people have grown increasingly sour on Iraq in public polls, and most no longer approve of the way the president is handling the war."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "The backdrop for President Bush's speech on Iraq on Wednesday was designed to send a message to critics who say he has no strategy for winning the war: dozens of placards reading 'Plan for Victory' were arrayed behind him.

"His renewed defense of the war and his refusal to concede mistakes or set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals sent another message: He is staking the rest of his presidency on his conviction that the conflict can be won. 'We will never back down, we will never give in and we will never accept anything less than complete victory,' Bush said.

"But slogans and rhetoric alone won't reverse sagging support for the war or Americans' declining confidence in Bush's leadership, as shown by several polls. Tangible progress and a decline in violence in Iraq may be the only way to solve his political problems."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush chose his venue carefully: the midshipmen at the Naval Academy cheered his arrival, a military band punctuated his arrival and departure, and the stage of a huge hall on the famous campus was adorned with a giant background emblazoned with the words, 'Plan for Victory.'

"It continued his recent trend of giving speeches on the war at military settings where public access is limited and protests are unheard of, including air bases in Alaska and South Korea and a National Guard installation in Pennsylvania.

"Democrats quickly declared the speech a triumph of spin over true strategic overhaul. Leading Congressional Democrats said Mr. Bush never directly addressed the statements by commanders that the large presence of American troops is itself helping to fuel the insurgency. They argued that the 'Plan for Victory' sign was reminiscent of Mr. Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' speech on an aircraft carrier in May 2003. . . .

"Mr. Bush came the closest to acknowledging mistakes in the war -- without calling them that -- since an interview in August 2004 in which he acknowledged a 'miscalculation' in assessing how quickly an insurgency might develop.

"He said that when American and allied forces arrived, 'we began the process of creating an Iraqi Army to defend the country from external threats,' and creating civil defense forces for suppressing trouble within the country's borders."

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "For a man trying to convince Americans that he has a way out of Iraq, President George W. Bush had an unusual way yesterday of going about it.

"He offered no timetables for withdrawal, no new benchmarks for when that could start and not a word about a possible drawdown next year, as others in his administration have hinted at in recent days.

"In fact, Bush even appeared to raise the bar on what it would take to bring American troops out of Iraq -- saying he would settle for nothing less than 'complete victory,' something he admitted would be hard to detect and harder to achieve."

Mike Allen writes for Time: "[R]ead between the lines, and it is clear that the administration is setting a predicate for substantially reducing the 155,000 troops now in Iraq ahead of the midterm congressional elections in November 2006. . . .

"Bush advisers tell Time that the speech and document are aimed at framing a graduated departure from Iraq in the President's own terms, so that he can make it appeared principled and deliberate, rather than a response to pressure from public polls or needling by Democrats. 'People on the Hill say he has to get out of there,' a senior administration official said. 'We're reminding folks there's a plan. The President wants to talk about the way in which we measure progress, going beyond stay-the-course versus a change.' This administration is big on consistency, so the document is laced with quotations from past Bush speeches. But it also gives him leeway by noting that part of staying the course is adapting to changing conditions on the ground."

The Role of the 2006 Elections

Conventional wisdom has it that Bush is under enormous pressure to show progress in Iraq and pull out a sizeable number of troops before the 2006 elections -- or risk a major backlash against his party.

But Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times today that the White House evidently sees 2008 -- not 2006 -- as the real deadline.

"The political calculation behind President Bush's speech in Annapolis on Wednesday is that Washington, not Baghdad, is the battlefront that will decide the ultimate outcome of the war in Iraq, but that Mr. Bush's decisions do not have to be driven by fears of heavy Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections.

"At a time of increasing Democratic attacks on Mr. Bush's handling of the war and a drop in public support for the conflict, Mr. Bush's political advisers assert that they can still hold Congress next year. By their reasoning, there will be only 35 to 40 competitive seats in the House of Representatives, and at this point they see no evidence that the war will be the determining factor in those races. While there may be Democratic gains in the Senate, both parties doubt that the Republicans will lose control. . . .

"The longer term worry of the White House, Mr. Bush's advisers say, is that support for the war could drop so precipitously by the 2008 presidential election that a majority in Congress could demand withdrawal and start to hold back financing -- the 'cut and run' strategy that Mr. Bush both derides and fears."

Newspaper Editorials

A spectrum:

The New York Times: "We've seen it before: an embattled president so swathed in his inner circle that he completely loses touch with the public and wanders around among small knots of people who agree with him. There was Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's, Richard Nixon in the 1970's, and George H. W. Bush in the 1990's. Now it's his son's turn.

"It has been obvious for months that Americans don't believe the war is going just fine, and they needed to hear that President Bush gets that. They wanted to see that he had learned from his mistakes and adjusted his course, and that he had a measurable and realistic plan for making Iraq safe enough to withdraw United States troops. Americans didn't need to be convinced of Mr. Bush's commitment to his idealized version of the war. They needed to be reassured that he recognized the reality of the war."

The Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's speech Wednesday before applauding midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy provided more detail and specifics than his usual 'stay the course' rhetoric on Iraq, but it still lacked a coherent definition of the U.S. military's mission, and therefore offered Americans no sense of when they can be assured that mission will be truly accomplished."

USA Today: "Perhaps by his nature, President Bush can't help but be a cheerleader. Perhaps given the nature of his audience Wednesday -- midshipmen at the Naval Academy training for war -- a resolutely upbeat description of the situation in Iraq was appropriate.

"But if the president's goal in kicking off a series of speeches detailing his Iraq policy was to rebuild support for the war, he missed his moment."

The Washington Post: "Mr. Bush rejected the Democrats' demand for a timetable for withdrawal, saying he would 'settle for nothing less than complete victory.' But such a timetable already exists, drawn up by the generals who report to Mr. Bush and supported by leading Democrats: It calls for the reduction of American forces from 160,000 to 100,000 during 2006. Such a 'phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq' was endorsed by the Senate two weeks ago by a vote of 79 to 19."

The New York Post : "President Bush yesterday traveled to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis to assert that America's overriding goal in the war in Iraq is -- victory.

"That's a strange declaration to be making 33 months after U.S. tanks first rolled into Iraq -- but it was timely, necessary and more than welcome."

The Wall Street Journal: "Our reading of history is that the American people will accept casualties in a war, even heavy casualties, as long as they think their leaders have a strategy to win. So we were glad to see President Bush yesterday begin what the White House says will be a consistent effort to counter the defeatism toward Iraq that has lately taken over so many American politicians and elites."

Bubble Watch

On CNN last night, Lou Dobbs and Dana Bash talked about the Bush bubble.

"DOBBS: President Bush once again today defended the war in Iraq in front of an audience comprised entirely of military personnel. The president appears to be avoiding any contact with average American, increasingly questioning his policies. Critics say the Bush presidency is becoming an isolated presidency."

Bash showed clips of recent Bush speeches at the Naval Academy, Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska and San Diego's naval air station.

"BASH: Lyndon Johnson tried military settings to boost morale for his unpopular war, even traveled to South Vietnam. But some historians say Mr. Bush breaks with presidential tradition by being so openly political with an audience of troops.

"ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, Harry Truman during Korea. They didn't go to military bases to contest what opponents were saying. They would make the argument in a political forum or in a speech before Congress, or in a State of the Union message.

"BASH: To Bush critics it is crass.

"SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The troops don't belong to his point of view. They belong to America and to Americans. They are Americans.

"BASH: The White House defends the events as wartime obligation, not opportunistic.

"NICOLLE WALLACE, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS: There is nobody in this country with more at stake, and a deeper commitment, and a deeper impact on their lives.

"BASH: It is impressive stage craft, [though] some call it preaching to the converted and question whether Bush aides choose these backdrops to avoid confronting skeptical, everyday Americans.

"DALLEK: In the end, it doesn't help him very well, and in fact, I think it does him a disservice.

"BASH: What is not in dispute is that for the embattled president, this is his comfort zone."

In his mid-day briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked about Bush's use of troops as props.

McClellan's response: "The President talks to the American people in a lot of different settings. I guess maybe there's some level of frustration by some people, some of the critics, at the fact that our military fully understands the stakes that are involved, and they understand the importance of succeeding and completing the mission, and winning the war on terrorism."

Odds and Ends

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "The much-hyped 'National Strategy for Victory in Iraq' -- which the White House excitedly described as 'declassified' -- was exceptionally glib in places. 'Our mission in Iraq,' it stated, 'is to win the war.' No, really? If the National Security Council needs to write this in a strategy document, then it really is struggling to find a way out.

"A more likely explanation is that this 'strategy' was never really written for internal consumption."

Wolffe and Bailey also address the credibility issue: "The critical problem for the president is whether the American people believe him. Along with the loss of credibility in the run-up to the invasion, the White House is also suffering from propaganda fatigue on the reconstruction. There have been so many premature declarations of progress, and so many major speeches on Iraq, that this moment sounds much like every other. The challenge now for President Bush lies as much at home as it does in Iraq: to convince Americans that he's being realistic this time without conceding that he hyped the story many times before."

CNN's Wolf Blitzer did a little counting: "The Bush White House is trying to get a fresh start in convincing Americans to stay the course in Iraq. But the president has been talking about Iraq for months. By our account, he's given at least seven major speeches on the war this year and all that talking has not helped his poll numbers."

So did the Think Progress blog, which notes that it took Bush all of 27 seconds to reference September 11.

And blogger Wonkette visually depicts how Bush's message has gone in reverse, from "Mission Accomplished" to "Strategy for Victory" to "Plan for Victory." She wonders if "Brainstorming about Victory" is next.

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