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Coincidence or Consequence?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 1:22 PM

As the Bush White House is jolted by one confounding overseas crisis after another, the obvious question emerges: Is it just a coincidence? Or is it a consequence of President Bush's foreign policy?

Peter Baker examines the breadth of Bush's problems in The Washington Post: "The discord at a conference in Rome yesterday over a proposed cease-fire in Israel and Lebanon underscored the widening gap between the United States and Europe over how to stop the fighting. And the images of mayhem from the two-week-old war, combined with the rising death toll in Iraq, have further rattled a domestic audience that polls show was already uncertain about Bush's leadership.

"For the president, the timing could not be much worse. In a second term marked by one setback after another . . . the president faces the challenge of responding to events that seem to be spinning out of control again, all but sidelining his domestic agenda for the moment and complicating his effort to rally the world to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. . . .

"At home, political strategists said, Bush faces the perception that he is presiding over one brushfire after another, hindered in his efforts to advance a positive agenda at a time when Republican control of Congress appears at risk."

Self-Inflicted Wounds

So what's happening here? Consider this Greek chorus of three seasoned journalists, all long-time observers of the foreign scene.

Michael Hirsch (here's his bio ) writes in Newsweek: "The Bush administration has fought the 'war on terror' [with] . . . one lunatic leap of logic after another based on unreliable sources, linking up enemies that had little to do with each other. . . . The president has used Al Qaeda to gin up the threat from Iraq, just as he is now conflating Hizbullah and Hamas with Al Qaeda as 'terrorists' of the same ilk. . . .

"What's sad is that the 'war on terror' began as a fairly straightforward affair. Al Qaeda hit us. Then we went after Al Qaeda. . . . We had a lot of support around the world in pursuit of our mission to hunt these men down, kill them or capture them and do with them as we pleased.

"But inexorably, month by month, the Bush administration broadened the war on terror to include ever more peoples and countries, especially Saddam's Iraq, relying on thinner and thinner evidence to do so. And what began as a hunt for a relatively contained group of self-declared murderers like bin Laden became a feckless dragnet of tens of thousands of hapless Arab victims. . . .

"Today, more from the muddled strategic thinking of the Bush administration than the actual threat from Al Qaeda, the 'war on terror' has become an Orwellian nightmare: an ill-defined war without prospect of end. We are now nearly five years into a war against a group that was said to contain no more then 500 to 1,000 terrorists at the start. . . . The war just grows and grows. And now Lebanon, too, is part of it."

Jonathan Freedland (here's his bio ) writes in the Guardian: "It's fashionable to blame the US for all the world's ills, but in this case the sins, both of omission and commission, of the Bush administration genuinely belong at the heart of the trouble. . . .

"Bush's animating idea has been that the peoples of the Middle East can be bombed into democracy and terrorised into moderation. It has proved one of the great lethal mistakes of his abominable presidency -- and the peoples of Israel and Lebanon are paying the price."

And, after watching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stubbornly block an international consensus for a humanitarian cease-fire in Lebanon, Christopher Dickey writes in Newsweek (here's his bio ): "When I heard Condi talking in pitiless academic pieties today about 'strong and robust' mandates and 'dedicated and urgent action,' I actually felt sorry for her, for our government, and for Israel. As in Iraq three years ago, the administration has been blinded to the political realities by shock-and-awe military firepower. Clinging to its faith in precision-guided munitions and cluster bombs, it has decided to let Lebanon bleed, as if that's the way to build the future for peace and democracy."

Caught in a Religious Crossfire

I wrote in yesterday's column about the rhetorical shift from the White House, now acknowledging that U.S. troops are trying to put down an incipient (if not raging) religious civil war.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times from Baghdad about what that means on the ground. Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli tells Barnes he plans to push more American troops into the city's neighborhoods, making them responsible for stopping sectarian violence.

Barnes writes: "The military's previous strategy has been to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in order to diminish casualties and give insurgent groups fewer targets.

"Chiarelli said that pulling back the troops made sense when the enemy was mainly insurgent groups. But now that the violence in Baghdad is increasingly between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, stopping it requires a new approach, he said.

" 'What we have here is a level of sectarian violence,' he said. 'And the way you have to fight this is that you have to have presence on the streets. I don't know any other way to fight it.' . . .

"The previous U.S. plan for securing Baghdad focused on quickly turning swaths of the city over to Iraqi army and police forces. That plan turned into a shambles with the outbreak of sectarian violence after the bombing in February of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

" 'What didn't we figure? We didn't figure this sectarian killing,' Chiarelli said. . . .

