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Who's Making the Call?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 18, 2006; 1:16 PM

Whose advice does President Bush take most seriously on Iraq?

If the goal is figuring out which way the president is headed, the press corps could do the public a big favor by reporting on who is whispering in his ear.

Most likely, the chief whisperer is Vice President Cheney -- in which case the back-and-forth over whether Bush will change course is sort of pointless. Bush has made some pretty dramatic about-faces in the past. The same cannot be said of the vice president.

In either case, Bush's evident leaning toward a troop "surge" in Iraq suggests that the very central issue of troop strength is no longer simply up to the American military commanders -- if it ever was.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?"

Some observers think he will be pragmatic. Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, tells Baker: "He's going to do outreach. . . . He is a total realist. He knows that the solid, march-in-step Republicans, at least in the House, are gone. . . . Now his legacy depends on the national interest, not partisanship."

But, as Baker puts it so understatedly: "Others don't buy it. . . .

"Critics predicted that any new strategy he announces after the holidays will be little more than a dressed-up version of 'stay the course.' And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans do not think Bush is willing to change his policies in Iraq.

"'I just don't believe that this president, with this vice president whispering in his ear every moment, is oriented to change,' said retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Bush's first term. 'And even if he were, I don't believe his administration is capable of implementing change.'"

Joseph Galloway writes in a blistering column for the McClatchy-Tribune Information Service: "The word on the street, or in the Pentagon rings, is that he'll choose to beef up American forces on the ground in Iraq by 20,000 to 30,000 troops by various sleight-of-hand maneuvers -- extending the combat tours of soldiers and Marines who are nearing an end to their second or third year in hell and accelerating the shipment of others into that hell -- and send them into the bloody streets of Baghdad. . . .

"This hardly amounts to a 'new way forward,' unless that definition includes a new path deeper into the quicksand of a tribal and religious civil war in which whatever Bush eventually decides is already inadequate and immaterial. . . .

"The White House hopes that its much-trumpeted reshuffling of a failed strategy and flawed tactics will buy time for its luck to change miraculously. That this time will be paid for with the lives and futures of our soldiers and Marines -- and their families -- apparently means little to these wise men who've never heard a shot fired in anger.

"This president has made it painfully obvious that he has no intention of listening to anyone who doesn't believe that he's going to win in Iraq."

And, Galloway concludes: "Did you notice that at every stop on the president's information-gathering tour last week, there was a very familiar face looming over his shoulder? There was Vice President Dick Cheney, looking as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

"Should the president suddenly have an original thought or seem to be going wobbly, Cheney will be right there to squelch it or to set him straight.

"It can be argued that Bush understood little about war and peace and diplomacy and honesty in government. Cheney understood all of it, and he bears much of the responsibility for what's gone on in Washington and in Iraq for the last six years. Keep a sharp eye on him. Desperate men do desperate things."

Down the Memory Hole

American Prospect blogger Greg Sargent makes an important point: "It appears we've all agreed to forget that in the past President Bush has repeatedly -- many, many times -- insisted that he would let the troop levels be determined by the commanders on the ground."

Here, for instance, is Bush describing his decision-making process on April 6: "I know you're thinking about, well, when's he going to get our troops out of there? There's a debate going on in Washington, D.C., which it should, and it's an important debate about our troop levels. Here's my answer to you: I'm not going to make decisions based upon polls and focus groups. I'm going to make my decisions based upon the recommendations of our generals on the ground. They're the ones who decide how to achieve the victory I just described. They're the ones who give me the information.

"I remember coming up in the Vietnam War and it seemed like that there was a -- during the Vietnam War, there was a lot of politicization of the military decisions. That's not going to be the case under my administration. They say, well, does George Casey tell you the truth? You bet he tells me the truth. When I talk to him, which I do quite frequently, I've got all the confidence in the world in this fine General. He's a smart guy, he's on the ground, he's making incredible sacrifices for our country, and he -- if he says he needs more troops, he'll get them, and if he says he can live with fewer troops because the Iraqis are prepared to take the fight, that's the way it's going to be."

Writes Sargent: "Right now Bush is reportedly leaning towards sending more troops to Iraq -- a 'surge,' as we keep hearing. But the military commanders -- including the very same General Casey . . . -- appear to be leaning against recommending that more troops be sent.

