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Exposing Bush's Weakness

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 6, 2007; 1:22 PM

When the going gets tough, President Bush -- checks out?

Faced with a genuine geo-political crisis brought on by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's anti-democracy crackdown over the weekend, Bush responded yesterday with deference and a meek hope for the best.

"Previous to his decision we made it clear that these emergency measures were -- would undermine democracy," Bush said during a photo op. "Having said that. . . . President Musharraf has been a strong fighter against extremists and radicals. After all, they tried to kill him three or four times. . . .

"Now that he's made that decision, I hope now that he hurry back to elections."

There was no talk of consequences for Musharraf, who has been the recipient of well over $10 billion in U.S. aid over the past six years. And although White House officials said they learned a week ago that the Pakistani leader was contemplating such a move, Bush himself never got on the horn to the man he has called"my buddy and my friend."

Even under the cover of anonymity, the " senior administration official" who briefed reporters yesterday on Pakistan chose the wet noodle over the big stick.

"President Musharraf, you know -- who is the leader of his country -- but in our judgment, he's made a mistake. And the question is what do you do when someone makes a mistake that is a close ally? You know, do you cut him off, hit him with sanctions, walk out the door? Or do you try and see if you can work with them to get them back on track? And the President's guidance to us is see if we can work with them to get back on track. . . .

"You know, we don't -- we are the United States of America; we're very powerful, we have a lot of influence, but we don't dictate."

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Monday urged Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, to hold elections and give up his army post 'as soon as possible,' but gave no indication that the general's imposition of emergency rule would bring about any significant change in American policy. . . .

"A Bush administration official who works on Pakistan issues acknowledged that with the United States having already invested so much in General Musharraf, there was little Washington could do in response to the Pakistani president's actions that did not have the potential to undermine American goals.

"'When you owe the bank a million dollars, you have a problem; but when you owe the bank $100 million, the bank has a problem,' he said. "

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that "the administration is struggling to balance a drive for democracy in the Muslim world with what it considers Musharraf's support in the fight against al-Qaeda. . . .

"Administration officials said they are beginning to review the various elements of the aid package but made clear that they hope to coax Musharraf on a democratic path without a dramatic reduction in assistance that they consider crucial in fighting terrorism. . . .

"[S]ome U.S. officials believe the United States needs Musharraf more than he needs the United States. 'We're so invested in counterterrorism strategy in Pakistan's tribal areas -- and aid is the only means available to counter the growing al-Qaeda presence there -- so it limits the options we have available,' said one State Department official not authorized to speak publicly."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Bush and his aides acted yesterday as if Musharraf had made an illegal right on red, or perhaps parked in a handicapped space.

"'What we think we ought to be doing is using our various forms of influence at this point in time to help a friend, who we think has done something ill-advised,' one of Bush's top aides declared from the podium in the White House briefing room. . . .

"So would there be consequences for Musharraf's misbehavior? 'That's going to depend heavily on what we hear, obviously, from the Pakistani government,' he said, making sure to add: 'And that is not a threat in any way.'

"It didn't even rise to a diplomatic slap on the wrist. . . .

"Mr. Anonymous mentioned his hopes eight times in his 40 minutes with reporters. 'We hope that we'll get some clarification on the intentions of the government in the next few days. . . . We are hopeful that we will see some clarification. . . . We hope they will do that.'

"Missing were the serious diplomatic words such as 'outrageous' and 'unacceptable.' In their place were gentle sentiments such as 'unfortunate' and 'disappointed' and, two dozen times, 'concern.'"

For more background, see yesterday's column: Another Bush Backfire.

Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Washington's inability to deter Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf from declaring emergency rule -- a coup d'etat that has been in the works for months -- reveals yet another Bush administration foreign policy failure. As the dictator's goons used clubs and tear gas to crush pro-democracy demonstrations, arrested several thousand lawyers and human rights activists and muzzled the media, President Bush -- the chest-thumping, self-proclaimed defender of freedom and crusader against tyranny everywhere -- bravely declared that he hoped Musharraf would 'take my advice' and hold elections soon. It was a grotesque finale to the now-abandoned doctrine that Bush advanced in his second inaugural address, when he argued that tyranny itself is the mother's milk of extremism. . . .

