From Green Light to Yellow

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 1:03 PM

With Russia reportedly violating its hours-old cease-fire agreement with Georgia, President Bush announced today that he's sending in the American military -- sort of.

The mission is a humanitarian one, but by choosing to put U.S. planes and ships into a war zone, Bush is raising the stakes in a conflict that his top aides just last night were congratulating themselves for having resolved. (They thought vague threats about World Trade Organization membership had stopped the Russians in their tracks.)

This morning, however, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili took to the American airwaves to accuse Russian forces of moving deeper into his country. And he scolded Bush for his passive response.

"Well, frankly, some of the first statements from Washington were perceived by the Russians almost as a green light for doing this because they were too soft. Russians don't understand that kind of soft language," Saakashvili told CNN. "America is losing the whole region," Saakashvili said, adding that the Russians "are by proxy trying to fight war with the West."

In a hastily scheduled Rose Garden statement a few hours later, Bush repeatedly expressed concerns about Russian actions, then announced he was sending in military planes and ships with humanitarian and medical shipments. He also said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is headed to the Georgian capital.

This time, his comments had some elements of a dare: "We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance," he said. "We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit. We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia. And we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country."

Nothing to Crow About

The agreement that Bush administration officials last night were so proud of basically gave the Russians everything they wanted.

Andrew E. Kramer and Ellen Barry write in the New York Times: "The presidents of Georgia and Russia agreed early Wednesday morning on a framework that could end the war that flared up here five days ago, after Russia reasserted its traditional dominance of the region. . . .

"Whether the agreement holds or not, Russia has achieved its goals, effectively creating a new reality on the ground, humiliating the Georgian military and increasing the pressure on a longtime antagonist, Mr. Saakashvili."

Borzou Daragahi writes in the Los Angeles Times that Saakashvili had been forced to agree to "terms that some described as humiliating to his small, proud nation. . . .

"[A]nalysts said the peace proposal, backed by France and the European Union, left no doubt that Russia won the military conflict of the last several days.

"Russia clearly saw the conflict as an opportunity to reassert dominance over an area that it views as part of its historical sphere of influence. Georgia is a former Soviet republic that gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has watched with increasing fury as Georgia and other former Soviet states have developed close ties with the United States and Western Europe."

Ian Traynor and Luke Harding write in the Guardian: "The Kremlin last night dictated humiliating peace terms to Georgia as the price for halting the Russian invasion of the small Black Sea country and its four-day rout of Georgian forces."

But Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration suggested yesterday that an apparent cease-fire in Georgia came about because Moscow feared it would be banished from Western-dominated international economic and political institutions if it did not stop its 'aggression' in the former Soviet republic. . . .

"[A] senior administration official said . . . [m]embership in institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the Group of Eight major industrialized nations 'is what is at stake when Russia engages in behavior that looks like it came from another time.' . . .

"Although President Bush warned late Monday that Moscow's actions had already 'substantially damaged Russia's standing in the world,' the administration avoided making explicit threats in its own conversations with Russian leaders, one of the U.S. officials said, adding: 'We don't need to.'"

On the ABC World News last night, Charlie Gibson asked Rice about possible consequences for Russia. Her response: "This isn't 1968. The predecessor state of Russia, the Soviet Union, didn't care about its international reputation because it wasn't attempting to integrate into international organizations. . . . The Russians have said that they do want to be a part of that prosperous and forward-looking international community. And, frankly, they're doing great damage to their ability to do that. I can assure you that Russia's international reputation, and what role Russia can play in the international community, is very much at stake here."

By contrast, Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press that "with scant leverage in the face of an emboldened Moscow, Washington and its friends have been forced to face the uncomfortable reality that their options are limited to mainly symbolic measures, such as boycotting Russian-hosted meetings and events, that may have little or no long-term impact on Russia's behavior, [administration] officials said Tuesday."

Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Russia's blitz into the former Soviet republic of Georgia has exposed starkly the limits of US military power and geopolitical influence in the era following the invasion of Iraq."

And Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "the United States needs Russia's help on a range of issues, from tightening U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment work to ensuring that North Korea abides by an agreement to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

"Russia and the United States also work closely on counter-terrorism, and Moscow's influence is also required on a host of other issues, from the Middle East peace process and ending the war in Iraq to halting the proliferation of materials useful in producing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

"'There is no question that the Bush administration will want to . . . express it's disapproval and to downgrade the relationship,' said Charles Kupchan, a former White House advisor on European affairs now with the Council on Foreign Relations. 'But at the same time, the United States doesn't want to shoot itself in the foot.'"

Mixed Messages

Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times that "around Washington, there are some rumblings already over whether the crisis might have somehow been headed off. . . .

"In a flurry of briefings intended to counter the critics and overcome the impression of having been caught flatfooted, senior Bush administration officials tried to paint a portrait of American reason and calm in the midst of hot tempers in what several called 'a hot zone.' . . .

"Bush administration officials have been adamant in asserting that they warned the government in Tbilisi not to let Moscow provoke it into a fight -- and that they were surprised when their advice went unheeded. Right up until the hours before Georgia launched its attack late last week in South Ossetia, Washington's top envoy for the region, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, and other administration officials were warning the Georgians not to allow the conflict to escalate.

"But . . . the accumulation of years of mixed messages may have made the American warnings fall on deaf ears.

"The United States took a series of steps that emboldened Georgia: sending advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops; pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit; championing Georgia's fledgling democracy along Russia's southern border; and loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia's territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia's separatist enclaves. . . .

"In recent years, the United States has also taken a series of steps that have alienated Russia -- including recognizing an independent Kosovo and going ahead with efforts to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. By last Thursday, when the years of simmering conflict exploded into war, Russia had a point to prove to the world, even some administration officials acknowledge, while Georgia may have been under the mistaken impression that in a one-on-one fight with Russia, Georgia would have more concrete American support."

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "A senior U.S. official involved in Russia policymaking vehemently denied that the administration had sent mixed messages, arguing that although Saakashvili had long received strong support from the most senior American officials, Georgians were warned not to engage Russia militarily.

"'We have consistently, and on Thursday also, urged the Georgians not to move their forces in. We were unambiguous about it,' said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing private talks with the Georgians. 'Saakashvili had always told us he could not stand by while Georgian villages were being shelled, and we always knew this was a point of pressure. We always told him that he should not give in to the kind of provocations we knew the Russians were capable of.'

"But [David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council] said he believed that even if the State Department was warning the Russians, the Georgians heard a different message."

And where, oh where, might those mixed signals be coming from?

"'I think the State Department was assiduous in urging restraint, and Saakashvili's buddies in the White House and Office of the Vice President kept egging him on,' Phillips said."

Indeed, Barnes and Spiegel write: "[T]here are increasing signs that administration hard-liners are using the crisis to reassert their view that Moscow should be isolated.

"Vice President Dick Cheney's declaration Saturday that 'Russian aggression must not go unanswered' was seen by some experts as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy.

"Some conservatives believe the administration has not been tough enough with Russia. Frederick W. Kagan, a neoconservative scholar who has advised the Bush administration, praised Cheney's comment and faulted President Bush for failing to outline to the Russians the consequences of pressing their assault."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "U.S. credibility is . . . on the line as the Bush Administration stumbles to respond to the Russian invasion of Georgia. So far the Administration has been missing in action, to put it mildly. The strategic objective is twofold: to prevent Moscow from going further to topple Georgia's democratic government in the coming days, and to deter future Russian aggression.

"President Bush finally condemned Russia's actions on Monday after a weekend of Olympics tourism in Beijing while Georgia burned. Meanwhile, the State Department dispatched a mid-level official to Tbilisi, and unnamed Administration officials carped to the press that Washington had warned Georgia not to provoke Moscow. That's hardly a show of solidarity with a Eurasian democracy that has supported the U.S. in Iraq with 2,000 troops. . . .

