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History, Repeating Itself

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 24, 2006; 11:56 AM

There is a popular sentiment among the Washington elite that what went wrong in the run-up to the war in Iraq has been sufficiently examined, and that it's all water under the bridge anyway.

It's popular in the White House and among Republicans for obvious reasons. But it's also remarkably popular among top Democrats and the establishment media, because they aren't all that eager to call any more attention to the fact that they were played for suckers.

There are, however, some people who believe that what led this country to launch a war of choice under false pretenses must be examined in detail -- over and over again if necessary -- until the appropriate lessons have been learned.

Otherwise, one might argue, history is doomed to repeat itself.

Enter history, stage right.

Once again, powerful neoconservative politicians who just know in their hearts that there is a terrible threat posed by a Middle Eastern country they have identified as part of the axis of evil are frustrated by the lack of conclusive evidence that would support a bellicose approach. So they are pressuring the nation's intelligence community to find facts that will support their argument.

This time, that scenario is being played out right in front of our eyes. Maybe that will make a difference?

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are voicing anger that American spy agencies have not issued more ominous warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States. . . .

"The complaints, expressed privately in recent weeks, surfaced in a Congressional report about Iran released Wednesday. They echo the tensions that divided the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency during the prelude to the war in Iraq.

"The criticisms reflect the views of some officials inside the White House and the Pentagon who advocated going to war with Iraq and now are pressing for confronting Iran directly over its nuclear program and ties to terrorism, say officials with knowledge of the debate."

Mazzetti writes that "privately some Democrats criticized the report for using innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions to inflate the threat that Iran posed to the United States. . . .

"Some veterans of the intelligence battles that preceded the Iraq war see the debate as familiar and are critical of efforts to create hard links based on murky intelligence.

" 'It reflects a certain way of looking at the world -- that all evil is traceable to the capitals of certain states,' said Paul R. Pillar, who until last October oversaw American intelligence assessments about the Middle East. 'And that, in my view, is a very incorrect way of interpreting the security challenges we face.' "

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post that the report was "principally written by a Republican staff member on the House intelligence committee who holds a hard-line view on Iran," and "fully backs the White House position that the Islamic republic is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States. . . . [I]it chides the intelligence community for not providing enough direct evidence to support that assertion."

Linzer writes that "the principal author was Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA officer who had been a special assistant to John R. Bolton, the administration's former point man on Iran at the State Department."

Translation: That means he's Vice President Cheney's man.

Here's a little taste of the Fleitz way of doing business, from The Post in May 2005 .

Meanwhile, at the State Department

And yet, there are signs that someone with Bush's ear is advocating diplomacy, at least for now.

Here's Bush on Monday: "In order for the U.N. to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council."

Here's spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday, after Iran thumbed its nose at the Security Council: "We acknowledge that Iran considers its response as a serious offer, and we will review it. The response, however, falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council, which require the full and verifiable suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. We are closely consulting with the other members of the Security Council on the next steps. . . .

"Q Do you want tough sanctions, though? I mean, what can you do? There's been a carrot out there with incentives, but where is the stick from the United States?

"MS. PERINO: We're going to allow all of our allies to -- the P5 plus one to talk about it and try to figure that out. And when we have next steps to announce, we'll announce them."

Kirit Radia of ABC News offers a clue: "U.S. officials tell ABC News the White House had intended to issue a stronger statement rejecting Iran's response and calling for talks on sanctions against Iran to begin quickly, but pressure mounted from European countries overnight to hold off on the strong language and to allow time for countries to carefully consider Iran's response.

"Ultimately, U.S. officials say, the United States yielded to pressure from the European countries, namely Britain and France, to issue the milder statement that was released today."

'If You Think It's Bad Now'

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Bush has apparently dropped his attempts to reassure Americans that more progress is being made in Iraq than they realize, "in favor of the contention that things could be even worse.

