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Bush's 'Total Confidence'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 31, 2008 1:00 PM

Two thirds of his constituents think he's doing a lousy job, four out of five crave a new direction, American troops are bogged down in Iraq, al Qaeda and the Taliban are on the rebound, the U.S. economy is tanking -- you'd think maybe President Bush would be experiencing some moments of self-doubt by now.

It would only be human.

But no, Bush continues to display -- at least in public -- an inexplicable cockiness.

The latest exhibition comes in a jaw-dropping interview with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke. Kondracke writes (subscription required): "Bush enters his last year in office expressing total confidence that he's been doing the right things.

"He told me in an Oval Office interview that 'absolutely, we are stronger' as a nation than when he took office and that, even in areas where he failed to get what he wanted -- as in Social Security and immigration reform -- his ideas eventually will prevail.

"He said his biggest disappointment as president was his inability to be a 'uniter not a divider' and he agreed that politics is 'polarized.' On the other hand, he was adamant that he would never compromise on some of the principles -- such as cutting taxes and promoting democracy -- that have made him so polarizing. . . .

"When I asked him whether he thought America was a stronger country than when he arrived in office -- in view of a weakened dollar, increased debt, rising oil prices and dependency and international polls showing a steep decline in America's reputation -- he batted the question back.

"'We're stronger because our military is stronger . . . and becoming more modern. We're stronger because we recognize the threats of the 21st century and are dealing with them.

"'We're stronger because we've added jobs. More Americans are working. . . . Real wages are up. . . . We're still a flexible economy with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. We have more debt, but we've also got more assets. We're stronger because America is in the lead, using its influence.'"

Kondracke concludes: "The bottom line on Bush is that he seems utterly convinced in the rightness of what he's been doing these seven years. 'We must be confident in what we stand for and not feel like we have to subsume our interests, our beliefs, in order to reach a kind of unanimity in the world,' he said.

"'And that also applies at home. So, people say, "You can unify." But I will not unify if I have to compromise my beliefs.'"

(UPDATE: The full transcript of the interview is now available on washingtonpost.com.)

No Second Thoughts

In a prime-time news conference in April 2004, Bush was famously unable to come up with a single mistake he had made, or lesson learned.

He has acknowledged a few mistakes in Iraq -- Abu Ghraib, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, among others -- but has blamed them on others.

The closest thing to remorse he's expressed for his own actions came in January 2005 and May 2006, when he said he regretted using the phrases "Bring 'em On" and "Dead or Alive" (in referring to Osama bin Laden). But those were matters of style, not substance.

Does he really believe he's done nothing wrong? (See all my musings on Bush's Bubble.) Is he just too stubborn to admit mistakes in public? Is he putting up a brave front? It's a mystery.

On Good v. Evil

I suppose one possible explanation is that Bush has a comic-book like view of himself as the protagonist in a battle between good and evil -- and sees his every action in that light.

Here he is, for instance, in California yesterday: "You know, we're in this ideological struggle against, I called them [during the State of the Union address] 'evil men,' and I meant what I said. There are people that murder the innocent to achieve political objectives. And the only way they can sell their ideology is when they find hopeless people, and you can find hopeless people in places where there's no hope because the economies are sick. The best way to help people is not to give people your taxpayers' money, but to encourage enterprise through commerce and trade."

By contrast, Greg Krikorian writes today in the Los Angeles Times about terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, who believes that "in the war on terrorism 'we have to have a better understanding of what we're up against.' Demonizing terrorists as 'wicked and evil' plays into their hands, while learning about 'their quantifiable goals and understandable motives' demystifies them.

"Knowledge, he says, is the antidote to anxiety."

Speaking of Evil

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Wednesday that while he would consider it torture if he underwent the harsh Central Intelligence Agency interrogation technique known as waterboarding, the practice was not necessarily illegal, and he would not rule out its use in the future.

"Under sometimes angry questioning from Democrats at his first oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Mukasey found himself caught in the debate that nearly derailed his confirmation last fall: whether waterboarding is torture."

Here's part of Mukasey's exchange with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.):

Kennedy: "So, let me ask you this: Would waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?"

Mukasey: "I would feel that it was. . . . "

Kennedy: "Now let me -- you say facts and circumstances. Let me ask you, under what facts and circumstances exactly would it be lawful to waterboard a prisoner?"

Mukasey: "For me to answer that question would be for me to do precisely what I said I shouldn't do.

"Because I would be, number one, imagining facts and circumstances that are not present and thereby telling our enemies exactly what they can expect in those -- in those -- in those eventualities. Those eventualities may never occur.

