Bush v. Baker

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 30, 2006; 1:02 PM

The conventional wisdom in the immediate aftermath of the mid-term election was that President Bush -- humbled by a vote of no confidence, hobbled by a deepening crisis in Iraq -- would turn away from the neoconservatism of Vice President Cheney and the hyper-partisanship of Karl Rove.

It was said that he would turn to his father's team. There was to be a course correction, in Iraq and elsewhere.

But the conventional wisdom may have underestimated the president's stubbornness -- and Cheney and Rove's tenacity.

Because at today's press conference in Jordan, following his abbreviated meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush made it abundantly clear that he is waving off the rescue attempt by longtime Bush family fixer James A. Baker III. He'd rather stay the course.

News reports this morning indicate that Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group will next week officially recommend a gradual pullback of American troops from Iraq.

But in Amman, Bush went out of his way to mock the notion of a "graceful exit" -- and to insist that he's in Iraq for the long haul. "This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," Bush said.

In recent days, the president has also made clear that he will not heed the commission's other major anticipated recommendation: That he engage in a more aggressive diplomatic effort with Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria. Cheney is said to be particularly adamant on that issue, and Bush says it's a non-starter.

So that would appear to leave only one significant area of agreement between Bush and the Baker commission: A shift in American emphasis from combat operations to training and advising Iraqi units.

But attempts to train Iraqi forces thus far have repeatedly failed -- or worse, backfired. (See, for instance, Washington Post stories by Thomas E. Ricks and Walter Pincus.)

And in the greater scheme of things -- with Iraq wracked by a horribly violent civil war, the American death toll rising, and an angry electorate demanding an exit strategy -- a shift of that sort risks coming off as nothing more than tinkering.

Bush, of course, could still change his mind. All we know is that he hasn't done so yet.

The Iraq Study Group

David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud write in the New York Times: "The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panel's deliberations. . . .

"It is a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March, avoiding a specific timetable, which has been opposed by Mr. Bush, but making it clear that the American troop commitment should not be open-ended. . . .

"The report recommends that Mr. Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the debate over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin sometime next year. . . .

"As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Mr. Bush has been willing to try so far, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Tehran and Damascus.

"Mr. Bush has rejected such contacts until now, and he has also rejected withdrawal, declaring in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday that while he will show flexibility, 'there's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.'"

Thomas E. Ricks and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Under the recommendations of the commission . . . the emphasis of the U.S. military presence in Iraq would shift from fighting the insurgency and containing sectarian violence to backing up Iraqi security forces dealing with those problems.

"This approach would place less emphasis on combat operations and more on logistics, intelligence and training and advising Iraqi units. Also, a large residual combat force would be required to protect all the personnel involved in those operations and to provide a security guarantee to the Iraqi government.

"Thus, even if the combat forces were withdrawn, the person familiar with the group's thinking noted, the recommendation envisions keeping in Iraq a 'substantial' U.S. military force."

In Amman

Michael Abramowitz and Ann Scott Tyson write for washingtonpost.com: "President Bush delivered a staunch endorsement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday morning and dismissed called for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq as unrealistic, following a summit meeting in which the two leaders discussed speeding up the turnover of security responsibilities. 'He's the right guy for Iraq,' Bush said an a news conference in the Jordanian capital, as he stood next to a somewhat stiff and unsmiling Iraqi premier. . . .

"Bush has a track record of changing policies on a dime, such as when he ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld only days after saying he would stay until the end of his term. But his comments today, coupled with other statements in the past few days, seemed to set firm lines on Iraq beyond which the president will not be pushed, despite growing discontent with his policy at home.

"These include no major troop withdrawals, no partition of the country, no direct talks with Iran and Syria as part of a broader diplomatic effort in the region and continued strong support for Maliki -- despite a leaked memo from National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley questioning whether the current government has the capacity and will to crack down on private militias responsible for much of the violence gripping Baghdad and beyond."

Here is the transcript of Bush and Maliki's joint press availability, a 35-minute affair held after just over two hours of face-to-face meetings at the Four Seasons Hotel.

"I told the prime minister we're ready to make changes to better support the unity government of Iraq, and that certain key principles behind our strategy remain firm and they're fixed," Bush said.