"Musharraf has never been either a democratic reformer or a reliable ally in the so-called war on terrorism. The truth is that all of the choices in Pakistan are bad. But pouring $10 billion down the gullet of a military dictatorship since 2001 has made U.S. options no better. (That figure does not include covert U.S. aid to Musharraf, estimated at perhaps $5 billion to $10 billion more.)"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "By imposing martial law, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has pushed nuclear-armed Pakistan further along a perilous course and underscored the failure of President Bush's policy toward a key ally in the war on terrorism. The events should not have come as a surprise to administration officials. This is what you get when policy is centered slavishly on a single, autocratic ruler rather than more broadly on his country.

"The general, Pakistan's president, justified his crackdown as a defense against Islamic militants, but his desperate and reprehensible actions -- suspending the constitution, rounding up judges, beating and jailing lawyers and journalists -- will embolden extremists. They will also fuel anger and mistrust among Pakistani moderates."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The choice the United States and other Western governments now face is not between Mr. Musharraf and the terrorist forces he has sporadically combated since 2001. It is between a deeply unpopular, ineffective and politically exhausted military ruler who is trying to extend his tenure by force and one of the Muslim world's largest and most liberal civil societies. . . .

"There should be no question as to which side the United States is on. Yet so far the administration has hedged its bets. It has called Mr. Musharraf's measures 'extreme' and said it 'cannot support emergency rule.' But Mr. Bush said yesterday that 'we want to continue working with him' on counterterrorism, and officials have made clear that aid directed at that collaboration -- which is most of the U.S. aid Pakistan receives -- will not be affected. The general probably will regard that stance as an acquiescence to his coup -- as will most Pakistanis and the millions of other Muslims around the world who are watching the U.S. response."

Juan Cole writes for Salon: "Tantamount to a coup, Musharraf's actions on Saturday have not only thrown Pakistan into turmoil but have also revealed the hypocrisy of Bush's foreign policy, including the proclaimed goal of fostering freedom and the rule of law in the Muslim world."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "The state of emergency in Pakistan signals yet another low point in President George W. Bush's foreign policy -- a stark demonstration of his paltry influence and his bankrupt principles. . . .

"One consequence of this crisis is that Bush's 'freedom agenda' is finally bankrupt. He will never again be able to invoke it, even as a rhetorical ploy, without evoking winces or laughter.

"In his second inaugural address, where Bush first declared that the main aim of his foreign policy would be to spread democracy and topple tyranny all around the world, he warned dictators that good relations with America 'would require the decent treatment of their own people.'

"Musharraf's proclamation is the definitive proof that no dictator takes -- or ever will again take -- that warning seriously. . . .

"Musharraf's proclamation reveals that we are not the 'sole superpower' that Bush and his associates thought we were; that sometimes the combination of vital interests and mediocre diplomacy put us all too desperately at the mercy of events."

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Don't expect to hear this from the White House any time soon, but the global war on terrorism conceived in the wake of 9/11 has effectively ended. As President Bush travels from one military post to the next giving pep talks to soldiers, he manfully sustains the pretense that V-T Day is just around the corner. Yet events have shredded the strategy that his administration was counting on to produce its victory over terrorism. . . .

"The Bush administration is no longer engaged in a principled effort to address the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism. In lieu of principles, the administration now engages in crisis management, reacting to problems as they pop up. Last week, it was Turkey's threat to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. This week, it's Pervez Musharraf, key ally and beneficiary of $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, imposing naked military rule on Pakistan. Next week, who knows what surprises await? . . .

"As the clock runs down on the Bush era, the administration preoccupies itself with damage control."

On Waterboarding

Jan Crawford Greenburg and Arian de Vogue reported for ABC News last week: "A senior Justice Department official, charged with reworking the administration's legal position on torture in 2004 became so concerned about the controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding that he decided to experience it firsthand, sources told ABC News.

