Does Bush Know Something We Don't?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 1:24 PM

President Bush is ratcheting up expectations for his European trip, aggressively calling for continued expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union and saying he is hopeful that a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on establishing a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe could be nailed down by Sunday.

Does he know something we don't?

At least two NATO members appear to be opposed to Bush's expansion plan. And since NATO operates by consensus, that would seem to indicate that Bush is headed for another international humiliation.

As for the missile defense shield, the president's secret weapon may be his willingness to overlook any number of more pressing matters when it comes to getting Putin's agreement on what he considers a legacy issue. Why, after all, should concerns about such issues as the withering Russian democracy or nuclear proliferation get in the way of establishing untested anti-missile batteries to defend against a threat that doesn't exist?

Untroubled By Obstacles

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush expressed strong support on Tuesday for Ukraine's ambitions of eventually joining the NATO alliance on the eve of a meeting of NATO leaders in Romania where Ukraine appears likely to be rebuffed."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Appearing alongside President Viktor Yushchenko, Bush portrayed NATO membership for the two former Soviet republics as part of a new security architecture for Europe and not a threat to Moscow, which has threatened to target missiles against its former territories if they join."

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press: "France and Germany say Ukraine and Georgia are not ready to begin the process. . . .

"French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said his country would not support starting the membership process because it would upset the balance of power between Europe and Russia. . . .

"NATO operates by consensus, meaning all decisions must be unanimous among its 26 members. Fillon's comments appeared to quash Ukrainian and Georgian hopes."

The Bush-Putin Relationship

National security adviser Stephen Hadley expressed optimism about Sunday's Putin-Bush meeting when he spoke to reporters yesterday on Air Force One.

Q: "Do you expect President Putin and President Bush -- when you say they've come to a sound footing, do you think that they're going to resolve their differences on missile defense?"

Hadley: "We may. We're hopeful. We're not going to resolve all our differences. You know, this is a complicated relationship."

Bush today said he was "hopeful we'll have some breakthroughs -- we'll see."

But when it comes to the Putin-Bush relationship, it's pretty clear that Putin generally holds the upper hand.

Back in October, when Putin renounced his promise to give up power in 2008 -- announcing instead that he would become prime minister -- Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: "The prospect of Putin's remaining in charge in Moscow in whatever position after next year's Russian presidential election would cement one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy setbacks of the Bush era and could trigger a 'Who lost Russia?' debate in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Instead of the democratic ally Bush envisioned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Russia has become a challenge and an embarrassment for a president who made the spread of democracy a central mission of his administration."

Also in October, Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers called attention to Bush's first meeting with Putin in June 2001, when Bush declared that he'd looked in the Russian leader's eyes, found him "trustworthy" and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

Landay wrote: "Bush and his aides 'grossly misjudged Putin,' considering him 'a good guy and one of us,' said Michael McFaul of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

"The former KGB officer created that illusion partly by appearing to share Bush's political and religious convictions, standard tradecraft employed by intelligence officers to recruit spies, he said.

"'Putin . . . is a brilliant case officer,' said Carlos Pasqual, a former senior State Department official now at The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington."

Bush himself talked about his relationship with Putin at his Feb. 28 news conference: "[I]t makes it easier, by the way, when there's a trustworthy relationship, to be able to disagree and yet maintain common interests in other areas. And so we've had our disagreements. As you know, Putin is a straightforward, pretty tough character when it comes to his interests. Well, so am I. And we've had some head-butts, diplomatic head-butts. . . . [A]nd yet, in spite of that, our differences of opinion, we still have got a cordial enough relationship to be able to deal with common threats and opportunities."

A Defining Moment Indeed

Charles Crain writes for Time: "The Iraqi military's offensive in Basra was supposed to demonstrate the power of the central government in Baghdad. Instead it has proven the continuing relevance of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. . . .

"That apparent authority is in marked contrast to the weakness of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki."

Ross Colvin writes for Reuters: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's crackdown on militias in the southern oil port of Basra appears to have backfired, exposing the weakness of his army and strengthening his political foes ahead of elections.