"For the military, the plan is uncharted ground.

" 'Quite frankly, in 33 years in the United States Army, I never trained to stop a sectarian fight,' he said. 'This is something new.' "

And all this can't be good news to the troops.

Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post: "As President Bush plans to deploy more troops in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers who have been patrolling the capital for months describe a deadly and infuriating mission in which the enemy is elusive and success hard to find. Each day, convoys of Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles leave Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad with the goal of stopping violence between warring Iraqi religious sects, training the Iraqi army and police to take over the duty, and reporting back on the availability of basic services for Iraqi civilians.

"But some soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division -- interviewed over four days on base and on patrols -- say they have grown increasingly disillusioned about their ability to quell the violence and their reason for fighting."

Partlow quotes Spec. Joshua Steffey, 24, of Asheville, N.C.: "The first time somebody you know dies, the first thing you ask yourself is, 'Well, what did he die for?' . . .

"My personal opinion, I don't speak for the rest of anybody, I just speak for me personally, I think civil war is going to happen regardless. . . . Maybe this country needs it: One side has to win. Be it Sunni, be it Shiite, one side has to win. It's apparent, these people have made it obvious they can't live in unity."

The Maliki Visit

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's address to Congress yesterday.

Maliki "inserted himself into the election-year controversy over the war, acknowledging, 'I know that some of you here question whether Iraq is part of the war on terror.

" 'The fate of our country and yours is tied,' he continued. 'Should democracy be allowed to fail in Iraq and terror permitted to triumph, then the war on terror will never be won elsewhere.' "

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate: "Either the address was written by White House handlers ( as was a similar oration two years ago by his predecessor, Iyad Allawi) or Maliki has hired speechwriters who know exactly how to say what American legislators want to hear. . . .

"Did Bush aides write the speech? White House spokesman Tony Snow said at his daily press conference that there had been 'conversations about the speech' ahead of time -- from which one could reasonably infer that they engaged, at least, in heavy editing."

Specter the Tough Guy

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter yesterday introduced legislation that would allow Congress to sue President Bush over his use of signing statements to claim the power to bypass laws, saying that lawmakers must push back against a White House power grab. . . .

"Specter's 'Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2006' would give either the House of Representatives or the Senate the legal standing to challenge a disputed signing statement in federal court. The lawsuit would ultimately allow the Supreme Court to consider whether the statements -- and the legal claims the president has made in them -- are constitutional.

"Specter's bill would also instruct courts to ignore presidential signing statements when interpreting the meaning of a statute."

Here is the text of Specter's fiery floor speech on the bill.

"If the President is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our Framers," Specter said.

He offered two examples in particular: Bush's signing statement on the Patriot Act , even after months of deliberation that included working closely with the president.

"In the end, the bill that was passed by the Senate and the House contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. It also required Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations.

"The President signed the PATRIOT Act into law, but afterwards, he wrote a signing statement that said he could withhold any information from Congress provided in the oversight provisions if he decided that disclosure would impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties."

And then there was Bush's signing statement on the torture bill. "[Y]ou might conclude that by signing the McCain amendment into law, the Bush administration has fully committed to not using torture. But you would be wrong."

The "vague language" in the signing statement "may mean that -- despite the McCain amendment -- the administration may still be preserving a right to inflict torture on prisoners and to evade the International Convention Against Torture," Specter said.

Specter the Patsy

But Specter also held a hearing yesterday on his proposed changes to domestic surveillance law that critics say would give the president unchecked powers.

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times that a civil liberties advocate, James X. Dempsey, "said at the hearing that he appreciated Mr. Specter's efforts to bring the N.S.A. program under judicial review but that 'the price you paid for that simple concession is far too high.'

"The proposal, he said, 'would turn the clock back to an era of unchecked presidential power, warrantless domestic surveillance and constitutional uncertainty.'

"Mr. Specter grew testy over the attack, saying President Bush's agreement to submit the program to the intelligence court was no simple concession.

" 'Have you ever gotten a concession from a president?' he demanded of Mr. Dempsey."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post with more from the hearing.

Poll Watch

Bush's job-approval ratings would appear to have stabilized for now in the mid to low 30s. And not coincidentally, Americans appear to be increasingly pessimistic about just about everything.

Jim Rutenberg and Megan C. Thee write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has experienced a slight increase in his overall job approval rating since the last New York Times/CBS News poll, in May, indicating that the steady erosion in his support over the last year has leveled off and even improved by a few percentage points. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed said they approved of the way he was doing his job, up from 31 percent in May.

