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Bush Tells a Tale

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 12, 2007; 5:14 PM

President Bush is pushing a revisionist explanation of how he came to support an escalation of troop strength in Iraq.

From the transcript of Bush's remarks at a Georgia military base yesterday:

"The [Iraqi] Prime Minister came and said, look, I understand we've got to do something about this violence, and here is what I suggest we do. Our commanders looked at it, helped fine-tune it so it would work. . . .

"The commanders on the ground in Iraq, people who I listen to -- by the way, that's what you want your Commander-in-Chief to do. You don't want decisions being made based upon politics, or focus groups, or political polls. You want your military decisions being made by military experts. And they analyzed the plan and they said to me, and to the Iraqi government, this won't work unless we help them. There needs to be a bigger presence. . . .

"And so our commanders looked at the plan and said, Mr. President, it's not going to work until -- unless we support -- provide more troops. And so last night I told the country that I've committed an additional -- a little over 20,000 more troops, five brigades of which will be in Baghdad."

It was a bold attempt by Bush to rebut the widely-reported story that he stopped listening to his commanders -- and in fact, reassigned some -- when they stopped telling him what he wanted to hear.

But Bush's new story lacks a certain important quality: Believability.

Previous reporting -- see, for instance, Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks in The Washington Post on Wednesday -- has made it abundantly clear that adding U.S. troops was not an idea that emerged from the American commanders -- nor, for that matter, from the Iraqis.

And, as it turns out, two stories in this morning's New York Times add to the evidence.

Jim Rutenberg, David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon write: "A narrative pieced together from interviews with participants and from public testimony suggests that through much of the process, generals who had been on the ground in Iraq during the past year had favored that the new strategy begin with a substantially smaller force than the one that President Bush announced to the nation on Wednesday night. In the end, it was Mr. Bush who appeared to drive his commanders along to the conclusion that more troops were needed."

They write: "White House officials were clearly sensitive on Thursday about any suggestions that the president countermanded his generals, and said his new plan had their full support. They said the generals sought and received assurances that the Iraqis would undertake political initiatives and end the practice of releasing militia figures who were friends of the government and captured by American or Iraqi forces."

According to the New York Times, Bush didn't necessarily start out pushing for escalation. "One senior official involved in the discussions said that Mr. Bush's instinct toward the start of the review process -- and that of others -- was to consider a withdrawal from Baghdad, allow Iraqi-vs.-Iraqi fighting to settle itself, and dedicate United States forces to focus on pursuing Qaeda fighters. . . .

"At one point, as Mr. Bush, [national security adviser Steven] Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the newly appointed secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, weighed their options, the president asked his deputies, in effect: 'Why can't we just pull out of Baghdad and let the factions fight it out themselves?'"

What happened to change Bush's mind? The Times reports: "In the end, the official said, Mr. Hadley's teams concluded that an American withdrawal from Baghdad would 'crater the government.'"

I have my own guess: Cheney happened.

As the Times notes: "According to a senior administration official, Vice President Dick Cheney was among those who wanted a bigger force."

And in the other Times story, John F. Burns and Sabrina Tavernise contradict the Baghdad portion of Bush's psuedo-narrative:

"While senior officials in Washington have presented the new war plan as an American adaptation of proposals that were first put to Mr. Bush by Mr. Maliki when the two men met in the Jordanian capital of Amman in November, the picture that is emerging in Baghdad is quite different. What Mr. Maliki wanted, his officials say, was in at least one crucial respect the opposite of what Mr. Bush decided: a lowering of the American profile in the war, not the increase Mr. Bush has ordered.

"These Iraqi officials say Mr. Maliki, in the wake of Mr. Bush's setback in the Democratic sweep in November's midterm elections, demanded that American troops be pulled back to the periphery of Baghdad and that the war in the capital, at least, be handed to Iraqi troops."

So, not surprisingly: "Iraq's Shiite-led government offered only a grudging endorsement on Thursday of President Bush's proposal to deploy more than 20,000 additional troops in an effort to curb sectarian violence and regain control of Baghdad. The tepid response immediately raised questions about whether the government would make a good-faith effort to prosecute the new war plan."

