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Bush's Eternal Sunshine

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 1, 2008 1:17 PM

As President Bush's time in office winds down, his bubble is as impenetrable as ever.

Bush's approval ratings are in the toilet and there are ample signs that the nation is hungering for a new direction. Yet Bush's aides say they believe the public's attitude has improved -- apparently because he sees less hostility on his increasingly furtive trips outside the White House --- and in a meeting yesterday with a group of sycophantic journalists, Bush insisted that he's in a great mood.

Larry Kudlow blogs for National Review: "President George W. Bush was strong and in good spirits as he met this morning with a small group of journalists for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office. Topics across the board were discussed. As always in these meetings, some of the juiciest stuff is off the record. Too bad, because the president has an awful lot of important things to say on so many of these issues. But ground rules are ground rules."

Kudlow nevertheless paraphrases some of what Bush had to say about the economy, none of it new with the exception of Bush's apparent belief that Europe's economy is even weaker than ours.

"Mr. Bush reiterated what he has said in a number of these meetings, that in the office of the president, character matters a lot. He said you have to have clear principles and strong beliefs to execute all the responsibilities that are part of the job."

Kudlow concludes: "I would say as someone who has been privileged to attend these gatherings in the past, not only did the president show the inner strength he always has, but when he does reflect on the tumultuous events of his tenure, he is completely at peace with himself and his decisions."

Jonah Goldberg writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "The session, maddeningly and often foolishly punctuated by long, off-the-record musings and soliloquies, mostly dealt with foreign policy. . . .

"Dressed in a pale blue suit with a crisp blue tie, the president seemed to be in high spirits as he discussed developments in North Korea and other diplomatic initiatives, crushing my hopes for a poignant 'Bush in winter' column."

It's unclear exactly how much of the following argument -- that Bush's most extreme conduct actually falls within the usual range of presidential behavior -- Goldberg got directly from Bush. But he writes:

"[W]hether it is ultimately deemed a failure or a success, there is one inconvenient fact of the Bush presidency that should prove dismaying to those who've invested so much in demonizing it: It isn't that special.

"Many of its supposedly radical features fit neatly in the mainstream of American presidential history. Extraordinary rendition? That practice (in which we send terrorists to foreign countries to be interrogated under laxer rules) began under President Clinton. Aggressive interrogations, for good or ill, surely predate 2001. Holding prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo without benefit of a trial? As terrorism expert Andrew C. McCarthy notes in National Review, we were doing that under the first President Bush and under Clinton to innocent Haitian refugees, who got even less due process than we give captured enemy combatants.

"Even the invasion of Iraq will probably seem to historians, in part, as a continuation of trends begun in the Persian Gulf War and extended by Clinton's (and Britain's) attacks in 1998."

Bush's Oval Office chat yesterday was reminiscent of meetings he held last summer with what I called Bush's Optimists Club. Back then, he summoned right-wing talk-show hosts as well as conservative columnists to hear him insist that he was still feeling sunny.

As I wrote in a January column, Bush's Messiah Complex, Bush has started speaking fervently about how he expects to be remembered -- and it turns out the president sees himself as a heroic figure.

And in a February column, Bush: Clueless and Happy, I noted that Bush seemed unaware of what a drag he'll be on the Republican ticket.

Growing Acceptance? Hardly

The secret to Bush's giddiness? He's apparently mistaking Bush fatigue for Bush acceptance.

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "To his critics, it may seem a flagrant example of spin or a bizarre case of denial, but President Bush and his senior staff say he is having quite a successful final year in office. He has blocked Democratic attempts to slash funding for the Iraq war and has stopped what he considers unwise constraints on commanders in the field. He is headed for a victory on legislation to authorize eavesdropping on terrorism suspects. . . . 'For the president to be this relevant this late is a pleasant surprise to us,' says a senior White House official."

