washingtonpost.com
Bush's War, Five Years On

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 17, 2008 1:30 PM

Unless the economy disintegrates entirely, President Bush's chief legacy will almost certainly be the war in Iraq -- or, more accurately, the violent occupation of Iraq -- that enters its sixth year later this week.

John F. Burns writes in the New York Times: "At the fifth anniversary, the conflict's staggering burden is a rebuke to any who hoped [Saddam] Hussein's removal might be accomplished at acceptable cost. Back in 2003, only the most prescient could have guessed that the current 'surge' would raise the American troop commitment above 160,000, the highest level since the invasion, in the war's fifth year, or that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America's financial costs, by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008, on their way to perhaps $2 trillion if the commitment continues for another five years. Beyond that, there are a million or more Iraqis living as refugees in neighboring Arab countries, and the pitiful toll of fear and deprivation on Iraqi streets."

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Thanks in part to the Iraq war, the next U.S. president -- Republican or Democrat, black or white, man or woman -- will take office with America's power, prestige and popularity in decline, according to bipartisan reports, polls and foreign observers.

"'The winner of the 2008 elections will command U.S. forces still at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against elusive terrorists with a deadly reach. The U.S. economy will remain burdened. . . . America's moral leadership and decision-making competence will continue to be questioned,' begins a study of foreign-policy choices for the next president, which a Georgetown University task force released last month.

"'Restored respect will come only with fresh demonstrations of competence,' the study said.

"The numbers don't inspire confidence: Oil prices are at an all-time high, the dollar at new lows against the euro. Surveys find the United States' popularity and respect slipping in every part of the globe except Africa. A poll of 3,400 active and retired U.S. military officers by Foreign Policy magazine found that 88 percent agreed with the statement that 'The war in Iraq has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin.'"

Christopher Dickey writes for Newsweek: "To put the best face on the new Middle East, you'd have to use a magic mirror that would hide the oceans of blood spilled and the vast mountains of money spent by this administration. You'd have to ignore that old talk about making Iraq a beacon of hope and democracy for the region. You would need to forget the false premises presented to the public as justification for the invasion: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was in league with Al Qaeda. . . .

"In the real world of the present, however, things are not so neat. U.S. military power is spread thin, and much of the hugely expensive American arsenal is irrelevant to modern warfare. Our economic power has been greatly weakened, our diplomacy is in disarray, and our loose ideology -- what President Bush used to call his 'freedom agenda' -- has been disrespected by authoritarian allies like Egypt and discredited by Washington's refusal to recognize the elected Hamas government in the Palestinian territories."

Alison Smale writes in the New York Times: "Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France and a longtime humanitarian, diplomatic and political activist, said this week that whoever succeeds President Bush might restore something of the United States' battered image and standing overseas but that 'the magic is over.' . . .

"Asked whether the United States could repair the damage it had suffered to its reputation during the Bush presidency and especially since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, Mr. Kouchner replied, 'It will never be as it was before.'"

As for Life in Iraq

Hannah Allam writes for McClatchy Newspapers that to Iraqis, "the real crime is that five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, they still swelter in the summer and freeze in the winter because of a lack of electricity. Government rations are inevitably late, incomplete or expired. Garbage piles up for days, sometimes weeks, emanating toxic fumes.

"The list goes on: black-market fuel, phone bills for land lines that haven't worked in years, education and health-care systems degraded by the flight of thousands of Iraq's best teachers and doctors."

Jacques Charmelot writes for AFP: "Five years after US-led invasion troops swept through Iraq, feared dictator Saddam Hussein is dead and an elected government sits in Baghdad -- but Iraqis remain beset by rampant violence, political stalemate, economic woes and the humiliation of a foreign occupation. . . .

"[F]ear of Saddam's hated secret police has been replaced by a new terror, with Iraq still being hit on a daily basis by insurgent attacks and Sunni-Shiite violence where victims are counted in scores. . . .

"In the five years since the United States unleashed its 'Shock and Awe' operation, violence has killed tens and probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and well over 4,000 members of the US-led foreign forces.