Eyes on Iran

In the meantime, many of us here in Washington are trying to figure out just what Bush had in mind Wednesday night when he asserted that "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops" and promised: "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces."

Robin Wright and Nancy Trejos write in The Washington Post: "U.S. troops launched two raids on Iranian targets in Iraq yesterday, following through on President Bush's vow to confront and break up Tehran's networks inside Iraq. Five Iranians were detained, and vast amounts of documents and computer data were confiscated, according to U.S., Iraqi and Iranian officials.

"The two raids are part of a new U.S. intelligence and military operation launched last month against Iran, U.S. officials said. The United States is trying to identify and detain top officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade operating in Iraq. The al-Quds Brigade is active in arming, training and funding militant movements, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, throughout the Middle East. . . .

"While the public focus is on Iraq, the administration is now spending as much time on plans to contain Iran as on a strategy to end Iraq's violence, U.S. officials said."

CNN reports: "Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Bush did not have the authority to send U.S. troops on cross-border raids.

"'I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that, and he does need congressional authority to do that,' Biden, D-Delaware, said during a Thursday hearing on Iraq. 'I just want to set that marker.' . . .

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told CNN that Bush's condemnation of what she called 'Iran's meddlesomeness' was an important signal to the region.

"'Surely the United States is not the one being threatening,' she said. 'We are not the ones being meddlesome and troublesome in Iraq.'"

From yesterday's press briefing by National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe:

"Q One last question. There's some concern about the operation in Iraq last night that involved some Iranian nationals, that this could be construed as an act of war, going on sovereign territory. Can you respond? What's the President's thought about that?

"MR. JOHNDROE: I can't -- I'm not going to speak specifically to the Iranians and to that operation today. But the President made it clear last night that we will not tolerate outside interference in Iraq. And that's what the Iranians are up to. And if we get information that is actionable that the Iranians are interfering with Iraq, with Iraqis, or in any way going to harm Americans that we're going to take action.

"Q Even if it means going on Iranian soil?

"MR. JOHNDROE: No, Chairman Pace said this morning that these are actions that take place within Iraq, and much of this is about force protection of our troops there, and that takes place inside Iraq."

But Farah Stockman writes in the Boston Globe: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused yesterday to rule out cross-border US military action against Iran, a day after President Bush pledged in a major speech to 'seek out and destroy' Iranian and Syrian networks providing weapons and training to anti-American forces in Iraq.

"Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rice said the United States plans to target the networks inside Iraq, but added, 'obviously the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops.'"

And Tony Snow, talking to conservative blogger and radio host Hugh Hewitt yesterday, kept all his denials of an attack on Iran in the present tense.

"HH: Now does that mean if we know that there is an IED manufacturing facility over the border in Iran or Syria, that that is now fair game for American weaponry?

"TS: No, we're not going that far. And frankly. . . .

"HH: Are you ruling that out?

"TS: Like I said, we're not going that far. I think what you've got to understand, Hugh, is that there are a whole lot of things in play, and you also understand that when it comes to military activities and doctrine, there's only so much you say publicly."

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews and Snow had a contentious exchange. Via Think Progress:

"MATTHEWS: So he will seek congressional approval before any action against Iran?

"SNOW: You are talking about something we are not even discussing.

"MATTHEWS: Yeah, but you are, Tony, because look at this. 'I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region.' Isn't that about Iran?

"SNOW: It, it -- yeah, it is, in part, and what it is is it's saying, look, we are going to make sure that anybody who tries to take aggressive action -- but when Bill Clinton sent a carrier task force into the South China Sea after the North Koreans fired a missile over Japan, that was not as a prelude to war against North Korea. You know how it works.

"MATTHEWS: No, I'm just concerned because, very much in the years, in the months building up to this war in Iraq, we heard a kind of a drumbeat of the dangers from Iraq and the nuclear weaponry and what we're going to do about it, and then gradually we went to war....

