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Remembering the Forgotten War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 17, 2007; 1:20 PM

What happens when you leave one war unfinished to go fight another one? Nothing good.

As President Bush and his top aides consider what sort of world they'll be leaving behind, they're apparently realizing -- none too soon -- that they've made quite a mess in Afghanistan, too.

Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "Deeply concerned about the prospect of failure in Afghanistan, the Bush administration and NATO have begun three top-to-bottom reviews of the entire mission, from security and counterterrorism to political consolidation and economic development, according to American and alliance officials."

Shanker and Myers describe "a growing apprehension" in the White House "that one of the administration's most important legacies -- the routing of Taliban and Qaeda forces in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- may slip away, according to senior administration official. . . .

"In recent months," they write, "Mr. Bush's senior advisers have expressed a growing unease.

"While there is a sense that this year's troop buildup in Iraq has turned around a dire situation, the effort in Afghanistan has begun to drift, at best, officials said. That prompted Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, to oversee internal deliberations that resulted in the push for the new reviews."

But what are the options? "Strained by commitments in Iraq, the American military has few troops available to expand its forces in Afghanistan. 'It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity,' Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this week."

Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post with one possibility: "With violence on the decline in Iraq but on the upswing in Afghanistan, President Bush is facing new pressure from the U.S. military to accelerate a troop drawdown in Iraq and bulk up force levels in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials. . . .

"Bush's decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan could heavily influence his ability to pass on to his successor stable situations in both countries, an objective his advisers describe as one of the president's paramount goals for his final year in office. . . .

"Senior administration officials now believe Afghanistan may pose a greater longer-term challenge than Iraq."

So does this mean a stepped-up withdrawal from Iraq? Top Pentagon officials are apparently pushing in that direction. But Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, may not agree. And it's pretty clear who Bush listens to.

"As violence in Iraq falls," Abramowitz and Baker write, "Petraeus's stock has risen sharply within the administration, particularly since his strategy appears to be having an effect, and his views may carry the day with Bush. By contrast, many in the Pentagon opposed this year's troop 'surge' and are likely to see their influence with the White House diminished.

"'The president will have a lot of different advice between now and March, when General Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker come back from Baghdad and report to the Congress,' said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. 'He's going to listen to what everyone has to say, but at the end of the day, he wants to know what his commanders on the ground say. So he will listen to what General Petraeus says he needs to maintain the security gains we have made in Iraq.'"

A show of hands, please, for how many people think this will help: "Bush also plans to step up his personal diplomacy with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and will soon start regular videoconferences with him aimed at more closely monitoring and influencing the situation there, officials said. Bush has long held such videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."

But it's not like Iraq is exactly under control. The surge has entirely failed in its central goal of facilitating political reconciliation. And, as Abramowitz and Baker write: "Some who follow Iraq closely say that the current drop in violence is only a temporary result of American and Iraqi money spread to certain tribes, and a calculated gambit by insurgent forces and militias to wait out an anticipated U.S. withdrawal."

Furthermore, reminding the American public of Afghanistan has its own set of dangers: "A new White House emphasis on Afghanistan would probably expose Bush to even more criticism from Democrats, who have long accused him of taking his eye off the hunt for Osama bin Laden with the invasion of Iraq."

The most astonishing aspect of this story, however, is the suggestion that Bush thinks he has any chance of stabilizing either Iraq or Afghanistan -- not to mention both -- before he leaves office. It's almost certainly too late for that. And, at least until now, his actions in both countries have strongly indicated that his strategy was to kick the can down the road -- and hand off both fiascos to the next president.

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

Eric Lichtblau, James Risen and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "For months, the Bush administration has waged a high-profile campaign, including personal lobbying by President Bush and closed-door briefings by top officials, to persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting companies from lawsuits for aiding the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program.

"But the battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government's extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

"The N.S.A.'s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure."

Indeed, the secret and warrantless surveillance of Americans with the consent of telecommunications companies appears to extend well before and beyond the so-called "war on terror."

Lichtblau, Risen and Shane write: "The government's dependence on the phone industry, driven by the changes in technology and the Bush administration's desire to expand surveillance capabilities inside the United States, has grown significantly since the Sept. 11 attacks. The N.S.A., though, wanted to extend its reach even earlier. In December 2000, agency officials wrote a transition report to the incoming Bush administration, saying the agency must become a 'powerful, permanent presence' on the commercial communications network, a goal that they acknowledged would raise legal and privacy issues.....

"To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified...

