Facing the Ugly Truth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 12:14 PM

For six years, President Bush and his aides have so brilliantly exploited the bully pulpit of the White House that it was easy to forget that there were any other pulpits at all in this town.

That allowed the president to proselytize his world view, repeatedly and without effective objection, even when it didn't conform with reality.

Yesterday's blazing hot media focus elsewhere -- on the highly critical bipartisan Iraq Study Group -- marked a restoration of reality in Washington.

And that, combined with a resurgent Democratic Party, bodes ill for Bush's ability to keep avoiding some ugly truths.

Reality Check

Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "The Iraq Study Group report released today might well be titled 'The Realist Manifesto.'"

Strictly speaking, Kessler and Ricks meant "realist" as in the school of foreign policy that rivals the "neoconservatives" -- but they could just as well have said "realistic."

"From the very first page, in which co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton scold that 'our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people,' the bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration's diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and to the whole region. . . .

"Overall, it strongly suggests that President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have bungled diplomacy in the region with unrealistic objectives and narrow strategies. . . .

"The report's description of the violence in Iraq, which amounts to an attack on the administration's understanding of the facts on the ground, will likely set the new baseline for how the Iraq conflict is portrayed. . . .

"The report is replete with damning details about the administration's competence in Iraq. It notes, for instance, that only six people in the 1,000-person U.S. embassy in Baghdad can speak Arabic fluently, and recounts how the military counted 93 acts of violence in one day in July when the group's own examination of the numbers found 1,100 acts of violence. 'Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes discrepancy with policy goals,' the report says."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Naked reality came crashing down on the Bush administration Wednesday as the Iraq Study Group issued its long-awaited recommendations in a last-ditch effort to stave off a 'catastrophe' in Iraq and the Middle East.

"Unlike the posturing and obfuscations that the administration and many in Congress have engaged in since the war began more than 3 1/2 years ago, the elder statesmen of the bipartisan commission spoke with frank clarity of a 'grave and deteriorating' situation and an arduous path forward that could yet fail."

In a Nutshell

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright, in The Washington Post, call the report "a stinging assessment of virtually every aspect of the U.S. venture in Iraq and called for a reshaping of the American military presence and a new Middle East diplomatic initiative to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The detailed prescription called for much more aggressive diplomatic efforts in the Middle East than the Bush administration has been willing to embrace. Its calls for reconciliation and reform in Iraq and an overhaul of the American military role would also mark major departures in the American strategy. . . .

"What played out on Wednesday morning, from the White House to Capitol Hill, was a remarkable condemnation of American policy drift in the biggest and most divisive military conflict to involve American forces since Vietnam. . . .

"The panel was careful to avoid phrases and rigid timelines that might alienate the White House. But the group also clearly tried to box the president in, presenting its recommendations as a comprehensive strategy that would work only if implemented in full."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Study Group members aren't just prescribing a new Iraq strategy, they're calling for a change in the way the Bush administration does business both home and abroad."

He boils it down to three points:

"1. Cut the crap. . . .

"2. You can be tough and talk. . . .

"3. Bipartisanship has to mean something."

What Will Bush Do?

Sanger writes in the Times: "The findings left Washington awash in speculation over whether Mr. Bush would embark on a huge policy reversal. To do so would mark an admission that three and a half years of strategy had failed, and that his repeated assurances that 'absolutely, we're winning' were based more on optimism than realism. . . .

"Jack D. Crouch II, the president's deputy national security adviser, was said by administration officials to be putting together options for Mr. Bush, and they said the president was determined to come up with an approach that, one senior aide said, 'borrowed from the panel's findings, but is distinctly his own.'"

Susan Page and David Jackson write in USA Today that "a combination of events -- the commission report, voters' rebuke in the midterm elections and the reality of spiraling violence -- is forcing Bush toward the most far-reaching changes in approach since he ordered the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago. . . .

"Michael Green, a former senior aide on the National Security Council, cautioned against taking the administration's hang-tough rhetoric at face value. Based on his experience at the Bush White House, Green said, all options will be considered, albeit behind closed doors. 'I would not mistake the message discipline of the White House for inflexibility on the part of the president,' he said."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush can be a stubborn man, proud of his reputation for decisiveness and commitment to what he sees as principle, but he's shifted gears before in response to political pressure, though never on an issue of such magnitude. . . .

"Bush repeatedly has described the conflict as the central front in the war on terrorism. It's the centerpiece of his presidency; history will measure his legacy by what happens there.

