By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 1, 2006; 12:16 PM
There is a war going on -- and I don't mean the fake one between the White House and John Kerry. I mean the real one, in Iraq.
And each and every day, there's more evidence that President Bush's strategy for winning that war isn't working.
Bush's plan calls for American troops to remain in the country as long as it takes for a democratic central government to take hold. But there's little sign that the government has been able to exercise any authority whatsoever outside the fortified Green Zone. The rest of Baghdad is in the throes of civil war. The Kurdish north is essentially independent, the south is ruled by Shiite militias and the Sunni center is in a state of anarchy.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's supposed unity government surprised everyone by showing it is capable of exercising authority -- but it wasn't the sort of act that bodes well for the future.
Maliki showed he can serve his Shiite militia masters by stopping the U.S. military from bothering them.
Ellen Knickmeyer and John Ward Anderson write in The Washington Post: "American soldiers rolled up their barbed-wire barricades and lifted a near siege of the largest Shiite Muslim enclave in Baghdad on Tuesday, heeding the orders of a Shiite-led Iraqi government whose assertion of sovereignty had Shiites celebrating in the streets. ...
"Maliki's decision exposed the growing divergence between the U.S. and Iraqi administrations on some of the most critical issues facing the country, especially the burgeoning strength of Shiite militias. The militias are allied with the Shiite religious parties that form Maliki's coalition government, and they are accused by Sunni Arab Iraqis and by Americans of kidnapping and killing countless Sunnis in the soaring violence between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority."
And do you remember how Bush used to describe his strategy in Iraq? (Other than " stay the course ," naturally.)
On June 28, 2005 , Bush proudly announced: "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
He repeated it over and over again, at least 40 times , until the phrase was retired almost exactly a year later. His last unprompted use of the phrase was on June 26, 2006 : "And as you well know, our standards are, as Iraqis stand up, the coalition will be able to stand down."
At his September 15 press conference , about 10 weeks after he had mentioned it last, Bush was asked if the strategy was still operative. He said it was.
But he put it this way: "We all want the troops to come home as quickly as possible. But they'll be coming home when our commanders say the Iraqi government is capable of defending itself and sustaining itself and is governing itself."
As Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post in October regarding "stand up, stand down": "By strict numbers, the Iraqi side of that equation is almost complete. Training programs have developed more than 300,000 members of the Iraqi army and national police, close to the desired number of homegrown forces. Yet as that number has grown, so, too, has violence in Iraq. . . .
"With the insurgency undiminished and Iraqi forces seemingly unable to counter it, U.S. commanders say they expect to stay at the current level of U.S. troops -- about 140,000 -- until at least next spring. That requirement is placing new strains on service members who leave Iraq and then must prepare to return a few months later. Tours of duty have been extended for two brigades in Iraq to boost troop levels."
And in today's Washington Post, Walter Pincus has a short story that speaks volumes about why the Iraqis' "standing up" hasn't allowed us to "stand down."
Pincus writes: "U.S. military advisers are confronting difficult behavior from Iraqi soldiers, who tend to fire all their ammunition in response to a single sniper shot or go on rampages even against civilians upon witnessing the death of a colleague, according to Lt. Col. Carl D. Grunow, a former adviser to an Iraqi army armored brigade. . . .
"His article, based on his year in Iraq, which ended in June, is in the July-August Military Review and is one of several in recent issues that have dealt forthrightly with concerns of military participants with the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq's army during the ongoing war. . . .
"Grunow also notes that some Iraqi soldiers do not show up for training that is difficult, and he says that up to 40 percent of some Iraqi units run away in the face of dangerous situations -- without punishment."The War and the Elections
Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The White House, as well as some experts outside the government, say al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups deliberately are trying to inflict more casualties to influence next week's midterm elections and break American will. . . .
"Others say the rising toll is not so much the result of a deliberate decision by U.S. adversaries as it is the cost of moving more U.S. troops into Baghdad in recent weeks in an attempt to more fully control the capital city.
