Bush's Triumphalist Amnesia

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; 1:05 PM

On the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, President Bush today attempted to recast it as a great success for the United States and a major blow to Osama bin Laden. But for the American people to go along with his construction will require a pretty severe case of amnesia.

The security situation in Iraq is undeniably somewhat better than it was a year ago, before Bush increased the number of American troops there to more than 160,000. But the violence nevertheless continues at an appalling level. And the political reconciliation the "surge" was intended to bring about remains a distant fantasy.

The supposed victory against bin Laden that Bush is celebrating is belied by the fact that al-Qaeda wasn't in Iraq before the invasion, that its Iraqi namesake is a mostly home-grown version with limited ties to bin Laden's organization, that the administration's own intelligence has concluded that the war has helped rather than hurt al-Qaeda -- and that bin Laden himself likely remains safely ensconced in Pakistan.

Looking at Iraq and seeing progress requires not looking back beyond the past 12 months or so. And even on that basis, it's hard to argue that the events of the past year have put us any closer to getting out. Furthermore, Bush's decision to arm anti-government Sunni militias may lead to even greater chaos when we do leave.

The only way the surge has been an unqualified success is one that Bush didn't mention today: It has bought him time.

Toward the end of 2006, after a Republican electoral rout and a devastating report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, it looked like Congress might force Bush to get us out of the mess he got us into. But the surge changed that political calculus, and the war will now be passed on for the next president to resolve. On that count, there is indeed cause for Bush to kvell.

Bush's Speech

Here is the transcript of Bush's speech at the Pentagon this morning.

Here's CNN correspondent Ed Henry's instant analysis: "Well, the bottom line is that we once again heard the president five years later bring back that swagger, basically saying 'we'll fight the enemy wherever it makes a stand', some chest-beating about the U.S. military might, the shock and awe, invoking 9/11 again as he talks about Iraq, something that his critics, just makes them go -- get very upset and really fire back at this president. He invoked 9/11 repeatedly about how a failure in Iraq could essentially bring another major terror attack on U.S. soil."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Five years after launching the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush is making some of his most expansive claims of success in the fighting there."

Laurent Lozano writes for AFP: "Bush on Wednesday defended his decision to go to war against Iraq five years ago, vowing no retreat as he promised the battle would end in victory. . . .

"But the US commander-in-chief now leaves office in January, bequeathing to his successor an intractable military and political stalemate."

Here is the bold new claim of Bush's speech today: "The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around -- it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror. For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaeda rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaeda out. In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his murderous network. The significance of this development cannot be overstated."

In fact, the significance is highly debatable.

Bush repeated his frequent assertion that the war in Iraq is keeping Americans safer: "Over the past five years, we have seen moments of triumph and moments of tragedy. We have watched in admiration as 12 million Iraqis defied the terrorists, went to the polls, and chose their leaders in free elections. We watched in horror as al-Qaeda beheaded innocent captives, and sent suicide bombers to blow up mosques and markets. These actions show the brutal nature of the enemy in Iraq. And they serve as a grim reminder: The terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad want to murder the innocent in the streets of America. Defeating this enemy in Iraq will make it less likely we will face this enemy here at home."

But most of the attacks in Iraq either involve religious and political rivals trying to kill each other or local insurgents fighting back against what they see as an oppressive occupation. See my column on the fourth anniversary of the war, They Won't Follow Us Home.

Later, Bush added: "An emboldened al-Qaeda, with access to Iraq's oil resources, could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations. . . . Our enemies would see an America -- an American failure in Iraq as evidence of weakness and a lack of resolve.

"To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and make it more likely that America would suffer another attack like the one we experienced that day, a day in which 19 armed men with box cutters killed nearly 3,000 people in our -- on our soil -- a day after which in the following of that attack more than a million Americans lost work, lost their jobs."

Forget the First Four Years

Karen DeYoung, writing on The Washington Post's front page this morning, explains how the emerging White House public-relations strategy is essentially to pretend that the first four years of the occupation never happened.

"For a majority of Americans, today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of an Iraq war that was not worth fighting, one that has cost thousands of lives and more than half a trillion dollars. For the Bush administration, however, it is the first anniversary of an Iraq strategy that it believes has finally started to succeed," DeYoung writes.

"Officials now running the U.S. effort express frustration that the gains wrought by their new political, security and economic policies -- in particular, sharply reduced violence -- are continually weighed against the first four years of the war, when Iraq unraveled in insurgency and sectarian strife."

But critics think the surge needs to be put in its proper context.

