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In Case of Civil War, What?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 6, 2006; 12:24 PM

If sectarian violence continues to increase in Iraq, what will President Bush do?

Nobody knows, of course, because even as the public increasingly sees the situation in Iraq headed toward all-out civil war, Bush's official position is denial.

Just last week, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas tried repeatedly to get Bush to address the issue. "What is the policy if, in fact, a civil war should break out or the sectarian violence continues?" she asked. "Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to get the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop killing each other?

Bush's reply: "I don't buy your premise that there's going to be a civil war."

A few more back-and-forths later, Vargas asked: "So let me make sure I understand you. No matter what happens with the level of sectarian violence, the U.S. troops will stay there?"

Buth replied: "The U.S. troops will stay there so long as -- until the Iraqis can defend themselves. I mean, my policy has not changed. To summarize it, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

Richard Morin writes for washingtonpost.com this morning: "An overwhelming majority of the public believe fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war and half say the U.S. should begin withdrawing its forces from that violence-torn country, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll."

Last week's Gallup poll found that 73 percent of the public thinks a major civil war is likely -- and that 65 percent said the U.S. should withdraw some or all troops now.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush barreled straight ahead with old answers when ABC's Elizabeth Vargas asked him a new question about Iraq last week. And like any driver who missed a turn in the road, the president quickly found himself in a ditch. . . .

"[T]he president gave no hint he'd considered how the widening gulf between Sunni and Shiite might alter America's strategy. Instead, he summoned old sound bites, as if cueing them on tape."

Brownstein concludes: "If Iraq is morphing from a struggle against insurgents into something more like a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, Bush's responses to Vargas raise more questions than they answer. What does 'chasing down terrorists' mean when neighbors are killing neighbors? And does training the Iraqi forces to 'stand up' point toward greater stability, or greater friction, when many Sunnis see the military as the weapon of the Shiites?"

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: "Washington tended to see Iraq through a prism of fantasy rather than reality. It imagined Iraq as a secular, educated society rather than one composed of three distinct communities. . . .

"In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the military-affairs scholar Stephen Biddle has written a powerful and persuasive critique of administration policy that centers on Iraqification. 'Iraq's Sunnis,' he writes, 'perceive the "national" army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. . . . The more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.' Biddle's argument is that the central plank of current administration policy 'standing up' an Iraqi Army -- is not just unhelpful but actively producing the negative spiral we are watching. . . .

"In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush took a swipe at critics. 'Hindsight alone is not wisdom,' he said. In fact, the tragedy of Iraq is that most of these critiques were made -- by several people -- at the time the policies were announced, often before. It's the president who needs to look back and learn from his mistakes. Hindsight may not be the only wisdom, but it is a lot better than operating in the dark."

Pace vs. Murtha

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) faced off on the Sunday talk shows. Here's Pace with Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press.

Are things going well or badly in Iraq? "I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at," Pace said.

What about General George Casey saying, in response to a question about civil war, that "anything can happen"?

"GEN. PACE: Anything can happen, and I agree with George Casey, and he's a very practical commander because he needs to be focused on the worst that could happen so he can be ready for it. Having said that, I believe that the Iraqi people having shown -- shown in the last week to 10 days that they do not want a civil war."

Here's Murtha on CBS's Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer .

Schieffer: "I want to start by quoting something that General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said this morning on 'Meet the Press.' He said he believes the war in Iraq is going, in his words, 'very, very well.' What is your assessment?"

Murtha: "Why would I believe him? I mean, that administration, this administration, including the president, had mischaracterized this war for the last two years. They, first of all, they said it will take 40,000 troops to settle this thing right after the invasion. Then they said there's no insurgency. They're dead-enders is what the secretary of defense said. On and on and on, the mischaracterization of the war. They said there's nuclear weapons. There are no nuclear weapons there. There are no biological weapons there. No al-Qaeda connection. So why would I believe the chairman of the joint chiefs when he says things are going well? . . .

"[W]e've made no progress at all. Sixty percent unemployment, the Iraqis want us out of there. Eighty percent of the Iraqis want us out of there. Oil production below prewar level. Water production, only 30 percent of the people getting water. Now our troops are being fed well and being taken care of. They're doing everything they can do militarily. But they're in a situation where they're caught in a civil war."

The Iraq Paradox

Even though the public seems to have made up its mind that it's time to start getting out of Iraq, there are few members of either party aside from Murtha actively calling for Bush to change tack.

And Editor and Publisher notes that "newspaper editorials remain virtually silent on the subject" as well.

Line-Item Veto Watch

You've got to give Bush credit for chutzpah.

