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Can Bush Negotiate?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 2, 2007; 2:16 PM

With the public resoundingly against him, Republican support wearing thin, and -- most importantly -- Congress in Democratic hands, President Bush today finds himself in the unusual position of actually having to negotiate.

The question is: Does he have it in him?

A day after vetoing legislation that would have established a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Bush has invited congressional leaders to the White House for a sit-down.

"I am confident that with goodwill on both sides, we can agree on a bill that gets our troops the money and flexibility they need as soon as possible," Bush said in a short televised address last night, announcing the veto.

But the president's language was inflexible: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," he said. "All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq. I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

With no apparent sense of irony, Bush described the Democratic plan as "a prescription for chaos and confusion."

So what happens now? Will Bush refuse to genuinely engage with his critics? (His traditional response to Democrats who disagree with him.) Will he try to find some way to make it look like he's compromising when he really isn't? (His traditional response to Republicans who disagree with him.) Or will he start talking in earnest about ways both sides can compromise?

The conventional wisdom is that the White House's big concession will be to entertain discussions about benchmarks for the Iraqi government. But it's important to keep in mind that the White House has been talking about such benchmarks for many months now. In his prime-time address in January, Bush even announced: "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

The administration has even previously indicated it had some deadlines in mind for those benchmarks. It's just that none of them have been met. On the same day in January that Bush made his announcement, senior administration officials promised that the Iraqis would deliver three additional Iraqi brigades to Baghdad by the end of February. That didn't happen. And the following day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged in Senate testimony that without progress toward some key benchmarks within "one or two months . . . this plan is not going to work." It's now been four months, with little or no progress. (For background and links, see my Thursday column, Keep Your Eye on the Benchmarks.)

So the central issue is not whether there are benchmarks, or even timetables. The central issue is whether failure to meet those benchmarks has any genuine consequences -- and whether those consequences include the withdrawal of American forces.

This Just In

I haven't had a chance to look at it closely yet, but here is the transcript from Bush's remarks today to a friendly group of builders.

I noted in yesterday's column (see the section on "Lowering the Goalposts") that Bush seemed to be in the process of shifting his definition of success in Iraq.

It's not entirely clear to me whether Bush was talking about the entire endeavor or just about the current troop surge in Baghdad, but in either case, here's what he had to say about success this morning:

"[S]lowly but surely, the truth will be known. Either we'll succeed, or we won't succeed. And the definition of success as I described is sectarian violence down. Success is not, no violence. There are parts of our own country that have got a certain level of violence to it. But success is a level of violence where the people feel comfortable about living their daily lives. And that's what we're trying to achieve."

The Veto and the Response

Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Democratic congressional leaders cast the veto as willful defiance of the American people. 'The president wants a blank check,' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said just minutes after Bush's statement. 'The Congress is not going to give it to him.' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said that 'if the president thinks that by vetoing this bill he will stop us from trying to change the direction of this war, he is mistaken.'"

As for the GOP, "more Republicans broke with Bush and signaled they want to make a deal," Abramowitz and Baker write.

"'Some kind of compromise has to be worked out between the administration and the Democrats,' said Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. 'That's how it's done. Everybody holds their nose and maybe a couple of times vomits, but you get it done.'

"Bush plans to host congressional leaders from both parties at the White House this afternoon. Discussion yesterday centered on the idea of revised spending legislation that would abandon the Democrats' withdrawal mandate but cut back nonmilitary U.S. aid to the Iraqi government if it does not meet certain benchmarks for political reconciliation, a proposal advanced by House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

"Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) mentioned that idea yesterday as he warned that neither party can go into the next round of talks with absolute demands for what can and cannot be in the bill. 'It's time to stop laying down these guidelines, saying, "It's got to be this, it's got to be that," ' he said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times that Democrats "are expected to look for ways to preserve the benchmarks for Iraqi progress that were included in the initial bill while eliminating the timetables for troop withdrawal that Mr. Bush has emphatically rejected.

