Bush Tries Moving the Goalposts

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 9, 2007; 1:54 PM

When President Bush announced in January that he was sending more troops to Iraq, he declared that the Iraqis needed to exploit the surge by following through on several promises.

"America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced," Bush said.

What would happen if the Iraqis failed? Aides at the time insisted that there would be consequences, without saying what or when. The president's own warning was hardly ominous: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people," he said -- long after that had already happened.

But at least the new policy held out some vague hope for accountability. Congress has since made the benchmarks more concrete, setting some deadlines if not for achieving the goals then at least for some progress reports from the president.

Now one of those deadlines is approaching, yet reality in Iraq continues as ever to defy Bush's expectations. So the question arises: What to do?

Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks write in Sunday's Washington Post: "The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy, according to senior administration officials closely involved in the matter. As they prepare an interim report due next week, officials are marshaling alternative evidence of progress to persuade Congress to continue supporting the war."

In other words, it's time to move the goalposts. Or, carrying the analogy further, to replace them with toothpicks.

As DeYoung and Ricks write, Bush had insisted that more troops "would enable the Iraqis to proceed this year with provincial elections and pass a raft of power-sharing legislation. In addition, he said, the government of President Nouri al-Maliki planned to 'take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November.'

"Congress expanded on Bush's benchmarks, writing 18 goals into law as part of the war-funding measure it passed in the spring.

"In addition to the elections, legislation and security measures Bush outlined in January, Congress added demands that the Iraqi government complete a revision of its constitution and enact a law on de-Baathification and additional laws on militia disarmament, regional boundaries and other issues."

Instead, "the administration will report that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are turning against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in growing numbers; that sectarian killings were down in June; and that Iraqi political leaders managed last month to agree on a unified response to the bombing of a major religious shrine, officials said. . . .

"But anything short of progress on the original benchmarks is unlikely to appease the growing ranks of disaffected Republican lawmakers who are urging Bush to develop a new strategy."

A New Strategy?

So is the administration considering a new strategy? DeYoung and Ricks write that "though some, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have indicated flexibility toward other options, including early troop redeployments, Bush has made no decisions on a possible new course.

"'The heart of darkness is the president,' the person said. 'Nobody knows what he thinks, even the people who work for him.'"

David E. Sanger writes in this morning's New York Times: "White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush's Iraq strategy are collapsing around them, according to several administration officials and outsiders they are consulting. They say that inside the administration, debate is intensifying over whether Mr. Bush should try to prevent more defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from the high-casualty neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities. . . .

"[S]ome aides are now telling Mr. Bush that if he wants to forestall more defections, it would be wiser to announce plans for a far more narrowly defined mission for American troops that would allow for a staged pullback, a strategy that he rejected in December as a prescription for defeat when it was proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. . . .

"Last week, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, called in from a brief vacation to join intense discussions in sessions that included Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's longtime strategist, and Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff. . . .

"The views of many of the participants in that discussion were unclear, and the officials interviewed could not provide any insight into what Vice President Dick Cheney had been telling President Bush.

"They described Mr. Hadley as deeply concerned that the loss of Republicans could accelerate this week, a fear shared by Mr. Rove. But they also said that Mr. Rove had warned that if Mr. Bush went too far in announcing a redeployment, the result could include a further cascade of defections -- and the passage of legislation that would force a withdrawal by a specific date, a step Mr. Bush has always said he would oppose."

I've long wondered how influential Rove was in setting military policy. There's a hint.

But there is usually some administration official or another willing to tell reporters that a change in strategy is around the corner. Consider another Sanger story, in which he reported that some Bush aides were hinting "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." When did Sanger write that? On Jan. 11, the day after Bush announced the surge.

And Terence Hunt reports for the Associated Press that White House Press Secretary Tony Snow this morning slapped down the Times story. "There is no debate right now on withdrawing forces right now from Iraq," Snow said.

"The president has said many times that as conditions require and merit that there will be in fact withdrawals and also pulling back from areas of Baghdad and so on," Snow said. "But the idea of trying to make a political judgment rather than a military judgment about how to have forces in the field is simply not true."

How to reconcile all this? One way is to hypothesize that there are indeed White House aides hoping for a change in strategy -- but they're not necessarily getting any traction.

Defection Watch

The Republican defections, however, are no small matter.

As Noam N. Levey wrote in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "Wearied by the lack of progress in Iraq and by the steady stream of military funerals back home, a growing number of Republican lawmakers who had stood loyally with President Bush are insisting his strategy has failed and are calling on him to bring the war to an end.

"In the last two weeks, three GOP senators -- including one of the party's leading voices on foreign affairs and one of Bush's strongest allies -- have urged the president to change course now so U.S. troops can start to withdraw.

