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The War Over the War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 15, 2006; 12:14 PM

President Bush could have declared a change of course in his overwhelmingly unpopular war in Iraq this week.

Riding high on a few rare glimmers of good news, Bush could have declared that it was time for the U.S. to start its exodus from that troubled country, thereby offering the public a light at the end of the tunnel -- and possibly uniting a deeply fractured country in the anticipation of our troops coming home.

But instead, Bush yesterday made it clear: Not only is he set in his path -- he's embracing the divisive nature of the war and declaring it the No. 1 campaign issue of the 2006 mid-term elections.

It's somehow appropriate that this was also the week that Bush political guru Karl Rove slipped the clutches of the CIA leak investigation. For it is Rove who is the mastermind of the war over the war.

Rove, in New Hampshire on Monday night, trumpeted the new Republican battle cry against Democrats: "They may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be with you for the last, tough battles."

By trying to turn attention to the Democrats -- and their incoherent, inconsistent, and irresolute approach to the war -- Rove has once again settled on his usual and reliable game plan: Don't defend, attack!

The War as Political Issue

Here's the transcript of yesterday's news conference. I had some initial thoughts about it in yesterday's column .

Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Iraq war is the most immediate foreign policy problem besetting the Bush administration. But as a political issue, the White House and top Republican strategists have concluded that the war is a clear winner.

"GOP officials intend to base the midterm election campaign partly on talking up the war, using speeches and events to contrast President Bush's policies against growing disagreement among leading Democrats over whether to support immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday -- and a lengthy Rose Garden news conference Wednesday in which he extolled the new Iraqi government -- mark the beginning of a planned months-long effort, which got an unexpected boost with the death last week of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. . . .

"Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a key White House advisor, conceded Wednesday that protracted violence in Iraq and voters' rising doubts 'have had a dampening effect on the president's approval rating.' But, he said, given a choice between Democrats' uncertainty and Bush's firmness, 'that choice favors us.'"

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "With his insistence that the war in Iraq is 'worth it' and his unwavering promise of success there, President Bush is trying to frame congressional elections this November as a contest between a Republican Party resolute on the war in Iraq and a Democratic Party riven by divisions.

"The president is unlikely to change many minds among opponents of the war after more than three costly years of battles and with violence certain to continue, analysts say. Instead, the full arsenal of public relations weaponry that Bush has deployed this week--a Camp David war summit and a surprise visit to Baghdad, followed by a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday--appears aimed more at stirring the Republican base for political battles ahead."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's aggressive sales pitch on Iraq of late provides a glimpse of how the White House plans to use developments there to validate a prolonged U.S. presence and boost the Republican Party's chances in the November congressional elections."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Seeking political momentum from his surprise trip to Baghdad, President Bush said Wednesday that Iraqis feared 'America will lose its nerve,' and pointedly warned Democrats that an early withdrawal of troops would set back counterterrorism efforts and 'endanger our country.' . .

"The news conference was the latest in a week of events, beginning with Monday's cabinet meeting at Camp David, carefully staged by a White House that is determined to take the offensive on Iraq."

David Jackson and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "Buoyed by his trip to Baghdad a day earlier, President Bush predicted Wednesday that the Republican Party would retain control of Congress in part because of Democrats who want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq too soon.

"Bush said he welcomes a debate with Democrats on the war before elections Nov. 7. 'Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place,' he said."

The Great Debate?

Here's another Bush quote from yesterday: "As these campaigns start approaching you'll hear more people say, I suspect, it's a mistake, Bush shouldn't have done what he did, pull out. And that's a legitimate debate to have in America, and I look forward to the debate."

But Bush is not engaging in that debate -- certainly not personally, and not even by proxy, really. Unless he dramatically changes his communications strategy, you won't hear him mixing it up with critics or responding in good faith to their arguments.

Instead, he's outsourcing the debate to his loyal foot soldiers in Congress. And not surprisingly, they're adopting Bush's tactic of mischaracterizing, rather than engaging, the critics.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "In the wake of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death and President Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad, Republican leaders are moving quickly to capitalize on good news and trying to force Democrats on the defensive."

The Think Progress Web site obtained a copy of Majority Leader John Boehner's " Confidential Messaging Memo " which shows how the Republican leadership is framing the debate precisely to White House specifications.

The fundamental question, Boehner writes, is: "In a post-9/11 world, do we confront dangerous regimes and the threat of terrorism with strength and resolve, or do we instead abandon our efforts against these threats in the hopes that they will just fade away on their own?"