"I would also be telling people in the field, when I'm not faced with a particular situation, what they have to refrain from or not refrain from in a situation that is not performing and in situations that they may find analogous."

Mukasey, like his boss, would admit nothing. Here's an exchange with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.):

Mukasey: "I can't contemplate any situation in which this president would assert Article II authority to do something that the law forbids."

Specter: "Well, he did just that in violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He did just that in disregarding the express mandate of the National Security Act to notify the Intelligence Committees. Didn't he?"

Mukasey: "I think we are now in a situation where both of those issues have been brought within statutes, and that's the procedure going forward."

Specter: "That's not the point. The point is that he acted in violation of statutes, didn't he?"

Mukasey: "I don't know whether he acted in violation of statutes."

From Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy's opening statement: "This President's administration has repeatedly ignored the checks and balances wisely placed on executive power by the Founders, who were concerned that they not replace the tyranny of George III with an American king.

"Among the most disturbing aspects of these years has been the complicity of the Justice Department, which has provided cover for the worst of these practices. Its secret legal memoranda have sought to define torture down to meaninglessness, sought to excuse warrantless spying on Americans contrary to our laws and made what Jack Goldsmith, a conservative former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, has rightly called a 'legal mess' of it all. This President and this administration have, through signing statements and self-centeredness, decided that they are above the law and can unilaterally decide what parts of what laws they will follow. The costs have been enormous, to our core American ideals, the rule of law, and the principle that in America, no one -- not even a President -- is above the law. . . .

"It is not enough to say that waterboarding is not currently authorized. Torture and illegality have no place in America. We should not delay beginning the process of restoring America's role in the struggle for liberty and human dignity. Tragically, this administration has so twisted America's role, law and values that our own State Department, our military officers and, apparently, America's top law enforcement officer, are now instructed by the White House not to say that waterboarding is torture and illegal. Never mind that waterboarding has been recognized as torture for the last 500 years."

And here, from Leahy's closing statement: "I had hoped today would provide more clarity on so many critical issues. Instead, we heard references to legal opinions, justifications, and facts that remain hidden from Congress and the American people. . . .

"It is a hallmark of our democracy that we say publicly what the laws are and what conduct they prohibit. We have seen what happens when hidden decisions rendered in secret memos are withheld from the people's elected representatives and from the American people. It erodes our civil liberties and undermines our values as a nation of laws."

The New York Times editorial board writes of Mukasey's testimony: "To a disturbing degree, he has adopted his predecessor's habit of saying precisely what the White House wanted to hear. . . .

"On torture, domestic spying and other important matters, Mr. Mukasey parroted the Bush administration's deplorable line. He was particularly disappointing in his see-no-evil approach to the misconduct at the Justice Department before he arrived."

Torture Tapes Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A special Justice Department probe into the destruction of CIA videotapes could be expanded to include whether harsh interrogation tactics depicted on the tapes violated federal anti-torture laws, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey testified yesterday.

"His testimony indicated that the CIA tapes probe, which Mukasey launched earlier this month, could go beyond the tape destruction itself to examine the actions of the current and former CIA employees who carried out coercive interrogations.....

"The appointed prosecutor on the case, Mukasey said later, 'is going to follow it where it leads, and that means wherever it leads.'"

I can well imagine some people in the vice president's office bursting blood vessels when they heard that. And sure enough, as Eggen reports: "Last night, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement that nothing Mukasey 'said suggests that any of those who relied in good faith upon the Department's advice would be subject to criminal investigation.'"

Cheney Watch

Vice President Cheney called in to the Rush Limbaugh show yesterday to stump for surveillance law changes that would, among other things, provide retroactive immunity for companies that obliged the government in its warrantless wiretapping program.

Opponents of such changes, Cheney said, are people who "I guess, want to leave open the possibility that the trial lawyers could go after a big company that may have helped those companies --- helped, specifically, at our request. And they've done yeomen duty for the country."

They also "want to act as though there's no threat and we don't need to take these important measures."

Cheney expressed total confidence that those who want Congress to stand up to the president will fail once again: "Well, I think the fact of the matter is at this point, they don't have the votes; that is, I don't think they can prevail."

So, what's with the 15-day delay supported by Democratic leaders? "[T]hey want more time to let the opponents sort of air their grievances and probably vote on some more amendments before we go to final passage."

Rove and 9/11

Washington DeCoded blogger Max Holland writes: "In a revelation bound to cast a pall over the 9/11 Commission, Philip Shenon will report in a forthcoming book that the panel's executive director, Philip Zelikow, engaged in 'surreptitious' communications with presidential adviser Karl Rove and other Bush administration officials during the commission's 20-month investigation into the 9/11 attacks.

