Triumphalism Amid the Wreckage

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 8, 2008; 1:26 PM

The public has rejected him. The nation is in crisis -- and eager for the massive course corrections promised by an Obama presidency. But none of this appears to have penetrated President Bush's well-defended brainpan.

The president who promised to sprint to the finish is denying reality until the bitter end -- celebrating all his great successes in a continuing series of farewell speeches and interviews.

Dan Eggen writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "After a year of relentless criticism from both parties, the departing president has embarked on a valedictory tour, touting his record in television interviews and public appearances while admitting, with some hesitation, that things did not always go as planned.

"Bush asserts success in combating AIDS in Africa, preventing new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and snatching a measure of victory in Iraq. And in a speech on the Middle East yesterday, the president sketched out a strikingly optimistic portrait of a region that has embroiled the United States in war and conflict for the past eight years. . . .

"For Bush, to be unyielding is a matter of principle. 'The thing that's important for me is to get home and look in that mirror and say, "I did not compromise my principles," ' Bush said in an interview with ABC News. 'And I didn't. I made tough calls. And some presidencies have got a lot of tough decisions to make.' . . .

"About two months ago, White House counselor Ed Gillespie began meeting with agency heads as part of an effort aimed at compiling the major accomplishments of the Bush administration.

"The campaign so far has included a series of television interviews, speeches and other appearances in recent weeks focused on some of Bush's favorite programs, such as initiatives to provide HIV/AIDS medicine to the developing world and to include faith-based groups in federal assistance programs."

Bush sat down with National Review editors and writers in the Oval Office on Friday. Byron York and Rich Lowry write that "during the interview -- which the president compared to doing 'jumping jacks for my own book that I'm going to be writing' -- Bush strongly defended his decision to go to war in Iraq; argued that the U.S. has better relations with many foreign nations than ever before; said he is certain that Harriet Miers would have been a great Supreme Court justice; defended his failed effort to reform Social Security; and, finally, expressed concern over Barack Obama's reported intention to undo Bush policies on, among other things, stem-cell research and missile defense."

Bush ducked even a friendly attempt to get him to say whether or not he would invaded Iraq had he known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. A president doesn't "get an opportunity to redo a decision," Bush said.

As for the future of the Republican party, York and Lowry note that "the president conceded that his eight years in office have sometimes been tough for conservatives, but said his philosophy of 'compassionate conservatism' is still the guiding belief of a majority of Americans."

But here is Bush's odd new definition of that term: "Compassionate conservatism basically says that if you implement this philosophy, your life would become better. That's what it says. And that's what it's all about. It's saying to the average person, this philosophy will help you make your life better. It's the proper use of government to enable a hopeful society to develop based upon your talents and your success."

About That Intel

The New York Times editorial board writes on Sunday: "We long ago gave up hope that President Bush would acknowledge his many mistakes, or show he had learned anything from them. Even then we were unprepared for the epic denial that Mr. Bush displayed in his interview with ABC News's Charles Gibson the other day, which he presumably considered an important valedictory chat with the American public as well. . . .

"It was skin crawling to hear him tell Mr. Gibson that the thing he will really miss when he leaves office is no longer going to see the families of slain soldiers, because they make him feel better about the war. But Mr. Bush's comments about his decision to invade Iraq were a 'mistakes were made' rewriting of history and a refusal to accept responsibility to rival that of Richard Nixon. . . .

"After everything the American public and the world have learned about how Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated Congress, public opinion and anyone else they could bully or lie to, Mr. Bush is still acting as though he decided to invade Iraq after suddenly being handed life and death information on Saddam Hussein's arsenal.

"The truth is that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been chafing to attack Iraq before Sept. 11, 2001. They justified that unnecessary war using intelligence reports that they knew or should have known to be faulty. And it was pressure from the White House and a highly politicized Pentagon that compelled people like Secretary of State Colin Powell and George Tenet, the Central Intelligence director, to ignore the counter-evidence and squander their good names on hyped claims of weapons of mass destruction.

"Despite it all, Mr. Bush said he will 'leave the presidency with my head held high.' And, presumably, with his eyes closed to all the disasters he is dumping on the American people and his successor."

The editorial earned a rare response from national security adviser Steve Hadley, who issued a statement today criticizing the Times for "expressing inaccurate and incomplete statements on pre-war intelligence and the war in Iraq.