"In a separate N.S.A. project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald writes that "what these revelations highlight -- yet again -- is that the U.S. has become precisely the kind of surveillance state that we were always told was the hallmark of tyrannical societies, with literally no limits on the government's ability or willingness to spy on its own citizens and to maintain vast dossiers on those activities. The vast bulk of those on whom the Government spies have never been accused, let alone convicted, of having done anything wrong."

And yet, unless Sen. Chris Dodd's filibuster somehow changes the political dynamic, it appears Congressional Democrats are going to let Bush have his way once again.

Siobhan Gorman and Evan Perez write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Senate appears poised to hand the White House another victory with a measure that would make permanent an expansion of government spy powers and shield phone companies from liability for assisting government eavesdropping.

"With floor consideration scheduled to start today, Democrats are split on how to cut back on the administration's surveillance powers. The only option that appears to have sufficient backing is a bipartisan measure the White House has blessed. Opponents of the White House-backed bill are increasingly predicting a White House win.

"If the White House prevails this week, it will be the latest example of President Bush's ability to outmaneuver his opponents in Congress, especially on controversial matters of national security, despite his weakened public support.

"Such a result will give Republicans the upper hand in fashioning a final compromise with the House in January, when Democrats may be more willing to compromise for fear of appearing weak on national security as election season heats up. The House has passed a version of the bill that doesn't include telecom immunity. The Senate version is likely to prevail because it has Republican support, according to lawmakers and Congressional staffers."

After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would be moving the White-House-backed bill to the floor, rather than a rival one the White House opposes, Dodd electrified the liberal blogosphere by vowing an honest-to-goodness filibuster. Not the kind where you just take a vote, but the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind, where a senator refuses to give up the floor until he can talk no more.

David Morgan writes for CBSNews.com: "'Providing retroactive immunity to companies that may have violated the law will set a dangerous precedent,' said Dodd. 'Companies who violated the trust of thousands of their customers will be immune to prosecution and the details of their actions will stay hidden.

"'The President, and his Administration, has consistently used scare tactics in an attempt to force Congress to pass FISA legislation that provides retroactive immunity,' Dodd said.

"Dodd had placed a 'hold' on the legislation, which ordinarily blocks a bill from coming to vote, but Reid is apparently ignoring the hold."

Politicization Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "The Bush administration is pushing to take control of the promotions of military lawyers, escalating a conflict over the independence of uniformed attorneys who have repeatedly raised objections to the White House's policies toward prisoners in the war on terrorism.

"The administration has proposed a regulation requiring 'coordination' with politically appointed Pentagon lawyers before any member of the Judge Advocate General corps - the military's 4,000-member uniformed legal force - can be promoted.....

"[F]ormer JAG officers say the regulation would end the uniformed lawyers' role as a check-and-balance on presidential power, because politically appointed lawyers could block the promotion of JAGs who they believe would speak up if they think a White House policy is illegal. . . .

"The JAG rule would give new leverage over the JAGs to the Pentagon's general counsel, William 'Jim' Haynes, who was appointed by President Bush. Haynes has been the Pentagon's point man in the disputes with the JAGs who disagreed with the administration's assertion that the president has the right to bypass the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections for wartime detainees."

Savage also offers some important history: "Key members of the Bush administration legal team have pushed to subject the JAGs to greater political control for years.

"In the early 1990s, both Haynes and Vice President Cheney's top aide, David Addington, were politically appointed lawyers in the Pentagon during the Bush-Quayle administration. On their advice, Cheney, who was then the defense secretary, proposed making each service's general counsel the boss of his JAG counterpart, but the Senate Armed Services Committee forced the administration to back down.

"In 2001, Haynes and Addington were restored to power in the Bush-Cheney administration, and the conflict over JAG independence resumed amid the fights over such war on terrorism policies as harsh interrogations.

"Responding to the conflicts, in 2004 Congress enacted a law forbidding Defense Department employees from interfering with the ability of JAGs to 'give independent legal advice' directly to military leaders. But when President Bush signed the law, he issued a signing statement decreeing that the legal opinions of his political appointees would still 'bind' the JAGs."

Wait Until the Next President

Thomas Fuller and Andrew C. Revkin write in the New York Times: "The world's faltering effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions got a new lease on life on Saturday, as delegates from 187 countries agreed to negotiate a new accord over the next two years -- pushing the crucial debates about United States participation into the administration of a new American president.

"Many officials and environmental campaigners said American negotiators had remained obstructionist until the final hour of the two-week convention and had changed their stance only after public rebukes that included boos and hisses from other delegates. . . .

