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Been There, Done That

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonstpost.com
Monday, January 8, 2007; 1:12 PM

Four years of unfounded assurances about Iraq from President Bush have generated profound suspicion among the American people, their elected representatives and even the press corps.

As the days tick down toward Bush's announcement of a "new way forward" in Iraq, journalists aren't just asking what the plan is. They're asking: Should we take what he says on face value? And: Is any of this really new?

The inescapable conclusion appears to be that much if not all of what the president is expected to advocate has been tried before and has failed.

Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson write in Sunday's Washington Post: "President Bush is putting the final touches on his new Iraq policy amid growing skepticism inside and outside the administration that the emerging package of extra troops, economic assistance and political benchmarks for the Baghdad government will make any more than a marginal difference in stabilizing the country. . . .

"Although officials said the president has yet to settle on an exact figure of new troops, senior military leaders and commanders are deeply worried that a 'surge' of as many as five brigades, or 20,000 troops, in Iraq and Kuwait would tax U.S. ground forces already stretched to the breaking point -- and may still prove inadequate to quell sectarian violence and the Sunni insurgency. Some senior U.S. officials think it could even backfire. . . .

"Meanwhile, the political and economic ideas under consideration all appear to be variations on initiatives that U.S. and Iraqi authorities have proved unable to implement successfully since the 2003 invasion or have tried and found wanting, according to former U.S. officials and experts on reconstructing war-torn countries."

And once again, Bush appears to be counting on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make the necessary reforms, despite its track record of promising but not delivering since taking power in May.

One senior White House official told The Post: "'It is not just rhetoric,' the official said of Maliki. 'He is actually putting forward specific plans and making different commitments than he has in the past.' Speaking on the condition of anonymity because the president has not settled on a final plan, the official said Bush expects 'a different result' from that of previous security plans."

David E. Sanger writes in the Sunday New York Times: "President Bush's new Iraq strategy calls for a rapid influx of forces that could add as many as 20,000 American combat troops to Baghdad, supplemented with a jobs program costing as much as $1 billion intended to employ Iraqis in projects including painting schools and cleaning streets, according to American officials who are piecing together the last parts of the initiative. . . .

"Nonetheless, even in outlining the plan, some American officials acknowledged deep skepticism about whether the new plan could succeed.

"They said two-thirds of the promised Iraqi force would consist of Kurdish pesh merga units to be sent from northern Iraq, and they said some doubts remained about whether they would show up in Baghdad and were truly committed to quelling sectarian fighting. . . .

"[P]revious American reconstruction efforts in Iraq have failed to translate into support from the Iraqi population, and some Republicans as well as the new Democratic leadership in Congress have questioned if a troop increase would do more than postpone the inevitable and precarious moment when Iraqi forces have to stand on their own."

Michael R. Gordon and Jeff Zeleny write in today's New York Times: "President Bush's new Iraq policy will establish a series of goals that the Iraqi government will be expected to meet to try to ease sectarian tensions and stabilize the country politically and economically, senior administration officials said Sunday.

"Among these 'benchmarks' are steps that would draw more Sunnis into the political process, finalize a long-delayed measure on the distribution of oil revenue and ease the government's policy toward former Baath Party members, the officials said. . . .

"Without saying what the specific penalties for failing to achieve the goals would be, American officials insisted that they intended to hold the Iraqis to a realistic timetable for action, but the Americans and Iraqis have agreed on many of the objectives before, only to fall considerably short. . . .

"The Americans and Iraqis have agreed on benchmarks before. Indeed, some of the goals that are to be incorporated on the list of benchmarks have been carried over from an earlier list that was hammered out with the Iraqis and made public in October, but never met."

Gordon and Zeleny note that senators from both parties met with the president and his national security team on Friday at the White House.

"Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said one of his Senate colleagues asked why the effort to add to American forces in Iraq would be more likely to succeed than previous troop increases. Mr. Sununu said the president and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, responded that Mr. Bush's plan would 'include more specific goals, different rules of engagement and different expectations for cooperation with the Iraqi government.'"

Firm and public deadlines with explicitly stated consequences would indeed be a departure from previous Bush policy in Iraq -- but it's not clear that's what the president has in mind. And of course, it's even less clear that they would do any good.

Doyle McManus and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times that Bush's decision to do the opposite of what the public wants "makes sense based on two beliefs that have long guided his war strategy," his aides say. "The first is that the price of leaving Iraq would be greater than the cost of staying. The second is that the public will accept the burdens of war if convinced that success is still possible.

"'Is this a war, or is it not a war?' one official asked, previewing an argument the president is likely to make. 'If it is, you have to be willing to sacrifice. . . . Americans are willing to do that as long as we have a clear strategy that offers a chance of success.' . . .

"[O]fficials say they believe that most members of the public are still willing to hear Bush out and give him another chance to succeed."

So, is all of this simply an attempt to repackage "stay the course" for domestic consumption? It sure sounds that way.

McManus and Reynolds write: "One official involved in the administration's policy discussion described it this way: 'There are several strategic options to choose from. Do we cut and leave, and attempt to exit gracefully? Do we adjust the current strategy and be patient? Do we keep the current strategy without any adjustment? Or do we try to change the dynamic by increasing the troop levels and changing the strategy?

