Promises, Promises

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonopost.com
Thursday, January 10, 2008; 1:30 PM

On the one-year anniversary of President Bush's announcement of a troop surge in Iraq, it's worth looking back to see what he promised the American people would happen.

Here's the text of his speech. Recall that, at the time, the debate in Washington finally appeared to be shifting away from how to achieve victory and toward how to cut our losses. Instead, Bush announced he was sending 30,000 more troops into the fray.

"[O]ver time," Bush said, "we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible. . . .

"To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."

And lest anyone think that Bush didn't take these Iraqi promises seriously, he vowed that "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

A year later, security has undeniably improved greatly -- although some experts suggest that the relative calm is due in part to all the ethnic cleansing that has already taken place. But all that promised political reconciliation? There are no signs of it whatsoever.

A year later, rather than admit the surge has failed in its primary task, Bush is calling it a success. And rather than hold the Iraqi government accountable -- say, by threatening to withdraw or pull back U.S. troops -- administration officials have come up with yet another plan that might work, might not, but either way buys time.

Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "In the year since President Bush announced he was changing course in Iraq with a troop 'surge' and a new strategy, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have begun their own quiet policy shift. After countless unsuccessful efforts to push Iraqis toward various political, economic and security goals, they have decided to let the Iraqis figure some things out themselves. . . .

"In many cases -- particularly on the political front -- Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. . . .

"Although some progress has been made and legislation in some cases has begun to slowly work its way through the parliament, none of [the major political] benchmarks has been achieved. Nor has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki taken over security responsibility for all 18 provinces, as Bush forecast it would. . . .

"For some observers, the approach indicates a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans drawn from U.S. templates have not worked in Iraq. But others charge that the phrase 'Iraqi solutions' implies a cynical U.S. willingness to turn a blind eye to sectarianism, political violence and a wealth of papered-over problems -- if that is the price of getting the United States out of Iraq."

As Ricks and DeYoung explain, both sets of observers could be right: "U.S. officials at various levels are pushing the idea for different reasons, said Sarah Sewall, director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Clinton-era Pentagon official. While Petraeus has embraced the notion out of 'realism,' Sewall said, she thinks the Bush administration 'has recently arrived at this formula out of desperation -- due to the failure of its past efforts.'"

As for the concept of "Iraqi solutions," such talk "'is largely a red herring,' said Wayne White, who led the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005. 'This is a catchy phrase aimed at touting -- and exaggerating -- success in Sunni Arab areas,' such as Anbar, 'while diverting focus away from potential downsides related to same,' including the creation of local forces allied with the United States but opposed to the Iraqi government."

Anne Flaherty writes for the Associated Press: "One year after President Bush announced his politically unpopular plan to send thousands more troops to Iraq, Democrats are struggling to counter the administration's argument that the buildup succeeded."

From a statement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "It is unfortunate and undeniable that one year after President Bush announced his 'surge' strategy, Iraq has failed to meet the benchmarks he outlined -- and his Administration has refused to hold Iraqis accountable for these unacceptable results. No amount of White House spin can hide the fact that the escalation's chief objective of political reconciliation remains unmet, Iraqis have not demonstrated any readiness to stand up and take responsibility for their own country, and 2007 was the most lethal year yet for American troops. . . .

"[O]ver the past year nearly 900 brave Americans have been killed while trying to provide Iraq's leaders with the opportunity to unite their country. In that time American taxpayers have spent more than $120 billion to finance another nation's civil war and back an Iraqi government that shows little interest in progress. And as President Bush continues to cling stubbornly to his flawed strategy, Al Qaeda only grows stronger. Rather than unconditionally supporting an endless war the American people oppose, I strongly urge the President to work with Congress to redeploy our troops and refocus the mission in Iraq so we can more effectively fight the war on terror."

Opinion Watch

The Dallas Morning News editorial board writes: "What a difference a year makes. Or doesn't. One year ago, President Bush announced a troop surge and declared on primetime TV that Iraq's chaos was 'unacceptable.' He referred not just to the bloodshed and bombings but also to the political split among Iraqi religious and ethnic factions.

"Today, Iraq is undeniably more secure. Bombings are way down, as are U.S. troop casualties. This newspaper doubted whether the surge plan would work militarily, and we're happy to say we were wrong.

"Politically, however, our skepticism was justified. The surge has failed to move Iraqi leaders closer to agreement on the core issues dividing them. As the Pentagon cuts troop levels this year, these lingering political differences could prompt renewed violence. . . .

