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The Robert Gates Riddle

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 1:16 PM

Will Defense Secretary Robert Gates be a voice of realism within the Bush administration? Or will he bend his knee to the ideologues?

Gates offered hints to support both possibilities yesterday at his swearing-in ceremony. But his true allegiance will soon be put to a very public test.

Here's the transcript of the ceremony. President Bush spoke first, then Gates was then sworn in by Vice President Cheney, and then Gates made some remarks.

"This has got to be an exciting time for Bob Gates," Bush said, somewhat inappropriately, given that Gates is taking over at a time of escalating casualties in Iraq.

Bush made it clear what he expects from Gates: "He understands that defeating the terrorists and the radicals and the extremists in Iraq and the Middle East is essential to leading toward peace."

When it was Gate's turn, however, he played both sides of the fence.

On the one hand, he was the voice of reason. Here's the very first thing he had to say: "Thank you. Mr. President, I am deeply honored by the trust you have placed in me. You have asked for my candor and my honest counsel at this critical moment in our nation's history, and you will get both."

But on the other hand, he quickly expressed his fealty to Cheney: "Mr. Vice President, thank you for administering the oath of office. I first worked closely with the Vice President when he was a very successful Secretary of Defense, and I hope some of that may rub off."

He described himself as a fan of his supremely controversial predecessor: "Donald Rumsfeld has devoted decades of his life to public service. He cares deeply about our men and women in uniform, and the future of our country."

But then he unsubtly rejected Rumsfeld's management style: "The key to successful leadership in my view is to involve in the decision-making process early and often those who ultimately must carry out the decisions. I will do my best to do just that."

Gates said he wants to hear unvarnished advice: "I intend to travel quite soon to Iraq and meet with our military leaders and other personnel there. I look forward to hearing their honest assessments of the situation on the ground and to having the benefit of their advice -- unvarnished and straight from the shoulder -- on how to proceed in the weeks and months ahead."

But that unvarnished advice had better be in the context of victory: "All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again. But, as the President has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come."

The Big Test

Gates's moment of truth will come very soon indeed: Will he back the joint chiefs -- and the commanders in Iraq -- in resisting an increase in the commitment of American troops? Or will he side with Cheney and the White House diehards who refuse to consider any option other than "full speed ahead"?

Robin Wright and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate. . . .

"[T]he Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials. . . .

"The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said."

And here's a bizarre glimpse into the workings of the Bush White House: Apparently the joint chiefs haven't actually told the president how they feel, at least not in so many words.

Wright and Baker write that a senior administration official told them that "military officers have not directly opposed a surge option. 'I've never heard them be depicted that way to the president,' the official said."

Are they afraid? Or have they never been asked?

Winning? Absolutely Maybe

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "The White House refused yesterday to characterize how the Iraq war is going as Americans' approval rating of President Bush's strategy hit a new low.

"'I'm not playing the game anymore,' White House spokesman Tony Snow said when asked about fears the U.S. is not winning in Iraq.

"Snow's tactical retreat came amid questions from reporters who wanted White House reaction to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's assessment that the situation in Iraq is 'grave and deteriorating,' and 'nothing seems to be improving.'

"'You're trying to summarize a complex situation with a single word or gerund, or even a participle. And the fact is that what you really need to do is to take a look at the situation and understand that it is vital to win,' Snow said.

"Snow's tap dance around the winning or losing question was a big step back from Bush's brash assertion two months ago that 'absolutely, we're winning' in Iraq."

The Government That Isn't There

Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor about an important yet often ignored reality: "As President Bush weighs his options for forging a new Iraq policy, he faces this big conundrum: Many proposals call for greater reliance on and deeper development of the Iraqi state, but the reality is that the Iraqi state, in many respects, does not exist.

"The state created by the iron fist of Saddam Hussein has been wiped away, replaced by a resurgent tribal society ruled by mutually distrustful political parties that find unity all the more elusive as sectarian violence rages. The result: More than three years after the invasion, the US is still looking for a reliable and effective partner to work with, experts say. . . .

"'We are talking about working with national institutions when we are dealing with a place where national institutions don't exist,' says Patrick Lang, a Middle East specialist formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency. 'The fact is that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki is just one of a number of Shia contenders for power, the military is mostly a Shia force, and the police even more so. Despite that,' he adds, 'we continue with the central failure of our policy, which is to see Iraq as a nation-state when in reality it is a group of nations.'"

