Kabuki at Camp Cupcake

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 4, 2007 2:36 PM

What exactly was President Bush up to yesterday, making a "surprise visit" to a huge American air base in Iraq, praising the ostensible progress there and hinting at a troop reduction if things keep going so well?

One answer lies in the remarkably forthright interviews Bush gave author Robert Draper for a new book coming out today. As Jim Rutenberg wrote in Sunday's New York Times, Bush earlier this year explained his Iraq strategy to Draper this way: "I'm playing for October-November."

Writes Rutenberg: "That is when he hopes the Iraq troop increase will finally show enough results to help him achieve the central goal of his remaining time in office: 'To get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence,' and, he said later, 'stay longer.'

And the president is now aware that the only way to get attention is to make a dramatic move. "'I've been here too long,' Mr. Bush said, according to Mr. Draper. 'Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn't make it on the news.'"

In other words: Bush is gaming the media -- and playing for time. (See my Aug. 24 column, The Lost Year.)

In November it will be a year since the American people voted out a Republican Congress in a display of anti-war sentiment. And in November 2008, there'll be a new president-elect -- and Bush will be well on his way to a new life where he won't have to worry about such things anymore.

About that new life: "First, Mr. Bush said, 'I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers.' With assets that have been estimated as high as nearly $21 million, Mr. Bush added, 'I don't know what my dad gets -- it's more than 50-75' thousand dollars a speech, and 'Clinton's making a lot of money.'

"Then he said, 'We'll have a nice place in Dallas,' where he will be running what he called 'a fantastic Freedom Institute' promoting democracy around the world. But he added, 'I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch.'"

The Coy Morsel

The latest variation on Bush's stalling tactic involves coyly hinting about a troop drawdown. But some sort of drawdown has long been seen as inevitable and predictable by pretty much every serious thinker on Iraq. And it's unlikely that Bush is contemplating anything like the kind of congressionally-mandated, timetable-driven complete withdrawal that a significant majority of the American public has been demanding for some time.

Here's what set off the latest media flurry. At a meeting with Iraqi leaders, Bush announced that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker had told him that "if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."

And here's Bush's interview with CBS News's Katie Couric:

Couric: "In some way, does this hopefully in your view placate critics of the war on Capitol Hill?"

Bush: "You know I don't know, Katie, it's a good question. I would certainly hope so. In other words, if we're able to redeploy at some point time, I would hope so."

Bush then lapsed back into his familiar scare tactics: "Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States. . . . The American people have got to understand that what happens in Iraq matters in the streets. And so therefore I would hope that people would, you know, listen to the facts and remember that the security of the country is at stake. "

Couric raised the withdrawal issue again: "But just hearing those two words -- troop reduction -- do think it will win some people over who are uncomfortable with this war?"

And this time, Bush backed down: "That was just speculating. It's not going to win anybody over until it becomes a reality."

Bush met with reporters on Air Force One after leaving Iraq, and made it clear he was aware that his comment about troop reductions had piqued interest. "Maybe I was intending to do that," he said.

"If you look at my comments over the past eight months, it's gone from a security situation in the sense that we're either going to get out and there will be chaos, or more troops," the president said. "Now the situation has changed where I'm able to speculate on the hypothetical. . . . Isn't that remarkable?"

Here's the full pool report on his Air Force One interview. No official transcript has been released.

The Suspense Charade

Much of the press seems to be going along with a narrative that involves suspense over what Petraeus and Crocker will say and what Bush will decide. It's true that the public doesn't know the details yet, but it really couldn't be more obvious that Bush already knows full well what Petraeus and Crocker will tell Congress next week -- and has already decided on what he himself will tell the nation the following week. What's going on now is not deliberation, it's a PR campaign.

In her interview with Bush yesterday, ABC News's Martha Raddatz called Bush on his constant request that the public and Congress wait until the Petraeus and Crocker report to formulate a judgment. Hasn't he already decided the surge will continue for a while?

