Who Believes What He Believes?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 12, 2007; 1:12 PM

At his press conference this morning, President Bush tried to redefine the debate about the war in Iraq.

"Sometimes the debate over Iraq is cast as a disagreement between those who want to keep our troops in Iraq and those who want to bring our troops home," he said. "And this is not the real debate. I don't know anyone who doesn't want to see the day when our brave service men and women can start coming home. . . .

"The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost and those who believe the fight can be won, and that, as difficult as the fight is, the costs of defeat would be far higher."

On a literal level, at least, Bush is wrong. The current debate in Congress is precisely about whether U.S. troops should start coming home soon or whether they should stay in Iraq until some ill-defined and potentially unattainable goals are met.

On a more philosophical level, however, Bush may be right. The debate over the war is also becoming a debate between those who believe in Bush and share his beliefs about the war -- and those who don't.

"People don't want our troops in harm's way if that which we are trying to achieve can't be accomplished," Bush said, quite correctly. "I feel the same way. I cannot look a mother and father of a troop in the eye and say, I'm sending your kid into combat but I don't think we can achieve the objective.

"I wouldn't do that to a parent or a husband or a wife of a soldier. I believe we can succeed, and I believe we are making security progress that will enable the political track to succeed as well."

Most Americans don't believe that anymore, however, and their beliefs are supported by a growing mountain of evidence. Even the White House's own progress report, released today, provides little cause for hope.

Bush's attempt to recast the debate is not new. The White House has long been trying to make it a battle between winners and losers, on the assumption that Americans don't like seeing themselves as losers. But the big loser here may well be the president.

Increasingly, the real debate is not between hawks and doves, or even between Democrats and Republicans. It's shaping up to be between realists and the dwindling number of people who believe that success in the war in Iraq is still possible.

The Press Conference

After a 12-minute introductory statement, Bush did what he normally does at press conferences: He ducked the tough questions, and instead launched into long rambling rehashes of familiar talking points.

Asked why Americans should trust his vision for Iraq, given all the mistakes he has made thus far, Bush essentially blamed his commanders -- but then said that Americans should trust him because he relies on his commanders.

Asked if he was sufficiently realistic in his appraisal of Iraq, he said "Yeah," then talked at length about the threat posed by al Qaeda.

He repeated his inaccurate and misleading assertion that "the same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th." (See for instance, this McClatchy story.)

And he generally argued that disagreeing with his policy is tantamount to undermining the troops and emboldening Al Qaeda.

More tomorrow, of course.

Another Question He Didn't Answer

Asked about the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity to reporters, Bush made it clear that he doesn't really care and wishes this whole issue would go away.

The Post's Michael Abramowitz asked Bush to address "the issue of the morality of your most senior advisers, you know, leaking the name of a confidential intelligence operator." Noting Bush's recent commutation of former White House aide Scooter Libby's sentence for obstruction of justice in the case, Abramowitz asked: "Can you say whether you're at all disappointed in the behavior of those senior advisers? And have you communicated that disappointment to them?"

Bush responded by describing the commutation as a "fair and balanced" decision.

"Secondly, I haven't spent a lot of time talking about the testimony that people throughout my administration were forced to give as a result of the special prosecutor. I didn't ask them during that time, and I haven't asked them since. I -- I'm aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person, and, you know, I've often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, 'I did it.' Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter? And -- but it's a -- it's been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House, and it's -- it's run its course, and now we're going to move on."

And that was that.

So aside from a dig at Richard Armitage, the former State Department official who was the first person to discuss Plame with columnist Robert Novak, Bush had nothing bad to say about anyone in his administration -- even though evidence has shown that both Libby and Karl Rove discussed Plame with reporters.

Bush's lackadaisical response wasn't consistent with his earlier insistence that he would fire anyone involved in the leak -- nor with the spin the White House has distributed about Bush having delved deeply into the evidence before making his decision about Libby.

The Report

Karen DeYoung and Peter Baker write for The Washington Post: "Iraqi progress on political and military goals sought by Congress has been mixed over the past several months, with slow advances toward some of the targets and paralysis or even reverses in other areas, the White House said today in a much-anticipated assessment."

Lolita C. Baldor and Anne Flaherty write for the Associated Press: "The Iraqi government has made only mixed progress toward fulfilling goals for political, military and economic reform, the Bush administration said Thursday in a report certain to inflame debate in Congress future U.S. war strategy.

