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The New Way Backward

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 15, 2006 11:58 AM

One thing has become abundantly clear in the debate over what to do in Iraq: None of the options are good.

The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission tried to find some sort of a middle ground, but its recommendations have run into a buzz saw of criticism from hawks and doves alike.

The American public clearly supports a timetable for withdrawal, starting right away. That has the advantage of at least getting our troops out of harm's way, but it would almost inevitably leave behind a country in chaos.

And yet the solution that President Bush seems to be gravitating towards -- sending more troops -- may be the worst of all worlds. It's the last gasp of a strategy that's been tried before and failed, at great human cost.

The "surge," as the troop increase is being called, has its greatest champion in Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, but almost nobody besides McCain, Bush and neoconservative diehards think it'll work: Not the American generals in Iraq; not the Iraqis; not the American public.

The Baker-Hamilton report was, at a minimum, expected to usher in a new era of realism in which everyone acknowledged the grave and deteriorating situation in Iraq and recognized the limits of American power.

But the "surge" is the end product of radical ideology, not realism. It is the act of a desperate president hoping for one last way to salvage his war and prove that he was right, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

The Surge

Yochi J. Dreazen and Greg Jaffe write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration is leaning toward temporarily sending as many as 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, even as the Democrats taking charge of Congress demand a drawdown of forces.

"U.S. officials say the increase is needed to make a new push to stabilize Baghdad and to bolster efforts to train the Iraqi army."

But consider this: "The idea is . . . running into strong opposition in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn't want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials. The U.S. sent thousands of additional combat personnel to Baghdad earlier this year in an attempt to quell the daily violence there, but American officials say Mr. Maliki has made clear that he wants to see those forces -- except for U.S. trainers and advisers -- moved out of the city.

"Senior U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, say they aren't sure additional forces are needed in Iraq."

And, of course: "Deploying more U.S. forces to Iraq would be deeply unpopular in the U.S., where polls show that an increasing majority believes the U.S. is losing in Iraq, disapproves of the administration's handling of the war and wants to see a fixed timetable for a military withdrawal."

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers that Bush appears likely to call for as many as 40,000 more troops.

They offer a little context: "Only a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, Bush, under pressure to show progress, unveiled a ' National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.' Then, as now, he pledged to focus on training Iraq's security forces.

"Bush also faces huge hurdles in getting public support behind his latest plan. Disapproval of his handling of Iraq has shot up to anywhere from 60 percent to 75 percent this month in polls.

"'If he's going to trash the Iraq Study Group report, he's going to have to come up with something coherent, different and that is demonstrably better. I think he's not likely to persuade the country that he's done so,' said Larry Diamond of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who was among the study group's expert advisers."

U.S. News reports: "White House insiders tell the US News Political Bulletin that there are more divisions within the administration than Bush's spokesmen have admitted, and that factionalism has led to the postponement of Bush's decisions and speech on Iraq. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney wants to hew as closely as possible to the original goal of victory by creating a government in Baghdad that can, as Bush says, 'sustain, govern, and defend itself.' Cheney is believed to be leaning toward sending a 'surge' of additional U.S. troops to Iraq, perhaps 30,000, to put down sectarian violence. Military leaders, however, are against such a move because they think it will increase the Iraqis' dependency on the United States."

That, however, is not exactly a fair fight.

The leading intellectual advocate for the surge is Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

"Victory is still an option," he writes.

The Nearly Broken Army

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Warning that the active-duty Army 'will break' under the strain of today's war-zone rotations, the nation's top Army general yesterday called for expanding the force by 7,000 or more soldiers a year and lifting Pentagon restrictions on involuntary call-ups of Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops.

"Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, issued his most dire assessment yet of the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the nation's main ground force. At one point, he banged his hand on a House committee-room table, saying the continuation of today's Pentagon policies is 'not right.' . . .

"In light of such a sober assessment, Schoomaker voiced skepticism about the idea of an infusion of U.S. ground troops into Iraq, a message sources said he and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered to President Bush at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

"'We should not surge without a purpose, and that purpose should be measurable and get us something,' he told reporters after the hearing."

A New Coalition

Another major element of Bush's emerging plan would appear to be an attempt to restructure the Iraqi governing coalition.

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush and top aides have made the effort to build a new governing coalition in Iraq a top priority in their search for a new strategy, one of the country's two vice presidents said Thursday.

"Tariq Hashimi, who leads the Iraqi parliament's most important Sunni Arab group, said that Bush and other senior officials told him at a White House meeting this week that they believe 'for the present time, the only solution we have' is to create a new ruling alliance in hopes of strengthening a frail central government.