"Bush could reverse course, but to date he's opposed some of the commission's ideas. He's said he won't talk to Syria and Iran about stabilizing Iraq. He opposes anything resembling a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. He's rejected firm milestones for progress by the Iraqi government. And he's said repeatedly that he intends to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to achieve his goals."

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times that the report was crafted precisely to persuade Bush to change his mind.

"To try to make it easier for Bush -- a man who prides himself on consistency and who consequently is criticized by opponents as stubborn -- the 10-member commission delivered its report in two parts and two different tones.

"The first part was an assessment of the situation in Iraq as 'grave and deteriorating' -- tough language that Baker and his colleagues deliberately chose in order to break through the shield of defiant confidence that Bush often has deployed concerning the war.

"'At least, after this report, Bush will now be prevented from painting a rosy picture,' said the advisor, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the commission.

"The second part, by contrast, was a carefully calibrated list of relatively moderate recommendations for the future, many of which gave the president considerable leeway to choose specific policies. . . .

"'Presidents have been known to change their minds. He's been known to change his,' Baker, who served as a top aide to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview with ABC News. 'It may be that you will see some mind-changing, but you may not.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The commissioners gave a nod to Mr. Bush, adopting his language in accepting the goal of an Iraq that can 'govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.' But the administration's talk of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East is absent, as is any talk of victory.

"Instead, the report confronts the president with a powerful argument that his policy in Iraq is not working and that he must move toward disengagement. For Mr. Bush to embrace the study group's blueprint would mean accepting its implicit criticism of his democracy agenda, reversing course in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and meeting Democrats more than halfway."

Stolberg doesn't seem to think that's likely. Rather, she writes: "Assuming he is not ready to go that far, despite some recent signals of flexibility, he faces the more general question of whether he is ready to embrace the spirit of the report -- not to mention the drubbing his party took in the midterm elections a month ago -- and produce a new approach of his own that amounts to more than a repackaging of his current worldview."

Some commissioners saw cause for hope in Bush's demeanor during their morning meeting.

"'I don't want to put too much in his mouth now,' said Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who was secretary of state under Mr. Bush's father, 'but there was not one bit of argument. He didn't come back at us on anything.'"

But I would have been shocked if Bush had started arguing with the group. With the exception of the presidential debates, I've never heard of Bush actually engaging people who disagree with him. His preferred method of communication is speaking alone and unchallenged, before friendly or cowed audiences.

I found another Eagleburger quote, this one related by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post, to be more telling.

Writes Milbank: "Eagleburger said after the event that when the group met with Bush, 'I don't recall, seriously, that he asked any questions.'"

Changing the Tone

Walter Shapiro writes in Salon: "The Baker commission's lasting contribution may be simply changing the tenor of the debilitating debate in Washington. No longer is it just the liberal media or Democratic defeatists who harp on the bad news from Iraq. Now the bipartisan establishment (including Meese, the original Reaganite) has put its imprimatur on the doctrine that victory is out of the question in Iraq. What remains -- and achieving it will try the talents of White House spinmasters, military strategists and foreign-policy theorists for at least the next year -- is to arrange the terms for America's eventual retreat from the humiliating and tragic blunder that was the Iraq War."

CNN commentator Jack Cafferty found it all "kind of sad, in a way. This morning when Mr. Bush was handed the Iraq Study Group report, he looked old and tired, the kind of old and tired you look after carrying a heavy load for a long time. The war in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster and everybody knows it. The Republicans know it, the Democrats know it, our country knows it and the rest of the world knows it.

"And for the first time this morning, it looked like President Bush knows it, too. There he sat, surrounded by his father's friends, looking absolutely lost. And despite the years of experience and wisdom represented at that table, the report contains no magic potion to get us out of, arguably, the biggest, deadliest, costliest and potentially most dangerous mess that this country has been in since World War II. And President Bush caused it.

"How difficult it must be to come to terms with the fact that you were not only wrong, but that you are becoming more and more isolated every single day. For the first time this morning, I got the feeling President Bush knows it's over."

Bush's Afternoon Meeting

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush and some of the most vocal Capitol Hill backers of the Iraq war from both parties gathered yesterday for what an insider described as a group therapy session.

"'Or maybe it was more like an intervention,' said the source, reconsidering the description. 'And the President was grateful and welcoming.'

"Bush met with a grim-looking gaggle of 14 lawmakers and several White House staffers hours after the Iraq Study Group issued its report urging the President to order an about-face on his Iraq strategy. . . .