"Independent website Iraqbodycount.org estimates the number of civilian deaths at up to 90,000 although other figures, including Iraqi government and UN statistics, are much higher. . . .

"What are the results? US credibility has been eroded in the Middle East; the influence of Iran, Washington's nemesis, has grown; and the price of oil has spiked to record levels, with negative repercussions on the global economy."

Cheney Calls It a Success

Vice President Cheney made an unannounced but widely expected stopover in Iraq at the start of his Middle East trip.

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters that "Cheney on Monday declared the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a 'successful endeavour', pointing to security and political progress on a visit ahead of the fifth anniversary of the war.

"'If you look back on those five years it has been a difficult, challenging but nonetheless successful endeavour ... and it has been well worth the effort,' he told a news conference in Baghdad after meeting Iraqi leaders."

Olivier Knox writes for AFP that Cheney " declared Washington's 'unwavering' support for Iraq. . . .

"A series of bomb blasts greeted Cheney's high-security and secrecy-shrouded arrival, underscoring the deadly violence that still grips the nation five years after US bombs began dropping on Baghdad.

"Cheney, on a visit aimed at highlighting security gains and promoting political progress, said he had been sent by President George W. Bush to thank Iraqi leaders for their efforts in steering the country towards democracy."

John D. McKinnon writes for the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "In a sign of what the White House views as progress, Mr. Cheney was planning a number of stops to pay his respects to Iraqi politicians, including the president and vice presidents, the head of the leading Shiite political coalition and the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, as well as top U.S. generals and officials.

"But the visit was being conducted under tight security, reflecting the considerable distance the country has yet to go. The vice president -- as in past visits to war zones -- switched from Air Force Two to a C-17 military transport plane for the flight into Baghdad. Reporters accompanying the White House entourage were asked not to reveal Mr. Cheney's plans to visit the country, or even specific destinations in Iraq until after he had left each one."

In his pool report, McKinnon writes that Cheney is traveling within the C-17 in his "now-familiar shiny steel travel trailer."

Poll Watch

Meanwhile, Iraqis and Americans apparently overwhelmingly agree on one thing: That U.S. troops should go home. Their only dispute is over how fast.

According to the UK's Channel 4, a new poll of Iraqis finds that 70 percent want American troops to leave, compared to 21 percent who want them to stay. Most of those who want troops out say they want them all out immediately.

And Gallup finds that "60% of Americans want the United States to set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq rather than maintain an indefinite military commitment" -- with most of those who want troops out wanting them to come out gradually.

The Oil Factor

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "We may not know the real motivations behind the Iraq war for years, but it remains difficult to distill oil from all the possibilities."

Mufson outlines the two dominant oil-based theories:

"Version one: Bush, former Texas oilman, and Vice President Cheney, former chief executive of the contracting and oil-services firm Halliburton, wanted to help their friends in the oil world. They sought to install a pro-Western government that would invite the major oil companies back into Iraq. 'Exxon was in the kitchen with Dick Cheney when the Iraq war was being cooked up,' says the Web site of a group called Consumers for Peace.

"Version two: As laid out in an April 2003 article in Le Monde Diplomatique, 'The war against Saddam is about guaranteeing American hegemony rather than about increasing the profits of Exxon.' Yahya Sadowski, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, argues that 'the neo-conservative cabal' had a 'grand plan' to ramp up Iraqi production, 'flood the world market with Iraqi oil' and drive the price down to $15 a barrel. That would stimulate the U.S. economy, 'finally destroy' OPEC, wreck the economies of 'rogue states' such as Iran and Venezuela, and 'create more opportunities for "regime change." '

But the only part of either of these ostensible plans that came to fruition was that oil company profits did indeed skyrocket. Mufson writes: "In the absence of Iraqi supplies, prices have soared three-and-a-half-fold since the U.S. invasion on March 20, 2003. (Last week, they shattered all previous records, even after adjusting for inflation.) The profits of the five biggest Western oil companies have jumped from $40 billion to $121 billion over the same period. While the United States has rid itself of Saddam Hussein and whatever threat he might have posed, oil revenues have filled the treasuries of petro-autocrats in Iran, Venezuela and Russia, emboldening those regimes and complicating U.S. diplomacy in new ways.

