The Delusional Duo

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 12:26 PM

Who's more delusional about Iraq: President Bush or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki?

Whichever side of that argument you're on, a classified memo from national security adviser Steve Hadley to President Bush -- leaked to the New York Times yesterday -- gives you more ammunition.

The memo describes a guy who talks a good game, but is ultimately clueless and incompetent -- and who has been lulled into believing that his rhetoric is true by a small circle of like-minded advisers.

That's Maliki.

But then the memo then suggests ways that Bush could bolster Maliki and his government that themselves are wildly unrealistic.

It's a heckuva memo. You can read the whole thing here.

And meanwhile, of course, both Bush and Maliki continue to deny that a civil war is taking place in Iraq.

The Memo

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "A classified memorandum by President Bush's national security adviser expressed serious doubts about whether Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had the capacity to control the sectarian violence in Iraq and recommended that the United States take new steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader's position.

"The Nov. 8 memo was prepared for Mr. Bush and his top deputies by Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and senior aides on the staff of the National Security Council after a trip by Mr. Hadley to Baghdad.

"The memo suggests that if Mr. Maliki fails to carry out a series of specified steps, it may ultimately be necessary to press him to reconfigure his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by providing 'monetary support to moderate groups,' and by sending thousands of additional American troops to Baghdad to make up for what the document suggests is a current shortage of Iraqi forces."

Again, here's the text of the memo. It starts off: "We returned from Iraq convinced we need to determine if Prime Minister Maliki is both willing and able to rise above the sectarian agendas being promoted by others. . . .

"While there does seem to be an aggressive push to consolidate Shia power and influence, it is less clear whether Maliki is a witting participant. The information he receives is undoubtedly skewed by his small circle of Dawa advisers, coloring his actions and interpretation of reality. His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

After suggesting some actions Maliki could take -- such as distancing himself from militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr -- the memo acknowledges: "The above approach may prove difficult to execute even if Maliki has the right intentions. He may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take such steps, which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base and require a greater number of more reliable forces."

It then suggests: "If it is Maliki's assessment that he does not have the capability -- politically or militarily -- to take the steps outlined above, we will need to work with him to augment his capabilities. We could do so in two ways. First, we could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. . . .

"Second, we need to provide Maliki with additional forces of some kind."

But as John F. Burns and Kirk Semple write in the New York Times: "Many of the proposals appear to be based on an assumption that the White House memo itself calls into question: that Prime Minister Maliki can be persuaded to break with 30 years of commitment to Shiite religious identity and set a new course, or abandon the ruling Shiite religious alliance to lead a radically different kind of government, a moderate coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians."

In fact, Burns and Semple conclude that "some key passages in the Hadley memo seem at odds with the reality on the ground, as if the steady worsening of America's prospects here has driven the White House to reach for solutions that defy the gloomy conclusions of America's diplomats and field commanders, not to mention some of Mr. Maliki's closest political associates."

White House press secretary Tony Snow and counselor Dan Bartlett were sent out to do damage control at a press briefing this morning in Latvia -- apparently transforming themselves into "senior administration officials" when talking about the memo, however. (The transcript is bizarre.). They stressed that the memo was just raising a range of possibilities. "The bulk of the memo demonstrates that it's a capability issue," one of the senior administration officials said.

Cui Bono?

So who leaked this memo, and why, and why now? Was it someone inside the White House, our outside? Was it an "authorized" leak, or an act of rebellion? Was it an attempt to put more pressure on Maliki? To destroy him? Or to show how screwed up things are generally?

The senior administration officials wouldn't comment. And here's all Gordon would say in his story: "An administration official made a copy of the document available to a New York Times reporter seeking information on the administration's policy review."

The Al-Sadr Factor

Michael Abramowitz writes in this morning's Washington Post: "Among other things, the Nov. 8 memo suggested that Maliki should be pressured to distance himself from anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and 'bring to justice' figures in Sadr's militia who 'do not eschew violence'; shake up his cabinet to include more nonsectarian technocrats; expand the Iraqi army; and declare the immediate suspension of Iraqi police units suspected of involvement in sectarian conflict. . . .