"And Friday, in interviews with the Los Angeles Times, two more Senate Republicans bluntly voiced disappointment with the president's approach and pressed for change."

Robert D. Novak writes in his syndicated column: "National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley visited Capitol Hill just before Congress adjourned for the Fourth of July. Meetings with a half-dozen senior Republican senators were clearly intended to extinguish fires set by Sen. Richard Lugar's unexpected break from President Bush's Iraq policy. They failed. . . .

"Some senators were left with the impression that the White House still does not recognize the scope of the Iraq dilemma. Worse yet, they see the president running out the clock until April, when a depleted U.S. military can be blamed for the fiasco."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board pronounces: "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit. . . .

"While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs -- after elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush's plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost. . . .

"President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used demagoguery and fear to quell Americans' demands for an end to this war. They say withdrawing will create bloodshed and chaos and encourage terrorists. Actually, all of that has already happened -- the result of this unnecessary invasion and the incompetent management of this war.

"This country faces a choice. We can go on allowing Mr. Bush to drag out this war without end or purpose. Or we can insist that American troops are withdrawn as quickly and safely as we can manage -- with as much effort as possible to stop the chaos from spreading."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board, which called for withdrawal in May, writes: "Compromise has never been President Bush's strong point, but with Congress returning this week and the ranks of his congressional allies on the Iraq war diminishing fast, now would be a good time to start talking to lawmakers about the parameters of a pullout."

But retired Lt. General William Odom writes for NiemanWatchdog.org (where I serve as deputy editor) that Bush is not in any mood to compromise: "The president is strongly motivated to string out the war until he leaves office, in order to avoid taking responsibility for the defeat he has caused and persisted in making greater each year for more than three years.

"To force him to begin a withdrawal before then, the first step should be to rally the public by providing an honest and candid definition of what 'supporting the troops' really means and pointing out who is and who is not supporting our troops at war. The next step should be a flat refusal to appropriate money for to be used in Iraq for anything but withdrawal operations with a clear deadline for completion.

"The final step should be to put that president on notice that if ignores this legislative action and tries to extort Congress into providing funds by keeping U.S. forces in peril, impeachment proceeding will proceed in the House of Representatives. Such presidential behavior surely would constitute the 'high crime' of squandering the lives of soldiers and Marines for his own personal interest."

Blocking the Spin

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt writes: "As domestic support for the war in Iraq continues to melt away, President Bush and the United States military in Baghdad are increasingly pointing to a single villain on the battlefield: Al Qaeda. . . .

"Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story. So is the question of how well their version of events squares with the facts of a murky and rapidly changing situation on the ground.

"But these are stories you haven't been reading in The Times in recent weeks as the newspaper has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda's role in Iraq -- and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.

"And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn't even exist until after the American invasion.

"There is plenty of evidence that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is but one of the challenges facing the United States military and that overemphasizing it distorts the true picture of what is happening there. While a president running out of time and policy options may want to talk about a single enemy that Americans hate and fear in the hope of uniting the country behind him, journalists have the obligation to ask tough questions about the accuracy of his statements."

So what's the right way to do it? Hoyt calls attention to a Jonathan S. Landay story for McClatchy Newspapers, the day after Bush's speech at the Naval War College: "Facing eroding support for his Iraq policy, even among Republicans, President Bush on Thursday called al Qaida 'the main enemy' in Iraq, an assertion rejected by his administration's senior intelligence analysts."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald praises Hoyt's "extraordinary . . . watershed" column and concludes that "the defining practices of Judy Miller (blind, uncritical trust in the government's and military's sources) continue to shape and dominate much of the paper's coverage about Iraq and issues related to Iran."

Speaking of Spin

The IraqSlogger blog reports that Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the new spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, is fresh off a stint serving -- where else? -- at the White House.

Karl Rove Watch

And where could Bush possibly be getting his "It's all Al Qaeada" talking points?

Brent Gardner-Smith writes in the Aspen Daily News that Karl Rove spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday. "'Look, I make no apologies,' Rove said in response to a question from the audience about whether he felt personally responsible for the war."

Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson asked Rove who the enemy is.

"Rove said the enemy fell into three categories.

"First, he said that 80 to 90 percent of the bombs that are killing U.S. soldiers are from al-Qaida of Iraq. That differed from the opinion of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said in Aspen on Thursday that al-Qaida was only 10 percent of the problem in Iraq.

"Second, Rove said that Sunni insurgents were fighting the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, although he pointed out that in some areas, Sunnis were now working closely with American forces to rid certain cities of foreign al-Qaida fighters.