"I know this is an embarrassingly simple point, but still: Now that Bush appears to be favoring a solution at odds with that of the recommendations of his commanders, why doesn't it matter that back when they were telling him what he wanted to hear, Bush said unequivocally again and again and again that the commanders would determine troop levels? Why have we agreed to forget this? Why isn't it in every news story about this stuff? Or better, why isn't it in virtually any stories about it?"

The Maliki Conundrum and Cheney's Trial Balloon

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Even as the White House contemplates a faster turnover of responsibilities to the Iraqi government, severe doubts remain within and outside the Bush administration over whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can execute the steps necessary to stabilize the country, according to sources familiar with the ongoing policy review."

So if Maliki can't be counted on to achieve political reconciliation, what's the alternative?

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Someone in Vice President Dick Cheney's office has gotten everybody on this city's holiday party circuit talking, simply by floating an unlikely Iraq proposal."

The proposal "basically says that Washington should stop trying to get Sunnis and Shiites to get along and instead just back the Shiites, since there are more of them anyway and they're likely to win in a fight to the death. . . .

"At first glance, the idea of siding with the Shiites doesn't seem that crazy. America has, after all, had more spectacular trouble of late from Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban than from Shiites, whose best-remembered attacks on Americans were two decades ago, by hostage-takers in Iran and truck bombers in Lebanon.

"But Middle East experts can provide a long list of reasons why a survival-of-the-fittest theory might not necessarily be the best way to conduct American foreign policy in Iraq. First, they say, it's always dangerous to take sides in a civil war. Second, siding with the Shiites in a Shiite-Sunni war is particularly dangerous since most of the Arab world is Sunni and America's major Arab allies are Sunni. Besides Iraq, Shiites form a large majority only in Iran, and, well, enough said there. . . .

"Can you just hear President Bush's speech to the nation? 'My Fellow Americans, the United States has decided that there are more Shiites than Sunnis in Iraq, so we are therefore going to side with the people most likely to win a fight to the death. We'll figure out how to deal with the rest of the Arab world, where there are more Sunnis than Shiites, later.'"

'A Strategy That Says We Have a Plan'

I've written before about how Bush often confuses tactics, strategy and goals. But now along comes a Bushism that takes the cake. It's from the Bushes' year-end interview with People magazine.

Asked for his view on Iraq, Bush replied: "I think it's been a very difficult year in Iraq -- for our troops, for the families of the troops, for the Iraqi people. And it's been difficult for the American people, because success in Iraq has been slower coming than any of us would like. And so the task at hand now is to come up with a new way forward. I think most Americans fully understand the importance of success; they're wondering whether we have a plan to succeed. It's my job to listen to a lot of opinions and come up with a strategy that says we have a plan." [My italics.]

Kind of makes you nostalgic for "I'm the Decider," doesn't it?

The Twins and the War

Incidentally, People finally popped the question the White House press corps has been too timid to ask.

"This year, we invited readers on our Web site to ask you questions. Here's one: Nina Frazier of New Braunfels, Texas, asks: If you believe in the war, why didn't you encourage your own daughters to fight for your country? Or did you?

"THE PRESIDENT: I believe Americans can contribute to the security and well-being of our country in a variety of ways. That's why we have a volunteer army. What we say to young people is that if you want to serve your country you can do so in the military, or you can do so by teaching children in inner-city Washington, D.C., like one of our daughters did. Or you can help form education programs in New York City, like our (other) daughter. There are all kinds of ways to serve."

Later, a follow-up, of sorts:

"Are your daughters coming home for Christmas?

"Mrs. Bush: They are. Jenna is working with an international organization in Central and South America about education policy. And Barbara is working for a museum in the education department."

The Freedom Agenda and Iraq

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: "It's relatively easy these days to point out all the ways in which George W. Bush has been ill-informed, misguided and wrong about Iraq. And in case you run out of examples, the president provides fresh ones continually. But on one central issue, Bush has been right. He has argued from the start that a modern, liberal democratic Iraq would be an example, an inspiration and a spur for progress in the Middle East. The trouble is, the Iraq of today is having precisely the opposite effect. If Bush wants to save his freedom agenda, he needs to decouple it from Iraq. . . .