As usual, Bush used the questions -- no matter what they were about -- as an excuse to say what he wanted to say, much of it familiar. Here, for instance, is his response to a question about whether Hezbollah has trained members of Iraqi militias.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Our objective is to help the Maliki government succeed. And today we discussed how to further the success of this government. This is a government that is dedicated to pluralism and rule of law. It's a government elected by the Iraqi people under a constitution approved by the Iraqi people, which, in itself, is an unusual event in the Middle East, by the way.

"We talked today about accelerating authority to the prime minister so he can do what the Iraqi people expect him to do, and that is bring security to parts of his country that require firm action. It's going to -- the presence of the United States will be in Iraq so long as the government asks us to be in Iraq. This is a sovereign government. I believe that there is more training to be done. I think the prime minister agrees with me. I know that we're providing a useful addition to Iraq by chasing down al-Qaeda and by securing -- by helping this country protect itself from al-Qaeda.

"Al-Qaeda wants a safe haven in Iraq. Al-Qaeda made it clear earlier that suicide bombers would increase sectarian violence. That was part of their strategy. One of our goals is to deny safe haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Maliki government expects us and wants us to provide that vital part of security.

"So we'll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people. I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.

"We want the people of Iraq to live in a free society. It's in our interests. In my judgment, if we were to leave before the job is done, it would only embolden terrorists, it would only embolden the extremists. It would dash the hopes of millions of people who want to live in a free society, just like the 12 million people who voted in the Iraqi election. They want to live in a free society. And we support this government, because the government understands it was elected by the people. And Prime Minister Maliki is working hard to overcome the many obstacles in the way to a peaceful Iraq, and we want to help him."

Doesn't sound like a man about to change course, does it?

After the press availability came another briefing by a "senior administration official." An excerpt:

" Q: Was there a sense -- I mean, I'm listening to you talk about this meeting where they're talking about foreign investment and the hydrocarbon law -- at a time in which 50,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, by many measures Iraq is in a civil war, the past week was the bloodiest since the invasion, et cetera -- I don't get a sense of urgency from what you're saying or what the president said today, or what Maliki said. The press conference today was largely a sense of -- stay the course. He said there would not be withdrawal, there would not be a major shift. You're talking about bureaucratic tinkering, it seems to me, at a time when Baghdad literally is burning. Why is there no urgency of trying to figure out a way of finally bringing a civil war there under control?

" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would disagree with your characterization that there is no urgency. I think what you're not seeing is panic. And I think that is appropriate, that there is a sense of urgency and a sense of seriousness and a real sense of purposeness. And I think that permeated every interaction that I witnessed today. The fact that there's not panic is a good thing, because these problems are real and they need to be addressed in a systematic way.

" And I also wouldn't agree with your characterization of tinkering. These are the, as I said, sort of the nuts and bolts of getting the tools in place to deal with the security situation. There was, as I mentioned, quite a fulsome conversation about the situation in Baghdad -- the fact that they did talk about some of the positive things that were happening in the country, like the foreign investment law, like progress in developing a hydrocarbons law. I also think that that is completely appropriate. Those are real developments in this country. The fact that there are positive things happening would naturally take up at least part of this meeting. It was not only focused on the challenges, but it was focused a little bit on some of the other elements of the strategy."

Senior Administration Official Watch

Figuring out who that particular senior administration official was isn't hard, by the way. In her nytimes.com story this morning, Sheryl Gay Stolberg identifies the official as having attended the Bush-Maliki breakfast meeting, and refers to the official as "she." There were only two women at the breakfast: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who quickly jetted off to the West Bank afterwards, and deputy national security adviser Meghan L. O'Sullivan.

So it was obviously O'Sullivan.

That was only the latest in a series of briefings that should have been on the record. Yesterday morning, press secretary Tony Snow and counselor Dan Bartlett apparently made a clumsy transition to senior administration officials; later in the day, Snow joked around: "I am joined by my close personal friend, Senior Administration Official."

Not funny.

As Mark Silva blogs in the Chicago Tribune: "It is a loathsome practice, this Washington-based practice of attributing anything to anonymous senior administration officials. It corrodes public confidence in journalism -- is everyone sure that we are actually quoting a real person, or only making it up? We are not making it up, I can assure you. And it should corrode public confidence in government. Is anyone wondering why senior members of our government cannot speak with authority, in the deliverance of civil comments, with their names attached? Is that Washington's idea of accountability? Or deniability?"

The Snub

The schedule was clear: Bush and Maliki were to start their two-day summit with a pre-dinner meeting at the Raghadan Palace with Jordanian King Abdullah yesterday evening. But at the last minute, Maliki was a no-show.

