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White House Still Loves Maliki

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 12:38 PM

Members of Congress and even senior military officers are coming to the same depressing conclusion: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is incapable of leading the kind of political reconciliation that the increased U.S. military commitment in Iraq is supposed to be making possible.

So what is the White House doing about Maliki? Desperately propping him up.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Declaring the government of Iraq 'non-functional,' the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that Iraq's parliament should oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet if they are unable to forge a political compromise with rival factions in a matter of days. . . .

"[Sen. Carl M.] Levin's statement, the most forceful call for leadership change in Iraq from a U.S. elected official, comes as about two dozen lawmakers are traveling to Iraq during Congress's August break."

Weisman continues: "White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration continues to believe that 'Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidency Council will be able to get this important work done.'

"Despite their deepening concerns about Maliki's leadership flaws, U.S. officials also believe that any new prime minister would confront the same obstacles in trying to broker political reconciliation."

Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "Mr. Levin said that in his view, the political stalemate in Iraq could be attributed to Mr. Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials who were unable to operate independently of religious and sectarian leaders. . . .

"Mr. Levin and [Republican Senator John] Warner are among their respective parties' most esteemed legislators on national security issues. Their committee will be among those hearing directly from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker when the two men deliver their report measuring military and political progress in Iraq next month. A White House spokesman said Monday that the Capitol Hill testimony could be expected on Sept. 11 or 12.

"Mr. Warner did not explicitly call for the removal of the Maliki government. But he joined Mr. Levin in a joint statement that, while noting some success under the current troop increase in improving the security situation in Iraq, was tempered by a grim assessment of political progress.

"'While we believe that the "surge" is having measurable results, and has provided a degree of "breathing space" for Iraqi politicians to make the political compromises which are essential for a political solution in Iraq, we are not optimistic about the prospects for those compromises,' the joint statement said."

Yochi J. Dreazen and Greg Jaffe write in the Wall Street Journal that although some senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq "say Mr. Maliki is starting to take small steps needed to build a multisectarian state, or at least should be given more time, a growing number of officers say they are concerned the current U.S. strategy of 'surging' troops into Baghdad and its environs won't produce lasting gains unless he is replaced.

"Army Chief of Staff George Casey, who spent several days last week meeting with top U.S. regional commanders here, said he was taken aback by the intensity of anti-Maliki sentiment among senior U.S. officers. 'I heard more people talk about Maliki not making it through his full term in two days than I had heard in all of my previous time here,' Gen. Casey said. 'There's a frustration with his inability to be a reconciliation leader, and a fear that the momentum generated by the surge could just be frittered away.' . . .

"Gen. Casey, who served as the top U.S commander here in 2005 and 2006, said the U.S. may have erred in believing that Mr. Maliki, with a lifetime of Shiite activism, would be willing or able to make political compromises with the country's Sunnis.

"'It would be a huge shame if after all the military has accomplished with the surge we don't get a political accommodation,' he said. 'But I'm not optimistic.'"

And yet, as Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe, the White House is pulling out all the stops to keep Maliki in power.

Stockman writes: "US officials in Baghdad and Washington, under pressure to show political progress in Iraq to an increasingly skeptical Congress, are scrambling to shore up support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose shaky coalition government has been on the verge of collapse since a rash of Cabinet defections earlier this month, analysts and government officials said yesterday.

"At least three separate attempts to unseat Maliki are unfolding in Baghdad -- two from within his own Shi'ite coalition. Nearly half of the ministers in his Cabinet have resigned or are boycotting official meetings. The defections have so thinned the ranks of his supporters that some analysts say that Maliki might not be able to survive a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi parliament, if such a vote were called.

"'My view is that his government is in essential collapse,' said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress.

"In recent weeks, the US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and [White House envoy] Meghan O'Sullivan have held a series of intense, behind-the-scenes meetings with Iraqi politicians. Their goal is to build enough support for Maliki to maintain control of a majority of seats in parliament and push through key pieces of legislation, including a law to regulate the sharing of oil profits and provisions to allow more Sunni Ba'athists to return to government service."

