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The Debate Over Debate

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 9, 2007; 12:02 PM

Does debating the war undermine the troops? Or is it the ultimate expression of American democracy?

The White House is trying to have it both ways.

On the one hand, President Bush told House Democrats the other day: "I welcome debate in a time of war, and I hope you know that."

On the other hand, Vice President Cheney has repeatedly endorsed independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman's statement that a resolution opposing Bush's policies in Iraq would encourage the enemy.

Yesterday, the White House simply couldn't stand the fact that two of the administration's top military leaders were widely quoted as saying that they did not think debate in Congress would hurt the morale of troops in combat.

Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday: "There is no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy, period."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates added: "All I would say is, history is littered with examples of people who underestimated robust debate in Washington, DC for weakness on the part of America. And I think a lot of people understand that, as well."

Later, an agitated White House press office yesterday fired out an e-mail to reporters -- full of bold type and underlines -- stressing that Pace and Gates also talked about the importance of continued congressional support and resources for the mission.

Here is a toned-down version of the White House e-mail to reporters.

So is the White House position that it's OK to have a debate -- as long as in the end, nothing comes of it? It sort of sounds that way.

The most outrageous example of the White House trying to have it both ways -- strongly suggesting that disagreement with the president emboldens the enemy, without quite saying so -- came from press secretary Tony Snow last week.

As I first noted in my Feb. 2 column, here is what Snow had to say at his Feb. 1 briefing, on the topic of possible Senate resolutions opposing the president's escalation plan:


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