"Daniel Levin, then acting assistant attorney general, went to a military base near Washington and underwent the procedure to inform his analysis of different interrogation techniques.

"After the experience, Levin told White House officials that even though he knew he wouldn't die, he found the experience terrifying and thought that it clearly simulated drowning.

"Levin, who refused to comment for this story, concluded waterboarding could be illegal torture unless performed in a highly limited way and with close supervision. And, sources told ABC News, he believed the Bush Administration had failed to offer clear guidelines for its use."

What happened then? "Sources said he was forced out of the Justice Department when [Alberto] Gonzales became attorney general."

The Washington Post editorial board writes of Levin that "his name can be added to the roster of accomplished conservative lawyers, including former deputy attorney general James B. Comey and former Office of Legal Counsel chief Jack L. Goldsmith, who found themselves fighting to sustain the rule of law in an administration too often eager to suspend it."

Olbermann Watch

And the Levin story set off MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who had this to say during his "special comment" last night: "It is a fact startling in its cynical simplicity and it requires cynical and simple words to be properly expressed: The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

"All the petulancy, all the childish threats, all the blank-stare stupidity; all the invocations of World War III, all the sophistic questions about which terrorist attacks we wanted him not to stop, all the phony secrets; all the claims of executive privilege, all the stumbling tap-dancing of his nominees, all the verbal flatulence of his apologists. . . .

"All of it is now, after one revelation last week, transparently clear for what it is: the pathetic and desperate manipulation of the government, the refocusing of our entire nation, toward keeping this mock president and this unstable vice president and this departed wildly self-overrating attorney general, and the others, from potential prosecution for having approved or ordered the illegal torture of prisoners being held in the name of this country."

Olbermann also suggest one possible motivation for torture: "Study after study for generation after generation has confirmed that torture gets people to talk, torture gets people to plead, torture gets people to break, but torture does not get them to tell the truth.

"Of course, Mr. Bush, this isn't a problem if you don't care if the terrorist plots they tell you about are the truth or just something to stop the tormentors from drowning them.

"If, say, a president simply needed a constant supply of terrorist threats to keep a country scared."

Mukasey Watch

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write for The Washington Post that the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted to approve the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general after Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) parted ways with their Democratic party colleagues.

Schumer writes in a New York Times op-ed this morning: "Should we reject Judge Mukasey, President Bush has said he would install an acting, caretaker attorney general who could serve for the rest of his term without the advice and consent of the Senate. To accept such an unaccountable attorney general, I believe, would be to surrender the department to the extreme ideology of Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington. All the work we did to pressure Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign would be undone in a moment."

He also argues: "Congress is now considering -- and I hope we will soon pass -- a law that would explicitly ban the use of waterboarding and other abusive interrogation techniques. And I am confident that Judge Mukasey would enforce that law. On Friday, he personally made clear to me that if the law were in place, the president would have no legal authority to ignore it -- not even under some theory of inherent authority granted by Article II of the Constitution, as Vice President Cheney might argue."

But Georgetown Law professor Marty Lederman responds: "That all sounds perfectly fine and reasonable . . . except, of course, that no such specifying law will ever be 'in place,' because the President, devoted to torture and cruelty, would veto it.

"What Senator Schumer ought to do, therefore, is simple -- that is, if he truly cares about ending torture and cruel treatment: pledge to vote to confirm Judge Mukasey if and only if -- and after -- the President signs S.1943."

CNN reports: "A majority of Americans consider waterboarding a form of torture, but some of those say it's OK for the U.S. government to use the technique, according to a poll released Tuesday.

"Asked whether they think waterboarding is a form of torture, more than two-thirds of respondents, or 69 percent, said yes; 29 percent said no.

"Asked whether they think the U.S. government should be allowed to use the procedure to try to get information from suspected terrorists, 58 percent said no; 40 percent said yes."