"'The October boost in U.S. casualties was almost inevitable the moment the U.S. attempted to stiffen and replace Iraqi forces in an essentially hopeless mission,' writes Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in his most recent analysis of Iraq."Bush and Prayer
Talk about motivating the base. Bush sat down for an interview with Melissa Charbonneau of the Christian Broadcasting Network yesterday.
Here's a video excerpt .
Charbonneau: "What's your prayer for the nation?"
Bush: "My prayer is for peace. My prayer is that this world be peaceful, so children can grow up understanding the benefits of freedom.
"Let me just say something about prayer. I have been deeply affected by the fact that people from all walks of life pray for me and my family. It has served as a great source of strength and comfort, and I thank our fellow citizens for those prayers. They don't need to do that, but they do. I am amazed when I work rope lines. . . . People are there, it's like they've come to say 'I've come to let you know I'm praying for you, Mr. President, I'm lifting you and your family up in prayer.'
"And my answer to them is: That is the greatest gift you can give a president. And I thank people for that. It's made an enormous difference in my life as the president. . . .
"It's an amazing country, you know? When you've got total strangers praying for a guy like me. It really is. I think it makes us very unique as a nation, and I embrace it."Other Interviews
Bush explained how the Decider works: "First of all, in order to make good decisions, you have to understand the principles that you believe in. . . .
"Secondly, you've got to have good people around you that are capable of giving you good advice. In other words, you've been in the Oval Office. It can be slightly intimidating. And you want to make sure you have people come in there that say, 'Look, here's what I believe.'
"And, thirdly, then you have to be able to make a decision. And making a decision means you're thoughtful, you listen, you think a lot about it. But when you decide, you decide.
"And, fourth, it means you've got to have a team that, when you make the decision, it is, 'Yes sir, Mr. President,' and they carry out the decision you make."
Hannity asked Bush if he felt being president was his God-given destiny, and Bush demurred.
"You know, I don't know. There's just an interesting argument. I think mankind has to be very comfortable about ascribing to God, you know, kind of human answers. In other words, God is bigger than humans."
Bush also sat down yesterday with Morris Jones of Sinclair Broadcast Group. As usual, good questions were rewarded with non-answers.
Today, Bush holds an interview with right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.Just Who Is Bush Motivating?
Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "His name is not on any ballot this fall, but George W. Bush is the central issue of campaign 2006. Tuesday's vote will deliver a referendum on six years of Bush's leadership -- bold and principled or radically divisive, depending on one's political ideology -- and the wartime policies he has championed.
"Other issues may come into play, congressional scandals and performance among them, but in the end, next week's verdict will be remembered for what it says about this president. With Bush's approval ratings hovering just below 40 percent, Republicans are braced for big losses.
"GOP strategists know well that no political party has successfully weathered a midterm election with such an unpopular president in office. Bush's challenge as he campaigns in the final days of the election is to find a way to excite and mobilize a fractured Republican base without triggering an even bigger turnout among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that could cost his party the House or Senate. . . .
"One GOP strategist, speaking candidly about the president on the condition of anonymity, offered this assessment: 'I'd say he's at least 50 percent of the problem.'"Kerry is So Very
The White House political machine -- flailing without someone in particular to vilify -- yesterday gleefully jumped at the chance to make John Kerry a central issue in this campaign.
And while the broadcast media can't seem to get enough of this story, the print media is being a touch more skeptical.
Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza write in The Washington Post: "President Bush last night accused Sen. John F. Kerry of disparaging U.S. troops in Iraq, echoing the 2004 strategy of ridiculing the Massachusetts senator to raise anew questions about Democratic leaders and their commitment to the troops. The highly coordinated White House effort came as Republicans sought to shift the focus away from an unpopular war and GOP scandals that are putting their congressional majorities at risk.
"The controversy erupted after Kerry told a California audience on Monday: 'Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.' . . .
"The president said Kerry owes service members an apology -- echoing a parade of prominent Republicans who criticized the Massachusetts Democrat throughout the day. . . .
"In his defense, Kerry said that his comment was a 'botched joke' and that he was referring to Bush's intellect, not that of American military personnel serving in Iraq."