"But with 55 percent saying they disapproved of his performance, the numbers remain far below the comfort zone for a sitting president during a tough midterm election season."

The poll also found that "Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the state of affairs in the Middle East."

An American Research Group poll finds: "Americans are again increasingly concerned about the national economy and their personal financial situations, including those saying they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job and the economy. . . .

"Among all Americans, 35% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 59% disapprove."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "In the Journal/NBC poll, approval of Mr. Bush's job performance inched up to 39% from 37% last month, but a 56% majority disapproves of the president's job performance. . . .

"Underlying those sentiments is a public mood that [pollster Peter] Hart labels 'as . . . depressing as I can remember' in more than three decades of polling. By 60% to 27%, Americans say their nation is headed 'off on the wrong track' rather than 'in the right direction.' "


Lou Dobbs interviewed Washington Post military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks yesterday about his new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

"DOBBS: But, how in the world can we function if we do not hold our general staff accountable for what, as you demonstrate in this book, are manifest failures of leadership.

"RICKS: I don't think we can function very well. I think the system is broken. If the military doesn't hold itself accountable and right now criticism of generals seems to be off the table, then the Congress needs to do it. And I think Congress is the biggest single problem we have in our system. This is a Congress that doesn't want to ask questions, or if it asks questions is willing to take no for an answer.

"Here we are three years into this war and there's not been a single significant hearing on the conduct of the war. The division commanders have never been called up before Congress. How did it go? What's your relationship with Rumsfeld like? Not a single general has been relieved by the leadership."


First came "Fiasco," now comes "Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security," by Wall Street Journal reporters Christopher Cooper and Robert Block .

In an excerpt from the book, they write that federal officials were focused on "a single test for determining whether to treat the storm as an average disaster or as the catastrophic doomsday scenario everyone had long feared: Had the levees been breached by Katrina's storm surge, or had the water simply flooded over the top? . . .

"The distinction between a breach and an 'overtop' was largely lost on local officials, who had not been told this was any particular trigger for the federal response. To them, city streets contained an alarming amount of water, surely enough to trigger the maximum federal response. As Gov. Blanco put it on the conference call, whole neighborhoods were sloshing with up to 10 feet of water, 'and we have people swimming in there.'

"But that's not what White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin wanted to talk about when it was his turn. He had two concerns: 'Yeah, what's the current status of the levee system and the roof of the Superdome?' he asked Gov. Blanco. . . .

"A few hours after the phone call it was clear the White House considered Monday an average August day and Katrina an average hurricane. At 4:40 p.m. New Orleans time, President Bush stood in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., delivering a speech on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. He departed from the script briefly to address the situation on the Gulf Coast. 'For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we're prepared to help, don't be. We are,' the president said."

India Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday night to approve a nuclear deal with India that would for the first time allow the United States to ship nuclear fuel and technology to a country that has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"The accord's passage, by a vote of 359 to 68, is a quick, major victory for the Bush administration, which argued that nurturing India as an ally outweighed concerns that the agreement would free more nuclear material for India to use for the manufacture of nuclear weapons."

Off to Miami

Lesley Clark writes in the Miami Herald: "President Bush will spend a couple of days in Miami-Dade as part of a White House strategy to pump up his popularity -- and Republican campaign coffers. . . .

"The visit is the second in a series of summertime road shows the White House has dubbed 'drill downs' -- trips in which Bush, who prefers sleeping at home, hits a city for more than a few hours. His first trip was a two-day jaunt earlier this month to Chicago where he celebrated his 60th birthday with Mayor Richard Daley and held a full-scale press conference."

I wrote about the new strategy in my July 7 column .

One Miami television station is offering viewers a chance to ask Bush questions.

"Michael Putney, Local 10's senior political reporter, is expected to have an opportunity to interview the president and will be able to ask him some key questions. . . .

"Log in to our online discussion board and post what question or topic you would like to hear the president address."

Won't Drink the Lemonade

On the way out of a fundraiser in Charleston, W.Va., yesterday, Bush's motorcade stopped by a conveniently located lemonade stand, for some nice pictures .

Just in case you had any delusion that this was anything other than a cynically staged photo op, Dave Gustafson and Anna L. Mallory write in the Charleston Gazette: "Charleston attorney John Miesner's 8-year-old daughter, Mary Melinda, set up a lemonade stand at their home on Bedford Road, but moved it Jim and Jean Miller's property on Loudon Heights Road after the Secret Service asked them to move it."

And, even more telling: "Bush did not drink the lemonade himself, telling the kids he had to watch his weight since he turned 60, Miesner said."

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