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The Questions Bush Won't Answer

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 5, 2007; 3:28 PM

Ever since President Bush announced on Jan. 10 that he was defying the public will and increasing the U.S. military commitment in Iraq, he has been emphatic that his latest plan -- unlike all those previous ones -- would work. The key to his confidence: Iraqis, this time, are being told to get with the program -- or else.

The two obvious follow-up questions: But what do we do if it doesn't work? And "or else" what?

Bush has consistently refused to say. And nobody else in his administration will explain, either.

Given how Bush's previous plans in Iraq have failed -- and given his continued insistence that failure is "not an option" lest Iraq become a safe haven for terrorists -- it would have been entirely appropriate for the press corps to repeatedly, if not incessantly, demand answers to those two critical questions.

That didn't happen. And after a while, the stunning illogic of there being no apparent Plan B and no credible leverage with the Iraqis became just another inexplicable and yet almost entirely unmentioned part of the backstory.

But in a front-page story in today's Washington Post, Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks very correctly show that the lack of answers is news in and of itself:

"In the weeks since Bush announced the new plan for Iraq -- including an increase of 21,500 U.S. combat troops, additional reconstruction assistance and stepped-up pressure on the Iraqi government -- senior officials have rebuffed questions about other options in the event of failure. Eager to appear resolute and reluctant to provide fodder for skeptics, they have responded with a mix of optimism and evasion.

"Even if the administration is not talking about Plan B, the subject is on a lot of minds. . . .

"National security experts outside the government have stepped into the void, offering detailed options through public papers, speeches and policy proposals over the past several weeks."

DeYoung and Ricks write that those options include complete withdrawal, redeployment and "containment," and redeployment to focus on al-Qaeda.

I would submit that they left out several other potential Plan Bs that are at least as likely -- though harder to publicly advocate. One Plan B for Bush could be to simply run out the clock and leave the crisis for the next president. Another could be to shift attention to Iran. The White House also could eventually decide to advocate partition of Iraq -- or install a stronger leader.

I raised several of these possibilities in my Jan. 11 column, the day after Bush announced the "surge." And in that same column, I encouraged reporters to figure out what Plan B actually is.

Some Background

DeYoung and Ricks provide several examples of the administration's refusal to discuss backup plans. I have chronicled plenty more in the past two months.

The stonewall actually started hours before Bush's announcement. In a Jan. 10 background briefing, one anonymous senior administration official told reporters: "Now, everybody is going to want to say, well, what if it doesn't work, what is plan B, and all the rest. And I think, for obvious reasons, for the President and for senior administration officials, we're going to focus on what we need to do to make this plan work."

David E. Sanger wrote in The New York Times on Jan. 11 that Bush aides "hinted that the administration had already come up with a 'Plan B' in case the latest strategy failed, with one saying 'there are other ways to achieve our objective.' But he would not describe that strategy, or say if it involved withdrawal, containment or the breakup of the country into sectarian entities."

But that was the last anyone heard about Plan B, even in hints, as far as I know.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 11, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the administration's (non)position very clear. Here is video of the hearing. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) comes up at 2:21; Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) at 2:38.

Obama: "What leverage do we have that would provide us some assurance that six months from now, you will not be sitting before us again saying, 'Well, it didn't work; Sadr's militia has not been disarmed; we have not seen sufficient cooperation with respect to distribution of oil resources; we are still seeing political interference; we have lost an additional hundred or 200 or 300 or 400 American lives; we have spent an additional hundred billion dollars; but we still can't afford to lose, and so we're going to have to proceed in the same fashion, and maybe we'll have to send more troops in.' What leverage do we have six months from now?"

Rice: "Senator, the leverage is that we're not going to stay married to a plan that's not working in Baghdad if the Iraqis are not living up to their part of the obligation. . . . "

Obama: "I want to just follow up on this and be very clear. Are you telling me that if in six months or whatever time frame you are suggesting that in fact the Maliki government has not performed these benchmarks -- which, by the way, remain not sufficiently explicit, I think, for a lot of us to make decisions on, but let's assume that that surfaces over the next several weeks that this is being debated -- that at that point, you are going to suggest to the Maliki government that we are going to start phasing down our troop levels in Iraq?"

Rice: "Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate. But I will tell you this, the benchmark that I'm looking at -- the oil law is important, the political process is extraordinary important -- that the most important thing that the Iraqi government has to do right now is to reestablish the confidence of its population that it's going to be even-handed in defending it. That's what we need to see over the next two or three months, and I think that over the next several months they're going to have to show that."

Obama: "Or else what? . . . "

Rice: "Or this plan -- or this plan is not -- this plan is not going to work."

Obama: "The question is not whether the plan is going to work or not. The question is: What are the consequences if the Iraqi government. . . . Are there any circumstances that the president or you are willing to share in which we would say to the Iraqis we are no longer maintaining combat troops, American combat troops in Iraq? Are there any circumstances that you can articulate in which we would say to the Maliki government that enough is enough, and we are no longer committing our troops?"

Rice: "I'm not going to speculate, but I do tell you that the president made very clear that of course there are circumstances. . . . But I do think we need to recognize that the consequences for the Iraqis are also quite dire, and they are in a process in which their people are going to hold them accountable as well."

Later, from Menendez: "We have a plan, but even Plan A does not have contingencies - it doesn't have benchmarks. How can you ask the American people and the members of Congress who represent the American people to continue to give you a blank check without benchmarks that are definable, without benchmarks that have timelines of some consequence, without consequences to the failure to meet those deadlines? Because we've seen these benchmarks be repackaged from the past. They were benchmarks before; they were not met; there are no consequences; and we continue to create a dependency by the Iraqis on our forces."

Rice: "But Senator, first of all, I think you do one strategy at a time, but you can tell, and you can adjust a strategy as you go along. This is not going to unfold all at once. We're going to know whether or not in fact the Iraqis are living up to their obligations, and we're going to know early on. And there are opportunities for adjustment then.

"The benchmarks are actually very clear, and the Iraqis themselves have set forward some timetables for those benchmarks because they've got to get legislation through, they have an international compact that they're trying to respond to.

"But I just want to speak to the word -- to the point of consequences. There are consequences in that they will lose the support of the American people and they'll lose the support of the Iraqi people."

Menendez: "But they're there already, Madame Secretary, in terms of the support of the American people. The question is, what will our government do specifically? If benchmarks are not met, what will we do? And that's where there is no answer, and therefore, very difficult to be supportive of any such policy."

Rice: "Senator, I just think that it's bad policy, frankly, to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails that you're trying to make work. I just don't think it's the way to go about it."

Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Sunday Times of London on Jan. 14: "My fear is that Bush has not thought this through. There is no plan B because his rigid, incurious mind doesn't have the dexterity to entertain it. The fundamentalist psyche doesn't like paradox or nuance. But in dealing with this complex and metastasising problem, paradox and nuance and ruthless self interest are indispensable."

Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called for a Plan B on Jan. 19: "In this high-stakes game of chess, what is missing is some intermediate move on our part -- some Plan B that Maliki believes Bush might actually carry out -- the threat of which will induce him to fully support us in this battle for Baghdad. He won't believe the Bush threat to abandon Iraq. He will believe a U.S. threat of an intermediate redeployment within Iraq that might prove fatal to him but not necessarily to the U.S. interest there."

But on Feb. 2, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley reiterated that "the best plan is to have this plan succeed."

There was a slight rhetorical shift on Feb. 6. As Peter Spiegel reported in the Los Angeles Times, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think that if this operation were not to succeed -- and we clearly are hoping it will succeed, planning for it to succeed, allocating the resources for it to succeed -- but I would tell you that I think I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be if that didn't happen."

Gates, however, wouldn't say where his thinking was leading him.

Benchmark Watch

As for the ostensible accountability on the theoretical benchmarks, as I wrote in my Feb. 16 column, with several follow-ups, including one in my Feb. 28 column, the very first benchmark the administration put forth to measure Iraqi cooperation -- that Iraqi forces would have three additional brigades in Iraq by mid-February -- was not met. But almost no one is paying that any attention.

Genocide Watch

Samantha Power writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed about how we can avoid a genocide in Iraq: "[W]e must announce our intention to depart and use the intervening months to prioritize civilian protection by pursuing a bold set of measures combining political pressure, humanitarian relocation and judicial deterrence."

For instance, "if we are serious about preventing further sectarian horrors, the U.S. must send a clear signal to the militias and political leaders who order or carry out atrocities that they will be brought to justice for their crimes. That means offering belated U.S. support to the International Criminal Court, the only credible, independent body with the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity and genocide. . . .

"Many of those who say U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to prevent genocide are the same people who for political reasons refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the calamity unfolding on our watch. The same people who modeled a war on best-case scenarios are now resisting ending a war by invoking worst-case scenarios. But after years of using the alleged needs of the Iraqi people to justify U.S. political postures, it is long past time to use the leverage we still have to actually advance Iraqi welfare."

Denver Three Watch

So it was the White House after all.

Two years after then-spokesman Scott McClellan fingered a local volunteer for ejecting three Denver area residents from a public forum with Bush on account of antiwar bumper stickers on their car, the responsibility has finally been definitively traced back to the West Wing.

(See my previous coverage of the "Denver Three.")

Bruce Finley wrote in Saturday's Denver Post: "Two White House staffers directed two men serving as bouncers at a 2005 Denver appearance by President Bush to eject three activists from the public event, the bouncers said under oath today.

"The paid White House staff members were identified in sworn depositions as Jamie O'Keefe, who was lead advance staffer for the appearance, and Steve Atkiss, White House trip director, attorneys said after the depositions today in federal court in Denver."

Ann Imse wrote in the Rocky Mountain News: "The long-sought revelation takes the Denver pair's lawsuit over violation of their free- speech rights to the heart of the West Wing.

"That's where special assistant Steve Atkiss worked, just down the hall from the president's Oval Office, according to a 2005 map published in The Washington Post."

That particular map is no longer available online, but if you look at my 2006-era West Wing floor plan, Atkiss at the time shared the office marked No. 9 with Susan Ralston, Karl Rove's assistant, who has since resigned in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Rove at the time was in the office marked No. 12.

And Finley wrote in Sunday's Post: "A former White House official who ordered three activists expelled from a 2005 Denver public forum with President Bush says it was White House policy to exclude potentially disruptive guests from Bush's appearances nationwide.

"The former official, Steve Atkiss, revealed the policy Friday in an interview. . . .

" 'If there's an indication somebody's primary intent is to cause trouble, we are looking to avoid trouble,' said Atkiss, who now serves as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection chief of staff.

" 'If it became obvious and apparent somebody is there to create a fuss, there was an effort made to ensure that didn't happen,' Atkiss said in a phone interview."

As of my latest staff list, O'Keefe is still employed at the White House.

Here is Scott McClellan's carefully parsed denial of White House involvement in March of 2005: "My understanding is that it was a volunteer involved in that matter. My sense is that the volunteer thought that these individuals, these three individuals were coming to the event to disrupt it. And those individuals -- I think if you look at some of the early news reports even said something to that effect. Now, we welcome a diversity of views at events, but if people are coming to the event to disrupt it, that's another matter. If they want to disrupt the event, then I think that, obviously, they're going to be asked to leave the event."

Two of the three ousted Denverites e-mailed me this morning: "So it seems that Tony Snow has some questions to answer," they wrote. Among them: "On what legal basis does the White House claim to be able to kick otherwise peaceful people, who might disagree with them politically, out of public taxpayer-funded events if White House staffers deem them 'potentially' disruptive?"

Flip-Flop Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For President Bush, last week's decision was the latest of several reversals on issues on which he once refused to budge. Since Democrats captured Congress, Bush has fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, authorized direct talks with North Korea, sent more troops to Iraq, agreed to discuss the contours of a Palestinian state in Middle East peace negotiations, and even proposed a tax increase for millions of Americans -- all ideas he rejected earlier. . . .

"[I]t can be a bitter pill for a politician who got to the nation's highest office by stressing his unwavering fidelity to core principles and painting his opponents -- first Al Gore, then John F. Kerry -- as flip-floppers who changed their minds depending on the political currents. Now, suddenly, it is George W. Bush -- the stubborn, resolute, 'never give in' leader -- who finds himself explaining how he can reject a position one moment and embrace it the next."

But is all this a sudden tack to realism -- or just a feint?

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "[O]ne big question about Bush's opening to North Korea and steps this week that could lead to a dialogue with Iran and Syria is whether a vision of peace is the driving force or desperation over a string of diplomatic failures, last fall's elections and a failing war in Iraq.

"The other big question is whether the administration is sincerely interested in negotiating normal relations with North Korea, Iran and Syria or remains interested in overthrowing them."

Walter Reed Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Steve Vogel write in Saturday's Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the secretary of the Army yesterday and President Bush vowed to investigate allegations of substandard treatment of wounded soldiers as the administration scrambled to contain fallout from the scandal over squalid housing and bureaucratic delays in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. . . .

"In a sign of the seriousness with which Bush takes the situation, the White House announced that he will soon name a commission to look into whether there are similar problems at other military and veterans hospitals. Administration officials took the unusual step of releasing early the text of Bush's regular Saturday radio address, in which the president will vow to ensure that the government meets the physical and mental health needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"Taken together, the developments yesterday highlighted the anger at the highest levels of the administration over the problems at Walter Reed, as well as the political danger for the White House. Veterans groups remain among the few strong supporters of the war and have been an important part of the president's political base, yet they -- along with military families -- have been outraged since the problems first became public two weeks ago."

Mark Thompson writes for Time: "The string of firings is raising questions about just who is being held accountable as the nation prepares to enter its fifth year of the war in Iraq. . . .

"Some Pentagon officials praise Gates' emphasis on accountability; he seems less inclined than Rumsfeld to tolerate snafus. But more than a handful of people inside the Pentagon are wondering whether the new boss will ever apply the same standard to those actually waging the war."

Global Warming Watch

Andrew C. Revkin writes in The New York Times: "The Bush administration estimates that emissions by the United States of gases that contribute to global warming will grow nearly as fast through the next decade as they did the previous decade, according to a long-delayed report being completed for the United Nations.

"The document, the United States Climate Action Report, emphasizes that the projections show progress toward a goal Mr. Bush laid out in a 2002 speech: that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases grow at a slower rate than the economy. Since that speech, he has repeated his commitment to lessening 'greenhouse gas intensity' without imposing formal limits on the gases."

U.S. Attorneys Watch

White House officials have finally acknowledged a role in the unprecedented firing of seven U.S. attorneys -- while insisting the decisions were not based on politics, just "administration unhappiness."

John Solomon and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "Since the mass firings were carried out three months ago, Justice Department officials have consistently portrayed them as personnel decisions based on the prosecutors' 'performance-related' problems. But, yesterday, officials acknowledged that the ousters were based primarily on the administration's unhappiness with the prosecutors' policy decisions and revealed the White House's role in the matter."

I'm quite sure you've not heard the end of this story.

Tornado Visit

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in Sunday's New York Times: "President Bush picked his way through the rubble of the tornado-stricken South on Saturday, promising federal aid for some Alabamians and turning up unexpectedly in a largely African-American neighborhood here in Georgia, where startled residents rushed out of their damaged houses, cell phone cameras in hand, to greet him."

Lance Griffin writes in the Dothan (Ala.) Eagle: "Tears trickled down the cheeks of the President of the United States as he met with the families of the nine people who died during Thursday's tornado that devastated [Enterprise, Ala.].

"The meeting happened inside Hillcrest Baptist Church after President Bush toured the high school's storm damage. The media was not present for the meeting, but Alabama Gov. Bob Riley confirmed Bush was visibly shaken.

"'When you're around this game, you get to the point to where you can discern if the grief is real,' Riley said after Bush left Enterprise Regional Airport on his way to Americus, Ga., to tour more storm damage. 'I tell you, there were tears streaming down his cheeks.' "

Scooter Libby Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge asked jurors to clarify their question about reasonable doubt Monday as deliberations continued in the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. . . .

" 'We would like clarification of the term "reasonable doubt," ' jurors wrote. 'Specifically, is it necessary for the government to present evidence that it is not humanly possible for someone not to recall an event in order to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.'

"Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said jurors were asking whether the government was required to prove guilt beyond all doubt. He said the answer simply should be 'No.' But Walton said he wasn't sure that's what jurors were asking. Libby's attorneys said if something is humanly possible, it is reasonable."

The New York Times's To-Do List

From a New York Times editorial on Sunday: "Today we're offering a list -- which, sadly, is hardly exhaustive -- of things that need to be done to reverse the unwise and lawless policies of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Many will require a rewrite of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, an atrocious measure pushed through Congress with the help of three Republican senators, Arlen Specter, Lindsey Graham and John McCain; Senator McCain lent his moral authority to improving one part of the bill and thus obscured its many other problems."

Tony Snow Watch

Laura Hensley writes in the Bryan-College Station (Tex.) Eagle: "White House press secretary and former conservative talk show host Tony Snow got a rock star welcome Friday when he spoke at the George Bush Presidential Conference Center even though a small group outside protested his presence.

"A standing-room-only crowd of more than 900 people came to listen to the official whose job it is to communicate with the media on a daily basis. A smattering of whoops greeted Snow's introduction, which was followed by a roaring standing ovation.

"'We have a rock star here, and I'm not talking about Anna Nicole [Smith's] boyfriend or her lovely mother,' said former President Bush before introducing Snow, who worked for him in the 1990s as a speechwriter and assistant media affairs director. 'This guy here really is a superstar.'"

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune with the transcript from press secretary Tony Snow's appearance on NPR's " Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me."

Dinner With the Roves

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune about the president and first lady's dinner at Karl Rove's house last night: "When a pool reporter following the president's intown travel stationed outside dispatched an email to Rove inside, asking if the architect of the president's campaigns could spare a doggy bag for the press van, sure enough -- out came an emissary bearing a gift of sausage and quail wings."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Tomorrow on criticizing the president; Tom Toles on Bush's Axis of Evil scoreboard; Mike Luckovich on Bush's new open-door policy.

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