"Joost Hiltermann, who follows Iraq for the nonprofit International Crisis Group from Jordan, voiced skepticism that Maliki would crack down on private militias. 'He is completely beholden to the Sadrists,' he said. 'The notion that he could confront the power of the militias that gave him power is absurd.'"

In fact, it was al-Sadr who took the initiative today, making good on his threat to boycott parliament and Maliki's coalition if the premier met the U.S. president.

No Leverage

Burns and Semple write in the Times: "When President Bush meets in Jordan on Wednesday with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, it will be a moment of bitter paradox: at a time of heightened urgency in the Bush administration's quest for solutions, American military and political leverage in Iraq has fallen sharply.

"Dismal trends in the war -- measured in a rising number of civilian deaths, insurgent attacks, sectarian onslaughts and American troop casualties -- have merged with growing American opposition at home to lend a sense of crisis to the talks in Amman. But American fortunes here are ever more dependent on feuding Iraqis who seem, at times, almost heedless to American appeals, American and Iraqi officials in Baghdad say.

"They say they see few policy options that can turn the situation around, other than for Iraqi leaders to come to a realization that time is running out."

Maliki's Agenda

Alexandra Zavis and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times with the other side of the story: "Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will push for the U.S. military to relinquish control over his nation's security forces when he meets President Bush today to discuss a strategy to quell raging violence in Iraq, aides and political insiders said Tuesday.

"Frustrated by U.S. accusations that he isn't doing enough, Maliki says his hands are tied as long as he does not have the authority to deploy forces as he sees fit. He wants Bush to accelerate the training of the army and police, fund more recruits and provide them with bigger and better weapons, lawmakers briefed by Maliki said."

But everything in Iraq seems to be a zero-sum game these days, at best. And as Zavis and Wallsten point out: "Sunnis are likely to find threatening any consolidation of security forces in Maliki's hands."

Opinion Watch, Part I

From a New York Times editorial: "At this point it is hard to tell who is more out of touch: President Bush, who continues to insist that Iraq has not descended into civil war, or Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who appears to believe that Americans will prop him up indefinitely. . . .

"Mr. Bush needs to make clear that Americans' patience has all but run out and that he will start bringing the troops home unless Mr. Maliki moves to rein in sectarian bloodletting and Iraqi troops start shouldering more of the burden. Mr. Maliki needs to make Mr. Bush understand Iraq's full desperation -- and his own desperate political weakness. So long as Baghdad remains in chaos -- and militias are better armed and more motivated than the Iraqi Army -- he has no chance of ending the blood feuds or breaking the cycle of retribution.

"This sort of truth-telling does not come easily to either man, and at this point there may not be anything that can salvage Iraq. But more denial and drift will only lead to more chaos."

Reaching Out to the Sunnis

Among the suggestions the memo makes is for the United States to persuade Saudi Arabia to use its influence with the Sunnis in Iraq to stop the violence and engage in the political process.

In particular, the memo urged Bush to "[d]irect your cabinet to begin an intensive press on Saudi Arabia to play a leadership role on Iraq, connecting this role with other areas in which Saudi Arabia wants to see U.S. action."

That sheds more than a little light on Vice President Cheney's sudden and highly secretive trip to Saudi Arabia last weekend.

Meanwhile, Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration is trying to bring Persian Gulf monarchies and other Sunni Muslim Arab autocrats into a new security alliance to contain Shiite Muslim Iran's growing influence and stem any spillover of violence from Iraq, according to senior U.S. officials, diplomats and private analysts.

"But the effort's success could hinge in part on whether President Bush heeds growing calls in the region and at home to reactivate long-dormant American mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Not Gonna Talk

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As pressure mounts for the United States to seek direct talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, President Bush appeared Tuesday to rule out any change in his administration's policy toward those Iraqi neighbors.

"By reaffirming a long-standing administration policy setting strict conditions on talks with either country, Bush indicated that he may be unwilling to accept an expected recommendation by a bipartisan commission assessing policy options on Iraq."

Baker v. Bush

Mike Allen writes for Time that White House aides are delighted that the U.S. television networks are sending their news anchors to Amman, "ensuring massive coverage of an event that the White House has said is unlikely to produce any major announcement or development."

Why? Because the White House is simply happy to have Bush in the spotlight -- rather than James Baker, whose bipartisan Iraq Study Group has been garnering so much attention in Washington these past weeks.

