Another Bleak Milestone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 24, 2008; 12:24 PM

Don't expect to hear from President Bush directly about the grim threshold that was crossed yesterday, as the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed 4,000. White House policy is to minimize the significance of such milestones.

Bush was out on the South Lawn of the White House this morning, cheerfully blowing the whistle to start the annual Easter Egg Roll and getting a hug from the Easter Bunny.

Meanwhile, it fell to press secretary Dana Perino to assure the country that Bush cared about all the lives his war has cost. "President Bush believes that every life is precious, and he spends time every day thinking about those who've lost their lives on the battlefield," Perino said in this morning's gaggle, via Ben Feller of the Associated Press.

"The president has said the hardest thing a commander in chief will do is send young men and women into combat, and he's grieved for every lost American life, from the very first several years ago to those lost today," Perino said. "He bears the responsibility for the decisions that he made. He also bears the responsibility to continue to focus on succeeding."

But what's particularly depressing about the death toll in Iraq is that there's no end in sight.

Sholnn Freeman writes in The Washington Post: "A roadside bomb killed four U.S. soldiers on patrol in southern Baghdad late Sunday, the military said in a statement Monday, taking the overall U.S. death toll in the five-year Iraq war to at least 4,000. Earlier, mortar and rocket attacks pounded the Green Zone, the heavily fortified U.S.-Iraqi military and government complex, on a day when more than 60 people were killed in violence across the country."

AFP reports that "97 percent of the deaths occurred after US President George W. Bush announced the end of 'major combat' in Iraq on May 1, 2003, as the military became caught between a raging anti-American insurgency and brutal sectarian strife unleashed since the toppling of Saddam."

Here's CNN Iraq correspondent Michael Ware responding to the news last night: "You cannot help but take a moment to pause and to reflect. I'm sure soldiers and commanders throughout the nation will be taking that moment as well. 4,000 American deaths now in this war that continues to grind away where there seems to be so little insight that suggest it's coming to an end at any time soon.

"That, perhaps, is the darkest reflection of all. 4,000 deaths and very little so far has changed. . . .

"[T]here's still nothing to say that anything is getting any better in a real sense; that the fundamental building blocks of this war have been changed. And to now have the 4,000 American deaths really is a chilling moment."

Of course, it's been even more terrible for the Iraqis. Ware continued: "[N]o one can give you a figure of the number of Iraqi souls that have been lost in the five years so far of this conflict. But it's exponentially greater than two or three or even ten times this terrible number of American casualties. We're talking about -- on conservative estimates between 80 thousand to 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives.

"And that's not to mention more than 4 million Iraqis are displaced from their homes. . . . And the entire social fabric of this country has been torn asunder with a legacy of this war that it's now divided along sectarian lines, Sunni versus Shiite, when it never was before. Not even under Saddam. So the impact and the toll that this conflict has taken on these countries is almost immeasurable."

Barry Paddock, Edgar Sandoval and Adam Lisberg write in the New York Daily News: "The 4,000th American death in Iraq marks a sad new milestone there, New Yorkers said Sunday night - and shows how there seems to be no escape from a war of endless misery.

"'What's the point? What are we fighting for? I think it's a hopeless fight,' said Neil Agaton, 19, of Hell's Kitchen. 'We are just losing people there. We have mothers without sons and young people without siblings.' . . .

"Emma Rebhorn, 23, a college student from Bushwick, Brooklyn, said the 4,000th death should be a wakeup call: 'The angrier and the more disillusioned people get, the faster they'll withdraw the troops.'"

In today's Los Angeles Times, "Times staffers who have covered the war remember some of the men and women who have lost their lives there. A Marine photographed reading a letter from home. A staff sergeant who signed his e-mails 'Combat Journalist.' A 20-year-old from Culver City who joked that Tupac Shakur was alive and lying low in Fallouja. A major who believed in leading from the front, sharing the risks."

And Michael Massing writes in the New York Review of Books about his visit to Fort Drum, N.Y., in an attempt to find out who today's soldier's really are and what led them to volunteer.

"There are some 17,000 soldiers based at Drum (four thousand of whom are currently deployed in Iraq) . . . Among the first I approached was Jason Thomas Adams, a slender young man dressed in a cook's white uniform. A twenty-five-year-old private from Brooklyn, Adams had joined the Army only nine months earlier. He had never really expected to, he told me--he'd wanted to be a police officer. After graduating from high school, he had enrolled in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. To help pay the tuition, he worked at two jobs--Paragon Sports and a restaurant on Second Avenue--but quickly went into debt.