"Several Republican leaders said Tuesday that they were likely to support such benchmarks, and White House aides said Tuesday that Mr. Bush, who has supported goals and benchmarks for the Iraqi government, might back such a measure -- but only if the benchmarks are nonbinding.

"Mr. Bush issued the veto from the Oval Office at about 5:30 p.m., using a pen given to him by the father of a fallen marine. It came just hours after Democrats had themselves staged an unusual signing ceremony in the Capitol, timed to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the so-called Mission Accomplished speech, when Mr. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended."

William Douglas and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "A bipartisan consensus appeared to be growing on Capitol Hill that any new bill to support U.S. troops in Iraq must contain benchmarks for political progress by the Iraqi government - with consequences if the Iraqis fail to meet them. But it remained unclear what benchmarks or consequences Republican lawmakers or the White House would accept, or whether congressional Republicans would continue to stand with Bush."

Edward Epstein writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "the focus will be whether Republicans, who fear their party will pay a steep political price in 2008 if they continue backing an unpopular war, start encouraging the president to give some ground in his standoff with Democrats -- who vowed to continue pushing for an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq."

Nicholas Johnston and Edwin Chen write for Bloomberg: "'There are a number of Republicans who do think that some kind of benchmarks, properly crafted, would actually be helpful,' said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, his party's leader in the chamber. . . .

"Democrats, and some Republicans such as Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, insist that there be penalties for falling short, such as a loss of U.S. financial support or the withdrawal of some coalition forces.

"'We can't be there in an open-ended fashion,' Snowe said. 'We have to say: how long does it really take to pass the benchmarks?'

"White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the Iraqis already have benchmarks to meet. The administration won't accept 'anything that jeopardizes the government of Iraq or weakens the ability of our forces to succeed,' Snow said."

David Rogers writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush can rely on strong Republican support in his veto of an Iraq-war funding bill, but the strain of the war risks creating splits in his party and producing major defections by this fall.

"Republican moderates, such as former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, are already demanding a greater voice in the second round of talks on war funding. Rep. Ray LaHood (R., Ill.), who has been loyal to the president, said he and other Republican lawmakers will have to reassess their support if military commander Gen. David Petraeus and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki don't show more progress by September.

"'Republicans are going to give Bush an opportunity, but if it isn't working in September, a lot of members will be very nervous,' Mr. LaHood said. 'I think the big benchmark is September.'"

Matthew Hay Brown and David Nitkin write in the Baltimore Sun: "Analysts say the sides now are likely to move beyond the standoff over Iraq.

"'I think there will be a compromise, and they'll pass a bill,' said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. 'The president will say he won, because he avoided timelines. The Democrats will say, 'Look, we're trying to push the president to change his position; he's intransigent; he won't.'"

Underestimating Cheney's Influence

Of course Democratic negotiators might have something to learn from Geoff Hoon, who was defense secretary in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government from 1999 until 2005.

Patrick Wintour writes in the Guardian: "A catalogue of errors over planning for Iraq after the invasion, and an inability to influence key figures in the US administration, led to anarchy in Iraq from which the country has not recovered, the British defence secretary during the invasion admits today.

"In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Geoff Hoon reveals that Britain disagreed with the US administration over two key decisions in May 2003, two months after the invasion - to disband Iraq's army and 'de-Ba'athify' its civil service. Mr Hoon also said he and other senior ministers completely underestimated the role and influence of the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

"'Sometimes . . . [Prime Minister] Tony [Blair{rcub} had made his point with the president, and I'd made my point with Don [Rumsfeld] and [foreign secretary] Jack [Straw] had made his point with Colin [Powell] and the decision actually came out of a completely different place. And you think: what did we miss? I think we missed Cheney.' . . .

"Describing the task of dealing with the US administration as a 'multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,' Mr Hoon accepted that Britain had greatly underestimated the influence of the neo-con vice-president Mr Cheney."

Surveillance Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Court orders in January that brought President Bush's warrantless terrorist surveillance program under existing law have limited the intelligence that agencies can collect, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told a Senate committee yesterday.