"Shenon, who led The New York Times' coverage of the 9/11 panel, reveals the Zelikow-Rove connection in a new book entitled The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, to be published next month by Twelve books. The Commission is under an embargo until its February 5 publication, but Washington DeCoded managed to purchase a copy of the abridged audio version from a New York bookstore. . . .

"[Shenon] depicts Zelikow as exploiting his central position to negate or neutralize criticism of the Bush administration so that the White House would not bear, in November 2004, the political burden of failing to prevent the attacks."

Holland writes that Zelikow failed to disclose several egregious conflicts of interest, "among them, the fact that he had been a member of [Condoleezza] Rice's [National Security Council] transition team in 2000-01. In that capacity, Zelikow had been the 'architect' responsible for demoting Richard Clarke and his counter-terrorism team within the NSC. As Shenon puts it, Zelikow 'had laid the groundwork for much of went wrong at the White House in the weeks and months before September 11. Would he want people to know that?'"

Justin Rood blogs for ABC News that Holland's post was "generally confirmed by the book's publisher" but notes that in an interview, "Zelikow flatly denied discussing the commission's work with Rove. 'I never discussed the 9/11 Commission with him, not at all. Period.'"

Budget Watch

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "In his new budget, to be unveiled Monday, President Bush will call for large cuts in the growth of Medicare, far exceeding what he proposed last year, and he will again seek major savings in Medicaid, according to administration officials and budget documents."

The two programs would see their spending cut by more than 10 percent.

"Most of the Medicare savings in the budget would be achieved by reducing the annual update in federal payments to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, ambulances and home care agencies," Pear writes.

"The budget would not touch payments to insurance companies for private Medicare Advantage plans, even though many Democrats and independent experts say those plans are overpaid."

For comparison purposes, the $6.2 billion Bush would cut from these health programs for the old and poor is about equal what the government spends in Iraq over 22 days -- for combat operations alone.

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The budget President Bush unveils on Monday is likely to feature deficits reaching $400 billion this year and next, leaving his successor a fiscal ledger dripping with red ink."

Bush Out West

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Sandwiching a war speech in between Republican fundraisers, President Bush is making clear that his priority is to keep Iraq secure, not just to get troops home.

"His Iraq update here on Thursday is tucked into an agenda of political events across four states. The private affairs will raise $4.7 million for his party by week's end. . . .

"'You'll see him doing a lot of this,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. 'This will be, I think, a very successful trip, in terms of raising money. The president has far more requests for fundraising stops than we can possibly fill.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post from California: "Bush acknowledged signs that the U.S. economy is slowing but maintained his bullish long-term perspective, refusing again to cite the possibility of a recession."

From Bush's remarks: "I hope you're confident about our economy. I am. We've got some short-term issues to deal with. Fourth quarter growth slowed to .6 percent. In other words, there are signs that our economy are slowing. There's some uncertainty in the economy. But in the long run you've got to be confident about your economy."

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about his interview with Bush yesterday, largely about the value of trade: "Bush stressed that American exporters -- among the strongest performers in the shaky economic environment -- would benefit from approval of the rest of his trade agenda, which includes proposed deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, the world's 10th-largest economy."

John Wildermuth writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Bush kept intact his record of never visiting San Francisco during his presidency. Instead, he flew into San Francisco International Airport late in the afternoon and went by motorcade to Hillsborough, where he dropped by a dinner for the Republican National Committee."

Brendan Buhler writes in his Las Vegas Sun opinion column: "After seven years, it's come to this.

"When the president of the United States -- the leader of the free world, the guy with the nuclear football doohickey and therefore the power to end human if not cockroach civilization -- comes to town today to update Las Vegas on the war on terrorism, he will not be standing in a stadium, behind a church pulpit or in a rugged pose in front of Red Rock. Not even in a high school auditorium.

"No, the president will be at the back of an office park overlooking a rock quarry and snake habitat disguised as an expensive golf course named Badlands. He'll be giving his speech on The Global War on Terror to a conservative education think thank that was last in the news because it announced the results of a poll in which people said teachers were overpaid.

"He'll be in a hall usually rented out for weddings and corporate events, a building with a Miami Beach-chic-meets-Orange County-pretentious architecture."

Bloch Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The federal investigator who is probing possible White House misconduct and who himself is under investigation over alleged wrongdoing in his office is now accusing another investigator of trying to thwart his probes.