"'Like a tourniquet,' the troop increase 'has stopped the bleeding,' Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former Army Ranger and senior member of the Armed Services Committee, reported last week after his 11th trip to Iraq. What he has not seen, Reed said, are the surgery and recovery that would begin to heal the wound that Iraq has become. And even U.S. officials acknowledge that the 'surge' has not led to the political reconciliation the administration had hoped for.

"Others see the past year's successes as fragile and reversible, and less consequential than the pain that preceded them. 'I think they have it righter than they ever have before,' Daniel P. Serwer, an Iraq expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said of the administration. 'But the fact is that those four other years did exist, and they condition a lot of what can and cannot happen now. There's a history here, there's a lot of blood and guts on the floor -- literally.'

"The White House tends to dismiss such longer memories. While it recognizes the inclination to 'relitigate the past' when a milestone such as the fifth anniversary is reached, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, 'our focus is on the way ahead and making sure that the current situation and the future situation gets better.'"

A Democratic Response

From Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid: "As we mark this week the start of the sixth year of the Iraq war, we are proud of the warriors who have fought hard to reduce violence in Iraq in recent months. But America is not secure and the costs and consequences of the war continue to mount.

"Al Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been since 9/11, Osama bin Laden remains at large, the readiness of our Army and Marine Corps is at its lowest levels since Vietnam, and trends in Afghanistan are deeply troubling. And at the end of the surge this summer, more troops will be in Iraq than before the surge began -- that is not what Americans were led to believe would be the result of this tactic.

"America still has not heard from this Administration -- or from their Republican allies -- a winning plan for achieving the political solution we need in Iraq and hastening the day when our troops can redeploy home. Instead, we hear reckless statements about staying in Iraq for 100 years.

"The military has done its job; it is time for this administration and Iraq's political leaders to do theirs."

Opinion Watch

Fred Kaplan writes on Slate: "[I]sn't the surge working? Well, it depends what you mean by 'working.' In recent months, casualties--American and Iraqi--dropped substantially. However, three points need to be made. First, casualties are rising once more, though not to 2006 levels. Second, while the surge was certainly a factor in reducing casualties, it was far from the only factor. There were also the alliances of convenience between U.S. forces and Sunni tribesmen against the common foe of al-Qaida in Iraq (an alliance that preceded the surge); the moratorium on violence called by Muqtada Sadr and his Shiite militia (a policy that may be suspended as the Sunni militias grow stronger); and the fact that many areas of Iraq had already been ethnically cleansed.

"More to the point, as Gen. David Petraeus has said many times, there is no military solution to Iraq. The surge has always been a means to an end--a device to create a 'breathing space' of security in Baghdad so that Iraq's political factions can reach an accommodation. Without a political settlement, the surge--for that matter, the entire U.S. military presence, the blood we have shed, the treasure we have spent--will prove to be little more than a pause."

Juan Cole writes on Salon: "Each year of George W. Bush's war in Iraq has been represented by a thematic falsehood. That Iraq is now calm or more stable is only the latest in a series of such whoppers, which the mainstream press eagerly repeats. . . .

"The most famous falsehoods connected to the war were those deployed by the president and his close advisors to justify the invasion. But each of the subsequent years since U.S. troops barreled toward Baghdad in March 2003 has been marked by propaganda campaigns just as mendacious. Here are five big lies from the Bush administration that have shaped perceptions of the Iraq war.

"Year 1's big lie was that the rising violence in Iraq was nothing out of the ordinary. . . .

"In Year 2 the falsehood was that Iraq was becoming a shining model of democracy under America's caring ministrations. . . .

"In Year 3, the Bush administration blamed almost everything that was going wrong on one shadowy figure: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. . . .

"In Year 4, as major sectors of Iraq descended into hell, Bush's big lie consisted of denying that the country had fallen into civil war. . . .

"Year 5, the past year, has been one of troop escalation, or the 'surge.' (Calling the policy a 'surge' rather than an 'escalation' is emblematic of the administration's propaganda.) The big lie is that Iraq is now calm, that the surge has worked, and that victory is within reach."

Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky write in a mocking Los Angeles Times op-ed: "With the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq upon us, it seems to be generally agreed by most experts that the 'surge' is working, that despite continuing casualties, we have at last reached a 'turning point.' This is certainly the view of George W. ('Mission accomplished!') Bush, Donald ('Stuff happens') Rumsfeld, Dick ('The streets of Baghdad are sure to erupt with joy') Cheney, Bill ('Military action will not last more than a week') O'Reilly and Condoleezza ('We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud') Rice."

They note that "there is ample precedent for the 'turning point' thesis mentioned above:

"* July 7, 2003: 'This month will be a political turning point for Iraq.' (Douglas J. Feith, then-undersecretary for Defense.)

"* June 16, 2004: 'A turning point will come two weeks from today.' (President Bush.)

"* Feb. 2, 2005: 'On Jan. 30 in Iraq, the world witnessed . . . a moment that historians might one day call a turning point.' (Donald Rumsfeld, then-U.S. secretary of Defense.)

"* June 14, 2006: 'I think -- tide turning -- see, as I remember -- I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of -- it's easy to see a tide turn -- did I say those words?' ( Bush.)"


Peter Baker and Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post almost three years ago: "When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission. . . .

"Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won."

The Cost of the War

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "At the outset of the Iraq war, the Bush administration predicted that it would cost $50 billion to $60 billion to oust Saddam Hussein, restore order and install a new government.

"Five years in, the Pentagon tags the cost of the Iraq war at roughly $600 billion and counting. Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and critic of the war, pegs the long-term cost at more than $4 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office and other analysts say that $1 trillion to $2 trillion is more realistic, depending on troop levels and on how long the American occupation continues."

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The United States has poured more than $500 billion into Iraq, mostly for military operations. But that figure is just a small piece of the much larger bill that taxpayers will pay in the future.

"Because the money for the war is being borrowed, interest payments could add another $615 billion. A heavily depleted military will have to be rebuilt at a cost of $280 billion. Disability benefits and health care for Iraq war veterans, many of them severely injured, could add another half-trillion dollars over their lifetime. . . .

"The price tag in Iraq now is more than double the cost of the Korean War and a third more expensive than the Vietnam War, which lasted 12 years. . . .

"Only World War II was more expensive. That four-year war - in which 16 million U.S. troops were deployed on two fronts, fighting against Germany and Japan - cost about $5 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars."

In his speech today, Bush finally addressed the various cost estimates: "War critics can no longer credibly argue that we are losing in Iraq -- so now they argue the war costs too much. In recent months we have heard exaggerated estimates of the costs of this war," he said. "No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure -- but those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq."

Meanwhile in Iraq

Erica Goode and Ahmed Fadam write in the New York Times from Baghdad: "It was billed as a national 'dialogue' that would bring Iraq's disparate and warring factions together to discuss their differences and emerge with a blueprint for peaceful coexistence.

"But if the national reconciliation conference held here on Tuesday revealed anything, it was that the deep political and religious fissures that run through this battered country are nowhere close to healing.

"Three of the most important political blocs boycotted the conference.

"Few, if any, prominent Baathists, militia members or representatives of the insurgency -- the groups that many believe represent the largest obstacles to reconciliation -- showed up at the meeting.

"And a prominent tribal leader stormed out of the auditorium after the opening speeches and threatened to leave the conference altogether."

Cheney Locking Things In

Cheney's mission in Iraq is coming into focus.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney played the part of backroom power broker for two days and came away on Tuesday with pledges from Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to firm up a new blueprint for U.S.-Iraq relations that will stretch beyond the Bush presidency."

Riechmann writes that Cheney was "crafting a long-term agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, plus a narrower deal to define the legal basis for continued U.S. troop presence.

"The deal would take the place of a U.N. Security Council resolution that expires in December, the same time Bush will be packing up to leave office. The administration says the deal will not seek permanent U.S. bases in Iraq or codify troop levels, nor tie the hands of a future commander in chief as some Democrats fear

"Administration officials say they probably will not seek Senate approval of the plan because the agreement will not be a treaty that provides Iraq with specific security guarantees. This position has prompted a backlash in Congress, where Democrats have proposed legislation that would render the agreement null and void without the Senate's blessing.

"Democrats and some Republicans have questioned whether the 2002 authorization of force in Iraq still applies legally because it referred to the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein and eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Since the 2003 invasion, Hussein has been captured and executed, and no weapons of mass destruction were ever found."

Once his work was done, Cheney kicked back. Writes Riechmann: "Vice President Dick Cheney went fishing in the waters between Oman and Iran on Wednesday, borrowing the Sultan of Oman's 60-foot royal yacht for the mission.

"A Cheney spokeswoman said the vice president, his wife Lynne, and daughter, Liz, a former State Department official who is traveling with her father as a private citizen, headed out under sunny skies into the Gulf of Oman on 'Kingfish I,' owned by Sultan Qaboos bin Said."

