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A Rebellion Around the Edges

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 17, 2006; 12:03 PM

So Republicans in Congress are telling President Bush they're sick and tired of being pushed around and aren't going to take it anymore?

So we hear. And yet their rebellion is only around the edges. Sure they forced Bush to back down on a deal that would have put port operations in the hands of the United Arab Emirates. But where's the oversight?

The Republican Congress's response to Bush's wildly unbalanced budget? Unbalance it some more.

The response to Bush's domestic spying initiative, which is by most reckonings a violation of Congress's own statutes? Figure out a way to make it legal.

And when it comes to the many controversial and still mysterious issues at the heart of the Bush presidency -- among them, why he went to war, how abuse and torture became a widespread military practice, why the war has been so costly in lives and money, etc. etc. -- the Republican-controlled Congress remains not only unrebellious but actively and intentionally incurious.

About That Rebellion

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's troubles with congressional Republicans, which erupted during the backlash to the Dubai seaport deal, are rooted in policy frustrations and personal resentments that GOP lawmakers say stretch back to the opening days of the administration."

VandeHei writes that, privately, many lawmakers have long "felt underappreciated, ignored and sometimes bullied by what they regarded as a White House intent on running government with little input from them. Often it was to pass items -- an expanded federal role in education under the No Child Left Behind law and an expensive prescription drug benefit under Medicare -- that left conservatives deeply uneasy. . . .

"Congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein has written that the recently vented anger, after being suppressed for years out of loyalty or fear, might be seen in psychological terms. He called the condition 'battered-Congress syndrome.' "

Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is shocked to realize that Bush is not at heart a fiscal conservative.

"Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?" she asks.

"That's not what I understood him to mean. If I'd thought he was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican--that is, if I'd thought he was a man who could not imagine and had never absorbed the damage big spending does--I wouldn't have voted for him."

Liberal blogger Brad DeLong is not impressed: "Peggy Noonan and the rest of the plastic Republican chattering teeth did not think back in 2000 that Bush's 'compassionate conservatism' meant that he was a spender, they thought it meant that he was a liar--and that they were in on the con. . . .

"Now they are surprised--and shrill--to learn that George W. Bush was lying to them too."

And what is the Republican Congress's response to this discovery?

As Dana Milbank observes in The Washington Post this morning: A "Vote-a-Rama" in the Senate yesterday, where members raised the federal debt limit to $9 trillion, then "did their darnedest to empty the Treasury."

Staff Shakeup Watch

VandeHei also brings us up to speed on the latest news about possible White House staff changes.

"In private conversations with lawmakers in recent days, top officials have hinted that Bush is open to bringing aboard new high-level staffers, including perhaps a former lawmaker or two. With the recent departure of domestic policy chief Claude A. Allen, now facing criminal theft charges, Bush has positions to fill and every incentive to use those openings to rebuild relations with Capitol Hill.

"A senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Bush is moving to hold more face-to-face meetings with legislators but has no immediate plans to fire any staff."

Howard Kurtz writes for washingtonpost.com that this is a big non-story hyped by the press. "Somehow Washington journalists, in their collective wisdom (not to mention genuine concern for President Bush's political health), have divined that the president needs some fresh blood to revitalize his administration," he writes.

National Security Strategy

Here's the transcript of a speech by national security adviser Stephen Hadley yesterday about the new National Security Strategy. (See yesterday's column, Preemptive Strike Out.)

Here's a chilling aspect of the strategy that seems to have gone under the media's radar: The Federation of American Scientists notes: "The new National Security Strategy published yesterday by the White House strengthens the role of nuclear weapons in preemptive military strikes against terrorists and hostile states armed with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. In stronger language than used in the previous strategy from 2002, the new strategy speaks more directly about the importance of nuclear weapons and lumps them together with other military action in a preemption scenario."

For instance, in the section on preemption, the strategy states: "Safe, credible, and reliable nuclear forces continue to play a critical role. We are strengthening deterrence by developing a New Triad composed of offensive strike systems (both nuclear and improved conventional capabilities)."

Too Much Emphasis on Democracy?

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Even as it presents an updated national security strategy, the Bush administration is facing fresh doubts from some Republicans who say its emphasis on promoting democracy around the world has come at the expense of protecting other American interests.

"The second thoughts signify a striking change in mood over one of President Bush's cherished tenets, pitting Republicans who call themselves realists against the neoconservatives who saw the invasion of Iraq as a catalyst for change and who remain the most vigorous advocates of a muscular American campaign to foster democratic movements."

CNN's Lou Dobbs had noted neoconservative and war-supporter-turned-opponent Francis Fukuyama on last night. Dobbs asked about preemption.

"FUKUYAMA: Well, I think that policy began after September 11th, this idea that if you have undeterrable terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, you can't stop them, so you have to go out and get them. But it was applied to Iraq, which was not that problem.

