By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 15, 2007; 12:50 PM
President Bush says he now approves of how things are going in Iraq. But what, beyond a decreased body count, does he really have to celebrate there? And what's his endgame?
Bush's exuberance contrasts dramatically with Thomas E. Ricks's sobering analysis in today's Washington Post.
Fox Business News anchor David Asman asked Bush on Tuesday: "The surge, is it working?"
Bush: "Yeah. And it's measurable. In other words, violence is declining. And the attitudes of people are changing -- when people have more security, they're more willing to forego hedging their bets, affiliation to violent groups, and willing to reach out and reconcile with their neighbor. . . .
"You know, I used to tell people at the end of '06 -- or, at the run-up of '06, the '06 elections -- had you asked me, I would have disapproved of Iraq, in those endless approval polls. I would have said, 'Well, I disapprove.' And I disapproved because we weren't winning. And my attitude is if we've got somebody in harm's way, we better have a strategy that succeeds.
"In my case, I listened to advisors and, particularly, the military people, like General [David] Petraeus and [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates, and said, 'I don't approve.' And they said, 'Well, here, let's try this.' And that was the surge. And I do approve now."
By contrast, consider what Ricks reports today from Baghdad: "In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but 'it's unclear how long that window is going to be open.'"
As Ricks puts it, ever so understatedly: "The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? 'If that doesn't happen,' Odierno said, 'we're going to have to review our strategy.'"
Ricks points out that those who say that Bush has already started pulling troops out are jumping the gun: "The latest news of declining violence comes as the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq has reached an all-time high. This week, the U.S. troop number will hit 175,000 -- the largest presence so far in the 4 1/2 -year war -- as units that are rotating in and out overlap briefly. But those numbers are scheduled to come down rapidly over the next several months, which will place an increasing burden on Iraqi security forces and an Iraqi government that has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge, senior military officials said."
And despite Bush's public rejection of de jure timetables, there appears to be a de facto one on the ground: "On the diplomatic side of the Iraq equation, U.S. officials said they realize time is short," Ricks writes. "'We've got six months because the military is leaving,' said one official."
Meanwhile, the finger pointing is fast and furious. Diplomatic officials have apparently "expressed irritation with the military's negativity toward the Iraqi government -- which they interpret as blaming the State Department for not speeding reconciliation.
"'That's their out,' the official said of the military. 'It's convenient, and I know plenty of them have been helping that story around.'"
And then there's the fact that "some outside experts contend that U.S. officials still don't grasp how their empowerment of militias under the bottom-up model of reconciliation is helping tear apart Iraq. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University expert on the Middle East, argued recently on his blog, Abu Aardvark, that partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting 'towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.'"The Democrats
The Democrats are trying to box Bush in on withdrawal. But it all has a certain deja vu quality to it.
Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "The House yesterday approved a war funding bill that directs President Bush to withdraw most troops from Iraq by the end of next year, escalating a feud between the White House and congressional Democrats over spending priorities in wartime.
"The measure, part of a bill that would provide $50 billion to fund the war over the next four months, was passed 218 to 203, with one member voting present. It provides about one-quarter of Bush's 2008 request for $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .
"The bill stands virtually no chance of being enacted. Amid recent reports of progress in Iraq, Bush, who is determined not to let Congress restrict how he conducts the war, has threatened a veto.
"Democrats know that but say that their efforts to limit the war since taking control of Congress in January are a political -- and, some say, moral -- necessity."
But Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times that the measure "attracted just four Republican votes, dozens short of a two-thirds majority needed to overcome a presidential veto."
And David Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "The fight over supplemental war spending is the latest rerun of a well-worn routine: Congressional Democrats, unable to force Mr. Bush to change course in Iraq, push to vote on fruitless legislation to remind Americans that they want to end the war. The White House accuses the Democrats of undermining the troops, and Congressional Republicans express outrage as the House passes a bill.
"If the pattern followed for much of this year holds, Republicans will use their muscle in the Senate, which is evenly divided on war issues, to block the bill. The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said he intends to do just that when the Senate considers the measure, perhaps this week."Fighting Words
Here's White House Press Secretary Dana Perino at yesterday's press briefing, anticipating the Democrats' move: "Once again, the Democratic leadership is starting this debate with a flawed strategy, including a withdrawal date for Iraq, despite the gains our military has made over the past year, despite having dozens of similar votes in the past that have failed, and despite their pledge to support the troops. And once again, they plan to send the President a bill that they know he will veto. This is for political posturing and to appease radical groups."
