Why Bush Thinks We're Winning

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 26, 2006 12:50 PM

One of the more reality-defying aspects of President Bush's position on the war in Iraq is his insistence that we're winning.

That was a central theme at yesterday's press conference. Here's the transcript .

"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said. "As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done."

With the body counts soaring, the country descending deeper into civil war and the central government consistently unable to assert itself, how can he call this winning?

The answer: It's becoming increasingly clear that Bush sees the war in Iraq in very simple terms. As he himself said, he believes that the only way to lose is to leave. Therefore anything else is winning -- anything else at all.

Even if no progress is being made -- even if things are getting worse, rather than better -- simply staying is winning.

So we're winning.

Bush expanded on this principle in a fascinating, one-hour Oval Office interview yesterday afternoon with a half-dozen conservative journalists.

One of the attendees was Michael Barone of U.S. News, and usnews.com last night Web-published the transcript as well as the audio . The National Review, whose Byron York attended, published the transcript this morning.

Even though the session was mostly on the record, Bush seemed looser than he usually does in interviews. The result was a slew of disjointed, sometimes not particularly intelligible, but sometimes deeply telling insights into his thinking about the war. It's a heckuva read.

For example, Bush said he owes his conviction that leaving equals losing to Gen. John P. Abizaid, the Central Command chief who oversees military operations in the Middle East.

And regardless of his recent public attempts at semantic backtracking, Bush made it clear to this group of supporters that "stay the course" remains his strategy.

Here's Bush, in his opening remarks:

"Abizaid, who I think is one of the really great thinkers, John Abizaid -- I don't know if you've ever had a chance to talk to him, he's a smart guy -- he came up with this construct: If we leave, they will follow us here. That's really different from other wars we've been in. If we leave, okay, so they suffer in other parts of the world, used to be the old mantra. This one is different. This war is, if they leave, they're coming after us. As a matter of fact, they'll be more emboldened to come after us. They will be able to find more recruits to come after us.

"Abizaid clearly sees this struggle -- he sees the effects of victory in Iraq as having a major impact on other parts of the Middle East. He also sees the reciprocal of that, a defeat -- just leaving -- the only defeat is leaving, is letting things fall into chaos and letting al Qaeda have a safe haven."

As for "stay the course"? Said Bush: "This stuff about 'stay the course' -- stay the course means, we're going to win. Stay the course does not mean that we're not going to constantly change."

Perspective Problems

Part of the problem with Bush's equation is that it fails to take into account that the war in Iraq is more than just a war between the U.S. and the terrorists.

If you see Iraq as purely U.S. vs. Al Qaeda , then it can indeed be hard to see a withdrawal as anything but a terrible defeat.

Peter Bergen partly channels that view in a New York Times op-ed today. He writes: "A total withdrawal from Iraq would play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists. As Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, made clear shortly after 9/11 in his book 'Knights Under the Prophet's Banner,' Al Qaeda's most important short-term strategic goal is to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world."

But Iraq is not U.S. vs. Al Qaeda . It's primarily a civil war now. The U.S. occupation is radicalizing Iraqis, most of whom say they want us out. And as that National Intelligence Estimate released last month states, the Iraq war has actually fueled, not slowed, the terror movement.

So would withdrawal from Iraq leave behind a failed state in which Al Qaeda could thrive? Would the terrorists follow us home?

Or would the opposite be true? Perhaps an American withdrawal is the only chance for Iraq to put itself back together. Perhaps the first step in winning the ideological war against terrorists would be abandoning such an easily demonized position, and instead modeling the principles of peace, freedom, and respect for Islamic people that we talk about so much.

Is there a middle ground between the "leaving equals losing" and "leaving equals winning"?

As it happens, Bergen proposes one in his op-ed today: "America should abandon its pretensions that it can make Iraq a functioning democracy and halt the civil war. Instead, we should focus on a minimalist definition of our interests in Iraq, which is to prevent a militant Sunni jihadist mini-state from emerging and allowing Al Qaeda to regroup.

"While withdrawing a substantial number of American troops from Iraq would probably tamp down the insurgency and should be done as soon as is possible, a significant force must remain in Iraq for many years to destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"That can be accomplished by making the American presence less visible; withdrawing American troops to bases in central and western Iraq; and relying on contingents of Special Forces to hunt militants."

Reality Check

Here's Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday, talking to correspondent Michael Ware in Baghdad.

Blitzer: "The president flatly said today the United States is winning. . . .

"From your point of view, does it look like the U.S. is winning right now?"

Ware: "The president's remarks are absolutely striking, Wolf.

"I mean I would very much like to ask President Bush how he defines winning, because on the ground here, it looks like anything but.

