Not Going Anywhere

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 30, 2005 1:03 PM

Refusing to bow to growing public pressure to produce an exit strategy in Iraq, President Bush today pugnaciously declared that his focus is on winning, not leaving.

"We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory," he said in this morning's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Or, as he put it even more succinctly yesterday in El Paso : "We want to win."

Bush's speech -- combined with a new, rosy, slogan-filled White House document entitled " Victory in Iraq " -- kicks off a bold public-relations campaign to recast the debate about the war.

But there are several reasons to suspect that it might not work:

* It doesn't answer the most compelling question in contemporary American politics: When are the troops coming home?

* It doesn't even include any objective ways of measuring progress towards an eventual U.S. pullout.

* It is at heart a restatement, rather than a reappraisal, of a strategy that according to the polls the American public has overwhelmingly rejected.

* The White House did not address, not to mention refute, the argument that the continued presence of American troops is making things worse, rather than better.

* And nothing Bush said is likely to change the fact that he has a big credibility problem with most Americans.

Bush's speech, delivered to an enthusiastic, captive audience of Navy midshipmen, was the first in a series that Bush will be making between now and the December 15th elections in Iraq.

This is what Bush had to say about when troops come home: "As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political progress advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists.

"These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."

The new White House document put it this way: "We expect but cannot guarantee that our force posture will change."

Bush did cover a little new ground today. For the first time, he defined the insurgency as consisting of three constituent parts: "The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists.

"The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein. And they reject an Iraq in which they're no longer the dominant group. . . .

"The second group that makes up the enemy in Iraq is smaller but more determined. It contains former regime loyalists who held positions of power under Saddam Hussein, people who still harbor dreams of returning to power. . . .

"The third group is the smallest but the most lethal: the terrorists affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaida."

But even in this, his most sophisticated analysis of the enemy, Bush did not mention the important role that resistance to an occupation plays in Iraq.

Bush ramped up the rhetorical attack against those who are calling for him to establish some objective goals and timetables in Iraq, accusing them of wanting to set an artificial deadline.

"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally," he said.

"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends.

"And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America.

"To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief."

There were several straw-man arguments. For instance:

"Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to, quote, 'Stay the course.'

"If by 'Stay the course,' they mean, 'We will not allow the terrorists to break our will,' they're right.

"If by 'Stay the course,' they mean, 'We will not permit Al Qaida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on America,' they're right, as well.

"If by 'Stay the course,' they mean that we're not learning from our experiences or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they're flat wrong."

My understanding is that by "stay the course" at least some of his critics mean remaining obstinately and indefinitely in a quagmire, where our presence just makes things worse.

Pre-Speech Coverage

On ABC this morning, Charlie Gibson spoke with George Stephanopoulous and Terry Moran.

Gibson: "George, the administration doesn't like the phrase 'exit strategy.' Now they are calling this speech and others that will follow a victory strategy. Is there any difference?"

Stephanopoulous: "All the difference in the world to the administration, Charlie, because 'exit strategy' in their minds implies failure, or at least indifference to victory -- and the president and his whole team want to burn in the notion that we are only going to leave Iraq when the Iraqis are able to defend themselves and they have a stable country. But it is clear, Charlie, that part of this strategy is to convince the American people that there is reason for hope and that American troops can come home relatively soon."

Moran added that Bush "has a credibility problem. Too many times, the American people have heard things are getting great, the insurgency's just about defeated, and it hasn't been."

Kelly O'Donnell reported on NBC: "Aides say they now think the president's past speeches on Iraq may have been too broad, allowing dissatisfaction and calls for troop reduction to grow. Releasing new details is an effort to show that a possible drawdown of U.S. forces has been in the works, and is not a response to critics. . . .

"Senior advisers say releasing this information now is important because much of it dates back to 2003. The intention is to show that there has been a plan all along."

Flashback

Peter Baker and Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post last June: "When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission.

"The White House recently brought onto its staff one of the nation's top academic experts on public opinion during wartime, whose studies are now helping Bush craft his message two years into a war with no easy end in sight. Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won."

The Analytic View

Charles J. Hanley writes for the Associated Press: "Two senior Army analysts who in 2003 accurately foretold the turmoil that would be unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq offer a bleak assessment in a new study of what now lies ahead in that bloodied land. . . .

"In a February 2003 report , a month before the U.S. invasion, Crane and Terrill had warned that the United States might 'win the war but lose the peace' if it attacked Iraq. They suggested armed resistance to an occupation would grow, a harsh American response would further alienate Iraqis, and establishing political stability would prove difficult _ all predictions that were borne out."

In their new 60-page report , veteran Middle East scholar Andrew Terrill and Conrad Crane, director of the Army Military History Institute, say:

* "It appears increasingly unlikely that U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces will crush the insurgency prior to the beginning of a phased U.S. and coalition withdrawal."

* "It is no longer clear that the United States will be able to create (Iraqi) military and police forces that can secure the entire country no matter how long U.S. forces remain."

* "The United States may also have to scale back its expectations for Iraq's political future," by accepting a relatively stable but undemocratic state as preferable to a civil war among Iraq's ethnic and religious factions.

They also offered this pithy insight: "The long-term dilemma of the U.S. position in Iraq can perhaps best be summarized as, 'We can't stay, we can't leave, and we can't fail.'"

McCain Watch

John Dickerson explains in Slate why Sen. John McCain, who has been spending a lot of time in public with Bush lately, is "immune to the presidential taint":

"McCain can embrace Bush without being hurt by the affiliation because voters think he's winking as he does it. McCain's fans see his stumping for Bush and his policies as completely pro forma and insincere. 'I genuinely like him,' McCain insists to friends, referring to Bush. Remembering how roughly Bush treated him in the 2000 primaries, the friends don't believe the senator, either. . . .

"Bailing out the president in his moment of need endears him to the party powers -- or at least helps sap the force of their potential resistance to the possibility of his being nominated in 2008.

"McCain has reversed the political gravity. When Bush's approval ratings go down, other politicians fear being dragged down with him. For McCain, the worse things get for Bush, the nobler his helping hand appears."

Duke Who?

John M. Broder and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "Concerned that the stain of former Representative Randy Cunningham's admission that he took bribes and evaded taxes could damage the party's prospects, President Bush and other Republican leaders issued strong denunciations of Mr. Cunningham's actions on Tuesday. . . .

"Mr. Bush, answering a question about Mr. Cunningham's resignation from a reporter in El Paso, said members of Congress must take their legal and ethical obligations seriously.

" 'The idea of a congressman taking money is outrageous,' the president said. 'And Congressman Cunningham is going to realize that he has broken the law and is going to pay a serious price, which he should.' "

Bush on the Border

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush traveled on Tuesday to El Paso, at the front lines of the fight to deter illegal immigration, where he took a tour along the Rio Grande to emphasize his message that he intends to strengthen the border.

"His remarks continued a pronounced shift from his early emphasis on ensuring a way for businesses to employ illegal immigrants temporarily, to a focus on keeping illegal immigrants out."

Cheney's Airspace

The Associated Press reports: "The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed flight restrictions over Dick Cheney's new Maryland home, angering private pilots who say they can't fly overhead even when the vice president isn't around.

"Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association spokesman Chris Dancy said Tuesday the FAA only imposes restrictions at Cheney's Jackson Hole, Wyo., home when he's there. He questioned the need to have the restrictions in place at all times over a home in Maryland, which has much more air traffic.

"Cheney's new home is on the Chesapeake Bay in St. Michaels, Md., about 30 miles east of Washington. The restricted airspace has a radius of one nautical mile and was established Nov. 22. . . .

"FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the St. Michaels' restriction is classified as temporary, though she acknowledged there is no date for it to be lifted."

The Cheneys bought their new waterfront home this fall for $2.67 million. It's not far from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's weekend getaway.

Here is the text of the FAA order, and a map.

Denver Visit

Mark P. Couch writes in the Denver Post: "President Bush hailed U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave as a defender of family values and praised her support of the Iraq war during a fundraiser at a downtown Denver hotel Tuesday."

Bush spoke to 340 Musgrave supporters for 17 minutes, raising $450,000 for her 2006 re-election campaign.

Jim Hughes writes in the Denver Post: "George W. Bush took less than 20 minutes Tuesday to encourage donations to Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.

"But outside the Brown Palace Hotel, hundreds of protesters spent nearly four hours banging on pots, pans and drums; blowing on horns, flutes, kazoos and recorders; and breaking into 'peace now' chants."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks.

Hubbard Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "R. Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, says the Bush-backed expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs was 'unwise.'

" 'The Medicare expansion without substantial reform of the system was unwise fiscal policy,' Mr. Hubbard, now dean of Columbia University's business school, said in an online exchange sponsored by The Wall Street Journal."

Movie Humor

Jeannette Walls writes for MSNBC.com: "Is Dennis Quaid spoofing George Bush?

"The actor is denying that he's playing the 43rd president in an upcoming political spoof, but insiders who've seen an early screening of 'Dreamz' say it sure looks like the film is taking potshots at the current administration.

"The film stars 'Dennis Quaid as the President of the United States, doing his best George W. impersonation, Willem Dafoe as a Dick Cheney clone, complete with bald head and lumpy gut, and Marcia Gay Harden as the first lady,' according to a review posted on AintItCool.com . 'The Prez wakes up one day and decides to read the newspaper, which sets Dafoe into damage control mode, as he usually not only keeps track of what the Prez reads, but literally tells him what to say to everyone via an earpiece.'"

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