Could that have had anything to do with yesterday's leak of a highly critical memo about Maliki from national security adviser Steve Hadley? (See yesterday's column.)

White House aides were at a loss to explain precisely how the meeting was suddenly cancelled -- but the one thing they knew for sure, no doubt about it, absolutely, was that it had nothing to do with the memo, and was not a snub.

This posed a bit of a conundrum from the press corps: Should they take that preposterous assertion on face value? Or should they call the White House aides liars? Not surprisingly, most reporters decided to steer a middle course, and let the readers connect the dots.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: "Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and King Abdullah II of Jordan abruptly backed out of a meeting with President Bush on Wednesday, leaving the White House scrambling to explain why a carefully planned summit meeting had suddenly been cut from two days to one.

"The decision occurred on a day that a classified White House memorandum expressing doubts about Mr. Maliki was disclosed and after Iraqi officials loyal to a powerful Shiite cleric said they were suspending participation in the Maliki government because he had ignored their request to cancel the Bush meeting entirely.

"The president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were already aboard Air Force One, on the way to Amman from Riga, Latvia, where they had been attending a NATO summit meeting, when they received the news by telephone from the United States ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. The White House insisted Mr. Bush was not upset and had not been snubbed.

"'Absolutely not,' said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president."

Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore write in the Los Angeles Times: "Senior Bush aides offered at least four explanations for the cancellation -- finally dispatching a more junior official to tell reporters late Wednesday that Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II had decided mutually that a three-way conversation was not necessary."

Maliki's aides apparently released several different explanations as well.

Thomas DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "There was a time when American clients wouldn't dare snub a President of the United States. But these are hardly normal times - not for Iraq, nor a seriously weakened President.

"White House spinners tried to confect a benign explanation for yesterday's cancellation of a dinner date between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But ... the dinner no-show was an undeniable embarrassment for Bush."

DeFrank also notes: "The embarrassing memo has triggered a wave of conspiracy theories. Some Bushies speculate the Hadley leak was a premeditated ploy to stiffen Maliki's spine that backfired horribly. Others wonder whether someone in Vice President Cheney's shop or at the Pentagon, angry at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ouster, was playing payback.

"Whatever the reality, 'These are the kind of things that don't happen when you're riding high,' a senior Bush counselor moaned."

In her nytimes.com piece this morning, Stolberg notes that Maliki himself appeared to dismiss the suggestion that he had cancelled the meeting out of pique, "saying the meeting -- which had been scheduled to include King Abdullah II of Jordan -- was not necessary because the prime minister and the king had already had discussion earlier in the day. 'So there's no problem,' Mr. Maliki said. . . .

"Still, tensions seemed to bubble just under the surface. The two leaders barely looked at one another during the news conference. And when Mr. Bush, at one point, asked the prime minister if he wanted to continue taking questions from reporters, the prime minister swiveled his head toward the president and shot Mr. Bush an incredulous look."

Briefing Follies

This separate briefing, from two senior administration officials, reads like an Abbot and Costello routine at times.

One official says he (or she?) didn't think Maliki was ever supposed to be at the dinner, and says "I'm not sure where the trilateral idea came from, but it was not what we decided in the end was really the optimal way to spend the president's time."

A reporter asked: "Who is the 'we'? When you say 'we decided,' who's the 'we'?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was not on the plane, so I can't answer as to any decisions on the plane."

Then the other senior administration official, who apparently did expect Maliki at the meeting, says: "And they decided it would be superfluous. As my colleague was saying, you've got to figure out what the most effective use of the President's time is going to be. And it's --

" Q: 'They' who?"

He (or she) couldn't say, of course.

And later:

" Q: The appearance is the president was snubbed. That's the appearance.

" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no, no. This is something that you can feel free to ask the Prime Minister about tomorrow, and you will get an answer that there's no snub. That much we do know. It's not a snub of the president, nor is it a snub of the prime minister, period.

" Q: How do you know that?

" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because we've had our conversations with people on the ground who have had --

" Q: But you don't know who canceled it, you don't know --

" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't like the word 'cancellation.'"