How scripted is this? "The White House tipped off the networks to when Bush would attack Kerry, so the comments could be carried live and make the evening news."
Here's the text of Bush speech: "The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and it is shameful."
Here's Kerry's response : "It disgusts me that a bunch of these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country, are willing to lie about those who did."
Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "For at least a few hours on Tuesday, President Bush had a chance to relive his victorious campaign of 2004, taking a break from a bleak Republican campaign season as he attacked Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts over the war in Iraq."
But is there a downside even to this?
"In the process, Mr. Bush brought renewed attention to the war in Iraq, which he defended with vigor while campaigning in Georgia, at the very moment that a number of Republican Congressional candidates, following the advice of party strategists, were stepping up their efforts to distance themselves from the White House on the war as the campaign enters its final days."
Press secretary Tony Snow got the ball rolling at yesterday's briefing. He even came prepared with the text of Kerry's remarks.
"What Senator Kerry ought to do first is apologize to the troops," Snow said. "This is an absolute insult."
When Snow was done, Hearst columnist Helen Thomas piped up: "Does the president owe the Democrats an apology for saying that the terrorists -- that they will appease the terrorists?"The Half Empty Arena
Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "He didn't fill the arena at the Georgia National Fairgrounds -- plenty of seats were empty in the back along with nearly half of the vast floor space. But the thousands who came out for the Halloween night rally were enthusiastic, applauding his call for tax cuts and against gay marriage."Trick or Treat
After his speech, Bush stopped off in a residential area of the Robins Air Force Base, where he stood near a gazebo and handed out boxes of presidential M&Ms to costumed trick-or-treaters for about 15 minutes.
Here's a photo gallery from the Macon Telegraph.Standard Order of Business
Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "Rep. Charles Rangel feels bad -- but not too bad -- about directing a curse word at Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Rangel, a Harlem Democrat who regularly exchanges verbal volleys with the vice president, called Cheney a 'son of a b . . . ' on Monday when asked by the New York Post about comments Cheney made about him in a television interview.
"He repeated his comments in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, but added, 'I shouldn't have said it.'
"'I thought that he should be flattered, there's certainly no animosity in it,' said Rangel, saying he had been making an observation about Cheney. 'Some people just have that as part of their personality.'"Poll Watch
John Harwood and Jackie Calmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "A week before Election Day, a new poll shows President Bush getting better marks for his handling of the economy -- an issue Republicans are emphasizing in the run-up to Tuesday's vote -- but voters' anxieties about Iraq continue to dominate their concerns. . . .
"Just 39% of voters approve Mr. Bush's performance while 57% disapprove. By 37% to 22% voters say they will be voting to send a signal of opposition to Mr. Bush rather than support; 38% say their votes won't reflect their feelings about the president."Perle's Vision
Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post that "Richard Perle former Reagan assistant secretary of defense, former Bush brain-truster on the Defense Policy Board, and a key promoter of the war to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, [last week] blistered the administration as 'dysfunctional' when it comes to stopping someone from bringing 'a nuclear weapon or even nuclear material into the United States.' . . .
"'And if it can't get itself together to organize a serious program for finding nuclear material on its way to the United States, then it ought to be replaced by an administration that can.'
"But President Bush, Perle emphasized, is not to blame for this sorry state of affairs. 'I haven't the slightest doubt that if one could . . . put this proposition to the president, he would first be shocked to learn that we don't have the capability. Secondly, [he] would immediately order that we develop it.'"November Surprise?
Yochi J. Dreazen blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush will hold no public events of any kind on Wednesday, an exceptionally light schedule this close to next Tuesday's midterm elections. That sparked questions about whether Bush has a 'November surprise' in store. This is, after all, a president who has twice managed to sneak away to Iraq.
"At the White House morning briefing, a reporter observed that the light schedule made it sound 'like something is cooking there.' Spokesman Tony Snow replied, 'No, not really.'
"That left some Democratic political operatives wondering just what Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, might be up to."Briefing Room Follies