Reality Check

Kimberly Johnson and Rick Hampson , writing in USA Today, contrast Bush's insistence yesterday that the U.S. should not "stand down too soon" with the reality that U.S. troops in Iraq are being pushed to the edge -- and beyond.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's measured optimism is at odds with many crucial indicators in Iraq, including oil and electricity production, which are at no better than prewar levels, and the pace of sectarian violence. It also stands in stark contrast to the opinions of many Iraqi citizens, who have expressed growing pessimism about the course of events in their country as well as a growing antipathy toward the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces."

In Denial?

Here's Bush Tuesday night, on his way home on Air Force One, discussing his conversations with Iraqi leaders: "There are concerns about our commitment in keeping our troops there. They're worried almost to a person that we will leave before they're capable of defending themselves and I assured them they didn't need to worry."

But apparently when he says "almost to a person" he's not including, oh, the president and the vice president.

The Associated Press reports this morning: "Iraq's vice president has asked President Bush for a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, the Iraqi president's office said.

"Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, made the request during his meeting with Bush on Tuesday, when the U.S. president made a surprise visit to Iraq.

"'I supported him in this,' President Jalal Talabani said in a statement released Wednesday."

No Benchmarks Yet

Not only will Bush not discuss a timetable for troop withdrawal -- but three years into occupation, we apparently still have no reliable way of measuring how anything is going over there.

From yesterday's press conference:

"Q You just mentioned that you think the United States will be able to measure progress in terms of electricity and oil and violence. And I'm wondering if you can say how you're going to measure that in terms of time. In other words, are you going to put a six-month time frame on this, or a 12-month time frame on this?"

Bush's answer, in part: "[W]e've got to be realistic with this government. There is a -- but, nevertheless, I do believe that it makes sense to develop with them benchmarks, so we can measure progress. And once those are in place, and to the extent they are, we'll be glad to share them with you."

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "His purpose was to rally the skeptical citizenry, paint the Democrats as quitters, and to generally insist that the future in Iraq is potentially bright. . . .

"But as Bush enumerated the tasks that await the new government helmed by prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, he was inadvertently sending a very different message:

"Iraq is a terrible mess, it will take an unspecified period of time to clean it up, we have no measurements that would tell us the degree to which it is getting cleaned up, and we Americans will have to stay for an unspecified period of time to see whether it does get cleaned up."

Honeymoon Over?

Bush yesterday spoke approvingly about what he called "reconciliation" in Iraq, but today comes news from Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer in The Washington Post that the Iraqi prime minister yesterday proposed amnesty for insurgents -- as long as they only killed Americans, and not Iraqis.

Rove Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday reaffirmed his trust in White House strategist Karl Rove, and GOP allies said the longtime presidential adviser has no reason to apologize for his role in the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity three years ago."

VandeHei offers a fascinating preview into what appears to be the Rove camp's defense against suggestions that his behavior, while maybe not criminal, was nevertheless unethical.

"Republicans close to Rove argued yesterday that, technically speaking, the aide never lied about his role and that, if anything, he is owed an apology by the media and some Democrats. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, echoing an argument Rove has made privately to others, said Rove only discussed [CIA operative Valerie] Plame briefly when questioned by reporters, never mentioned her name specifically and never intended to blow her cover."

Oh, and get this: It wasn't a leak because Rove didn't instigate the phone calls himself! That's what a "source close to Rove" tells VandeHei: "He did not have a role in leaking anything. In this town, leaking is a proactive action: Someone gets on the phone and calls reporters for a purpose."

Meanwhile, VandeHei writes: "At his news conference, Bush . . . said it would be wrong to comment on an ongoing case, despite his statements about it moments earlier and aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. As long as Bush sticks to this position, Democrats are likely to keep raising the issue."

Democrats, yes -- and any reporter who feels a duty to hold the White House accountable.

Jim Rutenberg and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "Certainly the decision by the lead prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, not to indict Mr. Rove is a major break for the administration, cutting off an avenue of investigation that had come close to the Oval Office. But questions remain about how straightforward Mr. Rove, a deputy chief of staff, was about his own role in administration efforts to rebut a war critic -- even with his own White House colleagues.

"And there is still a trial looming for Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., who is accused of lying to federal investigators who were trying to find out whether the White House intentionally disclosed the name of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson, in an effort to undermine a war critic, her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. . . .

"A Republican who is close to several administration officials, and who was granted anonymity to discuss internal thinking at the White House, said the White House was troubled that the Libby trial, which is scheduled to begin in January, has the potential to expose some of the inner workings of the vice president's office."