"American consumers are paying for this turmoil at the pump. If the overthrow of Hussein was supposed to be a silver bullet for the American consumer, it turned out to be one that ricocheted and tore a hole through his wallet."

The Biggest Mistake

It's widely considered one of the biggest post-invasion mistakes.

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "When President Bush convened a meeting of his National Security Council on May 22, 2003, his special envoy in Iraq made a statement that caught many of the participants by surprise. In a video presentation from Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III informed the president and his aides that he was about to issue an order formally dissolving Iraq's Army.

"The decree was issued the next day."

Gordon writes that new accounts and interviews about the decision make it clear "that Mr. Bremer's decree reversed an earlier plan -- one that would have relied on the Iraqi military to help secure and rebuild the country, and had been approved at a White House meeting that Mr. Bush convened just 10 weeks earlier."

The decision to disband the army "was made without thorough consultations within government, and without the counsel of the secretary of state or the senior American commander in Iraq," Gordon reports. Nevertheless, at the fateful May meeting, "Mr. Bush seemed satisfied, and no officials spoke up to object, according to Mr. Bremer and other participants."

The Biggest Surprise

The New York Times op-ed page asked nine experts what surprised them most about the war.

Kenneth M. Pollack writes: "[W]hat I most wish I had understood before the invasion was the reckless arrogance of the Bush administration. I had inklings of it to be sure, and warned of the inadequacy of some of what I saw. But I did not realize that as skillfully, cautiously and patiently as George H. W. Bush's administration had handled its Iraq war, that was how clumsy, careless and rash George W. Bush's administration would treat its own."

Paul D. Eaton writes: "My greatest surprise was the failure on the part of Congress to assert itself before the executive branch. That failure assured continued problems for the military in the face of a secretary of defense who proved incompetent at fighting war."

Anthony D. Cordesman writes: "As a Republican, I would never have believed that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would waste so many opportunities and so much of America's reputation that they would rival Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy for the worst wartime national security team in United States history."

Bush on the Romance of War

During a videoconference on Thursday, Bush told U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan that he envied them.

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters; "'I must say, I'm a little envious,' Bush said. 'If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.'

"'It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks,' Bush said."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "That quickly drew a rebuke from VoteVets.org, a group of veterans that has been critical of Bush's policies. 'I seriously doubt any of us infantrymen in Operation Anaconda found it exciting or romantic when the Taliban and al-Qaeda were firing mortar rounds at us and our fellow soldiers,' the group said, quoting one of its Army veterans, Will King, in a statement."

This isn't the first time that Bush, who in his time used family connections to avoid going to Vietnam, expressed a misguided sense of bravado. Back in September, he told a group of military bloggers that he wished he could be alongside them -- only he's too old. See my column, Bush's Battlefield Envy.

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "If further proof were needed that President Bush resides in a dream world, he settled the issue on Thursday definitively. . . .

"Someone with such a jaunty vision of war -- concocted from who knows what brew of Rudyard Kipling, John Wayne, and sheer fantasy -- has no business leading young men and women into real-life battle, no business serving as the armed forces' commander in chief."

Legacy No. 2?

As the economy tanks, Bush responds with empty reassurances.

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press this morning: "President Bush, trying to calm turmoil in financial markets, said Monday that his administration is 'on top of the situation' in dealing with the slumping economy.

"'One thing is for certain, we're in challenging times,' the president said after meeting with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other senior economic advisers. 'But another thing is for certain: We've taken strong, decisive action.'"

Here's Bush on Friday, in a visit to the Economic Club of New York: "It seems like I showed up in a interesting moment -- (laughter) -- during an interesting time. . . .

"I'm coming to you as an optimistic fellow. I've seen what happens when America deals with difficulty. I believe that we're a resilient economy, and I believe that the ingenuity and resolve of the American people is what helps us deal with these issues. And it's going to happen again."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "the centerpiece" of Bush's approach to the economy "is persuading the nation to share his confidence."

