Bush's Strategic Drift

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 18, 2008; 12:38 PM

As we watch President Bush lurch about, trying to find the proper response to Russia's invasion of Georgia, it seems a good time to check in on the Bush Doctrine.

But good luck finding it.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In the last week, two major pillars of President Bush's approach to foreign policy have crumbled, jeopardizing eight years of work and sending the administration scrambling for new strategies in the waning months of its term.

"From the earliest days of his presidency, Bush had said spreading democracy was a centerpiece of his foreign policy. At the same time, he sought to develop a more productive relationship with Russia, seeking Moscow's cooperation on issues such as terrorism, Iran's nuclear program and expansion of global energy supplies.

"And in pursuing both these major goals, Bush relied heavily on developing what he saw as strong personal relationships with foreign leaders. . . .

"Efforts to create multiethnic, democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan have run into repeated difficulties. And the American push for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ended in victory for the radical group Hamas, complicating an already formidable task of reaching a Middle East peace accord. . . .

"'What freedom strategy?' asked David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of a report on Georgia. 'It is scorned worldwide. Afghanistan is backsliding. The bar has been set low in Iraq. Georgia is in ruins.'"

Jacob Weisberg wrote in January for Newsweek that five different Bush Doctrines have come and gone -- starting with "Unipolar Realism", switching to "With Us or Against Us" after 9/11, and eventually turning into "Freedom Everywhere" -- leaving us since late 2006 with the "absence of any functioning doctrine at all." In my July 21 column, I suggested that Bush's new doctrine is a mystery. Also see my July 10, 2006, column, Desperately Seeking Doctrine.

But perhaps there is a new doctrine of sorts. Maybe we should call it "Incompetence and Internal Warfare."

Helene Cooper, C.J. Chivers and Clifford J. Levy write in the New York Times about how back in April, "Mr. Bush went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, at the invitation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. There, he received a message from the Russian: the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia's 'red lines,' according to an administration official close to the talks.

"Afterward, Mr. Bush said of Mr. Putin, 'He's been very truthful and to me, that's the only way you can find common ground.' It was one of many moments when the United States seemed to have missed -- or gambled it could manage -- the depth of Russia's anger and the resolve of the Georgian president to provoke the Russians.

"The story of how a 16-year, low-grade conflict over who should rule two small, mountainous regions in the Caucasus erupted into the most serious post-cold-war showdown between the United States and Russia is one of miscalculation, missed signals and overreaching, according to interviews with diplomats and senior officials in the United States, the European Union, Russia and Georgia. In many cases, the officials would speak only on the condition of anonymity. . . .

"As with many foreign policy issues, this one highlighted a continuing fight within the administration. Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides and allies, who saw Georgia as a role model for their democracy promotion campaign, pushed to sell Georgia more arms, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles, so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.

"On the other side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and William J. Burns, the new under secretary of state for political affairs, argued that such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling in its turf, the officials and diplomats said."

Anne Gearan and Jennifer Loven write for the Associated Press: "There is blame to go around as the United States assesses the disastrous consequences of the war in Georgia.

"President Bush was overconfident. Georgia's pro-American President Mikhail Saakashvili overreached. And Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin overreacted.

"Now what? . . .

"[E]ven as the White House has concluded Moscow must pay further for an out-of-bounds war with U.S.-backed Georgia, it is worried now about going too far itself.

"The cost of overpunishing, Bush's advisers believe, could be to feed Russian grievance and encourage the very Cold War-style regional aggression the West decries. Bush advisers appeared startled over recent days at raw statements coming from Moscow that suggest many in the Kremlin still put a premium on maintaining or even expanding the square mileage under Moscow's control.

"An even bigger cost could be the cold shoulder from Moscow the next time the U.S. needs its help. . . .

"So with just five months left in office, the Bush White House has settled on an approach to punishing Moscow that would be intentionally low-profile. Bush advisers have concluded that anything perceived by Russia as a public humiliation would be counterproductive."

Here's what Bush had to say about Georgia on Saturday: "A major issue is Russia's contention that the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may not be a part of Georgia's future. But these regions are a part of Georgia, and the international community has repeatedly made clear that they will remain so. Georgia is a member of the United Nations, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia lie within its internationally recognized borders. Georgia's borders should command the same respect as every other nation's.

"There's no room for debate on this matter. . . .

"We will continue to stand behind Georgia's democracy; we will continue to insist that Georgia's sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity be respected."

