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They Won't Follow Us Home

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 19, 2007; 1:38 PM

In a brief statement on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war this morning, President Bush acknowledged that "it can be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq, and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home." But, he said. "I believe the consequences for American security would be devastating."

"If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is more secure," he predicted, "a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country. In time, this violence could engulf the region. The terrorists could emerge from the chaos with a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they had in Afghanistan -- which they used to plan the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. For the safety of the American people, we cannot allow this to happen."

Bush's previous predictions for the region have been notoriously incorrect. But as I wrote in my October 26, 2006 column, Why Bush Thinks We're Winning, the president's relentless conviction that American security is at risk has long been the key to understanding his refusal to leave Iraq -- regardless of how many troops die or how little good they appear to be doing.

"What's different about this conflict than some others is that if we fail there, the enemy will follow us here -- I firmly believe that," Bush said in February. It's a line he has uttered, with minor variations, literally dozens of times before and since.

In an unusually frank exchange with conservative journalists in October, Bush explained how he owed his conviction to Gen. John P. Abizaid. (Bush unceremoniously removed Abizaid from his job as chief of Central Command in December, but he hasn't distanced himself from Abizaid's thinking on this issue.)

"Abizaid . . . he's a smart guy -- he came up with this construct: If we leave, they will follow us here. . . . He sees the effects of victory in Iraq as having a major impact on other parts of the Middle East," Bush said. "He also sees the reciprocal of that, a defeat -- just leaving -- the only defeat is leaving, is letting things fall into chaos and letting al Qaeda have a safe haven."

As we enter the fifth year of the war, the debate over withdrawal has grown more clamorous. Evidence mounts that the American presence in Iraq may be doing more harm than good. Large majorities of Americans favor withdrawing all troops within a year. A narrow majority of Iraqis call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. forces.

But is Bush right? Will they follow us home if we leave?

No. At least not according to a story in Saturday's Washington Post by Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus.

DeYoung and Pincus write: "Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the United States' most formidable enemy in that country. But unlike Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe, the Iraqi branch poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland.

"As the Democratic Congress continues to push for a military withdrawal, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have repeatedly warned that bin Laden plans to turn Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate and a staging ground for attacks on the United States. . . .

"Attacking the United States clearly remains on bin Laden's agenda. But the likelihood that such an attack would be launched from Iraq, many experts contend, has sharply diminished over the past year as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has undergone dramatic changes. Once believed to include thousands of 'foreign fighters,' it is now an overwhelmingly Iraqi organization whose aims are likely to remain focused on the struggle against the Shiite majority in Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said."

Benchmark Watch

Bush's schedule originally called for no observation whatsoever of the four-year-anniversary of the war. But he added a brief statement late this morning.

Among his assertions: That there are "hopeful signs" in Iraq. One such sign, he said, was that "the Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to the capital."

But Bush didn't mention that those three brigades were supposed to have arrived a month ago. (See my February 16 column, Where's the Accountability?)

And furthermore, it's not clear they're really there, at least not in full force. As Karen DeYoung wrote in the March 10 Washington Post, Bush used almost exactly the same words on March 6. But, DeYoung wrote: "Bush's assessment appeared less than fully accurate. . . . [A] senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said this week that two Iraqi brigades and one battalion of a third have arrived in Baghdad."

After his emotionless statement, Bush turned and walked quickly out the room, ignoring a question by CBS News's Bill Plante about how much longer he was willing to wait for the Iraqis to take control.

Getting Testy

Congressional Democrats continue to promote a plan to bring U.S. combat troops home by the end of August 2008.

Ed Henry reported for CNN this morning: "Tony Snow a few moments ago in an off-camera briefing telling reporters that the president wants to talk about how this plan by the Democrats is a, quote, 'recipe for defeat' and how it would, quote 'provide victory for the enemy'. Now when I pressed Tony Snow and said 'What's your recipe for success?' he got a little frustrated and thought I was interrupting and said, quote, 'Zip it'.

"He later apologized and acknowledged it was inappropriate to say that to me. And then when I pressed him more on the subject, he said 'Well, we're trying to turn this over to the Iraqi army' and he talked about what we've heard a lot of in the last four years, about turning this over to the Iraqis. But again, still now, Tony Snow adding the caveat that they're just not sure what's next. He said, quote, 'We don't know how things play out'. That's something the American people have heard over and over again over the last four years. And now obviously, a lot of predictions at the beginning of this war, about how long it would last, how much it would cost, have all turned out to be wrong."