Dismal Situation

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "The Pentagon said yesterday that violence in Iraq soared this fall to its highest level on record and acknowledged that anti-U.S. fighters have achieved a 'strategic success' by unleashing a spiral of sectarian killings by Sunni and Shiite death squads that threatens Iraq's political institutions.

"In its most pessimistic report yet on progress in Iraq, the Pentagon described a nation listing toward civil war, with violence at record highs of 959 attacks per week, declining public confidence in government and 'little progress' toward political reconciliation."

Poll Watch

CNN reports: "Support for President Bush's management of the Iraq war has dropped to an all-time low even as his overall approval remains tepid but steady, according to a CNN poll released Monday.

"The survey, conducted Friday through Sunday by Opinion Research Corp., found support for Bush's handling of the Iraq conflict has decreased to 28 percent from 34 percent in a poll taken October 13-15.

"And a record 70 percent of respondents said they disapproved of Bush's war management, up from 64 percent in the October poll.

"Meanwhile, Bush's overall job approval was 36 percent -- down only 1 percentage point from the previous CNN poll to pose that question December 5-7."

As CNN's Bill Schneider explains, if you combine the 21 percent of Americans who want U.S. troops to withdraw immediately with the 33 percent who want them withdrawn within a year, you've got a solid majority of Americans who want out soon.

And Yet

Perpetual Bush cheerleader Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard: "It turns out you only have to attend a White House Christmas party to find out where President Bush is headed on Iraq. One guest who shook hands with Bush in the receiving line told him, 'Don't let the bastards get you down.' Bush, slightly startled but cheerful, replied, 'Don't worry. I'm not.' The guest followed up: 'I think we can win in Iraq.' The president's reply was emphatic: 'We're going to win.'"

Bush, Barnes writes, "is prepared to defy the weary wisdom of Washington that it's too late, that the war in Iraq is lost, and that Bush's lone option is to retreat from Iraq as gracefully and with as little loss of face as possible."

Barnes said Bush is endorsing the troop "surge" plan proposed by Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

Notably, even Barnes doesn't go so far at to predict a quick turnaround. He writes: "The sooner Bush orders the plan into action, the better chances are that next Christmas he'll be telling White House guests that winning in Iraq is not just a goal. It could actually be happening."

Other Opinions

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "It is unconscionable to think about dispatching more young men and women to Iraq without the realistic expectation that their presence will make a difference in a war that is no longer in our control. Here in Washington, proponents of a troop 'surge' speak of giving the whole Iraq adventure one last try. But they sound as if they're more concerned about projecting an image of American resolve than anything else. . . .

"What could be more immoral than sacrificing American blood and treasure to save face in a lost war?"

Strobe Talbott writes in the Financial Times: "The US faces in Iraq what could be the most consequential foreign-policy debacle in its history. The only other contender for that distinction is the Vietnam war. But Vietnam was a unitary state that had been artificially - and therefore temporarily - divided, while Iraq was an artificially united state that perhaps has now been permanently divided. Moreover, Iraq, unlike Vietnam, is surrounded by dominoes."

Talbott has some suggestions for how Bush can start fixing his policy failures. Among them: "He should appoint a new UN ambassador who is inclined and empowered to strengthen an institution the US has systematically undercut in recent years."

Also: "The administration needs to find other ways of showing it respects international law. At a minimum, the administration should abandon efforts to flout the Geneva and torture conventions and deny habeas corpus to detainees. Also, the US should close its detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, or make it Geneva-compliant."

Blair's Sorry Gamble

The British Press Association reports: "Tony Blair has failed to influence the policies of George Bush's White House in any significant way, despite his unwavering support for the US president, a leading foreign affairs think tank has said.

"Delivering its verdict on ten years of foreign policy under Mr Blair, a Chatham House briefing paper said his legacy would be defined by the 'terrible mistake' of the war with Iraq.

"It said Mr Blair was now paying the price for setting too much store by his relationship with Mr Bush and warned that his successor would have to strike a new foreign policy balance between Europe and the US."

