Bush vs. Obama

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 28, 2008; 1:52 PM

President Bush today defended his unpopular war in Iraq, accusing Democratic leaders of being in denial about progress there and even going so far as to imply that Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama is naive about the terrorist threat in that country.

"It seems that no matter what happens in Iraq, opponents of the war have one answer: retreat," Bush said at a press conference this morning. "When things were going badly in Iraq a year ago, they called for withdrawal. Then we changed our strategy, launched the surge, and turned the situation around. . . .

"In the face of these changes on the ground, congressional leaders are still sounding the same old call for withdrawal. I guess you could say that when it comes to pushing for withdrawal, their strategy is to stay the course.

"It's interesting that many of the same people who once accused me of refusing to acknowledge setbacks in Iraq now are the ones who are refusing to acknowledge progress in Iraq."

Obama entered the picture when reporters asked Bush about a recent comment by the Illinois senator that presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain yesterday tried to turn into political fodder.

Some background: Responding to a hypothetical question from NBC anchor Tim Russert at Tuesday night's Democratic debate, Obama said that he would reserve the right to return to Iraq after withdrawing troops "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq."

As Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray write in today's Washington Post, McCain told supporters at a rally yesterday: "I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. . . . My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. . . they would be taking a country."

Obama then responded: "McCain thought that he could make a clever point by saying, 'Well let me give you some news, Barack, al-Qaeda is in Iraq.' Like I wasn't reading the papers, like I didn't know what was going on. I said, 'Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq; that's why I've said we should continue to strike al-Qaeda targets. I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

As Shear and Murray point out: "The Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq was formed in response to the U.S. presence in Iraq. The U.S. military thinks that the group's activities -- such as large-scale car bombings of Shiite gathering places -- peaked in 2006 and that American forces destroyed much of the organization in a series of raids last year."

ABC's Jon Karl was the first to ask Bush to respond to Obama's partial quote.

"It's an interesting comment, 'If Al Qaeda is securing an Al Qaeda base?'" Bush repeated back.

"Yes, well, that's exactly what they've been trying to do for the past four years. That's -- their stated intention was to create enough chaos and disorder to establish a base from which to either launch attacks or spread a caliphate. . . .

"And so, yeah. I mean, that's one of challenges we face is denying Al Qaeda a safe haven anywhere. And their intentions -- that's what they said, that they would like to have a base or safe haven in Al Anbar province."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times tried to get Bush to go further. "Do you believe that his comment was naive?" she asked. Bush wouldn't say. But it was pretty clear what he meant.

And Bush did establish a new benchmark of sorts for Iraq. He has said that he wants to leave a sustainable policy in Iraq to his successor. Stolberg, rebuffed on her Obama question, asked: "Can you describe for us specifically, what do you mean by sustainable? Do you have specific goals and objectives that in your mind would meet the criteria of sustainability?"

Bush's reply: "Yes, which is to keep enough troops there so we can succeed."

Meanwhile, in Iraq

Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley write in The Washington Post: "U.S.-backed Sunni volunteer forces, which have played a vital role in reducing violence in Iraq, are increasingly frustrated with the American military and the Iraqi government over what they see as a lack of recognition of their growing political clout and insufficient U.S. support."

Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "Iraqi government leaders on Wednesday rejected a law requiring nationwide elections by the fall, sidetracking a measure that U.S. officials consider a key benchmark for political reconciliation in Iraq.

"Parliament passed the legislation two weeks ago. The veto by Iraq's presidency council was an unexpected setback."

Steve Lannen writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The rejected bill, which sets out the political structure for Iraq's provincial governments and establishes a basis for elections in October, was only the second of 18 U.S.-set political benchmarks that the war-tore nation needs to reach.

"Parliament considered it in a bundle with two other bills, a general amnesty and a budget, and approved it on Feb. 12 in what was welcomed in Washington as an example of good government, compromise and progress toward national unity.

"Now the question is whether parliament is willing to revise the measure.

"'It was a package deal. Now that package is broken,' said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan."

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Kim Gamel write for the Associated Press that the veto came despite a last-minute telephone call by Vice President Dick Cheney to the holdout on the three-member panel.