"Third, Rove said that 'criminal elements' were playing a large role, and he included the Shiite militias in Iraq in this category."

Powell's 'Warning'

Also over the weekend at Aspen, Sarah Baxter reports for the Times of London that "former American secretary of state Colin Powell has revealed that he spent 2½ hours vainly trying to persuade President George W Bush not to invade Iraq. . . .

"'I tried to avoid this war,' Powell said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. 'I took him through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.'"

White House to Congress: Drop Dead

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush invoked executive privilege Monday to deny requests by Congress for testimony from two former aides about the firings of federal prosecutors. . . .

"In a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary panels, White House counsel Fred Fielding insisted that Bush was acting in good faith and refused lawmakers' demand that the president explain the basis for invoking the privilege.

"Retorted House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers:

"'Contrary what the White House may believe, it is the Congress and the courts that will decide whether an invocation of executive privilege is valid, not the White House unilaterally,' the Michigan Democrat said in a statement. . . .

"Fielding was responding to a 10 a.m. EDT deadline set by the Democratic chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Conyers, for the White House to explain it's privilege claim, prove that the president personally invoked it and provide logs of which documents were being withheld.

"As expected, Fielding refused to comply. He said he was acting at Bush's direction, and he complained that the committees had decided to enforce the subpoenas whether or not the White House complied.

"'The committees have already prejudged the question, regardless of the production of any privilege log,' Fielding wrote. 'In such circumstances, we will not be undertaking such a project, even as a further accommodation.'"

Peter Baker anticipated all this in his Sunday Washington Post story, in which he wrote: "Such an action would escalate the constitutional struggle and propel it closer to a court showdown. . . .

"The Senate and House judiciary committees issued five subpoenas seeking documents and testimony by [Sara M.] Taylor, who until six weeks ago was the White House political director, and [Harriet] Miers, the former White House counsel. Bush asserted executive privilege June 28 in refusing to respond to the subpoenas for documents, and the committees then demanded that he provide a legal basis and a records log.

"The log, according to the committees, should describe each document withheld, including its source, subject matter, date and recipients. White House officials viewed the request as a backdoor attempt to get sensitive information about deliberations, the sources said. . . .

"Lanny A. Breuer, who was a White House special counsel under President Bill Clinton during many fights with Congress and special prosecutors over executive privilege, said it is highly unusual to refuse to provide even a privilege log describing the basis for withholding documents. The Clinton White House, he said, regularly provided such logs.

"'The White House position is extremely weak,' Breuer said. 'You can invoke privilege if it's honestly believed, but Congress has an absolute right to understand the basis on which you're claiming privilege."

One Last Chance at Compromise?

Leahy and ranking Republican Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter had an intriguing on-air exchange on CNN yesterday:

"SPECTER: One thing we haven't done is asked for a meeting with the president. Why don't you and John Conyers and I ask for a meeting with the president? We may be a little tired of dealing with his lawyer.

"LEAHY: Why don't you and I chat about this tomorrow when we're on the [Senate] floor, so we won't be having to be taking up Wolf's time on this thing."

Scooter Libby Watch

John Heilprin writes for the Associated Press: "The Democrat probing President Bush's decision to erase the prison sentence of a former White House aide said Sunday there is 'the suspicion' the aide might have fingered others in the Bush administration if he served time.

"House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers [on ABC] spoke of 'the general impression' that Bush last week commuted I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's 2 1/2 year sentence in the CIA leak case to keep Libby quiet. . . .

"'What we have here -- and I think we should put it on the table right at the beginning -- is that the suspicion was that if Mr. Libby went to prison, he might further implicate other people in the White House, and that there was some kind of relationship here that does not exist in any of President Clinton's pardons, nor, according to those that we've talked to ... is that it's never existed before, ever,' Conyers said in a broadcast interview Sunday.

"A White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, said in response: 'That's a fairly ridiculous and baseless assertion. It may be impossible to plumb the depths of Chairman Conyers' 'suspicions', but we can hope this one is near the bottom.'"

Here's Leahy on CNN: "I mean, this was, actually in my view, a blatant way of guaranteeing that Scooter Libby would not talk about the things that were done, you know, some of the misleading information given out by Vice President Cheney and the president. They led us into this war in Iraq, and they bought his silence."

Sen. Charles Schumer said on CBS that he had spoken to Leahy about calling special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald before the Judiciary panel. Schumer said: "You know, he's not allowed to talk about what happened before the grand jury, but he did interview the president and the vice president not before a grand jury, and he might have some very interesting things to say."

Leahy said he might indeed call Fitzgerald, adding: "It would do no good to call Scooter Libby. His silence has been bought and paid for, and he would just take the fifth."