"My concern is we're gonna see a ginning up situation whereby we fall in hot pursuit any effort by the Iranians to interfere with Iraq. We take a couple shots at them, they react, then we bomb the hell out of them and hit their nuclear installations without any without any action by Congress. That's the scenario I fear, an extra-constitutional war is what I'm worried about.

"SNOW: Well, you have been watching too many old movies --

"MATTHEWS: No, I've been watching the war in Iraq, is what I've been watching."

Sales Job

David Jackson and Bill Nichols write in USA Today: "The White House is embarking on a weekend campaign to sell President Bush's new Iraq strategy to the nation amid fierce criticism from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"President Bush will appear Sunday on CBS' 60 Minutes, which airs after an NFL playoff game. Vice President Cheney will appear on Fox News Sunday to defend the plan to boost U.S. troop levels by 21,500.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves today on a week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe to brief U.S. allies on the plan.

"White House spokesman Tony Snow, who held interviews with radio and television hosts Thursday, said the communications plan will continue in coming weeks."


Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's proposal to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq encountered strong bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, and his top national security advisers, dispatched to defend the strategy, were greeted with a skepticism not seen from Congress over the past six years.

"Lawmakers said they have little confidence that the Iraqi government has the capacity to deliver on promises to take the lead in cracking down on violent militias and providing security in Baghdad, as the president's plan contemplates. Democrats and Republicans alike said they are concerned that Bush's plan, announced Wednesday night in a nationally televised prime-time address, is too little and too late and does not appear very different from previous efforts to secure the capital. . . .

"[T]he ferocity of the congressional condemnation dismayed the White House, which had hoped to rebuild an element of bipartisan consensus around Bush's plan."

It appears the White House's last, best argument is: Well, the Democrats haven't come up with any better ideas.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett told The Post "that critics should do more than take shots at Bush's plan. 'We do believe that those who have decided to reject this plan before it has an opportunity to work have a greater responsibility to propose something that will work,' he said. 'We have yet to see that from Democrats.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Within minutes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's arrival on Capitol Hill yesterday, it became apparent that the Bush administration had, after four divisive years, finally succeeded in uniting Congress on the war in Iraq.

"Unfortunately for Rice, the lawmakers were unified in opposition to President Bush's new policy.

"'I have to say, Madam Secretary,' a seething Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told Rice, 'that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.'

"'Madam Secretary,' added Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a moderate Democrat, 'I have supported you and the administration on the war, and I cannot continue to support the administration's position. . . . I have not been told the truth over and over again.'"

The President Cries

The New York Daily News reports: "President Bush cried yesterday as he presented the Medal of Honor to the family of a New York Marine who dived on a grenade to save his comrades.

"Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of upstate Scio, N.Y., saved at least two lives by his bravery during a struggle with an insurgent near the Syrian border. . . .

"'I've lost my son, but he became a part of history,' said Dunham's mother, Deb. 'It still hurts as a parent, but the pride that you have from knowing he did the right thing makes it easier.'

"The President was clearly moved by the moment, and tears streaked down his cheek."

Here's a Reuters photo. Here's the text of Bush's remarks.

Soldiers Meant to Be Seen, but Not Heard

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "There are few places the president could go for an unreservedly enthusiastic reception the day after unveiling his decision to order 21,500 more troops to Iraq. A military base has usually been a reliable backdrop for the White House, and so Bush aides chose this venerable Army installation in western Georgia to promote his revised strategy to the nation while his Cabinet secretaries tried to sell it on Capitol Hill.

"Assuring there would be no discordant notes here, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, the base commander, banned the 300 soldiers who had lunch with the president from talking with reporters. If any of them harbored doubts about heading back to Iraq, many for the third time, they were kept silent."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush came to this Georgia military base looking for a friendly audience to sell his new Iraq strategy. But his lunchtime talk received a restrained response from soldiers who clapped politely but showed little of the wild enthusiasm that they ordinarily shower on the commander in chief."

Ron Martz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the 210 soldiers and 90 civilian family members in audience were "handpicked."

"About 4,000 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division based here are scheduled to go to Iraq soon. For some, it will be their third tour in the war zone."

