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Incredibly Optimistic

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 21, 2006 10:39 AM

"I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," President Bush said yesterday in Cleveland. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."

Bush tried to explain. But in the end, what he provided was yet another example of what others see -- and he doesn't.

That would be reality.

The best Bush could do was tell the story of Tall Afar, a city in northern Iraq. "The example of Tall Afar gives me confidence in our strategy," he said. Tall Afar, he said, was once "a key base of operations for al Qaeda and is today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq."

The Washington Post provided some reality checks by a reporter there.

Peter Baker, working with "a Washington Post employee in Iraq," writes this morning: "Reports from the streets of Tall Afar, half a world away, offer a more complex story. U.S. forces last fall did drive out radicals who had brutalized the mid-size city near the Syrian border. But lately, residents say, the city has taken another dark turn. 'The armed men are fewer,' Nassir Sebti, 42, an air-conditioning mechanic, told a Washington Post interviewer Monday, 'but the assassinations between Sunni and Shiites have increased.' "

As Baker writes, even Bush's success stories "seem to come with asterisks. The administration hailed the election of a new democratic parliament last year, but the new body has so far proved incapable of forming a government for more than three months. U.S. forces have trained more Iraqi security troops, but the only unit judged capable of acting fully independently of U.S. assistance no longer can.

"The cycle has taken a new spin with the latest evolution of Iraq from violent insurgency against foreign occupiers to sectarian strife bordering on civil war. Since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last month, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in reprisals in a bloody spate of violence that has eclipsed most periods during the three years since the U.S.-led invasion.

"All this has taken its toll on Bush's credibility, Republican strategists say, making it hard for him to make people see what he sees in Iraq."

Indeed.

As Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Three years of upbeat White House assessments about Iraq that turned out to be premature, incomplete or plain wrong are complicating President Bush's efforts to restore public faith in the military operation and his presidency, according to pollsters and Republican lawmakers and strategists.

"The last two weeks have provided a snapshot of White House optimism that skeptics contend is at odds with the facts on the ground in Iraq.

"Vice President Cheney said Sunday that his 10-month-old claim that the insurgency was in its 'last throes' was 'basically accurate' and reflects reality. Since Cheney's original comment, on at least 70 days there have been violent attacks that in each instance killed more than 10 people. . . .

"Pollsters and some congressional Republicans said the administration's sunny-side-up appraisals, instead of lifting the public mood, may now complicate the task of sustaining support for a long-term military commitment in Iraq. The loss of trust, they said, is affecting Bush's presidency more broadly, as polls show his public support at a nadir."

John Ward Anderson and Omar Fekeiki write in The Washington Post: "As Iraqis on Monday marked the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, there was a stark difference between their pessimistic outlook and some U.S. officials' upbeat assessment of the situation. With insurgent violence grinding on, essential services sagging below pre-invasion levels and the prospect of civil war looming, many Iraqis question whether Hussein's ouster was worth the cost."

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Capitol Hill lawmakers are signaling that 2006 must be a decisive year in the Iraq war -- and many of the war's vigorous defenders are looking for guidance outside the Bush administration on how to move ahead. . . .

"The move to develop alternatives to Bush administrative briefings signals a growing distrust on Capitol Hill for the 'closed circuit between people sitting inside the Green Zone and the "good news" being sent back to Washington,' says [Edward Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies]. 'Congress is discovering that the Bush administration is repeating its own propaganda -- and believes what they are saying.'"

Tough Questions

President Bush took questions in Cleveland yesterday. And in a surprise e-mail at 8:30 a.m. this morning, the White House announced that Bush would hold his first press conference in two months at 10 a.m. in the White House briefing room.

(I'm filing my column before the press conference starts.)

One problem with the Bush presidency, particularly since the 2004 campaign, has been that Bush was so reluctant to be questioned. It's not clear whether his sudden willingness is a blip, or a welcome shift. But either way, the other problem remains: His answers.

Yesterday, for example, Bush faced a handful of really interesting, evocative, even combative questions. But questions alone -- without the ability to follow up, interrupt a filibuster, redirect the response, or challenge his facts -- are not enough to throw the president off his well-worn talking points.

Here's the transcript of Bush's 90-minute talk, which included almost and hour of questions and answers.

One man in the audience asked what I consider the seminal question of the moment (see my Feb. 3 column, It's the Credibility, Stupid.)

