One Thing After Another

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 18, 2008; 11:52 AM

Today is one of those days when public opinion and expert analysis seem to coalesce around a common theme: President Bush has made a terrible mess of things.

The latest data points include a poll that shows the public is profoundly unhappy about the economy and continued U.S. involvement in Iraq, a study from the Pentagon's premier military educational institute that describes the Iraq war as "a major debacle" whose outcome "is in doubt," and a government audit disclosing that the Bush administration lacks a comprehensive plan to combat terrorism in the parts of Pakistan where al-Qaeda is regenerating its ability to attack the United States.

As usual, of course, none of this permeates the Bush Bubble. When asked yesterday whether he saw any end in sight in Iraq, he responded: "So long as I'm the president, my measure of success is victory -- and success."

A Soured Public

Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "The public's ratings of the national economy continue to sour, with assessments deteriorating faster than at any point in Washington Post-ABC News polling. Views on the Iraq war have also turned more negative, with six in 10 now rejecting the notion that the United States needs to win there to effectively battle terrorism.

"The economy and the Iraq war are the top two issues on voters' minds, according to the new Post-ABC poll, and worsening opinions of both may dampen GOP hopes for the November elections. . . .

"[M]ore than six in 10 say that the [Iraq] conflict is not integral to the success of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. That is the most people to reject what is one of the Bush administration's central contentions and a core part of presumed GOP presidential nominee John McCain's stand on the issue.

"And for the first time since President Bush ordered additional troops to Iraq early last year, the number of Americans saying the United States is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order there has risen. Negative views of the war had eased steadily from late 2006 through early March of this year, but 57 percent in the new poll said efforts in Iraq have stalled, up six points.

"Moreover, while Bush remains committed to keeping more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through the rest of his presidency, 56 percent of Americans say the United States should withdraw its military forces to avoid further casualties. This has been the majority view since January 2007."

Here are the complete poll results.

What's particularly amazing to me is that even when asked a question that incorporates a pro-war assumption, the public still overwhelmingly favors withdrawal.

Given these options -- "Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties" or "Do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?" -- 56 percent chose withdrawal, compared to 41 percent who think the troops should stay.

But the notion that keeping troops in Iraq will eventually lead to civil order may very well be a fantasy; indeed, there is a persuasive case to be made that keeping troops there is delaying national reconciliation -- while fueling anti-American rage and keeping our soldiers in harm's way.

The Debacle

Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The war in Iraq has become 'a major debacle' and the outcome 'is in doubt' despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon's premier military educational institute.

"The report released by the National Defense University raises fresh doubts about President Bush's projections of a U.S. victory in Iraq just a week after Bush announced that he was suspending U.S. troop reductions.

The report carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations. . . .

"'Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle,' says the report's opening line. . . .

"The report said that the United States has suffered serious political costs, with its standing in the world seriously diminished. Moreover, operations in Iraq have diverted 'manpower, materiel and the attention of decision-makers' from 'all other efforts in the war on terror' and severely strained the U.S. armed forces.

"'Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there (in Iraq) were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East,' the report continued."

A few more choice excerpts from the report: "There is no understanding what happened in Iraq without understanding the players, their philosophies, and their associations. The tight link between Vice President Cheney and [former defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld was a key association and one peculiar to this administration. One expert talked about the dominance of the Cheney-Rumsfeld viewpoint as a 'thumb on the scales' of the national security decisionmaking process.

"Secretary Rumsfeld's penchant for dealing one-on-one with the combatant commanders and diving into the details of war plans and unit deployments was also unprecedented in the postwar era. This is not to say that President Bush was manipulated by his powerful subordinates. He was very much in command and has demonstrated that he is fully capable of making decisions that run counter to the recommendations of his closest advisors. Still, in this case, the power wielded by Rumsfeld and Cheney was both considerable and unique. . . .

"One key observer noted that many issues were later decided in private by the President and Vice President -- a normal occurrence, but one that complicates our ability to account for decisions. Private talks between Presidents and Vice Presidents are not unusual, but such a close relationship between the two elected officials has seldom been combined with an unprecedentedly high level of Vice Presidential activism in the national security policy development process."

