Bush Losing Control of Agenda

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 1, 2006; 11:58 AM

In another example of President Bush's post-election loss of control over the national agenda, the debate in Washington is now officially no longer about how we achieve victory in Iraq, but how we cut our losses.

It's no longer about whether we withdraw our troops, it's about when.

This week opened, significantly, with the first signs of a mainstream-media rebellion against Bush's ludicrous insistence that the ever-more-violent, mostly sectarian conflict in Iraq does not constitute a state of civil war. (See my Monday column.)

Now, in the wake of Bush's troubled and deeply anticlimactic visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is James A. Baker III's bipartisan Iraq Study Group that is setting the terms for the national debate.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "In the 23 days since the election, the debate in Washington and much of the country appears to have turned away from Mr. Bush's oft-repeated insistence that the only viable option is to stay and fight smarter. The most talked-about alternatives now include renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces while preparing to pull American combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year. The message to Iraq's warring parties would be clear: Washington's commitment to making Iraq work is not open-ended. . . .

"'What the Baker group appears to have done is try to change the direction of the political momentum on Iraq,' said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. 'They have made clear that there isn't a scenario for a democratic Iraq, at least for a very long time. They have called into question the logic of a lengthy American presence. And once you've done that, what is the case for Americans dying in order to have this end slowly?' . . .

"'I think that what's clearly being implied in the study group's report is what some of us have been saying for a while,' said Senator Jack Reed, a hawkish Democrat from Rhode Island with a military record, which has made him a spokesman for the party on Iraq. 'A phased redeployment -- one that begins in six months or so -- is where we need to head. And what's different now is that redeployment has become the consensus view,' save for inside the White House. 'The debate is at what pace.'"

And, Sanger writes: "The question now is whether Mr. Bush can be persuaded to shift course -- and whether he might now be willing to define victory less expansively."

Mark Thompson writes for Time: "There is a sense of profound foreboding in Washington that events in Iraq have spiraled downward beyond anyone's control, and that all the Bush administration can now do is contain the resulting damage. . . .

"Given the current situation on the ground, and absent an Iraqi initiative to turn matters around, it's likely that U.S. forces will continue to bleed and die until Bush tosses in the towel -- or the new Democrat-controlled Congress forces him to do so."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A blue ribbon panel's call for a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq exerted new pressure Thursday on President Bush to overhaul his war strategy.

"The bipartisan Iraq Study Group will recommend in its final report next week that U.S. forces begin a pullback next year, according to people close to the study panel, although the report lays out no specific schedule. . . .

"Analysts said the report could be particularly important in emboldening more Republican elected officials to call for a pullback -- thus putting powerful pressure on a president who must pay attention to his own party."

James Fallows writes: "The findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, as related through obviously authoritative leaks, mark a shift in the debate . . . because of the implied conclusion on which the panel's findings (as reported) are based: that things are not going to get better, and the time for cutting losses has come. . . .

"So the choice is between a terrible decision and one that is even worse. The terrible decision is just to begin leaving, knowing that even more innocent civilians will be killed and that we'll be dealing with agitation out of Iraq for years to come. The worse decision would be to wait another year, or two, or three and then take that terrible course. If we thought a longer commitment and presence would lead to a better outcome, then the extra commitment might be sensible. But nothing occurring in Iraq in the last year has given rise to any hope that things are getting better rather than worse."

Get Ready for a Reversal?

Here's a possibility that I suspect you'll be hearing a lot more of in the coming days: That Bush's recent talk is insincere bluster in anticipation of an abrupt reversal (at which point, he will try to argue it wasn't a reversal at all).

In other words: That he's lying.

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "It would be reasonable to conclude after watching President Bush in the Middle East this week that the administration has no plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

"'This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all,' Bush said at a news conference Thursday morning in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Yet some experts say it would be foolhardy to assume, just because Bush said it, that the statement is true.

"There is mounting evidence that the world of public Bush-speak -- from his vigorous support for al-Maliki and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to his rejection of direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran -- bears little relation to what goes on behind the scenes.

