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An Insufficient Explanation

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 25, 2006; 12:28 PM

At a surprise press conference this morning, President Bush acknowledged the nation's grave concerns about the war in Iraq.

"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said, 13 days before a mid-term election that will in large part be a referendum on the war. "I'm not satisfied either."

"I think I owe an explanation to the American people," he said.

But Bush didn't have much new to say today, other than endorsing yesterday's already largely debunked announcement in Baghdad of a "new plan" that sounds very much like the old plan.

And after an hour of familiar sound bites, the public would be forgiven for feeling it still hasn't gotten that explanation he promised.

Among the things that remain unexplained:

* Why does Bush believe that staying in Iraq will make things better, when the evidence suggests that it keeps making things worse?

* Why does he believe that progress is being made, when the evidence suggests that Iraq is sliding deeper and deeper into civil war?

* Why does he remain confident in Iraq's central government, when the evidence suggests that the center is not holding?

* Why hasn't anyone in his administration been held accountable for all the things that have gone wrong?

The Washington Post's Peter Baker asked that last question, and after initially responding with a strong endorsement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush had this to say:

"The ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me. That's the ultimate -- you're asking about accountability -- that's -- that's -- it rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. You know, people want to -- if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."

NBC's David Gregory posed this question: "Mr. President, for several years you have been saying that America will 'stay the course' in Iraq. You were committed to the policy. And now you say that no, you're not saying 'stay the course,' that you're adapting to win, that you're showing flexibility. And as you mention, out of Baghdad we're now hearing about benchmarks and timetables from the Iraqi government, as relayed by American officials, to stop the sectarian violence.

"In the past, Democrats and other critics of the war who talked about benchmarks and timetables were labeled as 'defeatists, ' 'Defeat- o-crats,' or people who wanted to 'cut and run.'

"So why shouldn't the American people conclude that this is nothing from you other than semantic, rhetorical games and all politics two weeks before an election?"

Bush replied by distinguishing between mutually agreed-upon benchmarks and a fixed timetable for withdrawal.

But Bush has previously opposed even benchmarks. And when asked how he planned to measure success toward the benchmarks -- and what he would do if the benchmarks weren't met -- Bush ducked the question.

Bush also notably would not renounce his ambitions for permanent military bases in Iraq, a source of tremendous ire with the Iraqi public.

The Post's Baker gracefully thanked Bush for taking questions today -- even though reporters were given less than an hour's notice to show up at the White House.

Bush responded with obvious sarcasm: "I can't tell you how joyful it is."

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, where I'll have more analysis, links, and will happily take your questions and comments.

Spinning the Course.

The initial breathless coverage of yesterday morning's press conference in Iraq (see yesterday's column ) eventually gave way to some serious reporting. One thing is clear: The announcement that Iraqi security forces could be largely self-sufficient within 12 to 18 months is not particularly credible.

Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post saw the big news in another aspect of the announcement: "The top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall U.S. presence in Iraq, as rising bloodshed pushes Iraqi and American deaths to some of their highest levels of the war."

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "In trying to build support for the American strategy in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said Tuesday that the Iraqi military could be expected to take over the primary responsibility for securing the country within 12 to 18 months.

"But that laudable goal seems far removed from the violence-plagued streets of Iraq's capital, where American forces have taken the lead in trying to protect the city and American soldiers substantially outnumber Iraqi ones.

"Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, General Casey's target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption."

Gordon also notes there's a long history of undue optimism.

"From the start, General Casey's broader strategy for Iraq has been premised on the optimistic assumption that Iraqi forces could soon substitute for American ones. In February 2005, General Casey noted that in the year ahead the United States would begin to 'transfer the counterinsurgency mission to the increasingly capable Iraqi security forces across Iraq.'

"In June 2006, General Casey submitted a confidential plan to the White House projecting American troop withdrawals that would begin in September 2006 and which, conditions permitting, would lead to a more than 50 percent reduction in American combat brigades by December 2007. Iraq's security forces were to fill the gap. In keeping with that strategy, American forces cut back their patrols in Baghdad during the first half of 2006."

And Gordon chronicles some of the many problems plaguing Iraqi security forces and concludes: "Until Iraq has a genuine unity government that its own forces respect and are willing to fight for, it seems likely that the American military will continue to shoulder most of the burden."

