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Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 10, 2007; 1:44 PM

At yesterday's press conference, President Bush announced that he had put Iran on notice: "One of the main reasons that I asked [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker to meet with Iranians inside Iraq was to send the message that there will be consequences for people transporting, delivering EFPs, highly sophisticated IEDs [improvised explosive devices] that kill Americans in Iraq."

Describing Iran as "a very troubling nation right now," largely because of its nuclear program, Bush warned its leaders that "when we catch you playing a non-constructive role [in Iraq] there will be a price to pay."

So what price is Bush prepared to exact? Is this saber-rattling a harbinger of war? And perhaps most to the point: What is Vice President Cheney up to?

Warren P. Strobel, John Walcott and Nancy A. Youssef write for McClatchy Newspapers today that "the president's top aides have been engaged in an intense internal debate over how to respond to Iran's support for Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq and its nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney several weeks ago proposed launching airstrikes at suspected training camps in Iraq run by the Quds force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in Iran policy. . . .

"Cheney, who's long been skeptical of diplomacy with Iran, argued for military action if hard new evidence emerges of Iran's complicity in supporting anti-American forces in Iraq; for example, catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran, one official said.

"The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about internal government deliberations. . . .

"Lea Anne McBride, a Cheney spokeswoman, said only that 'the vice president is right where the president is' on Iran policy."

As the McClatchy reporters point out: "The debate has been accompanied by a growing drumbeat of allegations about Iranian meddling in Iraq from U.S. military officers, administration officials and administration allies outside government and in the news media. It isn't clear whether the media campaign is intended to build support for limited military action against Iran, to pressure the Iranians to curb their support for Shiite groups in Iraq or both.

"Nor is it clear from the evidence the administration has presented whether Iran, which has long-standing ties to several Iraqi Shiite groups, including the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the Badr Organization, which is allied with the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, is a major cause of the anti-American and sectarian violence in Iraq or merely one of many. At other times, administration officials have blamed the Sunni Muslim group al Qaida in Iraq for much of the violence."

Robin Wright wrote in yesterday's Washington Post about the neoconservative push for military action: "Fourteen months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to talk to Iran, the failure of carrot-and-stick diplomacy to block Tehran's nuclear and regional ambitions is producing a new drumbeat for bolder action, including the possible use of force," she wrote.

Among the drum-beating neoconservatives she cited: " Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who writes that diplomacy with Iran is a "mirage," and Norman Podhoretz, who argues the "Case for Bombing Iran" in Commentary.

Provocation Watch

While bombing training camps inside Iraq would not be nearly as provocative as launching an attack within Iran's borders, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) The only camps where the U.S. military thus far has alleged Iranians are training Iraqi insurgents are inside Iran; and 2) Cheney has long been said to be looking for some way to maneuver Bush into having no choice but to launch a full-scale attack against Iran.

Joshua Partlow wrote in The Washington Post last month that Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the new U.S. military spokesman who is fresh from a stint at the White House, asserted that Iran's elite al-Quds Force was training Iraqi militiamen inside Iran -- at three camps near Tehran.

And there is evidence that Cheney is trying to undermine Rice's diplomatic efforts in the Middle East in favor of a more aggressive and militaristic approach. (See my June 4 column.)

Reports about Cheney's plans first surfaced on May 24 when Steve Clemons wrote in his influential blog, The Washington Note: "Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been . . . explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.

"This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an 'end run strategy' around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument. . . .

"According to this official, Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the 'right decision' when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President's hands.'"

Helene Cooper wrote in the New York Times on June 2 that "people who have spoken with Mr. Cheney's staff have confirmed the broad outlines of the reports."

Michael Hirsh and Mark Hosenball wrote for Newsweek on June 7: "A Newsweek investigation shows that Cheney's national-security team has been actively challenging Rice's Iran strategy in recent months."

Non-neoconservatives are generally in agreement that attacking Iran would be a disastrous move for the United States, potentially emboldening its enemies in Iran and elsewhere and increasing the risk of terror attacks.

