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Low Expectations for Cheney Trip

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 9, 2007; 12:52 PM

When it comes to today's visit by the beleaguered, credibility-challenged vice president to leaders of the fractured, mostly powerless government of war-torn Iraq, the White House is setting expectations appropriately low.

On board Vice President Cheney's plane, as it made a not-entirely-unexpected stop in Iraq at the start of a weeklong tour of the Middle East, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters that one of Cheney's main goals was to pressure Iraqi leaders not to go on vacation for two months in the middle of what is shaping up to be a highly decisive summer.

Cheney is likely to be able to claim success on this front -- if no other. That's because signs are that his goal has already been accomplished

Michael Gordon writes in today's New York Times that Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who was in Washington yesterday lobbying American lawmakers, has already gotten the message that the vacation plan has been infuriating war supporters and opponents alike.

Rubaie, Gordon writes, "asserted that the Iraqi Parliament would abbreviate its traditional two-month summer vacation and take perhaps no more than a week off."

Hooray for Cheney! Can victory in Iraq be far behind?

'Game Time'

The other message Cheney brings: "It's game time" -- raising the question what has it been up until now exactly?

Todd J. Gillman of the Dallas Morning News is liveblogging the vice president's trip -- complete with photos -- as well as filing pool reports to his print colleagues.

Gillman writes in a pool report that "according to a senior administration official who gaggled en route and on background, the message Cheney is bringing boils down to this:

"'We've all got challenges together. We've got to pull together. We've got to get this work done. It's game time.'

"The urgency of the situation also came through as this same senior official said: 'Everybody's got to sit down, raise their game, redouble their efforts.'"

(Based on this senior administration official's use of the third-person when referring to Cheney, we'll just have to assume it's not the vice president himself, as it was in a now-notorious background briefing during Cheney's last international trip, in February -- see my Feb. 28 column, Cheney's Rules for the Press. Instead, we can reasonably assume it was one of the three top aides Gillman reports are traveling with Cheney in Iraq: his chief of staff, David Addington; his national security adviser, John Hannah; and Hannah's deputy, Samantha Ravich.

Gillman continues: "The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, traveling with the VP from Andrews AFB, joined the gaggle, on the record. He suggested the VP would pressure Iraqi leaders. Regarding the parliament's current plan to take a two-month recess, both he and the senior official reiterated US annoyance with the idea of a long recess and said it's likely something Cheney will press in his meetings.

"Crocker: 'That's clearly part of the message. It's been part of the message now for some time. I've said it. Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice has said it. I'm confident the vice president is going to say it. The reality is, with the major effort we're making, the major effort the Iraqi security forces and military are making themselves, for the Iraqi parliament to take a two-month vacation in the middle of summer is impossible to understand.'"

As for Cheney's itinerary? Gillman writes: "The vice president won't be strolling any Baghdad markets. It's all meetings, back to back meetings."

And just how surprised were reporters by this change in plans? Not so much. Gillman writes in a pool report: "In the run-up to the trip, the pool diligently pressed Cheney aides whether there would be an Iraq leg. They never outright denied it, sticking instead to the line that it was not on the schedule, which included a couple of plausible holes into which such a side trip might fit. It wasn't until after wheels-up from Andrews that we were told Cheney was going to Iraq. None of the poolers accepted the offer to skip Iraq. Some aides, and daughter Liz Cheney, flew separately to the United Arab Emirates, splitting off when we got to England."

Or, as Gillman puts it in a blog post: "For us, the question hadn't been whether, but when -- would he slip into Iraq at the outset of the six-day trip, or toward the end."

Here is the transcript of Cheney's brief remarks alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki: "We've talked about a wide range of issues here in Iraq as well as the region, focusing of course on things like the Baghdad security plan, ongoing operations against terrorists, as well as the political and economic issues that are before the Iraqi government," Cheney said.

Will the Iraqi leaders heed Cheney's advice to "raise the game"? That's an important question, but quite possibly not the most essential that reporters covering his visit should address in tomorrow's coverage. A more skeptical view of Cheney's visit would be that the leaders he is talking to are incapable of heeding his advice -- not out of stubbornness or malice, but because they a bunch of impotent figureheads.

Iraq's "central government," such as it is, holds little sway outside the fortified green zone, and its leaders may very well be powerless to control the forces unleashed by the U.S. invasion that are now tearing their country apart. Similarly, while the personal stature of these leaders is dependent on the continued presence of U.S. troops, that same presence may be causing more chaos than it solves.

A Reminder

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday that Iraq remains a dangerous place, a point underscored by a thunderous explosion that rattled windows in the U.S. embassy where he spent most of the day.

