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The Big Muddy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 23, 2006; 1:38 PM

With just more than two weeks to go before a mid-term election that promises to be in large part a referendum on the war in Iraq, President Bush and his aides continue to muddy the debate by trying to redefine their terms on the fly.

The most obvious example came on Sunday, when ABC News broadcast an interview in which Bush denied he had ever advocated staying the course.

Here's the text of the interview, which was conducted on Wednesday.

Anchor George Stephanopoulos was asking Bush about comments from James A. Baker III, who has said that the independent commission he co-chairs is pursuing alternatives to "cut and run" or "stay the course" in Iraq.

Said Bush: "Well, listen, we've never been stay the course, George. We have been -- we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly."

White House counselor Dan Bartlett used almost the exact same words this morning on CBS News's " Early Show ": "It's never been a stay the course strategy."

But as the liberal Think Progress blog so definitively pointed out yesterday, Bush repeatedly has described his strategy in precisely those terms.

"We will stay the course." ( 8/30/06 )

"We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq." ( 8/4/05 )

"We will stay the course until the job is done, Steve. And the temptation is to try to get the president or somebody to put a timetable on the definition of getting the job done. We're just going to stay the course." ( 12/15/03 )

"And my message today to those in Iraq is: We'll stay the course." ( 4/13/04 )

And so on.

With "stay the course" polling poorly, what Bush and Bartlett apparently are trying to do is get credit for the fact that the tactics in Iraq have and will continue to change, while at the same time insisting that their overall strategy and goals remain unchanged -- and sound.

But as I wrote in Friday's column , even the best and most flexible tactics, in pursuit of an ill-chosen strategy, will not achieve the desired goals.

Cutting through the rhetoric, it's quite clear what Bush's Iraq strategy has been up until now. In short: American troops will be there to provide security as long as it takes for a democratic central government to take hold. But there will be no clearly defined metrics against which to measure success, no ultimatums to the Iraqi government, and no timetables -- because those would embolden the enemy.

Thus far, Bush has remained steadfast in this strategy -- even as American casualties spike, as the country descends into a state of civil war, and as the central government has yet to provide any evidence whatsoever of its ability to take real control over anything.

So it would be big news if Bush were finally considering a change in strategy -- not just tactics. And that's precisely what David S. Cloud reported in the Sunday New York Times.

Cloud wrote: "The Bush administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to address sectarian divisions and assume a larger role in securing the country, senior American officials said. . . .

"[F]or the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.

"Although the plan would not threaten [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki] with a withdrawal of American troops, several officials said the Bush administration would consider changes in military strategy and other penalties if Iraq balked at adopting it or failed to meet critical benchmarks within it. . . .

"'We're trying to come up with ways to get the Iraqis to step up to the plate, to push them along, because the time is coming,' a senior administration official said. 'We can't be there forever.'"

Cutting through the rhetoric, again, this sounds an awful lot like the beginning of a de facto exit strategy -- because of the unlikelihood that the current Iraqi government could meet even the most elementary milestones -- or an open invitation to a coup d'etat.

Initially, the White House insisted that the Times story was "not accurate" -- but wouldn't say what was wrong with it.

But this morning, rather than confirm or deny the story, counselor Bartlett took to the network morning shows to muddle it.

As the Associated Press reports: "Bartlett did not deny a New York Times report saying the head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador were working on a plan that for the first time would set a specific timetable for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.

"'I was a bit puzzled about the report over the weekend because it was stating something that we've been talking publicly about for months,' the senior White House counselor said on CBS's 'The Early Show.' Bartlett said the goal is to 'define demonstrable milestones and benchmarks' and said it has been 'very much a part of our strategy all along.'

"The White House earlier had said the report in Sunday's editions of the Times was not accurate. Bartlett said he thought it 'might have been overwritten.'...

"Bartlett, appearing on CNN, said that 'if we do as some have suggested -- let's just set a timetable and get out as quickly as possible -- that can only embolden the enemy, it could only provide sanctuary for terrorism and that's going to be a situation that makes our country less secure and that's something the president is not going to accept.'"