A reporter later asked: "By 'appeasing radical groups,' are you talking about MoveOn.org, et cetera? Or are you talking about the large numbers of Americans who tell interviewers and pollsters that they would like troops home as soon as possible?"
Perino: "I am talking about MoveOn.org and CODEPINK, in particular."
And in a statement after the vote, right on cue, Perino accused Democrats of undermining the troops: "Today the House of Representatives passed on a largely party-line vote legislation that would only partially fund our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but fully embolden our enemies."Running Out the Clock
John Podesta, Lawrence J. Korb and Brian Katulis write in a Washington Post op-ed: "Both political parties seem resigned to allowing the Bush administration to run out the clock on its Iraq strategy and bequeath this quagmire to the next president. The result is best described as strategic drift, and stopping it won't be easy.
"President Bush claims that his strategy is having some success, but toward what end? He argued that the surge would provide the political breathing space needed to achieve a unified, peaceful Iraq. But its successes, which Bush says come from a reduction of casualties in certain areas, have been accompanied by massive sectarian cleansing. The surge has not moved us closer to national reconciliation. . . .
"Rather than push for a realistic end to U.S. engagement, the Bush administration claims doomsday scenarios would become reality if a phased U.S. withdrawal began. Iraq, it says, would become a terrorist sanctuary, incite regional war or be the scene of sectarian genocide. These arguments are as faulty as those that led us into Iraq, and progressive leaders must push back. . . .
"The United States must set a firm withdrawal date. It is the only way Iraqis and regional leaders will make the compromises necessary to stabilize Iraq and the entire Middle East. This withdrawal can be completed safely in 12 to 18 months and should be started immediately."
Newsweek's Christopher Dickey bitterly mocks the argument that things are getting better in Iraq: "Aren't the numbers of dead down for the last few weeks? Sure. Ethnic cleansing works and death squads work. The Iraqi capital, once unified and cosmopolitan, is now cut up into insular little communities. Since the militias' campaigns of murder, mutilation, intimidation and reprisal have achieved their ends, there's no need to keep the slaughter going. Never mind the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and the destruction of the modern state."
Dickey rails against the war's "human costs and, on a broader scale, the incalculable price Americans already are paying in lost influence, reputation, business and security around the world. Once a nation to be admired for its ideals and feared for its strength, under this administration the United States has been transformed into a country derided for its hypocrisy and feared for its stupidity. Al Qaeda's horrific attacks on New York and Washington may have triggered the blind rage and excused the willful blindness that led us to this pass, but an incurious public, a feckless press and a flaccid opposition have been complicit all the way, and they still are. . . .
"I'd like to think that in the dark of night our leaders feel guilty or ashamed. But I don't think they do. Do you?"
Martin Schram writes in his Scripps Howard opinion column: "What would George W. Bush and Dick Cheney be saying today if they were campaigning politicians running against a President Clinton (either one of them) who had outsourced our responsibility to retaliate against Osama bin Laden for his 9/11 attacks on our homeland?
"What would Karl Rove have been whipping up for Bush to say and what would Cheney (who needs no Roving ambassador) be saying on his own about a president from the other party who had chosen to allow al Qaeda's leader to escape into Pakistan's northern tribal areas of Islamic militancy? . . .
"What if the reason a President Clinton hadn't teamed up to launch a joint military operation with Pakistan to capture bin Laden was that he/she had over-extended the U.S. military and gotten the troops pinned down in Iraq -- and had to divert resources from efforts to crush the forces that attacked America's mainland in 2001 so that in 2007 he/she still couldn't complete the retaliation he/she had pledged to lead? What if a President Clinton had actually allowed bin Laden to remain at large, videotaping his taunts against America, whose president had vowed to get him, dead or alive, many years ago?
"We all know the answer: What Bush-Cheney-Rove and company would have done to either Clinton would have made what they did to one-time Vietnam War POW John McCain, triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland and Vietnam Purple Heart medalist John Kerry look like a Crawford, Texas, picnic. They would have accused either Clinton of selling out and ducking out, of cutting and running from the vow to get Osama bin Laden and crush al Qaeda. . . .
"Bush-Cheney-Rove would have had America believing that a President Clinton who had done all of the above had sold America and our Star-Spangled Banner to the terrorists. They would have had us distrusting and despising a president who had been so weak after talking so tough.