And while Bush may have Congress on the run, Walsh writes:

"There's another aspect of the White House's upbeat mood. When he travels around the country, Bush feels less 'antipathy' than he used to in the crowds, along the motorcade routes, and expressed by the individuals who talk to him at his events. 'He feels there has been a shift in attitudes out there that's not reflected in polling data,' the aide says.

"Democrats say Bush is living in a dream world if he fails to recognize how unpopular he is and how much he is dragging down his party and GOP presidential candidate John McCain. In fact, advisers to Barack Obama say Bush is a big reason why Obama's message of change resonates so widely and why the Democrats now lead the GOP in voter preference. 'None of this is possible without George Bush,' says Cornell Belcher, Obama's pollster."

As for all the public-opinion polls? "White House officials, by the way, say they aren't sure such polls should be believed because the questions are biased and the population samples are flawed."

But Bush's lack of contact with people who disagree with him is one of the defining aspects of his presidency. Former press secretary Scott McClellan's book vindicates the view of critics that Bush is an incurious man, happily protected from dissenting views inside the White House bubble.

Slinking Around

Of course, one reason Bush might be seeing less hostility on the road is that he's slinking in and out of places. Bush is traveling to private fundraisers in Mississippi and Arkansas today.

The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger editorial board writes today: "It's difficult to decide what to make of President Bush's 'secret' visit to Mississippi today. After all, it's not like he's sneaking into Baghdad under cover of darkness to escape bombs. Or, is he? Not the explosive kind, but possible verbal bombshells.

"The noon visit to a Jackson home is a campaign fundraiser for Republican interim U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, at $1,000 a pop. It's not a public event.

"Wicker's campaign manager, Austin Barbour, a nephew of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, said the event is private at the request of the White House."

Parting Shot?

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "George W. Bush's presidency seems exhausted and irrelevant, but that's a dangerous illusion. The Decider remains in command of the world's most advanced and powerful military force, and he has just a few months to tie up what he might consider loose ends. . . .

"[I]f Bush is chastened by failure or troubled by doubt, he doesn't show it. He has said that he expects to be vindicated by history. The danger is that he will decide to give historians more fodder by taking care of unfinished business -- especially business that the next president might want no part of. . . .

"The biggest question is whether Bush will do what John McCain, to the tune of an old Beach Boys hit, once jokingly suggested: 'Bomb Iran, bomb bomb bomb.' Bush has been categorical in saying that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, even as the Iranians have defiantly expanded their nuclear facilities and speeded production of the enriched uranium that would be needed to fuel a bomb. . . .

"It's not hard to fathom the ominous, potentially catastrophic implications of a U.S. attack on Iran's enrichment plants and other nuclear installations. . . .

"Here's my suggestion, which he probably won't take: Finish the job in Afghanistan, quash the Taliban's resurgence, renew the fight against al-Qaeda and track down Osama bin Laden. As I recall, he's the one who attacked us."

Iran Watch

AFP reports: "The White House declined to comment Monday on a news report that US lawmakers last year approved 400 million dollars to ramp up covert operations in Iran to undermine Tehran's leadership.

"'I couldn't comment either way,' spokeswoman Dana Perino said after The New Yorker magazine reported that the US Congress passed US President George W. Bush's funding request for a dramatic increase in such secret operations.

"Asked about the likelihood of US military action against Tehran's disputed nuclear program before the president leaves office in January 2009, Perino said Bush 'is singularly focused on trying to solve this issue diplomatically.'"

Jonathan Karl reports for ABC News: "Senior Pentagon officials are concerned that Israel could carry out an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of the year, an action that would have enormous security and economic repercussions for the United States and the rest of the world.

"A senior defense official told ABC News there is an 'increasing likelihood' that Israel will carry out such an attack, a move that likely would prompt Iranian retaliation against, not just Israel, but against the United States as well.

"The official identified two 'red lines' that could trigger an Israeli offensive. The first is tied to when Iran's Natanz nuclear facility produces enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. . . .

"The second red line is connected to when Iran acquires the SA-20 air defense system it is buying from Russia. The Israelis may want to strike before that system -- which would make an attack much more difficult -- is put in place.