"'We are actually missing a significant portion of what we should be getting,' McConnell said during an unusual public session of the Select Committee on Intelligence on the administration's proposal to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA).

"The intelligence collection program was secretly instituted under presidential authority shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was disclosed by the news media in December 2005. It permitted warrantless intercepts of telephone calls and e-mails between the United States and locations overseas if one participant was believed to be a member of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization.

"In January, the administration agreed to bring the program under the oversight of the secret FISA court, which approves warrants in terrorism and espionage investigations. That reversed Bush's position that he had the authority to order the program on his own. . . .

"Democrats on the committee made clear that they want a revised surveillance law that would prohibit future presidents from initiating another warrantless intercept program based on the constitutional authority to protect the nation, as Bush did."

James Risen writes in the New York Times: "Senior Bush administration officials told Congress on Tuesday that they could not pledge that the administration would continue to seek warrants from a secret court for a domestic wiretapping program, as it agreed to do in January.

"Rather, they argued that the president had the constitutional authority to decide for himself whether to conduct surveillance without warrants.

"As a result of the January agreement, the administration said that the National Security Agency's domestic spying program has been brought under the legal structure laid out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court-approved warrants for the wiretapping of American citizens and others inside the United States.

"But on Tuesday, the senior officials, including Michael McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, said they believed that the president still had the authority under Article II of the Constitution to once again order the N.S.A. to conduct surveillance inside the country without warrants. . . .

"Mr. McConnell emphasized that all domestic electronic surveillance was now being conducted with court-approved warrants, and said that there were no plans 'that we are formulating or thinking about currently' to resume domestic wiretapping without warrants."

Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press: "Citing FBI abuses and the attorney general's troubles, senators peppered top Justice and intelligence officials Tuesday with skeptical questions about their proposal to revise the rules for spying on Americans.

"Senate Intelligence Committee members said the Bush administration must provide more information about its earlier domestic spying before it can hope to gain additional powers for the future."

Sniffen quotes Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.): "We look through the lens of the past to judge how much we can trust you."

And here's Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.): "We want to go after the bad guys, but we want to prevent the creation of a dictator who takes the law in his own hands."

This Senate Web page has links to the text of the administration's proposed bill, prepared statements and views of outside groups.

The New York Times editorial board writes this morning that the administration "has submitted a bill that would enact enormous, and enormously dangerous, changes to the 1978 law on eavesdropping. It would undermine the fundamental constitutional principle -- over which there can be no negotiation or compromise -- that the government must seek an individual warrant before spying on an American or someone living here legally. . . .

"The measure would not update FISA; it would gut it. It would allow the government to collect vast amounts of data at will from American citizens' e-mail and phone calls. The Center for National Security Studies said it might even be read to permit video surveillance without a warrant.

"This is a dishonest measure, dishonestly presented, and Congress should reject it. Before making any new laws, Congress has to get to the truth about Mr. Bush's spying program."

Cheney Again

And whose idea was the NSA spying program anyway?

Siobhan Gorman writes in the Baltimore Sun: "In the most detailed accounting to date of the origins of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, former CIA Director George J. Tenet says the effort was started at the urging of Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"Cheney's role at the inception of the NSA program had been hinted at previously in news reports that quoted anonymous sources, but Tenet's description [in his new book] is the first time it has been detailed on the record.

"In October 2001, Cheney asked Tenet if the NSA could do more to monitor al-Qaida, and Tenet called Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the NSA's director, to relay the message, Tenet says.

"Hayden 'made it clear we could do no more with existing authorities,' and he and Tenet met with Cheney, Tenet wrote. 'Mike laid out what could be done that would be feasible, prudent and effective.'

"Within a week, Tenet says, the NSA was authorized to pursue what President Bush has called the 'Terrorist Surveillance Program.' That program, as administration officials have described it, monitors conversations into and out of the United States of suspected al-Qaida operatives and their allies."

Impeaching Cheney

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Ohio congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's case to impeach Vice President Cheney "is persuasive, although his remedy may be too radical...