"After talks with Iraqi military and political officials, the vice president said Iraq's leaders seem to have a better sense now that they need to do more to reconcile sectarian and political differences.

"'I think they recognize it's in their interests as well as ours to make progress on the political front,' Cheney said.

"Cheney spoke less than an hour after an explosion could be heard in the U.S. embassy where he spent most of the day. Windows rattled and reporters covering the vice president were briefly moved to a more secure area.

"Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride: 'His meeting was not disturbed and he was not moved.'"

Flashback to 2005

This is Cheney's second trip to Baghdad. His first was in December 2005.

Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri covered that trip for The Washington Post: "Shrouded in fortified compounds and shuttled between venues by squadrons of helicopters, Cheney came on a day that underscored the deep economic and security challenges the country faces."

After meeting with Iraqi and American officials, Cheney delivered a speech to troops at an Air Force base.

"There, Cheney addressed the roiling public debate in the United States over how long American troops should remain in Iraq.

"'I know most of you have heard the political debates that have been going on back home,' he said. 'You've heard some prominent voices advocating a sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. Some have suggested this war is not winnable. And a few seem almost eager to conclude that the struggle is already over. But they are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit. And that is not an option.'

"Afterward, he took questions from a group of 30 troops in a large tent. 'From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains,' Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren told Cheney. 'I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain -- how Iraq's looking.'

"'Well, Iraq's looking good,' Cheney responded. 'It's hard sometimes, if you look at just the news, to have the good stories burn through. Part of it is that what we're doing here, obviously, takes time. From our perspective, looking back, as I say, to a year and a half ago, I think it's remarkable progress. I think we've turned the corner, if you will. I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq.'

"Cheney . . . also discussed the possibility of American forces eventually withdrawing 'to a few locations' in Iraq, which would 'reduce the total number of personnel we need here.'

"'I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns probably within this next year,' he said."

Is Anybody Listening?

While it's unclear whether Iraqi leaders will listen to Cheney, it's quite clear that his own citizens have largely tuned him and the president out.

Susan Page and William Risser write in USA Today: "Most Americans don't believe that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is the key to preventing a full-scale civil war there or protecting the United States from new terrorist attacks, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.

"The results of the poll, taken Friday through Sunday, underscore the limited traction the Bush administration's arguments have gotten as White House officials and congressional Democrats negotiate an interim bill to finance the war.

"Amid broad pessimism about what's ahead for Iraq and the region, one-third of those surveyed would be bothered 'a great deal' if the United States is seen as losing the war. One in four would be bothered 'not at all.'

"'We lost the war when we went there,' says Judy Champion, 58, a nurse from Indianapolis who was among those surveyed. 'I don't think there is a 'win' situation there. Every time we lose another soldier it's just more loss.'

"Six in 10 support setting a timetable for withdrawal and sticking to it regardless of what's happening in Iraq; 36% say the United States should keep troops in Iraq until the situation there improves . . .

"Only 22% of Americans accept the administration's argument that U.S. forces in Iraq are preventing new terror attacks on the United States; 17% say the troop presence is making those attacks more likely. Another 58% say the U.S. deployment doesn't affect it either way."

CNN reports, similarly: "A majority of the U.S. public disapproves of President Bush's decision to veto a war spending bill that called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in 2008, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday.

"The poll found that 54 percent of Americans opposed Bush's May 1 veto. . . .

"Now that the veto has been cast, 57 percent of Americans said they want Congress to send another spending bill with a timetable for withdrawal back to the White House, the poll found -- but 61 percent would support a new bill that dropped the timetables in favor of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet to maintain American support."

Surging Away

Meanwhile, despite all the talk of September being a decisive deadline of sorts, Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "The Pentagon announced yesterday that 35,000 soldiers in 10 Army combat brigades will begin deploying to Iraq in August as replacements, making it possible to sustain the increase of U.S. troops there until at least the end of this year.

"U.S. commanders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that heightened troop levels, announced by President Bush in January, will need to last into the spring of 2008. The military has said it would assess in September how well its counterinsurgency strategy, intended to pacify Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, is working.

"'The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure,' said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander for U.S. military operations in Iraq. . . .

"'What I am trying to do is to get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not,' he said in an interview in Baghdad last week. 'Are we making progress? If we're not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we're making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge.'"

The New Democratic Proposal

Karen DeYoung and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "A House Democratic proposal introduced yesterday that would give President Bush half of the money he has requested for the war effort, with a vote in July on whether to approve the rest, hinges on progress in meeting political benchmarks that Iraq has thus far found difficult to achieve.