But none of those soldiers was in attendance. Base officials told Martz that they were otherwise occupied: preparing to leave this weekend for a month of desert training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.

Mick Walsh of the local paper, the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, spoke to one lunch guest: "Retired Fort Benning commander Jerry White, another guest, commented on how warm Bush's speech was compared to Wednesday night's and that he did a better job of making his case for the troop increase.

"White though isn't convinced Bush is on the right path. Although he believes in staying in Iraq, he said the focus should remain on training Iraqis and pushing the government there to find a political solution.

"'I'm not convinced that an additional 20,000 soldiers is the answer,' he said. 'More troops in Iraq means extending the time that soldiers there stay in country and shortening the time between deployments -- something hard to swallow for soldiers in units like the 3rd Brigade that have already been there twice. '"

Ledger-Enquirer columnist Tim Chitwood joined the pool, and concluded that "bleating like a sheep . . . would be a fun way to capture the sense of being in a flock of reporters herded from one pen to another, which is what happens when you are in the press pool covering a visit from the president.

"You go where you are told, talk to those who are authorized to talk to you, and you do not do anything else.

"Ever turn on the evening news and find one network's coverage is much like another's? This is why."

The View From Baghdad

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post that Baghdad-based Spec. Daniel Caldwell "echoed a sentiment shared by many in his squad: 'They're kicking a dead horse here. The Iraqi army can't stand up on their own.'"

Joshua Partlow and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "From the men drinking lemon tea in cafes to the politicians fighting to strengthen their fledgling government, Baghdad residents greeted President Bush's announcement of a shift in Iraq strategy with a skepticism born of nearly four years of war."

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Hours after President Bush announced his latest plan to shore up Iraq's beleaguered government, some Iraqis were hoarding weapons, prepared to fight additional U.S. troops alongside the militias they say protect them."

The View From Cairo

Megan K. Stack and Ken Ellingwood write in the Los Angeles Times: "In ordering more American troops into Iraq, President Bush said he was sending a message of hope to millions of Arabs and Afghans trapped in violence. But to many on the ground in the Mideast, the speech spoke volumes of a gaping disconnect between high-flown U.S. promises and a deadly, turbulent reality."

The View From Pennsylvania

Ian Urbina writes in the New York Times: "Hunched over a beer with a crowd of other veterans at the American Legion here Thursday, Rocco Polidoro was sure of one thing: President Bush's plan to send some 20,000 more troops to Iraq would only make matters worse.

"'What I don't understand is who the president is listening to,' said Mr. Polidoro, a lifelong Republican who, like a majority in this Republican district, voted for an antiwar Democrat in the last election. 'If vets, military brass, the Baker committee, the international community and now most voters say it's time to get out, then in my view it's time to get out.'"

Opinion Watch

Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski outlines five flaws in Bush's plan, in a Washington Post op-ed. Among them:

"The decision to escalate the level of the U.S. military involvement while imposing 'benchmarks' on the 'sovereign' Iraqi regime, and to emphasize the external threat posed by Syria and Iran, leaves the administration with two options once it becomes clear -- as it almost certainly will -- that the benchmarks are not being met. One option is to adopt the policy of 'blame and run': i.e., to withdraw because the Iraqi government failed to deliver. That would not provide a remedy for the dubious 'falling dominoes' scenario, which the president so often has outlined as the inevitable, horrific consequence of U.S. withdrawal. The other alternative, perhaps already lurking in the back of Bush's mind, is to widen the conflict by taking military action against Syria or Iran. It is a safe bet that some of the neocons around the president and outside the White House will be pushing for that. Others, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, may also favor it."

The Financial Times editorial board writes: "It may be one last heave. It may be a cover for US withdrawal. . . . [T]his policy will not succeed in fixing an Iraq traumatised by tyranny and war and then broken by invasion and occupation. But it may end with the US 'surging' into Iran -- and taking the Middle East to a new level of mayhem that will spill into nearby regions and western capitals."

Eugene Robinson, writing in his Washington Post opinion column, worries that Bush is trying to change the subject to Iran.

"As cynical as I am about this administration, it's hard for me to imagine that at this point, with all the push-back he's getting from Congress and the public about escalating American involvement in Iraq, George W. Bush would even think about launching a new military adventure in Iran. But you have to worry about a president who talks so much about the judgment of history and who has such a Manichaean view of the world."

Keith Olberman has another 'special comment' on MSNBC: "Only this president, only in this time, only with this dangerous, even messianic certitude, could answer a country demanding an exit strategy from Iraq, by offering an entrance strategy for Iran."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "It's clear that Bush knows perfectly well there's no possibility of 'winning' anymore, so apparently he's seeking in Iraq exactly what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought in Vietnam before the 1972 election: a face-saving 'decent interval' before the virtually inevitable collapse of the U.S.-backed government."

Anthony H. Cordesman in the New York Times, Frank Luntz in the Los Angeles Times, and Eason Jordan on Huffingtonpost.com all try their hand at parsing Bush's speech.

Poll Watch

Nancy Benac writes for the Associated Press: "Seventy percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq, according to a new poll that provides a devastatingly blunt response to President Bush's plan to bolster military forces there. . . .

"Iraq is a drag on Bush's overall job approval rating, too. That rating is at 32 percent in the latest survey, a new low in AP-Ipsos polling.

"Just 35 percent of Americans think it was right for the United States to go to war, another record low in AP polling and a reversal from two years ago when two-thirds of Americans thought it was the correct move. Sixty percent, meanwhile, think it is unlikely that a stable, democratic Iraqi government will be established."

Scooter Libby Watch

Cary O'Reilly and Holly Rosenkrantz write for Bloomberg: "The perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, may provide ammunition for Democrats looking to attack the White House for its conduct in the run-up to the Iraq war. . . .

"Defense lawyers say they'll call Cheney as a witness to bolster claims Libby was too busy with security matters to accurately remember events. His testifying is risky for both men. What Cheney recalls may undermine Libby's too-busy defense while exposing the vice president to probes by Congress of how the Bush administration promoted the war, legal experts said. . . .

"If Cheney takes the stand, he would be the first sitting vice president to testify in a criminal case in at least 100 years, according to Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar at St. Louis University. . . .

"'The suggestion has been that Vice President Cheney's office has really almost created an alternative national security council,' Goldstein said. 'To that extent, the trial may be indicative in showing how the vice president's office has been involved in the planning and selling of the war.'"

Evan Perez revives a journalistic canard in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's case against Lewis 'Scooter' Libby goes to trial next week seemingly weakened by revelations that Mr. Fitzgerald knew early in his CIA-leak probe that the ex-White House official wasn't the original source of news-media disclosures."

The fairly recent disclosure that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first to leak Valerie Plame's identity to reporters certainly changed the narrative of the story. But it in no way lessens the motive the vice president's office might have had either to leak Plame's identity or to attempt to cover that up later.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via US News:

"It was nothing but reruns on TV last night. But enough about President Bush's speech......

"Actually, the good news last night, President Bush finally admitted he made some mistakes in Iraq. The bad news, he's planning on making the same mistakes again."

Happy Third Anniversary To Us

Today marks the beginning of this column's fourth year. Entirely by coincidence (but what a beautiful coincidence it was) my very first column marked the beginning of a sea-change in Washington journalism. Up until them, the Bush administration had largely avoided the kind of dogged, skeptical media scrutiny that most presidents get, at least after their initial honeymoon is over.

But as I noted in that first column, Ron Suskind's book, 'The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill,' was just coming out and quite appropriately taking Washington by storm. Almost equally important, Ken Auletta's seminal article on the White House's controlling relationship with the press had just appeared in the New Yorker.

From that point forward, there was at a minimum a fairly reliable trickle of accountability journalism for me to find and call attention to -- a trickle that I can now safely say has at least turned into a solid dribble.

The column has evolved a lot since then, and has gained a considerable audience. I've been overwhelmed by the support and participation of an astonishing group of readers. I've also benefited enormously from the patience and support and wisdom of my editors at The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. Thanks to all of you for a great ride.

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