But Cheney generally gets his way with this president. And that prospect worries even traditionally unflappable champions of bipartisanship. As I noted yesterday, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, recently wrote on the TPM Cafe Web site: "Here is my nightmare. The Cheneyites succeed in creating a situation in which Bush does decide to bomb Iran. Iran retaliates, as they openly threaten to do, with terrorist attacks against us on U.S. soil. That tilts the election."

How About Demanding Some Proof?

For several months now, the Bush administration has been engaged in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to blame attacks on U.S. forces on Iran.

But as I wrote in my Feb. 12 column: "The administration finally unveiled its case this weekend, first in coordinated and anonymous leaks to a trusting New York Times reporter, then in an extraordinarily secretive military briefing at which no one would speak on the record, journalists weren't allowed to photograph the so-called evidence, and nothing even remotely like proof of direct Iranian government involvement was presented."

Since then, possibly the most dramatic charge against Iran has been that it was involved in planning a particularly deadly operation against U.S. forces in Karbala last January.

As Gareth Porter writes for the American Prospect: "On July 2 and 3, The New York Times and the Associated Press, among other media outlets, came out with sensational stories saying that either Iranians or Iranian agents had played an important role in planning the operation in Karbala, Iraq last January that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers. Michael R. Gordon and John F. Burns of The New York Times wrote that 'agents of Iran' had been identified by the military spokesman as having 'helped plan a January raid in the Shiite holy city of Karbala in Iraq in which five American soldiers were killed by Islamic militants. . . . ' Lee Keath of the Associated Press wrote an even more lurid lead, asserting that U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner had accused 'Iran's elite Quds force' of having 'helped militants carry out a January attack in Karbala that killed five Americans.'

"The story was a big break for the war-with-Iran faction in Washington. . . .

"No one questioned the authenticity of the story at the time. But the official source -- Brig. Gen. Bergner -- offered no real evidence of Iranian involvement in planning the January attack in his press briefing on July 2. Even more remarkably, Bergner never even explicitly claimed such direct Iranian involvement in the planning. Instead, he used carefully ambiguous language that implied but did not state such an Iranian role.

"It was not Bergner, in fact, but New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon who articulated the narrative of an Iranian-inspired attack on Americans."

Here's the transcript of the briefing.

Porter notes that the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, had denied in April that there was any evidence of Iranian involvement in the Karbala operation. " Porter writes: "The revival of the charge of Iranian involvement in the Karbala attack, despite the earlier Petraeus denial, has the all the hallmarks of a White House decision."

Iran's Friendly Neighbors

Ironically, Bush was saber-rattling just as U.S.-supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was making a friendly visit to Tehran. That came up at the press conference.

Olivier Knox reports for AFP: "Bush sternly warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Thursday against cozying up to Iran, amid what Washington sees as unsettling signs of warming Baghdad-Tehran relations. . . .

"'[I]f the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive,' said Bush, who called Iran 'a very troubling nation.'"

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The growing intimacy of Baghdad and Tehran was on display late Wednesday, when Maliki met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials. In a joint appearance, Maliki told Ahmadinejad that Iran has a 'positive and constructive' role in improving security in Iraq, the official IRNA news agency reported. . . .

"U.S. officials believe that Maliki's government shares their concern about weapons allegedly supplied by Iran, but they also acknowledge anxiety about the fundamentalist Tehran regime's increasing trade with and aid to Iraq, as well as the close personal ties its officials enjoy with counterparts throughout the Baghdad government."

Earlier this week, Bush's harsh words about Iran were similarly undercut by another important ally in the region: President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who characterized Iran as "a helper" in a CNN interview. At a joint appearance with Karzai the next day, Bush said he strongly disagreed.

Getting It All Wrong?

David Gardner writes for the Financial Times: "US commanders seem to have no trouble detecting the hand of Tehran everywhere. This largely evidence-free blaming of serial setbacks on Iranian forces is a bad case of denial. First, the insurgency is overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni, built around a new generation of jihadis created by the US invasion. Second, to the extent foreign fighters are involved these have come mostly from US-allied and Sunni Saudi Arabia, not Shia Iran. Third, the lethal roadside bombs with shaped charges that US officials have coated with a spurious veneer of sophistication to prove Iranian provenance are mostly made by Iraqi army-trained engineers -- from high explosive looted from . . . unsecured arms dumps.

