The Other War

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007 7:30 AM

We haven't heard much from the president over the years about Afghanistan. It's become a footnote, an aside, an add-on to speeches about Iraq.

The administration bears much of the blame for that, but so does the media. Most news organizations have pulled out of Kabul, not because it's too dangerous but because it's too expensive at a time when that country has slipped off the collective radar screen. There may be 23,000 American troops there, but the overriding story remains Iraq.

Compared to the huge and passionate divisions over Iraq, there was a widespread consensus in this country that going into Afghanistan, which had harbored Osama, was the right thing to do. It was the war tied directly to 9/11, not to claims of illicit weapons that turned out to be false. And with at least a minimally functioning democratic government, Afghanistan seemed to be a success story.

Then, of course, it became the forgotten war. Violence began to rise, with suicide attacks increasing fivefold last year, amid a resurgence by the Taliban. Success, it seemed, was slipping away.

Thus it was that President Bush gave a speech at AEI devoted to Afghanistan. How did he do? Let's put it this way: MSNBC and Fox cut away to show more pictures of the still-dead Anna Nicole Smith.

It was, to put it kindly, not a stirring speech. It was not sprinkled with applause lines. The president talked about deteriorating conditions but took no responsibility for that. And while Bush called for 3,200 more U.S. troops--and urged NATO to help out--he's doing that by extending deployments. It's not like there are large groups of American soldiers just sitting around these days.

With Congress in the throes of a debate over the surge, my sense is that Afghanistan, and the American soldiers stationed there, will remain a back-burner issue, even with yesterday's speech.

"President Bush warned on Thursday that he expected 'fierce fighting' to flare in Afghanistan this spring, and he pressed NATO allies to provide a bigger and more aggressive force to guard against a resurgence by the Taliban and Al Qaeda that could threaten the fragile Afghan state," says the New York Times.

"With American and NATO commanders pressing for more troops and experts predicting that further gains by the Taliban could put the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai in danger, Mr. Bush used his presidential platform to lay out what he said was substantial progress in Afghanistan since 2001, but also a continuing threat."

Things are getting worse, but we're making progress. Hmmm. What does that remind me of?

Captain Ed may be a conservative, but he is unimpressed:

"I'm not sure why this speech got so much attention. There's nothing much new here, and it's one of Bush's poorest performances on the stump. He sounds like he's ad-libbing a great deal of the speech, and he's not a good enough speaker to do it."

Joe at the liberal Americablog has a feeling of deja vu:

"This sounds like one of those old anti-terror speeches circa 2002. It is devoid of the current reality. He's still really trying hard to link the war in Iraq to the war on terror. Of course, Bush's war in Iraq has completely distracted us from the war on terror. Bush still hasn't captured Bin Laden who actually attacked our country. In fact, Bush's war in Iraq has been a recruiting boon for terror networks according to US intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, the Taliban is undergoing a resurgence. But, no fears. Bush is on the case. And, he loves a speech like this cause he gets to keep saying 'September the 11th.' "

Moving on now to Iran, the Nation's Ari Berman is among those questioning whether the White House, and partcularly Condi, made a major fumble:

"Did the Bush Administration miss a major opportunity in the spring of 2003 to engage Iran and stabilize the Middle East? Two high-ranking former Administration officials contend it did.

"In May 2003, Iran faxed a letter to the State Department, via the Swiss ambassador to Iran, proposing a sweeping realignment in US-Iranian relations. Iran offered 'full transparency' on its nuclear enrichment program, to take 'decisive action against any terrorists (above all Al Qaeda) on Iranian territory,' to help stabilize Iraq and establish democratic institutions there, to disarm Hezbollah, to stop 'material support to Palestinian opposition groups,' and accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"In exchange, the Iranian government asked the US government to foreswear regime change, abolish sanctions, crack down on the terrorist group MEK and allow Iran to develop peaceful nuclear technology.