"U.S. President George W. Bush has praised the crackdown, calling it a 'defining moment' for Iraq, but it has unleashed a wave of destabilising violence in southern Iraq and in Baghdad that risks undoing the security improvements of the past year. . . .

"Analysts say Iraqis may be about to witness a new phase in the cycle of violence that has gripped the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 -- intra-Shi'ite bloodletting that could tear Iraq apart and more deeply embroil U.S. forces."

Sam Dagher writes in the Christian Science Monitor that analysts believe that "the widespread instances of surrender among the Iraqi forces and the seizure of their equipment and vehicles by the Mahdi Army shows that despite all the funding and training from the US, Iraq's soldiers remain greatly swayed by their sectarian and party loyalties and are incapable of standing up in a fight without US backing.

"The fighting has also firmly wedged the US in an intra-Shiite struggle that has been bubbling for some time and will probably only intensify. The battle has also spawned more popular anger and frustration, especially in places like eastern Baghdad, toward both US forces and Mr. Maliki's government, which already had been teetering on the verge of collapse."

Juan Cole writes for Salon: "The campaign was a predictable fiasco, another in a long line of strategic failures for the sickly and divided Iraqi government, which survives largely because it is propped up by the United States."

Meanwhile, on the Streets of Baghdad

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "Abdul Qader, his chest and leg wrapped in white bandages, began to cry -- not out of pain, but loss. He remembered seeing the American Humvees, then a hail of bullets. He remembered seeing his close friend and neighbor, Abbas Ramadan, shot as he clutched his 2-year-old granddaughter, blood oozing from her head. Abdul Qader ran and ran until he collapsed from the bullets that pierced his own body. . . .

"Abdul Qader's suffering is part of the human toll of the worst violence in months in Iraq. At least 400 people, from the southern city of Basra to the capital, Baghdad, were killed over six days, including many civilians, according to Iraqi police and other officials. Countless more were injured, joining thousands of Iraqis whose lives have been shattered by five years of conflict.

"On Saturday evening, Ramadan and his granddaughter Tabarik were mortally wounded as they sat outside their front door in Baghdad's Zafraniya neighborhood. Witnesses said U.S. troops fired in their direction toward a group of young men who the soldiers may have thought were militiamen. Abbas Fadhil, 25, a neighbor, was also killed as he bought a pack of cigarettes."

Opinion Watch

The Miami Herald editorial board writes: "To anyone who dared believe that 'the surge' had solved our problems in Iraq, the recent outbreak of violence must come as a painful awakening. The renewed intensity of combat means that Iraq's factional strife remains as big a problem as ever and that the ultimate U.S. goal of creating a unified, stable and democratic government in Iraq is as elusive as a mirage. . . .

"The surge that Mr. Bush so often touts has helped to reduce U.S. military casualties, but the underlying political and social divisions of Iraq remain a huge impediment to fulfillment of the U.S. mission. At best, the surge has been a tactical advance, not a permanent success. . . .

"Americans . . . are entitled to know . . . what it will take to get the job done. The administration is good at portraying failure in Iraq in the darkest terms. Now it should level with Americans about the costs of staying the course. Americans are war weary, but they're even more weary of spin and fabrication. They deserve honest answers."

Another Bush Legacy

Dana Hedgpeth writes in The Washington Post: "Government auditors issued a scathing review yesterday of dozens of the Pentagon's biggest weapons systems, saying ships, aircraft and satellites are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

"The Government Accountability Office found that 95 major systems have exceeded their original budgets by a total of $295 billion, bringing their total cost to $1.6 trillion, and are delivered almost two years late on average. In addition, none of the systems that the GAO looked at had met all of the standards for best management practices during their development stages. . . .

"Current programs are delivered 21 months late on average, five months later than in 2000.

"'In most cases, programs also failed to deliver capabilities when promised -- often forcing war fighters to spend additional funds on maintaining' existing weapons systems, the report says."

Call It the Paulson Proposal

Stephen Labaton writes in the New York Times: "As Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. laid out an ambitious plan to overhaul the regulatory apparatus that oversees the nation's financial system on Monday, lawmakers and lobbyists from an array of industries opposed to the plan predicted that most of it would be dead on arrival. . . .

