A Karl Rove Solution for Iraq?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 12:34 PM

To the extent that Karl Rove still has a reputation as a political genius, he owes it to his signature move: Faced with potential political disaster, Rove never plays defense, he doesn't change course, he attacks the problem head on -- and tries to co-opt the opposition's position.

So it should come as no great surprise that, confronted with a tide of anti-war sentiment and a growing number of defecting Republican lawmakers, the White House is changing not its policy on Iraq, but its message.

Enter the new White House talking point: You want out? We want out, too!

It's a message that has the potential to deflate the growing public frenzy against President Bush's Iraq policy, except for one small problem: It's just talk.

The public wants the bulk of U.S. troops out of Iraq in less than a year. End of story. But the Bush policy is that a drawdown will not take place until certain conditions are met. And the evidence is mounting that even with all the extra troops sent to Iraq since January, those conditions are nowhere near being met. In fact, the kind of Iraq the administration envisions seems more unattainable than ever.

Unless Bush revises his goals, puts forth definitive deadlines or timetables to which he can be held accountable, and stops pretending that he can predict the future in Iraq, then this new talk from the White House should be dismissed as just that.

The Coverage

Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, facing a growing Republican revolt against his Iraq policy, has rejected calls to change course but will launch a campaign emphasizing his intent to draw down U.S. forces next year and move toward a more limited mission if security conditions improve, senior officials said yesterday. . . .

"Bush plans to lay out what an aide called 'his vision for the post-surge' starting in Cleveland today to assure the nation that he, too, wants to begin bringing troops home eventually.

"The White House devised the political strategy after days of intense internal discussions about how to respond to several prominent Republican senators who have broken with Bush's war policy recently. Bush decided against heeding their proposal to begin redeploying U.S. troops as early as this summer, but he and his team concluded that he needed to shift his message to show that he shares the goals of his increasingly restless Republican caucus and the broader public."

Baker and DeYoung write that "the president has mapped out a best-case scenario for Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009, that would still see considerable numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, but in a different role. If events work out as Bush hopes, aides said, U.S. forces by then will have sharply reduced their mission, pulling out of sectarian combat and focusing instead on fighting al-Qaeda, guarding Iraq's borders and supporting Iraqi troops."

But counting on Bush's hopes for Iraq has been a fool's game thus far. And Baker and DeYoung write that "key Republican senators have indicated that they would not be satisfied with a change in political spin over a real change in strategy."

Panic Mode

Other reports describe a White House in a bit of tizzy.

Martha Raddatz reports: "ABC News has been told the White House is in 'panic mode' over the recent defections of Republican senators on the president's stay-the-course policy in Iraq.

"Senior Bush administration officials are deep in discussion about how to find a compromise that will 'appease Democrats and keep wobbly Republicans onboard,' a senior White House official told ABC News.

"The official said the White House 'is in panic mode,' despite Monday's on-the-record briefing by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who played down any concern over the recent spate of GOP senators who have spoken out publicly in support of changing course in Iraq.

"The Republican defections are seen as 'a crack in the dike,' according to the senior White House official, and National Security Adviser Steven Hadley is most concerned."

Thomas M. DeFrank and Richard Sisk write in the New York Daily News: "'I don't know what they're up to,' said a top Bush adviser, 'but they're up to something. They're cooking something new up.'"

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux tells Anderson Cooper that some White House aides are worried. "The big concern, many are telling me, is that this White House fears it's going to lose its ability to manage the war. As one official put it, nobody wants to lose control to Congress.

"The other thing that they are concerned about inside of the White House is that . . . nobody has figured out what this alternative policy would be to the present one. . . .

"COOPER: So, they are, behind the scenes, discussing some sort of Plan B?

"MALVEAUX: They are trying to come up with a Plan B. What people are saying is that they don't have a Plan B at this time. And what they are trying to do is, they are desperately trying to buy time here."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Allowing himself to be forced to retreat from Iraq would ruin George W. Bush's fantasy of someday being seen as a latter-day Churchill. . . .

"I don't see how anyone can realistically expect Bush to change course at this late date. It wouldn't be 'resolute,' in his understanding of the word, to acknowledge that he made a terrible mistake. What he can do instead is play for time and hope for some sort of deus ex machina that miraculously saves the day."

On the Hill

Meanwhile, Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "In a new series of votes on Iraq expected to begin today, Democrats will attempt to break the united Republican front that has sustained Bush and make their toughest push yet to enact firm dates for bringing the war to an end. . . .

"'We have an opportunity in the next couple of weeks to truly change our Iraq strategy,' said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). 'For those Senate Republicans who are saying the right things on Iraq, they must put their words into action by voting with us to change course and responsibly end this war.'"