"'Given an ample supply of patience on the part of the American people, [the current strategy] would work. However, the president now knows that there's not an ample supply of patience on the part of the American people. . . . So he has to change the dynamic. . . . Does he do it by reducing troops and withdrawing, or does he change the mix in a different way?'"

The Democrats

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Calling Iraq a nation in 'complete chaos,' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats cast the anticipated Bush plan as an escalation of the Iraq war that goes against the advice of senior U.S. commanders, rather than the significant change of course sought by American voters, and said that as a result they would treat the plan -- and new funding requests -- with strong skepticism."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that Democrats "plan on aggressively confronting administration officials this week in a series of hearings."

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Even before President Bush lays out his 'new way forward' in Iraq, the Democratic majority in Congress and a growing number of Republicans say they will oppose any troop surge - but not to the point of blocking funding for the war.

"That means a key aspect of the president's plan, expected to be unveiled this week, will run into a wall of words on Capitol Hill, but not much more."

U.S. News reports: "'The Democrats are going to be in a real bind,' says a Republican insider with close ties to the White House. 'The president will come out with a strong plan to get order in Baghdad, and if the Democrats do anything to undermine or block it, it will look to Americans as though they wouldn't give his plan a chance.' The strategist predicts that 'their tendency will be to give the president a free hand and blame him if doesn't work.' This could be a clever political gambit, but it also would give Bush one more chance to get things right in Iraq. Says one Bush aide: 'The White House now feels that urgency.'"

Not Listening

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "President Bush has no evident interest in consulting with, let alone drawing in, the new Democratic Congress as a war partner. An example: the new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Carl Levin, an important character now -- sent Bush a private letter three weeks ago offering his counsel. Levin never got a reply. Bush can be just as deaf to Republicans. At a recent White House ceremony, Sen. Susan Collins offered to brief him on her Iraq visit. He responded by escorting her to the office of his deputy national-security adviser -- and then left before she told her story."

Opinion Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The only real question about the planned 'surge' in Iraq -- which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation -- is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional. . . .

"Iraq has become a quagmire of the vanities -- a place where America is spending blood and treasure to protect the egos of men who won't admit that they were wrong."

Krugman calls attention to the principal proponents of the 'surge': William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, and writes: "[A]m I the only person to notice that after all the Oedipal innuendo surrounding the Iraq Study Group -- Daddy's men coming in to fix Junior's mess, etc. -- Mr. Bush turned for advice to two other sons of famous and more successful fathers?"

(Those fathers would be Irving Kristol and Donald Kagan.)

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) about Bush compared to President Ford.

A week before the last American helicopters left Saigon, "Ford said, 'America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam' but not 'by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.'"

By contrast, Rich writes: "Two months after Americans spoke decisively on Election Day, the president is determined to overrule them. Our long national nightmare in Iraq, far from being over, is about to get a second wind."

Wesley K. Clark writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "What the surge would do is put more American troops in harm's way, further undercut the morale of U.S. forces and risk further alienating elements of the Iraqi populace. . . .

"The administration needs a new strategy for the region, before Iran gains nuclear capabilities. While the military option must remain on the table, America should take the lead with direct diplomacy to resolve the interrelated problems of Iran's push for regional hegemony and nuclear power, the struggle for control of Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolating our adversaries hasn't worked.

"Absent such fundamental change in Washington's approach, there is little hope that a troop surge and accompanying rhetoric will be anything other than 'staying the course' more. That wastes lives and time, bolsters the terrorists and avoids facing up to the interrelated challenges posed by a region in crisis."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "In 2006, the voters sent Bush a powerful message that it was time to rein in his imperial ambitions. But we have yet to see any sign that Bush understands that. Indeed, he seems to have interpreted his party's drubbing as a mandate to keep pursuing his fantasy of victory in Iraq and to press ahead undaunted with his assault on civil liberties and the judicial system."

Reality Check

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "More than 17,000 Iraqi civilians and police officers died violently in the latter half of 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry statistics, a sharp increase that coincided with rising sectarian strife since the February bombing of a landmark Shiite shrine."

Cui Bono?

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Families earning more than $1 million a year saw their federal tax rates drop more sharply than any group in the country as a result of President Bush's tax cuts, according to a new Congressional study.

"The study, by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, also shows that tax rates for middle-income earners edged up in 2004, the most recent year for which data was available, while rates for people at the very top continued to decline. . . .

"Though tax cuts for the rich were bigger than those for other groups, the wealthiest families paid a bigger share of total taxes. That is because their incomes have climbed far more rapidly, and the gap between rich and poor has widened in the last several years."

No More Poodle?

David Stringer writes for the Associated Press: "Treasury chief Gordon Brown, expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister by September, suggested Sunday that he will pursue an Iraq policy that is more independent of Washington than the current government.

"Brown acknowledged that mistakes were made in the aftermath of the invasion and promised to be 'very frank' with President Bush. He also said that Britain is likely to scale down its commitment of troops to Iraq over the next year -- even as the White House is considering dispatching thousands more, at least temporarily."