But the fact remains that any public timetable at all would be a dramatic change in strategy for the White House. Bush has been asked repeatedly to give some indication of the limits of American involvement in Iraq, and consistently has refused.

A typical, maddeningly vague response, from his June 14 press conference: "I have said to the American people, as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down. But I've also said that our commanders on the ground will make that decision."

Tony Snow, Head-Banger

No one has made more of a hash of explaining Bush's Iraq policies than Tony Snow, his Fox News-trained press secretary.

And on Friday, in what I suspect is the first time in briefing-room history, Snow banged his head against the podium in exasperation with a reporter who was trying to get him to confront some of his own contradictions.

Poor Tony. Being asked to explain his own words.

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz was pursuing an important line of inquiry: If the White House insists that it is not entertaining any changes in its Iraq strategy (only tactics), then why is it claiming that it is open to hearing suggestions from Baker's Iraq commission? Isn't that trying to have it both ways?

The answer, of course, is that Snow redefines terms willy-nilly, approaching his job in a manner that is much more appropriate to cable television -- where the goal is to "win the half hour" -- than it is to the job of White House spokesman, which is at least ostensibly to explain policy to the American people.

Here's the transcript of Friday's briefing. Huffingtonpost.com has the seminal video clip .

Raddatz: "Under this term, is the president, right now, entertaining a change in strategy?


"Q: Flat out, you reject it, there will be no change in strategy?

"MR. SNOW: Again, strategy is, you want an economic component, a political component and a security component. You're talking about what I refer to as tactics --

"Q: I'm talking about policy --

"MR. SNOW: The policy is pretty straightforward: You use those three components to try to achieve the end. What you're talking about is tactics, which are the means by which you get those strategies enacted, correct? The tactics are, for instance, how do you deal with a certain neighborhood in Baghdad, what's the proper way to secure that? That's a tactical issue. How do you try to reach out to build political accommodation between Sunni and Shia? That's a tactical issue. How do you try to secure the oil fields in such a way as to increase revenues from the oil fields to build a sense of prosperity? That's a tactical issue. Those are not strategic concerns. The strategy is the big-picture pieces that I outlined.

"Q: Yes, and what you're telling me is in the strategy, in this big picture, he's entertaining no change.

"MR. SNOW: No, what I'm telling you is, tactically, you adjust all the time. . . .

"Q: I just want to know, James Baker is using -- will look at strategy, and you're saying you're going to listen to James Baker and Lee Hamilton and this bipartisan report --

"MR. SNOW: Well, I think what they're talking --

"Q: -- then what's strategy in your definition?

"MR. SNOW: I think they will agree with what I described as 'strategy,' which is --

"Q: But you just said you're not even considering a change in -- [SNOW BANGS HIS HEAD ON THE PODIUM] -- no, Tony, sorry.

"MR. SNOW: No, that's because I'm not going to -- we are not going to change our belief that you require -- this is the strategy -- this is the strategic picture that requires an economic, political and security component. And I guarantee you people on that commission agree. So what we're talking about they describe as strategy, I'll describe as tactics. Sorry, we're talking different languages; I'm trying to harmonize for the purpose of answering your question.

"Q: Okay. So James Baker is doing what the president says he relies on his generals to do, which is tactics.

"MR. SNOW: Well, I think he's really -- the generals also engage not merely in -- yes, to some extent, yes; but the generals also have a much more detailed ground-level view of how to achieve these things. Maybe we need to come up with a fourth label.

"But Secretary Baker and Lee Hamilton and others are going to take a close look at ideas that they think are going to be more effective to achieve that strategic goal of an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself, and to do so in a way that involves security, economic and political components.

"I think all of that is agreed upon. So now the question is, what is your mid-level goal? They're going to take a look at the various goals and try to proceed. I know, we're getting into a linguistic swivet here.

"Q: I know, I know. But it's like we're changing the goals -- it's almost like you're trying to hide behind the term 'tactics' to change strategy."

Snow's Greatest Misses

Snow doesn't exactly have a glowing track record when it comes to clearing things like this up.