"The shifting rhetoric reflected a broader pessimism that has reached into even some of the most optimistic corners of the administration -- a sense that the Iraq venture has taken a dark turn and will not be resolved anytime soon. . . .

"While still committed to the venture, officials have privately told friends and associates outside government that they have grown discouraged in recent months. . . .

"But with crucial midterm elections just 2 1/2 months away, Bush and his team are trying to turn the public debate away from whether the Iraq invasion has worked out to what would happen if U.S. troops were withdrawn, as some Democrats advocate. The necessity of not failing, Bush advisers believe, is now a more compelling argument than the likelihood of success."

Baker quotes Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar whose research on public opinion in wartime has been influential in the White House: "If the only thing you can say is 'Yes, it's bad, but it could be worse,' that really is a last-ditch argument."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "In the thick of an election campaign, President Bush has revived and retooled his argument that the U.S. must fight terrorists overseas or face them here. Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, some GOP candidates are borrowing Bush's line. . . .

"The fight-them-there theme has been part of Bush's national security stump speech since 2003. But the 'follow us here' part is a relatively new twist."

What makes Bush so convinced that the terrorists would follow us here? Many of my readers have e-mailed me in the past several days suggesting that reporters should press the White House on that point.

Rove Watch

Julie Hirschfeld Davis profiles Karl Rove in the Baltimore Sun: "Since learning in June that he would not be indicted for his role in the unmasking of a CIA officer's identity, a slimmed-down Rove has thrown himself into his latest, career-defining test. He knows the outcome of the November elections will determine how successful he has been in reaching his goal of cementing a lasting Republican majority and, in the shorter term, how influential Bush can be during his last two years in the White House. . . .

"Rove's 'trademark approach is to hit hard, near the edge. He likes to go for the opponent's strength and undermine it with edgy tactics,' said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has tracked Rove's career."

The Associated Press reports from Toledo: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove criticized a federal judge's order for an immediate end to the government's warrantless surveillance program, saying Wednesday such a program might have prevented the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Time for . . . Some Golf

Michael Hirsh writes in Newsweek: "It is the sort of moment when peace and history could be hanging in the balance for a generation to come -- the kind of tipping point when American presidents can no longer leave the negotiating to underlings. They must take the world stage themselves to find a new way out, simply because no one else has the globo-oomph to do so. There is a grand American tradition behind this sort of personal involvement of America's chief executive."

Moments like these have tested the resolve of previous president, Hirsh writes.

"George W. Bush is going to Kennebunkport, where he'll test his golf skills with Poppy."

The Katrina PR Blitz

The White House doesn't let just anyone see the president. In Minnesota on Tuesday, for instance, photographs with Bush were going for $5,000 a pop at a fundraiser.

Critics like Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq, don't have a chance. In fact, critics in general aren't welcome anywhere near the president.

What helps is if you only have nice things to say. And you're a Republican. And you fit into a PR campaign.

Hurricane Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella met all those requirements.

Will Bunch blogged for the Philadelphia Daily News: "The good news is that CNN seems to have finally stop obsessing over John Mark Karr. Instead, they've found a new soap opera to go ga-ga over, Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella, who drove his FEMA trailer from his home in ravaged St. Bernard Parish to Washington with 'the hope' of convincing President Bush to meet with him. . . .

"Turns out that the earthy Vaccarella -- a highly successful businessman in the fast-food industry -- is indeed a Republican pol, having run unsuccessfully under the GOP banner for a seat on the St. Bernard Parish commission back in 1999. . . .

"Shouldn't the media be a tad more skeptical about events like these? And isn't the fact that Vaccarella was once a Republican candidate for office a relevant fact that should be mentioned, to help viewers place his effusive, nationally televised praise in context. With Vaccarella the 'Katrina soundbite' of the day, TV is not reporting this ."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The Vaccarella visit was part of a preemptive effort by the White House to fend off fresh criticism of the administration's handling of Katrina as the first anniversary approaches. Vaccarella praised the government effort while saying he 'wanted to remind the president that the job's not done, and he knows that.' . . .