"It was a rogue state that could have been handled, I think, in very different ways. And the problem with this preemptive doctrine, is first of all, it requires that you actually predict the future and given the intelligence that we had on Iraqi WMD, it doesn't give you a lot of confidence that we'll be able to do it well in the future. . . .

"So, I think that's why the great German statesman Bismarck said that preventive war is committing a suicide for fear of being killed. I mean, that's what it amounts to."

The Lessons of Iraq

Hearst columnist Helen Thomas went on a tear at yesterday's press briefing.

"Q Does the President know that he's in violation of international law when he advocates preemptive war? The U.N. Charter, Geneva, Nuremberg. We violate international law when we advocate attacking a country that did not attack us.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I would just disagree with your assessment. First of all, preemption is a longstanding principle of American foreign --

"Q It's not a long-standing principle with us. It's your principle.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Have you asked your question?

"Q It's a violation of international law.

"MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, let me back up, preemption is a longstanding principle of American foreign policy. It is also part --

"Q It's never been.

"MR. McCLELLAN: It is also part of an inherent right to self-defense. But what we seek to do is to address issues diplomatically by working with our friends and allies, and working with regional partners. That's what we're doing when it comes to the threat posed by Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. That's what we're doing when it comes to resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea. So we seek diplomatic solutions to confront threats.

"And it's important what September 11th taught us --

"Q The heavy emphasis of your paper today is war and preemptive war.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Can I finish responding to your question, because I think it's important to answer your question. It's a good question and it's a fair question. But first of all, are we supposed to wait until a threat fully materializes and then respond? September 11th -- ...

"Q You had no threat from Iraq.

"MR. McCLELLAN: September 11th taught us --

"Q That was not a threat from Iraq."

McClellan also denied that the heavily-publicized offensive launched in Iraq yesterday was tied to the new campaign to change war opinion. Bush "knows about the operation, he's been briefed on it, but this is a decision that is made by commanders," he said.

Unhappy Anniversary

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Three years after the invasion of Iraq, more than half of Americans say the war there has touched their own lives, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll finds. By nearly 3-to-1, they say that impact has been a negative one. . . .

"In March 2003, Americans by 3-to-1 said the U.S. action in Iraq was morally justified; now 50% say it's not. A month after the invasion, 85% said the war was going well; now 60% say it's going badly.

"A record 60% say the war hasn't been 'worth it.' "

Here are the poll results.

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "After almost 1,100 days of war, 2,311 U.S. deaths, more than a quarter of a trillion dollars spent and no end of turmoil in sight, most Americans say the war was a mistake. . . .

"Yet Bush expresses no more doubt today than he did in March 2003, insisting that taking out Hussein has made America safer, no matter the sacrifice to the country or the damage to his presidency. . . .

" 'I don't blame the administration . . . for making mistakes. I blame them for when mistakes are made and identified, not changing course,'' said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, [D-Calif.] who voted in October 2002 to give Bush the authority to wage war, and now says she regrets her vote.

" 'What worries me more than anything is the fatal disconnect this president exhibits every day. That arrogance and hubris has cost us lives of good people, and I don't see it stopping,' Tauscher said."

David Gregory reports on the NBC Nightly News: "Iraq, says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, has enveloped the Bush presidency.

" 'And no matter what the president says, if events on the ground don't match what he hopes to have happen,' says McInturff, 'these numbers about Iraq will continue to get softer or worse.' . . .

"White House aides admit that a month-long effort to sell ideas from the State of the Union address has been lost to bad news.

" 'What history suggests, and you look at Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson with Korea and Vietnam,' says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, 'is that when a president has an unpopular war, until people feel better about it, they're not going to listen to him.' "

From a USA Today editorial: "The Iraq invasion, far from being a success, provides a cautionary tale about just why strike-first needs to remain, as in the past, the final option. In Iraq, it vaulted to the top of the agenda. Key administration figures -- notably Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- had been itching for a war with Iraq long before 9/11. After the terror attacks, they asserted links between Saddam and al-Qaeda where there was none. . . .

"In Iraq, the Bush Doctrine has been much like that Wild West dictum: Shoot first, ask questions later. Now it's time to return pre-emption to its proper place in U.S. foreign policy: for use only when the threat is imminent, the intelligence is bulletproof, and the use of military action is the last resort, preferably with allies on board. Then make sure you have a plan for what to do next."

Costly Travel

Rep. Henry Waxman and the minority staff of the House government reform committee yesterday released a report showing that taxpayers pay over 95 percent of the cost of flights by the president and vice president for campaign-related events. "Using figures from 2002, the last time the President and Vice President traveled on behalf of others in a nonpresidential election cycle, the report projects that taxpayers will spend over $7 million in 2006 on presidential and vice presidential political travel."