"Bush: That's going to be up to the recommendations of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. No question that the reinforcements and the surge have made a difference and we are standing in a province where it has made a significant difference. And so I'm looking forward to what they have to say as to how to continue security and at the same time enhance the reconciliation process.

"Raddatz: General Petraeus -- we talked to this morning and he said he's given you his recommendation already this morning.

"Bush: Well I'm not going to give it to you now, I'm going to wait for General Petraeus to come and speak to the country. I wanted to make sure that that which he had shared with me before was something that he genuinely believed."

Later on, in his Air Force One interview, Bush fessed up somewhat: "When Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker come to Washington they will essentially be telling Congress what they will have told me."

What Bush Saw

More than four years after declaring " Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, Bush still can't make an announced visit to the war-wracked country.

But his supposed "visit to Anbar Province" was in some ways even more cynical -- and accepted even more gullibly by the media -- than his June 2006 visit to Baghdad. There, at least, he actually set foot on Iraqi soil.

This time, Bush visited Al-Asad Air Base -- an enormous, heavily fortified American outpost for 10,000 troops that while technically in Anbar Province in fact has a 13-mile perimeter keeping Iraq -- and Iraqis -- at bay. Bush never left the confines of the base, known as " Camp Cupcake," for its relatively luxurious facilities, but nevertheless announced: "When you stand on the ground here in Anbar and hear from the people who live here, you can see what the future of Iraq can look like."

The Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, making an unannounced visit to this isolated and well-fortified air base in Anbar province, said Monday that continued gains in security in Iraq could allow for a reduction in U.S. troops and called on the Iraqi government to follow up with progress toward rebuilding and political reconciliation."

David S. Cloud and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "His visit, with his commanders and senior Iraqi officials, had a clear political goal: to try to head off opponents' pressure for a withdrawal by hailing what he called recent successes in Iraq and by contending that only making Iraq stable would allow American forces to pull back."

Cloud and Myers write that Bush's remarks "were the clearest indication yet that a reduction would begin sometime in the months ahead, answering the growing opposition in Washington to an unpopular war while at the same time trying to argue that any change in strategy was not a failure.

"'Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground -- not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media,' Mr. Bush told a gathering of American troops, who responded with a rousing cheer. . . .

"In Washington, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said the president's visit and his assertions about progress would do little to persuade skeptics. 'Despite this massive P.R. operation, the American people are still demanding a new strategy,' the spokesman, Jim Manley, said in a telephone interview.

"Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the reversal in Anbar had less do with American strategy than with local frustration over the extremism of Al Qaeda fighters trying to impose their doctrine. Mr. Cordesman suggested it was more of an anomaly than a model that could be applied elsewhere in Iraq, where sectarian divisions and strife appear to be worsening.

"'We are spinning events that don't really reflect the reality on the ground,' he said."

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush argues that enhanced security in Iraq is working to improve the political situation, at least at the local level, and that 'bottom-up' political improvements will lead to the national political reconciliation that's yet to occur. . . .

"Recent reports, however, challenge the 'bottom-up' approach and question whether Iraq's national government -- particularly under Maliki's leadership -- is up to the task of achieving reconciliation.

"A draft report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said that Iraq has met only three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress. A National Intelligence Estimate last month offered a bleak forecast of Iraq's future, saying the political situation would become 'more precarious' over the next 12 months.

"The report also warned that 'bottom up' reconciliation could do more harm than good to Iraq. It concluded that strengthening provincial groups, such as the Sunni tribes who increasingly have fought al Qaida in Iraq, could weaken the national government.

"While Bush has expressed faith in Maliki's government, a draft report by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said government is plagued by corruption and has stymied investigations of its political friends."

Foreshadowing

Many of the undercurrents of yesterday's visit were foreshadowed in Saturday's New York Times, in which David E. Sanger wrote: "President Bush, marshaling his arguments to maintain current troop levels in Iraq, has approved the acceleration of a new program to intensify economic assistance directly to Sunni Arab regions where former insurgents have joined American forces in fighting extremist Sunni groups, senior American officials say.