He hasn't vetoed a bill in five years. Relations with the Republican-led Congress are suddenly very testy. There are increasing concerns that the executive branch has repeatedly exceeded its Constitutional authority.

So what does he do? Ask for a line-item veto, that's what. (And never mind that the Supreme Court ruled the last line-item veto attempt unconstitutional.)

This morning, at the swearing-in of the new chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, Bush announced he would transmit to Congress a new line-item veto proposal. Here's the transcript .

Reuters reports: "Bush said the proposal would be designed 'to meet Supreme Court standards' and would 'give me the authority to strip special interest spending and earmarks out of a bill and then send them back to Congress for an up or down vote.' "

Bush mentioned the line-item veto in his State of the Union speech in January, leading to much head-scratching at the time. But in fact, Bush has mentioned his desire for the authority to micromanage Congressional bills several times before.

Maybe Not the Best Time?

Gail Russell Chaddock writes for the Christian Science Monitor that the Republican rebellion has spread from the Senate to the House.

"Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, will propose legislation that not only axes a Dubai firm's takeover of terminals at six American ports but also would require all foreign owners to divest management of US port facilities and other assets deemed critical to national security. . . .

"Later in the week, the International Relations Committee is expected to begin tough hearings examining Mr. Bush's proposed US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which provides American assistance to India's nuclear power industry but does not require concessions on its nuclear weapons program."

(Non) Oversight Watch

But the New York Times editorial board doesn't see Congress giving Bush much of a fight about anything important: "Imagine being stopped for speeding and having the local legislature raise the limit so you won't have to pay the fine. It sounds absurd, but it's just what is happening to the 28-year-old law that prohibits the president from spying on Americans without getting a warrant from a judge.

"It's a familiar pattern. President Bush ignores the Constitution and the laws of the land, and the cowardly, rigidly partisan majority in Congress helps him out by rewriting the laws he's broken."

White House vs. the Press

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, has launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources. The efforts include several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws. . . .

"Some media watchers, lawyers and editors say that, taken together, the incidents represent perhaps the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation, and that they have worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.

" 'There's a tone of gleeful relish in the way they talk about dragging reporters before grand juries, their appetite for withholding information, and the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors,' said New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, in a statement responding to questions from The Washington Post. 'I don't know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values it professes to be promoting abroad.' "

Howard Kurtz had David Gergen on his CNN show on Sunday. Said Gergen: "This administration has engaged in secrecy at a level we have not seen in over 30 years. Unfortunately, I have to bring up the name of Richard Nixon, because we haven't seen it since the days of Nixon. And now what they're doing -- and they're using the war on terror to justify -- is they're starting to target journalists who try to pierce the veil of secrecy and find things and put them in the newspapers."

Entirely lost in Bush's enthusiasm to plug leaks -- or perhaps intentionally obfuscated -- is the distinction between leaks of mission-critical national security secrets motivated by treason or money, on the one hand, and leaks of embarrassing secrets motivated by a desire to give the public a chance to understand and render judgment on important and decisions its elected leaders are making.

As Eggen notes, Bush has called the NSA leak "a shameful act" that was "helping the enemy." But no one in the administration has yet to provide a vaguely coherent answer to this question: How is it possibly relevant to terrorists whether their conversations are being wiretapped with or without a warrant? It is, of course, hugely relevant to the Constitution.

South Asia Redux

Jim Vandehei and John Lancaster write in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Saturday praised Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for his efforts in hunting down al-Qaeda operatives inside his country and his long-term commitment to democracy during a day-long visit to the capital. . . .

"Bush offered guarded praise of Musharraf's democratic moves since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He did not mention Musharraf's refusal to step down as army chief, which the Pakistani leader had promised to do as part of a democratization process. Nor did Bush echo the concerns of some inside the administration that Musharraf continues to stifle religious and other freedoms."

A protest before Bush's appearance "was supposed to have been much larger, but early Saturday morning, police detained the leader of the party, former international cricket star Imran Khan, and placed him under house arrest, along with about a dozen other party officials, according to a party leader who remained at large and declined to be named for fear that he could be arrested."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Through five days and three countries last week, George W. Bush got a little of what beleaguered American presidents always look for on foreign trips: a chance to set aside problems at home."

Here are lots of White House documents related to the trip.

Nuclear Agreement Questions

David E. Sanger has lots of questions in the New York Times: "Has President Bush just made the world a safer or a more dangerous place? . . .