Writes Allen: "Bush's aides have begun to chafe at the idea that Baker is needed as some sort of savior for Iraq. Hadley made it clear that the President hopes his Jordan foray will erase any such notion. 'It's important, I think,' Hadley said, 'for the President to send the message to Prime Minister Maliki that while he is listening to all of these voices for ideas, is open to ideas, that in the end of the day to reassure Prime Minister Maliki that it is the President who will be crafting the way forward on Iraq and to reassure Prime Minister Maliki it will be done in a way that is cooperative with Iraq, rather than imposed on Iraq.' In other words: Baker is a consultant, not calling the shots."

In Jordan, Allen writes, Bush's team hopes "he'll once again show himself to be in command."

Location Location

Scott MacLeod writes for Time: "The fact that Bush is holding talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not in Baghdad, but in the comparatively tranquil Jordanian capital of Amman, has not gone unnoticed.' One hundred and fifty thousand U.S. soldiers cannot secure protection for their president,' mocked a Jordanian columnist, who called the choice of venue 'an open admission of gross failure for Washington and its allies' project in Iraq.'"

Who Lost Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that American political leaders "increasingly blame the continuing violence and destruction in Iraq on the people most affected by it: the Iraqis. . . .

"This marks a shift in tone from earlier debate about the responsibility of the United States to restore order after the 2003 invasion, and it seemed to gain currency in October, when sectarian violence surged. Some see the talk of blame as the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement. . . .

"Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie said he worries about the growing chorus of official voices blaming Iraq, and suggested that a little introspection on the U.S. side could help."

About That Civil War

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The carnage in Iraq is 'sectarian violence,' President Bush says. It's a 'struggle for freedom,' the 'central front in the war on terror.' It is not, no matter how much it may look like it, a civil war.

"Forget the debate over what to do about the war in Iraq. The White House is still debating what to call the war in Iraq. With retired generals, analysts, politicians and pundits increasingly using the term 'civil war,' the Bush administration insists that the definition does not fit as part of its latest effort to control the words of war.

"To people dying in the streets of Sadr City, it may be just semantics. But the White House fiercely resists the phrase out of fear of its impact in both Iraq and the United States. Defining it as civil war, some strategists worry, could accelerate the conflict and encourage Iraqi factions that remain on the sidelines to join the struggle. And acknowledging that it has become a civil war, they fear, could collapse the already weak support for the mission among Americans.

"But the risk for the White House, analysts said, is that once again it will appear out of touch with reality over there and with public perception here at home. For months after the invasion of Iraq, the administration denied there was an insurgency. Then it resisted the notion that there was sectarian violence. Now polls show that about two-thirds of the American public think that Iraq is mired in civil war."

Why has it taken so long for journalists to call it what it is?

In a Live Online discussion yesterday, media critic Howard Kurtz mocked a reader's suggestion that White House pressure could have anything to do with it.

Wrote Kurtz: "What kind of 'pressure' do you think the Bush administration puts on journalists? What are they going to do, have Tony Snow say mean things? Refuse to leak what they're already not leaking? Rescind the presidentially supplied nicknames?"

But Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "[W]hy has the news media gone along with this fiction for so many months? Because beginning after 9/11, the White House had news organizations on the defensive. 'Be careful what you say,' then-press secretary Ari Fleischer intoned. Vice President Dick Cheney, who never faced combat, called reporters 'lazy' for not reporting more positive news out of Iraq. As recently as this past summer, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was still comparing opponents of the war to 'appeasers.'

"It wasn't too much of a leap to figure that such a characterization could also refer to media outlets careless enough to use a term for the war that the government disliked. With the midterm election returns, we've forgotten how recently the White House held a hammer over the head of anyone who might dare dissent. Earlier this year, any major news organization deciding to call Iraq a civil war would have almost certainly been attacked as unpatriotic by the White House-RNC-Fox industrial complex. Even now, using the phrase in defiance of the White House will be viewed in some quarters as a political act rather than reporting the self-evident truth."

Alter waxes nostalgic: "Once upon a time, the press didn't much care if the president disliked its descriptions of a war. . .