"[M]ost parts of the plan are not likely to be adopted any time soon, if at all."

Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times that the proposal "sets the stage for a confrontation with Congress by offering no relief for troubled homeowners and in many instances advocating less, not more, federal supervision of the nation's financial system. . . .

"As a result, even if the new structure were eventually adopted, it would do little to prevent a repeat of the current crisis or something similar, the Treasury secretary acknowledged.

"The limits of the administration's approach drew immediate criticism from Democrats as well as some analysts."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "Democrats are skeptical that the Administration has finally seen the merits of tighter financial oversight. They say Bush's move, while a good start and potentially capable of getting bipartisan support, fits more closely with the pattern he has established since they took over Congress in 2006: a near freeze on new regulations unless and until the legislative or scientific ground gives way beneath him, at which point he launches savvy, preemptive moves to limit the scope of any new regulatory power."

But if this whole thing sinks like a lead balloon, don't blame the president! He is officially not putting his political capital behind this one.

White House press secretary Dana Perino made that clear yesterday.

Q. "Dana, is the President's goal to get this passed and in place before he leaves office?"

Perino: "I think we'll have to see. I think if there is -- it's a big attempt, but this President doesn't shy away from big challenges -- and also, if necessary, actions in order to address problems. And this is something, if you've looked at some of the coverage, that Secretary Paulson has been working on this package for about a year."

By contrast, Bush continues to insist that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is possible before the end of his term. So file the Paulson plan as somewhat less likely to come to fruition than Middle East peace.

McConnell's Controversial Role

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Spy chiefs have often seen their support in Congress fade after embarrassing intelligence flaps. But [national intelligence director J. Michael McConnell] has drawn lawmakers' ire largely because the Bush administration has put him in the unusual role of intelligence community lobbyist. . . .

"McConnell's role as the Bush administration's point person on espionage legislation is particularly unusual. U.S. intelligence chiefs have periodically been at the center of political storms over botched spy operations or pitched nomination fights. But they have traditionally been expected to remain insulated from policy issues, not to function as administration lobbyists on controversial pieces of legislation. . . .

"Democrats have . . . complained that McConnell has employed pressure tactics, including making alarming claims about the consequences of failing to pass the wiretapping legislation favored by the White House.

"In letters to lawmakers, McConnell warned that prolonged debate by the House was making the nation 'more vulnerable to terrorist attack and other foreign threats.'

"In a newspaper interview last year, he said that merely debating the issue meant that 'some Americans are going to die,' because terrorists and other adversaries would learn more about America's surveillance capabilities.

"More recently, at a House hearing in February, McConnell was accused of offering misleading testimony when he warned that allowing temporary eavesdropping authority to lapse would cause phone companies to quit cooperating."

Also see my Aug. 8, 2007 column, Chief Spy or Chief Enforcer?

Another Ugly Departure

David Jackson writes in USA Today; "For the first time in President Bush's tenure, one of his Cabinet members is stepping down amid a criminal investigation. . . .

"The FBI has been investigating the ties between Jackson and a friend who was paid $392,000 by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department as a construction manager in New Orleans, according to the Associated Press. Jackson's friend got the job after Jackson allegedly asked a HUD staffer to pass along his name to the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

"Other Bush Cabinet members, such as former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, have left office under political clouds, but Jackson, 62, is the highest-ranking Bush official to depart in this manner. . . .

"James Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, said Jackson's resignation is not good news for Bush as he seeks political leverage with Congress and tries to stay relevant during an intensely fought presidential campaign to succeed him.

"'This is the last thing that he needs,' Thurber said."

Dan Eggen and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Embattled Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced his resignation yesterday, leaving the Bush administration without a top housing official in the midst of a vast mortgage crisis that has shaken the global economy.

"Jackson, a longtime friend and former neighbor of President Bush, departed after the White House concluded he had too many controversies swirling around him to be an effective Cabinet member, several HUD officials said privately. . . .

"[T]wo government sources who work on housing issues said Jackson was called March 24 to the White House, where top aides discussed his ability to lead the agency. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Jackson met with Bush on Saturday to discuss his plans to resign, according to White House spokesman Tony Fratto. . . .

