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Who Cares What You Think?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 13, 2006; 12:14 PM

Despite polls consistently showing that a majority of Americans want American troops pulled out of Iraq in short order, President Bush is refusing to even consider that option.

In fact, signs are that he is leaning in the opposite direction, choosing to send yet more troops into harm's way.

And despite the obvious, palpable urgency, Bush this week decided he needs more time to think things through -- rescheduling until some unspecified point in the new year an announcement the White House had previously said would come before Christmas.

Doubling Down

John King reported on CNN yesterday: "I talked to a number of senior administration officials today and also some of the outsiders who have been consulted by the administration a part of this review, including one retired general. . . .

"These officials all believe the president is planning to do something big. He is planning to do a substantial policy shift. And one of the sources I spoke to said he believes the president is very seriously considering, in the short-term, agreeing with Senator John McCain and increasing U.S. troop levels in the short-term and also resisting the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. . . .

"[T]he president, we are told, has asked for more advice about how could he do it? If he wanted to send in 20,000, 15,000 more troops for a few months to try to improve the situation, primarily in Baghdad, how could that happen?

"So they need more time to put all that on the table. They need more time for the new defense secretary to study it."

It sounds a bit like the last gasp of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neocons.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush weighs new policy options for Iraq, strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to 'double down' in the country with a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.

"The Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment and recommendations to Bush at the Pentagon today. Military officials, including some advising the chiefs, have argued that an intensified effort may be the only way to get the counterinsurgency strategy right and provide a chance for victory. . . .

"Such an option would appear to satisfy Bush's demand for a strategy focused on victory rather than disengagement. It would disregard key recommendations and warnings of the Iraq Study Group, however, and provide little comfort for those fearful of a long, open-ended U.S. commitment in the country. Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found."

And it's not just the public that's against it.

Writes Barnes: "An increase in U.S. forces is not universally popular in the military. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, has long argued that increasing the size of the force would be counterproductive, angering the very people the U.S. was trying to help. . . .

"James Dobbins, a former U.S. diplomat and advisor to the Iraq Study Group, said many Iraqis believed that U.S. forces put them in danger, rather than improving security.

"'The American troop presence is wildly unpopular in Iraq,' Dobbins said. 'Any effort to double our bet will lead to ever more catastrophic results.'"

The Delay

Jim Rutenberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "The White House said Tuesday that President Bush would delay presenting any new strategy for Iraq until early next year, as officials suggested that Mr. Bush's advisers were locked in internal debates on several fronts about how to proceed. . . .

"The White House decision prompted criticism from Democratic Congressional leaders and from at least one Republican senator who said Mr. Bush was failing to show sufficient urgency about Iraq despite months of escalating violence there.

"The Iraq Study Group's report last week portrayed the situation in Iraq as 'grave and deteriorating,' and on Tuesday alone, 70 Iraqis were killed and more than 200 wounded in a truck-bomb attack in a central Baghdad square. . . .

"In an interview, Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who is often critical of the president's war policy, called the delay 'unpardonable' and added: 'Every day that goes by, we are losing ground.' Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said in a statement, 'Waiting and delaying on Iraq serves no one's interests.'"

The Tony Snow Show

Why the delay? Press secretary Tony Snow derided all sorts of plausible explanations at yesterday's press briefing.

" Q Did the military leaders encourage him to just take a little bit more time?

" MR. SNOW: No, no, no. The President is the Commander-in-Chief; he issues orders. He decided, frankly, that it's not ready yet. . . .

" Q So some might infer that the delay means he doesn't know what to do.

" MR. SNOW: No, well, that would be the wrong inference to draw. . . .

" Q So just to get this clear, the reason for the delay is, number one, the complexity of the Iraq issue, and not because the President learned something in the last week that changed his mind?

" MR. SNOW: That is correct. . . .

"Q Is it possible that the President does not want to announce the deployment of thousands of more U.S. troops to Iraq before the holidays?

"MR. SNOW: No, it has nothing to do with that. Cynical, but false. . . .