"By trying to Finlandize if not destroy Georgia, Moscow is sending a message that, in its part of the world, being close to Washington can be fatal. If Mr. Bush doesn't revisit his Russian failures, the rout of Georgia will stand as the embarrassing coda to his Presidency."

Cover Up Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on Tuesday rejected the idea of bringing criminal charges against former Justice Department employees who improperly used political litmus tests in hiring decisions, saying he had already taken strong internal steps in response to a 'painful' episode. . . .

"As last month's report from the inspector general acknowledged, the hiring abuses by former Justice Department officials represented a violation of federal Civil Service law, but not of criminal law, he said.

"'That does not mean, as some people have suggested, that those officials who were found by the joint reports to have committed misconduct have suffered no consequences,' Mr. Mukasey said. 'Far from it. The officials most directly implicated in the misconduct left the department to the accompaniment of substantial negative publicity.'"

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Mukasey said that the hiring system at Justice had broken down and that department leaders had failed to supervise the behavior 'of those who did wrong.' But the attorney general stopped short of agreeing to weed out lawyers and immigration judges who won their jobs based on faulty criteria."

Indeed, as Johnson points out: "The attorney general has been criticized for signing paperwork to promote immigration judge Garry D. Malphrus to a seat on the prestigious Board of Immigration Appeals even as investigators completed their blistering report. Malphrus is a former GOP aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also had been associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and had taken part in the 'Brooks Brothers Riot' -- chanting at Miami's polling headquarters -- to support George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. . . .

"Separately, an official in the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility said the unit has notified bar associations of its findings against five lawyers singled out in reports thus far."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy issued a statement in response to Mukasey's speech: "Attorney General Mukasey's blanket conclusions appear premature based on the facts and evidence that congressional investigators and the Inspector General have uncovered so far. The White House stonewalling continues, with aides refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas and testify about their role in the politicization of the Department of Justice. The Attorney General, the nation's top law enforcement officer, seems intent on insulating this administration from accountability. We must continue to pursue the truth and facts, and hold any wrongdoers accountable."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Mr. Mukasey made no mention of the role played by his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, and other members of President Bush's inner circle. There is by now strong reason to believe that they were involved in plans to fire United States attorneys for political reasons, fill other important positions on the basis of partisanship rather than competence and order prosecutions designed to help Republicans win elections.

"The department has never properly pursued the bad actors. It has shown no real concern for the victims. Mr. Mukasey's cynical remarks shrugging off the whole scandal should prod Congress to pursue it even more vigorously. . . .

"Mr. Mukasey should have said that based on the recent reports he is going to personally and vigorously pursue allegations of politicization in the department, no matter where they lead. . . .

"He should also have vowed that he would do everything in his power to see that President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, his former White House counsel, Harriet Miers, and former top political adviser, Karl Rove, all comply with Congressional subpoenas to testify in public and under oath.

"As the nation's top law enforcement officer, Mr. Mukasey should demand that they tell what they know -- particularly about the firing of the United States attorneys -- and deliver relevant documents. Instead, he has supported their baseless claims of executive privilege."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "Prior to his confirmation, Michael Mukasey fessed up, in a written response to Senator Dick Durbin, to a meeting the White House arranged with a group of movement conservatives. The team he met with had a simple agenda: They wanted his assurance that he would not appoint special prosecutors to go after administration figures involved in serious scandals at the Justice Department, including the U.S. attorneys scandal and the introduction of torture with formal Justice Department cover. . . . Mukasey is clearly keeping the understanding that brought him to the cherished post of attorney general. . . .

"This didn't 'just happen.' It was the result of a careful plan for partisan entrenchment at Justice -- consciously pursued in defiance of the law. A serious investigation would have focused on the senior figures responsible for this program."

Al Qaeda Watch

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "Al-Qaeda has exploited recent political turmoil in Pakistan to strengthen its foothold along the country's border with Afghanistan, a top U.S. counterterrorism official said yesterday in an assessment that also warned of a heightened risk of attack during the upcoming U.S. election season.