Henry later explained in a bit more detail: "I pressed Tony Snow and since he's calling flatly the Democratic plan a recipe for defeat, I asked him, 'Four years later, what is the recipe for success?' Tony Snow tried to turn it around on me in this off-camera briefing, he said, 'Well what's your recipe for success, how do you define it?' And when I pointed out to him that that was inappropriate for me to answer that -- it's not up to me what the recipe for success is, what is the president's recipe for success -- Tony felt I was interrupting him and he said 'Zip it'. He later apologized, he felt that was inappropriate for him to say that to me. But I point it out because I think it shows the White House on a defensive this morning about the anniversary."

Think Progress has the video.

The Legacy

David Alexander writes for Reuters: "Four years after he began the Iraq war, a diminished President George W. Bush has sacrificed much of his domestic agenda and eroded U.S. credibility abroad in pursuit of the sort of nation-building he once scorned, analysts say."

Ann Scott Tyson writes for The Washington Post: "Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the high and growing demand for U.S. troops there and in Afghanistan has left ground forces in the United States short of the training, personnel and equipment that would be vital to fight a major ground conflict elsewhere, senior U.S. military and government officials acknowledge."

Digging Deep for Good News

The White House press office had to dig pretty deep this morning to find anybody outside the administration expressing anything but pessimism about the situation in Iraq. One of today's clips sent to the pres corps: A story headlined "Iraqis happy" by Peter Marcus of the Denver Daily News, a small tabloid that gets distributed for free in Denver.

"Despite startling statistics which indicate that one in four Iraqis have had a family member murdered and that one in four Baghdad residents have had a relative kidnapped, most Iraqis are happier with life," Marcus writes, based on a poll conducted by a British firm called Opinion Research Business.

By comparison, Gary Langer writes for ABC News on the result of the latest poll by ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV. He writes: "A new national survey paints a devastating portrait of life in Iraq: widespread violence, torn lives, displaced families, emotional damage, collapsing services, an ever starker sectarian chasm -- and a draining away of the underlying optimism that once prevailed."

Paul Reynolds writes for the BBC: "This latest survey of Iraqi opinion is a reminder to policy-makers in Washington, London and Baghdad of the strength of opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

"Although the Bush administration is more interested in the results of its troop surge than the findings of this survey, it will take note perhaps of one figure: the number of Iraqis who approve of attacks on coalition troops has risen from 17% in a similar survey three years ago to 51% now."

Protest Watch

Sarah Karush writes for the Associated Press: "Thousands of Christians prayed for peace at an anti-war service Friday night at the Washington National Cathedral, kicking off a weekend of protests around the country to mark the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

"Afterward, participants marched with battery-operated faux candles through snow and wind toward the White House, where police began arresting protesters shortly before midnight."

Police "said 222 people had been arrested by Saturday morning."

Will Rove Testify?

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The Democratic senator leading the inquiry into the dismissal of federal prosecutors insisted Sunday that Karl Rove and other top aides to President Bush must testify publicly and under oath, setting up a confrontation between Congress and the White House, which has said it is unlikely to agree to such a demand.

"Some Republicans have suggested that Mr. Rove testify privately, if only to tamp down the political uproar over the inquiry, which centers on whether the White House allowed politics to interfere with law enforcement.

"But Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, seemed to rule out such a move on Sunday. He said his committee would vote Thursday on whether to issue subpoenas for Mr. Rove as well as Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, and William K. Kelley, the deputy White House counsel. . . .

"One Republican strategist close to the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to appear to be representing the administration, said: 'No president is going to let their senior staff assistant to the president go testify. Forget that. They might agree to do an informal interview, but they'll never testify.'"

Here is Leahy on ABC: "I do not believe in this, 'we'll have a private briefing for you where we'll tell you everything,' and they don't. . . . I want testimony under oath. I am sick and tired of getting half-truths on this."

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As more Republicans called last week on Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, President Bush's aides began to look beyond the attorney general and focus on preventing the controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors from spreading -- and endangering Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor. . . .

"Initially, the dispute centered on the Justice Department, Gonzales and his top aides. But documents released last week suggested that Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers were also involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election. That brought the issue to the threshold of the Oval Office and prompted reporters to ask whether Bush had been involved. . . .

"'This is one more chapter in the defense of Karl Rove,' said one leading GOP figure who insisted on anonymity because he was speaking ill of the president's most powerful aide. 'This isn't accountability, it's damage control, and it's protection for Karl.'"

The Lam Case

Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Senate Democrats signaled Sunday that of the eight federal prosecutors abruptly ousted by the Bush administration, the case in San Diego is emerging as the most troubling because of new allegations that U.S. Atty. Carol C. Lam was fired in an attempt to shut down investigations into Republican politicians in Southern California."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. attorney in San Diego notified the Justice Department of search warrants in a Republican bribery scandal last May 10, one day before the attorney general's chief of staff warned the White House of 'a real problem' with her, a Democratic senator said yesterday."

