Failure on Two Fronts

By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Bush administration is battling on two different fronts in the war on terrorism -- and it may be losing on both. It is trying everything it can think of -- even mobilizing the New York Times -- to prod Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, into action before it is too late. Meantime, it is searching in vain for a legal strategy to stop the federal courts from dismantling its effort to impose indefinite military detention on those it calls "enemy combatants."

On both fronts, time is running out. When President Bush decided in January to commit about 25,000 more troops to the war, his stated goal was to provide enough security in and around Baghdad that Maliki's struggling administration could become a functioning government.

That meant, according to Bush's benchmarks, a government that would move to disarm the sectarian militias and mobilize a national army, and a parliament that would amend the constitution, rehabilitate thousands of disenfranchised Sunnis, conduct promised local elections and -- most of all -- negotiate an equitable division of Iraq's oil revenue.

Now, with the military buildup complete and Congress expecting a full Iraq status report in September before it votes again on whether to continue U.S. efforts there, the inaction by Maliki and the parliament on almost all of these issues is drawing a frantic response from Bush.

Last Tuesday's Times contained a remarkable story at the top of Page 1. The headline was only mildly arresting: "U.S. Warns Iraq That Progress Is Needed Soon." The first three paragraphs described the message delivered to Maliki by Adm. William J. Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command: You need to make "tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress."

Then, in the fourth paragraph, came this shocker: "The admiral's appeal . . . was made in the presence of Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq . . . and this reporter" -- Pentagon correspondent Michael R. Gordon.

Later in the article, Gordon explained that he was allowed to sit in on the session, adding that "it was only at the end of the meeting that American officials agreed that it could be on the record."

Remarkable. Not only does the admiral invite the New York Times to what would normally be a private meeting, thus signaling to Maliki that the pressure will be publicized around the world, but then the American officials -- no reference to agreement on Maliki's part -- tell Gordon, "Go ahead and quote everybody directly on the record."

From an administration known for its secrecy, this deviation means only one thing: So desperate is the need to push Maliki into action that even the Times becomes a lever. But still Maliki balks, writing in the Wall Street Journal that Americans should understand from our own Civil War how deep the divisions within a country can be. What Maliki forgets is that President Abraham Lincoln raised his own army to battle the Confederate forces. He didn't ask the outside great powers to do the fighting for him.

While Iraq's government dithers and American troops die, the courts are sending Bush the message that indefinite military detention of supposed "enemy combatants" is a gross violation of the Constitution.

The latest such ruling came last week from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. A citizen of Qatar with a student visa to enroll at Bradley University, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, was arrested in Peoria, Ill., on charges of credit card fraud and lying to federal agents and was accused of being an al-Qaeda operative. But rather than trying him on those charges, the government transferred him to the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., and has held him there for four years.

The 2 to 1 majority opinion said, "To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the president calls them 'enemy combatants,' would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution -- and the country."

The Justice Department said it would appeal the ruling to the full 4th Circuit. But this is only the latest in a long series of legal setbacks to the Bush administration's effort since Sept. 11 to bypass the normal procedures for trying people and instead herd accused subversives into Guantanamo or other prisons without recourse to lawyers or courts.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the military tribunal system Bush had established to handle these cases, and other decisions have reaffirmed the prisoners' right to contest the evidence on which they are being held.

Republican presidential candidates -- most of whom have pledged to continue both Bush policies -- are on notice. They are betting on losing policies.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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