And here's the Russian response. Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "American officials said the Russian military had been moving launchers for short-range ballistic missiles into South Ossetia, a step that appeared intended to tighten its hold on the breakaway territory."

The Hypocrisy Problem

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times from Cairo: "President Bush's condemnation of Russia as a bullying intimidator in the Georgian conflict struck a hypocritical note in a Middle East that has endured violent reverberations from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and where the sharp White House rhetoric against Moscow echoes what many Arabs feel in turn about the U.S.

"Many in the region are angered by what they see as the president's swaggering style and frequent veiled threats of military force. His administration has been accused of alienating Muslims and instigating turmoil in a misguided war on terrorism.

"Now Bush's spirited criticism of Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia has raised derisive smirks among Arab commentators, who say the U.S. president is condemning the same power politics he practices. . . .

"It is also widely noted here that Washington stood by uncritically during Israel's military incursion into southern Lebanon in its 2006 war with Hezbollah."

Criticism From the Right Flank

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Every once in a while, the White House sends out a blast e-mail titled 'Setting the Record Straight,' usually taking issue with a press report or criticism that the Bush administration finds wanting. The targets are often news organizations that conservatives consider part of the hated liberal media, such as recent missives against the New York Times and NBC News.

"So it had to mark some sort of watershed last week when Bush's press office sent out its latest e-mail complaint-- this time directed at that leftist bastion, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. . . .

"The sharp response from the White House underscored a growing public relations problem facing President Bush during his last months in office: A lot of conservatives are increasingly unhappy with him, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs. For a president already burdened with approval ratings well below 30 percent, this is not welcome news."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush's father deftly managed the Soviet Union's dissolution. President Bill Clinton did a poorer job managing Russia's post-cold-war decline and Mr. Bush has done even worse managing its resurgence.

"After criticizing Mr. Clinton for placing too much faith in Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Bush has placed far too much faith in Vladimir Putin. Mr. Bush and the Europeans have willfully looked the other way as Mr. Putin, the president-turned-prime minister, throttled a free press, jailed political rivals and used Russia's oil and gas riches to blackmail neighbors.

"At the same time, Mr. Bush has turned a deaf ear to Russia's growing list of grievances -- many of them illegitimate, but not all. . . .

"Mr. Bush is bequeathing his successor a world of troubles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan. The next president will also have to deal with a resurgent and increasingly hostile Russia. We believe that skeptical engagement is the best course."

Clive Crook writes in the Financial Times: "So far, reaction in the US to Russia's invasion of Georgia has been all Vladimir Putin could have wished. Exhausted in every way by its experience in Iraq (a failure not much mitigated by recent progress there), its authority and sense of purpose quite depleted, the US looked slower and less decisive than Europe in its initial response, and that is saying something.

"It took repeated prodding from presidential contender John McCain to draw President George W. Bush's attention from the Beijing Olympics to the fact that Russian forces were overrunning the territory of a US ally. Then, as the White House slowly geared up its rhetoric, dispatched the secretary of state to Tbilisi and began talking vaguely of repercussions, both the administration and the goading Mr McCain were accused of war-mongering hysteria by liberal commentators and even by some conservatives.

"It is easy to account for this lassitude and lack of self-confidence. The US feels anything but strong these days. Iraq has strained its armed forces to such a point that it cannot commit adequate resources even to its struggle to stabilise Afghanistan, which would otherwise be an immediate and high priority. Aside from the human cost of the Iraq mission, Americans are also preoccupied with its enormous fiscal burden. . . .

"Even more telling, though, is the erosion of its moral assurance and sense of purpose in the world."

Christopher Dickey writes for Newsweek: "Having done so much to sap American economic and military strength and diminish its own diplomatic credibility over the last seven years, the White House now finds itself peculiarly vulnerable to the one-upmanship of its defiance-driven friends, who cannot win wars by themselves, but can start fights that Washington may feel it has to finish. Today that risk is front and center in the Caucasus. Tomorrow the same sort of situation could be created in the Middle East, where a defiant Iran is squared off against a defiant Israel. If the Israelis decide it's time to start bombing Iran's nuclear installations, whether or not the U.S. is consulted beforehand, it will wind up at war."

A Cheney Conspiracy?

Charles Bremner writes in Friday's Times of London: "Russians were told over breakfast yesterday what really happened in Georgia: the conflict in South Ossetia was part of a plot by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, to stop Barack Obama being elected president of the United States.

"The line came on the main news of Vesti FM, a state radio station that -- like the Government and much of Russia's media -- has reverted to the old habits of Soviet years, in which a sinister American hand was held to lie behind every conflict, especially those embarrassing to Moscow. . . .

