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Locking Us Into Iraq?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; 1:44 PM

Is President Bush trying to tie the hands of his successor when it comes to Iraq?

While Washington is focused on today's pretend peace conference in Annapolis, this week's big Mideast news may well have come yesterday, when Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quietly signed a momentous agreement about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Without any advance notice or public ceremony, Bush and Maliki agreed to a framework that calls for important decisions -- about such key issues as permanent U.S. military bases, long-term troop deployment and accountability for private contractors -- to be set in stone before Bush leaves office. And, while approval of the Iraqi parliament will be required, the U.S. Congress apparently won't get any say.

Peter Baker and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "The nonbinding statement sets the parameters for talks on a formal pact. Those negotiations will address thorny issues such as what mission U.S. forces in Iraq will pursue, whether they will establish permanent bases, and what kind of immunity, if any, should be granted to private security contractors such as Blackwater Worldwide."

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "US 'war czar' Lieutenant General Douglas Lute said that next year's talks would cover issues at the heart of the bitter US debate over the war. . . .

"'The shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, US presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States,' the general said.

"Lute's remarks were notable in that top US officials, starting with Bush, have repeatedly denied seeking permanent bases in Iraq or that the US deployment -- currently at roughly 162,000 troops -- is open-ended.

"The Bush-Maliki agreement was also expected to raise eyebrows with one provision that cited the need to promote the flow of international capital to Iraq but 'especially American investments.'

"Monday's announcement means that the Bush administration and Iraq will work out the future of US forces in Iraq in the shadow of the November 2008 US presidential election and despite sky-high US public opposition to the war.

"Any resulting agreement could limit the ability of Bush's successor to break with the current US strategy, as Democratic candidates have promised to do amid increasingly vocal calls for a US withdrawal.

"While Maliki said any final deal would require the Iraqi parliament's approval, Lute said the accord would not need backing from the US Congress, which is in the hands of Bush's Democratic foes."

The agreement calls for bilateral negotiations to begin "as soon as possible," with the hope of finalizing a deal by summer. That deal would then govern the U.S. presence in Iraq once the U.N.-mandated occupation ends in December 2008, just weeks before the inauguration of Bush's successor.

Still, the negotiations might not go exactly as Bush would want. Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "the agreement, which Maliki and President Bush signed during a teleconference, also could impose some limits on how U.S. commanders could use those troops.

"Maliki has been a frequent critic of U.S. military actions that have killed civilians and has said on numerous occasions that he believes Iraq doesn't need as many American troops as are now in the country.

"Under the current U.N. mandate, U.S. officials have the sole authority to decide how many troops are in Iraq and how they're used. U.S. military law governs the actions of those troops."

James Gerstenzang and Ned Parker write in the Los Angeles Times that Shiite Muslim parliament member Haidar Abadi, who serves as an advisor to Maliki, said Iraq will want the U.S. to continue training Iraqi troops for the foreseeable future, "but he made it clear that Iraq did not envision a relationship in which U.S. bases remained in the country half a century after they were established.

"'No military bases will be offered for long terms like in South Korea,' Abadi said, adding that what was being discussed was a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces in the next few years."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to the news with this statement: "President Bush's agreement with the Iraqi government confirms his willingness to leave office with a U.S. Army tied down in Iraq and stretched to the breaking point, with no clear exit strategy from Iraq.

"The President should take responsibility for his Iraq policy rather than expect the American people or the next Administration to bear the consequences of his mistakes."

Annapolis Watch

Here is Bush setting the goal of ensuring the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel before he leaves office in 2009.

But wait! That was in November of 2003. What followed were three solid years of inaction.

Here is Bush today: "Our purpose here in Annapolis is not to conclude an agreement. Rather, it is to launch negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. For the rest of us, our job is to encourage the parties in this effort -- and to give them the support they need to succeed."

Bush kicked off his speech this morning by reading a hot-off-the-presses document in which Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to new negotiations.

But the statement addressed none of the core issues dividing the two sides, and, as I wrote in yesterday's column, there is no indication that Bush will exert the energy or apply the leverage necessary to give this new peace effort even an outside chance of success.

Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler write in this morning's Washington Post: "So far, the Bush administration has been reluctant to offer its ideas for bridging disagreements or to impose its version of a settlement. U.S. officials indicated this week that that is unlikely to change. . . .