White House Censorship

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "A former top White House official accused the Bush administration yesterday of trying to muzzle his criticism of its Iran policy and of falsely alleging that his writings contained classified material to prevent them from being published.

"Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst who became a senior director for Middle East policy for the National Security Council before leaving the administration in 2003, said the White House decided that substantial passages of an opinion article he had written for the New York Times involved classified information. Leverett said the article was only a summary of a longer paper he had written a few weeks earlier -- which had been cleared by the CIA as containing no classified information. . . .

"White House and CIA spokesmen adamantly disputed Leverett's charges. NSC spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that career staff members on the access and records management staff, who determine whether classified material is involved, made the ruling without political appointees being involved."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Speaking to reporters Monday, Leverett speculated that senior NSC officials, such as deputy national security advisors Elliott Abrams or Meghan L. O'Sullivan, had authorized their subordinates to intervene."

Signing Statement Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed legislation yesterday permitting civilian nuclear cooperation with India, reversing three decades of nonproliferation policy in the interest of redefining U.S. relations with the world's largest democracy and reshaping the geopolitical balance as China asserts itself in Asia. . . .

"[U]nder the deal that Bush cut with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a March visit to New Delhi, India is designating only 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors as civilian. The other eight are considered military and will remain shielded from international scrutiny. And because the deal will allow India to import nuclear fuel for civilian use, critics estimate that it could then use its own facilities to produce enough fuel for 40 or 50 nuclear bombs per year. . . .

"Although critics warn that the deal could spark a regional arms race, Bush called it a landmark moment that finally relegates Cold War-era tensions to the past. . . .

"Bush provoked further concern with a signing statement released hours after his ceremony that said he reserves the right to ignore certain safeguards built into the legislation. The signing statement took issue with language inserted by Congress into the law prohibiting the transfer of nuclear material to India in violation of guidelines set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 40 nuclear-fuel-producing nations that includes the United States.

"Since 'a serious question would exist as to whether the provision unconstitutionally delegated legislative power to an international body,' Bush said the administration would interpret the provision 'as advisory.'"

Or, as Ken Herman blogs for the Cox News Service: "Bush Signs India Nuke Bill, Sort Of."

Here's the text of Bush's public remarks at the signing ceremony. In public, Bush did not mention any misgivings.

A Secret Cancer in the White House

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "First lady Laura Bush had a skin cancer tumor removed from her right shin in early November but decided it was a private matter and did not reveal it publicly.

"The White House acknowledged the procedure Monday night after Mrs. Bush was noticed with a bandage below her right knee. . . .

"The first lady was noted wearing a bandage on her right leg before the election. At the time [spokeswoman Susan] Whitson said Mrs. Bush had a sore on her shin. . . .

"Monday's revelation was the second case this year of a belated White House announcement. In February, the White House waited almost a day before disclosing that Vice President Dick Cheney had shot a fellow hunter during a quail-hunting trip."

Suzanne Malveaux reports for CNN: "[I]t was actually a Reuters reporter that was there who noticed a Band-Aid on the first lady's leg and asked about it this afternoon, what was behind that. And that is when the press secretary of the first lady and others responded to some questions about what had actually occurred.

"And, then, they felt, out of all fairness, they would go ahead and distribute that information to all of us this evening."

Bush Library Watch

Scott Jaschik writes for Inside Higher Ed: "Southern Methodist University has long been considered the front-runner in the competition to be the site of President Bush's presidential library. . . .

"But now, as President Bush prepares to decide among SMU, Baylor University and the University of Dallas, a new issue has emerged. Professors at SMU are circulating an open letter calling for the university to have a full discussion of the implications of being host to the Bush library. . . .

"Faculty critics say that although many of them disagree with President Bush's policies, they would not object to a library-oriented archive and museum -- and they say that in discussions with professors, the university has discussed a vision for such a Bush center. But creating an academic center with a specific goal of boosting the Bush image and agenda strikes many professors as antithetical to a university's academic values."

Paul Burka has more in his blog for the Texas Monthly.

The New White House Situation Room

Jim Rutenberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "On Dec. 27 the new Situation Room is to open formally, the result of planning that reaches back to before the Sept. 11 attacks but took on added urgency afterward. The White House offered a preview to two reporters on Monday, days before its new data center is pumped full of classified information and its doors are sealed to outsiders.