"Shia Iran has backed a lot of horses in Iraq. If it wished to bring what remains of the country down around US ears it could. It has not done so. The plain fact is that Tehran's main clients in Iraq are the same as Washington's: Mr Maliki's Da'wa and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq led by Abdelaziz al-Hakim. . . .

"So, in sum. Having upturned the Sunni order in Iraq and the Arab world, and hugely enlarged the Shia Islamist power emanating from Iran, the US finds itself dependent on Tehran-aligned forces in Baghdad, yet unable to dismantle the Sunni jihadistan it has created in central and western Iraq. Ignoring its Iraqi allies it is arming Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda. And, by selling them arms rather than settling Palestine it is trying to put together an Arab Sunni alliance (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) with Israel against Iran. All clear? How can anyone keep a straight face and call this a strategy?"

The Value of Bush's Reassurances

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Facing an economy beset by volatile stocks, troubled mortgages, a struggling housing market and questions about the stability of the nation's infrastructure, President Bush sought Thursday to reassure Americans that the economy is strong and that his policies will ensure it stays that way.

"But the stock market at least remained beyond Bush's reach, as the Dow Jones industrials dropped more than 200 points within minutes of the opening bell and plummeted a total of 387.18 points by day's end."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Yesterday, President Bush, showing off his M.B.A. vocabulary . . . tried to reassure the markets. But Mr. Bush is, let's say, a bit lacking in credibility."

Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Hint to White House economic team: You might not want to have had the president repeat that numbskull prediction about a 'soft landing' for housing at precisely the moment central banks were pumping $150 billion into the financial system to prevent a market meltdown over anxieties about mortgage-backed securities. Brings back memories of 'Mission Accomplished.'"

Provoking the Democrats

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday rejected a gasoline tax increase to repair thousands of structurally deficient bridges such as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis, pointing the finger instead at Congress for what he called misguided spending policies that have neglected high priorities in favor of pork politics.

"The president's broadside triggered a furious reaction from congressional Democrats, who said he is in no position to lecture anyone on priorities. The heated exchange suggested the issue of infrastructure safety, dramatized as cars plunged into the Mississippi River last week, has become one more front in a broader battle between the White House and Congress over national goals. . . .

"Bush appeared unmoved by criticism and unbothered by political troubles. At one point, he lightheartedly raised his fists to imitate a boxer -- ' Okay, put up your dukes' -- and, indeed, he seemed eager to mix it up with Congress in a variety of areas, scorning lawmakers for focusing on scandal rather than passing laws."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that Bush criticized Democrats generally, "questioning their priorities and motives on topics like economic policy and their perjury accusations against Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. . . .

"Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, issued a statement criticizing Mr. Bush's agenda.

"'Whether it is privatizing Social Security, giving massive tax breaks to oil companies while consumers pay more at the pump or letting Osama bin Laden roam free while we keep our troops mired in an open-ended Iraqi civil war, America has had just about enough of President Bush's misguided priorities,' Mr. Reid said.

"The exchange between Mr. Bush and the Democrats augurs more fighting when they return from their vacations and when they will likely wrangle over Iraq and the d increase in troop levels as part of a 'surge' strategy."

Kathy Kiely points out in USA Today that in opposing a gas tax hike, Bush was actually "spurning the suggestion of a senior congressman from his own party.

"Rep. Don Young, the former House transportation committee chairman, raised the possibility of a gas tax after saying there are 500 bridges across the country similar to the one that collapsed in Minneapolis last week."

Trashing Michael Gerson

Ana Marie Cox blogs for Time: "Some of the buzz in the air in Washington today stems from this essay in The Atlantic by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, in which he unloads a powerful round of behind-the-scenes anecdotage to cut the ground out from underneath his WH colleague, Michael Gerson. Scully neatly deconstructs Gerson's manipulation of the press and of office politics in the service of building his own reputation and exaggerating his accomplishments."