"Some Pentagon officials also worry that Israel may be determined to attack before a new U.S. president, who may be less supportive, is sworn in next January."

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "A former CIA operative who says he tried to warn the agency about faulty intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs now contends that CIA officials also ignored evidence that Iran had suspended work on a nuclear bomb.

"The onetime undercover agent, who has been barred by the CIA from using his real name, filed a motion in federal court late Friday asking the government to declassify legal documents describing what he says was a deliberate suppression of findings on Iran that were contrary to agency views at the time.

"The former operative alleged in a 2004 lawsuit that the CIA fired him after he repeatedly clashed with senior managers over his attempts to file reports that challenged the conventional wisdom about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Key details of his claim have not been made public because they describe events the CIA deems secret.

"'On five occasions he was ordered to either falsify his reporting on WMD in the Near East, or not to file his reports at all,' [his attorney, Roy] Krieger said in an interview."

Detainee Watch

In a redacted, 39-page opinion released yesterday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit explained its order last week reversing a military tribunal's determination that a Chinese detainee was an "enemy combatant."

Del Quentin Wilber and Josh White write in The Washington Post that the panel found that Huzaifa Parhat was determined to be an enemy combatant by a tribunal that relied heavily on questionable evidence in classified documents.

"The opinion could have broad implications for scores of other detainees classified as enemy combatants by Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The opinion is also likely to guide federal judges weighing evidence in up-coming hearings. . . .

"Parhat's tribunal determined that he had not engaged in hostilities against the United States or its allies. But it concluded that he was an enemy combatant because he lived at the Afghan camp, which was allegedly run by the leader of a group tied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according to the appellate opinion.

"The tribunal reached that conclusion based on evidence in classified documents that 'do not state (or, in most instances, even describe) the sources or rationales for those statements,' the judges found.

"The judges were particularly concerned with government assertions that the evidence was reliable because it was repeated in separate documents and that officials would not have included the information if it were not dependable.

"'Lewis Carroll notwithstanding, the fact the government has 'said it thrice' does not make an allegation true,' wrote Judge Merrick B. Garland, quoting from Carroll's poem ' The Hunting of the Snark.'"

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "'This comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true,' said the panel."

Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman blogs: "Even in its redacted form, this extraordinarily careful and detailed opinion, authored by Judge Garland and joined in full by both of his more conservative colleagues, offers a stark depiction of the most significant problems with the Bush Administration's detention policy--namely, that the military has relied upon a breathtakingly broad standard of who can be detained, and then has made particular detention decisions based on very speculative and thin evidence, even under that broad standard. The detention policy in practice, in other words, has been much more indiscriminate than any authority Congress afforded the President in the conflict against al Qaeda."

Meanwhile, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reports: "The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, today called upon the United States to take immediate steps to improve its system of military justice and to ensure that the death penalty is applied fairly and justly in states such as Alabama and Texas. . . .

"In relation to prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, Alston called on the Government to release the results of investigations and autopsies into the deaths of five prisoners who died in 2006 and 2007. He condemned the unremitting failure to provide fair trial guarantees in the proceedings against six 'alien enemy combatants' and concluded that any death sentence imposed on the basis of such trials would clearly be in violation of international law.

"Alston also called on the Government to publish information on civilian casualties in its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and to make it possible for US citizens, as well as Afghans and Iraqis, to follow the workings of the military justice system. Normal court systems have centralized dockets and easily-accessible rulings and judgments, but the military justice system does not."

From Alston's statement: "In different contexts, I was frequently told by Government officials that although they were unable to answer my specific questions, I should rest assured that there was accountability. Whether or not it does in fact exist, this 'private' or 'internal' accountability cannot take the place of genuine, public accountability. A Government open and accountable to its people is a foundational premise of a democratic state."

Iraq Watch

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "The RAND Corporation issued a long-delayed report on Monday on problems in planning for postwar Iraq.

"The 273-page study, which was prepared for the United States Army, chronicles a wide range of factors that hampered the American effort to stabilize Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein."

