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How Bush Uses His Generals

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 16, 2007 2:00 PM

President Bush says that he should be trusted on military issues because he listens to his commanders. But he has a tendency to celebrate his generals when they're providing him political cover -- then stick a knife in their backs when they're no longer of any use to him.

Last week, Bush rejected any blame for the chaos that ensued in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion. So whose fault was it? Bush pointed the finger at Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command chief at the time. "My primary question to General Franks was, do you have what it takes to succeed? And do you have what it takes to succeed after you succeed in removing Saddam Hussein? And his answer was, yes," Bush said.

That's the same Tommy Franks to whom Bush awarded a Medal of Freedom in 2004.

And when virtually all of Bush military line of command, including the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposed his "surge" proposal late last year, Bush responded not by listening, but by removing the top two commanders responsible for Iraq and replacing them with more amenable leaders, including Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Petraeus, as it happens, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post just five weeks before the 2004 election describing what he called "reasons for optimism" in Iraq. Now Petraeus is Bush's "main man." Maybe he should be watching his back.

Thomas E. Ricks writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Almost every time President Bush has defended his new strategy in Iraq this year, he has invoked the name of the top commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

"Speaking in Cleveland on Tuesday, Bush called Petraeus his 'main man' -- a 'smart, capable man who gives me his candid advice.' And on Thursday, as the president sought to stave off a revolt among congressional Republicans, he said he wanted 'to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgment.'"

Yet Ricks continues: "Some of Petraeus's military comrades worry that the general is being set up by the Bush administration as a scapegoat if conditions in Iraq fail to improve," he writes. "'The danger is that Petraeus will now be painted as failing to live up to expectations and become the fall guy for the administration,' one retired four-star officer said. . . .

"When Bush and his aides shift military strategy, they seem to turn on the generals on whom they once relied publicly, said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official. During the run-up to the war, when Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, told Congress that more troops were needed to secure Iraq, he was publicly rebuked by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"More recently, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus's predecessor, was blamed for not doing more to improve security for Iraqi civilians, and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was effectively fired last month by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

"'This is an administration that wants to blame the generals,' Korb said."

Bush on Franks

From Thursday's press conference:

"Q Thank you, sir. You have spoken passionately about the consequences of failure in Iraq. Your critics say you failed to send enough troops there at the start, failed to keep al Qaeda from stepping into the void created by the collapse of Saddam's army, failed to put enough pressure on Iraq's government to make the political reconciliation necessary to keep the sectarian violence the country is suffering from now from occurring. So why should the American people feel you have the vision for victory in Iraq, sir?

"THE PRESIDENT: Those are all legitimate questions that I'm sure historians will analyze. I mean, one of the questions is, should we have sent more in the beginning? Well, I asked that question, do you need more, to General Tommy Franks. In the first phase of this operation, General Franks was obviously in charge, and during our discussions in the run up to the decision to remove Saddam Hussein after he ignored the Security Council resolutions. My primary question to General Franks was, do you have what it takes to succeed? And do you have what it takes to succeed after you succeed in removing Saddam Hussein? And his answer was, yes.

"Now, history is going to look back to determine whether or not there might have been a different decision made. But at the time, the only thing I can tell you, Wendell, is that I relied upon our military commander to make the proper decision about troop strength. And I can remember a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who said, we've reviewed the plan. I remember -- and seemed satisfied with it. I remember sitting in the PEOC, or the Situation Room, downstairs here at the White House, and I went to commander and commander that were all responsible of different aspects of the operation to remove Saddam. I said to each one of them, do you have what it takes? Are you satisfied with the strategy? And the answer was, yes."

Ironically, Franks -- and the joint chiefs -- were widely seen as having been compromised by their acquiescence to then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.

As Ricks said in an interview in 2004, Rumsfeld was the person behind the small-force argument. "Tommy Franks was kind of a pivotal figure in this, because he was seen as a classic muddy-boots army general who somehow began agreeing with Rumsfeld during the course of this argument. As one officer put it to me one day, 'Tommy Franks has drunk the Kool-Aid.' They did wind up with a much smaller force."

Is He Listening?

If Bush really were listening to his commanders, he'd probably be doing something else entirely.

On his washingtonpost.com blog, William M. Arkin notes that Bush did not mention any of "the president's statutory military advisers" in his press conference and writes:

"Some Bush critics and war opponents may conclude that the president is avoiding widespread dissent in the Pentagon by creating his own command structure and stacking it with yes men and weak leaders. I read it exactly the opposite: The brass is avoiding the president and the war in Iraq -- and doing so in the passive-aggressive way that has come to characterize our current civilian-military relations.

The generals have spoken. They think the war is lost. I'm not referring to the numbskulls who waited till they retired to join the political fray. I'm referring to the military leadership that is left waiting for this administration and this war to pass into history.

"Here's the lineup of military commanders and 'military thinkers and planners' that the president is listening to: Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq."

And as for the meeting that Bush described in 2003, in which the military commanders all said they had enough troops?

"I know something of this session," Arkin writes. "I've talked to two of the flag officers involved, and both give the same description of events: It was a multi-star photo-op. The commander-in-chief, at the eleventh hour, gathered his commanders for a pep session, script in hand, and everyone performed as planned. Even then, in March 2003, there were dissenters and skeptics as to whether there were enough troops and whether the 'peace' had been adequately planned for. There were even some general officers who thought the war was a mistake."

Medal of Freedom

In December 2004, Bush awarded Franks the Medal of Freedom-- alongside two other supposed heroes of the war: Former CIA director George Tenet and former U.S. proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer.

"The General likes to say that 'no plan ever survived the first contact with the enemy,' " Bush said. "But in Iraq, Tommy Franks' plan did," Bush said. "A force half the size of the force that won the Gulf War defeated Saddam Hussein's regime and reached Baghdad in less than a month, the fastest, longest armored advance in the history of America warfare.

"Today the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are building a secure and permanent democratic future."

Feeling the Heat

Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is apparently taking August off.

From Friday's briefing with press secretary Tony Snow:

"Q Is the Iraqi government and the Iraqi parliament taking the month of August off?

"MR. SNOW: Probably, yes. Just not --

"Q They're taking the entire month of August off, before the September deadline?

"MR. SNOW: It looks like they may, yes. Just like the U.S. Congress is.

"Q Have you tried to talk them out of that?

"MR. SNOW: You know, it's 130 degrees in Baghdad in August, I'll pass on your recommendation.

"Q Well, Tony, Tony, I'm sorry, that's -- you know -- I mean, there are a lot of things that happen by September and it's 130 degrees for the U.S. military also on the ground --

"MR. SNOW: You know, that's a good point. And it's 130 degrees for the Iraqi military. The Iraqis, you know, I'll let them -- my understanding is that at this juncture they're going to take August off, but, you know, they may change their minds."

Talking Points Memo has the video.

Losing Bob Schieffer

The August vacation sent CBS News's Bob Schieffer over the edge.

From his weekly commentary: "How much hotter do you suppose it is if you are a wearing a helmet, full body armor, carrying ammunition and walking foot patrols through Baghdad? . . .

"For me, this does it.

"God help the Iraqi people because there is not much America can do to help a government that leaves Americans dying in the streets while the parliament escapes to cooler climes."

Losing the War

Evan Thomas and Eve Conant write in Newsweek: "How do you manage the process of losing a war? Americans don't like the word 'defeat'; certainly, President George W. Bush won't be caught using it. He continues to talk of victory in Iraq, to insist that anything less is unacceptable. But his circle of true believers seems to be getting ever smaller. It may be limited to Vice President Dick Cheney, maybe a military commander or two and a few diehard senators. For everyone else in a position of authority over the war effort, there seems to be a grim recognition that Iraq is a lost cause, or very nearly so. The real question is not whether America can win, but rather how to get out. . . .

"The White House is not in panic mode, say two White House aides not authorized to speak on the record. The aides were trying to tamp down speculation after The New York Times reported serious internal divisions over what to do in Iraq. But at a Senate lunch Cheney attended last week, [Sen. Susan] Collins said she detected an unusual note of urgency. 'The vice president comes to our lunch frequently, but he speaks rarely,' Collins tells Newsweek. This time, however, Cheney spoke up to second Sen. John McCain's pitch to stay the course. 'There is a real step-up of activity in the White House,' says Collins. 'I think they are extremely worried, and they should be. There is a steady erosion of support for their policies.'"

Newsweek also reports that there are signs that the White House is losing patience with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The White House is seriously considering a plan to lock Maliki and the others in a room until they come up with compromises on vexing issues like sharing oil revenues, says a White House official who asked for anonymity speaking about a sensitive matter. Whether the Iraqis would go along with this scheme is another question."

Messing Up the Narrative

Joshua Partlow writes for The Washington Post from the West Rashid district of Baghdad: "West Rashid confounds the prevailing narrative from top U.S. military officials that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is the city's most formidable and disruptive force. While there are signs that the group has been active in the area, over the past several months, the Mahdi Army has transformed the composition of the district's neighborhoods by ruthlessly killing and driving out Sunnis and denying basic services to residents who remain."

Ned Parker writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers."

Unfounded Optimism

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "The mixed progress report on Iraq that the White House submitted to Congress this week included several grim assessments of the Iraqi government that contrasted with the more upbeat public statements of President Bush, his top aides and public White House briefing materials in the past few weeks."

For instance, "when a reporter traveling with Mr. Bush in Europe asked him if he had seen any progress toward national reconciliation in Iraq, he said, 'Yes, look, they're close to getting an oil deal done.'

"But in addressing progress toward the oil law, the report concluded, 'The current status is unsatisfactory, but it is too early to tell whether the government of Iraq will enact and implement legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to all Iraqis.'"

Rutenberg concludes: "That apparent contradiction highlights the difficulties the White House is facing in balancing the president's desire to rally a pessimistic public behind the war effort with his political need to demonstrate that he is following a realistic approach, after years of optimistic predictions from the administration and its allies that did not bear out."

Dangerous Optimism

Peter Eisler, Blake Morrison and Tom Vanden Brook write for USA Today about why the Pentagon resisted pleas from commanders in Iraq to get more Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, for patrols and combat missions -- even as they bought them for the Iraqi army.

"One reason officials put off buying MRAPs in significant quantities: They never expected the war to last this long. Bush set the tone on May 1, 2003, six weeks after the U.S. invasion, when he declared on board the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that 'major combat operations in Iraq have ended.'

"Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq from June 2004 until February this year, repeatedly said that troop levels in Iraq would be cut just as soon as Iraqi troops took more responsibility for security. In March 2005, he predicted 'very substantial reductions' in U.S. troops by early 2006. He said virtually the same thing a year later.

"Casey wasn't the only optimist. In May 2005, Vice President Cheney declared that the insurgency was 'in its last throes.'

"Given the view that the war would end soon, the Pentagon had little use for expensive new vehicles such as the MRAP, at least not in large quantities. The MRAPs ordered for the Iraqis were intended to speed the day when, to use Bush's words, Iraqi forces could 'stand up' and the United States could 'stand down.'"

The toll? "In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates late last month, two U.S. senators said the delays cost the lives of an estimated '621 to 742 Americans' who would have survived explosions had they been in MRAPs rather than Humvees."

Is Iran Next?

Ewen MacAskill and Julian Borger write in the Guardian: "The balance in the internal White House debate over Iran has shifted back in favour of military action before President George Bush leaves office in 18 months, the Guardian has learned. . . .

"Although the Bush administration is in deep trouble over Iraq, it remains focused on Iran. A well-placed source in Washington said: 'Bush is not going to leave office with Iran still in limbo.' . . .

"The vice-president, Dick Cheney, has long favoured upping the threat of military action against Iran. He is being resisted by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the defence secretary, Robert Gates.

"Last year Mr Bush came down in favour of Ms Rice, who along with Britain, France and Germany has been putting a diplomatic squeeze on Iran. But at a meeting of the White House, Pentagon and state department last month, Mr Cheney expressed frustration at the lack of progress and Mr Bush sided with him. 'The balance has tilted. There is cause for concern,' the source said this week."

The Pat Tillman Dodge

This could be the sleeper story of the weekend. Is the White House, in its latest assertion of executive privilege, essentially conceding that it was involved in trying to cover up the real circumstances of football hero Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan?

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Two influential lawmakers investigating how and when the Bush administration learned the circumstances of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death and how those details were disclosed accused the White House and Pentagon on Friday of withholding key documents and renewed their demand for the material.

"The White House and Defense Department have turned over nearly 10,000 pages of papers -- mostly press clippings -- but the White House cited ' executive branch confidentiality interests' in refusing to provide other documents. . . .

"Tillman's family and others have said they believe the erroneous information peddled by the Pentagon was part of a deliberate cover-up that may have reached all the way to President Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. . . .

"Executive 'confidentiality' is a lesser claim than 'executive privilege' -- more a polite way of declining than a firm refusal -- and thus still leaves room for negotiation, congressional staffers involved in the matter said."

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "Tillman's celebrity, as one who gave up a professional football contract to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, made his death major news. The military at first concocted a heroic story about how [he] had been killed in a fierce firefight with the enemy, despite obvious evidence that he had been shot by his own men at close range. . . .

"'The main focus of the committee's investigation is to examine what the White House and the leadership of the Department of Defense knew about Corporal Tillman's death and when they knew it,' [the two congressmen] said in a letter to Fielding. 'Unfortunately, the document production from the White House sheds virtually no light on these matters.'"

Here's more from the House Oversight Committee.

Opinion Watch

Kate O'Beirne and Rich Lowry write for the National Review about an apparently newsless meeting Bush held with conservative journalists on Friday afternoon. They write: "He marveled at one of the media's lines of questioning at his Thursday press conference, 'They asked me yesterday "Are you sure it's al Qaeda [in Iraq]?" "Yeah, how do you know?" "Because they swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden is how I know. Yeah, it's al Qaeda." My point though to people is that it is the same crowd that killed 3,000 that is trying to drive us out of Iraq.'"

