Pumping Up the Anxiety

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 3, 2008; 1:37 PM

It's not clear what was going through President Bush's head yesterday morning, but his words certainly didn't dampen the growing speculation that the U.S. -- or Israel -- is planning to attack Iran before January.

The words were familiar, as Bush repeated yet again that his preference is to address the Iranian nuclear threat diplomatically but that, as always, " all options are on the table."

It's the context that's key.

Brian Knowlton writes for the New York Times: "The president's comments on Iran essentially restated administration policy, but they came as the region has seen a confusing succession of warnings, threats and, just this week, signs of a suddenly more-conciliatory tone emanating from some Iranian officials.

"A major Israeli military exercise last month appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities, American officials said. In response, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 40 percent of the world's oil passes, if it were attacked by Israel.

"Then on Wednesday, the commander of United States naval forces in the Persian Gulf said the United States Navy and its regional allies would stop any such Iranian action."

Ed Henry reported on CNN: "Asked about a flurry of reports suggesting the U.S. or Israel may attack Iran by the end of the year, the president did little to discourage the talk."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column: "The doldrums of the Fourth of July recess have been enlivened by fresh talk of another war. Is it a diplomatic bluff or a serious possibility? . . .

"The administration, for its part, seems eager to convince Iran that President Bush is crazy enough to sanction an attack. In the Rose Garden yesterday, Brett Baier of Fox News asked Bush how confident he is that Israel won't launch a military attack on Iran before the end of the year. 'I have always said that all options are on the table, but the first option for the United States is to solve this problem diplomatically,' came Bush's mild reply.

"ABC's Martha Raddatz invited Bush to 'strongly discourage Israel' from such an activity. The president declined. 'I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be to solve this problem diplomatically,' he said.

"Neither did the State Department offer discouragement. Spokesman Sean McCormack, at his daily briefing, said the matter of an Israeli strike isn't 'under our control.' When it was pointed out that the U.S. controls Iraqi airspace, through which Israeli warplanes would travel to hit Iran, McCormack declined to answer a 'hypothetical question involving military planning.'"

Milbank also calls attention to recent comments from vice presidential daughter Liz Cheney:

"'[D]espite what you may be hearing from Congress, despite what you may be hearing from others in the administration who might be saying force isn't on the table, that we're serious.' As for an Israeli strike on Iran, she said: 'I certainly don't think that we should do anything but support them.'"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Israel and the United States are starting to look like two anxious children trying to decide how to deal with a schoolyard bully, Iran. Each appears to be whispering encouragement to the other to go kick the bully in the shins, but each is so terrified of the consequences that neither wants to go first.

"President Bush telegraphed this dangerous diplomatic gambit to the media Wednesday when he was asked about the recent spate of reports that military action against Iran, by either Israel or the U.S. and before the end of Bush's term, is under discussion. . . . The unmistakable signal is that Bush not only won't discourage Israel from striking at Iranian nuclear targets but would support Israel should Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decide to bomb."

Growing Odds of War

Roula Khalaf, Daniel Dombey and Tobias Buck write in the Financial Times: "Less than a year ago, diplomats in the Middle East were taking bets on the likelihood of a US military attack on Iran, with some assessing it at higher than 50 per cent.

"Those odds subsided after the National Intelligence Estimate, the co-ordinated view of US intelligence agencies, concluded in December that Iran had halted its weapons programme in 2003.

"But the betting about a strike on Iran started again recently.

"As Tehran has accelerated its uranium enrichment programme instead of suspending it, speculation has mounted that Israel is preparing to do the job itself, possibly before November's US presidential election. . . .

"Given the limited damage likely to be inflicted on Iran, and the risk of provoking a wider war at a time when oil prices are already sky high, such threats may be designed primarily to make the world nervous and to toughen diplomatic resolve.

"Or perhaps Israel hopes if the Bush administration were to decide an Israeli attack was inevitable, it might be encouraged to launch one itself to improve the chances of success."

Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, writes: "There is, I would guess, somewhere between a 30 and 40 per cent chance that the Bush administration will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of the year.