Gonzales Watch

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "Amid bipartisan calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation in a scandal over dismissals of eight federal prosecutors, the White House said Monday, 'We hope he stays.'

"When asked if Gonzales will serve for the rest of President Bush's term, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, 'Well, we hope so.'"

CBS News reported on Friday: "Republicans close to the White House tell CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod that President Bush is in 'his usual posture: pugnacious, that no one is going to tell him who to fire.' But sources also said Gonzales' firing is just a matter of time. . . .

"One source tells CBS News he's never seen the administration in such deep denial, and Republicans are growing increasingly restless for the president to take action."

The Gonzales political obituaries continue to pour in.

Michael Isikoff, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: "At highly charged moments, attorney General Alberto Gonzales can seem placid, passive--at times, just plain out of it. . . . His defenders say he likes to keep his counsel. Others wonder if he's ill prepared, insecure or simply has nothing to say. . . .

"Recently, a trio of senators--Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy; Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, and Democrat Charles Schumer--sat down with Gonzales in his wood-paneled conference room to discuss the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Gonzales was initially combative and defensive. 'Why do I have to prove anything to you?' he demanded at one point, according to a source who was in the room but does not wish to be identified revealing a private conversation. He insisted that only poor performers had been fired. 'Everyone was in the bottom tier,' he said. 'Everyone?' asked Schumer. What about David Iglesias of New Mexico? (The department's internal evaluations had given Iglesias glowing marks.) Gonzales hesitated. 'I believe so,' he said, but he seemed uncertain. As the meeting was breaking up, Gonzales suddenly switched tacks and seemed to want to be cooperative. 'How can we make this better?' he asked. 'What can we do?' According to this source, the attorney general seemed to some in the room to be genuinely befuddled."

The Fall Guy Bites Back?

NPR reports: "Despite the resignation of Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's chief of staff, on Monday, the Justice Department initially took steps to establish him as a lawyer elsewhere in the department. On Tuesday, he left Justice Department entirely."

And on Friday, via his attorney Bradford Berenson, Sampson fired back: "Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. Attorneys. He resigned because, as Chief of Staff, he felt he had let the Attorney General down in failing to appreciate the need for and organize a more effective political response to the unfounded accusations of impropriety in the replacement process. The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing this subject for several years was well-known to a number of other senior officials at the Department, including others who were involved in preparing the Department's testimony to Congress."

No Longer Operative

The conflicts in the administration narrative have really reached epic proportions.

John D. McKinnon blogged for the Wall Street Journal on Friday: "The original idea for sacking all 93 U.S. attorneys might not have come from White House Counsel Harriet Miers after all, White House spokesman Tony Snow said today. And it's possible the idea was first broached either by President Bush or now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, he said.

"'Anything's possible,' Snow said, after being asked by a reporter at the morning briefing whether it's possible Bush or Gonzales came up with the idea. 'But I don't think so.'

"Snow said Bush 'certainly has no recollection' of coming up with the idea. But 'at this juncture people have hazy memories,' he added at another point."

An Apology of Sorts

Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev wrote for McClatchy Newspapers on Saturday: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apologized to the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys in a conference call Friday as he tried to hold on to his job amid the scandal over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.

"Gonzales apologized to the prosecutors not for the firings but for their execution, including for inaccurate public statements about poor job performance, said people familiar with the afternoon conference call."

The Principle of the Thing

Ron Hutcheson and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had a standard spiel for new U.S. attorneys: 'You have to leave politics at the door to do this job properly.'

"Maintaining that independence, without fear of repercussions, is the bedrock principle at stake in the controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. As the top law enforcement official in each of their jurisdictions, these federal prosecutors have the power to destroy reputations, careers and even lives.

"They're political appointees, but they're supposed to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without fear or favor. While presidents have the power to remove them for any reason, tradition holds that prosecutors should stay on the job unless they're corrupt or incompetent."

And Adam Cohen writes in a New York Times opinion piece "that White House and Justice Department officials, and members of Congress, may have violated 18 U.S.C. ?? 1501-1520, the federal obstruction of justice statute."

Incompetent, Insular, or Something Else?

A Los Angeles Times editorial argues that the firings "fit into a larger pattern of incompetence on the part of this administration. Any confidence the American people or Congress once had in the administration's capabilities has long since been depleted."

Gloria Borger writes in her U.S. News opinion column: "The White House that was once seen as muscular -- even invincible -- is being tagged as something else: incompetent."

Edwin Chen and Holly Rosenkrantz write for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush's insular management system, which values loyalty and old Texas ties while discouraging dissent, may be at the root of the political misfortunes undermining his presidency."

Shankar Vedantam, writing about human behavior in The Washington Post sees some parallels between Bush and a certain mad king: "In Shakespeare's 'King Lear,' a powerful man comes to a tragic end because he surrounds himself with flatterers and banishes the friends who will not varnish the truth to please him. . . .

