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Bush's Battlefield Envy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 17, 2007; 2:18 PM

President Bush wishes that he could be alongside the troops in Iraq -- except that he's too old.

At least that's what he reportedly told a blogger embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. In the first session of its kind, Bush spent almost an hour on Friday talking with 10 so-called "milbloggers," including two who participated by video conference from a military base outside Baghdad.

" N.Z. Bear," one of the eight guests sitting around a table with Bush at the White House, reported: "Responding to one of the bloggers in Iraq he expressed envy that they could be there, and said he'd like to be there but 'One, I'm too old to be out there, and two, they would notice me.'"

Maybe Bush was just making idle chit-chat. But this would not be the first time the president has appeared unaware of the hardships his war has caused hundreds of thousands of American troops -- while expressing a misguided sense of bravado.

He certainly hasn't ever put himself in harm's way. The president who avoided serving in Vietnam as a young man has made only three visits to Iraq since declaring that major combat operations were over more than four years ago. All three of the visits were unannounced and featured extensive security.

Bush's total time in country? Less than 15 hours.

Bush's first trip was a two-and-a-half-hour visit to the Baghdad airport on Thanksgiving 2003, where he teared up at the sight of the soldiers and was famously photographed posing with a prop turkey.

In June 2006, Bush spent five hours visiting Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad, although he didn't let the prime minister know he was coming.

During his most recent trip, two weeks ago, Bush was on the ground for seven hours, never leaving the confines of a military base known as Camp Cupcake, a heavily fortified American outpost for 10,000 troops with a 13-mile perimeter.

At the same time, the White House has depicted Bush as being on the front lines. In a June 14 briefing, Hearst columnist Helen Thomas asked press secretary Tony Snow if there were "any members of the Bush family or this administration in this war?"

Snow's response: "Yes, the President. The President is in the war every day."

Thomas said she meant "on the front lines."

Snow replied: "The President."

In April, First Lady Laura Bush said that "no one suffers more" than she and the president when they watch television footage of the carnage in Iraq.

It was in July 2003 that Bush had this to say to America's would-be attackers in Iraq: "My answer is, Bring 'em on." (Bush has since expressed regret over that comment.)

White House Gets Bloggy

Bush didn't have to go out of his way on Friday to endear himself to his guests, who had been screened for sycophancy.

And as their ensuing blog posts make clear, they lapped up even his most timeworn talking points and hoariest stories.

For instance, Bush once again told his oft-repeated story about how his father fought the Japanese in World War II, but now he himself counts the prime minister of Japan as one of his closest allies. Apparently, it still chokes Bush up.

Ward Carroll of military.com wrote that Bush "grew very emotional as he made a linkage between his father's service in World War II and the fact that Japan is now an ally and then said, 'I've had meetings with the prime minister of the country he fought.' He actually teared up as he said that."

" CJ," an active-duty soldier and blogger, wrote: "Being right next to him, I caught a single tear attempt to roll down his left cheek before he casually wiped it away."

Matthew Burden, a former Army officer who blogs under the name Blackfive, wrote: "The President was very intelligent, razor sharp, warm, focused, emotional (especially about his dad), and genuine."

Overall, Burden wrote: "[I]t was very cool. The President of the United States slapped my hand and called me "brutha". Top that."

Michael Abramowitz wrote about the session in Sunday's Washington Post: "Judging from some of the accounts of the Friday meeting, the president offered up little news. . . .

"Still, the hour-long meeting in the Roosevelt Room offered Bush another opportunity to break through what he sees as the filter of the traditional news media, while also reaching out to the providers of a new source of information for soldiers, their families and others who follow the conflict in Iraq closely.

"'More and more we are engaging in the new-media world, and these are influential people who have a big following,' said Kevin F. Sullivan, the White House communications chief."

Blogger " John of Argghhh" wrote: "President Bush observed, that as far as he knows, this was the first time that a sitting President had hosted a group of bloggers for a chat at the White House." In a separate post, John notes: "Make no mistake - he knew we were going to generally be a receptive audience, and we were. The staff knew our blogs, and they knew that while some of us have not always been fans or happy with things as they are, they knew we were not going to storm the Bastille, either."

Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal wrote that Bush talked about "the importance of blogs in providing an additional view of the conflict not often seen in the established media."

Carroll of military.com wrote that "the meeting came about because the staffers were convinced the assembled had shown themselves in writing to be pro-mission (or in my case pro-military), if not pro-administration. . . .

"Here are some of the highlights from my notes. (Remember it's hard to write and maintain eye contact with the Commander-in-Chief):

"* 'The question is will we do what it takes to defend ourselves?' . . .

"* 'This strategy is my strategy.'

"* 'I'm defining a horizon of peace.'"