"And they would have been right."Meanwhile, in Pakistan
Helene Cooper, Mark Mazzetti and David Rohde write in the New York Times: "Almost two weeks into Pakistan's political crisis, Bush administration officials are losing faith that the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, can survive in office and have begun discussing what might come next, according to senior administration officials.
"In meetings on Wednesday, officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon huddled to decide what message Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte would deliver to General Musharraf -- and perhaps more important, to Pakistan's generals -- when he arrives in Islamabad on Friday. . . .
"Several senior administration officials said that with each day that passed, more administration officials were coming around to the belief that General Musharraf's days in power were numbered and that the United States should begin considering contingency plans, including reaching out to Pakistan's generals."
In her Los Angeles Times opinion column, Rosa Brooks writes that Bush's longtime support for Musharraf leads her to ask the president: "[I]f you're supposed to be protecting our nation against Islamic extremism, why are your foreign policies actually strengthening dangerous extremists everywhere? . . .
"For six years now, [Musharraf has] been pocketing our checks with one hand while actively suppressing the moderate political parties that offer Pakistan's best hope against Islamic radicalism with the other. . . .
"Today, Pakistan is in crisis once more. Musharraf has managed to alienate secular democrats and radical Islamists alike. Thousands of opposition activists are now in prison, two-thirds of Pakistan's senior judges are under house arrest, and Musharraf has suspended the constitution."Gonzales Watch
If there's a legal defense fund in the works, can an indictment be far behind?
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Supporters of former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales have created a trust fund to help pay for his legal expenses, which are mounting in the face of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into whether Gonzales committed perjury or improperly tampered with a congressional witness.
"The establishment of a legal defense fund for the nation's former chief law enforcement officer underscores the potential peril confronting Gonzales, who is one of a handful of attorneys general to face potential criminal charges for actions taken in office. . . .
"The Justice Department's investigation of Gonzales is likely to be completed in the next several months, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation's progress. The inspector general is looking at whether Gonzales misled Congress in sworn testimony and improperly sought to influence testimony of an aide, Monica M. Goodling, about last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
"The inspector general's office cannot bring criminal charges, but it can hand over evidence to prosecutors with a recommendation for further investigation and possible charges, officials have said."
As Eggen points out: "Legal defense funds are common in Washington, but not for attorneys general."FISA Watch
CNN reports: "In his second day on the job, Attorney General Michael Mukasey leaped into the political fray, telling a key Democratic senator he opposes his electronic surveillance plan and would recommend the president veto it if it is passed.
"In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the eve of crucial committee votes to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), Mukasey was adamant in opposing Leahy's plan for changing the law."
It sounds like the letter pretty much jives with this White House " Fact Sheet." What a coincidence.Budget Watch
Emily Pierce writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "As the showdown between Democrats and the president over spending limits intensifies, Congressional Republicans are quietly urging the White House to incorporate some wiggle room in its hard-line stance over how much Congress should spend on domestic priorities. . . .
"So far, Democratic leaders repeatedly have asked President Bush to meet with them to discuss a compromise on a top-line discretionary spending cap somewhere between their $954 billion proposal and his $933 billion request. But Democrats say the White House has rebuffed them time and again.
"'The ball is in the president's court right now. He has told us "veto, veto, veto" for months now,' Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an Appropriations cardinal, said last week. 'The question now is, where are negotiations? Are you willing to come to the table and talk or are you just going to say, "My way or the highway?" . . . To this point, we have not been able to get that conversation.'"
John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal about the "Republicans' newfound fascination with spending," which he says "stems from a simple reality: They suffered badly over the issue in 2006, some pollsters say, to a degree that many in the party haven't recognized. . . .
"Republican analysts close to the White House say that among voters who supported the party in 2004 but turned against it in 2006, spending was the biggest concern after congressional corruption, bigger even than the Iraq war."Tax Cuts Don't Pay For Themselves
The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Tax cuts don't pay for themselves. This might sound like dog-bites-man news, except for one thing: This rather unremarkable statement comes from Jim Nussle, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget in an administration whose president is given to saying things like 'You cut taxes, and the tax revenues increase' ( February 2006) and 'We have cut taxes, causing economic growth, which caused there to be this year alone 187 billion more tax dollars coming into the Treasury' ( August 2007)."