"Senior White House officials even tangled this week with reporters who suggested that al-Maliki had snubbed Bush at a dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah. A three-way dinner had never been planned, the officials insisted -- until the reporters forcefully pointed out that it had been on the president's public schedule for nearly a week.

"At a time when Bush is under increasing pressure to significantly modify his Iraq strategy, it is difficult to know whether his public rigidity is a sign he is ignoring calls for change or simply putting a resolute -- some would say stubborn -- face on a policy about to undergo significant alterations."

As Sandalow notes: "[T]here is also evidence that Bush feels little compunction to tell the truth if he believes a purpose is served by not doing so."

Cracks in the Facade?

Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post that Bush yesterday "seemed to douse the idea of withdrawal in response to news reports about the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations. . . .

"But aides later cautioned against interpreting that as opposition to any change in the U.S. troop posture. 'That's not the case,' said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 'His position is he's not entering this process with defeat on his mind' for the sole purpose of getting out, the official said. Some options being discussed by the Iraqi Study Group and his own administration's internal policy review, the official said, are 'things that he's very open to.' . . .

"Maliki, too, signaled that he would be receptive to such a transition in six months. 'I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready, to receive this command and to command its own forces. And I can tell you that, by next June, our forces will be ready,' he told ABC News."

The White House Review

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post about the White House's own crash review of Iraq policy, and where it's headed.

"The Bush administration is deliberating whether to abandon U.S. reconciliation efforts with Sunni insurgents and instead give priority to Shiites and Kurds, who won elections and now dominate the government, according to U.S. officials.

"The proposal, put forward by the State Department . . ., follows an assessment that the ambitious U.S. outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed. . . .

"The policy review team briefed President Bush on Sunday evening with a 15-page slide presentation of its incomplete findings. Although differences have not yet been sorted out, the presentation coalesced heavily around a tilt to the Shiites, sources said. The White House review was then put on hold for Bush's summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The administration had initially hoped to pull together its review about the time the Iraq Study Group released its report, but en route home from the Bush-Maliki summit in Jordan, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said changes to U.S. strategy may still be weeks away."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The administration seems to be leaning toward a more polite version of this 'pick a winner' approach, which is to support the Shiite-led government and an Iraqi army that is overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish. Officials hope they can contain the sectarian fighting short of full-blown civil war and partition of the country."

The Amman Summit

I wrote at length about Bush's Amman summit in yesterday's column, but here's a bit of this morning's coverage:

Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore write in the Los Angeles Times: "Seeking to recover from a series of diplomatic gaffes, President Bush on Thursday extolled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's 'courage' and vowed to help him gain greater authority over security forces in the struggle to quell violence.

"But after about two hours of meetings, the leaders announced no new initiatives or specific plans, and Bush returned to Washington without offering details about how and where a transfer of authority would occur -- or how quickly it might stem the civil war. . . .

"[C]ontrary to Bush's conciliatory attitude in the days after the election, the president sounded as defiant Thursday as he did on the campaign trail -- even arguing that pulling out U.S. troops 'would only embolden terrorists.'"

Wallsten and Moore also solemnly chronicle some of the violence that was taking place in Iraq during the short summit:

"Iraqi soldiers found the remains of at least 28 people, apparently recent death squad victims, south of Baqubah on Thursday, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi police.

"In Baghdad, nine bodies were found, all shot execution-style and showing signs of torture, and at least 23 people were killed in clashes and bomb attacks."

And so on.

Middle East Reaction

Hassan M. Fattah writes in the New York Times that "as the summit meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Kamal Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq concluded Thursday morning, the Arab world was left dumbfounded that nothing had come of it. . . .

"'I did not see a coherent strategy that really deals with the situation,' [said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo]. 'I did not see Bush realizing how bad it is.' . . .

"Mr. Bush sought to counter rumors of tensions with Mr. Maliki, calling him 'the right guy for Iraq' while emphasizing his role as the leader of a sovereign nation. 'He has shown courage in the last six months,' Mr. Bush said.

"Yet many Arab analysts saw Mr. Bush as managing Mr. Maliki. At one point he encouraged Mr. Maliki to call on members of the Iraqi news media and told him 'good job!' as the news conference drew to a close."

Kirk Semple writes in the New York Times that "dismay was common among Iraqis who managed to follow the news on Thursday. So was a range of other emotions that probably would not hearten Mr. Maliki or Mr. Bush, including disappointment, indifference and despair.

"For many, the talks promised little and delivered less and reaffirmed a widespread loss of faith in the elected government's ability to turn things around."

A Good Leak?

How enthusiastic is the Bush Administration about investigating the leak of Hadley's classified memo to the New York Times? Not a bit -- adding credence to the suspicion that the leak was authorized at a high level. ( Thomas M. DeFrank wrote in the New York Daily News that some fingers are pointing to the vice president's office, among others.)

On CNN yesterday, Wolf Blitzer asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales if the Justice Department will launch an investigation over who leaked the memo.

Gonzales waved off the question. "Oh, I don't know, Wolff."

In a briefing on Air Force One, on the flight back to Washington, Hadley was asked about the leak, and responded with bemusement, rather than outrage.

A reporter asked about one of the memo's recommendations.

Q. "[R]emember, in the memo?

" MR. HADLEY: I do have a recollection of the memo, and now you do, too, unfortunately.

" Q You're saying it wasn't leaked intentionally?

" MR. HADLEY: It sure was not leaked intentionally by me, I can tell you that.

" MR. SNOW: Or the White House.

" MR. HADLEY: On the eve of going to a meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, no, I don't think so."

A Fulsome Choice of Words

Several readers e-mailed me to point out that the senior administration official who I identified as deputy national security adviser Meghan L. O'Sullivan made a poor -- or, arguably, unintentionally honest -- choice of words in describing the meeting between Bush and Maliki.

"There was, as I mentioned, quite a fulsome conversation about the situation in Baghdad," O'Sullivan said.

Fulsome, however, isn't a fancy way of saying "full" -- it means offensively excessive.

Will v. Webb

George F. Will's Washington Post opinion column yesterday, accusing newly elected Virginia Senator Jim Webb of acting like a "boor" when he didn't respond warmly to Bush's question about his son, a Marine in Iraq, has inspired furious response in the blogosphere and among washingtonpost.com readers, who have posted more than, 1,500 comments at last count.

Nora Ephron writes on HuffingtonPost.com: "Washington is a place where politics is just something you do all day. You lie, you send kids to war, you give them inadequate equipment, they're wounded and permanently maimed, they die, whatever. Then night falls, and you actually think you get to pretend that none of it matters. 'How's your boy?' That, according to George Will, is a civil and caring question, one parent to another? It seems to me that it's exactly the sort of guy talk that passes for conversation in Bushworld, just one-up from the frat-boy banter that is usually so seductive to Bush's guests. . .

"So finally someone said to George Bush, Don't think that what you stand for is beside the point. Don't think that because you're President you're entitled to my good opinion. Don't think that asking about my boy means that I believe for even one second that you care. If you did, you'd be doing something about bringing the troops home.

"George Will thinks this is bad manners.

"I don't.

"I think it's too bad it doesn't happen more often."

Plain Talk Watch

Al Neuharth has a to-do list for the president in his USA Today opinion column

"·He must admit that our invasion of Iraq was a mistake based on faulty information and that we have no realistic plan for 'victory.'

"·He must promise that our troops will get out, sooner rather than later.

"·He must agree that we will pay the enormous bill to clean up the mess we made, restoring all public and private facilities.

"Tragically, we can't restore the lives of the nearly 3,000 dead Americans or the untold tens of thousands of Iraqis. . . .

"Eating crow never tastes good. But Bush, Cheney and those members of Congress who nearly unanimously approved and funded this disaster need to get in that chow line."

CNN commentator Jack Cafferty had this to say yesterday afternoon: "First, we had that White House memo that suggests the administration thinks Nouri al-Maliki is a loser who can't handle the job of governing Iraq. And that was followed by the snub of President Bush by al-Maliki, a snub that both sides agreed wasn't a snub at all.