The Economic Long Run

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "On Tuesday . . . Mr. Bush continued to act as cheerleader in chief by emphasizing the economy's underlying strength.

"'I understand there's short-term difficulty,' he told workers and local lawmakers in Jacksonville, Fla. 'But I want people to understand that in the long term, we're going to be just fine. People will still be able to work.'

"Without offering any details, Mr. Bush said the government would do more if necessary. 'The point I want to make to you is, if there needs to be further action we'll take it -- in a way that does not damage the long-term health of our economy.'"

Of course as legendary economist John Maynard Keynes famously said: "In the long run we are all dead."

Movement on Housing?

Michael M. Phillips, Damian Paletta and Sarah Lueck write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The Bush administration and congressional Democrats have begun negotiations over a plan designed to stave off hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures.

"After months of stalemate -- and a week of financial turmoil sparked in part by the housing crisis -- the White House signaled yesterday that President Bush is open to compromise with Democrats, who want more federal action. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) said his aides are holding discussions with Treasury Department officials. . . .

"Under the plan introduced by Mr. Frank, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, financial institutions would have to take a loss by forgiving some of the remaining principal on home loans in order to make them more affordable for distressed borrowers. In return, the lenders would get federal backing for hundreds of billions of dollars in new mortgages. . .

"The White House's position represents a shift in tone. For weeks, the president and his economic team, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, have rejected proposals that would have further exposed the government to the housing market."

E-Mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A federal court on Tuesday gave White House officials three days to explain why they should not be required to make copies of all e-mails on computers in the Executive Office of the President.

"In a three-page order, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola expressed concern that a large volume of electronic messages may be missing from White House computer servers. That's the allegation made by two private groups that are suing the White House.

"Facciola's proposal would require the White House to make copies of all e-mails from the period of March 2003 to October 2005."

The latest White House position is that whatever e-mails are missing are probably recoverable, and it says its own exploration of how to proceed is still under way. See my Feb. 27 column for background.

Writes Yost: "'The court finds the White House's defenses as incredible as we do and is trying to come up with a way to preserve what might be left,' said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which had asked the judge to act.

"Regarding Facciola's latest move, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said 'we have received the order, are reviewing it and will respond appropriately.'"

Subsidizing Bush's Fundraisers

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "On Tuesday, President Bush was in Jacksonville, where he talked about free trade with dockworkers. That was the official reason for the day trip.

"But the event was sandwiched between two unofficial reasons: a luncheon in Jacksonville, where 51 people contributed $685,500 to the Republican National Committee, and a reception in Palm Beach, where 49 guests were expected to donate $762,000 to the party's main bank account. . . .

"By dividing the president's time between political and official events, White House schedulers maximize the benefit to the party's accounts, because taxpayers pick up part of the expensive cost of his travel -- much of which would be paid by the beneficiaries of the fundraising event if the trip were entirely political. . . .

"For a president whose approval rating hovers around 30% and shows no sign of budging, traversing the country with his hand out may be the biggest contribution he can make to his party and its candidates. And so far this election year, the president has demonstrated his value with a concerted, nearly weekly collection drive, bringing in a half million dollars here, a million dollars there from party stalwarts.

"In 11 weeks, Bush has spoken at 11 Republican fundraising events, which have brought in at least $27 million -- a pace of $346,000 per day including Tuesday's two events."

Key Job Remains Unfilled

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The failure to find a successor to Frances Fragos Townsend, who resigned last January as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, has frustrated White House aides, given the significance the Bush administration has attached to the job. The position involves coordinating antiterrorism and homeland security efforts throughout the government and chairing the Homeland Security Council, a domestic counterpart to the National Security Council that President Bush created after the September 11 attacks.

"Among those who have turned down the job--or made clear they weren't interested in replacing Townsend--are retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former chief of U.S. Central Command, and retired Adm. James Loy, former Coast Guard commandant and deputy homeland security secretary, according to three sources knowledgeable about the issue who, like others quoted in this article, asked for anonymity when discussing White House personnel moves. (Neither Abizaid nor Loy responded to requests for comment.) The sources said most of the top candidates the White House contacted expressed little interest in signing on so close to the end of President Bush's second term. 'It's a friggin' embarrassment,' said one source who is involved in the recruitment process. The source noted that Townsend announced her resignation last November but didn't leave the post until January--in part to give the president plenty of time to find a replacement."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "Vice President Dick Cheney. You know where he is right now? He's in Baghdad. He visited there. While he was in Iraq, he said it's a 'successful endeavor.' At least I think that's what he said. It was hard to hear over the explosions."

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