In February, Gordon reported that the study had been completed in 2005, but that its "wide-ranging critique of the White House, the Defense Department and other government agencies was a concern for Army generals, and the Army has sought to keep the report under lock and key. . . .

"The study chided President Bush -- and by implication Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as national security adviser when the war was planned -- as having failed to resolve differences among rival agencies. 'Throughout the planning process, tensions between the Defense Department and the State Department were never mediated by the president or his staff,' it said."

I read that section of the report -- and interestingly enough, I couldn't find that particular phrase in the released version. Instead, here's what the report has to say:

"The dominance of a single set of assumptions about postwar Iraq suggests the absence of a robust interagency coordination process. Several U.S. government organizations . . . conducted separate studies of postwar possibilities. Looking back, some of these studies appear to have been reasonably prescient. The problem, therefore, was not that the U.S. government failed to plan for the postwar period. Instead, it was the failure to effectively coordinate and integrate these various planning efforts.

"Those functions normally fall to the National Security Council staff, which has overall responsibility for coordinating U.S. foreign and defense policies. . . .

"If the NSC staff failed to consider alternative scenarios that might pose differing requirements, neither did it provide strategic guidance on various aspects of U.S. policy during the postwar period. Repeated requests for policy guidance . . . went unanswered, leaving each agency to make its own assumptions about key aspects of the postwar period. Key questions, such as whether the U.S. postwar authority would be military or civilian in nature, went unanswered throughout the planning process. When the NSC finally did issue strategic guidance in late March 2003 . . . the war was already under way. . . .

"Above all, the NSC seems not to have mediated the persistent disagreement between the Defense Department and the State Department that existed throughout the planning process. Secretary of State Powell influenced a few key diplomatic decisions . . . but the Defense Department controlled most planning decisions.

"Richard Haass, then the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, later stated that he realized the decision to confront Iraq had already been made in July 2002, despite continuing opposition from State. . . .

"The biggest failure of both military planning and the interagency process was the failure to assign responsibility and resources for providing security in the immediate aftermath of the war. . . .

"The failure is all the more glaring for the presence of countering advice available to planners."

Iraqi Oil Watch

Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew E. Kramer write in the New York Times: "Iraq announced Monday that it was opening six key oil production fields to more than 30 foreign companies, while delaying an announcement on a series of no-bid consulting contracts with a handful of Western oil companies."

"Iraq's oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani . . . defended the way Iraq has handled the oil contracts, which have led to criticism in the Arab world and abroad, where suspicions run rampant that the United States-led invasion was at least partly about access to Iraq's oil."

Sudarsan Raghavan and Steven Mufson write in The Washington Post: "On Monday, the Bush administration denied a report in the New York Times that U.S. advisers to the Iraqi Oil Ministry had influenced the selection of companies for the short-term contracts.

"'These are Iraqi contracts. They were made by Iraqis, for Iraqis,' said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. 'And they weren't done at the behest of the United States or with a wink or a nudge or any kind of influence on our part.'"

Credit Where Credit Isn't Due

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Monday signed legislation to pay for the war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of his presidency and beyond, hailing the $162 billion plan as a rare product of bipartisan cooperation.

"'This bill shows the American people that even in an election year, Republicans and Democrats can come together to stand behind our troops and their families,' Bush said in an Oval Office ceremony. . . .

"The GI Bill measure, authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., had such extraordinary support from both Democrats and Republicans that White House objections were easily overridden. The bill also allows veterans to transfer their benefits to their spouse or a child, an idea Bush has championed.

"The White House tried much harder to kill the effort to extend unemployment benefits as part of the war funding bill. But Bush's administration ultimately supported the compromise version, which requires people to have worked for 20 weeks in order to be eligible for the extended payments."