"Olmert is a deeply unpopular prime minister and Abbas has had control -- barely -- of only half of the Palestinian territories since the militant group Hamas seized Gaza in June. Yet they will be called upon to make difficult compromises -- and then sell those compromises to their skeptical publics."

And consider this: "Some Jewish and evangelical Christian groups have expressed concern that Bush is pressuring Israel to make unwise concessions, but Hadley reassured some of them yesterday in a private meeting at the White House. 'He was very strong on the point that what the administration is doing is supporting a decision that Prime Minister Olmert of Israel has made' in pursuing a peace deal, said Nathan J. Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "For many veterans of the Middle East, the prospects for securing a long-sought accord between Israelis and Palestinians in the year ahead seem as unrealistic as the newly fashioned peace-broker's role that Bush hopes to play near the conclusion of a tumultuous two terms occupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Even before the two sides -- or three sides, or 49 sides -- meet Tuesday, critics have declared Mr. Bush's Annapolis gathering the photo opportunity that Ms. Rice emphatically said it would not be only a month ago. . . .

"Mr. Bush's aides often point out that in 2002 he was the first American president to declare support for a Palestinian state. That is true, but they fail to mention that he did so while refusing to negotiate with Yasir Arafat, then the Palestinian leader, effectively endorsing a deadly stalemate.

"A recurring criticism of Mr. Bush is that he has so clearly tilted American policy toward Israel that the United States is no longer seen as an honest broker, emphasizing Israel's security over Palestinian grievances. . . .

"An even more consistent criticism, though, has been that Mr. Bush failed to follow through, declaring a vision only to let it wither on the vine as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians worsened."

Warren P. Strobel and David Lightman write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush plans to head back to the White House after delivering his opening speech to the diplomats and dignitaries at the U.S. Naval Academy, and while surprises are always possible, White House aides said he wasn't planning to offer new American proposals to resolve the conflict.

"Nor is Bush expected to jump into extended post-Annapolis negotiations or head off to the Middle East to pursue peace in the waning days of his tenure. . . .

"'Almost everything they want to do requires a level of involvement that is just qualitatively different than anything we've seen before' from this president, said Dennis Ross, who had a leading role in Middle East negotiations under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton."

Dion Nissenbaum and Hannah Allam write for McClatchy Newspapers from the Middle East, where "a series of polls found widespread skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians about the ability of representatives of perhaps 50 countries gathering in Annapolis, Md., to solve this conflict.

"Nearly three-quarters of Israelis expect the conference to lead to nothing. A majority of Palestinians expect that a failure at Annapolis will lead to a surge in violence."

Post Global Watch

Over at washingtonpost.com's PostGlobal blog, seven international panelists are weighing in on the meeting, including two journalists from Lebanon.

Hisham Melhem writes: "Many Arabs ask: Why did the Bush Administration wait seven years to re-launch the 'peace process'? They ask, with justification, where is the intellectual/emotional commitment of the American president, since no real progress can be achieved without his real engagement? Beyond that, this is the first time in the history of the 'peace process' that the three principal leading actors - Bush, Abbas and Olmert - are simultaneously weak, or perceived as such. Bush will soon be seen as a lame duck; Abbas will continue to be squeezed by Israel and Hamas; and Olmert cannot trust his defense and foreign ministers, who are sharpening the knives for the right moment to secure their inheritance."

And Rami Khouri writes: "For sports fans like George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the Annapolis meeting is the diplomatic equivalent of baseball's suicide squeeze bunt play: in the last inning of a nine-inning game, with runners on base and everyone wound up with anticipation, the manager tries a daring move that puts all the runners in motion while the hitter taps a soft bunt that aims to bring in a run and win the game. The suicide squeeze is one of the most exciting plays in baseball, perhaps in any sports. But it usually fails, because it is based on a combination of desperation and offensive deceit that rarely add up to a winning strategy."

McClellan's Backpedaling

Former press secretary Scott McClellan, acting through his publisher, has backed away from an excerpt of his upcoming book that appears to implicate Bush and Vice President Cheney in a campaign to mislead the public about the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent.

Here's what McClellan wrote in the book: "The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

"There was one problem. It was not true.

"I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself."

