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Is That All There Is?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 11, 2007 2:34 PM

After more than a month of frenzied anticipation, President Bush's speech last night was such a limp letdown -- with the notable exception of provocative, bellicose words aimed at Iran and Syria -- that it raises the question: What is he really up to?

Could his secret goal be to run out the clock, and leave Iraq to his successor? Might he be setting the stage for an exit on his terms -- giving the Iraqis one last chance, and if they blow it, then he withdraws? Is it even possible that he is beginning the process of shifting the attention of the military -- and the American public -- from Iraq to Iran?

Those theories may sound a bit conspiratorial, but Bush's new proposal is so internally contradictory, so incremental, so problematically dependent on Iraqi good behavior, and so unlikely to galvanize public support that it seems to me that it's open season on alternate explanations of his motivation.

There is, for instance, an irresolvable contradiction between Bush's insistence on the necessity of winning, because the alternative is cataclysmic, and his demand that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks, or else.

What does he mean by or else? He won't say.

Is he talking about a coup? Presumably he means we would pull out if they don't meet their benchmarks. But how can he plausibly threaten to pull out -- which, of course, happens to be what a majority of Americans and Iraqis now want -- if he continues to insist that pulling out would put America in mortal danger, not to mention detonate the entire Middle East?

The only thing Bush would say last night about the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks was this: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." Some threat. That already happened long ago.

Anonymous White House officials tied themselves into rhetorical pretzels yesterday insisting that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is no longer open-ended -- without giving any indication of how it might close.

"The President has gotten the strategy that he believes will succeed and is the best prospect of success," a senior administration official said in a White House background briefing. "Now, everybody is going to want to say, well, what if it doesn't work, what is plan B, and all the rest. And I think, for obvious reasons, for the President and for senior administration officials, we're going to focus on what we need to do to make this plan work."

But in fact, David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Bush's aides yesterday quietly "hinted that the administration had already come up with a 'Plan B' in case the latest strategy failed, with one saying 'there are other ways to achieve our objective.' But he would not describe that strategy, or say if it involved withdrawal, containment or the breakup of the country into sectarian entities."

Or running out the clock, or bombing Iran, or who knows what else.

In other words, it's anyone's guess what Plan B is. With Plan A so unlikely to succeed, figuring out what Plan B is becomes an imperative. Let the digging -- and, barring that, the guessing -- begin.

You Call That an Admission?

Bush is getting a lot of ink today for reportedly having admitted that he made mistakes. It wasn't much of an admission. What Bush said, specifically, was: "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."

That's a step. But the restoration of Bush's credibility on Iraq requires that he admit that he himself made mistakes, and explain what he's learned from them.

Instead, what he was saying last night was, basically: People who worked for me screwed up, and I'm jumping on the grenade. That sort of "admission" casts himself as heroic, rather than repentant.

There was no acknowledgment that he himself had ever done anything wrong. There was no contrition, no remorse, no apology, no sense that he had learned anything from the experience, no reason to hope that he'll make better decisions next time around.

The Mysterious Briefing

Yesterday morning, before his speech, Bush spent more than an hour talking to a private gathering of television news anchors and hosts.

I'm not sure what the ground rules were. Some attendees apparently felt the whole thing had to be kept secret. Some acknowledged the meeting, but kept Bush's presence secret. Others acknowledged that Bush was there, but were still cagey about what he said.

Everyone there should be pressed to disclose more about what Bush told them, because it sounds kind of fascinating, from what little we know so far.

Over at the CBS Web site, Bob Schieffer and Katie Couric made it sound like the president wasn't even there.