Former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora and John Shattuck, a former assistant secretary of state, write in a Washington Post op-ed about "the corrosive effects of the decision to adopt cruelty and -- as with waterboarding -- even torture as weapons of war. . . .

"Judge Mukasey is able and accomplished. But if he is confirmed as the next attorney general, his legacy will depend on his ability to do what he has been unable or unwilling to do in his confirmation process: recognize torture and cruelty for what they are and protect our nation by stripping certain interrogation methods of their disgraceful camouflage of false 'legality.'"

Contempt Threat

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "The House Judiciary Committee sent a final warning to the White House yesterday to provide Democrats with access to disputed documents and testimony, pushing the House closer to a vote on contempt citations for two administration officials.

"In a letter to White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), gave the Bush administration until Friday to work out a deal on documents and testimony relating to last year's controversial removal of nine U.S. attorneys. If Fielding refuses the latest request, the House could vote as early as next week on the contempt charges, Democratic aides said.

"The committee also filed a formal, 102-page contempt report with the House clerk that lays out its request for testimony from former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and for documents controlled by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten.

"Bush administration officials immediately signaled they do not intend to negotiate, arguing that internal deliberations involving Miers and Bolten are covered by executive privilege. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino accused Democrats of seeking to 'waste time again on another diversion' rather than pass meaningful legislation."

Civil Rights Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "The US Commission on Civil Rights, the nation's 50-year-old watchdog for racism and discrimination, has become a critic of school desegregation efforts and affirmative action ever since the Bush administration used a controversial maneuver to put the agency under conservative control.

"Democrats say the move to create a conservative majority on the eight-member panel violated the spirit of a law requiring that no more than half the commission be of one party. Critics say Bush in effect installed a fifth and sixth Republican on the panel in December 2004, after two commissioners, both Republicans when appointed, reregistered as independents.

"'I don't believe that [the law] was meant to be evaded by conveniently switching your voter registration,' said Commissioner Michael Yaki, one of the two remaining Democrats. . . .

"Other presidents have been able to create a majority of like-minded commissioners, but no president has done it this way. The unusual circumstances surrounding the appointments attracted little attention at the time. But they have had a sweeping effect, shifting the commission's emphasis from investigating claims of civil rights violations to questioning programs designed to offset the historic effects of discrimination."

Farm Bill Veto Threat

Dan Morgan writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration, setting the stage for another confrontation with Congress over a major spending measure, issued a veto threat yesterday against the Senate version of the $288 billion farm bill.

"The announcement came as a disappointment to bipartisan Senate supporters, who had hoped the farm legislation avoided some of the pitfalls that prompted a similar veto threat this summer against a House-passed version."

Override Ahoy

Alexander Bolton writes in the Hill: "The House is expected to vote overwhelmingly Tuesday to override President Bush's veto of legislation funding $23 billion worth of water projects, diminishing Bush's authority as he heads into a spending showdown with Democrats over 12 unfinished appropriations bills, say government scholars. . . .

"Senate Republicans say there are more than enough votes for an override in their chamber. . . .

"The first veto override of Bush's tenure signals the first time Republicans have deserted their president en masse, albeit on a relatively obscure issue. Congressional scholars say the rift between Bush and the majority of the party will diminish him as he prepares to battle congressional leaders over spending priorities. But how much authority Bush will lose, and how much of a wedge the bill will drive between GOP lawmakers and Bush, is a matter of disagreement."

Poll Watch: A New Record

Susan Page writes in USA Today that Bush has "reached an unwelcome record. By 64%-31%, Americans disapprove of the job he is doing. For the first time in the history of the Gallup Poll, 50% say they 'strongly disapprove' of the president. Richard Nixon had reached the previous high, 48%, just before an impeachment inquiry was launched in 1974."

Poll Watch: Iran

Page writes: "Americans are concerned about Iran's nuclear program but split on whether military action should be undertaken if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail to stop it, according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll."