"Given the state of chaos, given the near civil war, given the rising tempo of the Sunni insurgency, given the increasing influence, as Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad pointed out, of Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria, I would like to know how the president defines victory.

"So far in this war, what we have seen with the way things have developed is that two of America's greatest enemies are the only beneficiaries of this conflict -- al Qaeda, which 16 U.S. intelligence agencies say has become stronger, not weaker, as a result of this war. So the very thing the president says he came here to prevent, he has fostered.

"And the other one is Iran. Iran's sphere of influence once stopped at Saddam's border. Now, they have great sway not only in southern Iraq, but within the central government, arguably, more sway than the United States."

The Interview

Here's Michael Barone describing Bush as an interview subject. "I found him energetic, focused, articulate, and in command of his thoughts, and I think you will too if you listen to the audio ."

Byron York writes for the National Review online: "Everybody knows George W. Bush is determined to win the war in Iraq. What came through in a meeting with conservative journalists in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, though, was the president's frustration in not being able to find more meaningful ways to measure progress in the war, and in not being able to make the case more effectively to the American people that progress is, in fact, being made. . . .

"At times during the conversation, the president seemed vexed -- not beaten, not downcast, but vexed -- by conditions in Iraq. Bush didn't say so, but from his words it seemed hard to deny that in some significant measure the insurgents and the sectarian killers are in control in the country, and that the fate of the American mission is in their hands. 'The frustration is that the definition of success has now gotten to be, how many innocent people are dying?' the president said. 'And if there's a lot dying, it means the enemy is winning.' He paused. 'That doesn't mean they're winning.'"

From the Transcript

More on winning, from the Oval Office interview:

"As I say, people want to know, can you win? They're with us if we can win. If we're there and can't win, we're gone. If we can't win, I'll pull us out. If I didn't think it was noble and just and we can win, we're gone. I can't -- I'm not going to keep those kids in there and have to deal with their loved ones. I cannot -- I can't cover it up when I meet with a family who's lost a child. I cry, I weep, I hug. And I've got to be able to look them in the eye and say, we're going to win. I have to be able to do that. And I'm not a good faker."

And later: "I'm interested in one thing: I'm interested in winning."

I mentioned that some of the interview was pretty unintelligible.

At one point, Bush was talking about how Israel's attempts to reach out to the Palestinians resulted in attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah.

"This is a group of extremists who can't stand the thought of democracy," Bush said.

"The reason I bring that up, it all fits together. These are people that are bound together by a common desire to spread their vision, a vision that at some point will clash -- beginning to clash. Now the extremists and radicals have found great comfort with each other. But people are now beginning to really see the true culprit as Iran.

"Iran empowered Hezbollah, Hezbollah takes the attack, and -- which creates an interesting dynamic, and it gives us an opportunity to fashion kind of -- an alliance of reasonable people headed toward a clash -- all kinds of different ways, by the way -- with extremists and radicals. I'm not necessarily speaking military. It makes it easier for us to isolate Iran in that the dynamics have changed. Hopefully, it will make it easier for us to be able to convince Syria to change, and/or isolate Syria."

There was some free-associating. On the upcoming election, for instance:

"It's not over. We've got the issues on our side. Protecting this country is the number-one issue. And you talk to -- admittedly, my focus groups are not broad, but people always say to me, thank you for protecting us. I view this as a struggle of good versus evil, by the way. I don't think religious people murder. I think people are misusing religion to justify their murder. And a lot of Americans understand it that way. Maybe it's not nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff -- that's fine. But that's exactly what a lot of people like me think. And my job is to make it clear to the American people the stakes, and to spell it out as plainly as I can. And a lot of people understand it."

Bush apparently sees al Qaeda and criminals -- rather than sectarian strife -- as the primary security problem in Iraq: "Here's the way I view the enemy there: al Qaeda is lethal as hell -- scratch the 'hell' -- it's lethal. The suiciders tend to be al Qaeda. The VBIEDs tend to be al Qaeda. The spectacular killings tend to be al Qaeda. We can't measure -- solely measure how many Shia killings are al Qaeda that then caused the Sunni reprisal. But you've got to know some are. A lot of the bloodshed these days, of course, is the revenge killings -- Sunni on Shia -- it's obvious. There is a criminal element in Iraq, as well, that the government is going to have to deal with. There is a vacuum, and into vacuum moved criminals."

At one point, CNBC's Larry Kudlow begs Bush for help:

"Q I want to go on the air tonight, I want some good news. I need some good news, sir.

" THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I do, too.

" Q I really do.

" THE PRESIDENT: You're talking to Noah about the flood. I do, too.

" Q It's a hard thing."