"The House measure, which could come to a vote as early as tomorrow, would substantially raise the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to meet lagging commitments -- including new laws on oil revenue and de-Baathification, constitutional revisions, provincial elections and the demobilization of militias -- that Bush has said are crucial to the success of the U.S. military strategy.

"The plan would make about $43 billion of the administration's requested $95.5 billion immediately available to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, train troops from both nations and pay for other military needs. Congress's approval of the rest, intended to last through September, would await Iraqi passage of restructuring laws, or Bush's ability to prove that significant progress had been made. The July vote would mark the first time a mandatory funding cutoff would come before Congress.

"Most of the anticipated Iraqi changes are locked in disputes among and within regional and sectarian groups, and some have moved further from agreement in recent weeks."

Is That a Threat?

At yesterday's White House briefing, press secretary Tony Snow came awfully close to saying that the Democratic legislation -- not the continued surge - would result in longer tours for American service members.

"[Y]ou get into a situation like this where you do not have predictable funding. It means that in some cases you're going to delay deployments. It's enormously expensive to move forces around, so it means that not only would you delay deployments in some cases, you also may have to prolong tours at the same time. . . .

"Q Prolonging tours? They may have to prolong tours? You just prolonged tours -- your Pentagon just prolonged the tours to 15 months. Are you saying that if they do this short-term bill it may be even longer than 15 months?

"MR. SNOW: I'm just saying -- you have to ask yourself what the unintended consequences are of cutting off funding and making it impossible to do things that are expensive, but planned -- like moving people in and out. I'm just saying that is one of the possible outcomes.

"Q So a possible outcome is tours longer than 15 months?

"MR. SNOW: I don't know, Martha. You have to talk about particular units."

U.S. Attorney Watch

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "If the White House did nothing improper in the controversial firing of eight U.S. Attorneys last year, why would top officials in the Justice Department, perhaps including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have tried to conceal its role in the dismissals?

"That question has come into focus as congressional investigators follow the trail of an e-mail sent February 7, 2007 by Gonzales' spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. In the message he told two top Gonzales aides that the Attorney General was 'extremely upset' that his deputy, Paul McNulty, had told the Senate Judiciary committee the day before that one of the attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, had been fired to make room for an aide to Karl Rove.

"When the Roehrkasse e-mail came to light, he told the press that Gonzales had been upset because he believed that 'Bud Cummins' removal involved performance considerations.' But on April 15, Congressional sources tell Time, Gonzales' former chief of staff Kyle Sampson told a different story. During a private interview with Judiciary Committee staffers Sampson said three times in as many minutes that Gonzales was angry with McNulty because he had exposed the White House's involvement in the firings -- had put it's role 'in the public sphere,' as Sampson phrased it, according to Congressional sources familiar with the interview."

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is challenging a House panel to move past the furor over the firings of U.S. attorneys and allow the Justice Department to focus on its mission: fighting crime.

"In testimony prepared for his appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday, Gonzales also acknowledged that he should have been more personally involved in the process. He apologized for the way Justice handled the firings.

"'I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way,' Gonzales said in remarks prepared for the House Judiciary Committee, which were obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press."

With typical Associated Press understatement, Kellman writes: "It will likely be a tough sell."

In fact, didn't that Gonzalez quote sound a bit familiar? It's lifted in its entirety from his disastrous April 19 Senate testimony.

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "An aide to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) urged the White House to replace the U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., months before Todd P. Graves's name was included on a Justice Department list of federal prosecutors the Bush administration was thinking of pushing out of their jobs."

The call was made by the senator's former counsel, Jack Bartling.

"Bond's communications director, Shana Marchio, said that, around the time Graves resigned, administration officials told the senator's staff that Bartling's prodding did not prompt the prosecutor's departure but that they had 'their own reasons' for wanting him removed. Marchio said they did not specify the reasons."

Wolfowitz Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. on Tuesday endorsed the request by Paul D. Wolfowitz, the World Bank president, for more time to defend himself against charges of misconduct, seeking a delay that could also give the Bush administration time to negotiate his voluntary resignation. . . .

"European officials, asking not to be quoted by name because of the delicacy of the matter, say they believe that Mr. Paulson is sympathetic to their concern that Mr. Wolfowitz has been so wounded by the furor over charges of favoritism that he can no longer lead the bank or work with its board of directors.

"They say that the Treasury chief has listened to proposals that Mr. Wolfowitz be allowed to resign in return for European backing for the United States to nominate his successor, but that he has not begun negotiations to advance such a deal.

"Administration officials say Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser are, for now, adamant that Mr. Wolfowitz not be ousted.

"A Republican close to the White House said Mr. Rove telephoned Mr. Wolfowitz late last month to urge him to keep fighting for his job. But that Republican also said there were limits to what the White House could do."

