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A Change in Tactics, Not Strategy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 10, 2007; 1:14 PM

As Washington journalists debate whether to call President Bush's plan to send 20,000 more American troops into Iraq a "surge" or an "escalation," they are letting the White House get away with a much more momentous semantic scam.

The White House would have you believe that Bush tonight will be announcing a new strategy. But from all indications, all Bush will be talking about -- yet again -- is changing tactics.

A relatively minor increase in troops, a promise of greater cooperation from the Iraqi prime minister, a small infusion of reconstruction money -- not only have we heard all this before, but it doesn't amount to much.

Bush's overall strategy seems likely to remain wholly unchanged: To keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as it takes for the Iraqi government to start functioning effectively. That means using American bodies and firepower, pretty much indefinitely, to prop up a country racked by civil war and chafing under occupation. That means the American death count ticks on, with no end in sight.

Bush is not wavering on that fundamental strategy, despite all the indications that it's not working and despite the dramatic loss of public support.

What the public, the Democrats running Congress, some Republicans and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have been calling for is an actual change in strategy.

They don't want American soldiers held hostage to sectarian violence and the Iraqis' inability to form themselves into a peaceful, Western-style democracy. They want the troops to start coming home. Their preferred strategy is to make it clear to the Iraqis that they'll soon be on their own -- and that they have to solve their problems themselves.

For the White House to call Bush's speech tonight a change in strategy is understandable spin. For journalists, however, there's no excuse.

And Furthermore

Two other quick observations before I dive into the coverage:

1) It's not just, as The Washington Post points out today, that Bush is breaking with his generals; it's that he seems to me to be channeling Vice President Cheney. Unwilling to change course, Bush has apparently adopted Cheney's overheated arguments that failure would set off a domino effect of geo-political disasters.

2) The White House simply cannot answer the seminal question: Why should we think things will be different this time?

Breaking With the Generals

Why has Bush abandoned his rhetoric about listening to the generals? Mostly to make a dramatic move -- and to flout the Iraq Study Group.

Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "When President Bush goes before the American people tonight to outline his new strategy for Iraq, he will be doing something he has avoided since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003: ordering his top military brass to take action they initially resisted and advised against.

"Bush talks frequently of his disdain for micromanaging the war effort and for second-guessing his commanders."

Mind you, Bush has apparently now beaten and cajoled and reassigned the brass into submission: "Pentagon insiders say members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have long opposed the increase in troops and are only grudgingly going along with the plan because they have been promised that the military escalation will be matched by renewed political and economic efforts in Iraq."

But, as Abramowitz, Wright and Ricks point out: "In going for more troops, Bush is picking an option that seems to have little favor beyond the White House and a handful of hawks on Capitol Hill and in think tanks who have been promoting the idea almost since the time of the invasion."

So how did it come to pass? Well, during White House deliberations, "How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.

"As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton."

And: "In the end, the White House favored the idea of more troops as one visible and dramatic step the administration could take."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "Most top U.S. military officials -- even members of George W. Bush's administration such as National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley -- did not recommend a 'surge' or escalation of U.S. troops into Iraq when they were interviewed by the Iraq Study Group last fall, says group member Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton."

As I noted in my December 18 column, Bush repeatedly used the generals to give him political cover during the mid-term election campaign, and got quite righteous in his critique of those who would not do likewise.

Here, for instance, is Bush describing his decision-making process on April 6: "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."

The New Domino Theory

Glenn Kessler and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush gravely warned House Democrats yesterday that America's credibility would be shattered if the United States pulled its troops from Iraq, forcing close ally Saudi Arabia to look elsewhere for protection and potentially destabilizing Egypt, the region's most populous country, according to participants in the meeting. . . .

"Bush did not say during the half-hour meeting with Democrats where else he thought Saudi Arabia would seek 'protection,' but he made it clear that he was simply informing Democrats of his decisions on Iraq, not consulting with them. He said that he understands the challenges and thinks his plan has the best chance of success."

This is pure Cheney.