"In all, it credited the Iraqi government with satisfactory progress on eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight and mixed results on the other two."

Here's the White House report: "Some of the benchmarks may be leading indicators, giving some sense of future trends; but many are more accurately characterized as lagging indicators, and will only be achieved after the strategy is fully underway and generates improved conditions on the ground."

But an likely more objective report from Nancy A. Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers suggests that there has been little to no progress on almost all 18 benchmarks.

Progressive Skepticism

Skeptical about Bush's assertions? You're not alone.

Joseph L. Galloway asks in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column: "What part of too little, too late doesn't the president understand? How much longer does he think he can stonewall Congress and ignore the reality on the ground in Iraq, where neither our allies nor our enemies seem to be paying much heed to George W. Bush's hopes and plans? . . .

"Everything that can move is moving in the wrong direction for George W. Bush and for all of us. The president grits his teeth and asks us to just give war, his war, a chance. Just be patient a while longer until Gen. David Petraeus reports how the surge is working in September -- and if it isn't working, be patient while he works out Plan B.

"Will we be working on Plan G or F when January 20, 2009, rolls around and ex-President Bush drops the whole steaming mess in the lap of his unlucky successor, the 44th president of the United States, whoever that might be?

"Will the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq in his pursuit of something that can be called victory in an war that cannot be won by the military means we have at hand pass 5,000 or 6,000 or more? Will the numbers of wounded and injured U.S. troops -- now 60,000-plus -- have reached 100,000 or even more by then?"

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "It's nice that Mr. Bush is still confident about Iraq, telling us on Tuesday: 'I strongly believe that we will prevail.'

"Apparently, we're doing almost as well today as we were in October 2003 when he blamed journalists for filtering out the good news and declared: 'We're making really good progress.'

"Then in September 2004, Mr. Bush assured us that Iraq was 'making steady progress.' In April 2005: 'We're making good progress in Iraq.' In October 2005: 'Iraq has made incredible political progress.' In November 2005: 'Iraqis are making inspiring progress.'

"Do we really want to continue making this kind of inspiring progress for the next 10 years?"

About Those Benchmarks

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration's decision to set benchmarks for measuring the progress of the Iraq mission is now seen by some U.S. officials as a costly blunder that has only aided the White House's critics in Congress and its foes in Iraq.

"When they began publicizing the benchmarks a year ago, administration officials saw them as realistic goals that would prod the Iraqi government toward reconciliation, while helping sustain political support for the effort at home. The yardsticks include steps vital to Iraq's stability: passage of a law to divide oil revenue among the key communities, reforms to allow more members of Saddam Hussein's party back into the government, and elections to divide power in the provinces.

"Yet now, with the major goals still out of reach, the administration is playing down their importance. With an interim report on the U.S. effort due out today, administration officials instead are emphasizing other goals -- some of which are less ambitious but have been attained."

Intelligence Report

The White House report would also appear to be greatly undermined by the testimony of senior intelligence officials before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that there has been no meaningful positive change in Iraq since January.

Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Shiite Muslim-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has made only 'halting efforts' to end the power struggle fueling the war between Iraq's religious and ethnic communities, a new U.S. intelligence report said Wednesday.

"Even if the bloodletting can be contained, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be 'hard pressed' to reach lasting political reconciliation, the report stated.

"The report, reflecting the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, cast new uncertainty about the chances of success for President Bush's plan to contain the war through the deployment of an additional 28,000 U.S. troops, mostly in and around Baghdad."

Propaganda Watch

Up until very recently, Kevin J. Bergner was working in the White House as a special assistant to the president. Now he's the chief military spokesman in Iraq. Is it any wonder that his briefings echo White House talking points?

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. military officials on Wednesday said they expected the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to 'lash out and stage spectacular attacks' and fuel sectarian violence in response to an ongoing U.S. offensive north of Baghdad.

"Calling al-Qaeda in Iraq 'the principal threat' to Iraqis, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said the group was the main focus of the U.S. security campaign. Like other U.S. officials in recent weeks, Bergner stressed that al-Qaeda in Iraq is supported by the organization led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an assertion that intelligence analysts have disputed."

But, as Raghavan notes: "Analysts and intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda in Iraq is just one of many Sunni and Shiite organizations fighting for power and against the U.S. occupation, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq is smaller than many other insurgent groups. The analysts say that bin Laden's organization provides more inspiration than direction to Sunni fighters in Iraq."

But are these really al Qaeda members driven by an ideological hatred of the United States? Or are they primarily Iraqis who just want an end to the occupation of their country? Since a key issue in the debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops is what kind of a threat these people would present to us once we leave, that's a big difference. And the evidence I've seen suggests it's mostly the latter.

The Real al Qaeda

As for the real al Qaeda, they're doing well, thank you, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Matthew Lee and Katherine Shrader write for the Associated Press: "A new threat assessment from U.S. counterterrorism analysts says that al-Qaida has used its safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border to restore its operating capabilities to a level unseen since the months before Sept. 11, 2001. "

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Calling al Qaida the most potent terrorist threat to U.S. national security, the classified draft makes clear that the Bush administration has been unable to cripple Osama bin Laden and the violent terror movement he founded."

Blocking Action

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Despite an overwhelming House vote last month to revive the Iraq Study Group, the White House has blocked reconvening the bipartisan panel to provide a second independent assessment of the military and political situation in Iraq, said several sources involved in the panel's December 2006 report. . . .

"The White House does not want independent assessments to rival the upcoming Sept. 15 reports by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. officials said."

Another Day of Denial

Here's another illustration of Bush's denial of reality when it comes to Iraq.

Bob Woodward writes in the Washington Post about the dramatically different stories that members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group heard on Nov. 13, 2006.

"For more than an hour, they listened to President Bush give what one panel member called a 'Churchillian' vision of 'victory' in Iraq and defend the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. 'A constitutional order is emerging,' . . .

"Later that morning, around the same conference table, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden painted a starkly different picture for members of the study group. Hayden said 'the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible,' adding that he could not 'point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,' according to written records of his briefing and the recollections of six participants.

"'The government is unable to govern,' Hayden concluded. 'We have spent a lot of energy and treasure creating a government that is balanced, and it cannot function.' . . .

"'The levers of power are not connected to anything,' he said, adding: 'We have placed all of our energies in creating the center, and the center cannot accomplish anything.' . . .

"Hayden catalogued what he saw as the main sources of violence in this order: the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, general anarchy and, lastly, al-Qaeda. Though Hayden had listed al-Qaeda as the fifth most pressing threat in Iraq, Bush regularly lists al-Qaeda first."

As for Bush, he "was joined in the interview by Vice President Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Hadley, but they did not speak. 'We thought with that whole group there, we were going to get briefings, we were going to get discussions,' said [Former defense secretary William J.] Perry. 'Instead the president held forth on his views on how important the war was, and how it was tough.'"

On the Hill

Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan consensus to dramatically alter the U.S. military mission in Iraq began to emerge in the Senate yesterday, but no specific approach has yet attracted the broad support necessary for a veto-proof majority."

Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "As the White House lobbied Republicans on Capitol Hill for a second straight day, asking for patience, seven of the party's senators -- six of them facing re-election next year -- broke ranks on a measure that would have effectively limited the number of troops deemed ready for deployment by guaranteeing them time off between deployments."

Meanwhile, over on the House side, "Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, sought to close ranks in advance of the vote. In a private meeting, an aide confirmed, he urged members not to join the 'wimps,' a term he used to describe senators who have broken with the president."

Clueless, Indeed

It didn't take long for things to get real ugly in the beautiful new White House briefing room. (See yesterday's column.)

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "It was inevitable that the bonhomie would fade. Still, it took barely four hours after the president cut the ribbon on the new White House briefing room for his spokesman and reporters to start arguing about defeatism on Iraq."

Here's the transcript of press secretary Tony Snow's briefing. Snow repeatedly refused even to acknowledge the recent erosion of Republican congressional support for the war.

"Q I just want to take one more stab at clarifying your view. Is Republican support for the war eroding?

"MR. SNOW: It's a good question. I think public -- I think what you have is -- I don't know. I really don't. I think what you do have is a clear sense on Capitol Hill that the war is unpopular with a lot of Americans, that Americans want a demonstration that we are going to make some progress that, in fact, is going to make it worth the blood and treasure -- which we think it is and we think will be demonstrated. But I honestly -- I'm not going to try to give you, because I do not have the kind of --

"Q If you don't know it's eroding, could you characterize the degree of Republican support for the war on the Hill?

"MR. SNOW: No. Again, what I think is -- if you talk about the war in absence of the war aims, it's very -- let me try to -- maybe I'm being too cute here, so you can tell me I am. . . .