Here he is at his Oct. 16 briefing :

"Q: But your strategy for victory is the same, and could you articulate that?

"MR. SNOW: No, the tactics for the strategy -- victory is the strategic aim at which we -- that we are trying to accomplish."

That was the same briefing where this classic exchange took place:

"Q: One on Iraq again. Sorry. Just the simple question: Are we winning?

"MR. SNOW: We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define 'winning'?"

Two days later , this exchange followed:

"Q: Tony, does the deaths of 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq today cause the president to rethink his strategy there?

"MR. SNOW: No, the strategy is to win. The president understands not only the difficulty of it, but he grieves for the people who have served and served with valor. But as everybody says, correctly, we got to win."

At Friday's briefing, Snow insisted that he was just trying to make himself clear.

"No, what I'm trying to do is to come up with some way in which you and I can talk the same language so that we don't all go cross-eyed in total bewilderment and confusion. And so perhaps -- look, you guys, why don't you email me the labels you want me to use for these various groupings that I've given to you."

Maybe that's not a bad idea. And cc: me on those e-mails, will you?

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board is pleased that Bush appears to be considering a change in strategy, but writes that "the way this sudden change of heart has come about, after months in which Mr. Bush has brushed off all criticism of his policies as either misguided, politically motivated or downright disloyal to America, is maddening. For far too long, the White House has looked upon the war as a tactical puzzle for campaign strategists. . . .

"The way the Bush team is stage-managing the president's supposed change of heart about 'staying the course' is unfair to the Americans who have taken him at his word that real progress is being made in Iraq -- a dwindling but still significant number of people, some of whom have sons and daughters serving in the conflict. It is a disservice to the troops, who were never sent to Iraq in sufficient numbers to protect themselves or the Iraqi people. And it is a disservice to all Americans, who have waited so long for Mr. Bush to act that all that is left are a series of unpleasant choices."

The Washington Post editorial board calls for a change of course in Iraq. Seeing in Bush's ostensible interest in changing tactics a willingness to change strategy, The Post calls for diplomacy, peace talks and a timetable for withdrawal.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid writes: "The apparent decision by the Bush Administration to draft a timetable for the Iraqis to assume a larger role in securing their country hopefully demonstrates the long-overdue recognition by the President that his strategy is a failure and that a change in course is needed."

False Hopes?

But could all this talk about Bush possibly changing strategy just be a ruse?

Or as blogger Brad DeLong puts it: "Is this a head fake to try to hold reality-based Republicans in line until after the election, given that Bush has no desire to change course at all?"

It's certainly worth considering that possibility.

The political stakes are enormous right now. If Bush, on the one hand, continues to express absolutely no willingness to make significant changes to his policies, he could risk even further infuriating the sizeable majority of Americans who oppose the war. But if he, on the other hand, admits he has made mistakes and changes course, then his base might turn against him and the stink of failure would be upon him.

So sly hints and obfuscation may be the best way to go.

Poll Watch

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek: "While [a] new poll shows the president with a two-point bump in his approval rating -- from an all-time low of 33 percent two weeks ago to 35 percent today -- most Americans think Bush is already a lame duck. Fifty-six percent said he won't be able to get much done in his last two years in office. Only 33 percent believe he can be effective.

"Most worrisome for the president, should the Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress, the American public supports their proposed 'First 100 Hours' agenda. An overwhelming majority says allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies should be a top priority for a Democratic Congress (74 percent, including 70 percent of Republicans); 68 percent want increasing the minimum wage to be a top priority, including 53 percent of Republicans; 62 percent want investigating impropriety by members of Congress to be a top priority; and 58 percent want investigating government contracts in Iraq to be a top priority. Fifty-two percent say investigating why we went to war in Iraq should be a top priority (25 percent say it should a lower priority and 19 percent say it shouldn't be done.)