Kansas Watch

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "As President Bush prepared to visit a tornado-ravaged Kansas town today, the White House and the state's Democratic governor sought to play down a dispute over National Guard readiness."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration and Kansas' governor started Tuesday pointing fingers at each other over the response to last week's devastating tornado. By lunchtime, both sides had backed down."

Signing Statement Watch

Jonathan E. Kaplan and Elana Schor write in The Hill: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is threatening to take President Bush to court if he issues a signing statement as a way of sidestepping a carefully crafted compromise Iraq war spending bill.

"Pelosi recently told a group of liberal bloggers, 'We can take the president to court' if he issues a signing statement, according to Kid Oakland, a blogger who covered Pelosi's remarks for the liberal website dailykos.com."

The Royal Visit

Jitendra Joshi writes for AFP on the dinner held at the British Embassy last night.

"At the start of the dinner, the queen had the last laugh over the president a day after the gaffe-prone Bush nearly put her age at well over 200 years.

"With a mischievous grin on her face, Elizabeth said to roars of laughter: 'Mr. President, I wondered whether I should start this toast saying, 'When I was here in 1776'.' Bush replied: 'Your Majesty, I can't top that one.'

"The latest Bush-ism had come on Monday during a ceremonial welcome for the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, 85, outside the White House ahead of a white-tie state banquet.

"Bush said Elizabeth had visited the United States 'in 17 -- in 1976' to mark the 200th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence from Britain. He then winked at the queen and joked: 'She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child.'

"In Britain, scornful newspapers labeled Bush 'Dumb Dubya' and said he has a 'gift for the gaffe.'

Here is last night's exchange of toasts.

Dinner Guests

Avni Patel blogs for ABC News: "An Arizona car dealer, an interior designer and a former Enron executive were among the 18 major Republican donors invited to the dine with the Queen of England, along with celebrities, members of Congress and Bush administration officials, at [Monday] night's White House white-tie state dinner. . . .

"Republicans were highly critical of President Bill Clinton when he rewarded big contributors with invitations to state dinners.

"The 18 major donors on last night's guest list each raised and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush and the Republican party over the past decade, according to an ABC News analysis of campaign contribution data available at Opensecrets.org."

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts also deconstruct the guest list in The Washington Post.

Richard Wolffe, one of the four journalists actually invited as guests to the state dinner on Monday night, writes for Newsweek about his experience: "Maybe it was the white tie and tails. Or maybe it was the backdrop of a four-year-old war and 28 percent approval ratings.

"But the state dinner at the White House on Monday night was an otherworldly event--marking if not the end of an era, then the beginning of the end. . . .

"[I]t was the Queen herself--whose speeches are often rather milquetoast -- who helped remind the audience that a leader's time in power is fleeting, and that the harsh judgment of history is close at hand. . . .

"'That is the lesson of my lifetime,' she concluded. 'Administrations in your country, and governments in mine, may come and go. But talk we will; listen we have to disagree from time to time we may; but united we must always remain.' The words hung heavy in the room - a reminder that the clock is ticking on both the Bush administration, which is fighting to stay relevant as talk of the 2008 campaign takes over, and the Blair reign in Britain."

Commencement Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Finding fine speaking venues at graduation is never easy for late-second-termers, as President Bush is learning. Whereas he once spoke at Ohio State or the University of Texas, now he's left with Florida community colleges or small schools in rural areas that are run by former aides.

"But it looks as if it won't be smooth sailing Friday, even when Bush speaks at Saint Vincent College, a small Benedictine school in Latrobe, Pa., run by Jim Towey, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives."

Sopranos Watch

Kamen also notes, from Sunday night's episode of The Sopranos: "Carmella was in bed reading 'Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush.' That's the excellent book written by Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes that some critics have said is a bit too adulatory."

Al Jazeera Watch

The Associated Press reports: "A British civil servant was convicted Wednesday of leaking a classified memo about a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush in a breach of the Official Secrets Act.

"David Keogh, a cipher expert, had admitted passing on the secret memo about April 2004 talks between the two leaders in which Bush purportedly referred to bombing Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera. . . .

"Keogh, 50, told London's Central Criminal Court he felt strongly about the memo, which he had to relay to diplomats overseas using secure methods, and hoped it would come to wider attention."

For the record: It is still unclear to this day, as I wrote in my December 2, 2005 column, whether Bush actually raised the idea of bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network with Blair that day -- and if so, was he serious or was he joking?

The White House response -- "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response" and "Any such notion that America would do something like that is absurd" -- remain classic non-denial denials.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today, taking your questions and comments.

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on after the dinner.

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