"QUESTION: Mr. President, at beginning of your talk today, you mentioned that you understand why Americans have had their confidence shaken by the events in Iraq. And I'd like to ask you about events that occurred three years ago that might also explain why confidence has been shaken.

"Before we went to war in Iraq, you said there were three main reasons for going to war in Iraq: weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists that attacked us on 9/11, and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger. Now, all three of those turned out to be false.

"My question is, how do we restore confidence that Americans may have in their leaders and to be sure that the information they're getting now is correct?"

Bush denied that he ever made a "direct connection" between Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- even though he often linked Baghdad with al-Qaeda generally.

But he agreed that it was a good question: "Like you, I mean, I asked that very same question: 'Where'd we go wrong on intelligence? ' . . .

"The truth of the matter is the whole world thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't just my administration. It was the previous administration. It wasn't just the previous administration. . . .

"Your question, however, the part that's really important is how do we regain credibility when it comes to intelligence?

"I mean, obviously, the Iranian issue is a classic case where we've got to make sure that when we speak there's credibility. . . .

"And so what I did was I called together the Silberman-Robb commission, Laurence Silberman and former Senator Chuck Robb, to take a full look at what went right and what went wrong on the intelligence; and how do we structure an intelligence network that makes sure there's full debate among the analysts; how do we make sure that there's a full compilation of data points that can help decision-makers like myself be comfortable in the decision we make. . . .

"And so there was a reform process they went through, a full analysis of how the operations worked. And out of that came the NDI, John Negroponte and Mike Hayden. And their job is to better correlate and make sure that the intelligence-gathering is seamless across a variety of gatherers and people that analyze.

"But the credibility of our country is essential. I agree with you."

Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog about that exchange.

"The man who asked the question seemed to be saying to the president, 'You gave us pre-war information before that was incorrect. You asked us to trust you and we did. But you were wrong. You're asking us now to trust you again on Iraq. What can you offer us now that would make us trust that you've gotten it right this time?' . . .

"The president's answer today essentially was the 'whole world' was wrong about Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and that changes have been made to the U.S. intelligence apparatus in an effort to fix the intelligence mistakes that contributed to the decision to invade Iraq.

"Americans will decide in the coming weeks and months whether such an answer to such a question is good enough to lift the president's approval ratings from their current doldrums.

"But it's probably safe to say an answer that essentially boils down to 'I was a victim of bad intelligence but we're working on that,' probably isn't enough do the trick."

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers notes Bush's denial that he ever explicitly said that Saddam Hussein ordered 9/11.

"While that's true, the president did link Iraq to 9-11 in other ways.

"For example, in a letter to Congress at the start of the war, Bush said the use of force against Iraq 'is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.' "

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For a president whose public appearances have often been choreographed, the questions proved penetrating and critical.

"The first was whether Bush agreed with 'prophetic Christians' who see the war in Iraq as an early sign of the apocalypse. The president stammered, laughed nervously and said: 'First I'd heard of that.' . . .

"A high school student, asserting that the war was costing $19,600 per household, wondered whether that money could be put to better use as college tuition aid. 'We can do more than one thing at a time,' Bush replied."

A " Fact Check" from Senate Democrats disputes several of Bush's claims.

Iran Watch

Bush was also asked about the application of his doctrine of preemption. "How is it, Mr. President, that Iran today is really different from what Iraq was three years ago?"

"Well, first of all, there were 16 Security Council resolutions," Bush said, in a rambling response. "The Iranian issue is just beginning to play out."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe that "the administration is in the awkward position of building a case for the dangers posed by Iran -- a case that shows every sign of being far clearer than the one against Hussein -- while making an increasingly implausible case that there is no reason to believe the last preemptive war was a mistake."

But the attempts at case-building appear to continue nonetheless.

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. intelligence officials, already focused on Iran's potential for building nuclear weapons, are struggling to solve a more immediate mystery: the murky relationship between the new Tehran leadership and the contingent of Al Qaeda leaders residing in the country.

"Some officials, citing evidence from highly classified satellite feeds and electronic eavesdropping, believe the Iranian regime is playing host to much of Al Qaeda's remaining brain trust and allowing the senior operatives freedom to communicate and help plan the terrorist network's operations."

But such charges will inevitably be greeted with great skepticism.

Meyer writes: "The accusations from U.S. officials about Iranian nuclear ambitions and ties to Al Qaeda echo charges that Bush administration figures made about Iraq in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion three years ago.

"Those charges about Iraq have been discredited. And in the case of Iran, some intelligence officials and analysts are unconvinced that Al Qaeda operatives are being allowed to plot terrorist acts."

Tall Afar Revisited

Yesterday wasn't the first time Bush used Tall Afar to try to make a point -- and strained credibility.

The first time came in a Nov. 30 speech unveiling his "strategy for victory."

Then, as yesterday, Bush insisted that in the 2005 battle for Tall Afar, Iraqi forces took the lead.

But as Yochi J. Dreazen and John D. McKinnon wrote at the time in the Wall Street Journal: "[E]xperts warned against extrapolating too heavily from the Tal Afar assault. They noted that Iraqi forces used in the attack were battle-hardened Kurdish fighters, not new recruits trained by Americans. Iraqi forces played an active role, but the experts said American commanders planned the overall assault and sent U.S. forces into areas where the insurgent presence was believed strongest."

And Washington Post reporter Jonathan Finer, who covered the battle for Tall Afar, told MSNBC in November that Bush didn't tell the whole story. "The president didn't mention that the Iraqi units at the very small unit level . . . were led every step of the way by U.S. special forces soldiers. . . . All those units were also supplied very much by U.S. logistics operations. . . . So I think that to say that progress was made is probably a fair statement, but to say that they are capable of conducting an operation like that on their own, I don't think anyone's ready to make that case just yet."

You Call That a Kerfuffle?

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press about Bush's unusual use of the world "kerfuffle."

"It's not an everyday word; it means a commotion or fuss. Bush casually used it during a question-and-answer session after a speech at the City Club here. Someone had asked about his administration's warrantless surveillance program, which has stirred concern about whether it exceeds the bounds of his authority and violates the law.

"Saying the program had 'created quite a kerfuffle in the press,' Bush gave his rationale for authorizing it. . . .

"No question, the program has riled some Republicans and Democrats. But Bush may be the only politician who says it has caused a kerfuffle."

Opinion Watch

The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board writes: "It was a bravura performance at the level of outreach, though on the substance, the president was far from reassuring. . . .

"Bush needs to take more questions -- and provide more answers -- if he doesn't want to get painted into a corner of diminishing possibilities."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The people running this country sound convinced that reality is whatever they say it is. And if they've actually strayed into the realm of genuine self-delusion -- if they actually believe the fantasies they're spinning about the bloody mess they've made in Iraq over the past three years -- then things are even worse than I thought."

Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column: "I have a new theory about what's behind everything that's wrong with the Bush administration: manliness.

"Manliness," as defined in a new book by Harvey C. Mansfield, a conservative professor of government at Harvard University, "seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk."

Cheney Watch

David W. Chen writes in the New York Times: "In the biggest campaign fund-raiser yet on behalf of State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to New Jersey on Monday and praised Mr. Kean as someone with 'the experience, the values and the vision to be a superb United States senator.'

"But there was one problem: Mr. Kean was a no-show."

Chen writes that "what should have been a routine political story about a successful fund-raiser, netting close to $400,000, became one in which Mr. Kean was asked repeatedly whether he had deliberately avoided being photographed with the vice president, who is deeply unpopular in New Jersey."

Noted With Interest, Indeed

Dan Eggen asks in The Washington Post: "Did President Bush mention the government's secret warrantless surveillance program to the president of Pakistan more than four years ago? A brief passage of a 2002 book seems to raise that possibility.

"In 'Bush at War,' Bob Woodward recounts a meeting between Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at the Waldorf Towers in New York in early November 2001. . . .

" 'He had become fascinated with the ability of the National Security Agency to intercept phone calls and other communications worldwide,' Woodward wrote, referring to Bush. 'If they got the key phone calls, future terrorism might be stopped, certainly curtailed. Bush summarized his strategy: "Listen to every phone call and close them down and protect the innocents." ' "

You're Talking Real Money

The Associated Press reports: "With no fanfare, President Bush signed a bill Monday pushing the ceiling on the national debt to nearly $9 trillion."

Bending Over Backwards?

Is there some sort of editorial message in the juxtaposition on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's home page of the story about Bush's performance there and the adjoining photo of a breakdancer?

If it's not still visible here, you can see a screengrab here .

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