"[T]he White House, while calling the negotiating plan 'quite positive' in a printed statement. . . described 'serious concerns' about the limited steps taken by emerging economic powers."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "America's negotiators were in full foot-dragging mode, acting as spoilers rather than providing the leadership the world needs. . . .

"Despite pleas from their European allies, the Americans flatly rejected the idea of setting even provisional targets for reductions in greenhouse gases. And they refused to give what the rest of the world wanted most: an unambiguous commitment to reducing America's own emissions. Without that, there is little hope that other large emitters, including China, will change their ways."

Budget Watch

Will Bush's budget victories end up costing him? That's the challenging premise of Jonathan Weisman's story in the Sunday Washington Post: "As Congress stumbles toward Christmas, President Bush is scoring victory after victory over his Democratic adversaries. He has beaten back domestic spending increases, thwarted an expansion of children's health insurance coverage, defeated tax hikes, won funding for the war in Iraq and pushed Democrats toward shattering their pledge not to add to the federal deficit with new tax cuts or rises in mandatory spending.

"But the cost of those wins could be high, both for the federal debt and for the president's own priorities.

"Bush's steadfast stand against Democratic spending, coupled with his equally resolute opposition to tax increases, could raise the federal debt this fiscal year by nearly $240 billion. As Democrats struggle to meet his demands, they are jettisoning renewable-energy and conservation incentives that Bush championed, and they may ax some of his most cherished programs."

The White House press office responded with a blistering memo to reporters, titled "The Washington Post Absurdly Argues Fight To Keep Spending Low Will Add To Deficit."

About That Deficit

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor that Bush and Congress are failing to make "the hard choices needed to get America's fiscal house back in order, say budget watchdogs.

"'Back when President Reagan was borrowing, government debt was $1 trillion. Now, we're borrowing on a credit card that's maxed out,' says Stanley Collender, of Qorvis Communications, a business consulting firm.

"The nation's fiscal situation is not unlike the plight of homeowners who signed on to adjustable rate mortgages and now risk losing their homes, Mr. Collender adds. 'What we're going to find after George Bush leaves office is that the national debt will be financed with much higher interest rates.'

"In a new report released last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that the federal budget is on an 'unsustainable path.' The reason: The government is spending more and more for healthcare programs and for interest payments on the federal debt, now topping $9 trillion. . . .

"The CBO estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $2.4 trillion over the next decade. Nearly $700 billion of that cost will be interest on the debt to finance the wars.

"It's a cost that's largely invisible to the public now, but will be much more evident as interest rates increase. That's why it's important for Congress to take steps to address such issues now, say budget watchdog groups."

Torture Tapes Watch

Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick write in Saturday's Washington Post: "The Justice Department moved yesterday to delay congressional inquiries into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes, saying the administration could not provide witnesses or documents sought by lawmakers without jeopardizing its own investigation of the CIA's actions.

"Congressional leaders from both parties alleged that Justice is trying to block their investigation and vowed to press ahead with hearings. . . .

"The growing feud is the first major confrontation with Congress for new Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who was narrowly confirmed last month amid controversy over his refusal to describe waterboarding -- a severe interrogation tactic that simulates drowning -- as torture."

And Eggen writes in Sunday's Post that, in court papers filed late Friday night, "the government also urged U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. not to seek further information about the tapes to avoid interfering with the inquiries of the Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general.

"'In light of the current inquiries by the political branches into the destruction of the tapes that occasioned petitioners' motion, it would not be appropriate to institute a judicial inquiry,' according to the filing by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey S. Bucholtz and two federal prosecutors."

Who Likes Him More?

Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush reemerged as an issue in the GOP campaign Sunday as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee sparred over who likes Bush best.

"Bush has rated hardly a mention recently among the GOP candidates vying to succeed him, but former Gov. Romney (R-Mass.) called on former Gov. Huckabee (R-Ark.) to take back his charge in Foreign Affairs magazine that Bush ran the war on terror with an 'arrogant bunker mentality.'

"Romney called the charge 'an insult' and said on NBC's 'Meet the Press' that 'Mike Huckabee should apologize to the President.'

"'We have a very difficult situation in Iraq,' Romney said, but Huckabee 'went over the line' in an attack on Bush.

"Huckabee shot back on CNN's 'Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer' that Romney hadn't read his full article in Foreign Affairs. Rather than trying to distance himself from Bush, Huckabee said, 'I supported the Bush tax cuts when Mr. Romney didn't. I was with President Bush on gun control when Mitt Romney wasn't.'"

Impeachment (Non) Watch

House Judiciary Committee Democrats Robert Wexler, Luis Gutierrez and Tammy Baldwin wrote Friday: "On November 7, the House of Representatives voted to send a resolution of impeachment of Vice President Cheney to the Judiciary Committee. As Members of the House Judiciary Committee, we strongly believe these important hearings should begin.