The Post points out that this is all newly relevant in the context of plans by Congress to offset a $50 billion-plus "patch" exempting millions of taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax by closing a loophole used by some super-wealthy money managers.
Here's Bush on Nov. 13: "Last week, the House passed a bill that provides relief for AMT, but raises taxes on others. Preventing a tax increase in one area should not be an excuse for raising taxes in other areas. Congress should eliminate the tax increases in the bill, and send the AMT relief to my desk as soon as possible. That's what the American taxpayer expects."
Writes The Post: "Indeed, that's the kind of free lunch American taxpayers have gotten accustomed to from this administration. If tax cuts don't pay for themselves, though, the administration and its congressional enablers need to explain: Who is going to foot the bill, those enjoying the benefits of the patch or their grandchildren?"Recess Appointment Watch
Erin P. Billings writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "With just two days to go until the Thanksgiving recess, Democratic leaders once again are considering holding the Senate in a series of pro forma sessions to stop President Bush from using the break to install any of his outstanding executive branch nominees.
"The move comes as speculation mounts that Bush will use the period to push through some controversial appointments while Senators are out of town for the two-week period. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could all but block the president from doing so, however, if he opts to call the chamber into nonvoting sessions every three days -- thus doing away with an extended recess."Blackwater's Roots
Jeremy Scahill writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "The Bush administration has overseen a radical privatization of the U.S. war machine. There are now more private contractors in Iraq -- tens of thousands of them armed -- than U.S. troops. At the same time, the White House has militarized the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, staffing it with private warriors from Blackwater, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy. This force, conceived as a small-scale bodyguard operation for U.S. diplomats, now constitutes a paramilitary squad thousands strong, seemingly accountable to no one.
"Although Blackwater's operatives must be held accountable, this is not just a case of rooting out 'bad apples.' These forces were deployed without any accountability structure or effective oversight; their mission was to keep U.S. officials alive by any means necessary. Blackwater has done that job, but we may never know how many Iraqis have died as a result. The investigation must determine which operatives killed the Iraqis on Sept. 16, but it can't stop there. It must extend to those who hired them and deployed them, armed, dangerous and apparently above the law."On Bush Hatred
Peter Berkowitz writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "Hating the president is almost as old as the republic itself. . . .
"But Bush hatred is different. . . . Bush hatred . . . is distinguished by the pride intellectuals have taken in their hatred, openly endorsing it as a virtue and enthusiastically proclaiming that their hatred is not only a rational response to the president and his administration but a mark of good moral hygiene."
Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald responds: "As is so often the case for whining right-wing polemicists with pretenses of high-minded grievances, the whole column is actually about him and his bruised little ego. . . .
"But the far more significant aspect of this whole spectacle is that the WSJ Editors -- of all people -- have the audacity to publish a lecture on the grave harms of hatred towards the President. . . .
"Entire books could be written on the defamatory filth disseminated by the WSJ Editors throughout the 1990s."Are They Stenographers?
I called attention earlier this week to ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz's quote to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, while talking about her frequent trips to international hotspots: "I'd probably go crazy if I had to stay every second at the White House and not go out and be a reporter. . . . I don't want to be a stenographer."
Matthew Felling of CBS's Public Eye writes that Raddatz's quote "wasn't taken well by some of those she sits with in the White House briefing room."
The Houston Chronicle's Julie Mason told Felling: "It's only stenography if you make it that way. . . . There are many reporters at the White House doing serious, important work in spite of the limitations. There is also a lot of humor and pathos in covering the president, and to call it merely stenography misses something."
CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller responded: "Sure, I view it as an insult if someone calls me a stenographer. Yes, I take careful notes on everything the President says. But my reports are far more than mere transcripts of those remarks. As a reporter, I boil his comments down to their essence, put them in context and challenge them for veracity."
Raddatz herself chimes in: "I have enormous respect for the White House press corps. Apologies to those who took that description as anything but a reflection on my own personal whip-cracking."Bush's Idea of the Humanities
Among the recipients of today's 2007 National Humanities Medal: Stephen H. Balch, president of a conservative group that fights political correctness on college campuses ("for his leadership and advocacy upholding the noblest traditions of higher education"); National Review columnist and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson ("He has cultivated the fields of history and brought forth an abundant harvest of wisdom for our times"; and neoconservative Sovietologist Richard Pipes ("He has shaped and sharpened our understanding of the contest between liberty and tyranny").Cartoon Watch