As far as I can tell, not a single news outlet picked up this story this morning.

Censure Watch

Scott Shepard writes for Cox News Service: "U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's effort to censure President Bush has sent his fellow Democrats scurrying for political safety, but a poll released Thursday suggests nearly half of Americans favor such a move.

"A poll by the nonpartisan American Research Group found that 46 percent of Americans support censuring Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans without obtaining court orders, as part of the administration's effort to fight terrorism."

Here are the poll results.

The poll shows only somewhat less support for impeachment, with 42 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.

Pollster Dick Bennett tells blogger Taegan Goddard Wire: "Respondents view censure and impeachment differently as 21% of those who favor censure oppose impeachment, while 12% of those who oppose censure favor impeachment."

So, if I've done my math right, that means 51 percent of the American public support either censure or impeachment.

The same certainly can't be said of Congress.

Feingold held a press conference yesterday to defend his proposal of the censure resolution.

"It seems to me appropriate, when the spin machines are out there and people are using various language, to come out and reiterate my reasons for doing this," he said. "I think that the press decided immediately that somehow this was a bad thing for Democrats and a good thing for conservatives. The facts don't bear it out. You don't have the polls to prove it."

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Democrats, who have benefited politically from Bush's troubles in Iraq and have started to make inroads on Bush's signature issue of national security, fear that Feingold's measure goes too far and could alienate centrist voters. Criticizing Bush is one thing, they worry, but a move to humiliate the commander in chief could make them look mean, out of touch and perhaps irresponsible--not to mention energizing the Republican base. . . .

"When asked about the censure resolution, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a glimpse Thursday into the criticism some Democrats fear if the issue is pursued. He delivered a stinging criticism of Feingold, saying: 'Sometimes you begin to wonder if he's more interested in the safety and security of the terrorists as opposed to the American people.' "

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Democrats, unlike Republicans, have yet to develop a healthy relationship between activists willing to test and expand the conventional limits on political debate and the politicians who have to calculate what works in creating an electoral majority.

"For two decades, Republicans have used their idealists, their ideologues and their loudmouths to push the boundaries of discussion to the right. In the best of all worlds, Feingold's strong stand would redefine what's 'moderate' and make clear that those challenging the legality of the wiretapping are neither extreme nor soft on terrorism."

David Addington Watch

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers takes a stab at profiling an unwilling subject: "Most people have never heard of David Addington, but he's been at the center of nearly every controversy shaking the White House.

"President Bush's eavesdropping program, the so-called torture memo, the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the administration's penchant for secrecy - all bear his fingerprints. Addington's influence is especially remarkable because he doesn't work for Bush, he works for Vice President Dick Cheney."

India Watch

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "Bush administration officials said yesterday that they expect months of negotiations with Congress over a nuclear cooperation deal in the works with India but asked lawmakers to begin changes now to U.S. laws to accommodate a future agreement. . . .

"Republicans and Democrats have hailed White House efforts to improve U.S.-India relations less than a decade after the two nations were estranged over India's nuclear ambitions. But some in Congress are concerned about the agreement, which would provide U.S. nuclear power assistance to India while allowing the country to substantially step up its nuclear weapons production."

Scooter Libby Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The CIA leak case of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby may be heading for a new battle between the news media and the courts, the second such confrontation triggered by the Valerie Plame affair.

"Lawyers for Libby are casting a wide net for information from news organizations for his upcoming criminal trial, subpoenaing documents from The New York Times, Time magazine and three reporters, including NBC correspondent Tim Russert. . . .

"The subpoenaed reporters and news organizations have until April 7 to turn over the material or challenge the subpoenas before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who will preside at Libby's trial scheduled for next January."

A Cabinet Change

Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post: "President Bush named Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne as the new secretary of the interior yesterday, choosing a popular Western Republican with Washington experience and a disputed environmental record to oversee the nation's parks and public lands.

"If confirmed, Kempthorne would succeed Gale A. Norton, who announced her resignation this month at a time when her department is tied up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal."

Here's the transcript of Bush's announcement.

Fearless Headliner

Bush was the headliner at a big Republican fundraiser last night.

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush delivered a partisan pep talk Thursday night to Republicans who may be jittery about midterm elections while his approval rating is at an all-time low.

" 'We don't fear the future,' Bush told donors who contributed $8 million Thursday night to support Republican House candidates. 'We welcome it.' "

Here's the text of his speech. Bush also said: "We believe we should not fear the future, but we should shape the future" and "Ours is the party that can see into the future. We don't fear it, we welcome it, because we intend to continue to lead."

It Lives!

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A White House civil liberties panel created more than a year ago to monitor the effects on ordinary citizens of the war on terrorism took its first significant action this week.

"It met."

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