"Meanwhile, he got married, his wife got pregnant, and he had no health care. From a brother in the military, he had learned of the Army's many benefits, and, visiting a recruiter, he heard about Tricare, the military's generous health plan. He also learned that the Army would repay his education loans. And so he signed up. When I asked about September 11 and service to the country, he said flatly that it had had nothing to do with his decision. . . .

"Over and over, I heard soldiers talk about being hard-pressed to pay the rent, of having a child and being without health care, of yearning to escape a depressing town or oppressive family, of wanting to get out and see the world."

The Public Detachment

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Never has most of the country been so spared the personal suffering of so long a conflict. . . .

"The Iraq war just passed the five-year mark, and while every life saved is a blessing, the public's detachment is not. For many, the war seems abstract even as Americans are fighting and dying, some in their fourth, fifth or sixth combat tour. Because there is no draft, thousands continue to risk their lives after their individual military commitments are up, blocked from leaving the military by controversial 'stop loss' orders. But, except for the families and friends touched by a soldier's sacrifice, life at home is almost normal.

"That feels somehow wrong. So reporters ritually ask leaders why the broad mass of Americans have not been asked to sacrifice. Leaders repeatedly fumble the question. In a PBS interview in January 2007, President Bush construed it as a suggestion that he should raise taxes, which made it easy to say no. Besides, he said, Americans 'sacrifice their peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.'

"In an interview with ABC this month, Vice President Cheney interpreted the question as a suggestion to revive the draft, which made it easy for him to say no. Besides, he said, the country has already sacrificed by spending enormous amounts of money in Iraq.

"The real answer is that if most Americans were asked to sacrifice in serious ways, their support for the war -- already weak -- would likely erode even more. Only by asking very little has the administration been able to sustain a war that was supposed to be over in weeks or months."

In a CBS News commentary, Bob Schieffer notes: "With an all-volunteer military made up of only one-half-of-one-percent of us making the sacrifices in this war, it's easy for the rest of us to forget war still goes on."

Richard Perez-Pena writes in the New York Times: "Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet."

Fallujah Watch

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. military showcases Fallujah as a model city where U.S. policies are finally paying off and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the region to promote the rule of law and a variety of nation-building efforts.

"But the security that has been achieved here is fragile, the result of harsh tactics recalling the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown five years ago. Even as they work alongside U.S. forces, [Fallujah police officers] admit they have beaten and tortured suspects to force confessions and exact revenge.

"In the city's overcrowded, Iraqi-run jail, located inside a compound that also houses a U.S. military base and U.S. police advisers, detainees were beaten with iron rods, according to the current warden. Many were held for months with no clear evidence or due process. They were deprived of food, medical care and electricity and lived in utter squalor, said detainees, Iraqi police and U.S. military officers, who began to address the problems three weeks ago. Last summer, the warden said, several detainees died of heatstroke."

Fallujah police chief Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie tells Raghavan: "I have realized that Americans love the strong guy."

What's Next?

More of the same, apparently.

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Senior military commanders have presented the Bush administration with proposals to put off any plans for further reductions of troops in Iraq at least until the end of summer. . . .

"Last September, facing intense pressure from Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress, Mr. Bush announced that he would withdraw five combat brigades and two Marine battalions by July. Those reductions, not yet complete, would effectively return the number of troops in Iraq to roughly 140,000, a level slightly higher than before Mr. Bush ordered the buildup that became known as the 'surge.'"

Democratic Response

From the Democratic radio address on Saturday, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez: "In 2003, President Bush took us to war on the wings of a lie.

"With each passing year, we've heard the same false promises of victory, the same excuses for failures from the Iraqi government, and the same refusal from President Bush to admit his mistakes. . . .

"President Bush should tell us the truth - that after thousands of lives lost and perhaps trillions of American taxpayer dollars, Iraq remains crippled by violence and corruption, still light years from building a stable government or a lasting peace."

Bush's War

Barry Garron writes in the Hollywood Reporter: "The Civil War isn't called Lincoln's War and World War II isn't Franklin D. Roosevelt's War. So what gives 'Frontline' and producer Michael Kirk the right to call the invasion of Iraq ' Bush's War?'