"While the President has repeatedly acknowledged the mistakes in the pre-war intelligence, there is no support for the Times' claim that the President and his national security team 'knew or should have known [the intelligence] to be faulty' or that 'pressure from the White House' led to particular conclusions. Nothing in the many inquiries conducted into these matters supports the view of the Times' Editorial Board. . . .

"While Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he was a threat, and his removal has opened the door to a democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East that is an ally of the United States."

Middle East Revisionism

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times: "In a sweeping defense of his record, President Bush asserted Friday that his administration is leaving the Middle East a 'freer, more hopeful and more promising place' than when he took office.

"Bush said his administration is close to success in Iraq, has moved to counter Iran's nuclear program, and has 'laid a foundation of trust' between Israelis and Palestinians.

"'At long last, the Middle East is closing a chapter of darkness and fear, and opening one written in the language of possibility and hope,' Bush said in remarks to the Saban Forum in Washington. . . .

"The assessment comes six weeks from the end of a presidency that Bush's team would like to portray as more successful than widely believed. But some experts don't share Bush's optimism.

"'The net effect is an impression left by the Bush administration that the United States is unable to deliver and that when it tries, it tends to make matters worse,' wrote two experts, Martin S. Indyk, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a book released before the forum that Bush addressed.

"The two veteran diplomats wrote that the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama confronts a perilous situation in the Middle East.

"'Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability and regional dominance, a strained U.S. military tied down in Iraq, a war that is going badly in Afghanistan, hostility toward U.S. involvement in the region -- all create a dangerous, complicated and urgent policy environment,' they wrote."

In an interview on Friday with Nadia Bilbassy-Charters of Saudi-owned MBC TV, Bush once again refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. Quite the contrary.

When Bilbassy-Charters asked if he'd had any second thoughts, Bush replied: "I'm sure there will be. I mean, there's been some disappointments."

Q. "Like what?"

Bush: "Well, like, Abu Ghraib was a terrible disappointment. And admittedly, I wasn't there on the site, but I was the Commander-in-Chief of a military where these disgraceful acts took place that sent the absolute wrong image about America and our military.

"You know, parts of Iraq -- it's taken longer than I thought it would. On the other hand, I am pleased to see a multiethnic society begin to emerge. I talked to the leaders of Iraq yesterday and today and congratulated them on doing some hard work. And I love to hear their spirit in their voice.

"And so I'm confident history will say, oh, Bush could have done it better here, or, Bush could have done it better there. But I think from the strategic point of view, I'm confident that the idea of moving liberty in the region, a two-state solution to help the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the liberation of Iraq, and the follow-up with -- to help the Iraqis realize their sovereignty -- a strong push-back against Iran -- I believe when people objectively analyze this administration, they'll say, well, I see now what he was trying to do."

Asked if the Iraq war could have been averted, Bush replied: "We tried to avert it. I know people say, oh, George Bush likes to use the military. . . .

"I firmly believe the choice was Saddam Hussein's to make, and he made a fateful choice. . . . "

Q. "Was it worth it?"

Bush: "Absolutely. I believe a Middle East with Saddam Hussein in power today would be different, much different than the one today. I think you'd see a man with a lot of oil wealth willing to use terrorist connections to try to compete, for example, with Hezbollah. . . . "

Q. "But some say, sir, that the removal of Saddam Hussein has bolstered Iran and make emergent as a regional superpower."

Bush: "I disagree completely with that. I think the emergence of a democratic and stable Iraq on Iran's border is in the -- will help more likely keep the peace vis-à-vis Iran in the Middle East. . . . "

Q. "How would you like the people in the Middle East to remember you?"

Bush: "I would hope they would remember me as George W. Bush, as a man who respects their religion, respects human rights and human dignity, and prays for peace."

And Don't Forget We've Nearly Won in Iraq

Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush said the war in Iraq is entering a 'new stage' now that the country has approved a security agreement that gives American forces three years to leave the country."

Here's Bush's Saturday radio address: "The American people have sacrificed a great deal to reach this moment. The battle in Iraq has required a large amount of time and a large amount of money. Our men and women in uniform have carried out difficult and dangerous missions and endured long separations from friends and family. And thousands of our finest citizens have given their lives to make our country safer and bring us to this new day. The war in Iraq is not yet over -- but thanks to these agreements and the courage of our men and women in Iraq, it is decisively on its way to being won."