How Bush Decided

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek that Bush was apparently caught between the facts -- and Dick Cheney.

"Uncharacteristically, Bush himself delved into the details. He was especially keen to know if there was compelling evidence that might contradict the jury's verdict that Libby had lied to a federal grand jury about when -- and from whom -- he learned the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, wife of Iraq War critic Joe Wilson. But Fielding, one of the advisers tells Newsweek, reluctantly concluded that the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: the evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak.

"The president was conflicted. He hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time. Hanging over his deliberations was Cheney, who had said he was 'very disappointed' with the jury's verdict. Cheney did not directly weigh in with Fielding, but nobody involved had any doubt where he stood. 'I'm not sure Bush had a choice,' says one of the advisers. 'If he didn't act, it would have caused a fracture with the vice president.'"

Eleanor Clift writes for Newsweek: "Looking back at the trial, it was as inevitable as night following day that President Bush would find a way to get Libby off the hook. The fix was in when Libby's high-priced legal team mounted a curiously passive defense. After pointing to Vice President Cheney as an instigator in the Plame naming, hinting they might even call the veep to testify, they abruptly backed off, slow-walking Libby toward conviction with no alibi for his lies other than that he didn't remember. As legal eagles, they didn't impress, but they did preserve the pardon option."

She adds: "Silencing Libby is part of a larger narrative to cover up the trail of deception and manipulation that led us to war."

Via ThinkProgress, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol talks about the timing of Bush's announcement: "Here's why the president acted the way he did. He knew Bill Clinton was joining Hillary in Iowa on July 4th.

"No, I'm serious. So on July 2d, Ed Gillespie, who's a very canny Republican operator, said, Let's pardon Libby. Clinton will rise to the bait, and we could spend the last half of the week debating the unbelievable Clinton pardons against the defensible Bush pardon.

"So I regard this as an extremely clever Machiavellian move by the president. It cheers me up. It cheers me up about the Bush White House, and I'm really heartened."

See my Friday column, The Clinton-Did-It Flimflam.

Bush-Cheney Fatigue

Byron York writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "'Bush fatigue has set in,' declares one plugged-in GOP activist.

"'We're ready for a new president,' says a former state Republican Party official in the South.

"'There was affection,' opines a conservative strategist based well beyond the Beltway, 'but now they're in divorce court.'"

And Cheney is faring no better.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Cheney's relentless advocacy of the Iraq war, his push to expand presidential authority and his hard-line rhetoric toward North Korea and Iran are raising concerns even among former loyalists now worried about the GOP's chances in 2008.

"It seems Cheney fatigue is settling in some Republican circles."

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Yorker, assesses the recent Post series on Cheney: "[T]he pattern that emerges from the accumulated weight of the reporting is, as the lawyers say, dispositive. Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney... has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable 'war on terror.'"

Sean Wilentz writes in a New York Times op-ed how the roots of Cheney's "quest to accumulate unaccountable executive power" can be traced back to the minority report of the Iran-Contra Committee 20 years ago.

Impeachment Watch

AFP reports: "Nearly half of the US public wants President George W. Bush to face impeachment, and even more favor that fate for Vice President Dick Cheney, according to a poll out Friday.

"The survey by the American Research Group found that 45 percent support the US House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against Bush, with 46 percent opposed, and a 54-40 split in favor when it comes to Cheney."

According to the American Research Group poll:

*64% of Americans disapprove of Bush's commutation of Libby's prison sentence.

* 84% of Americans oppose a complete presidential pardon for Libby.

* 45% of Americans favor and 46% oppose the House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against Bush.

* 54% of Americans favor and 40% oppose the House beginning impeachment proceedings against Cheney.

Press Room Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are scheduled to welcome the White House press corps back to its newly refurbished digs in the West Wing on Wednesday morning. For the past 11 months, reporters have been working out of temporary quarters in the White House conference center, just west of Lafayette Square. . . .

"The new podium from which the press secretary and other officials brief reporters is framed by two white columns and is flanked by twin 45-inch flat screens that will illustrate the White House's spin on events."

Fish Story

C.J. Chivers writes in the New York Times: "By all available evidence, [Russian president Vladimir Putin] caught a striped bass from the waters near Kennebunkport, Maine. The question was: how big was it?

"Mr. Putin was photographed holding his catch on former President George H. W. Bush's boat, revealing a striped bass that appeared to experienced fishing eyes to be slightly more than 20 inches long. The three presidents on deck said that Mr. Putin's fish was the day's only catch. . . .

"By the time the fishermen reached shore, Mr. Putin's striped bass had grown. Former President Bush told reporters it was 31 inches long."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Dicko; Ann Telnaes on running out the clock.

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