"The move, which has been gathering momentum for several months, was discussed at length on Friday at a Pentagon session attended by Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior American commanders in Iraq, the officials said."

The Pentagon presentation also included "lengthy descriptions from the Joint Chiefs about how the increase in forces is unsustainable beyond spring without extending the tours of forces already in Iraq. Several aides to Mr. Bush have said in recent weeks that such extensions are so politically unpalatable that they are not under consideration unless an emergency breaks out requiring the use of American forces elsewhere in the world.

"But Mr. Bush, they said, is also unlikely to wait until April to begin the drawdown. If he does so, he would have to pull troops out at the same pace at which he sent them this year, about a brigade a month, the officials said.

"By beginning a drawdown slightly earlier, the officials say, Mr. Bush would both maximize his flexibility and avoid having to stick to a strict timeline for withdrawal, which the president has said in the past would signal to enemy forces exactly when and how quickly American forces would begin to leave."

What Bush Heard

It appears Bush pretty much heard what he wanted to hear from pretty much everyone he talked to yesterday -- with one exception.

The PBS Newshour quotes Capt. Lee Hemming, a Marine helicopter pilot in Anbar, telling Bush at the end of a briefing: "Our training time back at home is very limited. We've found ourselves taking post-deployment leave at the same time conducting pre-deployment training. And then stress on the families, year after year only being home for five months, it's become a little harder each time to get in that normal training back in the United States."

Massimo Calabresi writes in Time: "As the room waited to see how the President would react, Hemming said he would welcome any questions or comments. Bush looked across the room at him and said, 'Morale. How's morale?' 'It's very good sir,' said Hemming."

The subject came up again as Bush spoke to reporters after his visit. Calabresi writes: "Bush said, 'Obviously there's concerns about families, rotations. People who have got young kids want to be with their kids. I understand that. On the other hand, many of them re-up.'"

The Secret Trip

Michael Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday was conceived by a small group of senior Bush aides about six weeks ago and remained a tightly held secret at the White House, said Dana Perino, a deputy press secretary."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "For security reasons, the president's trip -- his third to Iraq -- was a closely guarded secret. But there had been speculation he might go to Iraq on the way to Australia. Suspicions were raised because Bush was getting to Sydney three nights before the opening of the Asia-Pacific summit, the main reason for the trip. Then, first lady Laura Bush said she would not make the trip because of a heretofore unmentioned pinched nerve."

According to a pool report: "We were told to report for . . . pool duty not Monday morning, as had been publicly announced, but Sunday between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. Reporters were given maps of Andrews with our rallying point highlighted. We were told to come in through the main gate, not the usual Virginia Gate entrance. We also were told to tell only one editor at our respective news organizations, and not to do so by cell phone. Also, that editor had to be asked to not tell anyone. In addition, we were told that we could tell spouses about the impending trip, but no one else."

Photo Op Watch

Reporters repeatedly asked White House aides to respond to the charge that the trip was just one big photo-op. At one point, national security adviser Steven Hadley snapped back: "Would you guys like us to come without you? Sure, we're going to bring press along and people are going to see it."

About That Surge

Tina Susman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The U.S. military buildup that was supposed to calm Baghdad and other trouble spots has failed to usher in national reconciliation, as the capital's neighborhoods rupture even further along sectarian lines, violence shifts elsewhere and Iraq's government remains mired in political infighting."

Susman writes that "a review of statistics on death and displacement, political developments and the impressions of Iraqis who are living under the heightened military presence reaches a dispiriting conclusion."

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves. But the numbers only partly describe the reality on the ground. Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory.

"In many areas, U.S. forces are now working at cross-purposes with Iraq's elected Shiite-led government by financing onetime Sunni insurgents who say they now want to work with the Americans. The loyalties of the Iraqi military and police -- widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias -- remain in doubt."