As for Afghanistan

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is preparing to present President-elect Barack Obama with a lengthy, classified strategy review aimed at reversing the gains that militants have made in destabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. . . .

"'We've gone seven long years proclaiming that Pakistan was an ally and that it was doing everything we asked in the war on terror,' said one senior official involved in drafting the report. 'And the truth is that $10 billion later, they still don't have the basic capacity for counterinsurgency operations. What we are telling Obama and his people is that has to be reversed.' . . .

"As recently as 2006, Mr. Bush would speak regularly of eventual 'victory' in Afghanistan, as he did in Iraq. He is leaving office declaring that the so-called military surge in Iraq was successful, and with a status of forces agreement that calls for the withdrawal of the bulk of the American force over the next two years. But he has said little about Afghanistan, where the fighting has worsened, and the strategy review was premised on intelligence assessments that said that the United States was not losing the war, but was in danger of losing ground."

The Bush Loyalists

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that for "some of the longtime Bushies, it was the recount -- and all it meant in the tumultuous weeks following the 2000 election -- that set the tone for a presidency that was challenged before it began."

Bush political guru Karl Rove was among those Herman interviewed. "Much of Washington, Rove said, never accepted Bush as a legitimate president and 'acted accordingly.' . . .

"From the Colorado vacation home that Bush's career helped him purchase, longtime adviser Mark McKinnon also talks about how things turned out. . . .

"'It was a different world then,' he said. 'It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, and there were things on the agenda -- the compassionate conservatism agenda -- that we thought would make for a very domestic-focused presidency.'

"'External events intervened, starting with the recount,' McKinnon said."

Herman concludes: "For now, that's the Bushies' story, and they're sticking to it."

And Rove, astonishingly, sees the Valerie Plame case as a vindication: "Rove also blames Washington partisanship for the scandals and subpoenas embedded in the Bush legacy, including leaks involving a clandestine CIA agent's identity.

"He offered himself as an example.

"'You'll notice there was outrage when it was thought that I was the person behind outing Valerie Plame. And then when it came out that it was the sainted (Deputy Secretary of State) Richard Armitage, there was no interest. I don't remember seeing anybody camped out on his doorstep like they were camped out on mine. (It's) because he was part of the acceptable culture of Washington, and I was not. I was one of those Texans who came up. He was one of those perpetual I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you'll-scratch-mine Washington leakers,' Rove vented."

In fact, Rove was involved. And not only did he initially lie about his involvement, but the whole case was a microcosm of much that was wrong with the way the Bush White House did business.

After reading Herman's article, Wayne Slater blogs for the Dallas News: "As governor, George W. Bush focused like a laser on he idea of personal responsibility. It was a tenet in the political messaging that Karl Rove designed in his successful campaigns. Everybody needs to take responsibility for their actions, Bush would say. Now that the president is nearing the end of his tenure, Rove has another message: Bush's failures were everybody else's fault."

Obama Attacks

Anne E. Kornblut writes in The Washington Post: "In a transition that has emphasized continuity and harmony with the outgoing president, there were glimmers of tension yesterday, as Obama not only criticized the administration's efforts on mortgages but also tapped for his Cabinet retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who had sparred with President Bush's top Pentagon officials over the Iraq war strategy."

Let's start with Shinseki, a walking symbol of Bush's failure to properly plan for the occupation of Iraq.

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "President-elect Barack Obama has chosen retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki to be the next Veterans Affairs secretary, turning to a former Army chief of staff once vilified by the Bush administration for questioning its Iraq war strategy. . . .

"Shinseki's tenure as Army chief of staff from 1999 to 2003 was marked by constant tensions with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which boiled over in 2003 when Shinseki testified to Congress that it might take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to control Iraq after the invasion.

"Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, belittled the estimate as 'wildly off the mark' and the general was marginalized and later retired from the Army. . . .

"Shinseki, 66, is slated to take the helm of the government's second largest agency, which was roundly criticized during the Bush administration for underestimating the amount of funding needed to treat thousands of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Thousands of veterans currently endure six-month waits for disability benefits, despite promises by current VA Secretary James Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson, to reduce delays. The department also is scrambling to upgrade government technology systems before new legislation providing for millions of dollars in new GI benefits takes effect next August."

