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Looking for a Villain

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 14, 2006; 12:42 PM

President Bush always does better against an enemy. His strongest public support has come when demonizing Osama bin Laden (not hard), Saddam Hussein (a bit harder) -- and then John Kerry (his finest achievement).

But as the morass in Iraq seems to worsen day by day, identifying the enemy there has become increasingly difficult. Is it Sunnis? Shiites? Foreign terrorists? The insurgency? Saddamists? Independent militias? Is it us?

Yesterday brought two strong signs that even as Bush is trying -- and failing -- to placate the public about Iraq, he's increasingly keen to focus attention on a new villain: Iran.

Building up public support for military action against Iran seems like an uphill battle right now. For one, Bush would need to better explain how Iran, even if it had nuclear weapons, was a threat to the United States. And it's not likely that the public -- or the press -- will take his assertions on face value this time.

But if Bush's ability to govern, in either Iraq or his own country, has been overestimated at times, the same cannot be said for his ability to campaign and stoke a nation to war.

A Bush who appears embattled, defensive and quite possibly overwhelmed inevitably leads to lower and lower public approval ratings.

But White House aides are abundantly aware that there's something about the image of a fearless American president boldly kicking butt that seems to fill the public with an enthusiasm that transcends even the issue of whose butt it may be.

The New Villain

The seminal piece on the White House's new focus on Iran came yesterday in The Washington Post. Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler wrote: "As the dispute over its nuclear program arrives at the U.N. Security Council today, Iran has vaulted to the front of the U.S. national security agenda amid Bush administration plans for a sustained campaign against the ayatollahs of Tehran. . . .

"The internal administration debate that raged in the first term between those who advocated more engagement with Iran and those who preferred more confrontation appears in the second term to be largely settled in favor of the latter. . . .

"The focus on Iran inside the administration lately has been striking. Bush, according to aides, has been spending more time on the issue, and advisers have invited 30 to 40 specialists for consultations in recent months. . . .

"Some analysts believe this year will lead to a decision point for Bush whether to use a military option."

There's much more there. Go read it and come back.

Welcome back.

And as it happened, you could see precisely what Baker and Kessler wrote about playing itself out later in the day, when Bush gave the first of a new series of speeches ostensibly about Iraq.

As Jim Axelrod reported on the CBS Evening News: "For a speech designed to build support for the war in Iraq, the biggest headline was accusing Iran of being behind some of the worst violence."

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "In a sign of hardening US rhetoric against Iran and an effort to shift some blame for the turbulence in Iraq, President George W. Bush yesterday accused Tehran of supplying components for some of the most powerful improvised explosive devices used in Iraq."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: " 'It was a very deliberate message at a very crucial moment,' one of Mr. Bush's senior aides said of the president's comments on Iran."

Not Helping

In the run-up to the last war, critics alleged that Bush -- while ostensibly trying to avoid war -- was in fact doing everything in his power to heighten tensions with Iraq.

Could that be the playbook this time around as well?

Karl Vick and David Finkel write in The Washington Post: "Prominent activists inside Iran say President Bush's plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote democracy here is the kind of help they don't need, warning that mere announcement of the U.S. program endangers human rights advocates by tainting them as American agents. . . .

" 'We are under pressure here both from hard-liners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush,' human rights activist Emad Baghi said as he waited anxiously for his wife and daughter to emerge from interrogation last week. 'When he says he wants to promote democracy in Iran, he gives money to these outside groups and we're in here suffering.' "

And John Daniszewski and Alissa J. Rubin write in the Los Angeles Times: "There is a growing body of opinion in Iran that talks with Washington on the nuclear question and regional security issues could be in the country's interest. For the first time, reformers and conservatives appear to be in agreement on that question.

"But as Tehran has shifted toward engagement with Washington, the U.S. has appeared to be moving in the opposite direction. . . .

"U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton said Monday, 'I don't think we have anything to say to the Iranians.' "

We've Been Warned

Niall Ferguson wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion column yesterday: "Members of Congress should beware of underestimating this president, as others have done in the past. They should remember that a second-term president is not necessarily a lame duck -- he is also a man with nothing to lose.

"So my guess is that Bush is going to bite back. And the obvious way for him to do this is over Iran. Last Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney declared: 'We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.' Remind you of anything? It was Cheney who set the pace four years ago as the administration prepared to confront Iraq, insisting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. And the same sequence of events now looks set to replay itself. The U.S. is going to ask the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions if Iran does not halt its program of uranium enrichment. The other permanent members won't agree. And then. . . .

"Well, when those missiles slam into the Iranian nuclear facilities, don't say I didn't warn you."

But Wait

So whither Bush foreign policy?

Option One (above): Bush is gearing up for military action against Iran.

Option Two: Alternately, Bush is turning away from the unilateralism of his past.

David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times yesterday: "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist, and making the case for international engagement on issues from national security to global economics."

Option Three: He doesn't know where he's going at all.

David J. Rothkopf , a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in The Washington Post's Outlook section on Sunday: "The Dick Cheney era of foreign policy is over. . . .

"He's lost his top aide, his public approval ratings are dismal, and his network of supporters inside the administration has dissolved. . . . The result is a kinder, gentler face on foreign policy, but also a void in the Bush administration foreign policy apparatus just where it matters most -- the White House."

In a sidebar to Rothkopf's piece, The Washington Post's Dafna Linzer profiled the Gen-X aides at the heart of that void, in an article accompanied by a cheerful group photo .

"The Vietnam war was waning just as [Meghan] O'Sullivan was becoming cognizant of the world, a kid in suburban Boston. Today, she is charged with guiding President Bush's strategy on Iraq after already having served as a senior adviser in Baghdad shaping the interim Iraqi government. . . .

"For many of the generals with whom O'Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O'Sullivan. 'We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn't mean we don't try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it's not my first frame of reference and I think that's a good thing,' said O'Sullivan."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, eager to respond to your questions and comments .

Meanwhile, About Iraq

The president who has very publicly rejected setting any timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq -- saying that to do so would help the enemy -- has been slipping a deadline of sorts into his speeches lately.

Here's the transcript of yesterday's speech.

Peter Baker writes for washingtonpost.com: "President Bush vowed yesterday to turn over most of Iraq to newly trained Iraqi troops by the end of this year, setting a specific benchmark as he kicked off a fresh drive to reassure Americans alarmed by the recent burst of sectarian violence. . . .

"The White House said yesterday that the speech was the first time the president had set a target of turning over most of Iraq to Iraqi forces in 2006. But White House officials this morning corrected that, saying Bush had offered the same formula in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in January. His pledge then was overlooked by reporters and not mentioned in the coverage of the event."

Sanger writes in the New York Times: "In advance of the speech, one of Mr. Bush's aides said last week that 'at various moments, we have had to get the president out there to reassure people, re-explain the strategy, and make it clear that we have a long-term approach.'

"But the frequency of those presidential messages seems to be increasing as the situation in Iraq grows more volatile."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column: "Bush, who betrays not a millimeter of doubt about his Iraq strategy, long ago supplanted Bob Dole as the most optimistic man in America. . . .

"On Iraq, the president's refrain has become so routine that many Americans could sing the chorus:

" 'We are making progress in the march of freedom.'

" 'As Iraqis stand up, America and our coalition will stand down.'

" 'We're on the hunt for the enemy.' . . .

"Bush did speak of hardships -- but always as a prelude to victory. In Iraq, he said, 'we will deny the terrorists a safe haven . . . we will gain an ally . . . we will inspire reformers . . . we'll bring hope to a troubled region.' In Bush's future, there is no conditional tense."

Blame the Press?

The Los Angeles Times reports: "During his speech about Iraq on Monday, President Bush criticized a newspaper article that he said revealed sensitive information about the Pentagon's effort to combat improvised explosive devices, the makeshift roadside bombs responsible for thousands of injuries and deaths. White House officials later said that Bush was referring to a Feb. 12 report in the Los Angeles Times.

" 'Within five days of the publication, using details from that article, the enemy had posted instructions for defeating this new technology on the Internet,' Bush said. 'We cannot let the enemy know how we're working to defeat them.' "

Not so fast, says the Times: "The article did not provide specific information about the technology, and The Times deliberately withheld some details about the neutralizers from its report . . .

"The Times spoke to several Defense Department officials before the article appeared. None expressed concern that publication could endanger U.S. troops."

Bush's Legacy

Susan Page writes in USA Today with the unsurprising news: "Three years after the U.S.-led invasion, the war in Iraq is dominating George W. Bush's presidency and defining his legacy. . . .

"Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the Iraq war will be what Bush is most remembered for, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Just 18% cite the president's efforts against terrorism, 10% his response to Hurricane Katrina, 5% his Supreme Court appointments. Tax cuts, the hallmark of his first year in office, were chosen by 2%."

Poll Watch

From that same poll, CNN reports: "Growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has driven President Bush's approval rating to a new low of 36 percent, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday."

Here are the full results .

A new CBS News poll "finds the American public is increasingly convinced that the war in Iraq is going badly and may not get any better. An overwhelming number say Iraq is currently in a civil war, and nearly half think the U.S. effort there will not succeed. . . .

"A separate poll finds the negative feelings about the war even extend to Americans with close military ties to Iraq (either serving there themselves or having a family member there).

