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What's the Plan?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 28, 2005 6:33 PM

President Bush does have a plan for withdrawing troops in Iraq -- and pretty much everyone agrees with it, the White House insisted yesterday.

It's just that they won't say exactly what that plan is.

The White House's latest positioning on this issue came in response to an op-ed in The Washington Post on Saturday by Sen. Joseph R. Biden , the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, headlined "Time for An Iraq Timetable."

Biden wrote: "The president must set a schedule for getting Iraqi forces trained to the point that they can act on their own or take the lead with U.S. help."

His proposal: "Over the next six months, we must forge a sustainable political compromise between Iraqi factions, strengthen the Iraqi government and bolster reconstruction efforts, and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces."

And he concluded: "If the administration shows it has a blueprint for protecting our fundamental security interests in Iraq, Americans will support it."

The White House's new rapid-response team quickly fired out a press release in which Scott McClellan asserted that "There is a strong consensus building in Washington in favor of President Bush's strategy for victory in Iraq."

In fact, McClellan insisted that Biden had just "described a plan remarkably similar to the Administration's plan to fight and win the war on terror."

But the White House press release neglected to even address Biden's central point about timetables and provided no new details, not to mention a blueprint. Up until now, the president hasn't done much more than repeat: " As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down ."

Emerging Signs

Reporters are reading tea leaves -- and looking expectantly toward a presidential speech scheduled for Wednesday -- in an effort to determine just what his exit strategy is.

Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall write in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "Even as debate over the Iraq war continues to rage, signs are emerging of a convergence of opinion on how the Bush administration might begin to exit the conflict.

"In a departure from previous statements, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that the training of Iraqi soldiers had advanced so far that the current number of U.S. troops in the country probably would not be needed much longer.

"President Bush will give a major speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in which aides say he is expected to herald the improved readiness of Iraqi troops, which he has identified as the key condition for pulling out U.S. forces.

"The administration's pivot on the issue comes as the White House is seeking to relieve enormous pressure by war opponents. The camp includes liberals, moderates and old-line conservatives who are uneasy with the costly and uncertain nation-building effort.

"It also follows agreement this week among Iraqi politicians that the U.S. troop presence ought to decrease. Meeting in Cairo, representatives of the three major ethnic and religious groups called for a U.S. withdrawal and recognized Iraqis' 'legitimate right of resistance' to foreign occupation. In private conversations, Iraqi officials discussed a possible two-year withdrawal period, analysts said."

David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush is scheduled to give a speech in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday assessing progress both in Iraq and in what he calls the broader war on terrorism, and several officials said he was expected to contend that the Iraqi forces have made great progress. But as it has been for the past two and a half years, it is unclear exactly what measuring sticks he is using, and whether they present the full picture. . . .

"White House aides insist that Mr. Bush is as determined as he sounds not to withdraw troops prematurely. They say he will begin examining the timing of a draw-down after he sees the outcome of the Dec. 15 election in Iraq.

"But it is also clear that Mr. Bush is under new pressure to begin showing that troop reductions are under way before the midterm Congressional elections next year. . . .

" 'We've moved from "if" to "how fast," ' said one former aide with close ties to the National Security Council. He said officials in the Bush White House were already actively reviewing possible plans under which 40,000 to 50,000 troops or more could be recalled next year if 'a plausible case could be made' that a significant number of Iraqi battalions could hold their own."

Newsweek's Take

Michael Hirsh, Scott Johnson and Kevin Peraino write in Newsweek on what appears to be the "new approach" for withdrawing from Iraq -- "the result of long negotiations between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, commander of the Multinational Forces. Their overall strategy: on the military side, 'clear, hold and build' while training up Iraqi forces; on the political side, wean Sunni leaders from their support of the insurgency, buying them off with incentives tribe by tribe and village by village; and on the U.S. domestic front, appease rising outcries for withdrawal by reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq to under 100,000 troops -- hopefully by midterm Election Day 2006. 'There is an idea that there is no plan, and we believe we do have a plan,' Khalilzad told Newsweek. 'We've worked very hard in the last four months to come up with a plan, and we're talking about how to communicate that more effectively to the Congress.' . . .