As I wrote in my insufficiently heeded June 23 column: "In Cheney's view, withdrawal from Iraq would first and foremost make the United States look weak. And that, in turn, would have cataclysmic domino-style effects across the globe: Afghanistan could fall, and so could Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians could get nukes. And the United States itself would become dramatically more vulnerable to attack, not to mention lose its ability to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.

"Cheney really loathes weakness. And like his fellow neoconservatives, he is consumed with the conviction that an all-powerful United States is both imperative to American security and the best thing for the world. Moral leadership, multilateralism, containment, human rights -- those are all less crucial than maintaining unquestioned power, at the point of a gun if necessary. . . .

"The problem with Cheney's philosophy, of course, is overreach. In Iraq, as in Vietnam before it, the United States may have started something we can't finish."

Here's the transcript of Cheney's unusually revealing interview with CNN at the time.

The foremost champion of the diametrically opposite view -- that staying in Iraq is eroding U.S. power -- is former National Security Agency director General William Odom.

He's laid out those views over at my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org. In August 2005, Odom wrote that all the nightmare scenarios the White House was predicting would happen if we pulled out -- including a loss of international credibility -- were actually happening already.

In November 2005, Odom wrote that the only way to bring democracy and stability to the region is to get out of Iraq.

And in July, he argued that our continued entanglement in Iraq is what is destabilizing the region and emboldening our enemies.

Dems to Bush

Kessler and Weisman write in The Post: "Democrats in both the House and the Senate signaled that they will actively oppose his plan to send several additional U.S. combat brigades to Iraq, the first of which -- made up of about 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division -- could move relatively quickly into position from its current assignment in Kuwait. Bush's decision, which he will announce in a speech tonight, is rapidly becoming the first test of wills between the Republican president and the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

"Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the chamber will debate and vote next week on a resolution opposing any increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq. He predicted that the resolution will pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans alike."

John Hendren reports for ABC News: "U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., laid down the gauntlet today, making the first formal effort to block President Bush's expected plan for a surge of American troops in Iraq with a bill that would block funding for the additional soldiers and offering clear comparisons to Vietnam. . . .

"'In Vietnam, the White House grew increasingly obsessed with victory, and increasingly divorced from the will of the people and any rational policy. The Department of Defense kept assuring us that each new escalation in Vietnam would be the last. Instead, each one led only to the next. There was no military solution to that war,' Kennedy said. 'Echoes of that disaster are all around us today. Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam.'"

Reconstruction Redux

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "A new effort to revitalize Iraqi factories that make vegetable oil, fertilizer, road signs and sulfuric acid -- among the world's most outdated and decrepit -- is expected to be at the center of the plan for the nation that President Bush will present Wednesday.

"But even before the measures are announced, Iraqi political and business leaders have been expressing skepticism that any effort to transform a system of state-owned enterprises that has fallen so far into dysfunction could become an engine for job creation in Iraq."

Glanz writes that the new plan is reminiscent of the earlier attempts at reconstruction "financed by $30 billion in American taxpayer money that had a marginal impact on the quality of life here, attracted ceaseless attacks on rebuilding projects and produced little but derision among Iraqis."

Among the only-in-Iraq obstacles: Official have not "solved what appears to be a logical flaw in the plan: how does the United States get credit for reconstruction projects when it must keep its participation secret to prevent attacks on those projects?"

What's New Here?

See Monday's column, Been There, Done That.

Or read Tom Raum, who writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's new plan for Iraq sounds a lot like his old one. Send in more troops, set goals for the Iraqi government and assure Americans it's better to wage war there than here. . . .

"The plan the president will outline to the nation Wednesday night is the latest repackaging of a program that's been wrapped and rewrapped many times."

Notes Raum: "It's different this time, Bush supporters say of his new strategy -- always words to beware."

Bartlett Starts the Spinning

Indeed, "this is going to be different" was White House Counselor Dan Bartlett's mantra as he did a circuit of the morning shows today. For example, Bartlett insisted: "There have been some very frank conversations with the [Iraqi] government."

Here he is on CBS with Harry Smith: "The main purpose of this is to have a new strategy, that will yield different results. In order to get those results, we will need more U.S. troops. But I'll make something very clear here, Harry, that is only if the Iraqis supply more of their own troops."