"Iraq after Saddam presented a unique opportunity to steer history on a new course. But instead the Bush administration drove it into a ditch. As a result, the effort to create an Iraqi model for the Middle East has failed. No matter what happens over the next year or two, the country has developed into more of a warning about the dangers of democracy than a symbol of its promise. When people around the world--and, most important, in the region--look at Iraq, they see chaos, religious extremism and violence."

People Who Mattered

As part of Time's year-end issue, James Carney writes about the "axis of denial":

"It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were regarded as a national-security dream team, three men perfectly suited to perilous times: the President, instinctive and decisive; the Vice President, a sage and tested Washington veteran; and the Defense Secretary, whose brio and charm were rare and reassuring. Or so it was thought.

"But in 2006, the dream team died, and its members instead became objects of scorn and emblems of failure. Their signature venture -- the Iraq war -- spiraled relentlessly downward into civil war. As it did, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld sealed their fate by diving deeper into denial about the realities on the battlefield."

Where Was Dad?

Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for Bush's father, writes in the New York Daily News: "Prewar, I had phoned ex-White House colleagues still in Washington. Once balanced, they seemed messianic: As Brent Scowcroft said of Vice President Cheney, I no longer knew them. Old friends assured me that we would be viewed as liberators, oil would pay the freight and regional democracy would thrive. They are lucky you can't be more than 100% wrong.

"Don Rumsfeld himself said, 'I don't do quagmires.' True. W has done a catastrophe. . . .

"Speakers at the 1988 Democratic National Convention mocked, 'Where was George?' My query concerns 2003-06: 'Where was Dad?' . . .

"George H.W. Bush was astute and nuanced. By contrast, W's gamble has eviscerated his presidency. Bush the Elder often twitted the word 'prudent.' At one time, prudence might have saved Bush the Lesser. It is unlikely to save him now.

"Some risks are so bad they become immune even to Texas-sized providence. How heedless, needless and, above all, sad."

Now It's Personal

Christopher Caldwell writes in the New York Times Magazine: "Why have few such people risen to the defense of George Bush?

"Here is a guess. The recent election feels like something more intimate than a personnel change. It feels like the beginnings of an escape from a twisted relationship. . . .

"Why are opinions so personal when it comes to President Bush? Because he has frequently sought, like the child of the 1960s that he is, to blur the line between the personal and the political. Posing as an amiable guy rather than a partisan politician has great advantages in democratic power politics. Even if not all of them vote for you, most Americans want to believe that their president is a jolly good fellow. But when a politician makes likability a substitute for authority, his opponents make hatred a substitute for opposition."

Rumsfeld's Goodbye

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that Bush and Cheney were effusive in their praise of Donald H. Rumsfeld, at a ceremony marking the defense secretary's departure.

"Cheney hailed Rumsfeld as his best boss, best friend, an 'ideal' public servant and 'the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.'

"For his part, Bush portrayed Rumsfeld as a comrade in arms. 'Don Rumsfeld has been at my side from the moment I took office. We've been through war together,' Bush said.

"'We walked amid the rubble of the broken Pentagon the day after September the 11th, 2001. He was with me when we planned the liberation of Afghanistan. We were in the Oval Office together the day I gave the order to remove Saddam Hussein from power,' he said.

"'In these and countless other moments, I have seen Don Rumsfeld's character and his integrity. He has always ensured I had the best possible advice. . . . He spoke straight. It was easy to understand him.'"

Here are transcripts of Bush's speech and Cheney's speech.

Powell Speaks Out

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States is losing what he described as a 'civil war' in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.

"Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. President Bush is considering options for a new military strategy -- among them a 'surge' of 15,000 to 30,000 troops added to the current 140,000 in Iraq, to secure Baghdad and to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have proposed; or a redirection of the U.S. military away from the insurgency to focus mainly on hunting al-Qaeda terrorists, as the nation's top military leaders proposed last week in a meeting with the president.

"But Bush has rejected the dire conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendations to set parameters for a phased withdrawal to begin next year, and he has insisted that the violence in Iraq is not a civil war."

Here is video of Powell's appearance on CBS's Face the Nation.