Ron Hutcheson and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Judging from the initial reactions, Tuesday's announcement by the top U.S. commander and top U.S. diplomat in Iraq of benchmarks for progress and a loose timetable for drawing down American troops appears unlikely to influence the Nov. 7 congressional elections.

"Republicans generally ignored the latest midcourse correction in Iraq, and Democrats denounced it as more of the same."

On Language

The White House's frantic rhetorical flips are becoming impossible to ignore.

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Banished from Bush's vernacular is 'stay the course,' which was his mantra for conveying America's resolve in Iraq until Democrats seized on the phrase as a sign that he and his fellow Republicans were unresponsive to mounting U.S. casualties.

"Bush and his team are also insisting on a distinction between 'tactics,' which he is willing to change, and 'strategy,' which he isn't.

"And the White House is willing to talk only of 'milestones' and 'benchmarks' for getting Iraqis to shoulder more of the security burden -- never 'deadlines' or 'ultimatums,' which imply penalties if they fail to do so.

"Even the definition of victory has undergone a makeover, with Bush no longer focusing on the goal of transforming Iraq into a flourishing democracy in the Middle East."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "What's being lost in the semantic game over 'stay the course' is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. If the administration were as flexible as it has been proclaiming recently, it would be talking about these options. It has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. If the White House is doing away with the old slogan, perhaps it should mint a new one: 'All options are ugly.'"

Opinion Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Things have become so dire for the Republicans that now even Bush is distancing himself from Bush.

"The president is cutting and running from the president. . . .

"A presidency built on message discipline (Message: 'Stay the course') is trying to salvage itself with some last-minute un-messaging (Message: 'No more stay the course'). . . .

"In a White House with a Fox News all-spin sensibility, officials don't think they need to change the strategy as much as they need to change their slogan."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column that the plan announced in Baghdad yesterday "looks sensible -- on paper.

"The problem is that this approach hasn't been working. Since January [Ambassador Zalmay] Khalilzad has been prodding Iraqi leaders in the Green Zone to make precisely these compromises. But out in the real world, the hopes for reconciliation have fallen apart, for a simple but terrifying reason: Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites are so enraged that they have stopped believing compromise is possible."

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The president has fled the field from 'stay the course,' signaling not just the unwinnability of his war but the bankruptcy of his political strategy. For as the president and his party grope for an alternative plan of action in Iraq, Karl Rove's bright line between Republican resolve and Democratic defeatism has become irreversibly fuzzed."

Frederick W. Kagan writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. military destroyed Iraq's government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an 'occupying force,' thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order. . . .

"By allowing violence and disorder to spread throughout the country, the Bush administration has broken faith with the Iraqi people and ignored its responsibilities. It has placed U.S. security in jeopardy by creating the preconditions for the sort of terrorist safe haven the president repeatedly warns about and by demonstrating that no ally can rely on America to be there when it counts."

But, Kagan writes: "Just because Bush did the wrong thing in 2003 doesn't mean that we can do the wrong thing now."

The White House liked this Wall Street Journal editorial so much, they e-mailed it out to the press corps this morning -- even though it's not precisely on message. "The Bush Administration hasn't helped matters of late with its own appearance of indecision, asserting on one day that we must avoid 'cut-and-run' while leaking on another that the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton report might be an opportunity for a strategic retreat. President Bush has sounded resolute himself, but many of his own advisers seem to be well along in their own electoral run for cover."

Bush's Campaign Strategy

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Beset by discouraging polls and division within ideological ranks, the White House is accelerating efforts to woo back disaffected conservatives and energize the Republican base in a reprise of a strategy that succeeded in the last two campaign cycles.

"President Bush and Vice President Cheney have given multiple interviews to conservative journalists, senior adviser Karl Rove has telephoned religious and social activists, and the White House has staged signing ceremonies for legislation cracking down on terrorism and illegal immigration. Two weeks before Election Day, Bush aides invited dozens of radio talk show hosts for a marathon broadcast from the White House yesterday to reach conservative listeners.

"The message that Bush and others are sending to alienated supporters is that, no matter how upset they have been about various policies or political missteps over the past couple of years, life would be far worse under the Democrats. . . .

"[T]they cite, in particular, the confirmation of two conservative Supreme Court justices who might have been blocked by a Democratic Senate."

But as Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush cannot show up just anywhere in the waning days of this midterm campaign. But there is a certain class of Republicans who are somewhere between eager and willing to have him at their sides.

"There are those facing ethical questions or struggling to recover from gaffes. There are those desperate for the cash Mr. Bush can bring in just by showing up for lunch. There are those who need the president to turn out a demoralized base. And there are those who, like Vern Buchanan, the Republican candidate for the House here, are a little bit of all three. . . .

"The president will also appear in swing districts where the Republican candidate has calculated that the last-minute infusion of cash he can bring in is worth more than any bad publicity surrounding the visit."

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "So far this year, Mr. Bush has done 10 times as many closed-press fundraising events compared to 2002. He has also not appeared at a single major Republican rally, unlike four years ago, when he did 32."

But Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "After months of limiting his political events to fund-raisers, President Bush will attend his first no-door-fee political event of the year on Saturday in Sellersburg, Indiana."

Two more rallies are scheduled for Monday, in Georgia and Texas.

Bush on Taxes: Wrong, Part One

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Each one of the president's recent political speeches has offered new zingers aimed at making more ominous the specter of Democrats in charge of the House or Senate, either on the subject of tax cuts or fighting terrorism. On Tuesday, Bush singled out for special emphasis the gradual doubling of the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000, one of several cuts passed during his administration with expiration dates.

"'If you're sitting around a dinner table and there's two children, your taxes just went up $1,000 if they take control,' the president said, continuing to do the math for three children, or four.

"But he didn't get it quite right. Bush skimmed past the fact that the child tax credit is not yet $1,000 and doesn't reach that level until 2010."

"He also ignored that many Democrats now say they want to retain that tax cut."

In fact, Democrats say they want to extend that particular tax credit -- so it covers low-income families.

Here's the text of Bush's speech yesterday.

Bush on Taxes: Wrong, Part Two

Bush also claimed that his tax cuts have sent tax revenues soaring. That's wrong, too.

Here's Bush: "The Democrats said tax cuts would cause the deficit to explode. Well, the truth is that tax cuts led to economic growth, and that growth has helped send tax revenues soaring. And, as a result, the deficit has been cut in half three years ahead of schedule.

"The Democrats have made a lot of predictions. Matter of fact, I think they may be measuring the drapes. If their electoral predictions are as reliable as their economic predictions, November 7th is going to be a good day for the Republicans."

But as Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post last week, the Bush administration's own economists are not actually claiming that its tax cuts have even paid for themselves -- not to mention led to increased revenue.

"The economy has grown and tax receipts have risen at historic rates over the past two years, but the Bush tax cuts played a small role in that process, [economists] said, and cost the Treasury more in lost taxes than it gained from the resulting economic stimulus. . . .

"Robert Carroll, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax analysis, said neither the president nor anyone else in the administration is claiming that tax cuts alone produced the unexpected surge in revenue. 'As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves,' Carroll said."

As Jonathan Chait recently asked in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "[I]f Bush's own economists say his tax cuts caused revenue to drop . . . then how can he continually get away with insisting the opposite?"

The Gyrocam Visit

In Florida for that Republican fundraiser, Bush made an unscheduled stop at a Defense Department contractor, Gyrocam Camera Systems , conveniently located next door to the airport.

Just last week, the Pentagon announced that the company had been awarded a $51.7 million contract with the Navy.

Bush paid a brief visit, then held a three-minute photo op at which he credited "low taxes" for Gyrocam's expansion -- neglecting to mention the role of all those tax dollars.

So what was the real purpose of the visit?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Bush made his cash-raising visit for GOP congressional candidate Vern Buchanan cheaper for the Republican businessman's campaign by stopping briefly at Gyrocam Camera Systems. The rules governing how a campaign reimburses the government for an appearance by Bush or another official dictate that scheduling an official event alongside the political one reduces the share of the president's travel costs that must be funded by the candidate."

Radio Day

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "Two weeks before a pivotal election, the Bush administration brought some of the Republican Party's conservative base to its front yard Tuesday by inviting talk radio hosts to broadcast from the North Lawn of the White House."

Here's Suzanne Malveaux 's report for CNN:

Malveaux: "It's a transparent attempt by the White House to rally its Republican base, two weeks before the midterm elections. . . .

"Several talk show hosts described a sense of desperation from a White House eager to sell its agenda. . . .

"MARK DAVIS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: These are guys who know that the -- the political waters are tough. They know the war is not particularly popular. They know the president is not particularly popular. But they are on a mission. They have to stay on message. They know what they have got to do.

"MALVEAUX: What they're doing is driving home one message: Don't vote for the Democrats.

"DAN BARTLETT, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: They will weaken the tools on terror, whether it be the Patriot Act, whether it be the terrorist surveillance program, or other key issues or key tools we use in the war on terror. And they are going to raise your taxes. . . .

"MALVEAUX: Millions of Republicans tune in to talk radio -- their hosts playing a critical role in selling the White House's agenda. And Martha Zoller from Georgia is complying.

"ZOLLER: You know, what I say is, use me."

But not everyone was quite so willing.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "For 15 years, the conservatives who dominate talk radio have served as shock troops for the GOP, bashing Democrats, hitting the hot buttons and rallying their listeners. Since the Republicans won back Congress in 1994, a feat in which Rush Limbaugh played a catalyzing role, through the disputed election of 2000 and President Bush's first term, the radio talkers have wielded a powerful megaphone for their ideological side.

"But as [Dan] Bartlett, Karl Rove, Tony Snow, Michael Chertoff and other top administration officials worked the tent during yesterday's day-long event, it became apparent that there are serious cracks in this once-solid wall of support.

"'The corps of Bush supporters are just seething, angry and disappointed,' said Jan Mickelson, a fixture in Des Moines radio. Iraq, he said, has become 'ungovernable,' voters are upset about 'perceived corruption in the Republican Party,' and 'social conservatives feel like they've been used again.' But in a point echoed by several of the hosts, Mickelson said that 'immigration is the number one issue' fostering disgruntlement with the Republicans, because his listeners are 'seeing the effects of lack of border control every single day.' . . .

"Though a handful of liberals, such as Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Fox News, were allowed in the White House tent, others say they were shut out. Rachel Maddow, an Air America host, said the White House did not return her calls when she sought an invitation."

Tony Snow: Just Plain Wrong

In one of more than 30 appearances yesterday, White House press secretary Tony Snow went on Fox News and tried to minimize the decision to no longer describe Bush's policy as 'stay the course.' (See my Monday and Tuesday columns.)

Said Snow: '[W]e went back and looked today and could only find eight times where he ever used the term, the phrase 'stay the course.'

But the liberal ThinkProgress Web site fired back: 'Apparently, the White House research team isn't very good at ' the Google .' ThinkProgress has documented 30 times that Bush has used the phrase to describe his policy in Iraq.

YouTube is full of video compendiums. Here's one , here's another .

Snow on Hardball

Back on October 16 , Snow was asked: "Just the simple question: Are we winning?"

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

On MSNBC's Hardball, yesterday, Chris Matthews asked the question again:

"MATTHEWS: Are we winning the war in Iraq?

"SNOW: Yes. . . .

"MATTHEWS: If this is victory, if this is winning what we're doing now, what would losing look like? I mean that seriously. What would have to happen for the president to decide that he did make a mistake, we can't set up a democracy in Iraq given those factional rivalries in that country, it can't be done?

"SNOW: Wait a minute. You're making an assumption that I can't buy into for the simple reason that you have 12 million Iraqis who voted. Furthermore, you've got a unity government that includes Shia, Sunni, and Kurds. There was a summit over the weekend in Saudi Arabia that brought together Shia and Sunni leaders. . . .

"MATTHEWS: But over 3,000 people are getting killed in what is basically sectarian fighting here. How can you call that a winning success story here?

"SNOW: Well, wait. You asked me if we're winning.


"SNOW: We haven't won, there's a big difference. . . .

"MATTHEWS: When do you think we will stop having this national argument over Iraq, that it will be clear that your argument will prevail, when people will say, you know, damn it, I didn't like it, but Bush was right. We could establish a stable democracy in Iraq.