It's a fascinating, if disturbingly vengeful piece. It's also behind a subscription firewall.

Gerson stepped down as Bush's chief speechwriter and policy adviser last year. He now writes a column for The Washington Post.

Writes Scully: "The narrative that Mike Gerson presented to the world is a story of extravagant falsehood. He has been held up for us in six years' worth of coddling profiles as the great, inspiring, and idealistic exception of the Bush White House. In reality, Mike's conduct is just the most familiar and depressing of Washington stories -- a history of self-seeking and media manipulation that is only more distasteful for being cast in such lofty terms. . . .

"People have a way of disappearing in Mike's stories. The artful shaping of narrative and editing out of inconvenient detail was never confined to the speechwriting. (The phrase pulling a Gerson, as I recently heard it used around the West Wing, does not refer to graceful writing.)"

Scully mocks any number of reporters who have written gushing stories about Gerson. "Harder to explain than one man's foolish vanity is the gullibility of those who indulged him," Scully writes.

One of the more disturbing anecdotes: "Education speeches in particular -- with their endlessly complicated programs and slightly puffed-up theories, none of which we could ever explain quite to the satisfaction of our policy people -- were always good for a laugh. As John observed in late 2003, around draft 20 in the typically chaotic revising of an education speech, 'We've taken the country to war with less hassle than this.'"

One of the funniest: "When White House staff secretary Harriet Miers decreed in 2003 that we were using too many contractions in speeches -- getting just a little too informal and 'unpresidential' -- Mike forwarded the e-mail to John McConnell and me with a note saying that if we ever again quoted Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of Flight 93, be sure to make it: 'Let us roll.'"

Scully was always a bit of a fish out of water at the White House. As Shankar Vedantam wrote in a Washington Post profile of Scully in May 2004: "He wants increased government regulations of corporations that mass-produce animals for slaughter. He is against 'free-market' techniques of conservation, in which some animals are killed or captured in order to raise money to protect others. He wants the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the Safari Club, a powerful hunting advocacy group.

"Scully may sound like a liberal, but he is a conservative with impeccable credentials: He works in the White House as a speechwriter for President Bush.

"He has also emerged as a potent voice for animal welfare in what is widely regarded as a red-meat White House. Groups fighting animal cruelty consider him a powerful advocate, and Scully is helping to advance their issues."

Not long after that piece ran, Scully and the White House parted ways. (He later wrote a book about the treatment of animals.) Nevertheless, in February 2005, Scully wrote a New York Times op-ed that only subtly made the point that Gerson alone wasn't responsible for Bush's words. "Mike Gerson and another senior writer, John McConnell, have together given us some of the most memorable words of the Bush presidency, including their recent collaboration on the second inaugural address," he wrote. "In the case of the State of the Union, Mike Gerson could always be counted on to go off into the wilderness, and return with some intricate outline to vary the structure, and a fresh batch of big themes to carry us forward. Thanks in part to these visions, the president's major addresses present a running argument, each carrying forward the themes of the last."

FISA Watch

Joseph Galloway writes in his McClatchy opinion column: "Why . . . would the ruling Democrats join the usual Republican suspects on Capitol Hill in approving such a breathtaking expansion of the government's right to spy on its own citizens without court approval? The answer, in a word, is fear, which may be the last tool left in President Bush's box.

"Congressional leaders have been thoroughly briefed on supposed indications of a pending terrorist attack on American targets, a la 9/11 -- increased 'chatter' on terror networks.

"Put simply, our courageous representatives on the Hill were afraid to leave town without passing the extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) on the off chance that the administration's drum-beating might actually be correct and not merely another example of fear-mongering for political purposes."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The episode was the culmination of a shameful era in which serious issues related to national security and civil liberties were debated in a climate of fear and intimidation, saturated by political calculation and the quest for short-term electoral advantage. . . .