"The issues at hand are too serious to ignore, including credible allegations of abuse of power that if proven may well constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under our constitution. The charges against Vice President Cheney relate to his deceptive actions leading up to the Iraq war, the revelation of the identity of a covert agent for political retaliation, and the illegal wiretapping of American citizens."

Wexler on Friday also launched an online petition drive calling for hearings. He was hoping for 50,000 signatures. As of midday today, he had 76,000 and counting.

Bush's America

David Cay Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The increase in incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans from 2003 to 2005 exceeded the total income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans, data in a new report by the Congressional Budget Office shows.

"The poorest fifth of households had total income of $383.4 billion in 2005, while just the increase in income for the top 1 percent came to $524.8 billion, a figure 37 percent higher.

"The total income of the top 1.1 million households was $1.8 trillion, or 18.1 percent of the total income of all Americans, up from 14.3 percent of all income in 2003. The total 2005 income of the three million individual Americans at the top was roughly equal to that of the bottom 166 million Americans, analysis of the report showed."

Bailing Out

Two more late-Friday announcements from the White House: Chief congressional liaison Candi Wolff and chief speechwriter Bill McGurn are quitting, joining a long line of recent departures.

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Wolff will be replaced by Dan Meyer, a former Hill staffer and private lobbyist who joined the administration earlier this year. The new chief speechwriter will be Marc Thiessen, a onetime Pentagon wordsmith and aide to former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

"Neither Wolff nor McGurn, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer, have said what they will do next, according to press secretary Dana Perino, who said both had advised chief of staff Joshua M. Bolten long ago that they were planning to leave by the end of the year. McGurn will a stay on a bit longer to help out with next month's State of the Union address."

The Answer to So Many Questions

John Cook blogs for Radar Online: "Federal spending on paper shredding has increased more than 600 percent since George W. Bush took office."

How much of that, I wonder, was done here?

The End Is Near

Jenn Abelson writes in the Boston Globe: "The titles are grim: 'His Days Are Numbered,' 'The End is Near,' and 'The Official Countdown.'

"But these are not your ordinary apocalyptic tales lining the shelves at area bookstores. Instead, they are calendars, many, many calendars, counting down the days until the end of the Bush administration.

"As President George W. Bush enters his final year with some of the lowest approval ratings in his two terms in office, publishers are seizing on a disgruntled America and hoping to cash in this holiday season with a bounty of Bush-bashing calendars and handbooks. The countdown products feature celebratory exclamations like 'Yes, the End is Near!' or 'Hang in there! It's almost over!' along with unflattering pictures of Bush and quotes from the president."

Psych 101

Jonathan Haidt writes in an open letter to Bush on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page: "As a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, I sympathize with your pique toward that pesky reporter who tried to analyze your body language at a news conference this month, A National Intelligence Estimate had just reported that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The reporter said that 'you seem somehow dispirited' by the news. . . .

"You were right to dismiss him by saying that you felt 'spirited,' and that 'kind of Psychology 101 ain't working.'

"I agree, it ain't.

"But it could! I know how busy you are, so I have shrunk my semester-long Psychology 101 course down to six easy lessons, ready to apply to our struggle with Iran."

For example: "Week 3: Cognitive psychology. . . . When we want to reach a particular conclusion, we search only for evidence that supports the conclusion. When we find some evidence, any evidence, we stop thinking. We don't lift a finger to seek out disconfirming evidence. So be sure before your next big foreign policy gamble that you consult some experts who don't share your hopes and values."

Bush Counts the Silverware

From Friday's short appearance before reporters in the Rose Garden, the day after the White House holiday receptions for the media: "I hope you enjoyed the holiday bash as much as I did. I noticed some of the silverware is missing. (Laughter.) We'll be taking a full inventory. (Laughter.) Happy holidays."

How Dare They?

ThinkProgress has a clip of White House Press Secretary Dana Perino appearing on Fox News that same morning, bemoaning the audacity of non-supportive reporters -- as opposed to those who work for Fox News -- asking for an invitation.

Anchor Steve Doocy: "[H]ow weird is it to have, Dana, people who appear on other channels, who bash the president all the time, and then, one night a year, they come into the White House, they bring their kids, and they say, 'Hi, how are you', as if they haven't been bashing the president all year long?"

Perino: "It's a little awkward. And it was amazing to me, being in charge of taking the requests for invitations this year, how audacious some people are to call and ask to be invited to the president's Christmas party."

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