"When are people going to say? Next year, the year after, three years from now, five years from now? When will people generally say, damn it, he was right? We have a stable democracy. When is that going to come?

"SNOW: I don't know, but if somebody had asked that question in 1776, the answer would have been 13 years.

"MATTHEWS: But that's a long haul to fight a foreign war, isn't it?

"SNOW: I'm not saying we're going to fight a foreign war for 13 years. I was engaging in a debating point."

Cheney Speaks

Cheney gave three interviews yesterday.

With Scott Hennen of WDAY radio:

"Q Are the terrorists trying to influence our election in your view?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think they're very much aware of our political calendar here, I really do. And when you see the kinds of things that happened this year, for example, when the Democratic Party in Connecticut purged Joe Lieberman, in effect, drummed him out of the party on the grounds that he had supported the President in the global war on terror, that sends a message to the terrorists overseas that their basic strategy of trying to break the will of the American people may, in fact, work. . . .

"Q ...I've had people call and say, please, let the Vice President know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives. . . . [T]his debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation. . . .

"Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the Vice President 'for torture.' We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we're party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that."

Here's some background from Walter Pincus of The Washington Post on the "dunk in the water."

Here's Cheney with Sean Hannity :

"Q [A]re you as surprised as I am the country is so divided, and we're even debating the Patriot Act, even debating NSA surveillance, even debating securing the borders, in some respects? Is that somewhat shocking in light of the nature of the threat you're describing?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think it is. Of course, I have my view, and people say, well, that's just Cheney. He's the Darth Vader of the administration, always taking the dark view. I think we have to think about the consequences that could flow from these kinds of events and developments. And I'm sorry that there isn't more unity, if you will, in the nation in terms of how we address these issues. But the threat is very real. It's out there. And we need to do everything we can to make certain that we aren't struck again. And that requires the kind of bold, aggressive leadership the President has provided and the great support we've had in Congress. And unfortunately, at this stage, I think there's some jeopardy, depending on how the election comes out, as to whether or not we'll be able to continue those policies."

Cheney also spoke to Juan Williams , National Public Radio.

The Fall of the White House Usher

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "Gary Walters, the longtime chief usher at the White House who has kept the secrets of seven first families, will retire at the end of the year after nearly four decades of service.

"Walters, 60, who manages the 132-room mansion with a staff of 95 and a $10 million budget, said last night that he told first lady Laura Bush and the president last week of his decision."

Pool Follies

New York Times White House correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in her pool report from Boca Raton, outside the Bush fundraiser yesterday: "Fancy gated neighborhood called The Sanctuary, with big stucco houses. Jordan Zimmerman, founder and chairman of Zimmerman advertising, was the host. Your pool was holed up at the next door neighbor's house, where there was a verrrrrry expensive Bentley and a less expensive Mercedes in the garage. We were in the pool room. Very big, but tacky decor, in the humble view of your pool."

Later, she filed an addendum: "Your pool is informed that some readers took offense to the previous pool report's description of the pool hold in Boca, which shall not be repeated here.

"Upon reflection, it seems an apology is in order to those who open their homes so that we might do our jobs. Please excuse your pool's lack of graciousness. Good manners sometimes slip away after a tiring day."

Snow on the RNC

A Republican National Committee attack ad aimed at Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is running for the Senate in Tennessee, shows a scantily clad blonde who says she met Ford at a Playboy party.

Is the RNC playing the race card?

From MSNBC's Hardball:

"SNOW: I don't think so. I mean, maybe I'm just quaint in this day and age. But no, I think there is always an attempt when you have got an African-American candidate to try to attribute something to the race card. But no, I don't.

"MATTHEWS: You don't think having a naked woman cutie pieing the guy, saying let's get together.

"SNOW: No, I mean, I think. . . .

"MATTHEWS: You don't think that's -- OK, I'm not going to ask you three times. I'm asking you a second time. You really do believe, Tony Snow, that they are not playing on the white guy vote down there, to try to turn them off, a working guy who would normally vote Democrat, turn them off to the Democratic candidate because we have got this black guy going after white women -- or white women going after him which is what they have got the ad showing, twice in the ad.

"SNOW: I think they are probably trying to be a little bit cute about a reported visit to the Playboy mansion. I wouldn't make too much of it."

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