"Despite the loss of key leaders to U.S. strikes, Osama bin Laden continues to enjoy a haven in the border region and has managed to deepen alliances with a wide range of Islamist groups from South Asia to the Middle East, said Ted Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats and an al-Qaeda expert."

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "There is also a growing recognition among senior officials that the Bush administration for years did not take the Qaeda threat in Pakistan seriously enough and relied on President Pervez Musharraf to dismantle networks of militants there."

Iran Watch

Aluf Benn writes in Haaretz: "The American administration has rejected an Israeli request for military equipment and support that would improve Israel's ability to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. . . .

"The Americans viewed the request, which was transmitted (and rejected) at the highest level, as a sign that Israel is in the advanced stages of preparations to attack Iran. They therefore warned Israel against attacking, saying such a strike would undermine American interests. They also demanded that Israel give them prior notice if it nevertheless decided to strike Iran.

"As compensation for the requests it rejected, Washington offered to improve Israel's defenses against surface-to-surface missiles.

"Israel responded by saying it reserves the right to take whatever action it deems necessary if diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclearization fail.

"Senior Israeli officials had originally hoped that U.S. President George Bush would order an American strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office, as America's military is far better equipped to conduct such a strike successfully than is Israel's."

Another tidbit from the Haaretz story: "Two weeks ago, [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak visited Washington for talks with his American counterpart, Robert Gates, and Vice President Richard Cheney. Both conversations focused on Iran, but the two Americans presented conflicting views: Gates vehemently opposes an attack on Iran, while Cheney is the administration's leading hawk."

State Secrets Watch

Steven Aftergood reports on his secrecy blog: "A new report from the Senate Judiciary Committee examines the use of the state secrets privilege by the executive branch.

"'In recent years, the executive branch has asserted the privilege more frequently and broadly than before, typically to seek dismissal of lawsuits at the pleadings stage. Facing allegations of unlawful Government conduct ranging from domestic warrantless surveillance, to employment discrimination, to retaliation against whistleblowers, to torture and 'extraordinary rendition,' the Bush-Cheney administration has invoked the privilege in an effort to shut down civil suits against both Government officials and private parties. Courts have largely acquiesced,' the report states.

"'While there is some debate over the extent to which this represents a quantitative or qualitative break from past practice, '[w]hat is undebatable . . . is that the privilege is currently being invoked as grounds for dismissal of entire categories of cases challenging the constitutionality of Government action,' and that a strong public perception has emerged that sees the privilege as a tool for Executive abuse.'"

Endangered Species

Bryan Walsh writes for Time: "Thanks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) -- the 1973 law that requires the federal government to protect endangered species and plan for their recovery -- iconic animals like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and the gray whale have rebounded to healthier numbers. It is one of the real success stories of the green movement.

"If the Bush Administration has its way, however, those protections may soon be endangered themselves. The White House on Aug. 11 proposed a sweeping regulatory overhaul of the ESA, virtually eliminating the independent scientific evaluation of the environmental impact of federal actions. . . .

"[I]t's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the White House is simply trying to dismantle as much of the nation's framework for environmental protection as possible in its last months in office. The Bush Administration had tried in the past to push similar changes to the EPA through Congress, but was defeated. The new regulations, which do not require the approval of Congress, seem to represent a last-minute end run around that opposition."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "[M]any property owners and commercial interests, including developers and loggers, hate the act because, in their view, it unreasonably inflates costs.

"The Bush administration has tried hard to accommodate their interests. It has gone to great lengths to circumnavigate the clear language of the law by rigging the science (in many cases ignoring their own scientists), negotiating settlements favorable to industry and simply refusing to obey court orders. This time, however, the administration means to rewrite the law itself, albeit through regulatory means. . . .