Bill Ardolino, blogging in his Iraq Journal, wrote: "My question focused on how national political reconciliation will affect progress in the Anbar Province and Fallujah specifically, and the President's answer honestly surprised me in its length, level of detail and grasp of events on the ground."

" Mrs. Greyhawk" of the Mudville Gazette wrote: "It was history in the making. This alone was awe-inspiring and I did have to concentrate hard to keep from having an idiotic grin on my face thru out the meeting, especially since we were all discussing serious issues.

"Unfortunately, I did not get to say much since the President gave very long but thought provoking answers to the important questions given him [by] others."

Mrs. Greyhawk added another highlight: "I tinkled in the Whitehouse."

" CJ" wrote: "I can't remember exactly what I asked the President because I was choking up having just mentioned my good friend SSG Stevon Booker who died in front of me in Iraq. I just started babbling after that. It was pathetic, you should have seen it. I thanked him for finally taking the fight to the enemy and having the nerves of steel to see it through to the end - whatever that means."

Steve Schippert wrote for National Review's The Tank blog: "It is hard to write without tearing, so forgive the brevity. It is surreal to me that an Illinois farm kid finds himself - with absolutely no traditional pedigree beyond sweat, focus and self-study - seated in the Roosevelt Room with the President of the United States discussing the direction, progress and challenges as we see them in a conflict that history will reflect defines this generation."

Blogger Bear wrote: "The biggest impression I came away with is best expressed in a thought that occurred to me during the session, which was that anyone who sat through an hour with this man as I did and came away unconvinced that he sincerely believes in the message of freedom and the necessity of this fight would have to be crazy. He exudes sincerity and passion when he speaks of the this mission, and I'm simply baffled by anyone who tries to claim that it's all politics, or all Halliburton, or all about the oil. Not for the man I saw today, it isn't."

It does sound, however, like there were at least a few unvarnished moments.

Bear quotes Bush saying about a possible withdrawal from Iraq: "If you think it's bad now, imagine what the world would be like if we created a void [by withdrawing]."

Et Tu, Maestro?

Bob Woodward writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Alan Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve chairman for 18 years and was the leading Republican economist for the past three decades, levels unusually harsh criticism at President Bush and the Republican Party in his new book, arguing that Bush abandoned the central conservative principle of fiscal restraint. . . .

"Greenspan, 81, indirectly criticizes his friend and colleague from the Ford administration, Vice President Cheney. Former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill has quoted Cheney as once saying, 'Reagan proved deficits don't matter.'

"Greenspan says, ' "Deficits don't matter," to my chagrin became part of the Republicans' rhetoric.'

"He argues that 'deficits must matter' and that uncontrolled government spending and borrowing can produce high inflation 'and economic devastation.' . . .

"Greenspan was intensely criticized for endorsing a large tax cut in 2001 in congressional testimony during the first weeks of the Bush administration. He notes that he was recommending any tax cut, even a smaller one proposed by some Democrats. But he acknowledges that those who had warned him about the perception he was backing Bush's plan were right. 'The tax-cut testimony proved to be politically explosive,' he writes."

And: "Without elaborating, he writes, 'I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.'"

In today's Post Woodward follows up with Greenspan about that last comment, and writes that Greenspan "said in an interview that the removal of Saddam Hussein had been 'essential' to secure world oil supplies, a point he emphasized to the White House in private conversations before the 2003 invasion of Iraq."

But, Woodward writes: "In the interview, he clarified that sentence in his 531-page book, saying that while securing global oil supplies was 'not the administration's motive,' he had presented the White House with the case for why removing Hussein was important for the global economy. . . .

"He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, 'I have never heard them basically say, "We've got to protect the oil supplies of the world," but that would have been my motive.'"

As Woodward explains: "Critics of the administration have often argued that while Bush cited Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and despotic rule as reasons for the invasion, he was also motivated by a desire to gain access to Iraq's vast oil reserves. Publicly, little evidence has emerged to support that view, although a top-secret National Security Presidential Directive, titled 'Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy' and signed by Bush in August 2002 -- seven months before the invasion -- listed as one of many objectives 'to minimize disruption in international oil markets.'"

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "In an interview timed with the release of his memoir Monday, Mr. Greenspan . . . unleashed bottled-up frustration about President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican leaders in Congress who, he contends, put politics ahead of Republican goals like fiscal discipline and lower government spending. . . .

"In the end, he said, 'political control trumped policy, and they achieved neither political control nor policy.'"

Brad DeLong reviews Greenspan's book for the Los Angeles Times and writes: "That Greenspan and other committed small-government Republicans have been horrified at the turn their party has taken and have desperately sought some way to take it back from the cynical media consultants and political hacks who now run things is well-known -- to readers of Ron Suskind's 'The Price of Loyalty' and Bruce Bartlett's 'Imposter' and a host of people who know people who know Bush administration undersecretaries."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that Greenspan's self-criticism about his support for tax cuts "comes six years late and a trillion dollars short."