Opinion and Analysis

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "The president and his senior staff arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday with a deep sense of discontent about the direction of Iraq. But that doesn't translate into a major course correction, no matter what the pundits -- or the Democrats, or James Baker's study group -- suggest. Somewhere between Stay the Course and Reverse Course lies Bush's new approach. Call it Adjust the Course

"[A]nyone -- such as the newly empowered Democrats -- expecting troop withdrawals will have to wait either until Iraq is able to govern itself, or until Bush leaves office."

Michael Hirsch writes in Newsweek: "The forthcoming report by James Baker's Iraq Study Group has enjoyed the biggest public buildup since the Segway. And it is likely to be just as big of a bust.

"Here's why the Baker-Hamilton report is destined to land with a thud, after weeks of messianic hype. According to sources who have seen the draft report introduced this week, the group will recommend deeper engagement with Iran and Syria in hopes these countries can help us quell the violence in Iraq. But George W. Bush, who remains a true neocon believer -- 'It's the regime, stupid' -- is very unlikely to cut deals with such evil states, except in the most foot-dragging way. . . .

"The biggest reason why Baker-Hamilton will bust big time, however, is that while the diplomatic Baker cautiously forges consensus, the fast-moving events in Iraq are making him look as if he's standing still. . . .

"What's happening in Washington right now is the worst sort of cover-your-backside politics. The nation's officialdom, Republicans and Democrats both, continue to indulge in the outer-galactic notion that Iraq is 'winnable' or 'losable.' President Bush still seems to be deluding himself that 'Al-Qaeda' is behind the violence in Iraq, as he said in Latvia yesterday. . . .

"Iraq is not winnable or losable. All it is, in the best case, is manageable. What's needed instead of careful consensus building in Washington is a Richard Holbrooke or a Henry Kissinger out in the field, a tough, no-nonsense negotiator who can grapple with the reality of the American failure in the region and simply seek the most honorable way out."

Here's Jack Cafferty on CNN: "The administration has little confidence in al-Maliki. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley calling him a strong leader, but said he's having trouble figuring out how to do his job.

"His job?

"He has no job. He doesn't govern anything. Iraq is in the throes of an escalating civil war and the elected government there is powerless to do anything about it. The power in Iraq is in the hands of the militias."

Reality Check

Dave Clark writes for AFP with this reminder: "Baghdad's overflowing morgues have welcomed another grim daily harvest of bullet-riddled corpses as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met U.S. President George W. Bush and vowed to halt the violence.

Will v. Webb

George F. Will writes in his Washington Post opinion column that newly elected Virginia Senator Jim Webb acted like a "boor" at a recent presidential reception, when Webb didn't respond warmly to Bush's question about his son, a Marine in Iraq.

Here's Michael D. Shear's story in The Post about the incident.

Writes Will: "Never mind the patent disrespect for the presidency. Webb's more gross offense was calculated rudeness toward another human being -- one who, disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another."

The comments from washingtonpost.com readers are coming in fast -- and furious.

And Greg Sargent writes on TPMCafe that Will left out a key part of the exchange -- "the pissy retort from the President that provoked Webb."

Civil War Watch

Diala Saadeh writes for Reuters from Dubai: "Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday Iraq had descended into civil war and urged world leaders to accept that 'reality.'"

From a USA Today editorial: "The sad reality is that 'civil war' is too simple a term to describe what's happening inside Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 had the same effect as smacking a beehive with a baseball bat."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports that a new Harris Interactive poll finds that 68 percent of Americans "believe there is a civil war in Iraq compared with 14% who disagree and 18% who aren't sure."

Also: "About half of those polled would like the government to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, while 18% favor withdrawing all U.S. troops now and 19% favor sending more troops to stabilize the situation."

Motorcade Watch

Christopher Beam explains in Slate how a typical presidential motorcade works.

Just Crazy

Andy Bromage writes in the New Haven Advocate on a study by Christopher Lohse, a social work master's student at Southern Connecticut State University, who "says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years. . . .

"Lohse's study . . . found a correlation between the severity of a person's psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush."

Pool Follies

Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner writes in a pool report about the flight to Amman:

"Shortly after takeoff, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow brought a jaunty Karl Rove to the press cabin, where the political strategist passed out chocolates to reporters.

"'Boy, you guys must be really worried about the Hadley memo,' your pooler ventured.

"'You mean you bought that story about the phony memo?' Rove joked before scurrying toward the front of the plane.

"Before boarding, when your pooler asked Rove about Republican losses in the midterms elections, he replied: 'It'll turn out all right -- we'll get 'em next time.'"

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