"Q. . . . [T]here have been a number of references here about the Baker-Hamilton commission. To what extent is this delay in the expected announcement an effort to put some distance between the release of, and the reaction to that?

" MR. SNOW: It has nothing to do with it, period. Nothing."

Poll Watch

The verdict from the public is in. And it couldn't be much clearer.

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "As President Bush weighs changing course in Iraq, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the war and want most U.S. troops withdrawn within a year, a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday says. . . .

"By 76%-22%, those surveyed say Iraq is in a civil war. . . .

"While 55% of Americans want most U.S. troops withdrawn within a year, only 18% think that will happen. More than 4 in 10 predict American troops will be deployed in Iraq for more than two years, though just 14% endorse that idea."

Here are the USA Today/Gallup results.

Asked how much longer the U.S. should have a significant number of troops in Iraq, 30 percent said less than six months, 25 percent said six months to a year, 14 percent said one to two years, two percent said longer than two years -- and another two percent volunteered that all the troops should be withdrawn right away.

Peter Baker and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Most Americans think the United States is losing the war in Iraq and support a bipartisan commission's key proposals to change course, according to a poll released yesterday. . . .

"Sizeable majorities agree with the goal of pulling out nearly all U.S. combat forces by early 2008, engaging in direct talks with Iran and Syria and reducing U.S. financial support if Iraq fails to make enough progress. . . .

"Bush's approval rating now stands at 36 percent, down four points from before the elections and the second-worst of his presidency. The poll found the lowest-ever approval for his handling of Iraq, 28 percent."

Here are the Washington Post/ABC News results.

By a more than 2-1 margin, the American public thinks Bush is too obstinate. Asked if they think Bush "is or is not willing enough to change his administration's policies in Iraq," 30 percent said he is willing enough; 66 percent said he is not willing enough.

CBS reports on its new poll: "Forty-three percent say the U.S. should keep fighting, but with new tactics, while 50 percent say the U.S. should begin to end its involvement altogether. Only 4 percent say the U.S. should keep fighting as it is doing now.

"Just 21 percent approve of President Bush's handling of the war, the lowest number he's ever received, and an 8-point drop from just a month ago. Most of that drop has been among Republicans and conservatives. Three-quarters of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling Iraq."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A majority of Americans favor setting a fixed timetable for bringing troops home from Iraq, and just 12% would support a plan to increase troop strength, an option under serious consideration by the military, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. . . .

"Nearly two-thirds said they believed Iraq had descended into civil war, which Bush has denied. At a time when the administration is at work on a new strategy for Iraq and is resisting calls to start bringing troops home, the poll suggests that the president and his staff are out of step with public opinion.

"'The public doesn't want the status quo any longer in Iraq, and they believe the Democrats, rather than President Bush, will be best at finding a solution to the war,' said Times polling director Susan Pinkus."

Here are the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg results.

Ignoring the Majority View

But the president doesn't care to hear from anyone who represents the majority view.

From yesterday's briefing:

" Q Is he going to talk with people who differ considerably from his view, like people who absolutely want to get out of Iraq?

" MR. SNOW: No, because that does not, in fact, achieve your goal."

Snow's Vast Misreading of the Polls

"MR. SNOW: You know, it's interesting, if you take a look at poll data -- and there's a lot of discussion about that -- what's interesting is that a majority of the American public not only thinks that we're capable of winning, but we should. I think that there is understandable apprehension about the situation in Iraq. And what people want to hear is, how do you assess the situation and how do you wish to address it? And those are questions the President is going to answer."

Milbank on Tony 'I Don't Know' Snow

Could Snow's honeymoon with the press corps finally be over?

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "When Snow took over as White House press secretary earlier this year, reporters found it refreshing that he was willing to admit when he didn't know something. This has become rather less refreshing as Snow, while claiming access to Bush's sanctum sanctorum, continues to use the phrase -- more than 400 times so far in televised briefings and interviews. Sometimes, it seems more of a tic than a response; usually, it's a brushoff. . . .