At his press conference, Bush noted what he called "a very interesting moment in Iraqi constitutional history, when part of the -- a member of the presidency council utilized his constitutional right to veto one of the three pieces of legislation recently passed. I understand the use of the veto, intend to continue to use it, but I thought it was a healthy sign that people are thinking through the legislation that's passed, and they're worrying about making sure that laws are constitutional. And I feel pretty good about the fact that they're, of course, going to continue to work to make sure that their stated objective of getting provincial elections done by October of 2008 will happen."

Bush on FISA

In his comments to reporters, Bush expressed sympathy for the phone companies that are being accused in civil suits of having broken the law when they let the government spy on their customers without warrants after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Bush's insistence on giving those companies retroactive immunity is the primary sticking point in the current fight over surveillance legislation.

"Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair," Bush said, adding: "You cannot expect phone companies to participate if they feel like they're going to be sued. I mean, it is -- these people are responsible for shareholders. They're private companies. . . .

"The government said to those who have alleged to have helped us that it is in our national interests and it's legal. It's in our national interest because we want to know who's calling who from overseas into America. We need to know in order to protect the people.

"It was legal. And now all of a sudden plaintiffs attorneys, class-action plaintiffs attorneys, you know -- I don't want to try to get inside their head; I suspect they see, you know, a financial gravy train -- are trying to sue these companies. It's unfair. It is patently unfair.

"And, secondly, these lawsuits create doubts amongst those who will -- whose help we need.

"I guess you could be relaxed about all this if you didn't think there was a true threat to the country."

Although not one to eschew hyperbole on this issue, Bush did, however, reject a bizarre, right-wing scenario put forth -- apparently quite seriously -- by Fox News White House correspondent Mike Emanuel.

Emanuel: "Mr. President, on FISA, do you worry that perhaps some House Democratic leaders are playing a high-stakes game of wait-and-see in terms of if we get attacked, we all lose, if we don't get attacked, then maybe that makes the case that you don't need all the powers in FISA?"

Bush: "No, I don't think so. I mean, I think that's -- that would be ascribing, you know, motives that are just -- I just don't think they're the motives of the House leaders to do that."

He then went back to his key point: "I just can't tell you how important it is to not alienate or not discourage these phone companies. How can you listen to the enemy if the phone companies aren't going to participate with you? And they're not going to participate if they get sued. Let me rephrase it: less likely to participate.

"And they're facing billions of dollars of lawsuits. And they have a responsibility to their shareholders. And yet they were told what they were going do is legal."

On Talking to Enemies

Bush also launched into a fascinating disquisition on his view of diplomacy.

Michael Abramowitz of The Washington Post asked about Bush Obama's view "that we would be better off if we talked to our adversaries, in particular Iran and Cuba, you know, without preconditions. And as president you have obviously considered and rejected this approach. And I'm wondering if you can give us a little bit of insight into your thinking about this, and just explain to the American people what is lost by talking with those with when we disagree."

Bush's response: "What's lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What's lost is it'll send the wrong message. It'll send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It'll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.

"I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time not to talk [sic] with Raul Castro. He's nothing more than the extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island and imprison people because of their beliefs. . . .

"And the idea of embracing a leader who has done this without any attempt on his part to, you know, release prisoners and free their society would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal."

Abramowitz: "But no one's saying embrace them. They're just saying talk."

Bush: "Well, talking to is embracing. Excuse me. Let me use another, you know, another word. You're right. Embrace is like big hug, right? . . .

"Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, Look at me. I'm now recognized by the president of the United States. . . .

"Now, somebody will say, 'Well, I'm going to tell him -- you know -- to release the prisoners'. Well, it's a theory that all you got to do is embrace and these tyrants act. That's not how they act. That's not what causes them to respond. . . .

"I just remind people that the decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive. It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies. It can send confusion about our foreign policy. It discourages reformers inside their own country. And, in my judgment, it would be a mistake on the two countries you talked about."

Bush on the Economy

"I don't think we're headed to recession. But no question, we're in a slowdown," Bush said. And he insisted that another economic stimulus package was not needed, saying "why don't we let stimulus package one have a chance to kick in?"