"Hashimi's comments, in an appearance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, offered new insight into the importance Bush is placing on the coalition-building effort at a time when the president and top aides are considering new strategies for Iraq."

Barbara Slavin writes in USA Today: "Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said the administration was not telling Iraqis what to do but the 'object of the moderate Iraqi leaders coming together is to stop the violence and create an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself.'"

Krauthammer Explains It All to You

Charles Krauthammer, who is often prescient about what the White House is planning, writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "As a result of the Iraq Study Group, President Bush has been given one last chance to alter course on Iraq. This did not, however, come about the way James Baker intended. It came about because the long-anticipated report turned out to be, as is widely agreed, a farce."

Bush, Krauthammer writes, "must do two things. First, as I've been agitating for, establish a new governing coalition in Baghdad that excludes Moqtada al-Sadr, a cancer that undermines the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government to work with us. It is encouraging that Bush has already begun such a maneuver by meeting with rival Shiite and Sunni parliamentary leaders. If we help produce a cross-sectarian government that would be an ally rather than a paralyzed semi-adversary of coalition forces, we should then undertake part two: 'Double down' our military effort. This means a surge in American troops with a specific mission: to secure Baghdad and (with the support of the Baghdad government -- a sine qua non) suppress Sadr's Mahdi Army.

"It is our last chance for success. Bush can thank the Iraq Study Group and its instant irrelevance for making it possible."

Iran and Syria

Here's something Bush isn't going to do: Conduct diplomacy with countries he considers evil -- no matter who pivotally important they are.

Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the 'compensation' required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq. . . .

"Rice's remarks indicated that, despite a maelstrom of criticism of Bush's policies by outside experts and Democrats, the administration's extensive review of policy in Iraq and the region will not yield major changes in its approach."

Meanwhile, Reuters reports: "The United States and Europe must talk to yria and Iran if they want a comprehensive solution to Iraq and other Middle East conflicts, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview published on Friday."

And David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "What positions would Syria take if it entered a dialogue with the United States about Iraq and other Middle East issues? I put that question Thursday to Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, and he offered surprisingly strong support for the recommendations made last week in the Baker-Hamilton report.

"'We are not against the U.S.,' Moallem said. 'To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that, in our opinion, serves American interests in the region.' He described America and the region as being at a 'crossroads' and said: 'Either we go for stability, or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over.'"

Special Web bonus: Here's the transcript of Ignatius's interview with Moallem.

A Disappointed Panelist

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "Iraq Study Group member Leon E. Panetta believed that his panel's unanimous bipartisan recommendations about a new way forward in Iraq would give President Bush the political cover needed for a dramatic policy shift. So the former chief of staff to President Clinton has watched with alarm as Bush this week signaled that he may reject suggestions about diplomacy and withdrawing most US troops from Iraq by 2008.

"Bush has even criticized the idea that the group was providing a 'graceful exit' from the war -- which is what Panetta and other panel members figured Bush most wanted.

"'I think he has been trapped by his own rhetoric,' Panetta said."

Kranish writes that "to those who know Bush best, the president's approach is not surprising. Bush's former chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr. , who was by Bush's side as he formulated many of his key decisions on the war, said Bush hears many opinions and thus believes that 'his knowledge is more complete than anyone who is advising him.'"

Working Vacation?

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "President Bush will be spending part of his holidays in 'continuous consultations' as he makes final decisions on a new Iraq war plan to be unveiled in the new year."

The Truman Comparison

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "He led the United States into war and saw his popularity plummet, yet some 60 years later his reputation has never been higher: It's small wonder Harry S. Truman seems to hold a special fascination for President Bush these days."

Abramowitz chronicles Bush's repeated references to Truman, but writes: "Perhaps mindful that Bush-Truman comparisons would draw ridicule from Democrats -- the idea is already the subject of derision in the liberal blogosphere -- White House aides were careful to emphasize that the iconic liberal is only one of a number of inspirations for the president. 'People do think about the Truman presidency -- but not only the Truman presidency,' said one senior White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. 'It is not as though it's a talisman or lighthouse for any of us.'"

Some historians don't see an analogy. "James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman's roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. 'Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years,' he said."

Mark Updegrove writes in a Baltimore Sun op-ed: "Mr. Bush has shown the unwavering resolve for which great leaders are often celebrated - if they are ultimately proved to be right.

"If that is the case, history may celebrate Mr. Bush, and, as distant as the hope seems now, he may be awarded a place in the presidential pantheon along with Harry S. Truman or Thomas Jefferson. If not, it will surely condemn him for his lack of judgment."

Return to Body Counts

In his remarks at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Bush did something unusual: He talked about the enemy body count.

Said Bush: "Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy."