"Bush, who departed yesterday on a trip to Eastern Europe for his final NATO summit, issued a written statement calling Jackson 'a good man' and 'a great American success story.' Bush said he accepted the resignation 'with regret.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "As relieved as we were to see Alphonso Jackson resign on Monday as the secretary of housing and urban development, it was a sad comment on the Bush administration's low regard for HUD's mission that Mr. Jackson was permitted to remain in office so long."

A Debt of Gratitude

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about how Kevin Rudd is one of the many foreign leaders who owe a lot to the president. Rudd unseated Bush favorite Prime Minister John Howard last fall.

Writes Milbank: "Bush may be a loathed figure in much of the world, but one group owes him a debt of gratitude: the many opposition leaders who came to power after Bush-friendly ruling parties were voted out. Howard took his place alongside Jose Maria Aznar of Spain (whose party was dumped in 2004), Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (tossed out in 2006), and Britain's Tony Blair (stepped aside in favor of a Bush-skeptical understudy in 2007). Ruling parties in Poland and Japan also paid for their leaders' friendships with Bush with big defeats.

"Bush's pariah status has turned his Coalition of the Willing into a retirement community and given the president an unusual role in the domestic affairs of other countries. In Australia, one of Rudd's predecessors as Labor leader, Mark Latham, got the top job after describing Bush as 'the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.' He further described members of Howard's government as a 'conga line of suckholes' to Bush.

"Howard, in turn, expressed a view that al-Qaeda terrorists would be praying for a 2008 victory by Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular.

"Bush enjoyed this mutual affection. 'I can tell you, relations are great right now,' he said last year in Sydney, which was all but shut down by security measures needed to keep him safe."

Bush Investigations Are a Bargain

Investigations of the Bush administration have provided much more bang for the buck than investigations of the Clinton administration.

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The CIA leak probe cost $2.58 million, the Government Accountability Office disclosed Monday, wrapping up an investigation that ensnared Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff for perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI.

"The office of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald spent the money over a 45-month span that saw the indictment, trial and conviction of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby.

"The investigation also touched on other officials in the State Department and the White House, including presidential political adviser Karl Rove, who leaked the CIA identity of Valerie Plame.

"'This matter is now concluded for all practical purposes,' reported the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress."

By contrast, as Carol D. Leonnig noted in The Washington Post in 2006: "Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigations of President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his ties to the failed Whitewater land investment cost $71.5 million and took eight years. Independent Counsel David M. Barrett's examination of Clinton housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros over an extramarital affair and potential illegal payments cost $21 million and lasted 10 years."

'W' -- the Movie

ABC News reports on controversial director Oliver Stone's "W," which is to start filming this month. The movie "paints a humanistic portrait of the president along with plenty of embarrassing anecdotes from his life story, judging by a copy of an early screenplay obtained by ABCNews.com. . . .

"It also covers plenty of his administration's lowlights -- from Bush's reported obsession with invading Iraq, which Stone will portray as a desire to avenge Saddam Hussein's assassination attempt on Bush's father and his frustration with the failed search for WMDs to his penchant for malapropisms and cheery optimism about the chances for civil war in Iraq. . . .

"The first scene, in which Bush and his advisers brainstorm different terms to describe their global enemies, from 'Axis of Hatred' to 'Axis of Unbearably Odious,' is followed by an early glimpse of the hard-drinking young man when he was a college student at Yale.

"Drinking vodka mixed with orange juice out of a trash can at the DKE frat house, Bush impresses the fraternity leader with his ability to memorize the names of his fellow pledges."

Just In From the Onion

The Onion reports: "Amid allegations that his thoughtless and insensitive decisions have damaged his relationship with the nation, President George W. Bush vowed Monday that he would, starting now, 'make everything better.'"

Late Night Humor

Here's Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last night, describing the Bush administration line on Iraq: "So if the violence goes down, that is because of the success of the surge. And when the violence goes up, that is because of the success of the surge."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles insinuates that things in Iraq aren't entirely stable; Ted Rall is hung up on torture; and Jim Morin gives the Bush presidency a new nickname.

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