"By the end of the play, with death and disaster all around, Shakespeare makes sure you understand that King Lear's tragedy was not just his own."

But Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard that Bush's only problem is that he's been too meek in defending himself: "By not instantly and unflinchingly denouncing the Democratic offensive for what it is, an entirely bogus attack on his administration, he has allowed a mere flap to get out of hand."

Poll Watch

Richard Wolffe writes for Newsweek: "A clear majority of the public believes the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys was politically motivated, according to a new Newswee poll. And the survey showed only weak support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. . . .

"At 30 percent, President Bush's approval ratings remain stuck where they have been since the GOP lost control of Congress in November."

Here are the poll results.

Valerie Plame Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer at the heart of a four-year political furor over the Bush administration's leak of her identity, lashed out at the White House yesterday, testifying in Congress that the president's aides destroyed a career she loved and slipped her name to reporters for 'purely political motives.' . . .

"Plame calmly but firmly knocked down longstanding claims by administration allies that the disclosure was not criminal because she had not worked in a covert capacity."

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times that committee chairman Henry Waxman announced that "CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had informed the committee that at the time Plame's identity was exposed, she was an undercover officer and that any disclosure of her agency employment status was prohibited by executive order."

David Corn writes in The Nation: "From the start of this scandal, confederates of the Bush White House (and backers of the war) have tried to diminish the significance of the administration leak that outed her as a CIA officer (as both legal and national security matters). Conservatives insisted she was not a clandestine officer doing anything important and that her employment at the CIA was either no big secret or no secret at all."

Here is the transcript of Plame's testimony: "Karl Rove clearly was involved in the leaking of my name," she said, "and he still carries a security clearance to this day, despite the president's words to the contrary that he would immediately dismiss anyone who had anything to do with it."

Editor and Publisher reports: "James Knodell, director of the Office of Security at the White House, told a congressional committee today that he was aware of no internal investigation or report into the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame."

Greg Mitchell writes in his Editor and Publisher column: "In their rush to cover the long-awaited testimony of Valerie Plame, few reporters apparently bothered to stick around the Capitol Hill hearing room yesterday to witness the equally shocking testimony of a much less heralded (and not so attractive) insider named James Knodell."

Here's a letter from Waxman to the White House, with a summary of Knodell's testimony and some follow up questions.

"*The Office of Security for the White House never conducted any investigation of the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity;

"*Under the applicable executive order and regulations, your senior political advisor, Karl Rove, and other senior White House officials were required to report what they knew about the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity, but they did not make any such report to the White House Office of Security; and

"*There has been no suspension of security clearances or any other administrative sanction for Mr. Rove and other White House officials involved in the disclosure.

"According to Mr. Knodell, the explanation for the lack of action by the White House Security Office was a White House decision not to conduct a security investigation while a criminal investigation was pending. Mr. Knodell could not explain, however, why the White House did not initiate an investigation after the security breach. It took months before a criminal investigation was initiated, yet according to Mr. Knodell, there was no White House investigation initiated during this period.

"Mr. Knodell also testified that it would be inappropriate to allow an individual who was a security risk to retain his or her security clearance while a criminal investigation is pending. . . .

"The testimony of Mr. Knodell appears to describe White House decisions that were inconsistent with the directives of Executive Order 12958, which you signed in March 2003. "

Twins Watch

Kitty Kelley writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Bush's family should set a good example.

"My suggestion comes after the White House announcement earlier this month that Jenna Bush, one of the president's twin daughters, is writing a book on her all-expenses-paid trip to Panama, where she worked for a few weeks as an intern for UNICEF. Jenna Bush is quoted as saying she will donate her earnings from her book to UNICEF, a commendable gesture, considering her father's net worth of $20 million. But while the 25-year-old makes the rounds of TV talk shows this fall in a White House limousine, dozens of her contemporaries will be arriving home from Iraq in wooden boxes. In Britain, Prince Harry is insisting on going off to Iraq -- even as his country is reducing its troop commitment. . . .

"The president tells us Iraq is a 'noble' war, but his wife, his children and his nieces and nephews are not listening. None has enlisted in the armed services, and none seems to be paying attention to the sacrifices of military families."

Helen Thomas Stays

Patrick Gavin reports for Fishbowl DC that Hearst columnist Helen Thomas is keeping her front-row seat in the newly-refurbished briefing room. Fox News wanted her chair, but didn't get it -- they'll be in the second row.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's change of direction; Justin Bilicki on Bush and Gonzales; Walt Handelsman on March Madness; Dwane Powell on Bush's brains; Jeff Danziger on the prisoner.

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