As it happens, those directly around him seem to be doing just fine. As Baker reports, Bush headed uptown after his speech to headline a $20,000-a-head, $1.4 million fundraiser for the Republican National Committee.

But the New York Times editorial board does a little fact-checking on Bush's cheerleading: "Mr. Bush said he was optimistic because the economy's 'foundation is solid' as measured by employment, wages, productivity, exports and the federal deficit. He was wrong on every count. On some, he has been wrong for quite a while."

One example: "Mr. Bush boasted about 52 consecutive months of job growth during his presidency. What matters is the magnitude of growth, not ticks on a calendar. The economic expansion under Mr. Bush -- which it is safe to assume is now over -- produced job growth of 4.2 percent. That is the worst performance over a business cycle since the government started keeping track in 1945."

Gail Collins writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Watching George W. Bush address the New York financial community Friday brought back many memories. Unfortunately, they were about his speech right after Hurricane Katrina, the one when he said: 'America will be a stronger place for it.' . . .

"The president squinched his face and bit his lip and seemed too antsy to stand still. As he searched for the name of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia ('the king, uh, the king of Saudi') and made guy-fun of one of the questioners ('Who picked Gigot?'), you had to wonder what the international financial community makes of a country whose president could show up to talk economics in the middle of a liquidity crisis and kind of flop around the stage as if he was emcee at the Iowa Republican Pig Roast."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Everyone here is flummoxed about why the president is in such a fine mood.

"The dollar's crumpling, the recession's thundering, the Dow's bungee-jumping and the world's disapproving, yet George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly, tap dancing and singing in a one-man review called 'The Most Happy Fella.' . . .

"[T]he more terrified Americans get, the more bizarrely carefree he seems. . . .

"In on-the-record sessions with reporters -- and more candid off-the-record ones -- he has seemed goofily happy in recent weeks, prickly no more but strangely liberated and ebullient. . . .

"Maybe the president is just putting on a good face to keep up American morale, the way Herbert Hoover did after the crash of '29, when he continued to dress in a tuxedo for dinner.

"Or maybe the old Andover cheerleader really believes his own cheers, and that prosperity will turn up any time now, just like the W.M.D. in Iraq.

"Or perhaps it's a Freudian trip. Now that he's mucked up the world and the country, he can finally stop rebelling against his dad and relax in the certainty that the Bush name will forever be associated with crash-and-burn presidencies.

"Whatever the explanation, it's plumb loco."

What is Bush really up to? Budget expert Stan Collender blogs that "as has been the case since the start of the Bush presidency, when it comes to economic issues the White House is trying to run out the clock, that is, to get to Inauguration Day in January 2009 without having to do anything and leave the problem for the next president and Congress to admit and deal with."

FISA Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "A deeply divided House approved its latest version of terrorist surveillance legislation yesterday, rebuffing President Bush's demand for a bill that would grant telecommunications firms retroactive immunity for their cooperation in past warrantless wiretapping and deepening an impasse on a fundamental national security issue."

The House bill "would challenge the Bush administration on a number of fronts, by requiring upfront court approval of most wiretaps, authorizing federal inspectors general to investigate the administration's warrantless surveillance efforts, and establishing a bipartisan commission to examine the activities of intelligence agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Most provocatively, the House legislation offers no legal immunity for past actions by phone companies that participated in warrantless wiretapping and are now facing about 40 lawsuits that allege they breached customers' privacy rights. . . .

"Lawmakers from both parties said the gulf between the administration and House Democratic leaders is now so wide that the issue may not be resolved until a new president takes office next year."

Weisman explains why this is all so amazing: "Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, such showdowns have followed a predictable path: After some protests, Democrats have given in to White House demands, fearing the political fallout as Bush hammered them for allegedly endangering American lives.

"Last month, the Senate appeared to follow that script when it passed, with bipartisan support, a surveillance bill to Bush's liking after turning back the efforts of some Democrats to strip out the immunity provision and strengthen privacy protections.