At yesterday's press briefing, ABC reporter Martha Raddatz asked press secretary Tony Snow about that.

"Q The President yesterday said that about 5,900 enemy forces have either been killed or captured in about the last two and a half months. Can you elaborate on that? I mean, he just made one broad statement about that. What other information do you have to back that up, in terms of --

"MR. SNOW: Well, those are -- that's the information that's been produced by our people in the field.

"Q Why did he decide to give enemy body counts? That's something that they've generally tried to stay away from.

"MR. SNOW: Well, that's a good question. I won't try to -- rather than trying to tell you why the President said what he said -- because I can't give you the exact -- I can't put him on the couch right now -- what I can do is at least offer one possible reason why that's an important data point for Americans, which is there's a lot of concern about U.S. casualties and deaths, as there should be -- 103 deaths in October alone. And there is quite often the impression -- and I've talked about it up here, that our people aren't doing anything, they're just targets. And I think there's a certain amount of unease in the American public because they hear about deaths but they don't hear about what's going on. . . .

"Q Tony, is this something that the White House would like the America public to judge? We killed this many bad guys, versus how many of us are killed? Is that something you want as a metric from now on?

"MR. SNOW: I don't know. But I think -- I think the most -- I think it is important that Americans learn as much as possible about what's going on in Iraq . . . And I'm afraid that that is something that people have not fully received. And so we will be talking about the fuller picture, good news and bad news."

As Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Presidents have shied away from giving body count numbers ever since the practice was discredited during the Vietnam war.

"During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military publicized Vietnam body counts as a way to show progress, but it led to inflated numbers which damaged the Pentagon's credibility."

The reversal comes not terribly long after Bush told conservative columnists, who were urging him to talk more about offense, that "we had made a conscience [sic] effort not to be a body count team." Here's the transcript of that October interview.

Said Bush: "I don't want to give you numbers. It's frustrating however, because you're right, it's the perception that this great military power full of decent people is just getting picked off and nothing is happening. And I share the same frustration you share. And the American people, most of them out there are saying, how are you doing; get after them.

"And so we explain we are, but -- and I think the judgment is right in the Pentagon not to be talking about the number we kill and capture on a weekly basis because it then begins to -- they're just fearful. There's a culture over there. And I believe they're right. Maybe we're wrong."

Apparently, he changed his mind.

Some body counts in Iraq have been previously released, leading to a spate of analyses. Julian Barnes wrote in U.S. News in July 2005: "It was just over two years ago, during the initial Iraq invasion, when Pentagon officials repeatedly swore they would not get into the practice of counting enemy bodies. There is good reason for the aversion. Body counts became an obsession of the military brass in the Vietnam War and, as it turned out, a misleading indicator of how the war was going."

Furthermore, Barnes wrote: "any numbers pose problems. There may be 47 bodies spread out on the streets of Karabilah, but who are they?"

Mark Benjamin wrote in Salon in June 2005: "Last November, U.S. commanders said Marines killed as many as 1,600 insurgents in the battle for Fallujah. But the New York Times' Dexter Filkins, who covered the battle, reported that Marines found 'few bodies' on their patrols after the fighting -- even where the rebels chose to make a last stand. . . . Meanwhile, in February, an unnamed senior military official told CNN that the U.S. military believes it killed between 10,000 and 15,000 guerrillas in combat last year -- perhaps as many as 3,000 of them during the November push to retake Fallujah."

And there's a particular problem regarding body counts of insurgents, as Raddatz noted.

"Q Can I say that the White House and Pentagon have all said this is counterinsurgency, and certainly now sectarian violence. And when you look at a counterinsurgency, you don't win a counterinsurgency by killing a whole lot of people."

Snow Sorry

Snow apologized yesterday to NBC reporter David Gregory, a little over a week after accusing him of framing a question in a "partisan way."

Gregory had quoted some of the Baker-Hamilton panel's conclusions, then asked, quite reasonably: "Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this President's handling of the war?"

Here's what Snow told Gregory yesterday: "You and I had a conversation last week that got a whole lot of play in a lot of places where I used the term 'partisan' in describing one of your questions. And I've thought a lot about that, and I was wrong. So I want to apologize and tell you I'm sorry for it. And the reason I do that is not only because it's the right thing to do, because I want people in this room and also people who watch these to understand that the relations in this room are professional and collegial. And if I expect you to do right by us, you have every right to expect that I'll do right by you.

"So, in any event, I just want to say I'm sorry for that."

But the new, chastened Snow lasted about ten minutes.

When Hearst columnist Helen Thomas, who started off grilling him about Iraq and Lebanon, moved on to grilling him about the treatment of detainees, Snow went right back over the line again.

Thomas: "How many people do we have that we have accused and held in confinement in limbo for four years without any trial without any trial, without any charge?"

Snow: "We have provided for the civil rights -- notice that you've completely jumped off of the topic now of the behavior of the Lebanese. What we are doing is that we have passed a law with regard to the Hamdan legislation that guarantees the civil rights of people who have been pulled off battlefields. We have a reasonable suspicion they're trying to kill -- "

Thomsas: "Four years without a charge or a trial --"

Snow: "Who we have reasonable suspicion to believe have been trying to kill Americans. And I don't know about you, but I think that's a bad thing. And I think you do, too." [ My italics.]

Even Thomas, who has taken more than her share of lumps from Snow, was taken aback.

Thomas: "That's a lousy way to twist it."

Snow: "No, it's not. What has happened is you and I have now been in a series of questions where I'll answer a question and then the subject changes."

So changing the subject merits her being accused of thinking that killing Americans is a good thing?

Time for another apology, Tony. And time to stop sliming the messenger.

Scooter Libby Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Speculation that Vice President Dick Cheney would testify in the CIA leak trial intensified when Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he didn't expect Bush administration officials to resist calls to testify. . . .

"Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, is accused of lying to investigators about what he told reporters regarding former CIA operative Valerie Plame. Plame's identity was leaked to reporters around the time that her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly criticized the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq. . . .

"Cheney, who would be the trial's most anticipated witness, has said he may be called to testify. If so, prosecutors could ask how the White House responded to Wilson's criticisms. Cheney was upset by Wilson's comments, Fitzgerald has said, and told Libby that Plame worked for the CIA.

"That conversation is a key to Fitzgerald's perjury case. Libby testified that he learned about Plame's job from a reporter.

"Cheney could also help prosecutors undermine Libby's defense that he was so preoccupied with national security matters, he forgot details about the less-important Plame issue. Prosecutors argue that Plame was a key concern of the vice president, and thus would have been important to Libby."

Mary Lu Carnevale blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "Former White House official Mary Matalin makes a holiday plea to provide 'urgent financial support to a good conservative, a true patriot and a loyal friend who is coming under attack' -- I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby."

Return of the Veto?

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "George W. Bush, who went longer than any president since Thomas Jefferson before using his veto power, may wield that authority next year to help re-establish Republicans' reputation for fiscal discipline and unify the party's political base."

First Lady Blames Media; Media Fires Back

Think Progress has the video of NBC reporter Norah O'Donnell describing her interview with First Lady Laura Bush yesterday on MSNBC.

"NORAH O'DONNELL: I asked her about the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that we have out today that essentially says only 2 in 10 Americans approve of the job that the president is doing on Iraq. And Mrs. Bush defended her husband vigorously. Take a listen.

"LAURA BUSH: It is not encouraging coverage for sure. There's no doubt about it. But I do know that there are a lot of good things that are happening that aren't covered. And I think that the drum beat in the country from the media, from the only way people know what is happening unless they happened to have a loved one deployed there, is discouraging.

"O'DONNELL: She says that she hopes that there is 'more balanced coverage by the media,' in her words. She also said 'I understand why the polls are what they are' she says, 'because of the coverage we see every day in Iraq.'"

Later, on the NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams took an unusual shot at the first lady.

"First lady Laura Bush had something to say about Iraq today. . . . Mrs. Bush placed the blame squarely on the news media. . . .

"Mrs. Bush went on to say she hopes for what she called more balanced coverage in the future. The recent report from the Iraq Study Group, however, specifically found that there has been significant under-reporting of the violence in Iraq."

Undisclosed Location

There was a least one light moment in the O'Donnell interview, however.

O'Donnell: "I had heard you say you do a lot of Christmas shopping online. So do you use a pseudonym, and do you send the stuff to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave?"

Bush: "No, I use a pseudonym and I send it to another address."

O'Donnell: "Oh, do you?"

Bush: "An undisclosed location."

O'Donnell: "And then Cheney brings them over, right?"

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on Bush's delay; Tony Auth on LBJ's ghost.

People Magazine Interview

Karen Travers blogs for ABC News on the Bushes' annual year-end interview with People magazine.

"Responding to a question about his 2005 comment that 'a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman', the President said that the Vice President's openly gay daughter is going to be 'a loving soul to her child'.

"'The Vice President took me aside and gave me the good news. He and his wife, Lynne, are very happy for Mary,' Bush said. 'I think Mary is going to be a loving soul to her child. And I'm happy for her.' . . .

"People's interviewer also mentioned that readers had asked if he takes sleep aids. Bush said generally not, but he does occasionally when he travels.

"'I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume,' he said."

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