"The source said Bush didn't try to disguise his humility and his conciliatory gestures seemed legitimate. 'He knows there's a new math in town - the Democrats have Congress,' the insider said. . . .

"A sourpussed Vice President Cheney and political guru Karl Rove were among the top administration officials who looked on as the President was advised on how to change course in Iraq, boost Arab allies such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, keep a cautious eye on threats including Iran and work with the new Democratic majority."

Bush made some brief remarks after that meeting: "My message is this: I want to work with the Congress, I want to work with people in both parties, so that we can send a message to the American people that the struggle for freedom, the struggle for our security is not the purview of one party over the other. The American people want us to work together, and my intention is to do just that."


Wolf Blitzer interviewed White House counselor Dan Bartlett yesterday on CNN.

Bartlett: "The president will have one single way forward that he will present to the American people, hopefully before the end of the year, so the American people, our allies in the region and everybody, for that matter, will know quite as clearly as possible about the way forward.

"BLITZER: So basically before Christmas some time, the president might make an address the nation and tell us what he likes, what he doesn't like? Is that what you're saying?

"BARTLETT: Well, I'm not going to spell out the tactics, but the goal is to hopefully do that before the end of the year. But the president is going to allow for his advisers to have the process go forward. But sooner rather than later."

The Flaws

In a major sop to the White House, the report indulges in one significant fiction: That the Iraqi central government shows any sign of being able to exercise authority.

But realistically, the group's recommendation that Bush withdraw troops to pressure the government to stand up, and pull them out faster if it doesn't, is really just a euphemism for a rapid departure.

The Iraqis appear to be seeing through that.

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

"They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East. . . .

"The mistrust and divisions within the weak unity government are so deep that it is not certain whether the study group's recommendations -- such as using outside powers to exert diplomatic pressure and building a well-trained Iraqi army -- can be effective, or might instead deepen the political and sectarian rifts."

Timothy M. Phelps writes for Newsday: "Iraq experts reacted skeptically yesterday to the Iraq Study Group's core recommendation that the U.S. military speed up training Iraqi forces and hand over the job of fighting in Iraq to Iraqis by March of 2008.

"'Simply calling for a weak and divided Iraqi government to act in the face of all of the forces tearing Iraq apart is almost feckless: It is a 'triumph of hope over experience,' said Anthony Cordesman of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies here, perhaps the leading U.S. military expert on Iraq. Forced redeployment absent progress on the ground 'borders on the irresponsible,' he said."

The emphasis on training is also not exactly reality-based.

Raghavan writes: "A central challenge today, according to analysts, is not a lack of American trainers but the question of whether non-sectarian security forces are viable in Iraq: Will a critical mass of Iraqi soldiers remain loyal to the national government as opposed to their respective religious groups?"

And Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has struggled in vain to tamp down the violence in Iraq and to build up the capacity of Iraq's security forces. Now the study group is positing that the United States can accomplish in little more than one year what it has failed to carry out in three. . . .

"Military experts say there are several difficulties with the panel's recommendation. First, it underestimates the challenge of building a capable Iraqi security force. After several years of desultory efforts, the United States has taken steps to upgrade and better prepare the teams of American advisers who are assigned to Iraqi units. But training the Iraqi Army is more than a matter of teaching combat skills. It requires transforming the character of the force."

Aparisim Ghosh writes for Time: "It's a shame there's no Arabic word for Duh! because that word would perfectly sum up the Iraqi reaction to the conclusions in the Iraq Study Group report. Nobody living in this country needs a high-powered bipartisan Washington committee to tell them that (a) the situation is 'grave and dangerous'; (b) there's no 'magic bullet' solution; (c) talking to Iran and Syria is the smart thing to do; and (d) the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isn't up to scratch.

"But many Iraqis will be alarmed by the ISG's proposal to change the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq, essentially turning them into detached observers. Few people outside Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone believe that Iraqi security forces are anywhere near ready to take over the primary security responsibility from the U.S. troops. . . .

"Far from being part of the solution, the Iraqi military and police forces are often part of the problem."

The New York Post View

The cover of the New York Post this morning depicts Baker and Hamilton as surrender monkeys.

The Tony Snow Show

At yesterday's briefing, press secretary Tony Snow tried desperately to muddy the debate over the report, in large part by insisting that the White House agreed with a lot of it.

At one point, the ever-argumentative and only rarely informative Snow crossed yet another line -- accusing NBC's David Gregory of framing his question in a partisan way.

Gregory's question was entirely reasonable: "How you can hear these things and not conclude that it's rejection of the President's policy?" He backed it up by quoting group members and the report.

Snow responded in part: "But you need to understand that trying to frame it in a partisan way is actually at odds with what the group, itself, says it wanted to do."

Gregory: "I just want to be clear. Are you suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way?"

Snow: "Yes." . . .

Gregory: "You're suggesting that by quoting the report, I'm trying to make a partisan argument?

Snow: "Let me put it this way. Where in the report -- what you have said is, can you read this as anything other than a repudiation of policy. And the answer is, I can. And what I was trying to do was to explain to you, for instance, when you suggested that 'stay the course' was a repudiation of policy -- not true. It's not administration policy. When you talk about the fact that there's a deteriorating situation, is that a repudiation of policy. No, it's something that we have acknowledged."

Oversight Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Leading Senate Democrats put the Bush administration on notice Wednesday that they intended to press for a fuller accounting on a wide range of counterterrorism programs, including wiretapping, data-mining operations and the interrogation and treatment of detainees.

"Democrats have appeared divided at times over how aggressively to challenge the administration on its terrorism policies, in part because of concerns that they risked playing into Republican accusations that they were soft on terrorism.

"But Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who will take over next month as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made clear at a committee hearing Wednesday that he wanted to investigate actively the effectiveness and legality of many programs."

Habeas Corpus Watch

Lesley Clark and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's victory in getting the rules he wanted to try suspected terrorists could be diminished.

"The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled this week that he'll join prominent Democrats in seeking to restore legal rights to hundreds of suspected terrorists confined at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

"While the measure to restore the right of habeas corpus has almost no chance of passing before Congress adjourns later this week, the message is clear: When Democrats take over in early January, the issue could resurface."

Abortion Watch

A new Statement of Administration Policy: "The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R. 6099, which would provide information and options to pregnant mothers contemplating an abortion regarding the development of the unborn child and the capacity of the unborn child to feel pain."

White House Leaks

Jacob Weisberg writes for Slate: "The amazing thing about the Bush administration is not that it's leaking so heartily now, but that until recently, it hardly leaked at all. . . .

"For the press, an administration without leaks has been like a very long Christmas party without alcohol. Covering a White House where people don't gab leaves little operational space between stenography and commentary. After six dry years, White House reporters feel giddy, vindicated, and perhaps a bit vindictive."

But being leakproof has had its disadvantages for the White House as well, Weisberg argues.

"For the Bush administration, a degree of mania about unauthorized disclosure seems to be inseparable from a general hostility to the free flow of information, to the public's right to know, and to the legitimate role of the news media in a free society. In the end, this Nixonian attitude toward leaks is deadlier than a Clintonian one. No president will ever be pleased about unauthorized leaks. But after Bush's experience, perhaps his successor will want to guard against them somewhat less vigilantly."

Fashion Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts reported in The Washington Post on Tuesday that First Lady Laura Bush changed outfits right before the Kennedy Center Honors gala on Sunday, after discovering that three other guests were wearing the exact same red Oscar de la Renta embroidered tulle jacket and floor-length trumpet skirt.

Now, CBS has video of all four of the $8,400 ensembles.

Mary Cheney's Pregnancy

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that news of Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter's pregnancy has prompted new debate over the administration's opposition to gay marriage.

Family Pride, a gay rights group, noted that Ms. Cheney's home state, Virginia, does not recognize same-sex civil unions or marriages. . . .

"Focus on the Family, a Christian group that has provided crucial political support to President Bush, released a statement that criticized child rearing by same-sex couples. . . .

"Dana Perino, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush, said that Mr. Cheney had recently told the president about the pregnancy and that 'the president said he was happy for him.'"

And who's the father? "Mr. Cheney's office would not provide details about how Mary Cheney became pregnant or by whom, and Ms. Cheney did not respond to messages left at her office and with her book publisher, Simon & Schuster."

David Crary writes for the Associated Press: "The news was welcomed by the president of the largest national gay-rights group, Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign.

"'Mary and Heather's decision to have a child is an example that families in America come in all different shapes and sizes,' he said. 'The bottom line is that a family is made up of love and commitment.'"

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, Pat Oliphant, Tony Auth, Ben Sargent, and Stuart Carlson on the Iraq Study Group.

John Sherffius on "How's your boy?"

Ann Telnaes on Robert Gates.

Tom Toles and Mike Luckovich on Mary Cheney's pregnancy.

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