Looking for more trial balloons from the Rove camp? You may recall that then-press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters in 2003 that based on a conversation with Rove, Rove was not involved in the leak. Rutenberg and Lewis report: "An associate of Mr. Rove who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak publicly on the details said Mr. Rove did not intentionally mislead Mr. McClellan."

Bush Loses His Voice

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period. . . .

"Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush's inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.

"He was a formulator of the Bush doctrine making the spread of democracy the fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy, a policy hailed as revolutionary by some and criticized as unrealistic by others. He led a personal crusade to make unprecedented multibillion-dollar investments in fighting AIDS, malaria and poverty around the globe. He became one of the few voices pressing for a more aggressive policy to stop genocide in Darfur, even as critics complained of U.S. inaction."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Asked to cite his favorite addresses, Mr. Gerson pointed to those that immediately followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, specifically a line from an address given three days afterward, at the National Cathedral: "Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn."

Here is Carl M. Cannon 's much-celebrated 2005 profile of Gerson for the National Journal.

Gitmo Watch

It was on June 20, 2005 , that Bush first extended an invitation to the press to come visit the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay: "You're welcome to go down yourself -- maybe you have -- and taking a look at the conditions. I urge members of our press corps to go down to Guantanamo and see how they're treated and to see -- and to look at the facts. That's all I ask people to do."

But Lesley Clark and Scott Dodd write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A Pentagon decision to expel three newspaper reporters and a photographer from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center for suspected terrorists came under fire Wednesday from attorneys for the detainees, who accused the Bush administration of 'pulling down a wall of secrecy and avoiding public accountability.'"

In fact, Guantanamo may be the next big issue to boil over in the White House.

Jonathan S. Landay and Marisa Taylor writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush reiterated Wednesday that he'd like to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but his administration is facing an awkward political and legal quandary over what to do with the estimated 460 detainees being held there.

"Anger over the administration's detention policies, coupled with allegations of prisoner abuse, the force-feeding of hunger strikers and riots at the facility, have caused even some close allies to demand its closure and hobbled the administration's ability to promote democracy and human rights overseas.

"Saturday's suicides of three inmates further sullied the United States' image and provoked new calls for shuttering the prison, a demand that Bush will hear again next week from his European counterparts at a summit in Vienna, Austria."

Poll Watch

There's more evidence of a listless bounce, if a bounce at all.

John Harwood writes for the Wall Street Journal about the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll: "The poll, conducted before Bush adviser Karl Rove was cleared of potential charges in the Central Intelligence Agency leak case but after U.S. forces killed Iraq's al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, showed Mr. Bush's overall job-approval rating essentially unchanged at 37%.

"Optimism about the war edged up slightly, with 53% of Americans saying that Mr. Zarqawi's death would improve the situation in Iraq at least a little."

Some good news for Bush, however: "Americans appear to be drawing closer to his view on the immigration debate."

Here are some of the results .

An Environmental Legacy

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush plans to designate an island chain spanning nearly 1,400 miles of the Pacific northwest of Hawaii as a national monument today, creating the largest protected marine reserve in the world, according to sources familiar with the plan.

"Establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a strictly protected marine reserve, which Bush is slated to announce this afternoon, could prove to be the administration's most enduring environmental legacy."

Bush Apologizes

Bush yesterday apologized after teasing Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Wallsten, who suffers from eye disease, about the sunglasses he wore to the press conference.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: " "Wallsten said Bush called his cell phone later in the day to apologize and tell him that he didn't know he had the disease. Wallsten said he interrupted and told the president that no apology was necessary and that he didn't feel offended since he hadn't told anyone at the White House about his condition.

Wallsten told Pickler: "He said, 'I needle you guys out of affection.' I said, 'I understand that, but I don't want you to treat me any differently because of this.' "

Wallsten told Bush to "needle away" -- and said his only complaint was that the president didn't answer his question at the news conference.

Wallsten's question was one of two about Karl Rove and the CIA leak investigation that Bush refused to answer.

Liberal blogger Peter Daou was outraged: "It's not this particular case - where Bush now admits he screwed up - but Bush's juvenile joshing that is so unbecoming of a U.S. president at a time of war."

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "The blog is so jealous! A call from POTUS to say sorry? Unheard of! He never really apologized for Abu Ghraib. Wallsten totally has to buy everyone drinks now. Who gets a call from Bush on their cell phone? That is so cool."

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