"This is, naturally, a personal judgment. It is based on two weeks of intense conversations I have had with American national security figures. . . .

"People who know Vice-President Dick Cheney well believe he wants to strike Iran, that he has made a sober judgment that time is running out. . . .

"Defence Secretary Robert Gates is strongly opposed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also opposed.

"Some analysts believe that in the first Bush administration Cheney won all such arguments, whereas in the second administration Rice is dominant. They take this to mean Bush won't strike.

"I don't think it's that simple. It is true that Bush has ceded an enormous amount of national security power to Rice. However, the Bush administration is better seen as having two personalities, the psychology of which rose out of Bush's peculiar historical circumstances.

"Bush understands that he is unpopular across the world and, as a result to some extent, so is the US. Therefore, on every issue where it's possible, from Africa to North Korea, he presents a kindly, moderate, multilateral face. And that face is Rice.

"However, Bush also knows that history will judge him on the outcome in Iraq. So he does absolutely everything he can to win in Iraq. And this means mostly following Cheney's advice. Remember that for all of Rice's undoubted sway, she opposed the troop surge in Iraq, as did Gates. The surge went ahead anyway, and was successful.

"So at this moment, in the second half of 2008, does the Rice side of Bush or the Cheney side win the argument on Iran?

"I think anyone who pronounces dogmatically on that question doesn't know what they're talking about. For a start, if the Iranians are caught doing something stupid, the calculations change dramatically."

Not So Fast

But maybe attacking Iran wouldn't be such a great idea -- says Navy Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times: "The U.S. military's top officer warned Wednesday that an Israeli airstrike against Iran would make the Middle East more unstable and could add to the stress on overworked American forces in the region. . . .

"Bush long has pointedly left open the option of military action by the U.S. or Israel, and administration officials have said they will not interfere with Israel's right to respond to what it sees as a looming threat. But American military officials are concerned that U.S. forces, stationed nearby in Iraq and Afghanistan, could become entangled in any conflict that would result. . . .

"'Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us,' he said, referring to the prospect of a direct clash with Iran while fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. 'This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable.'"

The Bottom Line

The National Security Network, a liberal group of defense and foreign policy specialists, has a new report concluding that Bush's saber-rattling is hitting Americans where it hurts: "Respected industry experts have long drawn the connection between global instability, failed Bush Administration foreign policies, and the price of oil -- which they call the 'security premium. . . .

"Some experts estimate this premium to be as much as $30-40 for every barrel of oil sold."

So, in addition to the cost in human lives and the geopolitical havoc ... consider the effect on gas prices.

Brian Williams and Richard Engel did just that Tuesday night on the NBC Nightly News.

Williams: "Despite all the denials, what happens if a military strike takes place against Iran?"

Engel: "Well, it all has to do with geography. Iran is in an incredibly strategic location: the Straits of Hormuz, one of the world's most important oil shipping routes. . . . Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could quickly destabilize the situation there. And in Israel, Iran has allies in both in Lebanon -- Hezbollah -- and in the Gaza Strip. . . . "

Williams: "And look at, if you look at the neighborhood Iran is in, you think about the oil business, you think about the fact we're paying four dollars a gallon now. What could happen?"

Engel: "I asked an oil analyst that very question. He said, 'The price of a barrel of oil? Name your price: $300, $400 a barrel.'"

Williams: "That could be the shock from such a military action."

Incompetence or Deception?

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "Bush administration officials told Hunt Oil last summer that they did not object to its efforts to reach an oil deal with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, even while the State Department was publicly expressing concern that such contracts could undermine a national Iraqi petroleum law, according to documents obtained by a House committee.

"Last fall, after the deal was announced, the State Department said that it had tried to dissuade Hunt Oil from signing the contract with Kurdish regional authorities but that the company had proceeded 'regardless of our advice.' Although Hunt Oil's chief executive has been a major fundraiser for President Bush, the president said he knew nothing about the deal.

"Yesterday, however, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released documents and e-mails showing that for nearly four months, State and Commerce department officials knew about Hunt Oil's negotiations and had told company officials that there were no objections. . . .