Asked about the plight of the average American, here was his laughably irrelevant response:

Q. "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now -- facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline. Beyond your concern that you stated here and your expectations for these stimulus checks, what kind of hope can you offer to people who are in dire straits?"

Bush: "Permanent -- keep the tax cuts permanent, for starters. There's a lot economic uncertainty. You just said that. You just said the price of gasoline may be up to $4 a gallon, or some expert told you that. And that creates a lot of uncertainty. If you're out there wondering whether or not -- you know, what your life is going to be like and you're looking at $4 a gallon, that's uncertain.

"And when you couple that with the idea that their taxes may be going up in a couple years, that's double uncertainty."

Bush and Big Oil

As Steven Mufson writes in today's Washington Post: "The House of Representatives brushed aside threats of a White House veto yesterday and voted 236 to 182 in favor of an $18 billion tax package that would rescind a tax break for the five biggest oil companies and use the revenue to boost incentives for wind and solar energy and energy efficiency."

AP radio's Mark Smith asked Bush this morning: "Back when oil was $55 a barrel you said those tax breaks were not needed, people had plenty of incentive to drill for oil. Now the price of oil is $100 a barrel and you're planning to threaten a plan that would shift those tax breaks to renewables. Why, sir?"

Bush responded: "This generally is a tax increase. And it doesn't make any sense to do it right now. We need to be exploring for more oil and gas. And taking money out of the coffers of the oil companies will make it harder for them to reinvest. I know -- they say, 'Well, look at all of the profits'. Well, we're raising the price of gasoline in a time when the price of gasoline is high." Huh?

The Bush Library

Bush seemed taken aback at this excellent question posed by Ken Herman of Cox News Service: "Now that you've found a location for your presidential library, you've got to find the money to build it. Reports indicate that you may be trying to collect as much $200 million. Is that figure accurate? Do you believe it's important for the American people to know who's giving that kind of money to their president? Will you disclose the contributions as they come in? And will you place any restriction on who gives money and how much they can give?"

Bush's responded: "Whew, man." He proceeded to not answer any of Herman's questions, other than to say he would not reject foreign money.

On the Hill

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate yesterday continued a heated but largely theatrical debate on a bill to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq within 120 days and began considering another that would require the Bush administration to develop a new strategy against terrorism.

"Republicans relished the opportunity to joust over war policy, confident in their political standing because of security gains in Iraq since President Bush's troop buildup took hold there last year. But Democrats said the debate offers them a new chance to highlight Republican support for a still unpopular war, setting the stage for them to run a general-election campaign this fall largely against Bush's policies in Iraq. . . .

"Democrats used the debate to test their emerging line of political attack on Bush's war policy, contending that the mounting cost of the conflict in Iraq is stealing resources from domestic priorities that could help prop up the sagging economy."

Cost Watch

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration predicted that the war would be self-financing and that rebuilding the nation would cost less than $2 billion.

"Coming up on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, a Nobel laureate now estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing America more than $3 trillion.

"That estimate from Noble Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz also serves as the title of his new book, 'The Three Trillion Dollar War,' which hits store shelves Friday.

"The book, co-authored with Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, builds on previous research that was published in January 2006. The two argued then and now that the cost to America of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wildly underestimated. . . .

"The White House doesn't care for the estimates by Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who's now a professor at Columbia University.

"'People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can't even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9-11,' said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, conceding that the costs of the war on terrorism are high while questioning the premise of Stiglitz's research.

"'It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn't his slide rule work that way?'"

Fear Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: 'Politicians who talk about the terrorism threat -- and it's already clear that this will be a polarizing issue in the 2008 campaign -- should be required to read a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman. It stands what you think you know about terrorism on its head and helps you see the topic in a different light. . . .

"The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat -- and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing 'a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists' spawned by al-Qaeda. . . .

"Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. 'Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear,' he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it. . . .

"Sageman's policy advice is to 'take the glory and thrill out of terrorism.' Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism -- these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the 'global war on terror,' which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world's sense of moral outrage."