But as Holly Rosenkrantz and Ken Fireman wrote for Bloomberg last week: "McClellan doesn't suggest that Bush deliberately lied to him about Libby's and Rove's involvement in the leak, said Peter Osnos, founder and editor-in-chief of Public Affairs Books, which is publishing McClellan's memoir next year.

"'[Bush] told him something that wasn't true, but the president didn't know it wasn't true,' Osnos said in a telephone interview. 'The president told him what he thought to be the case.'"

But that doesn't exactly clear things up, and reporters are still appropriately asking questions.

Ken Herman blogged for Cox News Service yesterday morning: "White House Press Secretary Dana Perino today unequivocally denied that President Bush knowingly lied about his staffers' involvement in the leak of former CIA Agent Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. . . .

"'I know that this president has not and would not knowingly ask anyone to pass on false information,' Perino said, adding she spoke with Bush about the specific incident in question."

Joe Conason wrote in Salon last week: "How McClellan knows what Bush knew at that time -- let alone how Osnos knows -- remains to be explained. (Perhaps the former press secretary would speak more clearly and less cutely under oath, as his predecessor did in the Plame grand jury.) . . .

"Highly suggestive information about Cheney's role in the scandal has long been available in the public domain, which once encouraged speculation that he would be indicted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Plame was plainly a victim of Cheney's vendetta against her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had protested the lies at the center of the president's argument for war against Iraq.

"Yet Libby took the fall, leaving Fitzgerald bereft of sufficient evidence to prosecute the crime's suspected mastermind. After Libby was convicted and the president commuted his prison sentence, Bush declared that the case had 'run its course' and that he no longer felt bound to find out what his subordinates had done and punish them, as he had initially promised.

"The Libby commutation silenced the only potential stool pigeon who could implicate his bosses. Rove resigned without penalty, and Cheney sits in his office, mulling an attack on Iran. The Washington press corps, which had brought so little investigative energy to bear on the Plame case (except to speculate idly and stupidly about whether she was actually a covert officer), accepted Bush's facile closure. So did most members of the new Democratic Congress."

John Dickerson wrote for Slate: "Lost in the excitement is this larger point: Even if the president, the vice president, and [then-chief of staff Andrew] Card didn't know that McClellan was lying during those two October weeks, they certainly knew afterward that his stalwart defense had become inoperative, as reports surfaced that Libby and Rove had talked about the matter with reporters. And if they didn't know for sure, they should have cared enough to find out when it became clear that Libby and Rove were not as innocent of Plame's outing as they first claimed."

And journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen puts McClellan's writing in context: "[B]y seizing on a case where an outright falsehood was passed along to the press, we may overlook the meaning of McClellan's tenure . . . because it's worse than lying.

"Although he stood at the podium and managed the briefings, McClellan was not there to brief the press. He was there to frustrate and belittle it, and to provoke journalists into discrediting themselves on television. . . .

"McClellan's specialty was not lying, or the traditional art of spin, but what I have called 'strategic non-communication.' Lying we understand; spin we have to come to grasp. Non-communication we still do not appreciate. Its purpose is to make executive power less legible. Only a stooge figure would be willing to suffer the very public humiliations that such a policy requires of the man in the briefing room."

Rove's Amazing Denial

Here's an astonishing -- and un-aired -- excerpt from Rove's interview with PBS's Charlie Rose last week. The exchange didn't make it to Rose's broadcast, but Rose posted it on Huffingtonpost.com.

Rose asked Rove about McClellan's statement.

Rove: "I've gotten a couple of e-mails from Scott since that became public. . . . Basically saying, this is already being misinterpreted, and, you know, spun in a different way. So I'm going to wait and reserve judgment until I see the entire excerpt. I'm also a little bit restrained in what I can say about the Wilson Plame affair, because there is a civil lawsuit already lost at the lower court level that they filed, but that they've appealed it to the circuit court. So I'm restrained in what I can say. But I can say, and it's on is the public record, that Scott's -- if this is what Scott said, and I don't know whether it is or it isn't, I'm going to restrain myself --"

Rose: "Did he say it was or was not? It's out there. It's only one paragraph."

Rove: "Well, he said it's already being misinterpreted, and there is a more full disclosure of what was said and how it was said and so forth, and I'm going to wait for that fuller disclosure. The fact of the matter is that I told Scott something that was absolutely true. And it's been borne out by the facts. I did not knowingly disclose the identity or name of the CIA agent. And if I had, the outcome of the whole investigation would have been different."

But what McClellan told the press in 2003 was that Rove told him he was not involved in the leak at all. Then, during Libby's trial, Rove was clearly established as a confirming source of Plame's identity for syndicated columnist Robert Novak and a primary source for Matt Cooper, then of Time Magazine. Now, Rove is either doing some prodigious hair-splitting or he's just flat lying.

More Rove and Rose

In the broadcast portion of that interview, Rove blamed the war in Iraq on -- hold on to your hats -- the Democrats in the United States Senate.

Rove told Rose that "one of the untold stories about the war is why did the United States Congress, the United States Senate, vote on the war resolution in the fall of 2002. . . .

Rose: "Because your argument -- your argument is you would have had maybe more inspections. You would have been able to build a broader coalition. You could have done a whole lot other things if you didn't have to have a vote, right?"

Rove: "Right, right, exactly."

Cheney Gets a Shock

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Doctors examining Vice President Cheney yesterday discovered an irregular heartbeat and applied an electrical shock to restore a normal rhythm, the White House said, the latest in a long string of episodes that have raised concern about the health of the man next in line for the presidency.

"Cheney went to his doctors complaining of a lingering cough, but during the checkup they determined that he was experiencing atrial fibrillation, an abnormal rhythm involving the upper chambers of the heart. His medical team sent the vice president to George Washington University Hospital for further tests, where it was decided that the electrical impulse was needed to restore a regular heartbeat."

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters that Cheney "returned home from the hospital after the procedure, which required sedation, and will resume his normal schedule at the White House on Tuesday, his office said."

Dan Childs reports for ABC News: "Cardiologists say Vice President Dick Cheney's episode of irregular heart rhythm will not likely affect his immediate health -- but the condition could point to a worsening of his continuing heart problems. . . .

"Indeed, the irregular rhythm represents the latest link in a chain of heart problems for the vice president, a progression that began in 1978 with his first heart attack, which occurred when Cheney was 37. . . .

"And the treatment can be an uncomfortable one. Dr. David Haines, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., notes that the electric shock Cheney received through his chest is 'the same shock as a person in cardiac arrest gets. A person in atrial fibrillation gets it to restore normal electrical activity.'"

Gore in the Oval

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today: "Seven years after winning the popular vote for president, Al Gore finally re-entered the White House on Monday -- as a Nobel laureate.

"The former vice president, whose losing campaign against George W. Bush in 2000 went all the way to the Supreme Court, was one of several American recipients of Nobel Prizes invited to a traditional White House reception. Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the threat of global warming."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The occasion was an annual tradition, the presidential photo opportunity with Nobel Prize winners. But former Vice President Gore, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the environment, was granted special treatment: a private t¿te-¿-t¿te with the president, which lasted more than 30 minutes, provoking intense speculation about just what the two talked about.

"'Of course, we talked about global warming -- the whole time,' Mr. Gore said afterward, as he and his wife, Tipper, emerged onto Pennsylvania Avenue, where they were mobbed by reporters and photographers. . . .

"'It was a private meeting,' he said, 'and I'm not going to say anything about it other than that it was very nice, very cordial. He was very gracious in setting up the meeting, and it was a very good and very substantive conversation. That's all.'"

Peter Baker of The Washington Post described the meeting as "[a] bit anticlimatic after seven years of buildup. " And, he writes: "No one was laying odds that Gore changed Bush's mind."

But as James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times, Gore himself was hopeful: "Gore viewed the meeting, a close friend said, as an opportunity 'to put some focus on an issue he cares about,' as he has in other meetings with various heads of state.

"Although Gore and Bush have differed on the subject, the friend added, 'the vice president holds out a lot of hope the president and administration will be a part of a much-needed solution.'"

Air Traffic Update

Matthew L. Wald writes in the New York Times: "Air traffic delays were worse on the three main travel days of this Thanksgiving holiday period compared with a year ago, according to preliminary Federal Aviation Administration statistics. . . . Though President Bush ordered military air space opened to relieve flight congestion, its use appears to have been light."

Live Online

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Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Bush's new idea; Ben Sargent on Bush's new outfit; Mike Luckovich on Bush's new customers.

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