On the NBC Web site, Brian Williams was somewhat more forthcoming: "As is the custom prior to a major speech (normally the State of the Union and select others), the White House today invited a small group of broadcast journalists to the Roosevelt Room for a briefing, which was mostly with national security types . . . until the President walked in, unescorted. Tim Russert and I calculated that he was with us for just over an hour. He was forceful, animated and at times aggravated by the current state of the debate over Iraq. While the conditions of the conversation do not allow for direct quotation, we can certainly reflect the President's thinking when we come on the air tonight. Upon exiting the West Wing, I phoned one particular detail into MSNBC: Toward the end I asked the President if he'd seen the Saddam Hussein execution video. He said he had, and when I asked where it 'ranked' (among the mistakes of the war) he indicated it was just below Abu Ghraib in terms of damage -- meaning slightly less damaging. The President also noted the damage done at Haditha."

On MSNBC later in the evening, Williams didn't add much, but Russert coughed up a few more tantalizing details.

Russert said he had seen "a president who is willing to acknowledge now, I think for the first time, a profound misjudgment in strategy. . . . Secondly, I think there was an acknowledgment that his neck is on the line, that . . . no more are we going to hear 'we're going to stay until victory' or 'we're going to achieve this mission, we're not going to leave until we've achieved that result'. This is not an open-ended commitment. The Iraqis have to do their bit, they have to be willing to take on the Shia death squads. The president hears the clock ticking. He knows the American people have lost patience with the war and with him. . . .

"My take away . . . talking to people this morning, was that the president has made it clear to Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq that he risks losing the chief benefactor of Iraq in terms of the war, that they could, quote, lose Bush."

But what does that mean?

As for Iran, said Russert: "In the discussion with his senior advisors, with the president, again, something I took away, that it's the president's thinking that he will not sit down with people that he refers to as tyrants until he has, quote, leverage. Suggesting that he has to win the war in Iraq or secure Iraq -- and then he doesn't have to go to Syria and Iran and, quote, ask for anything. That's the way he looks at this. Secondly, there's a strong sense in the upper echelon of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue in the country and the world and -- in a very acute way."

That's chilling. See "Iran Watch" below, for more.

Instapoll

Jon Cohen writes for The Washington Post: "Most Americans oppose President Bush's call to send additional U.S. military forces to Iraq and just over a third say the new plan makes victory there more likely, an initial public rebuke of the strategy he unveiled last night in a nationally televised address.

"A new Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted following the President's speech finds broad and strong opposition to his call to send about 21,500 more troops to Iraq: 61 percent oppose the force increase, with 52 percent 'strongly' opposing the build-up. Thirty-six percent support the additional troops; only one-quarter of the public is strongly supportive."

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush appealed directly to the American people last night to support a renewed campaign to pacify Iraq, saying it is necessary to add new troops so that the beleaguered Iraqi government can regain control of the streets of Baghdad and revive the process of political reconciliation and economic rebuilding. . . .

"The White House hopes the president's speech will trigger new support for his Iraq policy, and Bush said he will convene a bipartisan working group of lawmakers to work on anti-terrorism policies, including increasing the size of the military. But on Capitol Hill yesterday, sentiment seemed to harden against the president on Iraq in the opposition party, even among the most hawkish Democrats. . . .

"Meanwhile, divisions continued to emerge among Republicans. While GOP leadership was backing the president, backbenchers continued to revolt. 'I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer,' Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is considering a run for the White House, said in a written statement issued from Baghdad, where he is visiting. 'Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution.'"

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush embraced a major tactical shift on Wednesday evening in the war in Iraq when he declared that the only way to quell sectarian violence there was to send more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat.

"Yet in defying mounting pressure to begin troop withdrawals, the president reiterated his argument that the consequences of failure in Iraq were so high that the United States could not afford to lose.

"In a speech to the nation, Mr. Bush conceded for the first time that there had not been enough American or Iraqi troops in Baghdad to halt the capital's descent over the past year into chaos. In documents released just before the speech, the White House acknowledged that his previous strategy was based on fundamentally flawed assumptions about the power of the shaky Iraqi government."