Withdrawal Watch

Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor write for the Associated Press: "U.S. military officials are narrowing the range of Iraq strategy options and appear to be focusing on reducing the U.S. combat role in 2008 while increasing training of Iraqi forces, a senior military official told The Associated Press on Monday.

"The military has not yet developed a plan for a substantial withdrawal of forces next year. But officials are laying the groundwork for possible overtures to Turkey and Jordan on using their territory to move some troops and equipment out of Iraq, the official said. The main exit would remain Kuwait, but additional routes would make it easier and more secure for U.S. troops leaving western and northern Iraq."

Scott Horton blogs for Harpers on expectations that Bush will propose his own limited version of a draw-down. Horton writes: "A major point driving the move has been the Congressional G.O.P. Bush was told that if he pushed a straight continuation of the Surge strategy after this fall, he would lose most of the Congressional G.O.P. One senior Republican Congressional figure is said to have told him that the G.O.P. would be 'committing suicide' if it went into the 2008 elections with the Iraq War as the lead issue and no draw-down in sight. Bush has been assured that he can hold the G.O.P. in Congress together with an extended, slow paced draw-down."

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "Democrats are warily anticipating a September report on the Iraq war, realizing that opponents will use any upbeat assessment to portray them as defeatists just as glimmers of hope appear.

"While many of their party colleagues find the notion fanciful, they acknowledge that top Republicans hope the report will show just enough progress in Iraq to persuade millions of Americans to be patient about troop withdrawals and less critical of how the war is being run.

"Democratic candidates for president and Congress, the GOP argument goes, would then be stuck with their Iraq-is-lost stance, appearing irresolute and beholden to liberal activists just as things are looking better."

Subpoena Watch

Back on June 27, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy announced that he had fired off subpoenas to the White House and the Vice President's office, demanding that they turn over legal documents related to the administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

Yesterday, after two deadlines had come and gone, Leahy announced he's had enough.

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A leading Democrat threatened on Monday to pursue contempt charges against the White House next month over its response to a subpoena for internal documents on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.

"'Time is up,' said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 'We've waited long enough.' . . .

"The White House, in a letter to Mr. Leahy on Monday, said it had identified a number of classified documents that appeared to fall under the subpoena but it said the documents could be covered by a claim of executive privilege. The White House asked for more time to research the issue.

"'It remains our goal to avoid a conflict between the branches on this important issue of national security,' the White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, said in the letter. . . .

"Some administration officials suggested that Mr. Leahy's remarks were merely a negotiating ploy.

"'Senator Leahy regularly uses hyperbole in his reactions to these things,' Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said in an interview."

The White House has previously blown off congressional subpoenas regarding the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys last year, but these subpoenas will be much harder to ignore. As I wrote in my June 28 column: "There is no way that [this latest] request can be dismissed as a partisan fishing expedition. The subpoenas were approved by members of both parties. They call for basic information about the legal reasoning behind an important government program that appears to violate federal law. They request information that is necessary for the committee to assess the administration's requests to rewrite the applicable laws. And they properly ask for some explanation of why the president blocked an inquiry by the Justice Department's own ethics office."

Cheney's Response

Because the Judiciary Committee separately subpoenaed Vice President Cheney's office, Cheney chief counsel Shannen W. Coffin responded to Leahy with his own letter yesterday. Talking Points Memo has a copy.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's office acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has dozens of documents related to the administration's warrantless surveillance program, but it signaled that it will resist efforts by congressional Democrats to obtain them. . . .

"Coffin identified by date a series of memos and orders that 'may be responsive' to the Senate committee's demands. They include 43 separate authorizations from President Bush for the program, which had to be renewed approximately every 45 days beginning on Oct. 4, 2001.

"The letter also lists dates, from October 2001 through February 2005, for 10 legal memoranda from the Justice Department. . . .

"The disclosure of the existence of the documents and their dates sheds new light on some events surrounding the NSA program, including a now-famous legal dispute in March 2004. A half-dozen senior Justice officials threatened to resign if the White House did not agree to change parts of the program that Justice lawyers had determined were illegal. Coffin's letter indicates that Bush signed memos amending the program on March 19 and April 2 of that year. The details of the dispute have never been revealed publicly."

Legal blogger Marty Lederman finds the Coffin letter fascinating for several reasons -- chief among them its assertion that: "The Office of the Vice President reserves the limitations on congressional inquiries set forth in Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959), which makes clear that the power to inquire extends no further than the power to legislate."

Why is that so interesting? Lederman writes: "Now, I happen to think that this so-called 'limitation' on congressional inquiries is not nearly so clear: Many of the earliest legislative investigations were not for the purpose of designing statutory amendments, but were instead 'only' to investigate wrongdoing or malfeasance in the Executive branch; and the better view is probably that Congress has at least some such broad investigative power, unrelated to its lawmaking functions.

But even if it were the case that Congress can only investigate in areas where it can legislate, . . . so what? Such an objection would only be meaningful in the context of this subpoena if there were some question about Congress's power to legislate with respect to the relevant Executive branch conduct.

"So think about what the VP's letter is suggesting -- that perhaps Congress can't legislate on the topic of the government's domestic electronic surveillance!"

To back up his assertion, Lederman notes that in Sunday's New York Times, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau reported that the administration still refuses to concede being bound even by the minimal restraints of the newly-amended surveillance statute:

Risen and Lichtblau wrote: "Bush administration officials have already signaled that, in their view, the president retains his constitutional authority to do whatever it takes to protect the country, regardless of any action Congress takes. At a tense meeting last week with lawyers from a range of private groups active in the wiretapping issue, senior Justice Department officials refused to commit the administration to adhering to the limits laid out in the new legislation and left open the possibility that the president could once again use what they have said in other instances is his constitutional authority to act outside the regulations set by Congress.

"At the meeting, Bruce Fein, a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration, along with other critics of the legislation, pressed Justice Department officials repeatedly for an assurance that the administration considered itself bound by the restrictions imposed by Congress. The Justice Department, led by Ken Wainstein, the assistant attorney general for national security, refused to do so, according to three participants in the meeting. That stance angered Mr. Fein and others. It sent the message, Mr. Fein said in an interview, that the new legislation, though it is already broadly worded, 'is just advisory. The president can still do whatever he wants to do. They have not changed their position that the president's Article II powers trump any ability by Congress to regulate the collection of foreign intelligence.'"

Still the Fourth Branch?

From Leahy's remarks yesterday: "Incidentally, in the administration's response today, they claimed the Office of the Vice President is not part of the Executive Office of the President. So it's some kind of fourth branch of government.

"Well, that's wrong. Both the United States Code says it is part of the president -- oh, incidentally, at least this morning, as I left Vermont, I checked the White House Web site. And even their own Web site, this morning, at least, says that the Executive Office -- that the vice president is part of the Executive Office of the President."

Elana Schor writes in The Hill that "the response from the vice president was more surprising, because the White House was believed to have abandoned the argument that Cheney is a hybrid entity with both executive and legislative powers. . . .

"Cheney's lawyers first crafted the argument to bolster his lack of compliance with an executive order on the safeguarding of classified information, a tactic that backfired amid Democratic anger and derisive jokes on late-night talk shows. Yet Cheney counsel Shannen Coffin wrote to Leahy on Monday that 'the issuance of the subpoena to this office was procedurally irregular' because the judiciary panel only authorized Leahy to issue summonses to the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the Justice Department. . . .

"Telling Coffin to look at the White House website 'may seem too glib an answer,' Leahy told reporters. 'My answer would be look at the law. But these are people that don't look at the law very often.'"

Leahy's Comments

C-Span has the video of Leahy's press conference.

"I've worked in good faith with this administration. I first sought this information voluntarily. I accommodated a request for time," Leahy said. "But when the request for more time was simply followed by delay upon delay, we issued subpoenas in a bipartisan vote. And even then, when the subpoenas weren't followed through, we gave them more time. The time is up. The time is up. We've waited long enough. . . .