Given the choice between military action and economic or diplomatic efforts, however, 73 percent chose the latter. And 76 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned that the U.S. will be too quick to use military force.

Iran Opinion Watch

Gary Kamiya writes for Salon "that the Iraq debacle has taught us absolutely nothing. Talk of attacking Iran should be confined to the lunatic fringe. Yet America's political and media elite have responded to the idea of attacking Iran in almost exactly the same way they did to the idea of attacking Iraq. Four and a half years after Bush embarked on one of the most catastrophic foreign-policy adventures in our history, the same wrongheaded, ignorant and self-destructive approach to the Arab-Muslim world and to fighting terrorism still rules establishment thinking."

Iraq Watch

Lauren Frayer reports for the Associated Press: "The U.S. military on Tuesday announced the deaths of five more soldiers, making 2007 the deadliest year for U.S. troops despite a recent downturn, according to an Associated Press count.

"At least 852 American military personnel have died in Iraq so far this year -- the highest annual toll since the war began in March 2003, according to AP figures."

And from ABC News: "Reports of fewer casualties in Iraq haven't altered most Americans' perceptions of the war: Fifty-nine percent still don't think the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order there, and a record six in 10 want the level of U.S. forces reduced.

"Those results in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll seem to reflect a continued hardening of attitudes on Iraq. Views on progress are unchanged from early September, and they haven't been positive since December 2005, shortly after the Iraqi elections."

Talking Turkey

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush pledged Monday to increase intelligence cooperation with Turkey in its fight against Kurdish rebels, hoping to head off any significant Turkish military operation in Iraq.

"Meeting in the White House with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Bush declined to say how the United States would respond if Turkish forces entered northern Iraq, dismissing it as a hypothetical question that, he said, Mr. Erdogan himself had asked.

"Instead, Mr. Bush promised that the American and Turkish militaries -- allies in NATO -- would work together to fight the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K., which he called 'an enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq and the United States of America.'

"'I can tell you that we -- he asked what would my reaction be if there was an attack,' Mr. Bush said, sitting beside Mr. Erdogan in the Oval Office. 'Well, that's a hypothetical question. But what we did talk about is to make sure that there is good enough intelligence so that we can help deal with a common problem, and that problem is a terrorist organization called P.K.K.'"

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that, talking to reporters later in the day, "Erdogan gave no sign that a military operation was imminent and at one point told the audience with a smile that he was 'happy' with the results of the discussions with Bush."

Bush 2008

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "With no certain Republican front-runner and the most open-ended nominating process in decades, it is perhaps no surprise that the party's first family is just as divided in settling on a candidate. While its most powerful members -- President Bush, his father and his brother Jeb -- have remained conspicuously on the sidelines, their public statements and body language carefully analyzed for evidence of whom they privately favor, other family members have spread their endorsements around."

George P. Bush, son of Jeb, has endorsed former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee. His "little brother, whom everyone in the family calls 'Jebby,' has signed on to the campaign of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as the young professionals chairman in Florida. Their aunt Doro, the president's younger sister, co-hosted a Washington fundraiser in February for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney."

Bush's New Poodle

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "French President Nicolas Sarkozy's talks with U.S. President George W. Bush this week are expected to highlight warmer ties between their countries -- so much so that the visit has inspired U.S. newspaper cartoons depicting Sarkozy as Bush's new 'poodle.'"

Helene Fouquet and Francois de Beaupuy write for Bloomberg: "Sarkozy's talks with President George W. Bush, starting with dinner at the White House tonight, will focus on shared opposition to Iran's nuclear program and on support for Kosovo's push for independence from Serbia, according to the French president's spokesman, David Martinon.

"'They are not here to disagree, just to show the world how much they agree on,' Dominique Moisi, the senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, said in an telephone interview. 'Sarkozy will give a new flavor and depth to the relationship.'"

Cartoon Watch

Garry Trudeau on Lord Cheney; Dan Wasserman, Ann Telnaes, Bill Mitchell and Tony Auth on Musharraf; David Horsey on Bush's South Asia

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