"Because no number of U.S. troops can force Iraqi unity, we introduced our Plan B in July as the long-term answer to the U.S. challenge in Iraq: basing American forces closer to the borders with the express mission of halting infiltration and fighting al-Qaeda.

"It's time to begin the transition. Leave politics to the Iraqis and let our military do its job. Plan B gives U.S. troops the breathing space they've earned, while letting Iraq's leadership know unequivocally that America's patience has run out."

The National Security Network concludes: "Changes in military tactics can lead to short term gains, but only a comprehensive political strategy to bring Iraq's warring factions together can lead to a permanent solution to the conflict. One year since the President announced the 'surge,' it remains clear that he has no such strategy."

Brian Katulis and Peter Juul write for the Center for American Progress that "there are four ticking time bombs to watch closely in Iraq in the coming months that will reveal the extent of the damage done to internal Iraqi reconciliation and U.S. national security by the president's ill-considered 'surge' strategy. Those time bombs are: The collapse of 'bottom up' reconciliation among Sunnis; Increased instability in northern Iraq; The continuing plight of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis; Continued deadlock among Iraq's national political leaders."

But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed being trumpeted by the White House press office this morning, senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman write that "conditions in that country have been utterly transformed from those of a year ago, as a consequence of the surge. . . .

"The question we face, on the first anniversary of the surge, is no longer whether the president's decision a year ago was the right one, or if the counterinsurgency strategy developed by Gen. Petraeus is working. It is.

"The question now is where we go from here to sustain the progress we have achieved -- and in particular, how soon can more of our troops come home, based on the success of the surge. . . .

"The war for Iraq is not over. The gains we have made can be lost. But thanks to the courage of our troops, the skill and intellect of their battlefield commander, and the steadfastness of our commander in chief, we have at last begun to see the contours of what must remain our objective in this long, hard and absolutely necessary war -- victory."

Death Toll Watch

David Brown and Joshua Partlow write in The Washington Post: "A new survey estimates that 151,000 Iraqis died from violence in the three years following the U.S.-led invasion of the country. Roughly 9 out of 10 of those deaths were a consequence of U.S. military operations, insurgent attacks and sectarian warfare.

"The survey, conducted by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization, also found a 60 percent increase in nonviolent deaths -- from such causes as childhood infections and kidney failure -- during the period. The results, which will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of the month, are the latest of several widely divergent and controversial estimates of mortality attributed to the Iraq war.

"The three-year toll of violent deaths calculated in the survey is one-quarter the size of that found in a smaller survey by Iraqi and Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the journal Lancet in 2006."

Middle East Watch

It's not just the surge; Bush's predictions about the Middle East in general have been almost uniformly wrong.

That's something to keep in mind as he once again predicts a signed peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In yesterday's column, I analyzed Bush's recent remarks and concluded that he was backing off such a lofty goal. I was wrong.

Here he is at a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today: "In order for there to be lasting peace, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert have to come together and make tough choices. And I'm convinced they will. And I believe it's possible -- not only possible, I believe it's going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office. That's what I believe. . . .

"The question is whether or not the hard issues can be resolved and the vision emerges, so that the choice is clear amongst the Palestinians -- the choice being, do you want this state, or do you want the status quo? Do you want a future based upon a democratic state, or do you want the same old stuff? And that's a choice that I'm confident that if the Palestinian people are given, they will choose peace. . . .

"See, the past has just been empty words, you know. We -- actually it hasn't been that much -- I'm the only President that's really articulated a two-state solution so far -- but saying two states really doesn't have much bearing until borders are defined, right of return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, security measures -- the common security measures will be in place. That's what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a clear, defined state around which people can rally. . . .

"And to me, that's how you solve the issue in the long-term. And the definition of long-term, I don't know what it means. I'm not a timetable person -- actually, I am on a timetable -- got 12 months."

He had more to say afterwards, back at his hotel: "I called upon both leaders to make sure their teams negotiate seriously, starting right now," he said.

Bush outlined the general goals of a peace agreement and identified certain particularly thorny issues -- such as the status of Jerusalem -- without in any way suggesting how differences could or should be resolved. In fact, I wonder how much if any of what he said today is substantively different from what he said when he first came out for Palestinian statehood on June 24, 2002.

Bush today concluded optimistically: "The peace agreement should happen, and can happen, by the end of this year. I know each leader shares that important goal, and I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it."