"The fact is, they operated outside the law for several years. When you people in the press brought out the fact that they were operating outside the law, they said: Well, let's go with the law, but we had justification, we had legal justification. Everybody's been asking what was that legal justification. We haven't heard it. They recommended a law which would say that they could do whatever Attorney General Gonzales said they could do.

"That, to me, does not give me quite the comfort level I would like."

A Cheney Veto?

And here's a sign of just how much power Cheney was able to wield when the Republicans controlled Congress. From Leahy's press conference:

"QUESTION: Is your impression they're dragging their feet?

"LEAHY: Well, you know, a lot of these questions were asked by the former chairman a couple years ago, and we haven't gotten an answer.

"In fact, we were about to issue subpoenas then and one of the senators came to our meeting and said that the vice president had met with the Republican senators and told them they were not allowed to issue subpoenas.

"Not quite sure that's my understanding of the separation of powers, but it seemed to work at that time."

When exactly was this?

Leahy: "[T]hat goes back to when Senator Specter and I were -- and others senators were asking, when Senator Specter was chairman -- asking AT&T and others why they seem to go along with this warrantless order, whereas other telephone companies said no, they wouldn't.

"And when they went to the -- felt they were not allowed to give an answer, we were about to subpoena them.

"That's when the vice president said, 'No, you can't' -- told the Republicans, 'No, you can't vote for that.'"

Children's Health Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration, engaged in a battle with Congress over whether a popular children's health insurance program should be expanded, has announced new policies that will make it harder for states to insure all but the lowest-income children.

"New administrative hurdles, which state health officials were told about late last week, are aimed at preventing parents with private insurance for their children from availing of the government-subsidized State Children's Health Insurance Program. But Democrats and children's advocates said that the announcement will jeopardize coverage for children whose parents work at jobs that do not provide employer-paid insurance."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "The administration's new policy is explained in a letter that was sent about 7:30 p.m. on Friday. . . .

"After learning of the new policy, some state officials said yesterday that it could cripple their efforts to cover more children and would impose standards that could not be met."

Bill Hammond writes in his New York Daily News opinion column: "President Bush has a message for the millions of parents who can't afford decent health care for their children: Stop whining and go to the emergency room."

Oh Canada

Bush is holding a joint press availability today with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I'll write about that tomorrow.

Emily Bazar writes for USA Today from Ottawa: "Protesters greeted President Bush and the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Monday as the three men got together to discuss border security, emergency response, trade and other economic issues."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's summit with the leaders of Canada and Mexico is likely to produce little more than promises of cooperation -- and some signs of disunity."

Iran Watch

The Washington Post editorial board this morning endorses tougher action against Iran. "The Revolutionary Guard is at war with the United States. Why not fight back?" reads the headline.

The editorial accepts allegations by the Pentagon that "one-third of the U.S. troops who died in Iraq last month -- 23 soldiers -- were killed by 'explosively formed penetrators,' sophisticated bombs supplied by Tehran." It notes that blocking the guard from its assets "seems to be the least the United States should be doing, given the soaring number of Iranian-sponsored bomb attacks in Iraq. What's puzzling are the murmurs of disapproval from European diplomats and others who say they favor using diplomacy and economic pressure, rather than military action, to rein in Iran."

At NiemanWatchdog.org, I have a new essay about how the neoconservatives beating the drum for military action in Iran are in a small minority within the foreign policy community -- and that most Middle East experts believe that an attack in Iran would be backfire at least as badly as Iraq.

Gerson Watch

Carolyn Curiel writes in a New York Times opinion piece that "there's never been a speechwriter tell-all quite like the one in the current issue of The Atlantic[subscription required]. In 10 pages of grievances he might as well have nailed to the White House door, Matthew Scully, one of President Bush's former speechwriters, seeks to set right the doling out of credit for the president's speeches. His displeasure centers on the attention given to Michael Gerson, who was chief speechwriter before becoming a policy adviser and then a magazine columnist. . . .

"[T]he scribe smackdown is an amazing look inside the White House, and how individuals are trying to extract what little personal victories they can from their time there. . . .

"Americans certainly have craved more transparency from the Bush White House, but this isn't what they had in mind."

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