"Fifty-eight percent of Americans in the military (or with family members who serve) and 52 percent of those who have served or have family members in Iraq think things there are going badly for the U.S., about the same percentage as other Americans. Just over four in 10 of each group thinks the war is going well."

The Wall Street Journal reports: "President Bush's job-approval ratings continue to slip, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. . . .

"Mr. Bush's current job-approval ratings stand at 36% in March, down from 40% in February and 43% in January, but still slightly above the low point of 34% registered in November 2005."

Medicare Watch

Bush is in Canandaigua, N.Y., today to talk about the Medicare prescription benefit. It's a tough sell.

Robert Pear wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "Pharmacists say they have been losing money under Medicare's new prescription drug benefit, and they have taken their concerns to the White House, forcing the administration to confront political problems caused by the rocky start of the program.

"In a meeting last week with Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, the druggists said many independent pharmacies might have to shut their doors because they were not being paid adequately or promptly under Medicare. In the last two months, they said, pharmacists have given away millions of dollars' worth of medications for which Medicare drug plans should have paid."

Weepy President

Bush was greeted at the Rochester Airport this morning by Jason McElwain , the autistic local student who managed his high school's basketball team, was added to the roster in the final game of the season so he could get a jersey -- and scored 20 points in three minutes as the crowd went wild.

Here's the transcript .

"Q Mr. President, how did you hear about the story and what's your reaction?

" THE PRESIDENT: Saw it on TV. Saw it on TV and I wept, just like a lot of other people. It's just one of those stories that touched a lot of people's hearts."

Censure Watch

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats sharpened their attack yesterday on President Bush's warrantless surveillance of Americans, with a liberal senator introducing a censure resolution and party leaders showing a willingness to debate the matter.

"Some party strategists, however, worried that voters will see the move as overreaching partisanship, and Republicans pounced, practically daring Democrats to vote for the measure. . . .

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Democrats' hesitancy was a sign they remained reluctant to challenge Mr. Bush on some national security questions even as he was struggling in public opinion polls and set back on the transfer of some American port operations to an Arab company."

Vice President Cheney didn't mince words. "Some Democrats in Congress have decided the president is the enemy," Cheney said, according to the Associated Press .

Here is the text of Sen. Russell Feingold's resolution.

Claude Allen Watch

Ernesto Londoño writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House adviser Claude A. Allen admitted 'that he was committing fraudulent returns' on Jan 2. when a store manager confronted him as he was leaving a Gaithersburg Target with merchandise he allegedly didn't pay for, a police charging document says."

Ian Urbina and David D. Kirkpatrick write in the New York Times: "The arrest was a puzzling turn in a career that had been on a straight climb. After coming to Washington as a staff member for Jesse Helms, the former Republican senator from North Carolina, he became a protégé of Justice Clarence Thomas and eventually an adviser to the president."

An 'Evil Twin' Defense?

Blogger Josh Marshall calls attention to yesterday's All Things Considered on NPR in which Michele Norris interviews Post White House reporter Michael Fletcher:

"Norris: We should note something, Michael. Apparently Claude Allen has a twin brother?

"Fletcher: Yes, he does. He has an identical twin brother who even close friends can't tell them apart when they see them. And people have seen him and close friends say that Mr. Allen has indicated to them that maybe his brother holds the key to this entire puzzling affair."

Indeed, in the New York Times story, Allen's stepmother is quoted as saying that Floyd was the twin who "kept running into bad times," while Claude intervened repeatedly to help him.

Marshall has yearbook photos of the twins and everything.

Valerie Plame Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Vanity Fair is reporting that former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee says it is reasonable to assume former State Department official Richard L. Armitage is likely the source who revealed CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. . . .

"In an interview yesterday, Bradlee said he does know the identity of Woodward's source and does not recall making that precise statement to a Vanity Fair reporter."

David Gregory Watch

Howard Kurtz profiles NBC White House correspondent David Gregory in The Washington Post: "After six years on the beat, Gregory is emerging as the Sam Donaldson of the Bush years, the outspoken, aggressive, smart-aleck correspondent serving as a symbol for conservatives who detest the press and liberals who want reporters to crusade against the White House."

Gone in a Puff of Pastry

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Thaddeus DuBois just landed himself one sweet deal. The White House executive pastry chef is leaving after just 18 months for the greener pastures of casino chocolate chips. DuBois, who came from the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, will become the executive chef at Boyd Gaming Corp.'s new hotel in Las Vegas.

"The first lady hired DuBois in September of 2004, following the retirement of Roland Mesnier, who held the job for 25 years."

The New York Times reports that the sweets-maker was a bit bitter yesterday: " 'Roland's name always comes up in stories about me,' he said, 'and it's always negative to me and positive to Roland. Because I didn't stay here 20 years doesn't diminish my abilities or skills.' "

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