Another Backfire in Iraq

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; 1:19 PM

President Bush's brashest attempt to lock in his Iraq policy beyond his presidency, like so many other Bush initiatives in the region, appears to be backfiring spectacularly.

Secret negotiations between U.S. and Iraqi officials over a multi-year security agreement aren't so secret anymore. Details have been dribbling out over the last several days (see my June 5 column, Bush's Secret Iraq Deal).

And the American demands seem to be infuriating Iraqi lawmakers, some of whom are even threatening to kick out U.S. troops entirely.

Bush claims he is trying to make things easier for his successor. He told the Times of London in an interview this week: "My focus in the remaining time of my presidency is to leave behind a series of structures that makes it easier for the next president to be able to deal with the problems that he is going to have to face."

But committing to a sustained occupation is a blatant attempt to tie the hands of Barack Obama should he become president in January. The presumptive Democratic nominee favors a relatively quick withdrawal of American troops.

And now an ironic result of Bush's overreach could be that the domestic debate over American troop withdrawal -- in which presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is Bush's most ardent defender -- becomes moot, with the Iraqis insisting that we leave on their terms.

That would mean that, for once, a Bush backfire in the Middle East wouldn't actually further entangle us in the region, but would serve the interest of the American people.

The latest CBS News poll, for instance, shows a plurality of Americans (45 percent) want U.S. troops home immediately or within a year; and a sizeable majority (66 percent) want them home within two.

Bush held a joint press conference this morning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In his response to a question from Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen, he tried to spin the dissent in Iraq as a positive sign, expressed no concern about the direction of the negotiations, and once again repeated his meaningless assertion that the U.S. is not seeking permanent military bases in Iraq. (In a Senate hearing in April, a senior Defense Department lawyer acknowledged that the Pentagon had no definition for the term "permanent base" and that it "doesn't really mean anything.")

Here's what Bush had to say: "I think we'll end up with a strategic agreement with Iraq. You know, it's all kinds of noise in their system and our system. What eventually will win out is the truth. For example, you read stories perhaps in your newspaper that the U.S. is planning all kinds of permanent bases in Iraq. That's an erroneous story. The Iraqis know -- will learn it's erroneous, too. We're there at the invitation of the sovereign government of Iraq. . . .

"And as I said clearly in past speeches, this will not involve permanent bases, nor will it bind any future President to troop levels. You know, as to -- look, Eggen, you can find any voice you want in the Iraqi political scene and quote them, which is interesting, isn't it, because in the past you could only find one voice, and now you can find a myriad of voices. It's a vibrant democracy; people are debating."

The Coverage

Here's the Washington Post story by Amit R. Paley and Karen DeYoung that Bush was disparaging. It's worth reading from beginning to end. But here are some excerpts.

"High-level negotiations over the future role of the U.S. military in Iraq have turned into an increasingly acrimonious public debate, with Iraqi politicians denouncing what they say are U.S. demands to maintain nearly 60 bases in their country indefinitely," Paley and DeYoung write.

"Top Iraqi officials are calling for a radical reduction of the U.S. military's role here after the U.N. mandate authorizing its presence expires at the end of this year. Encouraged by recent Iraqi military successes, government officials have said that the United States should agree to confine American troops to military bases unless the Iraqis ask for their assistance, with some saying Iraq might be better off without them.

"'The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq,' said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician on parliament's foreign relations committee who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 'If we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, "Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore."' . . .

"U.S. officials have refused to publicly discuss details of the negotiations. But Iraqi politicians have become more open in their descriptions of the talks, stoking popular anger at American demands that Iraqis across the political spectrum view as a form of continued occupation."

Paley and DeYoung write that the American demand for 58 long-term bases in Iraq is actually a compromise. "The Americans originally pushed for more than 200 facilities across the country, according to Hadi al-Amiri, a powerful lawmaker who is the head of the Badr Organization, the former armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party."

And the administration is backpedaling in other ways, as well: "Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament who has been briefed on the negotiations, said the Americans recently had changed their position on four key issues: Private contractors would no longer be guaranteed immunity; detainees would be turned over to the Iraqi judicial system after combat operations; U.S. troops would operate only with the agreement of the Iraqi government; and the Americans would promise not to use Iraq as a base for attacking other countries. . . .

"In Washington, the White House hastily organized a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, respectively, demanded Monday that the administration 'be more transparent with Congress, with greater consultation, about the progress and content of these deliberations.'"

Leila Fadel and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "A proposed U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that would set the conditions for a defense alliance and long-term U.S. troop presence appears increasingly in trouble, facing growing resistance from the Iraqi government, bipartisan opposition in Congress and strong questioning from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"President Bush is trying to finish the agreement before he leaves office, and senior U.S. officials insist publicly that the negotiations can be completed by a July 31 target date. The U.S. is apparently scaling back some of its demands, including backing off one that particularly incenses Iraqis, blanket immunity for private security contractors.

"But meeting the July 31 deadline seems increasing doubtful, and in Baghdad and Washington there is growing speculation that a United Nations mandate for U.S.-led military operations in Iraq may have to be renewed after it expires at the end of 2008."

Ned Parker writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A Western official who works closely with the Iraqi government said . . . Maliki's advisors are now asking aloud whether the American presence creates more trouble for Iraq with its Arab and Iranian neighbors or whether it safeguards the country's sovereignty. . . .

"During Maliki's trip this week to Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Iraq against such a deal with the Americans. Tehran's protests have been echoed in Lebanon by the armed Shiite political movement Hezbollah and by Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia."

Torture Watch

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "In a flurry of oversight that some critics say comes years too late, Congress is pressing Bush administration officials on a still-unanswered question: How did the United States come to embrace harsh interrogation methods it had always shunned?

"The interrogation techniques themselves have been repeatedly discussed, and administration officials have been forced to explain why waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique of torturers dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, was not torture when used by the C.I.A.

"But it has never been clear what roles were played by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their subordinates in approving the interrogation techniques used after the Sept. 11 attacks against terrorism suspects. Only gradually has the fog of secrecy begun to lift, and two hearings on Tuesday showed there is a long way to go. . . .

"More testimony on interrogation is coming, some of it from officials with firsthand knowledge of how the policies were developed, including those that applied to the secret prisons that the C.I.A. established overseas. . . .

"Human rights advocates are heartened. 'Members of Congress are beginning to connect the dots,' said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. 'First they blamed the privates and the field operatives, then the generals. But now Congress is finally beginning to ask who made the ultimate decisions at the top.'"

Bob Deans covered the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday and writes for Cox News Service: "Retired FBI interrogator John Cloonan said most terrorist suspects detained after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks knew nothing about al Qaeda's operational plans and that subjecting them to harsh questioning wouldn't produce accurate and reliable information.

"Instead, he said, al Qaeda has used reports of U.S. prisoner abuse as a recruiting tool."

From Cloonan's prepared statement: "There are 3 questions I would like this committee to ponder. Has the use of coercive interrogation techniques lessened Al Qaeda's thirst for revenge against the US? Have these methods helped to recruit a new generation of jihadist martyrs? Has the use of coercive interrogation produced the reliable information its proponents claim for it? I would suggest that the answers are 'no', 'yes' and 'no'. Based on my experience in talking to al Qaeda members, I am persuaded that revenge, in the form of a catastrophic attack on the homeland, is coming, that a new generation of jihadist martyrs, motivated in part by the images from Abu Ghraib, is, as we speak, planning to kill American and that nothing gleaned from the use of coercive interrogation techniques will be of any significant use in the forestalling this calamitous eventuality.

"Torture degrades our image abroad and complicates our working relationships with foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies. If I were the director of marketing for al Qaeda and intent on replenishing the ranks of jihadists. I know what my first piece of marketing collateral would be. It would be a blast e-mail with an attachment. The attachment would contain a picture of Private [Lynddie] England pointing at the stacked, naked bodies of the detainees at Abu Ghraib. The picture screams out for revenge and the day of reckoning will come. The consequences of coercive intelligence gathering will not evaporate with time."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Ben Pershing writes in The Washington Post: "Having failed in efforts to impeach Vice President Cheney, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) escalated his battle against the administration this week by introducing 35 articles of impeachment against President Bush, using a parliamentary maneuver that will probably force a vote today.

"Kucinich's impeachment measure accuses Bush of taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses; he introduced it as a 'privileged resolution,' which requires the House to take it up within two legislative days. Any lawmaker may offer a privileged resolution, but it is usually done only by party leaders.

"Kucinich, upon introducing his articles of impeachment Monday evening, insisted on reading the resolution into the Congressional Record, a process that took nearly five hours. He finished reading it late yesterday after the close of legislative business.

"As they have previously, Democratic leaders staunchly oppose Kucinich's impeachment effort. They expect to table the resolution by referring it to the Judiciary Committee, where they expect it to die."

Sabrina Eaton writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich's surprise resolution this week to impeach President Bush has irritated some of his fellow Democrats and drawn ridicule from Republicans, but it got support from at least one colleague.

"'It is time for Congress to stand up and defend the Constitution against the blatant violations and illegalities of this administration,' said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat."

How do the people American feel about impeachment? Major pollsters have asked only infrequently. But on the few occasions that they have, public support has been short of a majority, but nevertheless surprisingly strong. Pollingreport.com has the numbers.

In a USA Today/Gallup Poll in July 2007, more than a third of voters -- 36 percent -- said there was justification for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush. A CNN poll in September 2006 found that 30 percent of American felt Bush should be impeached. When Fox News asked in May 2006 whether Democrats should impeach Bush "over the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction", 30 percent said yes. In an April 2006 Los Angeles Times poll, 36 percent said Bush should be impeached if he "broke the law when he authorized government agencies to use electronic surveillance to monitor American citizens without a court warrant."

And as I noted at the time, a Zogby poll in July 2005 found that 42 percent of respondents said that if Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.

To put these numbers in context, remember that Bush's job-approval rating is averaging just under 30 percent. In other words, it's pretty safe to say that more Americans want Bush impeached than think he is doing a good job.

Via the Crooks and Liars blog, here's Jonathan Turley talking to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last night: "The framers, I think, would have been astonished by the absolute passivity, if not the collusion of the Democrats in protecting President Bush from impeachment. I mean, they created a system that was essentially idiot-proof, and God knows we've put that to the test in the past few years, but I don't think they anticipated that so many members of the opposition would stand quietly in the face of clear presidential crimes."

Iran Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday that his first choice is to solve a nuclear standoff with Iran by using diplomacy, but 'all options are on the table.'

"The president reinforced the possibility of military strike against Iran, even as a last resort, during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bush warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a danger to world peace, and he is rallying European allies to back sanctions.

"The president is pushing Iran to halt its uranium enrichment in a verifiable way. Iran insists it is enriching only for peaceful purposes.

"Bush said, 'I told the chancellor my first choice, of course, is to solve this diplomatically.' He quickly added, 'all options are on the table.' . . .

"The diplomatic pressure came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday said Bush's era 'has come to an end' and he has failed in his goals to attack Iran and stop its nuclear program."

Steven Lee Myers and Nazila Fathi write in this morning's New York Times: "Opening a farewell tour of Europe, President Bush won European support on Tuesday to consider additional punitive sanctions against Iran, including restrictions on its banks, if Iran rejects a package of incentives to suspend its uranium enrichment program. . . .

"The communiqué coincided with heightened tensions over Iran's nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna registered 'serious concern' last month about Iran's suspected research into the development of nuclear weapons.

"The issue became even more pressing after Israel's transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned last week that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites would be 'unavoidable' if weapons programs proceeded.

"Some analysts said the language of the joint communiqué on Tuesday appeared to try to ease that threat.

"'I think this was a European attempt to show the Bush administration that Europe takes the threat seriously and to try to continue to prevent a situation where Israel or the United States might turn to the military instrument,' said Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Mr. Bush expressed sympathy for Israeli concerns about Iran's intentions, telling a questioner at [Tuesday's] news conference, 'If you were living in Israel, you'd be a little nervous, too, if a leader in your neighborhood announced that they -- he'd like to destroy you.'

"But Mr. Bush also appeared to play down interest in a military option, saying he was leaving behind 'a multilateral framework' to address Iran."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters that the United States and E.U. nations are waiting to see Iran's reaction to a new package of incentives and sanctions that will be presented by Javier Solana, the E.U.'s foreign policy head, within the next week.

"If Iran rejects the package, Hadley said, foreign governments could get 'much more aggressive' in enforcing existing U.N. penalties and in moving toward the types of new sanctions mentioned in Tuesday's statement. . . .

"Some foreign policy and nonproliferation experts said it is not clear how far U.S. officials could push the E.U., which has often been more cautious than the United States on the Iran issue. 'I'd say there's a suggestion, but not proof, that they made progress,' said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Jon Wolfsthal, an expert in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said . . . Bush has little leverage left with either Iran or Europe . . . and the chances of getting Russia and China to go along with any new U.N. sanctions proposal are remote."

Steve Clemmons writes in his Washington Note blog that there are signs that Vice President Cheney and his fellow Iran hawks are in ascendance again.

Europe Watch

Nicholas Kulish reports for the New York Times from Berlin: "The young anarchists, middle-aged peace activists and established left-wing politicians here have at least one thing in common: none bothered to keep a six-year tradition alive by organizing a protest against President Bush's arrival here Tuesday.

"'Bush is not even popular in the role of the enemy anymore,' wrote Der Tagesspiegel newspaper."

The editorial writers at the Telegraph write: "There is a certain pathos about President George W. Bush's valedictory visit to Europe this week."

Bush and the Times of London

One place Bush is still getting attention, however, is on the front page of the Times of London, which did its best to turn some familiar responses in an interview with Bush into news. It did so well, in fact, that its story is being picked up all over the place.

Tom Baldwin and Gerard Baker write: "President Bush has admitted to The Times that his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe that he was a 'guy really anxious for war' in Iraq. He said that his aim now was to leave his successor a legacy of international diplomacy for tackling Iran.

"In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. 'I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric.'

"Phrases such as 'bring them on' or 'dead or alive', he said, 'indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace'. He said that he found it very painful 'to put youngsters in harm's way'. He added: 'I try to meet with as many of the families as I can. And I have an obligation to comfort and console as best as I possibly can. I also have an obligation to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain.'"

But for previous, nearly identical expressions of regret for his cowboy rhetoric, see my Jan. 14, 2005, column, Second Thoughts About 'Bring 'em On, and my May 26, 2006 column, No New Contrition.

The Times reporters were also quite taken with Bush's ostensible makeover. In a separate story they write: "On the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, he no longer sounds like a wild-eyed unilateralist, bent on military action.

"Instead, he attacks his critics for being insufficiently multilateralist. Mr Obama's proposal to speak directly to the Iranian President, he suggests, will undermine the careful diplomacy Mr Bush has pioneered in the past few years. . . .

"And he insists that his plan is to have a diplomatic legacy, not only for Iran, but for all the pressing global crises: ' . . . The six-party talks, for example, in the Far East, in dealing with North Korea, the Iranian multilateral framework, hopefully a Palestinian state defined by Israel and the Palestinians.'"

Baldwin and Baker even relate without comment Bush's astonishing excuse for why he is not held in higher esteem: "Mr Bush says the arrows aimed in his direction over the past seven years are the consequence of taking 'tough decisions' and are 'what comes with the position I'm in'.

"'There are going to be moments when the world becomes fatigued, or those of us who are responsible for trying to protect our citizens from international terrorism get tired,' he says. 'It's easy for negativism to creep in, and there's kind of an exhaustion that comes with staying on offence.'

"But not this President, not yet. While critics are impatient for the Bush era to end, and most of his initiatives appear to be running into the sand, Mr Bush sneers at the hundred would-be 'secretaries of state in the United States Senate that think they can do a better job'."

And to top it off, the Times reporters were quite smitten with Bush's ride. In yet another story, they write: "Even for a president on his last lame legs, Air Force One remains the biggest and shiniest symbol of virility in global politics. . . .

"When the waving President bounds down the stairway, even the most robust egos among the leaders who wait below to greet him must feel a little diminished."

McCain's Jab

Sasha Issenberg writes in the Boston Globe about John McCain's first major television ad of the general election.

"'Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war,' McCain says over mournful strings against a bleak backdrop, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 'I hate war, and I know how terrible its costs are.' . . .

"'To me, the ad is much more playing off Bush than playing off Obama,' said Jeremy Varon, a historian at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has studied antiwar movements. 'The point of this is for McCain to say: "I'm very different from my predecessor even if I want to fight the same war." '"

Cheney's Role

Jonathan Martin writes in the Politico: "Vice President Dick Cheney is unlikely to share a stage with McCain anytime soon--and may not be called on to play any role at all in the 2008 presidential campaign.

"In part, it's a reflection of political expediency. Though Cheney is one of the nation's most influential and talked about vice presidents ever, his favorability ratings are near toxic lows.

"But Cheney and McCain also have had a rocky relationship. . . .

"Asked about what role Cheney would have in the campaign, McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker only said: 'John McCain will always treat the vice president with respect.' "

Cheney's Motorcades

Dale McFeatters writes in a Scripps Howard News Service opinion piece: "The House has just passed a bill that would give Vice President Dick Cheney and his successors up to six months of Secret Service protection after leaving office. . . .

"That's fine both on general principle and on the basis that Cheney was a controversial figure. . . .

"However, we would insert one caveat: The protection should be at considerably less than the imperial levels he has enjoyed while in office. And that means no more motorcades.

"The vice president's motorcades are notorious in Washington for their size and disruption as major arteries like Massachusetts Avenue are blocked off so the vice president can roar between his home and office. . . .

"One reporter protested at a White House briefing after she was nearly run off the road by the vice president's motorcade tearing through the narrow, twisty confines of Rock Creek Park. She got the brush-off but not before observing, accurately in the opinion of locals, that Cheney's motorcades seem 'so much louder and aggressive than the others.'

"And it's not just here. A quick check of the Web shows complaints about his motorcade in the Twin Cities, Atlanta, Portland, Chicago, Toledo and as far away as Australia. And there's even a small but very noisy collection of videos on YouTube.

"A two-car motorcade should do it. And if extra security is called for, the former vice president could always ride shotgun."

Twilight Watch

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, we're out with part three of my series on what top administration officials might be doing to make it as difficult as possible for their successors to roll back their policies. Today's focus is on how the time for a national conversation on pardons is before, not after, they're granted.

Bush's Food Obsession Continues

The Associated Press reports: "After discussing pressing problems such as Iran's nuclear program with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the issue at the front of U.S. President George W. Bush's mind Wednesday was . . . German asparagus."

Country Song Watch

Mario Tarradell writes in the Dallas Morning News that Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry's new CD, Just Us Kids, "offers three piercingly potent numbers. . . . During 'Cheney's Toy,' the usually soft-spoken artist doesn't hem and haw. 'You're the man/Show 'em what you're made of/You're no longer daddy's boy,' he sings in the song's chorus. 'You're the man/That they're all afraid of/But you're only Cheney's toy.'"

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "You know, I'll tell you, things are not good. The price of oil doubled in less than a year. Home foreclosures are at a record high. Unemployment is surging. But yesterday . . . we saw a ray of hope. President Bush left the country. So maybe things will get better."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush in Europe; Stuart Carlson on Bush and history; Ed Stein on Bush's end-of-the-administration clearance; and Bruce Plante on the 29 percenters.

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