washingtonpost.com
A Whole New War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 26, 2006 12:56 PM

President Bush and national security adviser Stephen Hadley yesterday for the first time publicly acknowledged the momentous shift in the role for U.S. troops in Iraq, from fighting terrorists to trying to suppress religious violence.

This sea change was described in such understated terms that it was eclipsed by news about the crisis in Lebanon. Bush described a change in tactics; Hadley called it a repositioning.

But it's a historic admission: That job one for many American troops in Iraq is no longer fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, or even insurgents. Rather, it is trying to quell an incipient -- if not already raging -- sectarian civil war, with Baghdad as ground zero.

Arguably, that's been the case for quite a while. But having the White House own up to it is a very big deal.

As things stand now, an overwhelming majority of the American public no longer supports Bush's handling of the war, which they think was a mistake in the first place. A majority wants American troops to start coming home soon. What unqualified support there is for the war seems to come from people who believe it is central front in the war on terror.

But how will people feel about our troops being sent into the crossfire between rival Muslim sects? That is not the war anyone signed up to fight.

Here's the transcript of Bush's short press availability with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible," Bush said. "And, therefore, there needs to be more troops. In other words, the commanders said, what more can we do; how best to address the conditions on the ground. And they have recommended, as a result of working with the Prime Minister, based upon his recommendation, that we increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad, alongside of Iraqi troops. And we're going to do that."

A few hours later, in a press briefing , Hadley explained what Bush was talking about:

"Obviously, with the bombing in February of the Golden Mosque, that, in some sense, was a critical event, and it has touched off greater sectarian violence than we had seen before. And that's what is troublesome. . . .

"You've now seen the emergence of death squads and armed groups on right and left, and they're doing great damage to the civilian population. That's really what is new. It's something that we've seen occur since February, and it is a new challenge. This isn't about insurgency, this isn't about terror, this is about sectarian violence."

As it happens, the least understated acknowledgment of this historic change yesterday came from Maliki. Asked about comments by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid in a New York Times story last week, that escalating sectarian violence in Baghdad had become a greater worry than the insurgency, Maliki replied: "The most important element in the security plan is to curb the religious violence. . . . And, God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq."

The Coverage

Peter Baker and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that he will send more U.S. forces and equipment to Baghdad as part of a fresh strategy to put down rising sectarian violence, abandoning a six-week-old operation that failed to pacify the strife-torn Iraqi capital and opening what aides called an unexpected new phase of the war.

"Playing host to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House for the first time, Bush sounded unusually dour and acknowledged that the situation in Iraq in many ways has worsened lately. But he vowed to adjust tactics to deal with evolving threats and to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as necessary to fortify Maliki's government until it can defend itself.

"The additional U.S. forces for Baghdad, which could total in the thousands, would come from elsewhere in Iraq, but the deteriorating security situation seemed to all but doom the prospect for significant troop withdrawals before the November congressional elections. . . .

"The Bush administration is trying to respond to the shifting nature of the war. Where once U.S. forces were focused primarily on anti-U.S. foreign fighters and Sunni insurgents, today they confront a more complicated situation in which de facto militias are targeting Iraqis, in some cases aided by Iraqi police forces commanded by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "The announcement followed the White House's acknowledgment last week that a security plan Mr. Maliki announced in June had failed to produce the desired results. . . .

"Mr. Hadley, the national security adviser, said the failure of the initial plan forced the administration to move to what he called 'Phase II.'

"But other officials said there was no Phase II in the previous plan.

" 'This is more like Plan B,' said one of Mr. Hadley's associates, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal policy matters. 'Six weeks ago, we were talking about pulling American troops back from the city streets, not putting more of them out there.' "

Maliki and Lebanon

Several of the questions at the press availability yesterday were about the situation in Lebanon.

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Reuters's Steve Holland pressed Maliki to clarify his position on Hezbollah and asked Bush how he could stop the fighting if allies won't condemn the terrorist group. Both men responded with non sequiturs.

" 'The terrorists are afraid of democracies,' Bush proffered.

" 'We'll be facing a variety of issues in different countries,' Maliki added.

"Nadia Bilbassy of al-Arabiya television wondered if there was a contradiction between Bush hastening both humanitarian aid to Lebanon and shipments of missiles and bombs to Israel, which will drop them on Lebanon. 'No,' Bush said, 'I don't see a contradiction in us honoring commitments we made prior to Hezbollah attacks into Israeli territory.' "

Bush and Lebanon

Meanwhile, the White House continues to pursue a policy of contradictions when it comes to Lebanon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she favors a quick end to the violence -- just not yet. And there are indications that -- like that most infamous of Vietnam-era quotes -- the Bush Administration is destroying Lebanese democracy in order to save it.

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The real issues, U.S. officials say, are not simply the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah but far wider questions of Lebanon's sovereignty and what the administration sees as an existential battle between forces aligned for and against democracy in the region. . . .

"The administration is using these loftier causes to try to shift the focus from Israel's punishing and controversial bombardment of Lebanon to the question of freedom for the region. 'It is time for a new Middle East,' Rice said in Jerusalem."

But Rice's pro-democracy rhetoric is not getting any backing from the democratically-elected Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Siniora. Stephen Collinson of AFP reports that, standing next to Rice at a high-level international meeting in Rome today, Siniora "launched into a tirade against Israel, and delivered a moving elegy to the Lebanese he said were dying every day."

Collinson writes: "Earlier, in the closed-doors meeting of the international conference on the Lebanon crisis, Siniora asked 'what future other than one of fear, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from the rubble?' "

Kim Murphy and Sebastian Rotella write in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world are warning that without Washington's endorsement of an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, the possibility of escalating violence could eclipse any hope to transform a region beset by autocracy and terrorism to one based on democracy."

Meet the New Plan

David S. Cloud and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Legislation drafted by the Bush administration setting out new rules on bringing terror detainees to trial would allow hearsay evidence to be introduced unless it was deemed 'unreliable' and would permit defendants to be excluded from their own trials if necessary to protect national security, according to a copy of the proposal.

"The bill, which officials said was being circulated within the administration, is not final, but it indicates the direction of the administration's approach for dealing with a Supreme Court decision that struck down the tribunals established to try terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"The 32-page bill preserves the idea of using military commissions to prosecute terror suspects and makes modest changes in their procedural rules, including several expanded protections for defendants, many of them drawn from the military's legal code. . . .

"Rather than requiring a speedy trial for enemy combatants, the draft proposal says they 'may be tried and punished at any time without limitations.' Defendants could be held until hostilities are completed, even if found not guilty by a commission. . . .

"The bill would also bar 'statements obtained by the use of torture' from being introduced as evidence, but evidence obtained during interrogations where coercion was used would be admissible unless a military judge found it 'unreliable.' "

Although the Supreme Court decision plainly states that the provision of the Geneva Conventions known as Common Article Three applies to detainees, Cloud and Stolberg write: "The measure says explicitly that the Geneva Conventions 'are not a source of judicially enforceable individual rights.' "

As For Surveillance

Ben Winograd writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Despite high-profile legal losses and complaints about failures to consult with lawmakers, the Bush administration is sticking to its core post-9/11 legal argument: that the Constitution and a congressional resolution passed after the terror attacks grant the president almost unlimited power to protect the country.

"Responding to congressional inquiries, administration lawyers have defended a warrantless surveillance program viewed by some as in doubt after a recent Supreme Court decision barring special military commissions to try enemy combatants. In letters to Congress, administration lawyers wrote that the high court's decision -- which rejected arguments similar to those used to defend the National Security Agency program -- didn't affect its legal analysis."

Here's one such letter , written by Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella. It was first Web-published and described on July 11 by David Baron , a Harvard Law School professor and blogger.

In fact, a prestigious group of legal scholars and former government officials responded on July 14, writing: "In our view, not only does Hamdan 'affect' the analysis, it significantly weakens the Administration's legal footing."

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "A legislative proposal to test the constitutionality of President George W. Bush's controversial warrantless wiretapping program would turn over that significant judicial decision to a secret court packed with Republican appointees, federal records show."

State Secrets

Mike Robinson writes for the Associated Press: "Citing national security, a federal judge Tuesday threw out a lawsuit aimed at blocking AT&T Inc. from giving telephone records to the government for use in the war on terror.

" 'The court is persuaded that requiring AT&T to confirm or deny whether it has disclosed large quantities of telephone records to the federal government could give adversaries of this country valuable insight into the government's intelligence activities,' U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly said. . . .

"Kennelly's ruling was in sharp contrast to last week's decision from U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker of San Francisco, who said reports of the program were so widespread there was no danger of spilling secrets."

Here, incidentally, is Walker's order , in which he wrote: "The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one. But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."

Tony Snow Watch

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes about White House spokesman Tony Snow in the Baltimore Sun: "[H]e spends his days working to strike a difficult balance: Trumpeting the president's message and making him look good, while convincing reporters he's looking out for them. . . .

"But it hasn't always been a smooth transition for the 51-year-old, who had some stumbles early on and gets mixed reviews for his performance in a still-secretive White House. . . .

"In general, Snow has brought fresh perspective to a press operation that was stuck in a rut of recycled responses and predictable dodges, say current and former Bush aides. But the change has been more atmosphere than substance. While Snow has added a confident and often humorous touch to briefings and granted some reporters greater access to senior officials, the Bush White House remains tightly controlled and its top members mostly off-limits."

A Case Study

It was a rare, direct answer Snow gave at a briefing last week . And it cried out for a little fact-checking.

"Q Just one final one on this. Why shouldn't the President be the one to mount an aggressive diplomacy, pick up the phone, call Assad of Syria and say, put an end to this, and start negotiating directly with the Syrians?

"MR. SNOW: Because the track record stinks. I don't know if you remember all the old pictures of diplomats in the Reagan years going -- in the Carter, Reagan, and maybe even the early Bush years, the first Bush administration -- who knows, Clinton may have done it, too -- sitting around there drinking tea with Hafez al-Assad, the father, having to sit there for five, six, ten hours, listening to polite but long discourses on greater Syria, and at the end of that, having gotten nothing.

"There is absolutely no reason to assume, based on the track record, that negotiations and conversations with the Syrians would yield any fruit. And as a consequence, rather than doing that, I think it is incumbent on the United States to use whatever moral force and moral power it has, and also let allies do the talking."

But has diplomacy with Syria always had such stinky results?

Cragg Hines writes in his Houston Chronicle opinion column today: "Bush-41 and Clinton held important, face-to-face meetings with President Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad, in Geneva.

"The November 1990 Bush-Assad meeting was part of the effort that kept Syria onside during the first Persian Gulf war.

" 'It is amazing,' retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was the earlier President Bush's national security adviser, said Tuesday of Snow's comments. 'Certainly he's wrong about Bush-41.'

"Scowcroft said that although he was 'no fan' of Hafez Assad, 'it's a fact' that Syria joined the anti-Saddam coalition. 'He did put troops on the (Syria-Iraq) border.'

"The January 1994 Clinton-Assad meeting was part of the Democrat's effort that brought Israel and Syria as close to a peace agreement as the two nations ever have been."

Hines calls Snow's argument a "baseless burst. Which has been Snow's forte of late."

Poll Watch

Editor and Publisher reports: "Despite several years of official and press reports to the contrary, a new Harris poll finds that half of adult Americans still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when the United States invaded the country in 2003.

"This is actually up from 36% last year, a Harris poll finds. . . .

"In another finding wildly diverging from most expert opinion and media reports, Harris found that 64% said Saddam Hussein had 'strong links' with al-Qaeda, up from 62% in October 2004."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes: "As the prewar facts become clearer and Iraq spirals further into civil war, the American public becomes ever more withdrawn from reality. Even if complaints from us shrill liberal bloggers are dismissed, surely poll results like this should get the media pondering the question of whether they're doing a very good job of reporting what's really going on."

Dream Job

Ben Smith wrote in the New York Daily News last week about a "posting for the job of Press Assistant, which was circulated privately several weeks ago.

"At the heart of the job description is this sentence (emphasis added):

" 'The Press Assistant is responsible for monitoring media for various national security and domestic issues, informing the Press Secretary and Deputy Press Secretary of issues of note and factual inaccuracies in the media .' "

Al Kamen writes in the Washington Post today: "The job has been filled by Jamie Hennigan, a dedicated and super-competent reelection campaign aide."

Mystery Critic Revealed

John Wagner and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post: "Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's Senate campaign acknowledged yesterday that he was the anonymous candidate quoted by a Washington Post political reporter as saying that being a Republican was like wearing a 'scarlet letter' and that he did not want President Bush to campaign for him this fall.

"The campaign made the disclosure after a day of speculation in the blogosphere and among political reporters about which Republican Senate candidate had made the disparaging remarks reported by Dana Milbank in the Washington Sketch column in yesterday's Post."

Moving Out

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The press corps is moving out of the White House so the briefing room can be remodeled. The reporters, photographers and camera and sound crews are moving across the street to temporary quarters in trailers. They could be there as long as nine months.

" 'We're doing this reluctantly,' said Steve Scully, the political editor at C-SPAN and the president of the White House Correspondents Association. 'People come and go. You can see heads of state come and go. We won't see that from across the street. . . . This is a very closed White House and they're very restrictive about who you can talk to. That makes it all the more important to be close.' . . .

"The basement wall next to one reporter's cramped desk is crumbling. The space near the AP Radio and C-SPAN booths flooded recently. The heat and air conditioning need an overhaul. All the new technology needs new wiring.

"And the new briefing room will boast a video wall behind the press secretary for officials to use to illustrate their points."

Karl Rove Watch

Mark Niquette writes in the Columbus Dispatch: "Despite ominous early poll numbers and an Ohio political climate rocked by scandals, presidential adviser Karl Rove said he remains confident that Republicans can keep the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat this fall.

"A Dispatch mail poll published Sunday showed Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell trailing by 20 points and Republican U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine by 8 points. But Rove said in a brief interview after a speech in Columbus last night that he thinks both still can win."

Cartoon Watch

Here's Tom Toles on Bush's omelet; Ben Sargent on Bush's reading of the Constitution; and Tony Auth on Bush's approach to the Middle East.

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