"Under the Pentagon's plans, U.S. numbers are to be reduced back to about 138,000 by the new year (troop totals are now edging up to 160,000 leading into the December election). Then, under what the Pentagon calls a 'moderately optimistic' scenario -- but the one it considers most likely -- 20,000 to 30,000 more troops would come out by mid-2006, with a further goal of phasing down the U.S. presence to 80,000 to 100,000 by 'late next year.' . . .

"To secure the country with so few troops, Khalilzad and Casey have had to swallow their pride. They are making compromises with Sunni supporters of the insurgency that would have been unthinkable a year ago. President Bush is also doing what he has been loath to do: asking neighboring countries for help, even the rabid anti-American Islamists in Tehran. Khalilzad revealed to Newsweek that he has received explicit permission from Bush to begin a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, which has meddled politically in Iraq. 'I've been authorized by the president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan directly,' says Khalilzad. 'There will be meetings, and that's also a departure and an adjustment.' "

But Hirsh, Johnson and Peraino note that a "major hurdle for the Bush administration is that old Vietnam-era bugaboo, credibility. Why, after two years of positive assessments that turned out wrong, should the American public stick with the president now? For too long Pentagon officials have also recklessly inflated figures on Iraqi readiness."

The Return of Air Power

And Seymour M. Hersh writes in the New Yorker that the key to Bush's plan is to get American troops out of harm's way -- but keep fighting the war from the air.

"A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what. . . .

"Within the military, the prospect of using airpower as a substitute for American troops on the ground has caused great unease. For one thing, Air Force commanders, in particular, have deep-seated objections to the possibility that Iraqis eventually will be responsible for target selection. 'Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame someone else?' another senior military planner now on assignment in the Pentagon asked. 'Will some Iraqis be targeting on behalf of Al Qaeda, or the insurgency, or the Iranians?' . . .

"The Air Force's worries have been subordinated, so far, to the political needs of the White House. The Administration's immediate political goal after the December elections is to show that the day-to-day conduct of the war can be turned over to the newly trained and equipped Iraqi military. It has already planned heavily scripted change-of-command ceremonies, complete with the lowering of American flags at bases and the raising of Iraqi ones."

A Call to Be More Forthcoming

Alan C. Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Amid declining public support for the war in Iraq, two prominent Republican senators urged President Bush on Sunday to be more forthcoming about the increasingly costly and uncertain effort to defeat the insurgency and establish a self-sufficient democracy.

" 'We want to hear from the administration,' said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. 'We want more co-option of the Congress by the administration so that we're on the same wavelength.'

"Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Bush should provide a detailed status report to the American public."

On NBC's " Meet the Press ," Warner suggested that Bush use FDR-style "fireside chats" to update the public on progress in the war in Iraq.

No Worries?

Two new reports are out suggesting that President Bush -- never one to encourage dissent -- is less interested than ever in listening to facts that conflict with his fervently held views.

Hersh , in his New Yorker barnburner: "Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the President remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding.

"Bush's closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush's first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President's religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that 'God put me here' to deal with the war on terror. The President's belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that 'he's the man,' the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

"The former senior official said that after the election he made a lengthy inspection visit to Iraq and reported his findings to Bush in the White House: 'I said to the President, "We're not winning the war." And he asked, "Are we losing?" I said, "Not yet." ' The President, he said, 'appeared displeased' with that answer.

" 'I tried to tell him,' the former senior official said. 'And he couldn't hear it.' . . .

" 'The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,' [a] former defense official said. 'He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage "People may suffer and die, but the Church advances." ' He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. 'They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,' the former defense official said. Bush's public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. 'Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,' the former official said, 'but Bush has no idea.' "

Hersh spoke with Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday about his article.

"He believes that he's doing the right thing, and he's not going to stop until he gets -- either until he's out of office, or he falls apart, or he wins."

Thomas M. DeFrank and Kenneth R. Bazinet write in the New York Daily News that embattled White House aides "have circled the wagons as Bush's woes mount, partly hoping they can sell the President on a December blitz of media interviews to help turn the tide.

" 'The staff basically still has an unyielding belief in the wisdom of what they're doing,' a close Bush confidant said. 'They're talking to people who could help them, but they're not listening.'

"Two sources said Bush has not only lost some confidence in his top aides, as the Daily News has previously reported , but is furious with a stream of leaks about the mood within the West Wing.

" 'He's asking [friends] for opinions on who he can trust and who he can't,' one knowledgeable source said. . . .

"A card-carrying member of the Washington GOP establishment with close ties to the White House recently encountered several senior presidential aides at a dinner and came away shaking his head at their 'no problems here' mentality.

" 'There is just no introspection there at all,' he said in exasperation. 'It is everybody else's fault -- the press, gutless Republicans on the Hill. They're still in denial.' "

The Ducks, the Chickens and the Bubbles

Bob Schieffer hosted a panel of historians on "Face the Nation" on CBS yesterday. The central questions: "Can President Bush resurrect his second term? What is it about second terms anyway? Is there a jinx? And where is the war in Iraq taking us, and what impact is it having on America?"

Joseph Ellis argued that "the pattern is so clear. And I say to my students, it's a function of the ducks, the chickens and the bubbles. . . .

"Lame ducks that can't enforce discipline on their own party, chickens come home to roost, and you get in a bubble or a cocoon inside your own White House, and you lose touch with the American people."

The Twin Challenges

Dan Balz writes in Friday's Washington Post: "As he leads a fierce campaign this month to rebut criticism of the Iraq war, President Bush faces twin challenges -- one of them rooted in history, the other in the political realities of the moment.

"Bush's historical burden is that there is no recent precedent for a leader using persuasion to reverse a steady downward slide for a military venture of the sort he is facing. Only clear evidence of success in Iraq is likely to alleviate widespread unease about the central project of this presidency, public opinion experts and political strategists say.

"That leads to the White House's most daunting political problem. Even if Iraq is someday viewed as a success -- and Bush's decision to try to make that country a democratic beacon in the Middle East seen as visionary -- it is an open question whether this proof can arrive during his presidency. Most military appraisals of Iraq foresee a long road of violence and instability ahead, as well as a substantial U.S. troop presence for the indefinite future."

Timing

Ronald Brownstein and Emma Vaughn , writing in the Los Angeles Times, call attention to "a crucial factor that has drawn little attention amid rising controversy over the congressional vote that authorized the war in Iraq. The recent partisan dispute has focused almost entirely on the intelligence information legislators had as they cast their votes. But the debate may have been shaped as much by when Congress voted as by what it knew."

The vote paving the way for war in Iraq "came in mid-October of 2002 -- at the height of an election campaign in which Republicans were systematically portraying Democrats as weak on national security."

The story describes then-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle asking Bush to delay the vote until after the impending midterm election. Daschle told the paper: "I asked directly if we could delay this so we could depoliticize it. I said: 'Mr. President, I know this is urgent, but why the rush? Why do we have to do this now?' He looked at Cheney and he looked at me, and there was a half-smile on his face. And he said: 'We just have to do this now.' "

Let's Talk Immigration

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush today will call for a crackdown on illegal immigration, a move aimed at further rallying conservatives who recently cheered Mr. Bush's tough talk on Iraq and the Supreme Court.

"But the president will also renew his call for a program to allow Mexicans who have already entered the U.S. illegally to remain here for up to six years. That initiative has long angered conservatives who equate it with amnesty."

John Cloud and Mike Allen write in Time: "As the President's annus horribilis nears what must be a blessedly welcome end for him and his aides, they have just a month to try to salvage what had been a promising postvictory year. Instead, Social Security reform died; the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed 2,000; Katrina exposed the weakness of the Administration's bench players; a Supreme Court nominee fell; a White House aide resigned under indictment. Even Karl Rove's aura of imperturbability began to melt, not only because he is under investigation in the CIA-leak case but also -- and more gravely for the G.O.P. -- because for once he seemed unable to find a winning issue for his boss. If 2006 looks anything like 2005, George W. Bush will not only hasten his own lame-duck irrelevance; he will leave his party vulnerable in November's midterms.

"Which is why it's curious and even a little dangerous for the White House to have picked immigration as the issue to planish a presidency's rough edges. Few issues divide Bush's party so much, yet this week the President plans to launch an extensive bully-pulpit campaign on immigration."

But if you believe that Bush's surroundings tell the story, consider this: "When he announced his guest-worker plan in 2004, he did so before an audience of 200 Latinos. By contrast, his speech this week on 'border security and immigration reform' was scheduled for an Air Force base in Arizona. He planned to meet with border patrollers in Texas the next day."

Arizona Watch

Jon Kamman writes in the Arizona Republic: "Even the second purpose of Bush's visit, a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser in Phoenix for Republican Sen. Jon Kyl's re-election, puts him on contentious turf. . . .

"The senator says he is honored to have the backing of the president, both as the chief executive and as 'a man for whom I have the highest regard.'

"Yet even Kyl, asked last week if he thinks there is any political risk in having a poll-battered president appear on his behalf, said, 'I don't know.' "

The Other Novak

The Associated Press reports: "A second Time magazine reporter has agreed to cooperate in the CIA leak case and will testify about her discussions with Karl Rove's attorney, a sign that prosecutors are still exploring charges against the White House aide.

"Viveca Novak, a reporter in Time's Washington bureau, is cooperating with Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity in 2003, the magazine reported in its Dec. 5 issue."

Here's the Time report.

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The request for Ms. Novak's testimony is the first tangible sign in weeks that Mr. Fitzgerald has not completed his inquiry into Mr. Rove's actions and may still be considering charges against him. Mr. Rove has long been under scrutiny in the case but has not been accused of any wrongdoing. . . .

"Time magazine did not make clear what information the prosecutor hoped to obtain from Ms. Novak, whose name has not previously surfaced in the case. She has contributed to articles in which Mr. Luskin was quoted."

Incidentally, a July 25 story in Time to which Novak contributed was one of several articles around that time that quoted a "source who had been briefed on Rove's testimony" as saying that Rove told Fitzgerald that he thought he had initially heard about Plame's identity from a reporter, he just couldn't be certain or remember which one.

And no, the two Novaks in the case are not related.

Woodward Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Why does an administration not known for being fond of the press put so much effort into cooperating with [Bob] Woodward?"

Here's one view, from Mary Matalin, a Cheney adviser. " 'There is a really deep respect for his work, and a deep desire by the president to have a contemporaneous, historically accurate account,' Matalin says. 'The president rightly believed that Woodward, for good and ill, warts and all, would chronicle what happened. It's in the White House's interest to have a neutral source writing the history of the way Bush makes decisions. That's why the White House gives him access.' "

Here's another: " 'The administration plays along with this by giving him some juicy details in service of the larger effort to make Bush look like he walks on water,' says Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect. 'Bob is the willing enabler of that, and it's shameful. Bob has it both ways -- he's the court biographer and he keeps intact his reputation as an investigator.' "

Meet Steve Schmidt

The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller profiles Steve Schmidt, who serves as "counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, with responsibility for press relations and communications, and chief White House strategist in charge of selling the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. on Capitol Hill.

"In short, he is one of those people most Americans have never heard of who is at the center of the big brawls in Washington. He got his start in the administration by running the Bush campaign's war room in 2004, when Newsweek likened him to an artillery shell and said he stalked through campaign headquarters declaring, 'Kill, kill, kill.' "

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via the Los Angeles Times : "Vice President Dick Cheney said he is upset when critics say [the administration] lied us into the war. I say fine, just lie us back out and we'll call it even."

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