Even Petraeus's showcase Dora market is "a Potemkin village of sorts," Raghavan writes -- a shadow of its former self, propped up by American money and manpower.

Babak Dehghanpisheh and Larry Kaplow write for Newsweek: "When Gen. David Petraeus goes before Congress next week to report on the progress of the surge, he may cite a decline in insurgent attacks in Baghdad as one marker of success. In fact, part of the reason behind the decline is how far the Shiite militias' cleansing of Baghdad has progressed: they've essentially won."

Opinion Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Until recently I assumed that the failure to find W.M.D., followed by years of false claims of progress in Iraq, would make a repeat of the snow job that sold the war impossible. But I was wrong. The administration, this time relying on Gen. David Petraeus to play the Colin Powell role, has had remarkable success creating the perception that the 'surge' is succeeding, even though there's not a shred of verifiable evidence to suggest that it is."

The Draper Insights

Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about Draper's book: "Aides said Mr. Bush agreed to speak so freely with Mr. Draper only after years of lobbying, in which Mr. Draper said he finally convinced Mr. Bush and his aides that he was writing about him as 'a consequential president' for history, not for the latest news cycle."

But there's plenty there for the latest news cycle.

"Mr. Bush went on to share private thoughts that appeared to reflect a level of sorrow and presidential isolation that he strongly implied he took pains to hide," Rutenberg writes.

"'Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency,' Mr. Bush told Mr. Draper, by way of saying he sought to avoid it. 'This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity.'

"In the same interview, Mr. Bush seemed to indicate that he had his down moments at home, saying of his wife, Laura, 'Back to the self-pity point -- she reminds me that I decided to do this.' . . .

"In response to Mr. Draper's observance that Mr. Bush had nobody's 'shoulder to cry on,' the president said: 'Of course I do, I've got God's shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot.' In what Mr. Draper interpreted as a reference to war casualties, Mr. Bush added, 'I'll bet I've shed more tears than you can count as president.' . . .

"[Bush] said he saw his unpopularity as a natural result of his decision to pursue a strategy in which he believed. 'I made a decision to lead,' he said, 'One, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance, and that may be true. But the fundamental question is, is the world better off as a result of your leadership?'"

Disbanding the Army

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One of the most heavily criticized actions in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was the decision, barely two months later, to disband the Iraqi army, alienating former soldiers and driving many straight into the ranks of anti-American militant groups.

"But excerpts of a new biography of President Bush show him saying that he initially wanted to maintain the Iraqi army and, more surprising, that he cannot recall why his administration decided to disband it. . . .

"Draper pressed Bush to explain why, if he wanted to maintain the army, his chief administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, issued an order in May 2003 disbanding the 400,000-strong army without pay.

"'Yeah, I can't remember; I'm sure I said, 'This is the policy, what happened?' ' Bush said, adding: 'Again, Hadley's got notes on all this stuff' -- a reference to national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic about Bush's "magical combination of certainty and lack of curiosity": "Think about this. The dissolution of the Iraq military is one of the six most-criticized and most-often-discussed aspects of the Administration's entire approach to Iraq. (Others: the decision to invade at all; the assessment of WMD; the size of the initial invasion-and-occupation force; the decision not to stop the looting of Baghdad; and the operation of Abu Ghraib.) And the President who has staked the fortunes of his Administration, his party, his place in history, and (come to think of it ) his nation on the success of his Iraq policy cannot remember and even now cannot be bothered to find out how the decision was made."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "A previously undisclosed exchange of letters shows that President Bush was told in advance by his top Iraq envoy in May 2003 of a plan to 'dissolve Saddam's military and intelligence structures,' a plan that the envoy, L. Paul Bremer, said referred to dismantling the Iraqi Army.

"Mr. Bremer provided the letters to The New York Times on Monday after reading that Mr. Bush was quoted in a new book as saying that American policy had been 'to keep the army intact' but that it 'didn't happen.' . . .

"A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House is not commenting on Mr. Draper's book, said Mr. Bush indeed understood the order and was acknowledging in the interview with Mr. Draper that the original plan had proved unworkable.

