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You Call That the Center?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 13, 2007; 2:04 PM

What's a middle-road approach to Iraq?

The White House would like you to believe the middle road is what President Bush will announce tonight from the Oval Office: The possible return to approximately pre-surge troop levels by sometime next summer.

A growing bipartisan movement on Capitol Hill would like you to believe the middle road is Congress agreeing on some modest, incremental, and in some cases non-binding limits on the president's policy.

But what's middle-road for the American public? A sizeable majority wants Bush to bring most of the 160,000 troops home from Iraq in about the same time frame that he is proposing to withdraw less than 30,000. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, for instance, 55 percent of Americans support "legislation that would set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq by next spring."

On the antiwar extreme, some Americans want all U.S. troops of out Iraq right now; on the prowar extreme, some want those troops to stay indefinitely. But the consensus view is that Americans want out -- starting now, ending soon.

How, then, has the political debate in Washington become so skewed? Why is it so out of step with the will of the people?

One answer, of course, is that most Republican members of Congress are sticking with Bush. But a lot of the credit belongs to the White House, for a public-relations push that flooded the zone starting in early August.

The emphatic and persistent White House message about nominal military successes in Iraq, culminating with Gen. David Petraeus's congressional testimony this week, dominated the airwaves and shifted the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom about Iraq policy -- while not, interestingly enough, diminishing the public's desire to get the hell out one bit.

Bush's Notion of 'Common Ground'

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "When top Democratic leaders visited him at the White House this week, President Bush told them he wanted to 'find common ground' on Iraq. But when the president said he planned to 'start doing some redeployment,' the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, cut him off.

"'No you're not, Mr. President,' Ms. Pelosi interjected. 'You're just going back to the presurge level.'

"The testy exchange, recounted by three people who attended the session or were briefed on it, provides a peek into how Mr. Bush will try to sell Americans on his Iraq strategy when he addresses the nation at 9 p.m. Thursday. With lawmakers openly skeptical of his troop buildup, Mr. Bush will cast his plan for a gradual, limited withdrawal as a way to bring a divided America together -- even as he resists demands from those who want him to move much faster. . . .

"'We all made clear that merely bringing back the surge troops is no change in policy,' said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who also attended the White House meeting. But he conceded that it could be tough for Democrats to force a change. 'We have the public behind us,' he said, 'but we don't have the votes in the Senate.'"

Democrats 'Push Toward Middle'

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "Democratic leaders in Congress have decided to shift course and pursue modest bipartisan measures to alter U.S. military strategy in Iraq, hoping to use incremental changes instead of aggressive legislation to break the grip Republicans have held over the direction of war policy."

Weisman and Murray describe the "new momentum behind initiatives that would force the White House to make modest changes to the military mission but not require a substantial drawdown of troops by a set date."

One proposal will "be a revised version of legislation that would ensure that troops returning from Iraq are granted a home leave at least as long as their last deployment before returning to the battlefield"; another "is a revised withdrawal measure that would probably include timelines to start troop drawdowns but would leave a final pullout date as a goal rather than a deadline.

"And an amendment by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to mandate a change of strategy in Iraq is gaining currency with Democratic leaders, according to leadership aides. The amendment would order missions to shift immediately from combat to counterterrorism, border security and the training of Iraqi security forces. It would not mandate troop withdrawals, but Collins said such withdrawals would be inevitable, because the remaining missions could be accomplished with 50,000 to 60,000 troops."

Noam N. Levey and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times that "even if these bipartisan compromises were to become law, they are unlikely to force the president to pull out troops for at least the next year, no faster than he appears to want."

How the White House Won

Stolberg and Myers explain how the White House found itself with the upper hand in Washington: "White House officials say that Mr. Bush is in a much better place now than he was in July, when leading Republican lawmakers like Senators Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana publicly broke with the president, calling for a change of course.

"At that time, top White House officials like Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, were openly nervous about the prospect of losing Republican support for the war. But in the nearly two months since then, Mr. Bush's communications team waged an aggressive -- and, many Republicans say, largely successful -- campaign to use the Congressional recess in August to take control of the debate on Iraq.