"Democrats quickly responded with a statement noting that Vaccarella once ran for local office as a Republican and with a report blasting the administration's post-Katrina work.

" 'In our Gulf Coast, the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors are still engaged in an unparalleled struggle to rebuild their lives,' said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). 'Meanwhile, back in Washington, President Bush is holding a public relations blitz that the survivors of Katrina can ill afford.'"

As for Vaccarella's most sycophantic of suggestions?

Agence France Presse reports: "A Hurricane Katrina survivor called for a third term for US President George W. Bush, but ran into another obstacle besides the two-term constitutional maximum: the White House staff.

" 'Believe me, I think the staff thinks that two are plenty,' Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino quipped. . . .

"Asked why Bush aides believed that two four-year stints in the White House were enough, Perino said: 'Because I'm tired.' "

Not exactly an inspiring turn of phrase. But in that same briefing yesterday , Perino chose her words very carefully indeed when asked what the White House knew about Vaccarella when.

Keep in mind that there was a significant time lag between the White House confirmation that Vaccarella would be meeting with Bush -- and the announcement that he would appear with the president in public.

"Q Were you aware of Rockey Vaccarella's political background? Was he invited to meet with the President because he supports the President?

"MS. PERINO: I checked into that, and at the time of invitation, no, there was no knowledge of his political affiliation.

"Q You didn't know he had ever been a Republican candidate?

"MS. PERINO: No, he was not invited -- he was invited before anybody knew that."

As for news -- remember news? -- it's possible Bush unwittingly made some yesterday. Or maybe he was just humoring Vaccarella. Or maybe Vaccarella misheard him. But on CNN yesterday, Vaccarella said that "one of the main things the president and I addressed was the insurance and the mortgages. I felt like the mortgage companies -- you know what, they got paid.

"You know, if -- let's work at some easy numbers, for example. If somebody had $100,000 mortgage and they only had $80,000 of insurance, well, they owe the mortgage company $20,000. I don't think that's fair. And the president agreed with me on that. And that's one thing he's going to address."

Will he really?

Macaca Watch

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Senator George Allen of Virginia personally apologized to a volunteer for his opponent's campaign on Wednesday for a perceived racial insult, addressing a misstep that has complicated his re-election campaign and raised doubts about his potential as a Republican presidential contender in 2008.

"A few hours before he appeared with President Bush at a fund-raising event, Mr. Allen telephoned the volunteer, S. R. Sidarth, to say he was sorry for mockingly referring to him as 'macaca' at an Aug. 11 campaign event."

Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig write in The Washington Post that "about 50 Democratic activists protested outside a Fairfax County fundraiser for Allen headlined by President Bush."

Did the president have anything to say about the matter? We don't know: his event was closed to reporters and photographers.

Tolstoy He Ain't

Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon: "Every Bush presidency is unhappy in its own way. George W. Bush has contrived to do the opposite of his father, as if to provide evidence for a classic case of reaction formation. . . .

"But Bush is trapped in a self-generated dynamic that eerily recalls the centrifugal forces that spun apart his father's presidency."

Another Vietnam (Movie)?

Michael Hastings writes in Newsweek: "Is Iraq the latest stage for an American psychodrama? President George W. Bush seems to think so. His remarks earlier this week about how the war is 'straining America's psyche' suggest that the key to winning is preventing a nervous breakdown on a national scale. . . .

"I was reminded of all the Vietnam films I'd watched as a kid. . . .

"In the classic Vietnam flicks, America's own national identity crisis is almost always more important than the country where the war is actually being fought."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on the one true king; Tony Auth on the Bush-Cheney baby; Ann Telnaes on Bush as fashion critic; Mike Luckovich on American behind bars.

Froomkin Watch

The column will be on vacation next week, resuming on Tuesday Sept. 5. I'll try to leave you tomorrow with a few suggestions for things to read in my absence.

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