"The Bureau of Reclamation likes to build dams; the Department of Transportation likes to build highways. Protecting endangered species is not their priority. Other agencies, like the Office of Surface Mining or the Bureau of Land Management, have shown themselves far too vulnerable to pressure from the very industries, like mining, they are meant to regulate."

Valerie Plame Watch

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Another court said Tuesday that outed ex-CIA spook Valerie Plame can't sue Vice President Cheney, ex-Bush political guru Karl Rove or ex-Cheney senior aide Lewis (Scooter) Libby over the disclosure that she was an operative for the spy agency.

"The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld a lower court decision to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleged the Bushies conspired to punitively expose Plame as a CIA agent after her husband conducted a fact-finding mission that helped debunk claims Saddam Hussein had tried to buy weapons-grade uranium in Africa to build a nuclear warhead."

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "It was an unusual case and even some on Plame's legal team acknowledged the case was an uphill fight from the start."

Amanda Terkel of wonders if White House officials will finally be forced to comment on their role in the leak.

Last year, after Libby announced he would not appeal his conviction, I noted that Bush, Cheney and their mouthpieces had promised that once Libby's legal options were exhausted, they would answer questions about the CIA leak case. But then -- surprise -- spokeswoman Dana Perino suddenly remembered there was a civil suit pending as well.

Legacy Watch

Ronald Brownstein writes for The Atlantic: "American voters nearly always elect a president who responds to the flaws they have found in his predecessor. Jimmy Carter was more honest than Richard Nixon; Ronald Reagan tougher than Carter; George H.W. Bush 'kinder and gentler' than Reagan; Bill Clinton more in touch than Bush; George W. Bush more morally upright in his personal life than Clinton. In November, whether most voters pull the lever for John McCain or for Barack Obama, they're likely to get a president who's more competent than Bush. What's less certain -- but equally important -- is whether they'll get one who can be the uniter that Bush promised to be, rather than the divider he has been."

He concludes: "Bush's failure has highlighted the fact that, ultimately, presidents who divide rarely conquer, and it has created an enormous opportunity for his successor to reshape the contours of American politics. . . . The opportunity to build a lasting majority would be greater for Obama than for McCain, because of the damage Bush has done to the GOP's image. But either man could strengthen his party by redefining it as more flexible, inclusive, and practical than it is seen to be today. More important, he could remind Americans, as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, that their 'common interests are as broad as the continent.' And that could be the key to progress on all of the problems -- from health care and energy to the economy and national security -- that will await the next president in January 2009."

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert hosted author Jane Mayer last night: "My guest tonight says that America is synonymous with torture. That is ridiculous. It is a euphemism for torture."

Colbert: "There's nothing in the constitution that says, 'don't torture.' The words 'don't torture' do not appear."

Mayer: "There is that little part, though, that talks about how you shouldn't have cruel and unusual punishment. . . . "

Colbert: "Let me point out that it says, 'cruel and unusual.' What we're doing may be cruel, but it is no longer unusual for us to do it, OK?"

Colbert also criticized Mayer for having "a problem with the term 'enhanced interrogation.'"

Mayer: "Enhanced interrogation is a euphemism for hurting people on purpose. . . . "

Colbert: "You're making it sound bad when -- when the term itself is meant to make it sound good."

And Colbert mocked the title of Mayer's book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."

Said Colbert: "If we had never known that the government was doing this -- the way the government didn't want us to know -- our ideals would still be intact. But people like you want to harm our ideals by letting us know what it is we're doing on the dark side. Aren't you part of the problem?"

Froomkin Watch

When this column was launched in January of 2004, I wasn't sure how long I could keep it going. But there's never been a dull moment. And today's column, by my count, is my 1,000th.

Live Online

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Cartoon Watch

Matt Davies on Bush's Georgia strategy, Lee Judge on Bush's message, Tony Auth on Bush and the bear, John Cole on the moral authority problem, and Chan Lowe on Bush's bright line; also John Sherffius on Mr. Mugookasey; Dwane Powell on endangered species; and Bruce Beattie and RJ Matson on Hamdan.

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