Benchmark Watch

Anne Flaherty and Anne Gearan write for the Associated Press: "A progress report on Iraq will conclude that the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has not met any of its targets for political, economic and other reforms, speeding up the Bush administration's reckoning on what to do next, a U.S. official said Monday."

CNN's Michael Ware explains to Anderson Cooper why none of the benchmarks is being met.

"MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Because, to be honest, it's not really in the interests of the main power players here in Iraq to meet them.

"These are American agendas, American benchmarks. These aren't the benchmarks that the factions within the Iraqi government really care about. What they care about is getting their hands on their own security forces and setting them loose as they see fit.

"And, don't forget, a lot of these benchmarks strike at the deepest, most heartfelt divisions politically and in terms of the sectarian divide that exist in this country. None of them are easy fixes. And in none of them is it really in the interests of those who hold power to meet them. They just want to keep their power -- Anderson.

"COOPER: So, essentially, you're saying they don't see themselves as part of a larger Iraq. They don't see themselves as a ruling of -- all the people of Iraq, as we think about a democracy. They still see themselves as factions, and they are trying to hold on to turf and power.

"WARE: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the concept of a national unity government, as the Bush administration calls this thing that they describe as the Iraqi government, is laughed at, even by some of the senior members of this government itself."

Investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss, writing on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I serve as deputy editor), raises similar points about a tragic misunderstanding of Iraqi domestic politics, with U.S. supporting all the wrong factions. Furthermore, he asks: "Can any government or political party that has American support succeed in Iraq? Or is American support effectively the kiss of death for an Iraqi politician? Corrupt and venal Iraqi leaders, squatting in bunkers in the Green Zone, might welcome American support and American money -- but do they have any 'street cred' whatsoever?"

Be Very Afraid

The other pincer in Rove's signature political approach is to spread fear. So it should come as no great surprise that administration mouthpieces are stepping up the scary rhetoric.

John F. Burns and Alissa J. Rubin write in the New York Times: "As the Senate prepares to begin a new debate this week on proposals for a withdrawal from Iraq, the United States ambassador and the Iraqi foreign minister are warning that the departure of American troops could lead to sharply increased violence, the deaths of thousands and a regional conflict that could draw in Iraq's neighbors. . . .

"Mr. Crocker's remarks echoed warnings that have been made for months by President Bush and other administration officials. But Mr. Crocker, a career diplomat, seemed eager to emphasize that the report he and Gen. David H. Petraeus are to make in September -- an event Mr. Bush and his war critics have presented as a watershed moment -- would represent their professional judgment, unburdened by any reflex to back administration policy. . . .

"General Petraeus, too, has warned in recent months that while there is a high price for staying in Iraq, including mounting American casualties, the price for leaving could be higher than many war critics have acknowledged. Some opponents of the war have argued the contrary, saying that keeping American troops in Iraq provokes much of the violence and that withdrawing could force Iraq's feuding politicians into burying their sectarian differences."

Crocker also endorsed the new administration rhetoric I described in Monday's column, Bush Tries Moving the Goalposts.

Burns and Rubin write: "The ambassador also suggested what is likely to be another core element of the approach that he and General Petraeus will take to the September report: that the so-called benchmarks for Iraqi government performance set by Congress in a defense authorization bill this spring may not be the best way of assessing whether the United States has a partner in the Baghdad government that warrants continued American military backing. 'The longer I'm here, the more I'm persuaded that Iraq cannot be analyzed by these kind of discrete benchmarks,' he said."

Executive Privilege

David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "President Bush invoked a broad interpretation of executive privilege on Monday in his confrontation with Congress over the dismissal of federal prosecutors, refusing to comply with subpoenas for documents and blocking testimony from former White House aides."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's decision to defy congressional demands for documents and testimony in the U.S. attorneys case leaves Democrats with a difficult choice of lowering their sights in the investigation or facing a long and uncertain court fight. . . .

"The apparent unwillingness of the White House to engage in the sort of political compromise that has marked such subpoena battles in the past has put the tug-of-war in uncertain terrain. Congress is left having to decide whether to move forward with rancorous contempt proceedings against administration officials or accept a limited offer of cooperation that White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding renewed Monday in a letter to congressional leaders. . . .

"'Whether out of arrogance or principled conviction, the current administration has seemed all but oblivious to the political downside of insisting on executive-branch secrecy,' said Peter M. Shane, an expert on executive privilege at the Ohio State law school. 'Given that no one in the White House is seeking reelection, it is unclear whether they will compromise, short of receiving some extraordinary pressure from congressional Republicans who may be more concerned than the president with appearing to represent the 'party of cover-up.' ' . . .

"'I think Congress has a very legitimate right to see whether there is corruption and illegality within the Justice Department,' said Louis Fisher, an expert on executive privilege at the Library of Congress. 'Are White House people involved in appointment and removal matters that should be done by Justice Department people?'

"Fisher was alluding to testimony that some Justice officials considered politics in filling positions at the department, a possible violation of federal law.

"'Once the White House people go away from purely giving confidential advice and start to administer or run a department, then I think they begin to lose their immunity,' Fisher said. 'Otherwise, Congress can never get to the bottom of anything.'"

Peter Baker and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "Mark J. Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist and author of 'Executive Privilege,' said the Bush administration's claim in this case 'goes way beyond the proper scope of executive privilege' because it is not limited to specific discussions and amounts to 'a blanket prohibition on former aides discussing anything at all.' . . .

"Cass R. Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, also said the administration's privilege claim is less persuasive if it includes communications with people outside the executive branch, as Fielding's letter indicates."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News that the invocation of executive privilege "crippl[ed] Democratic hopes of nailing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his role in the purge." And he quotes a senior Bush adviser saying of Gonzales: "He's limping, but he's still there and it's over."

The White House view is that the Democrats are overreaching. Or, as Evan Perez and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "For the Democratic-controlled Congress, which has multiple investigations under way into the Republican administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys, a prolonged fight could have a clear political price. Congress's approval ratings are plummeting, it hasn't been able to pass many major bills amid divisions within the Democratic majority, and the White House is starting to portray the body as one more concerned with investigating than law making."

Ace in the Hole?

When it comes to resisting Congress, does Bush have an ace in the hole?

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the posturing was a waste of time and money and a distraction from the questions at hand: Who ordered the firings, why, and whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should continue to serve or be fired.

"Specter, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Democrats' threat of taking the standoff to court on a contempt citation was spurious because the prosecutor who would consider it is a Bush appointee.

"'On a case like this, does anyone believe the U.S. attorney is going to bring a criminal contempt citation against anyone?' Specter said in a telephone interview. 'The U.S. attorney works for the president and it's a discretionary matter what the U.S. attorney does.'"

And then, of course, there's always the Supreme Court, which has something of a tradition of voting for Bush 5-4.

Leahy's View

From Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy's lengthy response to Fielding's letter yesterday: "When we had the Attorney General testify under oath, he did not know who added U.S. attorneys to the list of those to be fired or the reasons they were added. Indeed, the bottom line of the sworn testimony from the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Attorney General's former Chief of Staff, the White House liaison and other senior Justice Department officials was that, while the President was not involved in the decision-making that led to the unprecedented firings of several well-performing prosecutors, they were not responsible either. Then, I ask, who did make these decisions? Was it the political operatives at the White House?

"Even this White House cannot dispute the evidence we have gathered to date showing that White House officials were heavily involved in these firings and in the Justice Department's response to congressional inquiries about them.

"The White House continues to try to have it both ways, but at the end of the day it cannot. It cannot block Congress from obtaining the relevant evidence and credibly assert that nothing improper occurred. What is the White House hiding? Was the President involved and were his earlier statements to the American people therefore misleading? Or is this simply an effort by the White House legal team to protect White House political operatives whose partisan machinations have been discovered in a new set of White House horrors?"

Clemency Watch

Robert Schmidt writes for Bloomberg: "The House Judiciary Committee chairman pressed President Bush to let White House aides testify before Congress about his decision to free I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby from imprisonment in the CIA leak case.

"Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, sent a letter asking the president to waive any claims of executive privilege regarding documents and testimony about the Libby case. The judiciary panel will hold a hearing [on Wednesday] on Bush's decision to commute the 2 1/2-year prison sentence imposed on Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney."

Conyers also announced the witness list for tomorrow's hearing on the Libby commutation.

Probation Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "A small but confusing issue about President Bush's commutation of the prison sentence of I. Lewis Libby Jr. appeared to have been cleared up Monday.

"Both Mr. Libby's lawyers and the prosecutors filed papers saying they saw no problem in having Mr. Libby submit to two years of supervised release as a form of probation. When Mr. Bush last week wiped out a 30-month prison sentence for Mr. Libby's conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, he specified that Mr. Libby would still have to serve the two years of probation to which he had been sentenced.

"Last week, after the sentence he had imposed was lifted, the judge, Reggie B. Walton of Federal District Court, said that the law did not allow for a sentence of supervised release unless the defendant had actually served time behind bars."

Is Fitzgerald still angry about the commutation? You be the judge. From his filing: "The Court sentenced the defendant to imprisonment on each of the counts, and the total sentence of imprisonment, 30 months, was at the low-end of the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range."

Clarence Page writes in his Chicago Tribune column, trying to clear up some of the "misconceptions from readers who feel entitled to their own facts about President Bush's commutation of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's jail sentence."

Page also writes: "Fitzgerald's critics wish he had ended his investigation immediately after learning that Armitage was the source of one leak, Novak's. To me, that's like telling police who have busted a teenager for marijuana that they need not bother to find out who the kid's suppliers are."

Poll Watch

Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll write for Gallup: "President George W. Bush's job approval rating is now at 29%, the new low point for his administration so far. Bush's current rating ranks in the bottom 3% of more than 1,300 Gallup presidential approval ratings since 1938. About two-thirds of Republicans continue to approve of the job Bush is doing, but his job approval rating is only 21% among independents and 7% among Democrats. Bush's job approval rating was an already low 37% as the year began, and it has dropped gradually since April. The range of job approval ratings for the entire Bush administration has been extraordinary, from 90% in September 2001 to the current 29%, a change of 61 percentage points."

Looking at the historic numbers, Newport and Carroll find that most of the "sub-30% job approval ratings were given to two presidents, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter had one rating of 28% and several 29% ratings, and Bush's father had one rating of 29% in the summer of 1992." Bush is now "within seven percentage points of the lowest job approval rating in Gallup Poll history."

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Opposition to the Iraq war has reached a record high, a USA Today/Gallup Poll finds, a development likely to complicate President Bush's efforts to hold together Republican support as the Senate begins debate this week on Pentagon priorities...

"More than seven in 10 favor removing nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by April."

Other findings from the results: Two-thirds say Bush shouldn't have intervened in the Libby case. And 36 percent think there is justification to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush, compared to 62 percent who do not.

Megan Thee blogs for the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney's popularity has hit an all-time low, with recent polling by The New York Times and CBS News suggesting that he has replaced Dan Quayle as the most unpopular vice president in recent history.

"Two polls taken in May and June reveal an erosion of Mr. Cheney's base of support -- seen in both his job approval rating and his favorability. Just 28 percent of those polled in June approve of the job Mr. Cheney is doing, while 59 percent disapprove -- a reading similar to that of President Bush. (In July, 1992, Dan Quayle's job approval rating reached an all-time low with 63 percent of the public disapproving of the job he was doing as vice president.)

"The highest rating for Mr. Cheney was 56 percent in August 2002. Mr. Cheney's favorability among Americans has also suffered -- it fell to 13 percent in May, from a high of 43 percent in October 2000."

Halberstam's Last Thoughts

David Halberstam writes in Vanity Fair that "late in this sad, terribly diminished presidency, mired in an unwinnable war of their own making, and increasingly on the defensive about events which, to their surprise, they do not control, the president and his men have turned, with some degree of desperation, to history. . . .

"We have lately been getting so many history lessons from the White House that I have come to think of Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the late, unlamented Rumsfeld as the History Boys. They are people groping for rationales for their failed policy, and as the criticism becomes ever harsher, they cling to the idea that a true judgment will come only in the future, and history will save them."

Halberstam sets them straight.

On Vietnam, for instance, he writes that had Bush "made any serious study of our involvement there, he might have learned that the sheer ferocity of our firepower created enemies of people who were until then on the sidelines, thereby doing our enemies' recruiting for them. And still, today, our inability to concentrate such 'shock and awe' on precisely whom we would like -- causing what is now called collateral killing -- creates a growing resentment among civilians, who may decide that whatever values we bring are not in the end worth it, because we have also brought too much killing and destruction to their country. . . .

"[I]t is hard for me to believe that anyone who knew anything about Vietnam, or for that matter the Algerian war, which directly followed Indochina for the French, couldn't see that going into Iraq was, in effect, punching our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world."

Key Questions

Bush will be on hand for tomorrow morning's reopening of the White House briefing room, and rumors are that he might actually hold a news conference. (His last one was May 24.)

I've winnowed the many questions I'd love to ask to my top three:

* You said you respect the jury's conclusion that your former aide Scooter Libby lied and obstructed justice in the investigation into your own White House, what if any efforts have you made to encourage Libby to tell the truth?

* When you said you would fire anyone involved in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, did you already know what Karl Rove and Libby had done?

* Given your record of failed predictions about Iraq, why should we put any stock in what you now say will happen if we leave?

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on Cheney's legacy; Tony Auth on the White House's shaky footing; Mike Luckovich's scary thought; and John Sherffius on executive privilege (yuck!).

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