"'What the Iranians offered in 2003 was nothing short of a Nixon-in-China breakthrough in US-Iranian relations,' said Flynt Leverett, the Bush Administration's former top official on Middle East policy at the National Security Council . . .

"Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice could have pushed President Bush to begin talks with Iran. But Rice did nothing--and now claims she never saw the memo. 'I just don't remember ever seeing any such thing,' she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

"Leverett says Rice is lying. She's acknowledged the existence of the Iranian offer in previous interviews and discussed it with him personally."

Hard to gauge how serious the Iranian offer was, but sounds like it was summarily dismissed.

How did Bush do at Wednesday's press conference? Joe Klein has a scorecard:

"Mood: Non-combative, conciliatory. Refused to indulge in the McCain-Lieberman tactic of saying the 'Democrat party'--he's still calling it that, by the way--is undermining the troops. Called the Democrats 'patriotic' several times.

"Iraq--nothing new here.

"Iran--significant retreat from intel briefing: he doesn't know whether or not the Iranian leadership has ordered the Quds Force activities. Refused to directly answer Martha Raddatz's question about whether he's using Iran's activities in Iraq as a pretext for war, then comes back to it later: 'Is this a pretext for war? No, I'm trying to protect our troops.' . . .

"Bottom line: Not much news here, but he didn't do himself any further harm."

Is the GOP trying to stage a different debate? Dick Polman thinks so:

"Republicans are in the tough position of defending President Bush's troop escalation plan, because they have to pretend that they really believe in it. I wrote that their attitude this week will be more dutiful than diehard. Indeed, their discomfort was palpable during the initial hours of debate. I was struck by the fact that most of them barely mentioned the troop hike at all, or even the Iraq situation in general; rather, most spoke in broad terms about the global terrorist threat, apparently in the hopes of implying that vigilant Republicans recognize the lethality of those who plot against us, while feckless Democrats do not.

"Well, now we know why the Republicans have decided to go global: Because they themselves recognize that any attempt to actually defend the troop hike, or to generally defend Bush's war, is a stone cold loser.This is what they say. A House Republican memo, outlining talking points for the debate, has surfaced online (somebody first leaked it to Democratic deputy leader Steny Hoyer) . Here's the key passage: 'Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the surge . . . The debate should not be about the surge or its details. This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.'"

But for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the only question is how many Republicans will join in the travesty:

"Congress has rarely been distinguished by its moral courage. But even grading on a curve, we can only describe this week's House debate on a vote of no-confidence in the mission in Iraq as one of the most shameful moments in the institution's history . . .

"It claims to want to 'protect' the troops even as its practical impact will be to encourage Iraqi insurgents to believe that every roadside bomb brings them closer to their goal."

In other news, my profile of blogger Michelle Malkin is now up.

The presidential candidates are having to cancel appearances now that Harry Reid has scheduled the war vote for Saturday. New Hampshire's economy will suffer.

Lawrence O'Donnell isn't waiting for no stinkin' jury:

"Libby is guilty. And he's going to be found guilty. The jury might not convict him on all counts, but he has no chance of surviving the perjury count that was proved beyond a reasonable doubt with Tim Russert's testimony.

The multi-million dollar defense, which provided no defense at all, did not call Libby to the witness stand for one very simple reason: Libby is very very guilty."

I knew that many in the netroots are unhappy with Hillary for not renouncing her Iraq vote, but this Kos post really underscores how strong those feelings are:

"I have no interest in giving a pass to those Democrats who aided and abetted Bush's mistakes, and I especially have no interest in giving a pass to those who demonstrate Bushian inability to offer self-reflection and admit that mistake. It's not a question of offering an 'apology'. I want acknowledgment of past mistakes.

"These Democrats didn't just enable Bush's war, they sat by and let the Right Wing smear machine attack those of us who waged our lonely battles to prevent this disaster from happening. And while most of the candidates in the field have come around, Hillary remains the notable exception.