"Bush appeared on the White House's South Lawn Thursday to demand House passage of the Senate legislation, warning lawmakers: 'The American people understand the stakes in this struggle. They want their children to be safe from terror.'

"Then the House went off script. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded by all but calling the president a liar.

"'We understand our responsibility to protect the American people. What the president is trying to do is something that we think should be stopped,' she said. 'I am stating a fact. The president is wrong, and he knows it.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "For more than two years now, Congress, the news media, current and former national security officials, think tanks and academic institutions have been engaged in a profound debate over how to modernize the law governing electronic spying to keep pace with technology. We keep hoping President Bush will join in.

"Instead, the president offers propaganda intended to scare Americans, expand his powers, and erode civil liberties -- and to ensure that no one is held to account for the illegal wiretapping he ordered after 9/11. . . .

"The president will continue to claim the country is in grave danger over this issue, but it is not. The real danger is for Mr. Bush. A good law -- like the House bill -- would allow Americans to finally see the breathtaking extent of his lawless behavior."

Julian Sanchez writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Without meaningful oversight, presidents and intelligence agencies can -- and repeatedly have -- abused their surveillance authority to spy on political enemies and dissenters. . . .

"It's probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don't plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.

"Harvard University legal scholar William Stuntz has argued that the framers of the Constitution viewed the 4th Amendment as a mechanism for protecting political dissent. In England, agents of the crown had ransacked the homes of pamphleteers critical of the king -- something the founders resolved that the American system would not countenance.

"In that light, the security-versus-privacy framing of the contemporary FISA debate seems oddly incomplete. Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Ft. Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won't turn its 'national security' surveillance powers to political ends -- well, it would be a first."

Rove Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post about Karl Rove's new gig on Fox News: "No one would accuse the newly minted pundit of being balanced, but to the surprise of some critics, he has been generally fair-minded in his commentary. The man long derided by the left as 'Bush's brain' is trying to move beyond his attack-dog reputation. . . .

" Slate said the 'mild-mannered' Rove 'has merely offered clarity, concision, humility, good humor, good posture, and dispassionate analysis.' New York Times columnist David Carr called him 'one of the best things on television news right now . . . graceful, careful and generous.'"

Bush's Pitch

Will Nationals fans be so giddy about the opening of their new stadium that they'll even cheer a deeply unpopular president? That appears to be what the White House is counting on.

Barry Svrluga writes in The Washington Post: "Mark Lerner, one of the owners of the Washington Nationals, said Saturday that 'unless there's a national crisis,' President Bush has agreed to throw out the ceremonial first pitch when the Nationals open their new ballpark March 30 in a nationally televised game against the Atlanta Braves."

Now I really wish I'd bought tickets.

Late Night Humor

The Post's Peter Baker reviews White House press secretary Dana Perino's appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "Perino was a good sport as he grilled her about Bush's relationship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Iraq war, Helen Thomas, the CIA leak case and so on. At one point, he pressed her on whether she had ever been put in a position where she was not telling the truth. She smiled and said no.

"'Now is that because that's true,' Stewart asked as the audience laughed, 'or because they get you to the point where they break your spirit to the point where you truly believe?'"

Here's the video. Says Stewart: "The president has said he's going to sprint to the finish. . . . Can you get him to run faster?"

The Tribune's Mark Silva blogs that Stewart and Perino spoke about "presidential prerogative."

"'He can do anything, can't he?'' Stewart asked of Bush.

"'He can fly,'' Perino said with a smile."

Meanwhile, here's Jimmy Kimmel, via U.S. News: "In his Economic Club of New York speech, President Bush 'urged the businessmen and women in the audience not to overreact. And if you've ever seen the footage of him reading to the children on 9/11, you know one thing this guy doesn't do is overreact.'"

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius, Stuart Carlson, Steve Sack, Joel Pett, Ben Sargent and Alan Moir on the Bush legacy;

Signe Wilkinson, Matt Wuerker and Steve Greenberg on torture; Mike Keefe on wiretapping; Dan Wasserman, Dwane Powell and Jack Ohman on Fallon and Iran; Ann Telnaes on Bush's romantic view of war.

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