So will the escalation really be conditional? Or is that just rhetoric? Bartlett offered no details, only insisting: "This is going to be different."

Bush as usual appears prepared to admit that mistakes were made -- but without necessarily taking blame or expressing contrition. (See yesterday's column, The Hardest Sell.)

Said Bartlett on CBS: "The president will say very clearly tonight that there were mistakes with the earlier operations, that it did not have enough Iraqi troops or U.S. troops, that the rules of engagement -- the terms in which our troops would actually conduct these operations -- were flawed."

Here's Bartlett on ABC with Diane Sawyer, who challenged him with a roll call of generals and Republicans opposed to sending more troops, and video clips of pessimistic soldiers. Bartlett stayed on message.

High-Stakes PR Blitz

Ron Hutcheson and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush is about to take a gamble that could make or break his presidency and his place in history."

So what's the PR game plan? Hutcheson and Talev write: "The White House has sought to frame the Iraq debate as a choice between Bush's plan and abject failure."

US News reports: "Administration insiders tell the US News Political Bulletin that the White House public relations rollout for the 'new way forward' in Iraq is as aggressive as any PR campaign the administration has waged so far. The main reason is that Bush has concluded that his prime time speech tomorrow night will be a make-or-break moment not only for Iraq policy but for the remaining agenda of his presidency. 'He sees the urgency, and realizes he must persuade the country that he gets it,' says a Bush adviser. For much of the day, Administration officials will be briefing the news media about the speech, trying to shape tonight's coverage."

Maura Reynolds and Noam N. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush spent hours Tuesday practicing in front of cameras, preparing to make his case for increasing the U.S. military commitment in Iraq in a prime-time address to the nation tonight. . . .

"Members of Congress who met with Bush said he appeared to understand that, after years of upbeat rhetoric and positive assessments that belied a lack of progress inside the country, his credibility was on the line."

War of Words

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Is it a 'surge?' Is it an 'escalation?' Is it harmless semantics? Is it disingenuous spin? . . .

"What infuriates critics of the war, including many liberal Democrats, is that they see 'surge' as a manipulative and deceptive word. It implies a relatively short-term increase in the U.S. military commitment, they say, when the White House intends to keep the additional troops in Iraq much longer, perhaps for several years.

"Even worse, critics say, the news media have uncritically accepted the word and thus contributed to deceiving the public."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "This week has ushered in a new political battle over the language of the war: 'Surge,' meet 'escalation.'"

Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post: "Should the news media adopt the terminology favored by policymakers when those words can be construed as politically loaded? . . .

"'Surge' falls into 'the Orwellian zone between language and politics,' says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studies and evaluates the media. 'The president and his advisers would be remiss if they didn't come up with a term suited to their new policy. But journalists would be equally remiss if they just thoughtlessly repeated the term without pondering the policy and its implications.'"

Rutenberg, by the way, reports that Snow said last night that Bush himself will not use the word "surge".

How Many Troops?

The chief intellectual architect and cheerleader for sending more troops to Iraq is Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

And it is worth noting for the record that he has made it crystal clear in the past that 20,000 troops would not be nearly enough. (He also thinks they should remain in country for a long time, and he doesn't like the term "surge".)

Here's Kagan and Gen. Jack Keane in a Washington Post op-ed just two weeks ago: "We need to cut through the confusion. Bringing security to Baghdad--the essential precondition for political compromise, national reconciliation and economic development--is possible only with a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting 18 months or so. Any other option is likely to fail."

Here's Kagan talking to NPR's Bob Garfield three weeks ago:

"FREDERICK KAGAN: The media has been using the term 'surge' very loosely. And I think that's actually a bit of a problem, because there have been various ideas floated for very short-term troops surges of relatively small numbers of troops. And I think that that would be a big mistake, and it's not what we're calling for.

"We're actually calling for an increase of troop strength in Iraq of about 35,000 combat troops; 20,000 of those would go into Baghdad. So I think a part of the problem that we have is that people are not being sufficiently precise about which proposal they're discussing when they talk in terms of a troop surge."

Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes : "The notion that the 'surge' in U.S. troops under discussion -- about 20,000 combat troops on top of the 132,000 already in Iraq -- amounts to a new policy is laughable. Adding troops is a tactic, a means toward an end, not a serious strategy -- except maybe in the Washington reality in which politicians on both sides of the debate benefit from pretending that a short-term number is a question for the ages.

"It allows Bush to pretend he is taking bold action to alter the course of a deteriorating war. And it allows Democrats to oppose something concrete and possibly to atone for their original support for the war without having to risk their political fortunes by calling for a complete withdrawal.

"The commander in chief needs to set aside his wearisome spin. . . .

"The president needs to articulate the conditions under which the U.S. will pull out altogether, in the near future. As painful as that would be, it sure beats becoming embroiled in someone else's civil war."

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post op-ed column that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, all "firmly believe that the successful politician must above all cultivate his base -- not that any of them can point to recent successes. . . .

"For Maliki to cordon off Sadr City is a little like Bush blockading Southern Baptist churches, or surrounding the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and telling everyone to come out with hands up. Bush expects Maliki to turn against his own -- a gambit nowhere to be found in Bush and Rove's own political playbook. . . .

"Yet tonight, President Bush will announce that Maliki has changed."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column on "the real danger of a troop surge: It sets up a showdown between the president and his critics that could shred the chances for a stable, sustainable policy that might embody some of the military lessons we have finally learned."

Tariq al-Hashimi, the Iraqi vice president, writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "all is not lost" in Iraq. But the best evidence he comes up with is widespread support within his country for the national soccer team.

'Mission Accomplished' Redux

Press secretary Tony Snow's latest attempt to revise history:

"Q Tony, this goes to your previous acknowledgment that the President is aware of public anxiety about the situation in Iraq. What would your guidance be to a public that has seen the President stand under a 'Mission Accomplished' banner, proclaim an end to major combat operations, the Vice President talking about the 'last throes' -- how should the public go into viewing this speech tomorrow?

"MR. SNOW: I think the public ought to just listen to what the President has to say. You know that the 'Mission Accomplished' banner was put up by members of the USS Abraham Lincoln. And the President, on that very speech, said just the opposite, didn't he? He said it was the end of major combat operations, but he did not say it was the end of operations. Instead, he cautioned people at the time that there would be considerable continued violence in Iraq, and that there would be continued operations for a long period of time. That single episode has been more widely mischaracterized than just about any aspect of the war."

But Bush was pretty blunt in his May 1, 2003 address: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

And as I most recently recounted in my October 5 column, the White House's fingerprints were all over that sign.

At an October 28, 2003 press conference, Bush initially claimed his staff was not responsible for the banner on the ship. "The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished," he said. "I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff -- they weren't that ingenious, by the way."

But as Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote in the next day's Washington Post: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan later acknowledged that the sign was produced by the White House. He said the warship's crew, at sea for 10 months, had requested it."

And Al Kamen wrote in October with more evidence that it was the White House's idea, from Bob Woodward's book 'State of Denial.' "None other than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on the record, tells Woodward that 'I took "Mission Accomplished" out' upon reading a draft of the speech. 'And I fixed it and sent it back. They fixed the speech,' he said, 'but not the sign.'"

Judicial Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "In an apparent effort to lower the temperature in the fierce battle over federal judges -- and in a concession to political reality -- President Bush said Tuesday that he was dropping plans to nominate three of his choices for the federal appeals courts who have been vigorously opposed by Senate Democrats. . . .

"Days after the November election that gave the Democrats control of Congress, Mr. Bush pledged to renominate the three. His words prompted denunciations from Democrats that he had not taken any lessons from the election and that he was not, as he had claimed, prepared to engage them in a bipartisan way."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Signaling at the same time that President Bush is committed to placing more conservatives on the bench, the White House renominated32 other federal judicial candidates that the previous Senate did not confirm."

Scooter Libby Watch

The Associated Press reports: "A federal judge said Tuesday he would not make available daily audio recordings of the upcoming trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's Iraq adventure; Stuart Carlson and Jim Morin on the surge; Steve Benson on comparative Bushisms; and John Sherffius on the new way forward.

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