Mary Cheney Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although he recently expressed confidence that Mary Cheney will make a loving parent, President Bush continues to believe it is best that a child is raised by a man and woman married to each other, the president's spokesman said Friday."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that "the only Christmas season miracle to lift the beleaguered Bush administration this year has been the announcement that Mary Cheney, the vice president's gay daughter, is pregnant. Her growing family is the living rejoinder to those in her father's party who would relegate gay American couples and their children to second-class legal or human status."

Rove's Deputy Avoids Scrutiny

Aaron Sadler writes for the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas: "A former Republican political operative and top aide to President Bush was named late Friday as interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

"The appointment of Tim Griffin drew criticism from Arkansas senators Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats. Pryor accused the Bush administration of circumventing the traditional nomination process on behalf of a political ally.

"The open-ended appointment differs from a normal presidential selection, where Griffin would face Senate hearings and a confirmation vote.

"Pryor believes the Senate should be able to quiz Griffin about his qualifications, especially given his background as Bush's deputy director of political affairs under Karl Rove, spokesman Michael Teague said.

"Before that, Griffin worked in opposition research for the Republican National Committee. . . .

"A report by the BBC in 2004 connected Griffin to a possible effort to disenfranchise black voters in Florida. The report said an e-mailed list of 1,886 names was to be used to challenge residents' voting status."

White House Censorship?

The liberal Think Progress blog relates Middle East analyst Flynt Leverett's contention "that the White House has been blocking the publication of an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times. The column is critical of the administration's refusal to engage Iran. . . .

"Leverett says the incident shows 'just how low people like Elliot Abrams at the NSC [National Security Council] will stoop to try and limit the dissemination of arguments critical of the administration's policy.'"

There's more from The Washington Note blog.

More Protection Needed

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that experts foresee unprecedented security need for Bush after he leaves the White House, due largely to the war.

"Former Secret Service agent John Vance, who is a former son-in-law of former President Gerald Ford, said Bush's post-presidency will include a variety of challenges.

"'One thing is, he is a relatively young man, and young men are more active and always on the road,' said Vance, now a security consultant in Virginia. 'That takes a lot of manpower and a lot of team effort.'

"And, Vance noted, Bush will be a target.

"'He is the only president that invaded a country without provocation and without it being started by the other side. I think he has gained a lot of enmity.... There are a lot of people who resent this president, both externally and internally, some of whom have lost sons and daughters and had people injured in the war in Iraq,' he said."

Suddenly, Church Is Cancelled

Caroline Daniel of the Financial Times had early-Sunday-morning pool duty, and filed this report: "Ordered into Press Van Two, by 7:23am the pool assumed the proper sobriety of an anticipated church visit, only to be told five minutes later that: 'church is cancelled.' No reason was offered. Perhaps POTUS was keen to avoid a repeat of last week's sermon from Rev. Luis Leon that insisted: 'Repentance is changing your way, changing your mind, changing your direction. It requires the courage to acknowledge that you want to change, to change your direction.' Or perhaps he wanted more time to commune with God from the back of a mountain bike, not a pew."

Holiday Gift Watch

Roy Rivenburg writes in his Los Angeles Times humor column about holiday gift ideas for political junkies. Among them: A 'Karl Rove is Voldemort' tote bag; a shotgun-toting Dick Cheney action figure; a George W. Bush fire-starter; and Drink'n with Dubya, "a talking bottle opener that plays one of Bush's syntax-impaired sentences every time you crack open a brewski."

'His Walk Is a Lie'

Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post writes about the unsparingly brutal antiwar work 'Banquet of Vultures,' being performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

And guess who's a central character?

"Taylor said he was inspired to create a dance focusing on President Bush after watching him move.

"'The first time I saw Bush walking, on television, I did not trust the man,' he said. 'His walk is a lie.

"'Walks are like fingerprints,' he continued. 'They tell a lot about us. And this one was not sincere.' . . .

"Taylor puts his self-described presidential figure right in the middle of the battlefield, watching stonily as agonies fell the troops." And he doesn't just sit there, either: "After he violates a female recruit, [he] kills her and tosses her aside."

Political Cartoon Humor

David Horsey on Bush's options; Ann Telnaes on the first lady; Walt Handelsman on the space station; and Mike Luckovich on the war slogan memorial.

Late Night Humor

Via U.S. News, Jay Leno on the Tonight Show: "CNN said today that President Bush is seriously considering sending more troops to Iraq. So apparently, his goal is to achieve a negative popularity rating."

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