"Those who have admitted their mistakes are now free to train their sights on the GOP. It doesn't absolve them from their terrible judgment, but it mitigates it. While it's best to not make a mistake in the first place, it's even worse to compound that mistake by refusing to come to terms with it.

"Clinton doesn't have that. And what's worse, she has pretty much lost the window of opportunity to do so. After resisting for so long, she finds herself in the thick of the presidential primary (yes, even a year out) with no room to maneuver. If she suddenly reverses course and decides that yes, she'll take personal responsibility for her vote, it'll feed into the strongest anti-Hillary narrative -- that she's a panderer and will say what is most politically expedient at the moment.

"It's a sad state of affairs, but Hillary has made her bed."

On the other hand, Merle Haggard has a new song called "Hillary":

"The country needs to be honest. Change needs to be large.

"Let's put a woman in charge."

Mitt Romney is campaigning one blogger at a time. Power Line's Paul Mirengoff is becoming a fan:

"Talking with Romney in a 'one-on-one' setting left me with the same positive impression I have had since first encountering him. My questions were intended to be reasonably challenging, at least to the extent of not always being answerable through canned recitations. Romney answered every question with poise and assurance, remaining focused yet genial throughout . . .

"Romney's reference to conservative principles and the challenge of winning the votes of social conservatives led me to ask about the problems he might face in the general election if he wins the nomination as the conservative alternative to Giuliani and McCain. Romney rejected my premise that the country is moving towards the center, if not the left. He sees the 2006 results as a reflection of unhappiness with poor management of the war in Iraq, coupled with 'no weapons of mass destruction.' He does not think this means voters want higher taxes or more government intrusion in their lives. Thus, he concludes, the answer for 2008 lies in the assertion of conservative principles by an 'outsider' not associated with the 'rancor and bitterness' that has characterized recent political discussion."

I sounded off yesterday about all the "Mormon" stories about Romney. At CBS's Public Eye, Brian Montopoli asks:

"Is the focus on Romney's religion fair? In a CBS News poll, 27 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon Republican presidential candidate. So Romney's faith is certainly a legitimate issue. But an earlier CBS News poll showed that a similar, if slightly smaller, percentage of the population said they wouldn't vote for a female or African-American candidate either. And while reporters have certainly discussed Hillary Clinton's sex and Obama's race, they have also looked at other angles when covering those candidates. Coverage of Obama, for example, tends to get into his rapid rise, his past indiscretions, and his inexperience, while Clinton coverage often focuses on her position on the Iraq war.

"Romney has an interesting back story -- he's a Republican who had political success in Massachusetts, and he has been credited with rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics -- but his Mormonism has largely been the focus of stories about his candidacy. And if that doesn't change, it may end up defining it."

Arianna has a confession:

"Back in the mid-90s, Al Franken and I shared a bed. Repeatedly. While we were both married. And, long before Pam and Tommy Lee or Paris Hilton, we always made sure we had a camera to record our liaisons."

Could this derail Franken's Senate candidacy? The premise, you see, is that Huffington won't sleep with him because he's a Democrat, so he starts mouthing conservative doctrine--the kind that seduced Huffington before she became a flaming lib.

It was a long time ago, says Arianna, "so please forgive my hair . . . and my views." Especially the hair.

Nancy Pelosi has a new blog. But it reads like a collection of press releases.

Betsy's Page is still perturbed over Obama saying that Americans lives in Iraq have been wasted:

"This illustrates the adage that a gaffe in Washington is when someone says the truth. Of course he thinks their lives were wasted. If he thinks that the war was wrong from the beginning and is proud of his opposition to the war, then logically, anyone who died in that war has wasted his or her life in that war. I'm waiting for someone to ask him how dying in a cause that he disagrees with in a war he opposes is not wasting a life?"

NBA star Tim Hardaway says he hates gay people. And all the league can do is ask him not to speak on its behalf? That's pathetic. You'd think, in exchange for the millions he gets, that Hardaway could keep his prejudices to himself.

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