"In recent days, the 'I don't know' reply has greeted queries about whether the administration would talk to Iran and Syria, Pakistan's plans for Kashmir, benchmarks for reducing violence in Iraq, the process of preparing the federal budget, when Bush might name a new U.N. ambassador, and whether the president would address the nation about Iraq. Even the seemingly obvious -- whether Bush would be outlining 'a different course in Iraq' -- stumped Snow. 'I just -- I don't know,' he said. . . .

"Occasionally, Snow employs a variant on the refrain: I'm not going to tell you. . . .

"Unsurprisingly, this method has done some damage to briefer-questioner relations. It doesn't help that Snow, though admired for his quick wit, has been lobbing names at his inquisitors. After labeling as 'partisan' a question from NBC's David Gregory last week, Snow accused CBS's Jim Axelrod yesterday of asking a 'loaded' question; the two men exchanged unpleasant looks. Snow further branded a question by Fox's Bret Baier as 'cynical' and one from [CNN's Elaine] Quijano as 'facile.'"

Opinion Watch

From a New York Times editorial: "The claims of calm deliberation emerging from the White House this week are maddening. The search for a new plan for Iraq seems to be taking place with as much urgency as the deliberations over a new color for the dollar bill. . . .

"Mr. Bush has no more time to waste on 'listening tours' and photo ops. The nation is in a crisis, and Americans need to hear how he plans to unwind the chaos he has unleashed in Iraq. If the president is delaying because he is searching for a good option, he can stop. There are none."

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "James A. Baker III, the renowned foreign policy realist, looked realism in the eye -- and blinked. The Iraq report he co-authored with Lee Hamilton recommended many things, but shied from the most realistic one of all: Get the hell out as soon as possible. . . .

"As with Vietnam, the ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table. Realism dictates as few as possible."

About Those Military Experts

Michael A. Fletcher and Thomas E. Ricks wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post: "President Bush heard a blunt and dismal assessment of his handling of Iraq from a group of military experts yesterday, but the advisers shared the White House's skeptical view of the recommendations made last week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, sources said."

That last part isn't exactly a huge surprise, seeing as these experts were hand-picked by the White House.

As Ron Hutcheson and Warren P. Strobel wrote for McClatchy Newspapers: "At least four of the five analysts and retired generals who met Monday with Bush have criticized the study group's report, some harshly."

But what is a bit surprising is that even those hand-picked experts apparently told Bush that he should fire his national security team.

Fletcher and Ricks wrote: "The group suggested the president shake up his national security team. 'All of us said they have failed, that you need a new team,' said one participant. That recommendation is likely to fuel Pentagon rumors that Bush and his new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, may decide to replace Marine Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

Last I heard, Bush's national security team was headed by national security adviser Stephen Hadley -- not Peter Pace. But seeing as Hadley's deputy, J.D. Crouch, is coordinating Bush's review process, a shakeup of the National Security Council is hardly a likely recommendation.

Blogger Kevin Drum writes that Bush's meeting "with a bunch of guys who just happen to already agree with him . . . is all part of Bush's weeklong 'search for new ideas,' which bears a striking resemblance to OJ's search for the real killer."

One of the meeting's participants, retired general Barry R. McCaffrey, writes in a Washington Post op-ed today: "We need a new political and military approach to head off this impending disaster -- one crafted with bipartisan congressional support. But Baker-Hamilton isn't it."

After suggesting his own mix of recommendations, however, McCaffrey admits: "All of this may not work. We have very few options left. . . .

"Our troops and their families will remain bitter for a generation if we abandon the Iraqis, just as another generation did after we abandoned the South Vietnamese for whom Americans had fought and died. We owe them and our own national interest this one last effort."

But, McCaffrey concludes: "If we cannot generate the political will to take this action, it is time to pull out and search for those we will hold responsible in Congress and the administration."

What Cheney Was Told

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in any war against Iraq's Shiites if the United States pulls its troops out of Iraq, according to American and Arab diplomats.