And, Krugman writes: "[L]ike enthusiastic war supporters who have started describing themselves as war critics now that the Iraq venture has gone wrong, Mr. Greenspan has started portraying himself as a critic of administration fiscal irresponsibility now that President Bush has become deeply unpopular and Democrats control Congress."

Bush Nominates Mukasey

Michael Abramowitz, Dan Eggen and William Branigin write for The Washington Post: "President Bush today announced his nomination of retired federal judge Michael B. Mukasey to become the nation's 81st attorney general, moving to install a law-and-order conservative at the Justice Department to help wage the war on terrorism while hoping to avoid a confirmation fight with Senate Democrats. . . .

"In picking Mukasey, Bush sidesteps the uproar that would have erupted in the Senate had he chosen one of the early front-runners, former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson. Some conservatives made clear their puzzlement that Bush was passing over one of their favorites for someone who has been praised by Senate liberals and their allies.

"But the White House apparently decided that Mukasey is conservative enough, and that it is important to restore confidence in the Justice Department as quickly as possible, with a choice that could garner bipartisan support. . . .

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "Mr. Mukasey's handling of the case of Jose Padilla, an American citizen suspected of membership in Al Qaeda, has attracted particular notice from critics of the Bush administration. Although Mr. Mukasey backed the White House by ruling that Mr. Padilla could be held as an enemy combatant -- a decision overturned on appeal -- he also defied the administration by saying Mr. Padilla was entitled to legal counsel. . . .

"Over the weekend, the White House appeared to be floating Mr. Mukasey's name with conservatives. A sign that he would pass muster with them came Saturday night, when William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, endorsed Mr. Mukasey. . . .

"Still, he has garnered praise in some surprising quarters. Glenn Greenwald, a frequent critic of the administration who writes about legal issues for Salon.com, assessed Mr. Mukasey's part in the Padilla case in an article over the weekend and praised him as 'very smart and independent, not part of the Bush circle.'"

Here's the transcript of the remarks by Bush and Mukasey in the Rose Garden this morning. Here's a White House " fact sheet" on the nominee.

The Washington Post editorial board writes that Olson, the partisan firebrand, "would have restored to the top job at the Justice Department a level of intellectual heft and gravitas that had been absent during Mr. Gonzales's 2 1/2 -year reign of errors."

And The Post worries that Bush has allowed Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) "to usurp the president's role in choosing a nominee who shares his -- or possibly even her -- ideology and priorities."

Mukasey Gonzales Watch

One question regarding Mukasey will be what, if anything, he says about his predecessor. So far the answer is not much. While Bush this morning referred to Gonzales as an "honorable and decent man" who "served with distinction," Mukasey, noting that he had received a congratulatory call from Gonzales, simply said "I appreciate his support and encouragement."

Iran Watch

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that Bush used his speech on Thursday "to stress the need to contain Iran as a major reason for the continued American presence in Iraq.

"The language in Mr. Bush's speech reflected an intense and continuing struggle between factions within his administration over how aggressively to confront Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been arguing for a continuation of a diplomatic approach, while officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's office have advocated a much tougher view. They seek to isolate and contain Iran, and to include greater consideration of a military strike.

"Mr. Bush's language indicated that the debate, at least for now, might have tilted toward Mr. Cheney."

Thomas Omestad writes in U.S. News: "Amid deepening frustration with Iran, calls for shifting Bush administration policy toward military strikes or other stronger actions are intensifying, including among some U.S. officials. On the Web and through more traditional means, a wave of commentary, analysis, and think-tank studies on Iran policy -- along with rumor, speculation, and possible leaks about military preparations -- has been building through the summer."

Anna Mulrine writes for U.S. News about Sen. Joe Lieberman's bellicose statements during last week's Senate testimony by Gen. David Petraeus. Lieberman "presented what could be regarded as a casus belli when he proclaimed Iran 'responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers.' He cited what he said was military information about three Iranian camps for training Iraqi Shiite extremists just over the border, and he asked Petraeus whether it is 'time to give you authority . . . to pursue those Iranian Quds Force operations in Iranian territory, in order to protect America's troops in Iraq?'

"Petraeus demurred, saying he thought he should keep his sights on Iraq and that any such plans are best left to others. Others, which is to say the top commanders at U.S. Central Command, have drawn up detailed plans for a variety of contingencies involving action against Iran, from cross-border raids to bombing runs against Iran's nuclear infrastructure."

And here's something new from Bush's blogger roundtable. Bill Roggio blogged in the Long War Journal: "On Iran, President Bush acknowledged the theocratic regime is fomenting the Shia insurgency inside Iraq. 'There is no question explosively formed projectiles are funneled from Iran to Iraq. We're going to follow the advice of Ambassador Crocker,' who stated 'you're now on notice.'