"Even in its new incarnation, it is not quite up to the standards of '24.' But it is getting closer. For starters, Mr. Bush's new main conference room, just underneath the main floor of the West Wing, has six flat-screen televisions for secure video conferences, and the technology linking them to generals and prime ministers around the globe makes it less likely that the encrypted voices and images will go black. (That happened regularly in connections to Baghdad, an event one former administration official said had been known to 'prompt a presidential outburst.')"

Judging from the accompanying photo, however, there's still a fair amount of work to be done. And isn't that Nicholas Cage on the video screen on the right?

Best Political Moments

John Dickerson writes for Slate about the five best political moments of the year. Number one: when Cheney shot his hunting partner,

That's Hardball

Here is MSNBC's Chris Matthews with Matt Damon, who is starring in a new thriller about the CIA.

"MATTHEWS: Do you think guys like Cheney. . . . Do you think he knew he was saying stuff that wouldn't turn out to be true . . . ?

"DAMON: I'd like to see him under oath.

"MATTHEWS: I would, too. I'd like to see him with you.


"MATTHEWS: Do you think if you waterboarded Cheney, like in the movie, that you'd get a different truth out of him?

"DAMON: Well, there's two answers to that question. One is he doesn't strike me as the kind of person who has any real personal courage. When it was his turn to go, he didn't go. He deferred six times.

"MATTHEWS: He said he had other priorities.

"DAMON: Yes, he had other priorities. And he doesn't seem to have other priorities about sending other kids there and other peoples kids.

"(APPLAUSE). . . .

"DAMON: . . . The second part to the answer is that I believe that if you waterboard anybody, they'll tell you anything and that torture is completely impractical, on top of being dishonorable."

Cheney v. Bambi

The Wonkette blog broke the news with an e-mail from an anonymous tipster: "there's a dead deer on grass in front of the naval observatory. Who killed it??!!! Is cheney allowed to hunt on those grounds?"

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in today's New York Daily News: "We called Cheney's office to see if the deer might have wandered into the cross-hairs of the avid hunter, who in February accidentally wounded his friend Harry Whittington while shooting grouse in Texas. Earlier this month, the Veep was hunting with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

"Cheney's office referred us to a spokesman for the Naval Observatory, whose Web site features a photo of a fawn on its lawn.

"'There are deer all over the area,' said the Navy spokesman. 'It could have been hit by car.'"

Barney Remakes

As I noted last week, the White House is out with its annual Barney Cam holiday movie.

My review was lukewarm. I called it "listless."

Not so two instant remakes, featuring "voiceovers" from Barney himself.

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart has one version in which Barney expresses shock that the White House is going ahead with the project. "I just figured with the war going so badly, maybe there was a better use of time?" Barney says.

And Wonkette links to another recut version, this one with a more ribald Barney expressing his innermost feelings.

Late Night Humor

Via U.S. News, Conan O'Brien: "Well, today at the White House, President Bush signed a deal that would send nuclear fuel and know-how to India. Yeah, when asked about the Indian deal, President Bush said, 'It's the least we can do after stealing their land.'"

Froomkin Watch

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m ET.

Tomorrow's column, reviewing some of the highlights of the past year, will be my last until the new year. Have any favorite moments -- or favorite columns? E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Press Criticism Watch

Media critic and blogger Jay Rosen writes that when it comes to the Baker-Hamilton commission's assessment of the situation in Iraq, the press is fuzzing up the distinction between "realist" (as in the school of foreign policy that rivals 'neoconservatives') and "realistic."

He argues that's because editors and reporters never came to terms with how non-reality-based the Bush White House has been.

Martin Kaplan, the associate dean of the USC Annenberg School, writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "[W]hy, despite all appearances of actually having a national debate right now, do people keep insisting that we mount one?

"Perhaps it's because the mainstream media are too timid to declare the difference between right and wrong. Imagine if journalism consisted of more than a collage of conflicting talking points. Imagine the difference it would make if more brand-name reporters broke from the bizarre straitjacket of 'balance,' which equates fairness with putting all disputants on equal epistemological footing, no matter how deceitful or moronic they may be.

"There's a market for news that weighs counterclaims and assesses truth value. It just hasn't kept up with demand."

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