"But that was before the commoditization of news. It was before offending an administration (and thus the readers and viewers who backed it) inspired fear of lower circulation and ratings. In those years, Washington had other weapons with which to intimidate the media, particularly the issuance of broadcast licenses, but the power of the popular president to harm a news organization in the marketplace was not as great as it is today.

"The famous 19th century cartoon character, 'Mr. Dooley,' liked to say that the Supreme Court followed 'the illiction returns' (sic). The same is now true of the national news media, which never wants to risk getting too far out in front of public opinion, even when the facts on the ground warrant it."

Opinion Watch, Part II

There is, of course, another side to the argument. A Wall Street Journal editorial today is contemptuous of "this week's spectacle of the wannabe Walter Cronkites at outlets like NBC News and the Los Angeles Times patting themselves on the back for declaring that the Iraq conflict is a 'civil war.' Mr. Cronkite is often credited with helping turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and today's media point seems to be to declare the war unwinnable, as if this were actually desirable.

"To his credit, Mr. Bush refused to give ground to such defeatist rhetoric during meetings with NATO leaders yesterday. No doubt many critics will continue to snicker at his alleged lack of realism, but public confidence is crucial to avoiding disaster in Iraq."

Struck Down

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A Los Angeles federal judge has ruled that key portions of a presidential order blocking financial assistance to terrorist groups are unconstitutional, further complicating the Bush administration's attempts to defend its aggressive anti-terrorism tactics in federal courts.

"U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, in a ruling released late Monday, found that two provisions of an executive order signed Sept. 23, 2001, are impermissibly vague because they allow the president to unilaterally designate organizations as terrorist groups and broadly prohibit association with such groups."

Fighting Dems


Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia's newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn't long before Bush found him.

"'How's your boy?' Bush asked, referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

"'I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,' Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

"'That's not what I asked you,' Bush said. 'How's your boy?'

"'That's between me and my boy, Mr. President,' Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House."

Emily Heil reports for The Hill that Webb told a confidant "that he was so angered by this that he was tempted to slug the commander-in-chief . . . but of course didn't."

Deadly Motorcades

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "They look glamorous from the curb, exciting and powerful as they race through a city with lights flashing, sirens blaring and a very, very important person waving from inside an armored limousine.

"But presidential motorcades can be dangerous. The most recent reminder: the death this week of a Honolulu motorcycle officer who was injured while escorting President Bush during a brief stop en route home from Asia.

"Sure, the president is safe in his limousine - so safe that no one can remember a commander in chief buckling his seat belt.

"But the rest of the entourage is at risk of accidents and injuries, and they happen more often than most people realize."

Bushism Watch

White House stenographers had to use both a "sic" and an asterisk to clarify this Bushism from yesterday: "And under the able leadership of the Secretary General, NATO is transforming from a static alliance focused on the defense of Europe, into an expedentiary* [sic] alliance ready to deploy outside of Europe in the defense of freedom. This is a vital mission."

The footnote explains that Bush was supposed to say "expeditionary."

Cheney Hunting Again

Tampa Bay's Channel 10 reports that Cheney was tying up Tallahasee traffic on Monday, on his way to go hunting -- not sure where.

Pay Up, Karl

The Colorado Confidential blog describes a local Democratic official's $5 bet on the November election with Karl Rove, placed when Rove was visiting Aspen this summer.

Rove hasn't paid up.

The Twins

Jo Piazza writes in the New York Daily News that "the Bush twins are solidifying themselves as the Paris and Britney of the political world. . . .

"[A] year and a half out of college, neither has found a serious job. Jenna is working as an intern for UNICEF in South America, and Barbara has joined her mother in traveling to Africa to work with children who have AIDS."

Former White House correspondent Saul Friedman blogs on "This is wartime, Americans are getting killed and maimed along with the innocents in Iraq, so I think it is not out of line to note that the president's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are having a heckuva good time, celebrating their 25th birthday."

He suggests that some of the questions raised by readers of ABC's blog ought to be asked of the twins' father. Among them: "Why are the Bush twins doing nothing to help the war effort? Why are they not raising money for veterans?"

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth and Ben Sargent on Bush's imaginary friend.

Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes and Stuart Carlson on White House semantics.

Mike Luckovich on Bush's library.

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