Craig Gordon writes for Newsday: "A solemn President George W. Bush tried to convince a doubtful public last night that the only way out of Iraq was to get in deeper, dispatching 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq's bloodiest precincts and casting his lot with Iraqi leaders who have thwarted him in the past."

David Wood writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush outlined a tactical shift to the U.S. war in Iraq last night, but the basic strategy remains in place: a long-term and high-risk effort to simultaneously stabilize Iraq's most violent neighborhoods while training Iraqi security forces to take over the job, administration officials, military officers and analysts said."

The Analysis

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "By stepping up the American military presence in Iraq, President Bush is not only inviting an epic clash with the Democrats who run Capitol Hill. He is ignoring the results of the November elections, rejecting the central thrust of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and flouting the advice of some of his own generals, as well as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq.

"In so doing, Mr. Bush is taking a calculated gamble that no matter how much hue and cry his new strategy may provoke, in the end the American people will give him more time to turn around the war in Iraq and Congress will not have the political nerve to thwart him by cutting off money for the war.

"The plan, outlined by the president in stark, simple tones in a 20-minute speech from the White House library, is vintage George Bush -- in the eyes of admirers, resolute and principled; in the eyes of critics, bull-headed, even delusional, about the prospects for success in Iraq. It is the latest evidence that the president is convinced that he is right and that history will vindicate him, even if that vindication comes long after he is gone from the Oval Office."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Last night, Bush's new strategy sounded too much like his old strategy. His delivery was intentionally muted, to avoid any hint of bravado. But his admission of mistakes was oblique and seemed almost grudging. . . .

"What wasn't grudging was his reiteration of all his familiar talking points, from heralding the historic gains of the Iraqi elections, to stressing the importance of Iraq in the wider war against terrorism, to attributing the painful losses of a war he initiated to 'the burdens of freedom.'

"Now, the most immediate obstacle to Bush's strategy in Iraq is that not enough Americans believe his talking points any more."

Timothy M. Phelps writes in Newsday: "In a last gasp for victory in Iraq and credibility at home, President George W. Bush staked his presidency last night on a plan that will do exactly the opposite of what most Americans want.

Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush unveiled what the White House called a 'New Way Forward' in Iraq on Wednesday night, but the plan faces old obstacles that have defied solution ever since the United States invaded Iraq nearly four years ago."

Iran Watch

Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "In promising to stop Iran from meddling in Iraq, President Bush returned Wednesday night to a strategy of confrontation in dealing with Tehran, casting aside what had been a limited flirtation with a more diplomatic approach toward it.

"Mr. Bush accused Iran of providing material support for attacks on American troops and vowed to respond. 'We will disrupt the attacks on our forces,' he said in his speech. 'We will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.' . . .

"American officials maintain that the latest moves should not be seen as preparations for a military strike against Iran. But they also said that Mr. Bush's top deputies, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, had decided that, barring some major conciliatory move from Tehran, American moves to engage Iran had run their course."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. forces will step up their offensive against Iranians and Syrians in Iraq as part of President Bush's new plan for the country, American officials said Wednesday, in a step likely to further inflame Washington's relationship with Tehran. . . .

"Bush administration documents describing the plan say Iran 'has been cultivating influence in Iraq through all means at its disposal.' The documents describe the aggressive new administration policy as a 'key operational shift' for the U.S."

William Arkin blogs for washingtonpost.com: "If there's anything in the President Bush's remarks tonight that we didn't already know or didn't anticipate him saying militarily about Iraq, it is his evident willingness to go to war with Syria and Iran to seek peace. . . .

"There is an ominous element here: When the President pledged to 'seek out and destroy the networks supporting our enemies in Iraq,' to me, that means the threat of strikes on targets in those two countries.

How Bush Came Off

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "George W. Bush spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup. I first interviewed the guy in 1987 and began covering his political rise in 1993, and I have never seen him, in public or private, look less convincing, less sure of himself, less cocky. With his knitted brow and stricken features, he looked, well, scared....

"[I]f he was trying to assure the country that he had confidence in his own plan to prevent that collapse, well, a picture is worth a thousand words. And the words themselves weren't that assuring either. . . .

"What the voters saw on TV just now was a man struggling to come to grips with his own unwillingness to face facts. It's still a struggle."

Foregone Conclusion?

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's new Iraq policy was said to be the product of weeks of meetings, discussions and analysis by the president and his national security advisers. Yet core elements of the plan were contained in a classified memo that national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley sent to members of Bush's Cabinet on Nov. 8 -- a month before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued its report."

A White House official "said that 'when we say the strategy is new, we mean we -- us and the Iraqis -- weren't doing it before, say, November 7. We don't mean no one thought of it before that date.'"

The Maliki Gambit

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "With his new plan to secure Iraq, President Bush is in effect betting that Iraqi leaders are committed to building a multisectarian state, and his strategy will stand or fall on that assumption. . . .

"[T]he new plan depends on the good intentions and competence of a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that has not demonstrated an abundant supply of either."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's new approach to the Iraq war depends for success on another new approach, from an Iraqi leader who has failed U.S. expectations at every turn."

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Two months ago, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley wondered whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was clueless, incompetent, or devious. Now, Bush is betting the farm on him."

Mistakes Were Made

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As his reelection campaign geared up in 2004, President Bush was asked to name his biggest mistake. He couldn't think of one. By the time he was asked again last year, he had thought of one, his inappropriate 'tough talk.' Last night, Bush acknowledged that some of the most fundamental assumptions underlying the U.S. venture in Iraq were wrong. . . .

"A chart released by the White House before Bush's 'Way Forward' speech went even further, outlining a succession of basic assumptions made in the past about Iraq that as of yesterday it has disavowed -- including the notion that building a democracy would defuse the insurgency and bring down violence. It was the sort of chart Bush's critics might have put together, not a White House traditionally loath to admit mistakes.

"Still, the president's admissions were calculated to advance his current political aims and came with significant limitations. He offered no regret for the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and still argued for staying in Iraq until the job is done. His tone was sober but came without apology or contrition. As one aide put it, 'This is not a speech being given on bended knee.'"

Democratic Response

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "'The president's response to the challenge of Iraq is to send more American soldiers into the crossfire of a civil war,' said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, responding for his party immediately after Mr. Bush spoke. 'The escalation of this war is not the change the American people called for in the last election.'"

The View From Iraq

Sabrina Tavernise and John F. Burns write in the New York Times: "As President Bush challenges public opinion at home by committing more American troops, he is confronted by a paradox: an Iraqi government that does not really want them."

The Military

Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's plan to send tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements to Baghdad to jointly confront Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias is likely to touch off a more dangerous phase of the war, featuring months of fighting in the streets of the Iraqi capital, current and former military officials warned."

The Region

Larry Margasak writes for the Associated Press: "Winning support among Middle Eastern countries is part of President Bush's revised strategy for Iraq. But he pitched the new plan by leaving out a pertinent fact: Anti-U.S. rhetoric in those nations has grown increasingly hostile since the execution of a man Bush never mentioned -- Saddam Hussein."

Opinion Watch

New York Times editorial: "President Bush told Americans last night that failure in Iraq would be a disaster. The disaster is Mr. Bush's war, and he has already failed. Last night was his chance to stop offering more fog and be honest with the nation, and he did not take it."

Washington Post editorial: "[T]he new plan for the war Mr. Bush outlined last night is very risky. It envisions new missions and dangers for U.S. troops and counts on unprecedented military and political steps by the Iraqi government. The plan is likely to cause a spike in U.S. casualties, while the chances that it will stabilize Iraq are far lower. Moreover, Mr. Bush appears prepared to embrace this approach despite strong opposition from Congress and the public -- setting up a conflict that in itself could hurt the war effort."