"Other parts of a potential Democratic agenda receive less support, especially calls to impeach Bush: 47 percent of Democrats say that should be a 'top priority,' but only 28 percent of all Americans say it should be, 23 percent say it should be a lower priority and nearly half, 44 percent, say it should not be done. (Five percent of Republicans say it should be a top priority and 15 percent of Republicans say it should be a lower priority; 78 percent oppose impeachment.)"

But hold on a minute there!

As the Talent Show blog notes: "Now wait a second . . . doesn't 28% plus 23% equal 51%? I'd think that a poll showing the majority of Americans favor impeaching the president would be pretty newsworthy, especially considering that this far exceeds the numbers of a president that actually was impeached."

And, in fact, the blogger is correct. For the record, here is the question in the Newsweek poll: "As I read you some things the Democrats might do over the next two years if they take control of Congress, please tell me if you think each should be one of their TOP priorities, a lower priority, or should not be done at all."

On "Impeaching George W. Bush," 51 percent of those polled called it a top or lower priority, compared to 44 percent who said it should not be done at all.

Among Democrats, that split was 73-23; among independents, 53-44, and among Republicans, 20-78.

Missing the Point

Mike Allen and James Carney scored an exclusive interview with Vice President Cheney last week, in the sitting room of his official residence.

But it just as well might have been a tea party.

Here's the full text , which features such tough and provocative questions as:

"Goodness. And do you miss your grandchildren?"

And: "You and the president, this administration seems -- based on public opinion polls -- seem not to get the credit it deserves, certainly you probably feel that way, for the economy. Why is that? Is it the gas prices? Is it the housing bust? Is it Iraq?"

And my favorite exchange:

"Q: And may we ask two questions about the future? Mr. Vice President, do you plan to hunt again?


"Q: Why not run for president? You're younger than John McCain. You look okay."

Here is a vice president who has repeatedly misled the public about Iraq, arguably exercises all the power of the presidency in almost complete secrecy, quite possibly stage-managed the leaking of a CIA agent's identity for political purposes, holds inexplicable sway over Congress, appears to be in a state of denial that transcends even that of the president, and has basically no credibility left with the American people -- and Time plays footsie with him.

The Divider

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The great risk in President Bush's political strategy has always been that it leaves him very little margin for error.

"From the outset of his presidency, Bush has accepted division as the price of mobilization. . . .

"In Congress and across the country, that ideologically polarizing agenda has helped Bush unify and excite Republicans. But it has come at the cost of antagonizing Democrats and straining his relations with independent voters. . . .

"All of this meant that even on Bush's best days, nearly half the country opposed him and his direction. That didn't leave him with much of a cushion for bad days, which have come in bunches during his second term. . . .

"Bush is once again stressing sharp-edged ideological differences with Democrats on taxes and national security; maybe that will rally enough conservatives to the polls to avoid a deluge on Nov. 7. But if a deluge comes, more of the Republicans looking to succeed Bush in 2008 may ask whether a political strategy that provokes so much opposition, even on its strongest days, can be sustained. They may also question whether the White House vision of a narrow but stable electoral majority is a contradiction in terms."

I'll have much, much more on Bush and the mid-terms tomorrow. I ran out of space today.

Ever Wonder What Andy Rooney Thinks?

This could be the beginning of the end. The president has lost Andy Rooney . (Here's the video .)

"Someone -- and I guess it's President Bush -- has to tell us what in the world we're doing in Iraq now. I don't think any of us know. . . .

"So far almost 2,800 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq. I say 'almost 2,800' because there is no exact number. It changes by six or eight every day. That's how many of our young men get killed? And for what? Just tell us, Mr. President. For what? It hasn't even been good for Iraq; it certainly hasn't been good for us. The whole world thinks less of us for what we're doing there.

"This little war is costing us $2 billion a what? I forget, a day, a week, a minute? It's the kind of money I can't even imagine.

"President Bush should stand up there in front of us on television and do the hardest thing of all for any president to do. Tell us the truth. He should just say 'Americans, there's something I have to tell you. You trusted me to be your leader and I thought I was doing the right thing when we went into Iraq. Well, I hate to admit it but I was wrong. I'm sorry but we never should have gone in and now we should get out.'"

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