"[W]ill other countries with nuclear ambitions react by becoming more responsible, as the administration hopes, or more envious and more determined than ever to expand their own arsenals? And will India use its new access to American-branded nuclear fuel to free up its domestic supplies of uranium to make bomb fuel for new weapons? And how will the deal affect the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, or for that matter China?"

Burt Herman writes for the Associated Press: "A U.S. deal offering India help with its civilian nuclear program could further stymie arms talks with North Korea and push China to step up its own atomic dealmaking in the region, experts say."

And who benefits from the proposed pact? Catherine Dodge and Richard Keil write for Bloomberg: "The agreement . . . would open the way for companies such as General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Electric Co. to sell power plant equipment and expertise to India."

The China Factor

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A key factor behind the nuclear cooperation agreement reached this week between the United States and India was a simple trade-off: The White House was willing to risk losing ground in the worldwide campaign to limit the spread of nuclear weapons for a deal with India that could help it counter the rising power of China."

Not Exactly Cricket

Reuters reports: "After all the security concerns surrounding President George W. Bush's visit to Pakistan on Saturday, he was first hit by a bouncer then fooled by a googly.

"But there was no call for worry, it all happened when Bush tried his hand at cricket -- a hugely popular sport in parts of the old British Empire, and nowhere more so than in South Asia.

"Bush, an avid baseball fan, batted and bowled several times on a practice cricket pitch set up in the grounds of the U.S. embassy in the capital of cricket-mad Pakistan. . . .

"One ball pitched short, a bouncer in cricket terminology, kicked up off the turf to strike the president on the shoulder.

"Luckily, he was playing with tennis balls, much softer than rock-hard cricket balls."

Here are some Associated Press photos of Bush getting hit by the tennis ball.

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that "Bush jokingly glared at the bowler as if angry."

Cheney's Ratings

Richard Morin writes in The Washington Post: "How bad is a rating of 18 percent? According to a quick review of polling archives, it arguably makes Cheney. . . .

"* Less popular with Americans than Joseph Stalin is with Russians. In 2003, fully 20 percent said Stalin, blamed for millions of deaths in the former Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, was a 'wise and humane' leader. . . .

"* Much less popular than former Vice President Spiro Agnew in his final days in office."

But Cheney's 18 percent job approval rating in the CBS News poll may turn out to be a statistical outlier.

Pollingreport.com shows that a Fox News poll last week had Cheney at 35 percent, while Gallup had Cheney at 40 percent, actually higher than Bush's 38 percent.

Civil Liberties Board Wakes

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "For more than a year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has been the most invisible office in the White House. Created by Congress in December 2004 as a result of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the board has never hired a staff or even held a meeting. Next week, Newsweek has learned, that is due to finally change when the board's five members are slated to be sworn in at the White House and convene their first session. . . .

"Renewed concerns about the White House's commitment came just a few weeks ago when President Bush's new budget was released -- with no listing for money for the civil liberties board."

How Much Will This Trip Cost Taxpayers?

Todd J. Gillman and G. Robert Hillman write in the Dallas Morning News: "President Bush added a side trip to his Texas ranch to vote in Tuesday's Republican primary after aides apparently forgot to order an absentee ballot."

Impeachment Watch

Jeanne Cummings writes in the Wall Street Journal that Democratic Party leaders are keeping their distance from impeachment talk.

"They remember how the effort boomeranged on Republicans in the 1998 midterm elections, when Mr. Clinton's adversaries expected to gain House seats but lost ground instead. . . .

"A House resolution offered by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan seeking an initial impeachment inquiry has attracted support from just 26 of 201 House Democrats. Even Mr. Conyers, the ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat, allows, 'This isn't something we have to do right away.' "

War Crimes Watch

Rob Jennings writes in the Parsippany, N.J., Daily Record: "The war crimes 'trial' of President Bush in a Parsippany High School classroom resumed Friday with one significant change. It really was no longer a trial.

"School officials responded to a national uproar by letting the classroom mock tribunal proceed, but decided that the five-teacher 'international court of justice' would not render a verdict when closing arguments conclude early next week."

Oscar (Non) Humor Watch

Great news for Bush at last night's Oscars. Not only did Bush-bashing Daily Show host Jon Stewart shy away from making even a single Bush joke -- but he bombed.

Ted Johnson writes for Variety that "Stewart ignored the advice of political guru Karl Rove: Shore up the base. . . .

"Stewart avoided President Bush and ports and wiretapping and Hurricane Katrina. He steered clear of political darts, save for a Dick Cheney joke. 'Bjork was not able to be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.'"

Here, by the way, is a photo of Bjork's famous "swan outfit" from the 2001 Oscars.

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