"Q But the question I'm asking is, every day people are picking up the papers and watching television and listening on the radio, and hearing about reports of Republican erosion for support. And sometimes it seems the only place that view is not shared is here.

"MR. SNOW: Oh, I see. Do we understand that it's politically tough for people? Of course, we do.

"Q No, Republicans leaving you.

"MR. SNOW: Yes, and the answer is, I don't know. I mean, I just tried to tell you -- "

Finally, Jim Axelrod of CBS News asked: "Are you at all worried that, as sort of these basic questions are answered and the answer that comes back is not exactly, and it's not black and white, it's gray, and all -- are you worried that the American people listen to this sort of debate and perceive you and the White House as isolated and out of touch on this?

"MR. SNOW: No, no more than I think that they look at you and think that you guys are focused on defeat."

As Baker reports: "That got Axelrod and some of the other reporters aggravated."

Back to the transcript:

"Q Wait a minute, that's not my question at all.

"MR. SNOW: You just asked me if I'm clueless, and I'm asked if you're a defeatist. . . .

"Q I want to be really clear in saying that, reporters asking questions about Republicans and what they're doing on the Hill does not make us defeatists.

"MR. SNOW: No, any more than my answering your questions makes me clueless. . . .

"Q How do you suggest the press is focused on defeat, which is what you just said a moment ago -- . . .

MR. SNOW: No, what I was doing is that there was a caricature of our position and I responded with a caricature. And I believe I said, no more -- I said that that was not true.

"Q Okay, so it's not --

"MR. SNOW: Okay, so go back and look at the opening phrase --

"Q So, just for the record, the press is not focused on defeat? Do you want to clear that up?

"MR. SNOW: Yes, but I'm saying that sometimes you get accused of it."

Helen Thomas Gets It

A question that arises from this episode: How can you believe a word Snow says when he won't even acknowledge an obvious truth -- and then insults the press for even asking him?

Hearst columnist and briefing-room legend Helen Thomas gets it. Again from the transcript:

Thomas: "You're initiating this new press room in the strangest way. You deny an exodus of the power brokers in your own Republican Party. You have contributed --

"MR. SNOW: I have what?

"Q You deny an exodus.

"MR. SNOW: Oh, okay. I was asked about two senators, Senator Snowe and Senator Smith --

"Q You deny -- you shade what they're saying, and so forth. It may make you happy, but it's not true. You're also acting like the resistance in Iraq is al Qaeda and wholly al Qaeda. People fight for their country. We brought in the al Qaeda by attacking them.

"MR. SNOW: Are you telling me that the mass graves that have recently been found were created by patriotic-minded Iraqis --

"Q I'm telling you that we brought them in, they were not there before. Even the President said that. So let's get real. Also, you keep speaking for the American people, who are saying exactly opposite of what you're saying.

"MR. SNOW: Okay. Helen, thank you very much, and let me -- if I forget any of the points, please remind me as I proceed.

"Q You're welcome."

Executive Privilege Watch

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush ordered former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to stay away Thursday from a House panel investigating last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys, prompting the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to threaten Miers with a contempt citation."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In a broadly worded legal opinion, the Justice Department has concluded that President Bush's former top lawyer, and possibly other senior White House officials, can ignore subpoenas from Congress to testify about the firings of U.S. attorneys.

"The three-page opinion raises questions about whether the Justice Department would prosecute senior administration officials if Congress voted to hold them in contempt for not cooperating with the investigation into the firing last year of eight top prosecutors. . . .

"Some legal experts said they disagreed with the sweeping privilege that the administration was claiming. . . .

"'Miers should show up,' said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor and expert on executive privilege at George Mason University. 'There is no reason that she cannot answer questions about matters unrelated to presidential confidentiality and then refuse certain questions that she believes violate that principle."

In a letter to Miers's lawyer, congressional Democrats wrote back: "A congressional subpoena, such as the one issued to Ms. Miers, carries with it two obligations: the obligation to appear, and the obligation to testify and/or produce documents. Even if a witness intends to assert privilege in response to a subpoena, that intention to assert privilege does not obviate the obligation to appear.

"We are aware of absolutely no court decision that supports the notion that a former White House official has the option of refusing to even appear in response to a Congressional subpoena. To the contrary, the courts have made clear that no present or former government official -- even the President -- is above the law and may completely disregard a legal directive such as the Committee's subpoena."