"The answer is soon obvious in this exhaustive two-part, special, which claims to present a 'definitive' analysis of the five-year-old war. Practically from the moment the World Trade Center was struck, the Bush administration sought a pretext to invade Iraq. Facts that argued against an invasion were discredited or ignored and new 'facts' were invented.

"In dozens of interviews and with meticulous fact-gathering, 'Frontline' makes a convincing case for two important aspects of the war. First, it was primarily orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush was only 'the decider' insofar as he signed off on their plans, often paying no heed to Secretary of State Colin Powell and others.

"Second, practically every plan, idea, assumption and strategy advanced by Cheney and Rumsfeld was incorrect, once Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled. The level of incompetence uncovered by 'Frontline' is stunning."

Tony Perry writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Some of the best lines belong to Tom Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning military reporter for the Washington Post. Here's Ricks on Cheney:

"'Dick Cheney is the Moby Dick of the Bush administration. And it's all very mysterious and it only occurs between him and President Bush, but you get a sense that as soon as the meeting's over, he sits down with the president and says: "OK, here's what you need to take away from this." '"

On Public Opinion

In Thursday's column, Cheney Doesn't Care What You Think, I wrote about the vice president's interview in which he responded to ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz's observation that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the war in Iraq by saying: "So?"

Former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards writes in a Washington Post op-ed that he's finally had it with Cheney: "Cheney told Raddatz that American war policy should not be affected by the views of the people. But that is precisely whose views should matter: It is the people who should decide whether the nation shall go to war. That is not a radical, or liberal, or unpatriotic idea. It is the very heart of America's constitutional system. . . .

"If Dick Cheney believes, as he obviously does, that the war in Iraq is vital to American interests, it is his job, and that of President Bush, to make the case with sufficient proof to win the necessary public support.

"That is the difference between a strong president (one who leads) and a strong presidency (one in which ultimate power resides in the hands of a single person). Bush is officially America's 'head of state,' but he is not the head of government; he is the head of one branch of our government, and it's not the branch that decides on war and peace.

"When the vice president dismisses public opposition to war with a simple 'So?' he violates the single most important element in the American system of government: Here, the people rule."

WorldPublicOpinion.org reports on its new online poll: "Eighty-one percent say when making 'an important decision' government leaders 'should pay attention to public opinion polls because this will help them get a sense of the public's views.' Only 18 percent said 'they should not pay attention to public opinion polls because this will distract them from deciding what they think is right.' . . .

"Americans also roundly reject the position put forward by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino in an effort to explain Cheney's comments. Asked whether the public should have 'input,' she replied, 'You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that's the way our system is set up.'

"When Americans are asked whether they think that 'elections are the only time when the views of the people should have influence, or that also between elections leaders should consider the views of the people as they make decisions,' an extraordinary 94 percent say that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections."

Russia Watch

Just how much of their foreign policy can Bush and Cheney lock in before they leave office? Perhaps quite a lot.

Stephen Fidler, Daniel Dombey and Neil Buckley write in the Financial Times: "The Bush administration is seeking to persuade President Vladimir Putin of Russia to sign up to a long-term agreement on Moscow-Washington relations, arguing that it will be harder for Russia to agree such a deal with the next occupant of the White House.

"US officials argue that John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - all of whom have criticised Russia strongly in their campaigns for the US presidency - could be more uncomfortable negotiating partners for Moscow than President George W. Bush is.

"Mr Bush made his appeal to Mr Putin in a letter delivered by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, the US secretaries of state and defence, in a trip to Moscow last week. . . .

"The US proposal is intended to provide a framework for various areas of US-Russian co-operation after several years in which the relationship between the two countries has become strained. The most controversial element concerns US plans for missile defence."

Star Wars' 25th Anniversary

Mark Thompson writes in Time that "the more than $120 billion spent over 25 years to build the 'Star Wars' missile shield has not left the U.S. less vulnerable to attack -- some would argue that it has done exactly the opposite, by diverting resources away from dealing with more urgent and plausible threats."

White House E-mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Older White House computer hard drives have been destroyed, the White House disclosed to a federal court Friday in a controversy over millions of possibly missing e-mails from 2003 to 2005.

"The White House revealed new information about how it handles its computers in an effort to persuade a federal magistrate it would be fruitless to undertake an e-mail recovery plan that the court proposed.

"'When workstations are at the end of their lifecycle and retired . . . the hard drives are generally sent offsite to another government entity for physical destruction,' the White House said in a sworn declaration filed with U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola.

"It has been the goal of a White House Office of Administration 'refresh program' to replace one-third of its workstations every year in the Executive Office of the President, according to the declaration.

"Some, but not necessarily all, of the data on old hard drives is moved to new computer hard drives, the declaration added."

Cheney in the Middle East

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah shared some common views about factors in the oil market that have pushed prices to record highs, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday. . . .

"'There was I think a lot of commonality in their assessment about the structural problems confronted by the global energy market now and some discussion of probably the way forward, how we work together to try and stabilize the market,' the U.S. official told reporters traveling with Cheney."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "With negotiations on a new Palestinian state mired in stalemate, Vice President Dick Cheney took a tough stance toward outside threats to the Mideast peace process Sunday, saying extremist groups that attack Israel must be defeated. . . .

"The vice president's tough talk reflected that negotiations are making very little headway. . . .

"More broadly, Mr. Cheney 'was never a strong supporter of . . . any diplomatic initiative regarding the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict,' said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. 'It's clear that [Mr. Cheney] prefers a kind of hard-nosed approach based on security guarantees.'"

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that Hamas, with support from Syria and Iran, is trying to 'torpedo' peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel."

Isabel Kershner writes in the New York Times: "Israeli officials seemed more interested in seeking Mr. Cheney's help with broader regional issues, chief among them the perceived threat from Iran, while Palestinian officials expressed deep pessimism about the peace process and prospects of success. . . .

"Although Mr. Cheney has less than 10 months left in office, an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the visit, said he was seen in Jerusalem as 'a significant player' who could influence 'serious issues that cannot wait.'"

Bush's America

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Recent history has not been kind to working-class Americans, who were down on the economy long before the word recession was uttered.

"The main reason: spiraling health-care costs have been whacking away at their wages. Even though workers are producing more, inflation-adjusted median family income has dipped 2.6 percent -- or nearly $1,000 annually since 2000."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act."

Pincus on the Press Corps

Huffington Post's Tom Edsall interviews his former Washington Post colleague Walter Pincus about his critique of White House coverage. (See Pincus's July 2006 essay for Nieman Reports, Fighting back against the PR presidency, and Jay Rosen's recent blog post.)

Pincus: "Courage to me is not printing what the President says when he has been saying the same thing day after day. And he's saying it so it will be printed, not because it's news. It's not news that the President thinks we're winning in Iraq, but the fact that you're printing it every day makes the public at large really sort of believe the President and begin to think maybe we are."

Edsall: "So at that juncture, when the president is simply repeating himself, what is the function of a newspaper?"

Pincus: "I guess you don't print it."

Edsall: "What do you do instead?"

Pincus: "You ought to have your own agenda. We had no problem printing Walter Reed[the prize-winning Washington Post expose of substandard conditions for wounded Iraq war veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington] because it was something so outrageous. Walter Reed is a metaphor. Walter Reed is a metaphor to show this administration talks about how important the war is, et cetera, et cetera, but here's an illustration, at Walter Reed they don't take care of the people that got hurt. I mean, I've got a story going now about refugees. There are four and a half million refugees and the President doesn't talk about it because it undermines the idea that we've freed this country."

Overall, Pincus says: "[W]hat administrations have learned -- and this one is just the most sophisticated -- [is] how to keep journalists in general busy covering statements and press conferences, and how to sell their story. And they know there's more news than any paper can cover -- 35 hearings on the Hill, and you know, 10 speeches and 4 reports, at a time when most newspapers don't have enough people to cover a third of what goes on."

Pincus says he worries that many reporters these days are more focused on personal comfort and less on crusading and expressing outrage.

"Well, there's more interest in expressing outrage on personal matters, you know -- Clinton's activities with Monica, Spitzer and call girls. Everybody's against that [kind of behavior.] That's easy. But those aren't policy issues."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Cheney-Bush in a single word; Jeff Danziger on Cheney's view on reality; Dwane Powell on Cheney's last day; Ben Sargent on Bush's war story; Adam Zyglis and Brian Duffy on the anniversary of the war; Victor Harville on a soldier's view; John Cole on Bush's alter ego; Walt Handelsman on Bush's economic forecasting; and Rex Babin on Bush's mission accomplished.

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