In his announcement of the Shinseki nomination, Obama said: "[W]e don't just need to better serve veterans of today's wars. We also need to build a 21st Century VA that will better serve all who have answered our nation's call. That means cutting red tape and easing transition into civilian life. And it means eliminating shortfalls, fully funding VA health care, and providing the benefits our veterans have earned."

As for Shinseki, Obama said: "No one will ever doubt that this former Army Chief of Staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need."

The White House responded with a "fact sheet" insisting that the Bush administration has "provided unprecedented support for our veterans."

As for Obama's critique of Bush's housing policies, William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Criticizing the White House directly for the first time since November's election, President-Elect Barack Obama Sunday accused President Bush of not doing enough to stem the nation's home foreclosure crisis.

"Obama vowed that it if the Bush administration doesn't take sufficient steps to help reduce foreclosures in its remaining days in office, he would take action shortly after being sworn in as the nation's 44th president on Jan. 20, 2009.

"'I'm disappointed that we have not seen quicker movement on this issue by the administration,' Obama told Tom Brokaw on NBC's 'Meet the Press.' 'We have said publicly and privately that we want to see a package that helps homeowners, not just because its good for that particular homeowner, it's good for the community.'"

Obama's Big Plan

Peter Baker and John M. Broder write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama promised Saturday to create the largest public works construction program since the inception of the interstate highway system a half century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy.

"With jobs evaporating and the recession deepening, Mr. Obama began highlighting elements of the economic recovery program he is trying to fashion with Congressional leaders in hopes of being able to enact it shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20. His address on Saturday followed the report on Friday indicating that the country lost 533,000 jobs in November alone, bringing the total number of jobs lost over the past year to nearly 2 million.

"Mr. Obama's remarks showcased his ambition to expand the definition of traditional work programs for the middle class, like infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges, to include new-era jobs in technology and so-called green jobs that reduce energy use and global warming emissions. 'We need action -- and action now,' Mr. Obama said in an address broadcast Saturday morning on radio and YouTube."

Still Effective

Bush's particular brand of obstinacy means he still sometimes gets his way.

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal: "In the standoff between the lame-duck Republican president and an ascendant Democratic speaker of the House, an odd thing happened: The president won.

"The Detroit rescue package being negotiated by congressional leaders is coming together in defiance of the prevailing political winds, representing a rare concession by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and showing that even a weakened president can make an impact at the tail end of his administration.

"For weeks, President George W. Bush stood his ground, demanding that any rescue of the Detroit auto makers be financed by $25 billion in already-approved loans intended to help the industry meet higher fuel-economy standards. Mr. Bush essentially won that argument Friday, when Rep. Pelosi, who had wanted to tap the $700 billion pool created to calm financial markets, backed down.

"A House Democratic leadership aide said the decision to bend on the funding issue reflected 'pragmatism' on the part of the speaker. 'No one was prepared to place at risk the economic security of millions of Americans who work in and are dependent on the auto industry,' the aide said."

Bush's Weekend

Brett Zongker writes for the Associated Press: "Barbra Streisand got an awkward kiss on the cheek from the president, and yes, she gave him a smooch back.

"Streisand, a vocal critic of President George W. Bush, was a guest Sunday at the White House just before one of Washington's few A-list events: the Kennedy Center Honors.

"'Art transcends politics this weekend,' the longtime Democrat said beforehand. Still, she said it would have been 'lovely' if she could have received the award while President-elect Barack Obama was in office."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that Bush "playfully kicked a football and presided over the pre-game coin toss on Saturday as he basked in the pageantry of the annual Army-Navy game, one of the sport's most storied rivalries.

"The crowd at Lincoln Financial Field let out hearty cheers of 'USA, USA' as Bush made his way to midfield for the ceremonial coin toss, which Army won. At about the 30 yard-line he saw a football on tee from the warm-ups, took a few steps and just gave it a boot, almost 15 yards worth. . . .

"Earlier in the day, Bush got a look at how history will remember him -- at least in one artist's view -- as he presided over the unveiling of his portrait at a private club.

"'Welcome to my hanging,' Bush said, drawing laughs from the well-dressed audience in The Union League's ornate hall.

"The portrait shows Bush staring straight ahead, looking comfortable but not quite smiling, against the backdrop of the White House's Treaty Room."

Cartoon Watch

Don Wright on Bush's legacy revisions, Joel Pett on what Bush will miss, Ann Telnaes on Bush's official portrait, Tom Toles on Obama's challenge, and Kevin Kallaugher on the interregnum.

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