"The diplomatic approach has not halted the EFP attacks, President Bush admitted, but he believes this has given the Iranian government pause. 'We will continue to pressure these regimes,' he stated. 'Has it stopped the EFPs? No. Has it got their attention? Yes.'"

On Fox News, Chris Wallace asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates if he would authorize sending troops into Iran in order to "take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers." Gates replied: "I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran, that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq -- don't need to go across the border into Iran." Gates said the administration "believes at this point that continuing to try and deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach."

Wesley Clark writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "Think another war can't happen? Think again. Unchastened by the Iraq fiasco, hawks in Vice President Cheney's office have been pushing the use of force. It isn't hard to foresee the range of military options that policymakers face.

"The next war would begin with an intense air and naval campaign. . . .

"But if it's clear how a war with Iran would start, it's far less clear how it would end."

Clark concludes that "the big lesson" of history "is simply this: War is the last, last, last resort. It always brings tragedy and rarely brings glory."

Who's Safe?

David Cole and Jules Lobel, the authors of a new book, "Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror," write in The Nation that "going on offense" does not work as a counterterrorism strategy.

"Our long-term security turns not on 'going on offense' by locking up thousands of 'suspected terrorists' who turn out to have no connection to terrorism; nor on forcing suspects to bark like dogs, urinate and defecate on themselves, and endure sexual humiliation; nor on attacking countries that have not threatened to attack us. Security rests not on exceptionalism and double standards but on a commitment to fairness, justice and the rule of law. The rule of law in no way precludes a state from defending itself from terrorists but requires that it do so within constraints. And properly understood, those constraints are assets, not obstacles."

Marty Lederman blogs that in their book, Cole and Lobel "argue that the paradigm of prevention, at least as administered over the past few years, has not only undermined fundamental laws and principles, but has also failed as a security matter, leaving us even less safe. Based upon a comprehensive review of the record, Cole and Lobel describe how the Bush strategy has netted few actual terrorists, foiled few actual terrorist plots, seriously limited our long-term security options, hampered our ability to gain the support of others, and fueled terrorist recruitment."

Torture Watch

Brian Ross, Richard Esposito and Martha Raddatz blog for ABC News: "The controversial interrogation technique known as water-boarding, in which a suspect has water poured over his mouth and nose to stimulate a drowning reflex, has been banned by CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, current and former CIA officials tell ABCNews.com.

"The officials say Hayden made the decision at the recommendation of his deputy, Steve Kappes, and received approval from the White House to remove water-boarding from the list of approved interrogation techniques first authorized by a presidential finding in 2002.

"The officials say the decision was made sometime last year but has never been publicly disclosed. . . .

"As a result of the decision, officials say, the most extreme techniques left available to CIA interrogators would be what is termed 'longtime standing,' which includes exhaustion and sleep deprivation with prisoners forced to stand, handcuffed with their feet shackled to the floor."

Opinion Watch

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan ('Return on Success') Thursday night, is counting on the public's continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until Jan. 20, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can't afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can't be held hostage indefinitely to a president's narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them."

Thomas L. Friedman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "George W. Bush delivered his farewell address on Thursday evening -- handing the baton, and probably the next election, to the Democrats....

"The sad thing for the American people is that we have no commander in chief anymore, framing our real situation and options. The president's description on Thursday of the stakes in Iraq was delusional....

"We also do not have a commander in chief weighing the costs of staying in Iraq indefinitely against America's other interests at home and abroad. When General Petraeus honestly averred that he could not say whether pursuing the surge in Iraq would make America safer, he underscored how much the war there has become disconnected from every conceivable worthy goal -- democratization of Iraq or spreading progressive governance in the Arab-Muslim world -- and is now just about itself and abstractions of 'winning' or 'not failing.'"

Bin Laden Watch

Osama Bin Laden may be alive and on the loose more than six years after 9/11, but Bush confidante and Undersecretary of State Karen P. Hughes writes in a Washington Post op-ed that -- by golly -- his poll numbers are down.

Movie Night

Ken Herman of Cox News Service apparently snagged an invite to dinner and a movie last night at the White House. He blogs: "President Bush, Vice President Cheney, their spouses and about 40 invited guests watched a screening of 'The Kite Runner,' a movie that depicts some of the horror and violence in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

"Khaled Hosseini, author of the best-selling novel, was among those on hand for a film that, for many in the room, served to justify U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks. . . .

"Also on hand were two former key aides who recently left the White House, political adviser Karl Rove and Press Secretary Tony Snow (who was still dealing with moving boxes out of his office after the movie and dinner)."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth, Tom Toles and Ben Sargent on Bush and the war.

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