Michael Abramowitz of The Washington Post, Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, and Anne Gearan of the Associated Press have much more.

Optimism Watch

Here's CNN's Ed Henry putting Bush's optimism in perspective this morning: "I remember traveling with the President last summer when he was asked about a whole other matter, the immigration reform bill back in this United States and he made a bold declaration then, saying 'I'll see you at the signing ceremony.'

"As you know, that signing ceremony never happened. So it's important to remember that sometimes optimistic talk doesn't turn into reality. That was about immigration reform. You think that was difficult, the Middle East peace process obviously much, much more complicated."

Bush's New Poodle?

Michael Abramowitz blogs for The Washington Post: "Is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert auditioning to replace Tony Blair as George W. Bush's new 'poodle?'

"Certainly, Olmert, who may be less popular in Israel than Bush is in the United States, appears to be working overtime to lavish encomiums on the lame-duck American president."

At yesterday's joint press conference, "when the questions were over, Olmert could not resist thanking Bush for 'the courage that you inspire in all of us to carry on with our obligations.'

"'Sometimes it's not easy, but when I look at you, and I know what you have to take upon your shoulders and how you do it, the manner in which you do it, the courage that you have, the determination that you have, and your loyalty to the principles that you believe in -- it makes all of us feel that we can also . . . move forward.'

"Even Bush seemed a bit embarrassed. . . .

"[I]n Israel Bush is probably more popular than elsewhere, and it has generally been seen as good politics in Israel for the prime minister to be close to the American president. Even so, said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, Olmert is overdoing it.

"'It evokes among Israelis a cynical response; it becomes an object of laughter,' Ezrahi said in an interview. 'I don't think a great statesman would engage in that kind of language.'"

Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "They are both unpopular leaders, scarred by terrorism and zealous in their warnings about the threat of Islamic extremism. And yet they profess grand ambitions to accomplish what other leaders have failed to do for decades: make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. . . .

"In interviews before and during Mr. Bush's visit, officials described the evolution of the deep bond between the leaders, reinforced by their shared views of Israel's security, and their own political problems in selling their approach to their respective constituencies. . . .

"In this case, the men's friendship was cemented during Mr. Olmert's first visit as prime minister to Washington in May 2006. They sat on the Truman balcony at the White House, without aides, and smoked cigars. They talked for more than an hour about family and sports and not, the Israeli official said, about politics."

The Times quotes an anonymous Israeli official saying: "They're the same age. They're both runners. They both feel that most of the world is against them, which, I think, is not far from the truth."

Blogging the Trip

The Post's Abramowitz is blogging the trip. In addition to his poodle post, he writes today about how former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's image literally loomed over Bush at his news conference in Ramallah, and wrote yesterday about how strong an impression Bush's 1998 trip to Israel apparently made on him.

Tribune's Mark Silva and Joel Greenberg are also blogging the trip, providing lots of instant news and analysis.

Sadly, White House press secretary Dana Perino's posts on a new White House "trip notes" blog are arriving late, and boring. Perino seems to have taken her writing cue from pool reports, which are largely unrevealing chronological accounts, long on useless detail and short on analysis.

Iran Watch

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The United States yesterday slapped sanctions on a top Iranian general and three exiled Iraqis based in Iran and Syria for fomenting violence in Iraq, as President Bush lashed out again at Tehran for last weekend's showdown between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels.

"In a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush called Iran a 'threat to world peace' and warned that it would face 'serious consequences' if it tried to attack U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. All options remain on the table, Bush said, a statement that some diplomatic and military officials in Washington said inflated the significance of the brief incident Sunday between five small Iranian speedboats and three U.S. warships."

But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, at a news conference on the eve of Bush's visit to the kingdom, "appeared to rebuff U.S. efforts to raise the stakes over Iran," Wright reports. "'We're a neighbor to Iran in the Gulf, which is a small area, so we're keen for harmony and peace among countries in the region,' Faisal said. 'We have relations with Iran and we talk with them, and if we felt any danger we have relations that allow us to talk about it.'"

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Persian Gulf confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces ended without a shot being fired. But it handed the Bush administration new ammunition in its battle to convince allies that the Tehran government is a threat even without nuclear weapons.

"The motivation for Iranian fastboats to dare to challenge a convoy of three much larger but less maneuverable U.S. Navy warships as they sailed the Strait of Hormuz -- very nearly provoking the Americans to open fire -- is unclear. . . .

"From the point of view of President Bush, who opened a Middle East trip Wednesday with Iran high on the agenda, the episode in the Gulf underscored his assertion that the Iranians are capable of acting recklessly. The unspoken implication: Who knows what they might do if they got nuclear weapons?"

But is this a trumped-up provocation?

Burns writes that the Pentagon video tape conveys the impression "that the Iranians ignored repeated requests by radio from the American ship to identify themselves, to state their intentions and to stay clear of the ship's path."

By contrast, Stuart Williams writes for AFP: "Iran on Thursday aired its own video of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz with US warships, in a bid to counter Pentagon accusations that the Iranians warned they could blow up the American vessels.

"The four-minute video broadcast by Iran's English-language channel Press-TV showed an Iranian commander in a speedboat contacting an American sailor via radio, asking him to identify the US vessels and state their purpose. . . .

"'Coalition warship number 73, this is an Iranian patrol,' the Iranian commander is heard to say in English, asking for the vessel to confirm its number. . . . 'Request your present course and speed!' added the Iranian commander, who was wearing a yellow lifejacket and the kefiyeh scarf often sported by Iranian revolutionary forces."

Flashback to Tonkin

The Federation of American Scientists earlier this week announced that an exhaustive history of American signals intelligence in the Vietnam War that has been declassified and released by the National Security Agency.

Steven Aftergood, director of the FAS project on government secrecy, blogs: "The most sensational part of the history . . . is the recounting of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in which a reported North Vietnamese attack on U.S. forces triggered a major escalation of the war. The author demonstrates that not only is it not true, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress, that the evidence of an attack was 'unimpeachable,' but that to the contrary, a review of the classified signals intelligence proves that 'no attack happened that night.'"

Peter Grier has more in the Christian Science Monitor.

Torture Tapes Watch

Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post: "A former CIA official at the center of the controversy over destroyed interrogation videotapes has been blocked by Justice Department officials from gaining access to government records about the incident, according to sources familiar with the case.

"The former official, Jose Rodriguez Jr., has also told the House intelligence committee through a letter from his attorney that he will refuse to testify next week about the tapes unless he is granted immunity from prosecution for his statements, the sources said.

"The panel has issued a subpoena for Rodriguez, the former chief of clandestine operations who issued the order to destroy the videotapes in 2005. He and other former CIA officials are also being blocked from gaining access to documents about the incident, sources said."

Meanwhile, Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge refused on Wednesday to delve into the destruction of CIA interrogation videos, saying there was no evidence the Bush administration violated a court order and the Justice Department deserved time to conduct its own investigation."

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "Faced with the growing likelihood that Congress will not meet a looming deadline to approve critical electronic-eavesdropping legislation, the Bush administration is working on a short-term fix--a temporary extension to a law enacted last summer amid Democratic complaints that the White House had muscled the bill through. . . .

"One such fix, which some Senate Democrats and administration officials appear to favor, would involve temporarily extending the existing electronic-surveillance law, known as the Protect America Act, for one month beyond the current Feb. 1 expiration date. . . .

"Some Senate Democrats are discussing another alternative: seeking a temporary extension to the current law for a year. The point of this option, as explained by a congressional official who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive deliberations, would be to postpone the whole process of revising the electronic-surveillance law until after the next president is inaugurated. . . .

"But some Democrats on Capitol Hill question whether the current GOP minority--which, in the Senate, at least, has the power to block legislation--would accept a one-year extension to the current law. These Democrats fear that punting on the issue until after the next Inauguration would lead to GOP charges that Democrats were being unpatriotic and impeding the War on Terror."

Green Budget

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The conventional wisdom around Washington is that President Bush's budget will be dead on arrival when it gets to Capitol Hill.

"But at least it won't be made from a dead tree.

"The White House announced Wednesday that it's going paperless when it submits the fiscal 2009 budget Feb. 4. It's a move aimed at saving a few bucks for taxpayers -- and the lives of a few trees."

Karl Rove Watch

Terence P. Jeffrey writes for Cybercast News Service: "Karl Rove told Cybercast News Service in an interview Wednesday that Sen. Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign was helped when she responded in a smiling, self-deprecating manner when asked during Saturday night's televised debate why some voters had an issue with her 'likeability' and that her rival Sen. Barack Obama only enhanced the positive impact for Clinton when he responded like 'a smarmy, prissy little guy taking a slap at her.'"

A toned-down version of Rove's analysis appears on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page today.

Cartoon Watch

Ted Rall on the problem with bipartisanship.

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