"The Hunt Oil deal was seen by Kurdish officials as a key victory because the company's chief executive, Ray L. Hunt, was not only a major backer of Bush but also a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. After the deal was completed, a dozen other foreign firms signed oil contracts with Kurdish authorities."

So was this an example of top-level people not knowing what lower-level people were doing? Or was it active deception? Could it be that the White House was more intent on seeing the Kurds and an oil company rewarded than it was on encouraging Iraqi unification -- or on telling the public the truth?

James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr. write in the New York Times about how this is anything but an academic question: "The release of the documents comes as the administration is defending help that United States officials provided in drawing up a separate set of no-bid contracts, still pending, between Iraq's Oil Ministry in Baghdad and five major Western oil companies to provide services at other Iraqi oil fields."

From Waxman's letter to Rice: "You and other Administration officials have denied playing any role in these contracts. In the case of Hunt Oil, however, similar denials appear to have been misleading."

Agreement in Doubt

Alissa J. Rubin writes in the New York Times: "Declaring that there will not be 'another colonization of Iraq,' Iraq's foreign minister raised the possibility on Wednesday that a full security agreement with the United States might not be reached this year, and that if one was, it would be a short-term pact.

"American officials, speaking anonymously because of the delicate state of negotiations, said they were no longer optimistic that a complete security agreement could be reached by the year's end."

Torture Watch

There has been less of a reaction than I expected to Scott Shane's shocking report in the New York Times yesterday that a chart used by trainers at Guantanamo Bay was copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions from American prisoners.

The Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune editorial board writes: "In effect, interrogators at Guantanamo were being taught to use precisely the same methods as the Chinese communists did during the Korean War -- to extort false confessions. The Chinese employed these techniques primarily to turn American POWs into propaganda tools. After being subjected to cold or sleeplessness or muscle cramping long enough, most human beings will sign anything just to end their torment.

"The Chinese didn't invent these techniques. They were perfected by the NKVD -- the predecessor of the KGB -- in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. The NKVD turned torture and the coercion of confessions into a fine art; it mass-produced hundreds of thousands of 'enemies of the state' who had done nothing worse than, say, travel abroad or fall into the cross-hairs of a malicious secret accuser.

"The Gestapo as well as the Chinese communists studied the NKVD's practices closely. And somehow -- with the benefit of historical amnesia, rationalization and skewed moral compasses -- people at high levels of the Bush administration came to view some of these methods of coercion as perfectly legal.

"There is something worse than losing to your enemy: It is becoming your enemy."

The Roanoke (Va.) Times editorial board writes: "A White House in the habit of shutting out unpleasant truths remains blind to this one: People being tortured eventually will say anything, true or not, to stop the torture.

"Proponents would hang the nation's security on that thin thread, and betray all that it is supposed to mean to be American."

Andrew Sullivan blogs: "Nothing more accurately exposes the classic moral error of the Bush administration and its enablers in war crimes. If the enemy tortures, it defines their moral evil and all intelligence gleaned from such coercion is self-evidently false propaganda. If we do it, it isn't wrong, and it leads to good intelligence.

"Got that? And these people have the gall to describe their ideological opponents as moral relativists."

Jay Bookman writes in his Atlanta Journal and Constitution opinion column: "The narrative that is emerging suggests that to [top Bush officials], torture was not something they felt forced to do, but rather something they wanted to do against those they blamed for Sept. 11. And while an instinct for such vengeance may be natural, it is an instinct that civilized nations refuse to sanction."

Torture Watch, Cont'd.

The Miami Herald editorial board looks back to last week's testimony by two chief architects of the administration's torture policies, vice presidential chief of staff David S. Addington and former Justice Department official John Yoo and concludes: "This is why Congress must keep asking questions about the origin of torture policies, until it gets real answers."

Josh Getlin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked millions when they were leaked to the media in 2004. But have they sparked meaningful changes in U.S. policy, and did they fundamentally alter the nation's political landscape?