Looking for a Lawyer

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush is seeking a new chief lawyer with credentials as a proven combatant as he and his staff prepare for a potential raft of investigations from Democrats in Congress who have promised to challenge the White House's conduct of policy and its assertions of executive power. . . .

"Republicans said Friday in interviews that the White House was now, in essence, seeking a politically savvy outsider with ties throughout the capital and in Congress who might be called upon to become something of a public figure in potentially high-profile fights. . . .

"Several Republicans, including some former administration officials, said the new White House counsel would also need the stature to counterbalance David S. Addington, the powerful chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Addington has tended to argue against cooperating with Congressional requests for classified information, a position that may require some softening, or at least more diplomacy, in the 110th Congress."

Rutenberg seems to be assuming that whoever's doing the hiring wants to counterbalance Addington. They sure haven't in the past.

In any case, Miers's departure leaves Bush with one less friend in the White House.

Rutenberg writes: "[P]eople familiar with the White House thinking said Ms. Miers's departure, coming amid a number of changes in top administration jobs, had been among the most painful personally for Mr. Bush, who has grown quite close to her over more than a decade of collaboration. . . .

"Republicans close to the White House said that, in the spring, Mr. Bolten had considered replacing Ms. Miers but that Mr. Bush had made it clear he would consider no such thing."

Signing Statement Watch

The Washington press corps has been notoriously negligent in covering Bush's signing statements.

But, as I first noted in August, editorial boards at newspapers around the country see them as nothing less than an affront to democracy.

Last week's revelation of a signing statement in which Bush asserted his right to open mail without a warrant once again fired up editorialists at papers large and small.

The Los Angeles Times writes: "The Bush administration seems determined to raise the specter of surveillance over every means of communication within the United States. Not content to monitor selected phone calls and e-mails in secret, it recently hinted that letters and packages may be opened without a search warrant too. . . .

"[I]t's hard not to be suspicious of the president's position on mail privacy, given the administration's record on the issue of domestic surveillance. In the name of the 'war on terror,' it has taken an unusually expansive view of government power and a correspondingly restrictive view of individual privacy rights. It also has sought to redefine what constitutes a 'reasonable' search, and has often done so unilaterally and in secret."

The San Francisco Chronicle writes: "In yet another power grab that whittles away our rights without a plausible justification, President Bush has given the government expanded authority to read our mail. . . .

"'Just trust us,' seems to be the operative phrase of this administration.

"However, history has shown the potential for government abuses in the absence of strong mail-privacy laws. Bush continues to roll back the clock -- and the Constitution -- with his signing statements."

The Baltimore Sun writes: "The new Democratic-led Congress, still moving into offices and setting up Web sites, should move quickly to curb this executive overreach before Americans have no privacy from their government left at all."

The Raleigh News and Observer writes: "Bush's repeated resorting to the statements mocks the law-making process and stokes a paralyzing partisanship that has gripped Washington."

The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., writes: "In other times, a president's decision to cast aside the Fourth Amendment and usurp the lawmaking powers of Congress would make a big splash. But President Bush's view of executive authority is so expansive that it has become almost routine to find that he has extended his reach into another corner of American life and another clause of the Constitution. When Bush claimed for his administration the right to read people's mail without first obtaining a warrant, there was little news coverage and scarcely a peep of protest from Congress."

The Decatur (Ala.) Daily writes: "Signing statements look like a way to sneak around congressional intent without giving Congress the opportunity to override a veto. If Mr. Bush disagrees with legislation, he should veto it. A veto is more upfront and honest than a signing statement."

And Ethel Channon, an editor at the Texarkana Gazette, writes that if Bush "really wants us to trust him on this mail deal, he . . . should take whatever action is incumbent on the person who ordinarily would be opening it.

"If he opens a credit card bill, he should pay it, and not just the minimum payment either."

Scooter Libby Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Nineteen news organizations are asking a federal judge to release audio recordings each day in the upcoming criminal trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

"The Supreme Court releases audio recordings of arguments in major cases, and lower federal courts have 'started to follow the Supreme Court's lead,' lawyers for the news organizations said in filings this week in U.S. District Court. . . .

"The Libby trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 16."

No Records For You

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House and the Secret Service quietly signed an agreement last spring in the midst of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal declaring that records identifying visitors to the White House are not open to the public.

"The Bush administration didn't reveal the existence of the memorandum of understanding until last fall. The White House is using it to deal with a legal problem on a separate front, a ruling by a federal judge ordering the production of Secret Service logs identifying visitors to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"[The] five-page document dated May 17 declares that all entry and exit data on White House visitors belongs to the White House as presidential records rather than to the Secret Service as agency records. Therefore, the agreement states, the material is not subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act."

Cartoon Watch

Cartoonist Joel Pett, in the Los Angeles Times, examines how his colleagues' depictions of Bush have changed over the course of his presidency.

And here's Tom Toles on global warming; Stuart Carlson on opening the mail; Tony Auth on Bush and Lincoln; and Mike Luckovich on the new way forward.

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