But here's Bush's version of reality: "The bill is a result of close collaboration between my administration and members of both parties on Capitol Hill. I appreciate the hard work of my Cabinet -- especially the leaders of Defense and State, and Veterans Affairs, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as OMB. I want to thank House and Senate leadership and leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. I am particularly grateful to Congressmen Boehner, Hoyer, Obey, and Lewis. And I want to thank members who worked hard for the GI Bill expansion -- especially Senators Webb and Warner, Graham, Burr, and McCain."

When Keith Olbermann asked Webb on MSNBC last night if he was bothered by how Bush took and gave credit, Webb replied: "I think it's safe to say there was a good deal of cooperation among Republicans and Democrats -- it just didn't include the administration."

Olbermann: "Did either the president or Sen. McCain ever really get on board with this? . . . "

Webb: "No, neither of them really did get on board."

Steve Benen blogs: "Bush praised five senators this morning for their leadership. One (McCain) fought against the bill and then didn't bother to vote on it. Two (Graham and Burr) fought against the bill and voted against it. Chuck Hagel was an original sponsor of the bill, the president ignored him altogether."

Signing Statement Watch

Robert Brodsky writes for Government Executive: "The White House and congressional leaders have announced most of the appointees to the long-awaited Commission on Wartime Contracting. The bipartisan team is charged with investigating virtually all war-related contracts, including funds devoted to reconstruction, logistical support for coalition forces, and security and intelligence functions.

"The commission is the brainchild of Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The freshmen senators co-wrote the provision creating the panel, which was included in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act and signed into law in January. . . .

"The White House's cooperation with the panel is an about-face from its earlier public stance.

"Shortly after signing the defense authorization, Bush issued a signing statement that said he did not have to abide by four provisions in the legislation, including the one creating the commission. At the time, Bush said the provisions could inhibit his 'ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and execute his authority as commander in chief.'

"Webb immediately pushed back, criticizing the statement as an 'impingement on the rights' of Congress and said the Senate would 'march forward in an expeditious manner' to create the panel. Webb's office said the White House seems to have dropped its objections and plans to cooperate with the panel. . . .

"The commission is modeled after the Truman committee, which conducted hundreds of hearings and investigations into government waste during and after World War II."

For more about that signing statement, see my Jan. 30 column, Bush Thumbs Nose at Congress.

Missile Defense Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The Bush administration may have radically shifted its foreign policy more than once in the past seven years, but it has been foolishly consistent in one endeavor: the overzealous pursuit of missile defense. Before and after Sept. 11, 2001, without regard for technological failures or the mixed results of testing, the administration has relentlessly and recklessly sought to build and deploy interceptors in Alaska and Europe and on ships. . . .

"Now the State Department is trying to seal agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic for a second interceptor base and a large radar station before President Bush leaves office. . . .

"The House and the Senate have passed legislation that rightly links funding to a certification by the secretary of defense that the missile interceptors have passed rigorous testing. That testing will not be completed until at least 2010. Provided its effectiveness is proven, a European missile defense system may be worth building. But it is time for the Bush administration to stop its deploy-at-all costs crusade."

McClellan Watch

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "McClellan has incorporated some crowd-pleasing titles of books he imagines his former White House comrades writing:

"'I Upped Halliburton's Income . . . ' by Dick Cheney.

"'The Lies I Told, to Whom and Why,' by Karl Rove.

"'Well, Paaaaaardon Me!' by Scooter Libby, convicted in the case of the leaked identity of a CIA operative, and perhaps hoping for a presidential pardon.

"The jokes loosened up a crowd of 550 San Franciscans in the middle of a work day -- and appeared to crack up McClellan himself."

Bush's Great Love

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Here was President Bush in shirt sleeves, sweat-soaked, out on a summer's day, doing one of his favorite things as leader of the country.

" Hosting Tee Ball. . . .

"Out here in the grass, there's no talk of Bush's record-low approval ratings, or depressing gas prices, or nuclear showdowns with Iran. Bush had signed a bill just hours earlier to keep two wars running for the rest of his term and beyond. Somehow, it no longer even feels like the same day."

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Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius, Jeff Danziger and Jimmy Margulies on the Iraqi oil deals.

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