"'The plan was to keep the Iraqi Army intact, and that's accurate,' the official said. 'But by the time Jerry Bremer announced the order, it was fairly clear that the Iraqi Army could not be reconstituted, and the president understood that. He was acknowledging that that was something that did not go as planned.'

"But the letters, combined with Mr. Bush's comments, suggest confusion within the administration about what quickly proved to be a decision with explosive repercussions."

Aide vs. Aide

Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post with some more morsels from the book: "Karl Rove told George W. Bush before the 2000 election that it was a bad idea to name Richard B. Cheney as his running mate. . . .

"In 'Dead Certain: The Presidency of George Bush,' journalist Robert Draper writes that Rove told Bush he should not tap Cheney for the Republican ticket: 'Selecting Daddy's top foreign-policy guru ran counter to message. It was worse than a safe pick -- it was needy.' But Bush did not care -- he was comfortable with Cheney and 'saw no harm in giving his VP unprecedented run of the place.' . . .

"[Draper] also makes new disclosures about the behind-the-scenes infighting at the White House that helped prompt the change from [former chief of staff Andrew] Card to [Josh] Bolten in the spring of 2006. By that point, he reports, some close to the president had concluded that 'the White House management structure had collapsed,' with senior aides Rove and Dan Bartlett 'constantly at war.' . . .

"Rove, meanwhile, was not happy, Draper writes, with Bolten's decision to strip him of his oversight of policy at the White House, directing his focus instead to politics and the coming midterm elections. Bolten noticed that other staffers were 'intimidated' by Rove, and Rove was seen as doing too much, 'freelancing, insinuating himself into the message world . . . . parachuting into Capitol Hill whenever it suited him.' . . .

"In the CIA leak scandal, Rove assured Bush, Draper reports, that he had known nothing about Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose covert status was revealed by administration officials to reporters after Plame's husband criticized the administration's case for war in Iraq. 'When Bush learned otherwise,' he said, 'he hit the roof.'"

(Bush, of course, has yet to acknowledge that Rove was involved in the leak, or that he was lied to about it.)

And why was Bush so confident about postwar Iraq? "Several of Bush's top advisers believe that the president's view of postwar Iraq was significantly affected by his meeting with three Iraqi exiles in the Oval Office several months before the 2003 invasion, Draper reports.

"He writes that all three exiles agreed without qualification that 'Iraq would greet American forces with enthusiasm. Ethnic and religious tensions would dissolve with the collapse of Saddam's regime. And democracy would spring forth with little effort -- particularly in light of Bush's commitment to rebuild the country.'"

Slate has excerpts from Draper's book, describing a lunchtime interview with Bush in December 2006. At one point, "press secretary Tony Snow stepped into the doorway to ask about the daily press briefing he was about to conduct. Bush offered some suggestions for how to defer questions about his Iraq strategy.

"'Good. Perfect. Sorry to interrupt,' Snow said as he vacated the room.

"'It's okay,' remarked Bush. 'This is worthless, anyway.' Then, in a sudden bellow: 'I'd like an ice cream! Please! You want some ice cream, Robert?'"

The Last Week in August

So did I miss anything?

The last week in August is generally considered a safe time for a journalist to take off. So my apologies for not being around for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigning, Press Secretary Tony Snow throwing in the towel, Karl Rove's last day, and so much more. I'll have more to say about all those things and more in the coming week.

And more tomorrow on the ever-growing drumbeat against Iran (see Todd Gitlin if you can't wait); the Condoleezza Rice retrospectives; those missing White House e-mails; Bush's hot air and much more.

Meanwhile, I'm off to read this Jeffrey Rosen New York Times Magazine piece on former Justice Department official Jack L. Goldsmith's upcoming book, which I gather is worth getting exercised about.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich and Ann Telnaes on Gonzales; Tom Toles, Jim Borgman, Chip Bok and David Horsey on the lonely leader.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive