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Is Failure an Option?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 17, 2007; 1:40 PM

President Bush yesterday described the current situation in Iraq as "a slow failure" and derided troop withdrawal as "expedited failure," while insisting that his new plan to send yet more troops into the fight will lead to success.

Bush is clearly hoping to win back some credibility with the American people by admitting that what he had previously called success he now recognizes as failure. But all this really proves is that he couldn't be trusted before.

Over much of the course of the war Bush has incrementally made concessions that things are not going well in Iraq. Yesterday's admission was just the latest. And while it suggests a dawning acceptance of some aspects of reality, it doesn't speak to the quality of his decisions, or to any learning.

Bush has never said: I made a wrong decision in this case, here's why, and here's what I learned from it, which is why you can have greater faith in me this time.

So why should he be trusted now? Bush is constantly being asked that very question these days, but he can't come up with a persuasive answer. He simply says that he believes we can succeed.

Yet what if success is no longer an option in Iraq -- then what are the three options really? Slow failure, expedited failure, and colossal failure? And which of those three is best?

Bush and Lehrer

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said that his Iraq policy was headed to 'a slow failure' until he changed course last week with the announcement that he was sending more than 21,000 additional U.S. troops to bolster flagging security in Baghdad.

"The comment, perhaps the president's frankest admission that the previous strategy was not working, came during an interview yesterday with Jim Lehrer of PBS's 'NewsHour,' in which Bush detailed some of his decision-making regarding Iraq.

"'I had a choice to make,' Bush said. 'Do what we're doing -- and one could define that maybe a slow failure. Secondly, withdraw out of Baghdad and hope for the best. I think that would be expedited failure. And thirdly is to help this Iraqi government with additional forces -- help them do what they need to do, which is to provide security in Baghdad.'

"Bush added: 'I chose the latter because I think it's going to more likely be successful.'"

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush spoke with Mr. Lehrer... as part of a media tour aimed at rebuilding support for the war and, more specifically, the new war plan he announced last week. Officials have said that Mr. Bush was in part trying to build credibility after so many setbacks in Iraq by nodding to troubles there.

"'We have to swallow hard and remind people the president realizes how hard it is,' said a White House official involved in the strategy."

Here is the transcript of the interview.

"MR. LEHRER: But to be very direct about it, Mr. President, you had a few years here and you've been in charge. And you've made a lot of decisions; you've made a lot of judgments about things and they haven't worked. And so now you've made a new one. So why should anybody expect the new ones to work when the prior ones did not?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, actually - I will sound defensive - but some of my decisions actually have worked, like getting rid of Saddam Hussein and helping the Iraqi government form a unity government that is based on a novel constitution for the Middle East. As a matter of fact, in 2005, I thought - I mean, in 2006, I thought I'd be in a position to remove troops from Iraq, in other words, hand over more of the authorities to the Iraqis so they could take the fight, and then this sectarian violence that you described broke out. And the question is, do we try to stop it? Do we help the Iraqis stop it? And a year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation; I felt like we were achieving our objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain, and defend itself. No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq. And so the question I'm now faced with is do I react to that or do we just begin to leave, which is - some people - decent people on Capitol Hill think we ought to do. I made the decision, let's succeed; let's work for success not work for failure."

Bush's focus on 2006 is self-serving and inaccurate, as Mark Seibel so effectively pointed out for McClatchy newspapers over the weekend.

Lehrer didn't challenge him on that, but rather asked him what went wrong. Bush responded that "part of it was that the Iraqis didn't move troops. And I take responsibility for us not moving our own troops into Baghdad."

"MR. LEHRER: Why didn't we move the troops, Mr. President?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, because I think the commanders there felt like it was important to make sure the Iraqis did first, or that the Iraqis made a focused, concerted effort. And they just didn't. There were supposedly six brigades committed and they sent two. And what's going to change this time is that they've now - we will watch them move brigades in that Baghdad - brigades that they promised they would. But we want the Iraqis in the lead in this fight."

Sure sounds like the same thing all over again, doesn't it?

And here's Bush on shared sacrifice: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war."

Lehrer asked: "How in the world does any president of the United States run a war without the support of a majority of the American people and a majority of the Congress of the United States, no matter what the ins and outs are?"

Bush's answer: "That's why I'm having this interview with you."

Resolution of Opposition

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Senate leaders will introduce a bipartisan resolution of opposition to President Bush's new Iraq policy as early as today, taking the lead from House Democrats who are increasingly divided on how far to go to thwart additional troop deployments to Iraq.

"The resolution -- crafted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- will not come to a vote before Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday. But by sending it to Biden's committee this week, Democratic leaders will give senators from both parties multiple opportunities to voice concerns about the president's policy.

"In another high-profile move, Democratic leaders yesterday tapped Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Reagan administration Navy secretary who secured victory in November on an antiwar push, to deliver the party's nationally televised response to Bush's speech."

Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times that Hagel's participation in the resolution puts "a bipartisan stamp on the looming Congressional showdown over the war. . . .

"At the White House, officials were continuing to discuss the new plan with members of Congress, with an emphasis on lining up Republicans behind Mr. Bush's approach. 'We knew this was not going to be an easy policy to explain or one that was going to be met with open arms,' said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"That official said that the message to Congressional Republicans was similar to the one the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, conveyed Tuesday at his press briefing: that approval of any resolution critical of Mr. Bush's approach, even if nonbinding, would send a damaging message.

"'In an age of instant and global communication, what message does it send to the people who are fighting democracy in Iraq?' asked Mr. Snow. 'And, also, what message does it send to the troops?'"

Here's Snow at yesterday's briefing:

"Q Just to be clear, do you believe that a non-binding resolution that opposes a troop increase, does that provide comfort to the enemy?

"MR. SNOW: I don't know. I think -- the question again is, does this send a signal that the United States is divided on the key element of success in Iraq. And I will let members of Congress express themselves, because I'm sure they're going to say, no, we're committed to success, and then they can elucidate on that point."

TPM Cafe blogger Greg Sargent calls attention to NBC reporter David Gregory's very good follow-up question: "So what is an appropriate way to dissent?"

Snow couldn't really say.

Scooter Libby Watch

Based on the questions prospective jurors were being asked yesterday, it almost felt like Dick Cheney was on trial more than his former chief of staff Scooter Libby.

And in a way, that was entirely appropriate. After all, why would Libby have lied to prosecutors? Unless you believe his prodigious memory played some incredible tricks on him, then the only plausible explanation is that he was trying to protect Cheney.

To protect Cheney from what? We may never know exactly, because Libby's alleged lie served to obstruct Fitzgerald's investigation.

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. began Tuesday with his lawyers trying to eliminate as jurors anyone who might have strongly negative feelings about the Bush administration in general and Vice President Dick Cheney in particular."

Matt Apuzzo writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House aide 'Scooter' Libby is looking for potential jurors who trust Vice President Dick Cheney....

"Libby's attorneys say it's critical they know whether potential jurors view the vice president as credible. Two people who expressed doubts about that were dismissed from the jury pool Tuesday."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Jury selection in the trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby turned into an assessment of the credibility of the Bush administration Tuesday, with lawyers for the former White House aide asking potential jurors how they feel about the war in Iraq and whether they think present and former administration officials who may be called to testify can be believed."

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who is presiding over the trial, yesterday dismissed three of the nine potential jurors interviewed. Two were released after expressing strong feelings about the Bush administration.

"'I am completely without objectivity,' said a woman in her 30s, who was dressed in tailored brown trousers and a sweater. 'There is nothing they could say or do that would make me think anything positive.' Walton excused her immediately. . . .

"A woman who said she was a soprano opera singer and mother of three said she believed the American public had not gotten the real justification for going to war in Iraq but did not think Bush had intentionally misled the nation. 'Somewhere in there, there seems to be a credibility gap,' she said. 'Who [did it]? I don't know.'"