One of the interviewers even suggested the administration start releasing body counts.

Bush said he was trying to come up with a way to illustrate that we're winning:

"I'm trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure is less violence than before, I guess. We'll have to see what happens here after Ramadan. I believe these people -- oh, I was going to tell you Abizaid believes Ramadan, no question, caused them to be more violent because he says there's some kind of reward during Ramadan for violence. And I think they're trying to affect the elections."

Off the Record

There were two brief "off the record" moments in the interview. U.S. News excised both from their transcript. But the National Review (at least initially) left one in.

Bush was talking about North Korean sanctions when he went off the record for precisely two sentences. I'm not really sure why, to be honest.

From the National Review transcript:

"Most people view this as he's isolated, he's out there in the middle of nowhere, don't worry about him, let him starve his people to death -- which he is doing. And we have now got a 70-nation coalition that is focused on him. As you probably are aware, there's been some financial measures that he keeps talking about.

"* * * * *

"Well, OFF THE RECORD, banks don't want to be labeled: Bad guys do business here. They're very conservative people, whether it be Iranians or North Koreans.

"* * * * *

"We'll go back on the record."

The Press Conference

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Trying to walk a careful line between optimism and pessimism less than two weeks before midterm elections, Bush lamented the 'unspeakable violence' raging in Iraq while trying to reassure American voters that he is adapting his approach to address it. He vowed to 'carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory' as long as it does not involve withdrawing troops prematurely."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Before taking questions from reporters, Mr. Bush offered an opening statement that amounted to a kind of scorecard for Iraq, in which he acknowledged disappointments as well as successes. Among successes, he listed the capture of Saddam Hussein, free elections, and economic progress for farms and small businesses. Among the developments he called 'not encouraging,' he listed 'the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the fact that we did not find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the continued loss of some of America's finest sons and daughters.'"

I see a relationship between the failure to find WMD and the loss of American lives -- but not a lot in common.

Analysis and Opinion

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "The text of President Bush's news conference yesterday ran to nearly 10,000 words, but what may have been more significant were the things he did not say.

"The president talked repeatedly about 'benchmarks' for progress in Iraq, using that word some 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was 'hypothetical.'

"That response left unclear how the benchmarks would be different from previous times when the U.S. has set out intentions, only to back down. . . .

"[H]e did not use his old favorite phrase about U.S. troops 'standing down as they stand up.' He mentioned the goal of training about 325,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers, but he did not address the paradox that as that goal is neared, violence has intensified and the insurgency appears as robust as ever. Nor did he note that after U.S. forces stood down in Baghdad, they had to stand back up again. . . .

"Under a barrage of sharp questions from reporters, pointing again and again to contradictions and problems in his stance on Iraq, President Bush clung to his most basic line of defense -- his own faith and confidence in his approach. He used the word 'believe' 21 times in the course of the hour-long news conference.

"'I believe that the military strategy we have is going to work, that's what I believe,' he said to one reporter."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Throughout the hour, the typically plain-spoken Bush offered descriptions of his plans for waging the war that were complicated and at times appeared contradictory.

"In his opening remarks, for example, Bush acknowledged, 'I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied, either.'

"But asked moments later to assess the war, he responded adamantly, 'Absolutely, we're winning' the fight against terrorism.

"He took full responsibility for the war, saying, 'If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president.' Later, he said it was up to the generals to ask for more troops if they needed them and said he would take advice from a bipartisan commission.

"And after months of ridiculing Democrats who want a timeline for ending the war, he expressed support for 'benchmarks' that would lead to U.S. troop drawdowns."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush may be making his last best case for the war in Iraq, but to growing ranks of skeptics it's the same old argument."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Bush's "semantic tap-dance highlights one of the president's toughest election-year challenges: how to show war-weary voters that he's confident and resolute, without giving the impression that he's unrealistic and inflexible. . . .

"'The way he's dealing with it is to try to fudge and fuzz up the issues,' said Richard Kohn, a visiting history professor at the U.S. Army War College and Dickinson College, both in Carlisle, Pa. 'On the eve of a crucial election, there's so much dissatisfaction with his leadership and the war itself that he has to give the impression that he's rethinking his strategy.'"

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "Remember Al Gore's mysterious 'lockbox' Well, I have a new item to nominate for the Museum of Inert Campaign Rhetoric: 'Benchmarks.' The president says that they are the keys to victory in Iraq. But if I'm a struggling Republican candidate--buffeted by winds of anger and confusion over the war--I'm not sure 'benchmarks' will insure my victory on Nov. 7."

Here's John King on CNN talking to former presidential adviser David Gergen.

King: "David, the president went into the East Room today. The White House said it would be a significant announcement about Iraq. Was there a significant announcement, a policy announcement, or was the significance in the fact that the president had to go into the East Room, less than two weeks before the election, and say what he said?"

Gergen: "You know, usually, John, the president comes in with a well-crafted message that you understand what the headline is supposed to be after it's over. This time, he seemed to be flailing. There was no particular message. It was mushy. And -- and he said several things that fly in the face of what most people believe."

From a USA Today editorial : "The president's conviction is obvious. But whether it's supported by facts -- and whether there's a real path to victory as he defines it -- is dubious.

"There continues to be a yawning gap between his rhetoric and reality."

The Politics

John M. Broder writes in the New York Times: "With a shift in tone and the suggestion of flexibility on tactics in Iraq, President Bush gambled Wednesday that he could rescue Republican candidates who are having a hard time defending the war and an even harder time running away from it. . . .

"If his party's candidates want to change the subject, Mr. Bush surely did not help them on Wednesday."

Peter Slevin and Michael Powell write in The Washington Post: "In both parties, a consensus now exists -- buttressed by polls -- that disaffection with a war grown costly and difficult to manage is the gravest threat to continued Republican rule."

Not Looking Good

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "President Bush looked pained. His hair was grayer than usual, his skin more washed out. The lines under his eyes were deeply scored. If that's what victory looks like, you wouldn't want to see defeat."

New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley writes: "The president, whose political identity is founded on an image of unwavering cowboy resolve, looked uncertain and chastened behind the lectern, at one moment staring downward and gnawing his lip in a rare tableau of weary anxiety."

Maliki Watch

John Ward Anderson writes in The Washington Post: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out at the United States on Wednesday, saying his popularly elected government would not bend to U.S.-imposed benchmarks and timelines and criticizing a U.S.-Iraqi military operation in a Shiite slum in Baghdad that left at least five people dead and 20 wounded. . . .

"With less than two weeks to go before critical midterm elections in the United States, Maliki accused U.S. officials of election-year grandstanding, saying that deadlines were not logical and were 'the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us.'"

In his interview with conservative journalists yesterday, Bush strongly backed Maliki -- and even seemed to acknowledge that the prime minister had a legitimate grievance when it came to the military operation in question.

"[H]e got concerned that we were making decisions in certain neighborhoods. Look, our agreement with him is, we'll keep you posted. We didn't keep him posted. But he understands that he's going to have to -- we're going to have to go after these guys. This is a sovereign government. This was elected by the people. As fragile as it is, it is a government of the Iraqi people, which we've got to honor."

What Democrats Will Do

The four most likely things Democrats will do if they take Congress, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll : "1. Set a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq; 2. Reject most of Bush's judicial nominations; 3. Increase the minimum wage; 4. Investigate Bush administration."

On Waterboarding

I noted in my column yesterday that Vice President Cheney called "dunking a terrorist in water" to save American lives a "no-brainer" in an interview on Tuesday with Scott Hennen of WDAY radio.

That was clearly a euphemism for waterboarding.

In my Live Online yesterday, I acknowledged that I had probably buried that story, and expressed the hope that someone else would pick it up.

I wrote that "given Bush's refusal to acknowledge that waterboarding continues, this should be taken as an official administration position until or unless it's clarified or denied."

Today, Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called 'water-boarding,' which creates a sensation of drowning.

"Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn't regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. 'It's a no-brainer for me,' Cheney said at one point in an interview. . . .

"The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that's banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture. Some intelligence professionals argue that it often provides false or misleading information because many subjects will tell their interrogators what they think they want to hear to make the water-boarding stop. . . .

"Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney had confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique."

David Gregory v. David Gregory

In my Tuesday column , I noted that press secretary Tony Snow, in a podcast conducted by right-wing Power Line blogger John Hinderaker, astutely noted the dramatic difference between NBC News reporter David Gregory's combative questions in the briefing room and his on-air reports which, Snow said, do "an effective job of laying out our point of view."

Here's tough, skeptical David Gregory yesterday at the press conference : "So why shouldn't the American people conclude that this is nothing from you other than semantic, rhetorical games and all politics two weeks before an election?"

Here's stenographic NBC Nightly News David Gregory on the air yesterday: "With political pressure over the war bearing down on this White House, the president was somber today as he acknowledged the public anxiety and anger over Iraq. But at the same time, he was also insistent that U.S. losses in Iraq are worth it."

The only skepticism in his report: a 10-second sound bite from Democratic Senator Joseph Biden.

Cartoon Humor

Mike Luckovich on strategy; Pat Oliphant on the way out of Iraq; Stuart Carlson on the Decider.

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