"The Obama angle is getting wide play. It was aired on Wednesday by Sergei Markov, a senior political scientist who is close to Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister and power behind President Medvedev.

"'George Bush's Administration is promoting interests of candidate John McCain,' said Dr Markov. 'Defeated by Barack Obama on all fronts, McCain has one last card to play yet - the creation of a virtual Cold War with Russia.'"

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune: "In an age when Russia tries to show itself as a democracy free from the shackles of the Soviet mind-set, it had all the markings of Kremlin propaganda. . . .

"'Some may read this article and call it a conspiracy theory,' Markov wrote. 'Yes, there is a conspiracy. It's a conspiracy by the neocons with the aim of retaining their control over the world's leading country and carrying out their plan to establish global hegemony."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "Cheney's office, sadly, declined to respond to this assertion, saying it did not merit a response."

Another Bush Ally Bites the Dust

Zeeshan Haider writes for Reuters: "Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf quit office on Monday to avoid impeachment charges, nearly nine years after the key U.S. ally in its campaign against terrorism took power in a coup."

Candace Rondeaux writes for The Washington Post that up until the very end, Musharraf "continued to draw on his strong ties to the Bush Administration to head off the threat of his ouster.

"His personal relationship with President Bush in many ways defined the state of diplomacy between Pakistan and the U.S. for many years, said Shuja Nawaz, a Washington-based Pakistani defense analyst. The two men seemed to share a similar belief in a strong presidency and penchant for bold action, characteristics that sometimes fueled heavy criticism both at home and abroad. 'The Bush-Musharraf relationship really was key to the whole history of Pakistan over the last eight or nine years,' Nawaz said. 'It was very personalized diplomacy and it was buttressed by a hefty dose of backing from Vice President Cheney's office. It created an over-reliance on one personality rather than a system."

Jane Perlez writes in the New York Times that "though Mr. Musharraf forged a personal bond with President Bush, the Pakistani general proved to be a tough, frustrating customer for the United States. . . .

"'Musharraf continued to provide cover to the Taliban, but still managed to convince the Americans for many years that it was not a double game,' said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on the Taliban and the author of 'Descent into Chaos,' a book that details the relationship between Mr. Musharraf and Washington. 'It was a remarkable feat of balancing on the tightrope.'

"The feat was so skilful that Mr. Musharraf won more than $10 billion in American military assistance for his army, as well as unannounced covert aid. About half the military aid was supposed to be spent on bolstering the counter-insurgency skills of the Pakistani army.

"Much of that money never reached the military and was allocated instead to Pakistan's general budget, but the Bush administration was so anxious to keep Mr. Musharraf as an ally it chose not to complain, according to a congressional investigation this year."

For more background, see my February 19 column, Bush's BFF Going Down.

Spying Watch

Spencer S. Hsu and Carrie Johnson write in The Washington Post: "The Justice Department has proposed a new domestic spying measure that would make it easier for state and local police to collect intelligence about Americans, share the sensitive data with federal agencies and retain it for at least 10 years.

"The proposed changes would revise the federal government's rules for police intelligence-gathering for the first time since 1993 and would apply to any of the nation's 18,000 state and local police agencies that receive roughly $1.6 billion each year in federal grants.

"Quietly unveiled late last month, the proposal is part of a flurry of domestic intelligence changes issued and planned by the Bush administration in its waning months. They include a recent executive order that guides the reorganization of federal spy agencies and a pending Justice Department overhaul of FBI procedures for gathering intelligence and investigating terrorism cases within U.S. borders.

"Taken together, critics in Congress and elsewhere say, the moves are intended to lock in policies for Bush's successor and to enshrine controversial post-Sept. 11 approaches that some say have fed the greatest expansion of executive authority since the Watergate era. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the administration agrees that it needs to do everything possible to prevent unwarranted encroachments on civil liberties, adding that it succeeds the overwhelming majority of the time. . . .

"Critics say preemptive law enforcement in the absence of a crime can violate the Constitution and due process. They cite the administration's long-running warrantless-surveillance program, which was set up outside the courts, and the FBI's acknowledgment that it abused its intelligence-gathering privileges in hundreds of cases by using inadequately documented administrative orders to obtain telephone, e-mail, financial and other personal records of U.S. citizens without warrants."

Last-Minute Shenanigans

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "The countdown to January has begun, and the Bush administration is starting to roll out a long, foul list of last-minute policy changes. If its proposal to gut the Endangered Species Act is any indication of what it has in mind, we all have cause to be frightened of the next several months. . . .

"Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works committee, called the proposed changes illegal. If the Bush administration manages to ram this through, we urge her to make sure that reversing it is one of her top priorities as soon as a new administration takes office.

"Unfortunately, we fear that Boxer - and the rest of Congress - will have a lot to clean up once January comes around. If this proposal is any indication of what the Bush administration has in mind for its last-minute list, the next several months are going to bring a lot of pain for the environment, for animals, and for humans, too."

The Fresno Bee editorial board writes: "As the sun sets on any White House, its occupants are inclined to engineer some midnight surprises.

"These are administrative changes the president failed to enact earlier, either because of resistance by Congress or other political considerations.

"President Bush is now providing a preview of the kind of environmental rollbacks that will mark his final days in office. . . .

"Get ready for other midnight surprises. The clock is ticking on Bush's presidency, and right now, it's only 11 p.m."

The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot editorial board writes: "Generally speaking, it is a very bad idea to enlist hungry foxes to guard the chickens, since they rarely have the birds' best interests at heart. In the waning days of this White House, doing so is called 'streamlining,' presumably because it gets food into the foxes faster."

Subpoena Watch

The House Judiciary Committee has sent a federal judge its response to the continued refusal by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to cooperate with Congress. (See my August 8 column, Foot-Dragging to the Finish.)

The committee writes that it opposes any further delay on the following grounds: "(1) Ms. Miers's claim of absolute immunity has no likelihood of success on appeal because it is baseless and contrary to Supreme Court precedent, and was thoroughly and irrefutably rejected by the Court; . . . (3) Defendants suffer no harm, let alone irreparable harm, from (a) appearing at a congressional hearing or (b) producing non-privileged documents and descriptions of the documents they seek to withhold on the basis of executive privilege; (4) the Committee will suffer considerable harm as a result of the Executive Branch's delaying tactics, which virtually assure that the Committee's investigation into the forced resignations in mid-Administration of nine United States Attorneys in 2006 will not be completed until after the 110th Congress has concluded and the current Administration has left office in January 2009."

Helen Thomas Watch

A new documentary, " Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House," airs tonight on HBO.

Julie Hinds writes in the Detroit Free Press that Thomas "has been asking presidents the tough questions for half a century. . . .

"'The thing about Helen is she's asking the questions that we the public want to know the answers to,' says the film's director, Rory Kennedy, a niece of John F. Kennedy (the first president Thomas covered) and the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

"'If nobody is asking those questions, we don't get the answers. These journalists are in a position to hold the president accountable. When they don't do their job or when the White House doesn't respond to those questions, it, I think, limits our democracy in ways that are scary.'"

Susan Stewart writes in the New York Times: "Now 88 and still a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, Ms. Thomas is too combative to be viewed as a national treasure and too feisty to be nostalgic. . . . Ms. Thomas's memories of the presidents she has covered are all the more fascinating for not being rose-tinted."

Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales takes issue with the portrait and its subject: "What's disappointing about Thomas, and troubling about the film, is her stridency in criticizing Israel and defending its enemies. Other than a passing reference to Thomas's parents as having been Syrian immigrants, the film never hints at Thomas's anti-Israeli rhetoric. . . .

"Especially during the current administration, her 'questions' at press briefings have been more like tirades, on one occasion prompting Tony Snow, the late journalist who was then press secretary, to respond, 'Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.' This would have been a pertinent and amusing clip to include in the film."

But that episode was widely considered an example of Snow's sometimes unbounded pugnacity, rather than of Thomas's stridency. The transcript from that day shows that Snow's comment came after Thomas legitimately pushed back on his preposterous assertion that the U.S. had called for Israeli restraint during that country's massive bombings of Lebanese targets, many of them civilian.

Jesse Ellison interviews Thomas for Newsweek and asks: "You said that Bush is the worst president in American history. Do you still believe that?"

Thomas replies: "I've seen nothing to retract my statement."

Jon Stewart Watch

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Stewart has said he is looking forward to the end of the Bush administration 'as a comedian, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.'"

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett on Bush's diplomatic strategy, Steve Sack on Bush's busted beacons, Bruce Plante on Bush's trick question, Jeff Danziger on the war president's warning, Dwane Powell on the Bush-Putin admiration society, John Sherffius on the Goons of August, Chip Bok on Bush's narrow escape, Pat Bagley on Bush's environmental strategy, and Lee Judge on the Bush memorial.

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