"And then they finally met, right?

"And al-Maliki now says Bush is great and Bush says al-Maliki is great. And the U.S. is going to speed up getting Iraq on its feet so it can defend itself and blah, blah, blah, blah.

"There is nothing new here. It's the same junk we've been hearing over and over and over again.

"Meanwhile, the civil war in Iraq gets worse every day. This Iraq Study Group is going to sit down with the president next week, talk about a gradual pullback of troops. Presumably that will happen after we send more troops to Baghdad. That was announced yesterday.

"And while all this is going on, the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al- Sadr, and his political cronies, who hold 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament, well, they're refusing to participate in the Iraqi government until al-Maliki comes up with a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, something George Bush says isn't going to happen.

"Don't you just love this war?"

Lawyering Up

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The White House counsel's office, anticipating a blizzard of subpoenas from Democrats for what we all know are top-secret or constitutionally protected 'deliberative process' records, is filling slots on the legal team."

Bubble Watch

A New York Times editorial this morning argues that Hadley's memo indicates that Bush's advisers aren't entirely shielding him from the truth in Iraq.

"But the president's performance this week -- his refusal to impose any deadlines on Mr. Maliki to start reconciliation talks and break with the militias, and his refusal to give the Pentagon a deadline to stand up an effective Iraqi Army -- tells us once again that Mr. Bush does not listen. . . .

"The president's advisers need to tell him all the harsh truths about Iraq in the vivid terms they require; they need to tell him how little time he has left to act. This administration has been orchestrating a foreign policy disaster of epic proportions, and history will remember both that the president failed to hear the warning bells and that many others failed to ring them loudly enough."

'1600 for Men'

Where can you buy official presidential toiletries?

Bob Pool writes in the Los Angeles Times about how Lesa Glucroft's lotions and powders ended up bearing the presidential seal, and selling at the White House gift shop.

The shop, located at the National Press Club, is operated by the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division Benefit Fund.

The toiletries are not yet available at the online story (although this adorable stuffed Air Force One toy is.)

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on the padded oval. Ann Telnaes on an exit strategy.

Christmas at the White House

The first lady was all over the airwaves yesterday, giving interviews and previewing the White House Christmas decorations.

On ABC, Laura Bush divulged that her poor husband was hosting his first Christmas party last night -- not long after getting back from Jordan.

Here's a fact sheet on this year's decorations, and lots more White House holiday information. (What? No new Barney video?)

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Because she hasn't found a replacement for pastry chef Thaddeus DuBois, the first lady persuaded his predecessor, Roland Mesnier, to make the 300-pound gingerbread White House on display in the State Dining Room. Tiny renderings of Barney and Miss Beazley sit in Santa's sleigh on the rooftop; Willie the cat lies under a small birdhouse; 800 icing snowflakes cover the house.

"The menu: New executive chef Cristeta Comerford added some Bush favorites to the traditional holiday buffets -- mini-chicken-fried steaks with white onion gravy, sweet potato souffle and tamales, which the Texans always eat on Christmas Eve."

According to the Associated Press, the president and first lady plan four dinners, one lunch and 19 receptions for the holidays.

Marian Burros, an expert in White House Christmases past, blogs for the New York Times that something, maybe the war, seems to be casting a pall over this year's festivities.

"[I]t was hard to escape a feeling that there was not a lot of holiday joy evident in the Executive Mansion, despite its holiday garb," Burros writes.

"The usual presents under the tree were missing.

"The chief usher, Gary Walters, offered his usually diplomatic opinion: 'It's different,' he said.

"The Marine Corps group that plays in the entrance foyer was fewer in number this year, down to three.

"Even Mrs. Bush's choice of wardrobe was in keeping with the subdued atmosphere: a tailored, muted, brick tweed pants suit, with minimum jewelry. . . .

"One of the house butlers, who has been there through many Christmases, wondered what was happening to the White House. 'It's just not the same aura that it used to be,' he said."

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