Afghanistan Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "More than six years after the U.S. invaded to establish a stable central regime in Afghanistan, the Kabul government under President Hamid Karzai controls just 30 percent of the country, the top U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday.

"National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the resurgent Taliban controls 10 percent to 11 percent of the country and Karzai's government controls 30 percent to 31 percent. The majority of Afghanistan's population and territory remains under local tribal control, he said."

Waterboarding Watch

Hess also reports that at that same congressional hearing, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, "said he considers the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding to be inhumane. That would put it outside the bounds of U.S. law, which since late 2005 has prohibited cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.

"The Bush administration has refused to rule on whether waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. It has been traced back hundreds of years to the Spanish Inquisition, and is condemned by nations around the world."

TPM Muckraker has the video.

AIDS Watch

House leaders from both parties and the White House yesterday reached agreement on a bill that will continue the growth of the Bush administration's global AIDS program.

David Brown writes in The Washington Post: "In a compromise reached late Tuesday night, the bill loosens the requirement for abstinence messages in AIDS-prevention strategies, a source of criticism of the program since it was unveiled by President Bush in 2003.

"The bill authorizes $50 billion over five years to prevent infection, treat people already ill from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and care for children orphaned by the epidemic. The program, known as the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), provided $15 billion over its first five years."

Geldof's View

Irish rocker and humanitarian Bob Geldof writes in Time about shadowing the president during part of his Africa trip. Sounds like fun.

"I gave the president my book. He raised an eyebrow. 'Who wrote this for ya, Geldof?' he said without looking up from the cover. Very dry. 'Who will you get to read it for you, Mr. President?' I replied. No response.

"The Most Powerful Man in the World studied the front cover. Geldof in Africa -- ' "The international best seller." You write that bit yourself?'

"'That's right. It's called marketing. Something you obviously have no clue about or else I wouldn't have to be here telling people your Africa story.'"

Geldof has ample praise for Bush's AIDS efforts, but concerns about the widespread effects of Bush's war.

At one point during their interview, Bush launches into his "See, I believe we're in an ideological struggle with extremism" talk. Geldof puts a stop to it.

"'Mr. President, please. There are things you've done I could never possibly agree with and there are things I've done in my life that you would disapprove of, too. And that would make your hospitality awkward. The cost has been too much. History will play itself out.' 'I think history will prove me right,' he shoots back. 'Who knows,' I say. . . .

"'I'm comfortable with that decision,' he says [about attacking Iraq]. But he can't be. The laws of unintended consequences would determine that. At one point I suggest that he will never be given credit for good policies, like those here in Africa, because many people view him 'as a walking crime against humanity.' He looks very hurt by that. And I'm sorry I said it, because he's a very likable fellow."

Geldof's takeaway about Bush: "He is in love with America. Not the idea of America, but rather an inchoate notion of a space -- a glorious metaphysical entity. But it is clear that since its mendacious beginnings, this war has thrown up a series of abuses that disgrace the U.S.'s central proposition. In the need to find morally neutralizing euphemisms to describe torture and abuse, the language itself became tortured and abused. Rendition, waterboarding, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib -- all are codes for what America is not. America has mortally compromised its own essential values of civil liberty while imposing its own idea of freedom on others who may not want it. The Bush regime has been divisive -- but not in Africa. I read it has been incompetent -- but not in Africa. It has created bitterness -- but not here in Africa. Here, his administration has saved millions of lives."

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert had former White House press secretary Tony Snow as a guest last night, and it was brutal.

"There are some things that we as Americans deserve not to know. Because if we know, the enemies know, right?" Colbert asked.

Snow: "Exactly."

Colbert: "If the enemies know that we can waterboard them, then they can prepare for that by splashing a little water in their face every day. Because the easiest thing to do is to prepare yourself to not feel like you're drowning."

Snow: "Exactly."

When Snow acknowledged that "we all knew the president would be unpopular because of the war," Colbert interjected: "He's not that unpopular. The latest poll have his approval rating at 19 percent. Which is low for a president, but high for a fetish."

Snow: "Ouch."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on the fate of the Bush Bubble; Bill Mitchell on Bush's skill as a bus driver.

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