CNN has the complete list of questions that jurors were given.

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Pay attention to the world around you, and it was pretty likely you were going to get bounced. Libby's defense team honed in on anyone who might have developed views about the case beforehand, who might not like the war in Iraq, or who have any sympathy for the media figures who will be witnesses or figures in the case. . . .

"So, for instance, when a young financial analyst admitted he watched Meet the Press, it was pretty clear he was going to make it home for lunch. When he interrupted the defense counsel to stand up for the accuracy of bloggers, he might as well have been taunting them. 'Some of them are pretty good,' he said, to the cheers of bloggers who are--for the first time--formally a part of the press corps covering the case. (This will be a continuing theme of this trial, as those covering it wait to hear for their names, their book titles, or the names of their blog or news organization mentioned in court. When the fledgling Washington Examiner was mentioned by a juror who reads it on the subway commute, its correspondent gave--and got--huzzahs.)"

Opening statements are expected Monday.

Meet the Scooter

Scott Shane writes a glowing profile of Libby for the New York Times: "Paradox seems to define I. Lewis Libby Jr., who remains a bit mysterious even to close colleagues. He is the White House policy enforcer who also wrote a literary novel; a buttoned-down Washington lawyer who likes knocking back tequila shots in cowboy bars and hurtling down mountains on skis and bikes; and a 56-year-old intellectual known to all by his childhood nickname, Scooter.

"But now comes the most baffling paradox of all, as Mr. Libby, former chief of staff and alter ego to Vice President Dick Cheney, began his trial in federal court here on Tuesday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. By all accounts a first-rate legal mind and a hypercautious aide whose discretion frustrated reporters, he is charged with repeatedly lying to a grand jury and to the F.B.I. about his leaks to the news media in the battle over Iraq war intelligence."

What, precisely, is so bafflingly paradoxical about that, I'd like to know?

Opinion Watch

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Today's Republicans now must choose between Eisenhower's way and Nixon's way. If they're like Ike, they will recognize that the war is lost and that public support for it isn't likely to be rekindled. . . .

"A Nixonian perspective also acknowledges that the war cannot be won but believes that blame for the defeat can still, somehow, be placed on the Democrats. If only the Democrats can be held responsible for defunding the troops, if only the U.S. presence in Iraq can be prolonged until it falls to the next administration (which may be Democratic) to end it, if only enough Republicans on the Hill can be dissuaded from voting with the Democrats' attempts to rein in the war, if only the surge engenders some wild and crazy antiwar demonstrations, then maybe, just maybe, there's a way to keep the war going without destroying the GOP."

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post: "It was axiomatic during the Cold War that presidents should not gamble with matters of national security. The stakes were too high. The Bush administration's Iraq policy has long suffered from a lack of that prudence -- and the misplaced gambler's instinct is especially evident in the administration's plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

"President Bush's 'surge' is a mistake because it is piling more precious chips -- more human lives -- on what so far has been a losing bet. The public sent a clear message in the November election that it wants to take some of those chips off the table."

Who Are They Talking About Really?

Philip Dine writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about yesterday's White House visit by the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

"The president praised the team's 'character and leadership,' and singled out manager Tony La Russa," Dine writes.

Bush said "that he had dinner with La Russa in August, during a tough stretch for the team, and afterwards remarked to an aide that the Cardinals were going to win the championship -- because their manager believed they would.

"La Russa conceded later that he was just trying to end their meeting on an optimistic note."

And from Cheney's remarks at the naming ceremony for the USS Gerald Ford yesterday: "He didn't shrink from a tough call. In such a moment, even with a popular choice in plain view and the easy path laid straight out in front of him, President Ford asked only what was right for the United States of America, and acted accordingly. When criticism came, he kept his head about him, focused on his job, and persevered. History looks favorably on such a man, and President Ford's reputation has, indeed, grown even greater in the three decades since he left this city."

A Little Joke

Joe Garofoli writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, mocking the White House Correspondents' Association for its decidedly safer headliner this time around: "impressionist Rich Little, mimic of dozens of celebrities -- most of whom are dead. . . .

"Who wants to hear Paul Lynde? Cary Grant anyone? Jack Benny?

"Hip? Perhaps in 1976. . . .

"Sound like a reactionary pick after [Stephen[ Colbert's edginess? . . .

"Decidedly not, said Correspondents Association President Steve Scully, who booked both Colbert and Little.

"'I thought Colbert was great. I loved him,' Scully said, adding that he didn't field any complaints from the White House, Bush included, about Colbert's performance. . . .

"Scully acknowledged that Little is 'not hip. But the other thing you have to keep in mind is that we don't have a half-million dollars to get Will Ferrell.'

"Scully said even President Bush asked a few years ago, but Ferrell declined."

Greg Mitchell writes in Editor and Publisher about Little: "He can be funny but usually in a very safe and sound way." And he points to this recent clip of Little, via YouTube.

On Signing Statements

Nary a murmur in the news columns for more than a week, but editorial writers around the country remain incensed about Bush's latest signing statement -- this one asserting his right to open mail without a warrant.

The Denver Post: "Once you've issued a signing statement to undermine anti-torture legislation, as the president did last summer, the next ones come all too easy."

The Hartford Courant: "Considering the president's inclination to enforce the laws as he sees fit, experts on civil liberties and national security were right to complain that the latest signing statement is an attempt to bypass the legal restrictions on reading mail."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "The Bush administration is always pushing the boundaries of executive power - at the expense of other branches of government and of the people. To that end, President Bush has taken signing statements - his written commentary on bills he has just signed into law - to new heights."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Stringent laws are supposed to guard this nation's first-class mail against search without a warrant. If President Bush really meant nothing new by his signing statement, he should withdraw it - and provide Congress credible assurances that he was merely asserting a right to open mail, not already exercising it."

The Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune: "Such an expansion of presidential power should trouble all Americans."

The Sacramento Bee: "Clearly, our system of separation of powers is in doubt as the president claims unilateral powers to do whatever he wants. More than 200 years after Americans rejected the tyrannical acts of King George III, we've got another George with kingly pretensions that need to be checked."

The Daytona Beach News-Journal: "Bush's statement directly defies an explicit law. 'Unitary theory' or not, it's one more act of arbitrary law-breaking -- dictatorial in its particulars, but not nearly as outrageous, for its brazenness, as congressional silence since. Only Congress writes the laws in this country. Only the courts interpret them. The president only executes them. This president is doing all three. The other two branches, to their inexcusable discredit and mounting injury to Americans, are letting him."

The Albany Times-Union: "The postal signing statement shows that the Bush administration, far from being chastened by the uproar over electronic surveillance, has in fact been emboldened by it. And America's basic liberties remain in peril."

The Washington Post: "Does the administration contend, as in the case of its warrantless wiretaps, that the president has the inherent constitutional authority, or power granted by the post-Sept. 11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), to open mail without going through the process outlined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act? Administration officials have been less than eager to answer these questions....

"Given the president's signing statement, given his demonstrated willingness to stretch the boundaries of his authority and dispense with inconvenient legal niceties, it seems necessary to ask again."

Trillin's View

Calvin Trillin writes in the Nation: "George W. Bush Explains His Signing Statements, Among Other Things."

"They sent me a law against torture./ I signed it, although it was quaint./ I said, though, that I'm the decider/ Of if something's torture or ain't.

"I'll do what I want when I want to,/ Though Congress's will may be foiled./ I've always done just what I want to./ You see, I'm a little bit spoiled."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the flaw in Bush's logic; Steve Kelley on Bush's mess; David Horsey on the death of a salesman; Tony Auth on Bush's idea of disaster; Jim Morin on Bush's hands.

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