Does Bush Mean It?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 12:32 PM

President Bush this morning formally accepted a copy of the Iraq Study Group's blistering report, vowed to seriously consider its dramatic recommendations and spoke hopefully about finding common ground for the good of the country.

Sounds great. But does he mean it?

We'll know for sure once words turn into action. But in the meantime, it strikes me that as long as Vice President Cheney and political guru Karl Rove remain Bush's closest advisers, then the answer is probably not.

Cheney and his loyalists are largely responsible for the deception, delusion and incompetence that brought us to where we are today in Iraq. Rove intentionally turned the war into the most ferocious and divisive of partisan issues. Neither man has shown any sign of remorse.

Since his electoral comeuppance on Nov. 7, Bush has alternated between conciliatory language and fighting words when it comes to changing course in Iraq.

The nomination of Bob Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary was one indication that Bush might indeed adopt a more measured and realistic strategy in Iraq. Gates's stunning candor about the current situation at confirmation hearings yesterday bolstered that view.

But until or unless Bush turns away from Cheney and Rove -- the two men who have been his most intimate and trusted counselors -- it's hard to imagine that his episodes of chastened, bipartisan talk on Iraq will amount to anything more than lip service.

The Report

While stopping short of recommending an immediate pullout from Iraq, the bipartisan commission report nevertheless recommends a dramatic reversal of Bush's Iraq policies.

The report, for instance, urges Bush to abandon his open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq. It contains a de facto timetable for withdrawal, and recommends precisely the kinds of quantitative, measurable benchmarks that the Bush team has assiduously avoided in the past.

And it calls for a return to diplomacy, which means talking to people who don't agree with you.

Here is the executive summary and the full text of the report.

Here are some key excerpts from the Associated Press. Among them:

"Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. We believe that these two recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another. If they are effectively implemented, and if the Iraqi government moves forward with national reconciliation, Iraqis will have an opportunity for a better future, terrorism will be dealt a blow, stability will be enhanced in an important part of the world and America's credibility, interests and values will be protected."

And: "The primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations. By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

The White House Scene

Here is the text of Bush's brief remarks this morning.

"This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq," Bush said. "It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion.

"The commission is headed up to Congress, and I urge the members of Congress to take this report seriously. While they won't agree with every proposal -- and we probably won't agree with every proposal -- it, nevertheless, is an opportunity to come together and to work together on this important issue.

"The country, in my judgment, is tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington, and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together. And I understand how difficult that is, but this report will give us all an opportunity to find common ground, for the good of the country -- not for the good of the Republican Party or the Democrat Party, but for the good of the country."

(Bush's alleged commitment to bipartisanship would probably be easier to swallow if he referred to the opposition party by its proper name. Although the White House press office tidied up the official transcript, the fact is that even in talking about finding common ground, the president referred to the "Democrat party" -- a clipped, derogatory locution favored by those who suggest that it isn't "democratic.")

Joseph Curl of the Washington Times reported to his colleagues this morning on press secretary Tony Snow's informal readout immediately after Bush's meeting with the commission.

"Snow said that the meeting began with the two co-chairman making statements, then the discussion moved around the table, with the other members making statements. . . .

"Snow said 'one thing that was striking' was that every member of the group spoke about the bipartisanship of the commission. Snow said the members realize there is a 'sense of exhaustion at the political tone.'"

And here's the spin: Even before reading the report, Snow was calling attention to the fact that it includes "no timetable" and "no recommendation for immediate withdrawal."

The White House View

Michael Abramowitz and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "Congress seemed eager yesterday to embrace the new Baker-Hamilton report as a possible way out of the morass in Iraq, while the White House is increasingly insistent that the document is but one of several suggestions President Bush will review as he ponders changes to a policy widely seen as not working in Iraq. . . .

"'The president has an opportunity to seize this moment and build a bipartisan foundation to address the deep, deep problems in Iraq and the deep divisions over Iraq in this country,' said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam War veteran whose foreign policy ideas are respected in Congress. 'This presents an exit strategy for the president, for all of us.'"

And yet: "The administration seems to have distanced itself from the commission in recent weeks. White House officials were never wildly enthusiastic about a group co-chaired by a key figure, Baker, from the administration of the president's father. But there was hope that it might be a useful vehicle to provide political cover to do what the White House was interested in doing anyway.

"As details of the commission's deliberations surfaced, including ideas long rejected by Bush, that optimistic view seems to have faded in the White House. By yesterday, Bush aides figured the commission was helpful mainly as a way of marginalizing more radical proposals by war opponents, such as a rapid troop withdrawal or partitioning Iraq."

Bill Plante reports for CBS News that "this president may not be in much of a hurry to accept Baker's ideas about that -- or much else. Asked if Baker would help implement the report, a spokesman for Mr. Bush said, 'Jim Baker can go back to his day job.'"

Bush's State of Mind

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "With his unwavering insistence that U.S. military forces must stand, fight and 'win' in Iraq, President Bush has taken on the look of the last man standing.

"Both inside and outside the White House, voices are calling for at least a new war strategy -- and at most a target date for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But Bush, while acknowledging frustration with the progress of the U.S. mission, so far has refused to fundamentally alter it. . . .

"'I just think this president simply doesn't want to believe how bad things have gotten,' said Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'Parallels to Vietnam are always terribly dangerous, but you are beginning to see in George Bush some striking resemblance to Lyndon Johnson. Both became failed presidents and tragic figures long before they left office.'"

Initial Coverage

Peter Baker, Dafna Linzer and William Branigin write for "Conditions in Iraq are 'grave and deteriorating,' with the prospect that a 'slide toward chaos' could topple the U.S.-backed government and trigger a regional war unless the United States changes course and seeks a broader diplomatic and political solution involving all of Iraq's neighbors, according to a bipartisan panel that gave its recommendations to President Bush and Congress today. . . .

"The study group recommends that the United States withdraw nearly all of its combat units from Iraq by early 2008, sharply reducing the current troop level of more than 140,000 while leaving behind tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel to advise, train and embed with Iraqi forces."

Some Backstory

In this morning's Washington Post, Baker and Linzer wrote: "Although the study group will present its plan as a much-needed course change in Iraq, many of its own advisers concluded during its deliberations that the war is essentially already lost, according to private correspondence obtained yesterday and interviews with participants. The best the commission could put forward would be the 'least bad' of many bad options, as former ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer wrote.

"An early working draft from July stated that 'there is even doubt that any level of resources could achieve the administration's stated goals, given the illiberal and undemocratic political forces, many of them Islamic fundamentalists, that will dominate large parts of the country for a long time.'"

That passage is nowhere to be found in the final report.

Baker and Linzer also write: "In private e-mail exchanges over the past two weeks, members of the commission's working group, including former ambassadors, military officers and CIA analysts, expressed equally bleak outlooks for Iraq and skepticism that Bush would accept the panel's recommendations."

Enter Bob Gates

Ann Scott Tyson and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Robert M. Gates was unanimously approved by a Senate committee yesterday to become President Bush's new defense secretary, after a day-long confirmation hearing in which he bluntly stated that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq.

"Gates also told the panel that 'it's too soon to tell' whether the Bush administration made the right decision in launching the invasion in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. . . .

"Gates emphasized 'the importance of the bipartisan approach' and laid out several ways in which he would operate differently than Rumsfeld. 'I think the first step is the tone at the top,' he said. . . .

"Several senators, listing the immense challenges Gates would face as defense secretary, urged him to be bold in expressing independent views. 'You simply have to be fearless -- I repeat, fearless' in counseling the president on Iraq and other critical Pentagon matters, advised the committee chairman, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.)."

Not What Bush Has Said

Gates's view on how things are going in Iraq is, of course, in stark opposition to the official White House line.

Here is the transcript of Bush's October 25 press conference.

"Q: Are we winning?

"THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely, we're winning."

Strictly speaking, Bush may have been talking about the greater war on terror there. But here's more from that press conference: "We're winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle right now is Iraq."

Here's Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday: "We'll turn to our White House correspondent Ed Henry. What's their reaction to what Gates says when he says the United States is not winning in Iraq because on the eve of the election, the president, as you well remember, said, absolutely, yes, we are winning. How are they squaring that?

"ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They really can't square it, so they were thrown on the defensive. White House spokesman Tony Snow trying to come up with an explanation and he did accurately point out that in the rest of Robert Gates's testimony, he pretty much was in line with the president. But you're right. You cannot scare the fact that two weeks before these midterm elections, the president said just the opposite.

"Could you imagine if say the incoming Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a month before the election had said what Robert Gates said today, the charges of cut and run, and everything else from the White House behind me would have been flying around. But I think the bottom line is, this is a bad story for the White House tonight, maybe into tomorrow.

"But long-term, it could help them slightly in the sense that all of a sudden, Robert Gates has something Donald Rumsfeld lost, and that's credibility. With this one comment, all of a sudden Robert Gates has established maybe, and I stress, maybe, he's an independent voice, maybe he will stand up to the president. Time will tell. But for now, he's all of a sudden given himself some credibility, maybe an honest broker now at the table."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing. Snow was doing gymnastics.

"Q: If the president were asked that same question today, would he say, absolutely, yes?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not going to tell you what the president would say, but you can look at the president's answer and you can look at Bob Gates. What I would also suggest, though, is you take a look at the Gates testimony, and you see if that's consistent with what we've been talking about, because what you're going to try to take is that one little question, rather than taking a fuller look at -- . . . .

"Q: Does the president today believe that we are winning in Iraq? It's a very straightforward question.

"MR. SNOW: I know, but I did not ask him the question today. The most recently asked, he said, 'yes.'

"Q: Okay, so that might change from day to day. So it may have changed --

"MR. SNOW: No, I don't --

"Q: -- he may no longer believe that we're winning the war in Iraq. You don't know.

"MR. SNOW: I have no reason to think it changed, but also, again, go back and take a look at the broader answer that Bob Gates gave and ask yourself, is this consistent or inconsistent with what the president has been saying? I think you're going to find it's very consistent. . . .

"Q: But his statement is inconsistent with what the administration says. The president has said, we are winning. You from that podium said, we're winning --

"MR. SNOW: Right.

"Q: -- but we haven't won.

"MR. SNOW: Right.

"Q: He said -- he agreed that we are not winning. So how is that consistent --

"MR. SNOW: And he also said we're not losing."

Opinion Watch

Washington Post editorial: "Robert Gates tries out a new strategy for a Bush Cabinet member: candor."

New York Times editorial: "Mr. Gates played the role of the un-Rumsfeld masterfully yesterday. He offered just enough candor and conciliation to persuade most senators that he plans to be a very different sort of defense secretary, while deftly holding back any real information about how he plans to clean up President Bush's mess in Iraq."

What About Leaving?

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With Americans leaning consistently in favor of disengagement from Iraq, President Bush has warned that a precipitate withdrawal would create a terrorism superstate in the Middle East that is rich with oil cash and determined to topple moderate governments around it.

"But to many U.S. lawmakers, regional experts and Middle East leaders, the chief risk is not a more menacing version of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, but a Lebanese-style civil war that could result in the deaths of thousands more Iraqis and expand the conflict by drawing in neighboring states."

Norman Solomon writes on, however, that the traditional media's conviction that a quick pullout of U.S. troops would be disastrous reminds him of the media's conviction in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction: In both cases, dissenting voices -- that may, in fact, be correct -- are marginalized in a most unjournalistic fashion.

"The current media travesty is a drumbeat for the idea that the U.S. war effort must keep going," Solomon writes.

What the Democrats Might Do

Edward Epstein writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "House Democrats sent a strong signal to President Bush on Tuesday that they will attach conditions he is likely to find unpalatable, perhaps even unacceptable, to his anticipated request early next year for another $100 billion or more to pay for the war in Iraq.

"At the least, speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and other leaders of the incoming Democratic majority said they will seek to enforce greater transparency for the billions of dollars in contracts that the Pentagon pays private firms to perform numerous functions in Iraq."

Civil Liberties Board

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's new privacy guidelines fail to protect the rights of Americans, and the board created to guarantee those rights lacks the independence to do the job, civil libertarians told the White House privacy board yesterday at its first public forum.

"The guidelines, released Monday, are intended to protect the personal privacy and civil liberties of U.S. citizens as the government attempts to strengthen its intelligence-sharing to fight terrorism.

"But, said privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg, the guidelines pale in comparison to protections offered under the Privacy Act of 1974. . . .

"The five-member privacy board, which started work in March, lacks subpoena power and has only four full-time staff members. President Bush appointed all five members, four of whom are Republicans, including Theodore B. Olson, the administration's former solicitor general. . . .

"Lanny J. Davis, the board's only Democrat, said he was puzzled about why Congress had placed what was supposed to be an independent oversight board under the president."

Strategery Watch

Ronald Kessler writes for "President Bush has a new mandate: It's back to the basics.

"Over the next two years Bush will focus on winning back Republicans and Congress by returning to basic Republican principles, Karl Rove is telling White House allies."

Kessler enigmatically notes: "While the White House knows Democrats will be launching investigations, a mechanism has been set up to deal with them without allowing staff to become consumed by these events."

And Kessler explains why the White House "has opened up more to the media.

"As Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor in charge of communications, told me long before the more open policy took effect, Bush wants results. Too much contact with the media can lead to leaks -- as occurred during his father's presidency -- and can undercut the president's efforts by forcing his hand and allowing aides to push their own agendas in the press.

"As Bush's poll numbers began to drop, he and his advisors began to recognize that, while his press policy was based on high-minded principles, it simply will not wash in this media-driven age. Without a higher approval level, Bush was in danger of losing his effectiveness.

"Reporters are human, and even if they are not pushing a liberal agenda, they will take it out on Bush if the White House does not return their calls and does not feed them tidbits for their stories."

Rove Speaks

Michael Barone blogs for U.S. News on Karl Rove's speech at Hillsdale College's annual Churchill dinner at the Mayflower Hotel.

"Usually in his public speeches, Rove talks mainly about domestic issues and politics. But last night he talked primarily about our 'new enemy': 'transnational terrorism.' In terms similar to those his boss, George W. Bush, has used of late (as noted in my U.S. News column this week), Rove declared that defeat in Iraq would be 'the beginning of the beginning' -- a terrible setback for the United States. . . .

"Much of the commentariat in Washington has been waiting for Bush to acquiesce in what it considers failure in Iraq. Bush, to judge from Rove's speech as well as his own comments, is not so inclined."

Elder Bush Watch

Here is AP video of the former President Bush breaking into sobs while delivering a speech ostensibly about his son Jeb. "A true measure of a man is how you handle victory and how you handle defeat," Bush said.

Webb Watch

Pundits have gone back and forth on who was ruder -- President Bush or senator-elect Jim Webb -- in a recent encounter in which Bush asked Webb about his son, a Marine in Iraq. Some say Webb was a boor; others say the president was being a bully.

The liberal Think Progress blog adds a data point: "[A]ccording to Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Bush was told that Webb's son had a recent brush with death in Iraq and was warned to be 'extra-sensitive' when talking to the Sen.-elect."

Mary Cheney Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Mary Cheney, the vice president's openly gay daughter, is pregnant. She and her partner of 15 years, Heather Poe, are 'ecstatic' about the baby, due in late spring, said a source close to the couple. . . .

"'The vice president and Mrs. Cheney are looking forward with eager anticipation to the arrival of their sixth grandchild,' spokesman Lea Anne McBride said last night. . . .

"Cheney has described her relationship with Poe -- whom she took to last year's White House dinner honoring Prince Charles and Camilla-- as a marriage."

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