"Buoyed by reports of improving conditions on the ground, the White House scheduled a series of presidential speeches, including one in which Mr. Bush contended that a hasty retreat from Iraq would produce carnage of the sort seen in Southeast Asia after Americans pulled out of Vietnam.

"'That was an important moment because that showed that the president was not going to cede certain arguments and cede certain ground,' said Peter Wehner, a former policy adviser to Mr. Bush who left the White House in July, referring to the Vietnam speech. 'Vietnam was already out there as a narrative, and the president took it and said, "Well, there's actually another story." '"

As I wrote in my Aug. 23 column, Bush's position on Vietnam is a neoconservative fantasy shared by almost no one. But the overall campaign apparently worked.

The Election Effect

The White House's megaphone may finally be getting some competition, however, as the Democratic presidential candidates step up their attack on Bush's Iraq policies.

Jeff Zeleny and Michael R. Gordon write in the New York Times: "Senator Barack Obama yesterday presented his most extensive plan yet for winding down the war in Iraq, proposing to withdraw all combat brigades by the end of next year while leaving behind an unspecified smaller force to strike at terrorists, train Iraqi soldiers and protect American interests. . . .

"Polls suggest that there is considerable public support for the approach outlined by Mr. Obama. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 56 percent of Americans said they favored reducing troops levels in Iraq, but leaving some forces in place to train Iraqi forces, fight terrorists and protect American diplomats."

And Senator Hillary Clinton yesterday released a letter she sent to Bush: "As Commander-in-Chief you have the authority and ability to greatly accelerate the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq, and to bring so many more troops home so much faster. I strongly urge you to choose this course of action.

"Mr. President, it has been nearly four and a half years since you landed on an aircraft carrier and stood before the American people under a banner that read 'Mission Accomplished.' Do not repeat that mistake on Thursday night. Do not misrepresent the facts about the situation on the ground. And do not portray an unavoidable reduction in U.S. troops to pre-surge levels that would occur anyway as a marker of success. Be candid with the American people. They deserve it."

Opinion Watch

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Bush is his own worst spokesman: "The whole point of the Petraeus PR offensive, after all, is to decouple the war from the president. If it's the president's war, no one will vote to keep it going. . . .

"The administration knows this, which is why it was necessary to invent Gen. David Petraeus and his plan. It is why the president spent the past month invoking the general every time he spoke about the war and investing the general with strategic wisdom and moral authority that presidents usually claim for themselves. If the war is to continue fundamentally unchanged, so that Bush can stagger to the finish line of his presidency without having to acknowledge the disasters he inflicted on Iraq and on America's good name, someone with more credibility than he would have to be found to justify its continuation. . . .

"In the end, I don't think Petraeusization will succeed. The American people will understand it's the same stinking war. And for those who don't, George Bush will go on television tonight to drive that point home."

Pre- and Post-Speech Spin

The White House has scheduled some pre-speech spin in the form of an "off-camera background briefing" by "senior administration officials" mid-afternoon today.

For tomorrow, as Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The day after his televised address, Bush was expected to reinforce the message with remarks from a Marine base in Quantico, Va., just outside Washington, and with the White House's release of an Iraq status report required by Congress.

"As part of the public relations flurry, Vice President Dick Cheney planned to travel to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan and MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Iraq also was chosen as the topic for Bush's weekly Saturday radio address, and administration officials were being offered to television networks for Sunday news show appearances."

Post-Speech Counter Spin

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "In the clamor of Democrats assailing President Bush on Iraq, presidential candidate John Edwards has found a way to be heard after Bush addresses the nation Thursday night: He's buying time for a rebuttal.

"Edwards has bought two minutes of air time on MSNBC, scheduled to air after Bush's 15-minute televised speech from the White House at 9 p.m. EDT. . . .

"'Unfortunately, the president is pressing on with the only strategy he's ever had -- more time, more troops, and more war,' Edwards says in the ad, according to excerpts provided by his campaign. . . .

"'Tell Congress you know the truth,' Edwards says. 'They have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it. When the president asks for more money and more time, Congress needs to tell him he only gets one choice -- a firm timeline for withdrawal.'"

About Those Troop Levels

So exactly how many troops would be left in Iraq after Bush rolls back the surge? While most journalists have been reporting 130,000, Nancy A. Youssef and Renee Schoof write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Military officials familiar with troop deployments told McClatchy Newspapers, however, that as many as 140,000 troops would remain in Iraq, depending on the size of the brigades and how many soldiers remain to support them."

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Petraeus equivocated on the numbers.

Inskeep: "I want to ask about the reduction in troops that you've talked about. I want to first make sure that I understand the numbers that you're talking about. It's been said that what you've described is a reduction in 30,000 troops. Is that, in fact, what you --"

Petraeus: "What I've described is a reduction of five brigade combat teams, Army brigade combat teams, the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which actually is coming out this month without replacement, and two Marine battalions. Now, we want to take out other --"

Inskeep: "That's a little less than --"

Petraeus: "Well, we have to do the math, candidly. We've got -- I have not yet said how many thousands of troops."

Inskeep: "So when people have said 30,000, they're not quite accurate. It might be 30,000 -- it might be quite a bit less."

Petraeus: "Well, we've got to determine what it can be."

Petraeus Redux

Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Like it or not, he has become a political player, and more than ever before, the U.S. venture in Iraq has become his own."

One of Petraeus's most intriguing congressional testimony comments came after Republican Senator John Warner asked him if the Iraq war is making Americans safer. "Sir, I don't know, actually," Petraeus replied.

Was he distancing himself from Bush's overheated and highly suspect assertion that the terrorists there "will follow us home"? Or was it just a slip?

CNN's Barbara Starr tried to get him to explain yesterday, but he fudged.

Starr: "General Petraeus, we are all awaiting, of course, President Bush who is going to address the nation tomorrow night about the war in Iraq. And he has now said for many years that the war is important in Iraq in his view because it will prevent terrorism from coming to the United States. Can you help explain to Americans the war which you run, how that war makes any single American family more safe today?"

Petraeus: "Well, as I explained yesterday, we have enormous national interests in Iraq, first of all, in helping Iraq achieve its objectives, our objectives of a secure, stable Iraq, connected into the region. Not a regional problem, not a base for al Qaeda which to train and export terror, and certainly that's one of those areas in which we would have enormous concern were our objectives not achieved in that country."

Sidney Blumenthal writes in his column on Salon: "The highly credentialed and qualified Petraeus has a doctorate from Princeton and has written a recent report on the history of counterinsurgency. But he has apparently not studied the case of Colin Powell, whose sterling reputation and military expertise were appropriated by Bush for political purposes and who, after his utility was exhausted, was abandoned on the side of the road. The real front line where Petraeus found himself was more political than military."

Oil Watch

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "A carefully constructed compromise on a draft law governing Iraq's rich oil fields, agreed to in February after months of arduous talks among Iraqi political groups, appears to have collapsed. The apparent breakdown comes just as Congress and the White House are struggling to find evidence that there is progress toward reconciliation and a functioning government here."

Bush's Sheik

Howard Schneider and Robin Wright write for The Washington Post: "Iraqi tribal leader Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a key figure in U.S. efforts to turn local residents against al-Qaeda in the restive Anbar province, was killed today by a roadside bomb, U.S. military and Iraqi sources confirmed."

Here are some photos of Abu Risha shaking hands with Bush during the president's visit with tribal leaders at Al-Asad Air Base on Sept. 3.

Iran Watch

Will Bush amp up his anti-Iran rhetoric tonight? It's a good bet. The only real question is whether he's trying to embolden the U.N. -- or prepping the nation for a military attack.

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has begun mobilizing support for a third U.N. resolution that would impose tougher sanctions against Iran, as the top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Baghdad said yesterday that one of the biggest and still unfolding surprises in Iraq has been the depth of Iran's intervention.

"Iran is increasingly the backdrop in discussions about the future of Iraq, evident in congressional testimony this week by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and in warnings from senior administration officials. In his speech to the nation tonight, President Bush is also expected to cite Iran's role in the region as justification for continued U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq."

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Obama drew some of the "loudest applause" of the day from his Iowa audience when he suggested that Bush might now be trying to build a case for war with Iran: "George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear - loud and clear - from the American people and the Congress: you don't have our support, and you don't have our authorization for another war," Obama said.

In his briefing on Tuesday, Tony Snow had a somewhat ambiguous exchange with Hearst columnist Helen Thomas:

Thomas: "Does the President feel that he has the right to attack any country without going first to Congress?"

Snow: "No."

Thomas: "He does not feel he has -- he can't attack Iran, for example, without first asking permission?"

Snow: "We are not getting into hypothetical questions about Iran."

Snow's Last Briefing

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post: "The Tony Snow Show closed after 136 televised performances over 16 months, a relatively short tenure that nonetheless redefined the nature of the job.

"Never before in modern times has the White House press secretary been such a celebrity figure, stopped for autographs on the street and recruited onto the political fundraising circuit. . . .

"He was known more for the clarity of his arguments than the precision of his statements, but colleagues credit him with helping to strengthen the president's public defense."

Baker writes that Snow's final televised briefing yesterday "featured moments of farce, moments of tension, moments of spin and moments of sentiment. . . .

"He dismissed one question as 'a verbal game,' brushed off another because he was not 'going to respond to campaign documents,' asked a third reporter whether she was being 'self-serving' and lectured a fourth by saying, 'Let me explain the facts in a democracy.' He got into a long colloquy with Bill Plante of CBS News on whether President Bush's policy is an 'open-ended commitment' and whether the troop buildup has worked."

John D. McKinnon blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "Wednesday's snippiest exchange came with CBS veteran Bill Plante, a frequent fellow combatant. Plante interrupted when another reporter tried to pin Snow down on whether the White House has created an open-ended commitment in Iraq. 'You're not addressing his question, Tony,' Plante said. After some back and forth, Plante added, 'Why isn't it an open-ended commitment if we're going to stay until the job is done?'

"'Because the job will get done,' Snow replied.

"'In other words, there's no answer,' Plante offered.

"'No, the answer is, when you have success, build on it.'"

McKinnon observes: "Given that Snow is battling a recurrence of cancer, his last briefing was surprisingly unsentimental."

Tabassum Zakaria reports for Reuters about how the briefing "turned raucous when reporters in back rows protested they were not allowed questions before it was called to a close. . . .

"Asked whether Bush was going to put forward what he considered a new and changed strategy, Snow replied: 'He's changed strategy every day.'

"He called the notion that the president's strategy was static 'an amazing canard' and said 'only a crazy person would fail to adjust strategy on a regular basis, based on the realities on the ground.'"


Here's an exchange between Snow and American Urban Radio reporter April Ryan yesterday. Ryan, who is African-American, waited with growing impatience for Plante and Snow to finish their back and forth -- then started her question for Snow by calling him Bill.

Ryan: "Bill, what -- I mean, not Bill -- (laughter.) Anyway, Tony, what --"

Snow: "All us white guys -- (laughter.)"

Ryah: "I did not say that, okay? (Laughter.) The first day and the last day. (Laughter.)"

Salon has the video.

Ryan's reference to the "first day and the last day" hearkens back to Snow's first televised briefing, when he used a term -- "tar baby" -- that many consider racist.

Goodbye, Tony

Snow won't necessarily be missed by the press corps.

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle about her own experience with Snow: "Like a lot of others, the chemistry with Tony was never great and we watched with increasing chagrin as he got sicker and appeared less able to manage the massive amounts of information required in that job."

Helen Thomas wrote in a recent column: "As a showman he was able to deflect tough questions with the lift of an eyebrow, or by expressing mock astonishment that anyone would dare to question the president's motivations.

"It was a great game and he played it well. Someday he may ponder whether he was true to his chosen profession of journalism, which upholds the people's right to know what is being done in their name."

CBS's Mark Knoller and Salon's Tim Grieve recall some highlights and lowlights of Snow's tenure.

As I wrote in my March 2 column, The Spokesman Made for Cable: "Snow seems to treat his encounters with the press more like a cable show than as an opportunity to provide the public with a fuller picture of what's going on inside the White House. His prime goal seems to be to 'win the half hour' -- which generally entails out-talking and mocking your opponent, rather than mustering facts and actually staking out a persuasive position."

Replacement Dana Perino, however, brings her own set of baggage. She appears consistently underinformed about almost everything.

Attorney General Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate majority leader said yesterday that Democrats would block former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson from becoming attorney general, kicking off a spirited nomination debate even before the White House has named a candidate."

Thomas Ferraro reports for Reuters: "'He's a partisan, and the last thing we need as an attorney general is a partisan,' Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told Reuters in a brief hallway interview on Capitol Hill."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "To replace Alberto Gonzales, President Bush must appoint an attorney general who is above politics, and the Senate should only confirm a nonpolitical lawyer of unquestioned integrity. The names that have surfaced so far as potential nominees do not meet this standard."

McConnell Takes It Back

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "In a new embarrassment for the Bush administration top spymaster, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell is withdrawing an assertion he made to Congress this week that a recently passed electronic-surveillance law helped U.S. authorities foil a major terror plot in Germany.

"The temporary measure, signed into law by President Bush on Aug. 5, gave the U.S. intelligence community broad new powers to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communications overseas without seeking warrants from the surveillance court. The law expires in six months and is expected to be the subject of intense debate in the months ahead. On Monday, McConnell -- questioned by Sen. Joe Lieberman -- claimed the law, intended to remedy what the White House said was an intelligence gap, had helped to 'facilitate' the arrest of three suspects believed to be planning massive car bombings against American targets in Germany. Other U.S. intelligence-community officials questioned the accuracy of McConnell's testimony and urged his office to correct it. . . .

"The developments were cited by Democratic critics on Capitol Hill as the latest example of the Bush administration's exaggerated claims -- and contradictory statements -- about ultrasecret surveillance activities. In the face of such complaints, the administration has consistently resisted any public disclosure about the details of the surveillance activities -- even thought McConnell himself has openly talked about some aspects of them. . . .

"The flap over McConnell's latest statements is especially sensitive because many Democrats have said they felt the White House and the director of national intelligence stampeded them into passing the new surveillance law -- claiming it was needed on an 'emergency' basis to protect the country against a future terror attack." (See my August 8 column.)

Faiz Shakir of ThinkProgress writes: "Note that in the statement, McConnell does not apologize, but rather uses it as another opportunity to call for Congress to authorize the . . . expansion of the administration's spying power."

Comey's Speech to the NSA

A law journal called Greenbag is out with a unusual article: The full text of a speech that James B. Comey, then-deputy attorney general, gave at the National Security Agency in May 20, 2005.

It was a little over a year earlier, in March 2004, that Comey had led a rebellion at the Justice Department against certain aspects of Bush's warrantless NSA surveillance program that he felt were flatly illegal. (See, for instance, my May 16 column.)

So what did Comey tell the folks at the NSA?

"It can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in the intelligence community, particularly for those whose work touches on counter-terrorism and war-fighting . . . because we are likely to hear the words: 'If we don't do this, people will die.' . . .

"But it's not that simple, although during crises, at times of great threat, it can surely seem that simple, certainly to the policy maker and operator, and even to the lawyer. . . .

"It is the job of a good lawyer to say 'yes.' It is as much the job of a good lawyer to say 'no.' 'No' is much, much harder. 'No' must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, with lives hanging in the balance. 'No' is often the undoing of a career. And often, 'no' must be spoken in competition with the voices of other lawyers who do not have the courage to echo it.

"For all those reasons, it takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say 'no' when it matters most. It takes moral character. It takes an ability to see the future. It takes an appreciation of the damage that will flow from an unjustified 'yes.' It takes an understanding that, in the long-run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country."

Hook 'Em Horns

Ken Layne at Wonkette spots Bush "making the devil sign -- or, as Satan's Apologists usually say, the 'Hook 'Em Horns'" at yet another inappropriate event: This time the White House 9/11 ceremony.

Blogger Mark Hoback has made quite a study of Bush's finger formations. Here, for instance, is Bush making the sign while standing alongside the Queen of England.

I think he does it when he's nervous.

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart had Bush biographer Robert Draper on his show last night, and marveled at Draper's access to the president: "He was either disarmed by you -- or didn't think you were writing this stuff down."

Stewart's conclusion: "After reading this book I get the sense of a man who is very proud of the person he believes himself to be -- but he is, in fact, the opposite of that person."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's big announcement; Tony Auth on Bush's idea of victory.

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