Blogger Josh Marshall wonders if it isn't actually a felony.

Sara Taylor's Stonewall

Meanwhile, Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post that "former White House political director Sara M. Taylor told the Senate Judiciary Committee she did not speak with President Bush about the administration's plans to fire a group of U.S. attorneys last year. . . .

"Democrats promptly said that her remarks could undermine Bush's assertion that White House deliberations about the U.S. attorney firings are protected by executive privilege. Bush's current counsel, Fred F. Fielding, had cited that prerogative -- which generally applies to matters involving the president -- in explaining why Bush had 'directed' Taylor not to provide information about the deliberations to Congress. . . .

"Democrats had hoped that Taylor would offer a full explanation of her role in crafting the plans -- as well as the roles of senior Bush adviser Karl Rove and other political operatives in the West Wing -- but she repeatedly declined to detail discussions within the White House, with Justice Department officials and with outside parties. . . .

"Taylor also testified that she was not in charge of putting names on the firing list and did not know who was."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "Democrats dismissed Ms. Taylor's testimony as part of what they called a continuing effort to conceal political motives behind the dismissals and to interfere with Congressional inquiries into how and why at least eight United States attorneys were removed."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate about Taylor's complaint that "she's been put in an impossible situation: caught between her desire to testify truthfully before Congress about the U.S. attorney purge, and President Bush's 'direction' that she speak nothing of the U.S. attorneys, the deliberations about the U.S. attorneys, the external or internal conversations about the U.S. attorneys. . . .

"The problem I'm having in mustering any sympathy for poor Sara Taylor today is that she was no more 'put' in this uncomfortable position than Kyle Sampson was 'made' the 'aggregator' of targeted U.S. attorneys. You can use the passive voice all you want, I suppose, but it doesn't change the fact that Taylor and now Harriet Miers have chosen to honor their former boss's absurdly broad assertion of executive privilege over a congressional subpoena. Loyalty to your boss is not a legal doctrine. Nor is trying to position yourself to get a good job someday in the future."

On Clemency

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush refused to explain to Congress on Wednesday why he commuted the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. The husband of the CIA agent outed in the case testified during a House hearing that the clemency grant had cast a pall of suspicion over the presidency.

"In a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., Bush counsel Fred Fielding said Congress had no authority to review a presidential clemency decision. . . .

"The letter came in the middle of a politically charged hearing by the Judiciary panel on Bush's move last week to erase Libby's 2 1/2-year prison sentence. . . .

"The hearing's star witness was her husband Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat whose 2003 newspaper column challenging Bush's case for the Iraq war precipitated Plame's unmasking and the resulting investigation that ensnared Libby.

"'In commuting Mr. Libby's sentence, the president has removed any incentive for Mr. Libby to cooperate with the prosecutor. The obstruction of justice is ongoing, and now the president has emerged as its greatest protector,' Wilson testified."

Budget Watch

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "Surging corporate profits -- and another big increase in corporate tax collections -- will shrink the federal budget deficit to its smallest number in five years, according to new White House estimates, which show the deficit falling to $205 billion in the fiscal year that ends in September.

"But the gusher of revenue is already starting to slow dramatically, the projection shows, and the deficit is expected to increase to $258 billion in the fiscal year that begins in October.

"President Bush yesterday ignored the bad news and took credit for the good, saying his tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 had stimulated the economy, generating a revenue windfall for the Treasury."

Press Pass Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post that after 22 years covering the White House for NBC network affiliates, Steve Handelsman recently got his press pass suspended for three weeks.

On June 5, Handelsman had been cleared to give two NBC execs and an NBC intern a tour of the briefing room and press offices.

"While standing near press sec Tony Snow's office, they caught the eye of the Secret Service officer guarding the Oval Office, who indicated they could come down the hall, where they chatted and stared into the empty office (President Bush was in Prague) for less than a minute.

"Beware, unsuspecting gawkers! Turns out those few crucial steps are considered a no-press zone, although Handelsman (and plenty of others) has walked it many times since the Reagan administration. Another Secret Service officer spotted the group and filed a report; the tour was deemed 'unauthorized,' resulting in the suspension for Handelsman, whose pass was reinstated Monday."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on the crowded bunker; Ann Telnaes on Harriet Miers; John Sherffius and Tony Auth on the Surgeon General's warning; and Walt Handelsman on the Bush all-stars.

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