"[N]o one who reads Kucinich's case against Cheney can fail to conclude that this is a rational, serious accusation. It's possible that each individual charge can be rebutted, but the essence of it is shockingly apparent: We were being manipulated."

Kucinich, Cohen writes, "is on to something here. It is easy enough to ad hominize him to the margins -- ya know, the skinny guy among the 'real' presidential candidates -- but at a given moment, and this is one, he's the only one on that stage who articulates a genuine sense of betrayal. He is not out merely to win the nomination but to hold the Bush administration -- particularly Cheney -- accountable. In this he will fail. What Cheney has done is not impeachable. It is merely unforgivable."

Idol Chatter

TV critic Lisa de Moraes writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and first lady Laura Bush appeared as Giant Talking Heads on 'American Idol' last night to thank the American people for helping raise more than $70 million last week to donate to, among others, children who have suffered in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit and the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association whom Bush had put in charge of FEMA thoroughly botched the relief efforts.

"POTUS: We thank all the 'American Idol' viewers who have shown the good heart of America. We thank all the celebrities who participated, including Bono, and all the contestants who sang their hearts out for these children. Say, Laura, you think I ought to sing something?

"FL: I don't know, darling -- they've already seen you dance."

Bush's State of Mind

There is much discussion in the liberal blogosphere of an item in the influential, subscription-only Nelson Report earlier this week.

Think Progress has an excerpt: "[S]ome big money players up from Texas recently paid a visit to their friend in the White House. The story goes that they got out exactly one question, and the rest of the meeting consisted of The President in an extended whine, a rant, actually, about no one understands him, the critics are all messed up, if only people would see what he's doing things would be OK . . . etc., etc. This is called a 'bunker mentality' and it's not attractive when a friend does it. When the friend is the President of the United States, it can be downright dangerous. Apparently the Texas friends were suitably appalled, hence the story now in circulation."

Dinner Watch

Michael Calderone writes in the New York Observer with details of the New York Times decision to boycott the White House Correspondents Dinner -- and other such events -- from this point forward.

"The Times' final snuggle with the Bush administration was a memorable one. [Washington bureau chief Dean] Baquet, sat at Table 92 in the Washington Hilton ballroom, along with Maureen Dowd, Jim Rutenberg, Adam Nagourney, David Sanger, Douglas Jehl, Kate Phillips -- and Karl Rove, the President's bare-knuckled chief advisor and strategist.

"The Times' guest had been invited a few months earlier by Mr. Rutenberg, prior to the time that Mr. Baquet took over the bureau.

"Mr. Rove's presence led celebrity guests Sheryl Crow (a guest of Bloomberg News) and Laurie David (a guest of CNN) to confront him over environmental policy. Angry words ensued. Though the spat occurred at The Times' table, it was The Washington Post-- not The Times -- that broke the story the following day. . . .

"Mr. Baquet said that the decision to stop participating in the dinners 'has nothing to do with the Rove dustup.'

"Nevertheless, Mr. Baquet . . . said that he felt 'uncomfortable' with the entire night. . . .

"'I don't think there's any reportorial loss from not attending the dinners,' said Mr. Sanger. 'I think the imagery of these on television creates a false impression that we regularly sit around with members of the administration, laughing at each other's bad jokes. That's not what life in Washington is like, so it's probably just as well not to attend.' . . .

"'I'd say our distaste for these events has been cumulative,' wrote executive editor Bill Keller in an e-mail to The Observer. 'There was no one thing. Or maybe everybody has his or her own cringe-making moment. For me personally, the tipping point may have been watching Karl Rove on YouTube, doing a rap routine with reporters at the TV correspondents' dinner.' . . .

"'It's great as a spectacle,' said Peter Baker, the White House correspondent for The Washington Post. 'Go, don't go -- who cares? I have more of a problem with government institutions holding briefings with 40 reporters on background. That's what we should take a stand on. I don't think anybody is compromised by having a drink with a source and listening to bad comedy. All the Sturm und Drang over the dinners is a waste of time.'"

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