Meanwhile, in Pakistan . . .

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration has failed to develop a governmentwide plan to combat terrorism in Pakistan's unruly tribal areas, even though top American officials concede that Al Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack the United States and has established havens in that border region, government auditors said Thursday.

"In a searing report, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, sharply criticized the administration for relying too heavily on Pakistan's military to achieve American counterterrorism goals, while paying only token attention to economic development and improving governance. . . .

"In a rare acknowledgment, senior officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad told the government auditors that they had received no strategic guidance from Washington on designing, carrying out, financing and monitoring a coordinated American strategy, the report said."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Majority congressional Democrats seized on the findings to renew charges that the Bush administration, which has called Iraq the main front in the fight against terrorism, has failed to deal responsibly with the primary terrorist threat to the United States. . . .

"White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe disputed the GAO's conclusion, saying the administration was tackling terrorism in Pakistan with 'a variety of means across the political, economic and security fronts.'"

Some Reckoning for Torture?

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "The Justice Department is investigating whether agency lawyers improperly advised the military it could use harsh interrogation methods and concluded that President Bush's wartime authority could not be limited by domestic law or international bans on torture.

"The findings outlined in a March 2003 memo have been included in an ongoing internal review about the CIA's use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and whether top Justice officials crossed a line in authorizing it.

"The department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which is handling the investigation, generally does not publicly discuss what matters are under review. The office called Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., late Wednesday night to confirm the expanded inquiry into the 2003 memo, according to his spokeswoman, Alex Swartsel.

"In a statement Thursday, Whitehouse said the investigation will shed light on how the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel reached its conclusions in writing the memo. He said it will 'help us discover what went wrong and how to put it right.'

"'The abject failure of legal scholarship in the Office of Legal Counsel's analysis of torture suggests that what mattered was not that the reasoning was sound, or that the research was comprehensive, but that it delivered what the Bush administration wanted,' Whitehouse said."

In an interview with ThinkProgress.org, George Washington University Law Professor Jeffrey Rosen argues that Congress should assert itself regarding the administration's torture policies: "Congressional oversight, congressional hearings, censure, political pressure. . . . The time is ticking away, and they have the ability to haul these people up and ask Cheney and [his chief of staff, David S.] Addington what they were thinking when they endorsed these programs."

Meanwhile, Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "A records search by the Central Intelligence Agency has found no evidence that the agency violated a judge's order when, in 2005, it destroyed videotapes that showed harsh interrogations, the C.I.A. said in a court declaration this week.

"The agency destroyed interrogation videotapes in November 2005, months after a federal judge issued an order for the government to preserve all evidence relevant to the trial of Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, a Yemeni challenging his detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. . . .

"The court filings do not explain how the C.I.A. reached its conclusion, or by what standard it judged whether documents were covered by the order."

Bush and Brown

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to dispel doubts about their relationship Thursday, showcasing personal bonhomie as well as common ground on vexing issues such as the Iraq war, a showdown with Iran, global trade and the crises in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

"Brown, particularly, appeared to make an effort to move beyond the leaders' frosty first meeting in July."

Here's the transcript of their short joint news conference.

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "On a day when the head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency said Tehran was making only slow progress toward production of material suitable for nuclear weapons, Bush and Brown joined in denouncing the Iranian government."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that Brown also met with the three leading presidential candidates. And yet, "[i]f Brown is looking beyond Bush, he did not show it at the news conference: He seemed more effusive about him than he did last summer at Camp David, where his demeanor was widely interpreted in Britain as an effort to put distance between himself and the president.

"'The world owes President George Bush a huge debt of gratitude for leading the world in our determination to root out terrorism and to ensure that there is no safe haven for terrorism,' Brown said in his opening remarks."

Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post: "Unpopular wars and economic crises have dragged both men to standings not seen since the World War II era: Bush is now the most consistently unpopular president since Truman, and Brown's support has plunged faster than Neville Chamberlain's after he appeased Hitler.

"And so it was, perhaps, inevitable, that the beleaguered pair would start off their news conference talking about Winston Churchill and the 'Special Relationship.'"

Climate Watch

AFP reports: "Leading players in talks to forge a pact for tackling climate change took the lash on Thursday to President George W. Bush's new blueprint for global warming, with Germany mocking it as 'Neanderthal.'

"At a ministerial-level meeting of major carbon emitters, South Africa blasted the Bush proposal as a disastrous retreat by the planet's number-one polluter and a slap to poor countries.

"The European Union -- which had challenged the United States to follow its lead on slashing greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 -- also voiced disappointment.

"His proposals 'will not contribute to the fight against climate change,' EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told AFP, adding he hoped the US would 'reconsider its options and policies.' . . .

"In a statement entitled 'Bush's Neanderthal speech,' German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: 'His speech showed not leadership but losership. We are glad that there are also other voices in the United States.'"

From yesterday's press briefing with spokesman Tony Fratto:

Q: "Tony, the German Environment Minister, in his reaction to the speech -- the reaction was entitled, 'Bush's Neanderthal Speech.' Did you guys talk to Western European allies and other major economies about what the details were going to be in his speech before he put forth -- "

Fratto: "I'm not sure what those communications were. You're always going to see lots of hot-blooded reaction to anything said on climate, and so you should just be -- just be prepared for that."

Stonewall Watch

Ben Pershing blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) today accused the Bush administration of being overly obstinate on a range of controversial issues, expressing particular frustration at Attorney General Michael Mukasey's unwillingness to compromise.

"Feisty and opinionated as ever despite a recent recurrence of Hodgkin's Disease, the top Judiciary Committee Republican was especially pointed on the subject of Mukasey and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, lamenting that the former federal judge refused to budge from the Bush administration's position that telecommunications companies must be granted retroactive immunity for their past cooperation with intelligence operations. . . .

"Specter's criticisms go well beyond FISA; he also accused the White House of obduracy on the media shield law, on updating the state secrets law, on the use of national security letters and on the issue of preserving attorney-client privilege for military detainees (Specter called the administration's position on that issue 'atrocious')."

Karl Rove Watch

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday invited Karl Rove, a onetime White House adviser, to testify about his possible involvement in building a corruption case against former Alabama governor Don Siegelman (D).

"Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and three other Democrats on the panel also wrote to the Justice Department's inspector general and the chief of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, requesting that they open an investigation into what they claimed was a pattern of 'selective, politically motivated prosecutions.' . . .

"Rove attorney Robert D. Luskin previously told a television network that his client would testify if asked. Yesterday, however, Luskin said that Rove would follow normal procedure and seek guidance from the White House before agreeing to appear.

"'The decision is not going to be made by me or Karl Rove,' he said."

Bald Head Fetish Watch

Bush's bald head fetish has been amply documented by bloggers. It sometimes seems like he can't let a bald head go by without a comment -- or a rub.

Yesterday in the Rose Garden, Bush once again picked on one of his favorite targets: Nick Robinson of BBC News.

Bush: "Nick, you need a hat, my boy, you need a hat. (Laughter.)"

Robinson: "I thought of getting one saying --- "

Bush: "That's right. (Laughter.)"

The transcript doesn't catch what Robinson intended his hat to say. And unlike the last time Bush needled him about his head, the BBC reporter didn't describe the exchange in his blog.

So if you have any thoughts about what Robinson's hat should have said, feel free to post them in the comments section.

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "The Pope, God bless him, got on the Pope-Mobile' after the mass. And then, 'President Bush followed him in the Dope-Mobile."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's view of the economy; Bill Mitchell on why Bush isn't bitter; Peter Brookes and Jeff Danziger on the special relationship; Tony Auth, Lee Judge, David Horsey, Lisa Benson, Steve Sack and an Ann Telnaes animation on Bush's global warming flim-flam; and Joel Pett on Bush's quest for papal absolution.

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