Change Of Course?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 12, 2006 1:18 PM

Could President Bush be getting ready to declare victory in Iraq and get out?

Bush aides have been sending an odd combination of signals these last several days from the White House and Camp David. On the one hand, they're officially tamping down expectations of a troop withdrawal announcement. But on the other hand, there are signs of an unusual amount of commotion within Bush's inner circle.

Bush's two-day Camp David summit could end up to be just a substanceless attempt to bamboozle a gloomy public with repackaged rhetoric about a hopeful future.

But the president is riding high for the moment on two bits of unqualifiedly good news -- the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of a new government in Iraq -- while overall facing a public overwhelmingly critical of his decision-making and adamant that U.S. troops should start coming home.

If he was ever going to change course, could there be a better time?

Declaring that the Iraqi government is now in charge (even if it's not, really) and establishing a timetable for the return home of American troops would be a dramatic and hugely popular way of -- to use a metaphor from a previous conflict -- showing the public that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Sure, Bush has long said that establishing a timetable for troop withdrawal would only help the enemy. But when pragmatism demands it, he is more than adept at changing his mind about things, citing altered circumstances, and all the while insisting that he is being consistent. (See, for instance, his reverse-course on talking with Iran two weeks ago.)

The Signs

Here's a real tea-leaf: Bush aides typically wave off such reports, but today's "Morning Update" e-mail from the press office actually calls attention to a Washington Times story by Eric Pfeiffer about troop-withdrawal talk from outside the White House.

"The top U.S. military commander in Iraq yesterday predicted a gradual drop in American troops deployed there through next year, while Iraq's new national security adviser said all multinational forces could be out of his country by 2008," Pfeiffer writes.

"Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie went further, giving both a number and a prediction of how soon most U.S. troops will have left his country.

"'By the end of the year, of this year, I believe that the number of the multinational forces will be probably less than 100,000 in this country,' Mr. Rubaie told CNN's 'Late Edition.'"

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "White House officials have said announcements of force reductions are not expected. Yet the top U.S. commander in Baghdad predicted on the eve of the meeting that coalition troops will gradually move out of the country in the coming months. . . .

"Bush has said the new government marks a new chapter in the U.S. relationship with Iraq. With Republicans worried about losing control of Congress in November's midterm elections and most Americans saying they would like some troops to come home, Bush is under pressure. Only a third of respondents to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in early June supported Bush's handling of the situation -- an all-time low."

David E. Sanger and James Glanz write in the New York Times: "President Bush's two-day strategy session starting Monday at Camp David is intended to revive highly tangible efforts to shore up Iraq's new government, from getting the electricity back on in Baghdad to purging the security forces of revenge-seeking militias, White House officials said.

"Three years of efforts to accomplish those goals have largely failed. . . .

" 'One of the senior officials involved in the strategy session characterized it as a 'last, best chance to get this right,' an implicit acknowledgment that previous American-led efforts had gone astray.'"

Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "At Camp David, President Bush meets today with advisers to discuss the steps forward in Iraq. Tomorrow, he will have a video conference with the Iraqi cabinet. Bush may hold a news conference to tell Americans about the discussions. Finally, on Wednesday he chats with the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan assembly of longtime Washington figures whose goal is to deliver independent assessments of the situation in Iraq."

Here's Matt Lauer previewing the Camp David summit on NBC's Today Show: "People around the country are wondering are U.S. troops coming home anytime soon."

Bubble Watch

White House aides are trying to spin reporters right and left with stories about how Bush is suddenly way more open to alternate points of view.

Again: Is all this just more PR, or is it an augur of significant change? You decide.

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "Suddenly, things are looking brighter for President Bush. The killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq last week gave the administration a much-needed lift. The Republican victory in a high-profile special congressional election in California provided another bit of good news. . . .

"More broadly, Bush is building on his upward bounce by showing a new receptivity to fresh ideas and a willingness to change the way he does business. . . .

"White House officials say it's a sea change for this president to be surrounding himself with more independent thinkers.

"In another phase of their recovery campaign, Bush's strategists are, finally, providing behind-the-scenes glimpses of Bush's engagement in formulating policy. This is designed to counter the critics' image of the president as an intellectual lightweight. White House aides, for example, gave U.S. News a rare play-by-play of internal deliberations that led the president on May 31 to propose a new international initiative designed to persuade Iran to cease development of nuclear weapons."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes for the New York Times that Bush is reaching out to Congress: "Without necessarily taking the advice he is seeking from Capitol Hill, Mr. Bush is adding a more personal touch to his presidency in an effort to put himself in the good graces of lawmakers.

"The effort, choreographed by senior advisers to Mr. Bush, began late last year and intensified in April after Joshua B. Bolten became chief of staff, said two officials involved. So the president, a man not given to Washington schmoozing, now holds intimate cocktail parties on the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn, for lawmakers and their spouses, complete with tours of the Lincoln Bedroom led by him and the first lady."

Stolberg notes skeptically: "But courting lawmakers only goes so far in bridging serious policy and political differences, and it is hard to find evidence that Mr. Bush's new open-ear policy has led to any substantive change in direction by the White House."

Just More of the Same?

In Newsweek, Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey find it significant that Bush didn't gloat about Zarqawi. But beyond that, they don't see much change in Bush's pitch on Iraq: "The idea is to show that Iraq is improving by touting progress in the government and the Iraqi security forces while projecting a measured optimism about defeating the insurgency. . . .

"One private reason for the [Camp David] meeting was to take a cold look at the military strategy in Iraq. In recent weeks, briefers have given Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte a grim view of the war effort. Before Zarqawi's death, 'there was a sense that the insurgency was getting stronger, and we were on the road to nowhere,' says an administration official who declined to be named talking about intelligence. But the public highlight of the Camp David session will be much sunnier: a picture-perfect videoconference between the Bush cabinet and the new Iraqi cabinet -- symbolically projecting an image of two independent, democratically elected governments working together."

Mr. Accommodator?

Bush's ambivalent approach to being more accommodating was plainly in view in his brief press availability with the Danish prime minister on Friday.

Here's his exchange with Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press:

"Q Mr. President, after meeting with the Danish Prime Minister last month, [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] said he thought he could stand up the Iraqi security forces in about a year-and-a-half. And with Zarqawi's death, do you think this is realistic?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it is -- we'll get a realistic appraisal about the capacity for standing up Iraqi troops as this new government begins to function as a government. It wasn't until just a couple of days ago that they had a Defense Minister. Now they've got a Defense Minister, which will give us time to assess their command and control, their capacity to be able to send an order from the top to the bottom of their organization. . . .

"Once we make those assessments, then I think I'll be able to give the American people a better feel for what 'stand up/stand down' means. . . .

"Q Can I ask you a follow up?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Probably not.

"Q How long will --

"PRESIDENT BUSH: This is Mr. Accommodator -- (laughter) -- Mr. Reaching Out. Yes."

But don't get too excited. It may have been "Mr. Accommodator" who grudgingly allowed Riechmann a follow-up; but it was the same old "Mr. Dismissive" who responded to the question:

"Q You said you'd have to reassess with the new government these various things. How long do you think that that assessment is going to take?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: See, part of the issue I deal with is people want to know with certainty when certain things are going to happen --

"Q Just about --

"PRESIDENT BUSH: -- and I understand that; it's a legitimate question. It's like, when are you going to withdraw troops? And the answer is, when conditions on the ground --

"Q I didn't ask that.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: No, I know, but I -- you asked the question, I answer them."

About Camp David

Gee, maybe Bush should have called everyone to Camp David years ago.

Here he is describing the advantages at his Friday press availability : "I felt that Camp David is a good place to do it because it can be distracting down in Washington -- with phone calls, and all those kinds of -- we can make sure the people involved in senior levels of government stay focused on the task at hand."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "In 1977, Jimmy Carter used the isolation of Camp David to nudge Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin toward a peace agreement that led to a Nobel Prize for Carter's guests.

"Sadat later said that he felt he was 'under house detention' at the presidential retreat. Begin used stronger language, calling it 'a concentration camp deluxe.'

" 'That's part of the magic of Camp David for presidents - controlling people, controlling the agenda and having the president on his own territory,' said Kenneth Walsh, a White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report and author of 'From Mount Vernon to Crawford,' a book about presidential retreats. 'There's been a lot of history made at Camp David.' "

In the Baltimore Sun, Julie Hirschfeld Davis quotes Texas-based presidential historian Lewis L. Gould: "The feeling is that if you get away from the fetid, overheated, media-driven Washington and get off to this cool, mountainous place where people can clear their heads and think big thoughts . . . out of this will come wisdom and perspective that is lacking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," Gould says.

But the ultimate question, Gould tells Davis, is "when you come down off the mountain, what have you got?"

Gitmo Watch

Jennifer Loven wrote for the Associated Press on Saturday: "President Bush expressed 'serious concern' Saturday over the suicides at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and directed an aggressive effort by his administration to reach out diplomatically while it investigates.

" 'He wants to make sure that this thing is done right from all points of view,' White House press secretary Tony Snow said Saturday evening . . .

"Snow said it was during his daily intelligence briefing just afterward when the president voiced his concern over the incident and directed that the bodies be 'treated humanely and with cultural sensitivity' to show respect for Muslim traditions regarding the dead."

David S. Cloud and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "The suicides renew the question of what the Bush administration will do with the detention center at Guantánamo, which President Bush has told interviewers recently that he would like to close at some point in the future."

Another Waas Scoop

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft continued to oversee the Valerie Plame-CIA leak probe for more than two months in late 2003 after he learned in extensive briefings that FBI agents suspected White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby of trying to mislead the FBI to conceal their roles in the leak, according to government records and interviews."

And Waas lets loose this bombshell as well: From the get-go, investigators apparently believed "that Libby might have been holding back to protect Cheney."

Snow Faux Pas Watch

New press secretary Tony Snow committed yet another faux pas in his briefing Thursday , when he misattributed a comment about Iraq made in a meeting with Bush by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to another black congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, who wasn't even there.

"Cynthia McKinney made the point yesterday in the meeting with the President that the one thing they had gotten from generals there were thorough and honest assessments of what's going on," Snow said.

The White House press office only compounded the error in its correction, spelling Jackson Lee's first name incorrectly."

Heckuva Job Watch

CNN reports: "The former emergency management chief who quit amid widespread criticism over his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina said he received an e-mail before his resignation stating President Bush was glad to see the Oval Office had dodged most of the criticism. . . .

"The September 2005 e-mail reads: 'I did hear of one reference to you, at the Cabinet meeting yesterday. I wasn't there, but I heard someone commented that the press was sure beating up on Mike Brown, to which the president replied, "I'd rather they beat up on him than me or Chertoff.' "

Puff Watch

Departing New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller apparently had at least one last puff piece left in her.

This one is about "someone who is largely unknown outside the administration, but who colleagues say is instrumental in shaping Mr. Bush's views: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the 36-year-old deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most senior official working on those nations full time at the White House. . . .

"Ms. O'Sullivan, who was crisp and wary in a recent interview in her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, would say little more about her conversations with Mr. Bush. But people who have seen her brief the president say she has been succinct, unpretentious, full of facts and cheerful -- exactly what Mr. Bush likes."

And Time's Mike Allen pens a fond farewell to Blake Gottesman, the personal aide to the President. "It's a job that traditionally meant being 'body guy' to the chief, the young aide who carries the souvenirs and dispenses the Purell. But Bush is uniquely sensitive about his personal ecology, and Gottesman has blossomed into a systems analyst, gatekeeper and diplomat who serves as the membrane between the President and the rest of the staff. . . .

"'If the aide looks nervous, the President will think there's something to be nervous about,' Gottesman, who is intensely private even for a Bushie, tells Time in a rare interview. 'So you look calm even when everything is going wrong.'

"White House Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett calls Gottesman 'a walking mood ring,' the unquestioned authority on whom the President wants in his limo, what member of Congress he may accept in his office on Air Force One and whether it is wise for a top aide to bring up a particular topic at a particular time."

Departure Watch

Friday was Erin Healy's last day as assistant press secretary. Deputy press secretary Dana Perino informed the press corps. I'm told Healy is taking some time off before heading to the private sector.

Specter v. Cheney

The Associated Press reports: "The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman says he's prepared to force telephone company executives to testify about the White House's eavesdropping program if the Bush administration doesn't fully cooperate in drafting new rules on what's allowable.

" 'If we don't get some results, I'm prepared to go back to demand hearings and issue subpoenas if necessary,' Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Sunday on CNN's ' Late Edition .'

"Specter said he was more hopeful, after talking Thursday with Vice President Dick Cheney, that committee hearings and subpoenas could be avoided."

Reid on Cheney

Tim Grieve interviews Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in Salon:

Reid: "I think we've come to learn that the intelligence community in America is run by one person -- one person -- and that's the vice president. [Sen. Pat] Roberts, who is the supposed chair of that committee -- I shouldn't say 'supposed chair'; he is the chair -- he can't do anything without [Dick Cheney]."

Grieve: "We saw some of that last week , when Arlen Specter went public about Cheney's efforts to block him from having the telephone companies testify on the NSA database program before the Senate Judiciary Committee. . . . What kind of pressure does Cheney exert on these guys?"

Reid: "I don't know. A phone call? I don't know what he does."

Grieve: "But what's the threat?"

Reid: "I guess he won't like them anymore. Maybe he'll use, like he did with Leahy , the F-word. I don't know."

Grieve: "Whatever it is, they ultimately buckle under. Specter talks a good game, but -- "

Reid: "It's not 'ultimately.' Specter is the only one who's given an ostensible reaction, negatively [to the NSA program]. But that didn't last. He caved in like soft cake, you know. . . . "

Grieve: "[House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi has apparently taken impeachment off the table, even if the Democrats win in November."

Reid: "But see, I've cooled that impeachment [talk] from the beginning. You know why? Who would be the president if the president were impeached? Why would I want Cheney president?"

Valerie Plame Watch

I was on a panel about the CIA leak investigation Friday at the Yearlykos progressive bloggers convention in Las Vegas. My main point was that the traditional media has not done a bang-up job of investigative reporting on this story.

Other panelists included former ambassador Joseph Wilson (who introduced himself as "Mr. Valerie Plame"), former CIA operative Larry Johnson, National Journal reporter Murray Waas, and bloggers Christy Smith and Marcy Wheeler. The moderator was Jane Hamsher of the Firedoglake blog.

C-SPAN has video of the panel; it's the first link on this page .

Josh Gerstein has coverage of the event in the New York Sun.

A Very Special Event

The president is at Camp David for a five-day weekend -- so what was he doing zipping back to the White House Sunday night on Marine One? It turns out he had a long-scheduled social event planned: A special screening of a cowboy movie called "Broken Trail."

Not to be confused with that other cowboy movie with a similar name, this one stars Robert Duvall, will air later this month on the AMC cable channel, and is apparently of the more traditional variety.

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