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The administration knows that its last stated mission for the war -- 'an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself' -- is as doomed as the Iraqi army that would 'stand up' so we could stand down. So now there's a new 'mission' -- or at least new boilerplate. 'Victory is defeating Al Qaeda,' Tony Snow said last week, because 'Al Qaeda continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem within Iraq.' What's more, its members are, in Mr. Bush's words, 'the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th.'

"This is hooey, of course. Not only did Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia not exist before we invaded Iraq in 2003, but it isn't even the chief organizer of the war's mayhem today. ABC News reported this month that this group may be responsible for no more than 15 percent of the attacks in Iraq. Bob Woodward wrote in The Washington Post on Thursday that Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, told Mr. Bush last November that Al Qaeda was only the fifth most pressing threat in Iraq, after the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality and general anarchy.

"So what if the Qaeda that's operating with impunity out of Pakistan, North Africa and other non-Iraq havens actually is the most pressing threat to America? This president is never one to let facts get in the way of a political agenda. That agenda is to avoid taking responsibility for losing a war, no matter how many more Americans are tossed into its carnage. From here on in, you can be sure that whomever we're fighting in Iraq on any given day will be no more than one degree of separation from bin Laden."

Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "As I watched the [Thursday] news conference, it occurred to me that one of the things that might leave people feeling somewhat disoriented is the president's seemingly effortless high spirits. He's in a good mood. There was the usual teasing, the partly aggressive, partly joshing humor, the certitude. He doesn't seem to be suffering, which is jarring. Presidents in great enterprises that are going badly suffer: Lincoln, LBJ with his head in his hands. Why doesn't Mr. Bush? Every major domestic initiative of his second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president's since polling began. . . .

"Is it defiance? Denial? Is it that he's right and you're wrong, which is your problem? Is he faking a certain steely good cheer to show his foes from Washington to Baghdad that the American president is neither beaten nor bowed? Fair enough: Presidents can't sit around and moan. But it doesn't look like an act. People would feel better to know his lack of success sometimes gets to him. It gets to them."

William Kristol writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "George W. Bush's presidency will probably be a successful one."

Despite "unnecessary mistakes and the self-inflicted wounds," and aides who don't understand the war is winnable, Kristol writes: "Bush has the good fortune of having finally found his Ulysses S. Grant, or his Creighton Abrams, in Gen. David H. Petraeus. If the president stands with Petraeus and progress continues on the ground, Bush will be able to prevent a sellout in Washington. And then he could leave office with the nation on course to a successful (though painful and difficult) outcome in Iraq. With that, the rest of the Middle East, where so much hangs in the balance, could start to tip in the direction of our friends and away from the jihadists, the mullahs and the dictators."

Book Watch

Karen DeYoung reviews Stephen F. Hayes's new Cheney bio in The Washington Post: "Hayes, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, wrote a previous book attempting to prove a close pre-war connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Here, he offers highly selective versions of this and other Bush-era controversies, from unwarranted wiretapping to Hussein's alleged nuclear weapons programs. . . .

"Hayes writes that he conducted 600 interviews for the book, and a few of them contain revealing nuggets, even if those nuggets remain unexplored. For instance, shortly before accepting the job of director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell seemed to side with those who believe that the administration manipulated intelligence on Iraq for political purposes before the 2003 invasion. But Haynes fails to look deeper into it."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "If much of the public views the unpopular Cheney as a kind of Darth Vader of the West Wing, Hayes is more simpatico with the vice president. The author's long series of conversations with Cheney yielded a few nuggets, including that Cheney opposed Bush's decision to oust his former boss and longtime friend Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld after last fall's midterm elections."

There's an excerpt from the book on the Weekly Standard Web site.

Impeachment Watch

Bill Moyers talks with Bruce Fein and John Nichols about impeachment.

Helen Thomas Watch

From Friday's briefing:

"Q Do we have one-man rule in this country?

"MR. SNOW: No.

"Q The President --

"MR. SNOW: But thank you for asking."

Bush's Taste in Food

Veronica Lorraine writes for the Sun, a British tabloid: "George Bush's chef has revealed the US President's favourite supper -- a cheeseburger pizza. . . .

"Chef Cristeta Comerford spilled the beans at an annual gathering of the cooks to world statesmen and royals.

"She said: 'For dinner the President loves what we call home-made cheeseburger pizzas because every ingredient of a cheeseburger is on top of a margherita pizza. . . .

"Toppings include ground beef and cheese, ketchup, pickles, gherkins, fried onions, bacon and tomatoes."

Late Night Humor

Jimmy Kimmel, via U.S. News: "President Bush held a press conference yesterday to discuss the latest report out of Iraq. He says there's plenty of reason for optimism. Although, I'm starting to feel he doesn't know what that word means."

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on Bush's gall; Ann Telnaes on Bush's gambling; Mike Luckovich on the three branches.

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