"The Democrats got trapped, and they punted. The Republicans have never met a national security issue they're not willing to politicize. This is no way to run a superpower."

Law professor/blogger Orin Kerr describes his interview with a "senior White House official" who denied that the new legislation will result in the government keeping tabs on people in the U.S. so long as they are talking to people abroad.

Fellow law professor/blogger Marty Lederman isn't satisfied and asks: "Why the anonymity? More than likely so that they can't be held to anything they say."

Iraq Watch

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Iraq is descending into a civil war that pits different sects and tribes against one another, and against the United States.

"To listen to President Bush, however, it's easy to come away with the impression that the major source of anti-U.S. violence in Iraq is al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11. . . .

"The reality is that Iraq is a patchwork of rival groups and tribes. The Shiites divide in many ways: secular and religious, pro- and anti-Iranian. That poses dangers and opportunities. As with Sunnis in Anbar province, U.S. alliances might work with some. But forging them requires a recognition that U.S. forces are not just fighting al-Qaeda but are in the midst of complex sectarian warfare.

"How to prevent a full-blown civil war is not obvious. It might not be possible. Even so, Americans deserve a more honest picture than the 'us against the terrorists' one drawn by the White House."

(For the real story, read Sudarsan Raghavan's gripping article in The Washington Post: "On the unruly outer fringes of the Sunni area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death, American soldiers navigate more than a dozen battle zones straddling the fault lines of sect and tribe. Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- identified by President Bush and his generals as the main U.S. enemy -- is just one of myriad armed groups competing here for influence and authority. This arid region nourished by the Euphrates River is a microcosm of the many often-overlapping conflicts that have erupted across the new Iraq.")

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "You might have thought that now isn't the most opportune time for the elected leaders of both the United States and Iraq to pack up and head to the beach, ranch or villa for a nice long vacation. Silly you. . . .

"What you failed to take into account is that none of this really matters, because the war in Iraq is on autopilot.

"If you listened to Bush at his news conference yesterday, you heard a man who's not about to let something as petty as objective reality change his mind -- and who's not going to pay attention to what the Iraqi government or even his own government might say or do. . . .

"At least now maybe people will understand what I've been saying for months, which is that Bush doesn't care what anybody else thinks. He doesn't care that the Iraqi government has failed to meet its political benchmarks. He doesn't care that Maliki is getting so cozy with the mullahs in Tehran. He doesn't care that Republicans in Washington are getting so nervous about having to face an election with the war still raging and no end in sight."

Immigration Watch

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration plans to announce numerous steps on Friday to secure the border with Mexico, speed the expulsion of illegal immigrants and step up enforcement of immigration laws, administration officials say.

"The effort stems, in part, from White House frustration with the failure of Congress to approve President Bush's proposals to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and grant legal status to most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. In debate on that legislation, many Republicans said Mr. Bush should first enforce existing laws more aggressively."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The path the country has set on since the defeat of immigration reform in the Senate in June enshrines enforcement and punishment above all else. It is narrow, shortsighted, disruptive and self-defeating. On top of that, it won't work.

"What it will do is unleash a flood of misery upon millions of illegal immigrants. For the ideologues who have pushed the nation into this position, that is more than enough reason to plunge ahead. . . .

"The American people cherish lawfulness but resist cruelty, and have supported reform that includes a reasonable path to earned citizenship. Their leaders have given them immigration reform as pest control."

Cheney's Surprise

Amanda H. Miller writes in the Jackson Hole News and Guide: "A group planning to protest the Iraq war and Vice President Dick Cheney on Saturday will have some surprises in store.

"Jim Stanford, one of the event organizers, said there will be a special piece of artwork unveiled in Cheney's honor at the protest. All he would say about the work is that it's not a phallus, as has been rumored, and it's in a 'secure, undisclosed location.'"

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart presents: "President Bush in His Own Words." Stewart in particular seems to resent Bush's use the phrase "in other words" to, as Stewart puts it, "bring the complexities of higher thought down to the masses. . . what with all of us being so dumb."

But Stewart explains: "The look on our faces isn't confusion. It's disbelief."

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