Los Angeles Times editorial: "President Bush's latest plan for Iraq has the feel of an overdue high school book report. It looks nice, reads well and is persuasive in parts. If only he had handed it in on time."

Boston Globe editorial: "There is really nothing new about the 'new strategy' Bush proposed. . . . His prolonging of a failed strategy in Iraq looks more and more like a refusal to cope with the looming consequences of his own mistakes."

New York Post editorial: "Congressional Democrats, and their weak-kneed Republican allies, have it in their power to stop the so-called troop surge in its tracks. Indeed, they can de-fund the entire war, virtually overnight, if they so choose.

"They need to put up, or shut up.

"They should either cut off funds for the war - or leave President Bush alone as he directs freedom's battles in Iraq, and in the larger War on Terror."

And here's an Associated Press roundup including other editorials.

Views from the CFR

Scholars from the Council on Foreign Relations weighed in with a variety of fascinating observations. Among them:

Peter Beinart: "Media reaction to Bush's speech will be intriguing and important. Usually, networks and newspapers provide two opinions on a subject, Democratic and Republican, and make no value judgment between them. But in this case, finding Republicans who wholeheartedly back Bush's plan could be difficult--which may make the tone of coverage highly negative. If that happens, the administration may have great difficulty convincing the American people of its case in the days to come, and public support for an increase in troops could remain very low."

Michael Gerson: "[T]he president has shown that he is unimpressed by the conventional foreign policy wisdom. Instead of going to Iran as a supplicant, he is sending a carrier strike group to the region. Instead of abandoning a struggling democracy, he asserts that democracy is worth fighting for, and that our long-term security depends on democratic progress. Instead of seeking cover for retreat, he points out that retreat may also have unintended consequences, including genocidal levels of violence in Iraq. This new approach is likely to put his critics on the defensive, at least for a time."

William Nash: "On the diplomatic side he once again antagonized Iran and Syria, and left no room for any cooperation. Politically, his 'benchmarks' for Iraqi progress and goals for democracy were weak and unrealistic. He failed to articulate the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks."

Vali Nasr: "This is not a strategy that can turn Iraq around, but runs the danger of worsening things. . . . There is violence in Iraq because there is no political agreement among Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. The new strategy presents no roadmap out of this."

Steven Simon: "[T]he new approach serves two purposes: it responds to Americans who want to see a change of course, while creating the impression that if it does not work, it will be because the Iraqis have failed us."

Gideon Rose: "The president is correct to point out that failure will be a disaster for Iraq, the Middle East more generally, and the United States itself. One can only wish that his administration had taken this concept to heart from the beginning and planned and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, the real tasks at hand now are managing the failure so as limit its fallout and transitioning to a post-Iraq American foreign policy."

Blogosphere Watch

Kevin Drum writes: "If the benchmarks aren't met, we'll . . . um . . . we'll . . . set some new benchmarks! That'll show 'em we mean business."

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "President Bush made it abundantly clear in his White House address last night that he intends to dump his Iraq disaster into the lap of his '09 successor. The new way forward is actually Operation Kick the Can Down the Road."

John Derbyshire blogs for the National Review: "The central and most glaring contradiction is the implied threat to walk away. . . . Yoked to the ringing declaration that, of course, we can't walk away."

Olbermann's Look Back

Via Crooks and Liars, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann reviewed Bush's record on Iraq. Here's the video from MSNBC.

It's long. here's the big finish: "We would be greeted as liberators, with flowers. As they stood up, we would stand down. We would stay the course. We were never 'stay the course'. The enemy was al Qaeda, was foreigners, terrorists, Baathists. The war would pay for itself, it would cost $1.7 billion, 100 billion, 400 billion, half a trillion dollars.

"And after all of that, today it is his credibility versus that of generals, diplomats, allies, Republicans, Democrats, the Iraq Study Group, past presidents, voters last November, and the majority of the American people."

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