"King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia conveyed that message to Vice President Dick Cheney two weeks ago during Mr. Cheney's whirlwind visit to Riyadh, the officials said. During the visit, King Abdullah also expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, and pushed for Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, senior Bush administration officials said."

Cheney's 'Inside Game'

U.S. News reports: "Washington insiders are buzzing over the fact that the Vice President has been publicly silent and mostly out of sight since the Iraq Study Group issued its long-awaited report last week. White House insiders tell the US News Political Bulletin Cheney is playing an inside game, advising President Bush privately not to change course too much in Iraq, not to withdraw US troops any time soon, and not to talk directly with the hard-line regimes in Iran and Syria about the situation."

Scooter Libby Watch

: Graymail Averted

Joel Seidman writes for NBC News: "A federal judge has accepted a series of redactions and substitutions proposed by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald - to be provided to I Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's defense team - which will limit what Libby can share with jurors at his upcoming trial on some of the specifics of his top-secret White House briefings.

"U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton also ordered the review by national security agencies of classified documents requested by Libby - Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff - for his defense of perjury and obstruction charges in the Valerie Plame, CIA/Leak case, must be completed by December 22. . . .

"The new substitutions submitted by Fitzgerald may also effectively end what prosecutors say was Libby's attempt to try to get the case dismissed by demanding so much sensitive information that the government would have no choice but to refuse. The legal gambit is called 'graymail.'"

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "The ruling helps keep the trial on track for next month. That could still be delayed, however, if Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush aide Karl Rove claim they cannot testify because of separation-of-powers issues."

History Won't Be Kind

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "History's view of George W. Bush will be harsh, Americans predict.

"In a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, a 54% majority says Bush will be judged as a below-average or poor president, more than double the negative rating given any of his five most recent predecessors.

"Just 19% expect him to be seen as outstanding or above average, placing him last among the six. Bush, re-elected in 2004, now trails three presidents who were rejected by voters when they sought second or full terms, including his father, George H.W. Bush.

"'The public sees this war in Iraq as a failure, and that's at the center of it,' says Robert Dallek, a presidential biographer and author of Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents.

"Criticized for the war and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush 'has lost his credibility,' Dallek says, 'and you can't govern when people don't trust you.'"

The Paul Revere Nobody Heeded

Here is James Bamford's fascinating and important review in yesterday's Washington Post of "On the Brink: An Insider's Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence," by Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's former chief spy for Europe.

Even as former CIA director George Tenet and the White House were building a case for war that depended heavily on claims from a source code-named Curveball, Drumheller was gathering evidence that Curveball was lying. (Which he was.)

Writes Bamford: "Like Paul Revere in a trench coat, [Drumheller] began racing through the CIA attempting to spread the warning. But it was too late; war fever had gripped Tenet and his top aides, as well as the CIA's weapons analysts. 'The White House took our work and twisted it for its own ends,' Drumheller writes, 'and Tenet set a tone whereby people knew what he and the White House wanted to hear. We all felt under pressure,' and war seemed 'inevitable.' The Bush administration, he adds, 'has compromised the work of this nation's intelligence community like none before.'

"Later, as the war turned into a debacle, many of those same officials denied having heard the warnings that Iraq might not have doomsday weapons programs. But Drumheller has the evidence in the form of paper trails. Nevertheless, in Republican-dominated Washington, no one wanted to point fingers, and most of those responsible for the screw-ups either retired with golden parachutes or were promoted. . . .

"Added Drumheller: 'The books had been cooked, the bets placed. It was insane. I had joined the CIA to stop wars -- but not a needless one launched by my very own government.'"

Froomkin Watch

Sorry about not writing yesterday -- I had an unexpected child care responsibility. Also sorry about the crossed signals that resulted in the Web site not posting a notice on the column.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's desk; Tony Auth on young George; Ben Sargent on all Bush wants for Christmas.

Dick Cheney: That's Funny!

Via the Crooks and Liars blog, here's a YouTube video of the new David Letterman segment: 'Dick Cheney: That's Funny!'

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