"Scott J. Bloch, head of an obscure agency charged with protecting the rights of federal workers, sent a five-page letter last week to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey complaining that his agency, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, had been asked to step aside from an investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys until internal Justice Department probes into those firings are completed.

"Bloch wrote that months might pass before that happens, pushing his agency's role 'into the very last months of the administration when there is little hope of any corrective measures or discipline possible.'"

SOTU Watch

The St. Petersburg Times editorial board writes: "George W. Bush's rhetoric in his final State of the Union speech didn't match the reality of the past seven years. One of his best lines was this one: 'History will record that amid our differences, we acted with purpose.' If it were so, four out of five Americans wouldn't believe the country is headed in the wrong direction."

James Fallows continues his tradition of annotating the State of the Union for the Atlantic. He writes: "Only three times in the last 50-plus years has a president given a final State of the Union address knowing, in the way Bush did, that it was his final address. . . .

"On those three previous occasions -- Ike '60, Reagan '88, Clinton '00 -- the presidents appeared to be trying for something a little different from the standard State of the Union blather of legislative ambitions and topic-sentence comments about the world. . . . [T]hey were quite consciously designed to steer the historians in the right direction in their understanding of the era coming to its end. . . .

"Bush didn't even try."

Signing Statements Watch

The Roanoke Times editorial board writes: "An honorable president would have the gumption to veto bills he found objectionable. But as Americans have learned by now, there is no room for honor in President Bush's Oval Office.

"He prefers chicanery in the form of 'signing statements.'

"Prior to delivering the State of the Union Address on Monday, Bush eviscerated four key provisions of the new defense bill by saying he will ignore parts of the law he doesn't like. . . .

"No American should be able to ignore the law without consequence. Not even a president."

Kevin Drum blogs for Washington Monthly: "As recently as a year ago the White House at least acknowledged that Congress had the power to defund military activities if it wished. In fact, their argument, essentially, was that funding was pretty much the only power Congress had over military and foreign policy. Now, apparently, they think Congress doesn't even have that."

For more, see yesterday's column.

Iraq Watch

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post from Baghdad: "Senior U.S. military commanders here say they want to freeze troop reductions starting this summer for at least a month, making it more likely that the next administration will inherit as many troops in Iraq as there were before President Bush announced a 'surge' of forces a year ago. . . .

"Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will probably argue for what the military calls an operational 'pause' at his next round of congressional testimony, expected in early April, another senior U.S. military official here said. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top military officers have said they would like to see continued withdrawals throughout this year, but Bush has indicated he is likely to be guided by Petraeus's views. . . .

"Privately, White House advisers say Bush is loath to do anything that would jeopardize what he sees as hard-won security gains and predict he would be very receptive to any go-slow suggestion from Petraeus."

Afghanistan Watch

Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The international effort to stabilize Afghanistan is faltering and urgently needs thousands of additional U.S. and coalition troops, an influential group of American diplomatic and military experts concluded in a report issued Wednesday.

"The independent study finds that the Taliban, which two years ago was largely viewed as a defeated movement, has been able to infiltrate and control sizable parts of southern and southeastern Afghanistan, leading to widespread disillusionment among Afghans with the mission. . . .

"The report is critical of nearly every governmental and international organization involved in Afghanistan, including the Bush administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, calling their efforts inadequate, poorly coordinated and occasionally self-defeating."

The Lessons of War

When does a war intended as a display of strength actually demonstrate weakness? The answer appears to be: the 21st century.

Israel's war in Lebanon got remarkably little attention in this country, considering how it never would have happened without Bush's approval and how damaging it was to the people of Lebanon. Now there's evidence that it wasn't good for Israel either.

Ellen Knickmeyer writes in The Washington Post: "Israel's inconclusive 33-day war with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon undermined the military deterrence Israelis consider indispensable to their survival, a government-appointed panel concluded Wednesday in its final report."

The war "'was a big and serious failure' for Israel, Eliyahu Winograd, the retired judge who led the committee, told reporters."

Coming to YouTube?

The Associated Press reports: "Secret Service agents and aides to Vice President Cheney who gave statements for a Colorado lawsuit have asked a judge not to release videos of their testimony, saying they might wind up on YouTube or 'Comedy Central.'

"The arguments Wednesday came as a federal magistrate ordered the government to present its reasons why Cheney should not be subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit by a Denver-area man who claims comments he made to the vice president about the Iraq war led to his arrest in June 2006."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman on the State of the Union.

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on the GOP view of Bush; Daniel Wasserman on Bush's economy; Nick Anderson on the desire for change; Chip Bok on Bush and earmarks.

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