"For Philip Gourevitch, the answers are discouraging. And as he fielded a reader's question this week about the U.S. response to the scandal, the writer who set out to document and explain it in his new book, ' Standard Operating Procedure,' seemed momentarily stumped.

"'I don't have a great answer for you,' he said after a brief pause. 'I actually think that people don't mind torture that much. I don't think there's a great public hue and cry over this, I haven't seen it. There's a general feeling that it's all right.' . . .

"Gourevitch displays an indignation -- and disappointment -- that are unmistakable.

"'As a population we haven't been entirely helpless, but we have been acquiescent,' he said. When the grotesque photos of Iraqi prisoners were first revealed, 'we learned this policy came from the very top [the White House], and the top has to be accountable. But that's not what happened. Somewhere along the way we lost some sense of purpose. We were upset but it wasn't clear what you were supposed to do with these feelings and as a result we tuned it out.'"

The Next Surge?

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Grappling with a record death toll in an overshadowed war, President Bush promised Wednesday to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan by year's end. He conceded that June was a 'tough month' in the nearly seven-year-old war. . . .

"'We're going to increase troops by 2009,' Bush said, without offering details about exactly when or how many."

But again, then came Mullen with a reality check.

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "The nation's top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency, but that the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the war in Iraq. . . .

"'I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,' Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon."

FISA Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge in California said Wednesday that the wiretapping law established by Congress was the 'exclusive' means for the president to eavesdrop on Americans, and he rejected the government's claim that the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief trumped that law.

"The judge, Vaughn R. Walker, the chief judge for the Northern District of California, made his findings in a Northern District of California ruling on a lawsuit brought by an Oregon charity. The group says it has evidence of an illegal wiretap used against it by the National Security Agency under the secret surveillance program established by President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

But as Bob Egelko writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, Walker actually dismissed the lawsuit, because a key document "remains a government secret and can't be used to prove that the onetime charity was affected by the surveillance program."

Transition Watch

Yochi J. Dreazen and Siobhan Gorman write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration and the two major presidential campaigns are beginning an unprecedented attempt to prevent the transfer of power in January from disrupting defense and counterterrorism efforts.

"The Obama and McCain campaigns are working to compile lists of potential nominees for dozens of national-security and counterterrorism positions so would-be policy makers can be vetted and confirmed as quickly as possible.

"Given the inevitable gaps, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked senior Pentagon officials to be prepared to stay in their jobs for the first few months of 2009. . . .

"The push reflects the challenges posed by the first wartime political transition in more than 40 years and fears of a possible terrorist strike or major crisis in Iraq or Afghanistan during the next president's first months in office."

Karl Rove Watch

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times that John McCain has put Steve Schmidt, who worked closely with Karl Rove, in charge of day-to-day campaign operations.

"The move of Mr. Schmidt is the latest sign of increasing influence of veterans of Mr. Rove's shop in the McCain operation. . . .

"Mr. Rove, who was Mr. Bush's senior political adviser until he left the White House last year, was said by Mr. McCain's advisers to have offered advice in recent days to Mr. Schmidt and others on how to get Mr. McCain's campaign on track, but has stayed mostly on the periphery. Mr. Rove is aware, his associates said, that his own legacy could be helped should Mr. McCain win the presidency."

You Call This a Strong Dollar?

Reuters reports that Bush "reiterated on Wednesday that his administration believed in a strong dollar, and said the currency would reflect the relative strength of the economy.

"'We're strong dollar people in this administration, and have always been for a strong dollar, and believe that the relative strengths of our economy will reflect that,' Bush told reporters at a news conference ahead of his trip to Japan for a meeting of the Group of Eight rich nations. . . .

"In an interview with Japanese reporters that Reuters attended, Bush said he had heard concerns in Europe about the dollar during a trip last month. 'I heard concern about our dollar and I believe they support the U.S. strong dollar policy,' Bush said. . . .

"'The best way to reinforce our strong dollar policy is to keep taxes low in the United States, ease regulatory burdens, become less dependent on foreign sources of oil and make it clear that we're for free and fair trade,' Bush told the Japanese journalists."

The "strong dollar" talk is arguably the most meaningless of all of Bush's mantras.

As James G. Neuger writes for Bloomberg: "The dollar's 41 percent drop against the euro during Bush's term writes the economic epitaph of an administration that set out to restore American preeminence."

The Japanese Interview

Here is the transcript of Bush's interview yesterday with Japanese journalists, in parts one, two, three, and four.

There wasn't a whole lot new. But Bush did offer insight into his odd notion that war is fundamentally about prevention and that law enforcement isn't, saying: "In terms of the war on terror, step one is to recognize we're at war. Some in our country don't believe we're at war. If you don't believe we're at war, that this is a simple law enforcement matter, then what you do is you wait until something happens and then react. You know, law enforcement is there is an action, there's a crime, and then there -- law enforcement acts.

"In war, what you do is you prevent the enemy from hitting in the first place. That's why Iraq and Afghanistan are very important theaters in the war on terror."

And after a bunch of questions about North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and climate change, Bush blurted out: "So -- is anybody going to ask me about Bobby Valentine? (Laughter.) You don't even know who Bobby Valentine is. He was the old coach of the Rangers who's a manager of one of the Japanese baseball teams, and he's done very well in Japan. People like Bobby, don't they?"

The Frivolous Ditherer

U.S. News reports: "Some of President Bush's allies tell the Political Bulletin they are embarrassed and angry that the White House seems to be wasting Bush's time on frivolous events when much of the country is suffering through economic hard times. 'Look at the schedule for Monday,' says an outside Bush adviser. 'A highlight of his day was witnessing a tee ball game. . . . He is being reduced to child's play.'"

Daniel Benjamin writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "Conventional wisdom holds that George W. Bush's foreign policy failed because the president -- who famously called himself 'the decider' -- is too, well, decisive. . . .

"But you can't fully comprehend the Bush record without understanding another Bush problem: a chronic failure to reach decisions or implement those that are made. On one key issue after another, from the Middle East to North Korea to the Department of Homeland Security, Bush has proven himself to be a dawdler, a foot-dragger who can't make fundamental choices or press his team to follow his commands. Call him the non-decider.

"This image of Bush the ditherer is obviously hard to reconcile with his long-cultivated image as a strong executive, a self-described 'gut player' with unyielding determination and unfailing clarity of purpose. . . .

"But as many veterans of the Bush administration have made clear, the president's CEO style has more to do with a fanatical punctuality (he once locked Powell, his first-term secretary of state, out of a Cabinet meeting because he was running late, according to McClellan) than true resolve. . . .

"For all his insistence on moral clarity, Bush has failed to bang heads and create clear policies."

Bush's Basement

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board writes: "Anyone who has moved out of a home knows the embarrassment of cleaning out the basement and the attic, hauling years of accumulated junk into the light of day, wondering why that sofa or lamp ever seemed like a good idea.

"As George W. Bush enters the last six months of his presidency, something similar is taking place on a larger stage. Hardly a day goes by that some dreadful policy, pronouncement or scandal doesn't resurface in comments by the presidential campaigns, or for long-delayed review by congressional committees, or in a book by some former staff member who suddenly has seen the light.

"There's a staggering amount of junk in this yard sale. Pity anyone who has to convince people to buy it."

Live Online

We had a lively Live Online yesterday. Come read the transcript.

Froomkin Watch

I'm off tomorrow -- and all next week. The column will resume on Monday, July 14. Happy Independence Day!

Cartoon Watch

But I leave you with a banner collection of political cartoons. John Sherffius on the Manchurian president; Daniel Wasserman on the torture techniques; Mike Luckovich on Bush as a loopy beagle; Walt Handelsman on McCain's Bush problem; Adam Zyglis on Bush's real benchmarks; Jim Morin and Steve Sack on the surge; Ann Cleaves on Cheney's dreams; Rob Rogers on the other Bush twins; Clay Bennett on the search for leadership; and Bob Gorrell on the Bush legasee.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive