Kaiser on Bush Presidency

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Wednesday, December 14, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Wednesday, Dec. 14, at noon ET to discuss Bush's Iraq speeches, the fate of his agenda in Congress (including the Alito nomination) and the new political situation heading into the 2006 midterm elections.

The transcript follows.


Robert G. Kaiser: Greetings to all. I hope we can use today's chat to talk about the war and elections in Iraq, and the transformed political situation in Washington, particularly in Congress.

In the last hour President Bush gave the fourth in a series of speeches on Iraq, this one at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars here in Washington. It was a summation of the other speeches in this series; I saw nothing really new in it, but it struck me as a well-constructed speech, perhaps the best statement yet of the administration's current position

We've got lots of questions related to Iraq, so let me get to them with minimal delay. I'll just make one point at the outset--I'll probably be coming back to this during the chat, because I think it's the most important point to try to keep in mind. The fundamental American dilemma in Iraq now, I think, is that the success of our mission is out of American hands. U.S. soldiers, diplomats and construction engineers cannot produce the "complete victory" that President Bush reiterated today is his goal. Only Iraqis can do that. Democracy in Iraq, stability in Iraq, peace and prosperity in Iraq must all be created by the Iraqis themselves--Americans can't produce any of them. In this respect there is a meaningful parallel between the Vietnam war, which I covered for The Post 35 years ago, and this one. Ultimately, we could not create a viable South Vietnamese government to defend its own independence; in the end, the South Vietnamese couldn't do that either.

There is no North Vietnam in Iraq, a huge advantage. But the essential challenge remains: Can Iraqis turn their damaged and divided land into a prosperous, democratic nation? Our war aims are huge: to create a bastion for freedom in a region where democracy is still essentially unknown. Can the Shia, Sunni and Kurds of Iraq, who have no established democratic institutions and no history of democratic governance, overcome their mutual hostilities and suspicions to create a model democracy for the Middle East? If they cannot, it seems to me, then the U.S. will have to accept something considerably less than "complete victory."


Arlington, Va.: Why does President Bush continue to refer to Iraq and September 11 as though they have anything to do with one another? It has become insulting to those who have worked for the government, especially in regard to those who have worked solely on what occurred on that tragic date.

Robert G. Kaiser: Several questions/comments like this one already. I find this an intriguing question. Remember what Richard Clark told us: that on 9/12, Bush asked him personally if Iraq couldn't be tied to the attacks in New York and Washington. To me this is the best evidence we have that Bush himself harbored a desire to strike at Saddam.

But I also think it is sensible to accept that 9/11 created, for Bush and many other Americans, a need to strike back, to show that the U.S. could not be bullied or pushed around by anyone. This is a basic American instinct. For some Americans, obviously, the war to topple the Taliban and deprive Al Qaeda of a safe haven in Afghanistan would have been enough--the appropriate way to respond and show we would not be cowed. But other Americans, including the president, wanted more. I've always thought "more" helps explain the war in Iraq.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser,

One thing I've noticed about the President's speeches is that they have been very tough on Syria and Iran, but nothing is said about Saudi Arabia, which despite having a friendly government, is just as big (in my view) of a problem as those other countries in terms of terrorism.

Robert G. Kaiser: And Egypt too, of course. You put your finger on an important and difficult problem for the U.S. in the years ahead. It's easy to be "for democracy," but it's extremely difficult to be anti-House of Saud, or anti-Mubarak, yet both of those, it could be argued, would be part of a serious pro-democracy policy toward Saudi Arabia or Egypt. I have no great answer to this problem; instability in Saudi Arabia or Egypt at this time could be really disastrous. But the status quo in both countries is clearly anti-democratic.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hello,

Even after all four speeches, I still have the same two questions: What is Bush's definition of victory, and what is his plan to get there?

Robert G. Kaiser: In fairness, it seems to be he does answer the first of these: victory is a thriving Iraqi democracy. The "plan" combines a wish with a hope with crossed fingers: "stand up" Iraqis so they can survive on their own, or with minimal American support. Some things can be done: we can train cops and soldiers and judges and politicians, and hope they catch on. But we can't LEAD them, and without leadership in any situation of this kind, training is meaningless.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kaiser, I have no confidence that "Iraq" as we now know it, will exist in 10 years. As you say, the Kurds, Sunni, and Shia have no history of any sort of democratic governance. And their only example of a functioning democracy is Israel, who they probably view as a U.S. puppet. Hardly an example the Iraqis would want to follow.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the post. I don't think any Arab sees a model relevant to them in Israel, which looks to Arab eyes like an essentially western and European enterprise. Lebanon is a better example, though it too is driven by factions. I share your doubts about the future of Iraq, though it's clear that a great many intelligent and sophisticated Iraqis are convinced that their only hope for a happy future is in unity.


Passaic, N.J.: I agree about the importance of Iraqi involvement in achieving "victory." And I understand the President's saying it would hurt to set a timetable for withdrawal since the insurgents will just wait it out. But isn't it also true that with no timetable, the Iraqi military can also just "sit it out" in terms of training time getting any faster? Why is it exactly that training up their troops to be combat-ready is taking so long?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good points. Training an army does mean training its officers and non-coms; every soldier will tell you that these are the key ingredients to a successful force. They aren't created in three-month training courses. It takes time.

Personally I suspect the "American timetable" idea will prove, before much longer, to be irrelevant. An elected Iraqi

government is itself likely to create a timetable and ask us to go by a specific time, I suspect.


San Diego, Calif.: Bush seems to be trying to set ground rules for discussion about Iraq, especially putting intel and any allegations about its manipulation out of bounds by saying that such discussions undermine our troops. Your comments, please. With that in mind, what's the progress on the Senate Intel Committee's follow-up report on the use of the intel by the decision makers, the lack of which resulted in the Senate Dems invoking Rule 21(?) and closing down the Senate, in October, I believe?

Robert G. Kaiser: I had a similar feeling when President Bush said today that suggestions that the administration was less than honest with the intel would demoralize the troops in Iraq. Huh?

No sign of a Senate Intelligence Committee finding yet.

To me Bush and Cheney are drawing a mighty fine line on this issue. We know, as a matter of fact, how administration officials exaggerated the intelligence before the war: the mushroom cloud talk and so on. We also know, from Walter Pincus's pre-war reporting, for example, that on the eve of war, the U.S. intelligence community had NO hard evidence of WMD in Iraq.

Now Bush and Cheney tell us it is outrageous to suggest that they deliberately falsified intelligence.

Will this dispute ever be factually resolved? I'm dubious.


Dunn Loring, Va.: A few minutes ago, the President said that much of the intelligence that he used to go to war in Iraq turned out to be wrong. Then he said that he was responsible for fixing the intelligence that turned out to be wrong. My question: Is giving the person he had in charge of that intelligence our nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, a wise first step?

Robert G. Kaiser: good question. Has any official been held accountable for screwing up? If so I missed it. Maybe moving Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith out of the Pentagon was an example of that?


Cincinnati, Ohio: Thanks for this chat! I agree with the key point you outlined above. However, it also seems to me that the initial effort to overturn the pre-existing non-democratic government must come from the future participants of the democracy -- and not from a third party. In other words, if you really want it, you gotta fight for it (at least a little). Do you agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't. Having lived for three years in the old Soviet Union (in the early '70s), I don't think it's fair to ask the residents of a tyrannical, autocratic dictatorship to rise up against their government. A few heroes may do that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, for example, did in the USSR, but look at the record in Iraq: Every whiff of opposition to Saddam was met with cruel and violent responses. Doesn't seem fair to me to demand that the Iraqis should have taken the first step.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The President again repeated the assertion that "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." In my opinion the American presence there has made it this way. Mr. Bush seems to ignore this. Had the the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003, would you have predicted that it would become a terrorist haven?

Robert G. Kaiser: No, and I agree with you. To me when the president says this, he is reminding us how inchoate a notion the "war on terror" really is. Foreign-born terrorists are in Iraq, obviously, because the U.S. is in Iraq. They were not there before we were, and I doubt they'll be there in any significant numbers after we're gone--unless Iraq becomes a failed state in which terrorists can find a haven. We all have to hope fervently that this does not happen.


Bethesda, Md.: In an editorial today in the Post, Maj. Ben Connable asserted that "Anyone who has spent even a day in the Middle East should know that the Arab street would not thank us for abandoning Iraq."

This upbeat statement flies in the face of a leaked secret study by the U.K. DOD which found that "82% of the Iraqi people are strongly opposed to the presence of the coalition troops", "67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation" and (most disturbingly) that "Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified".

Would The Post ever consider reporting the facts straight from the mouths of the Iraqi people, instead of having Americans speak for them?

Robert G. Kaiser: Now this is an unfair comment, in my opinion. The Post has published numerous remarkable accounts from Iraq which give us a vivid sense of Iraqi public opinion, and particularly of Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation. Articles by Anthony Shadid, Steve Fainaru, Jonathan Finer (including one in today's paper to which we can link to here), Ellen Knickmyer, Doug Struck and others have done this extremely well. The most important source of my own scepticism about the future of Iraq has been these dispatches.

Connable's piece this morning fascinated me. We will link to it here as well. It reminded me of many conversations with American officers in Vietnam in 1970. Those officers spoke, with no exceptions I ever encountered, no Vietnamese, just as 99% of the American officers in Iraq now speak no Arabic. Connable's confidence that he understand the Iraqis and can tell us how well things are going is, I fear, misplaced. It is certainly at odds with the journalism we have been publishing, referred to in my previous answer. I'd love to be wrong about this, and to see Connable proven correct. But I am not holding my breath.

_______________________ The Truth On the Ground , ( Washington Post Op-Ed, Dec. 14, 2005 )

_______________________ For Kurds, A Surge Of Violence In Campaign , ( Post, Dec. 14, 2005 )


Atlanta, Ga.: What leaders are going to emerge in Iraq that will help that country to a democracy? I don't see any. Some of the potential leaders for a peaceful, prosperous Iraq seem to have sided with violence as a means to political power. Others have chosen intrigue, like the Shiite clerics. Still others have chosen personal financial gain over caring about whether Iraq ever becomes a democracy.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know how much you know about Iraqi society right now, but I do know how little I know. I can't answer your question, but I don't think my inability to answer it proves much. Might there be real leaders lurking in Iraq, about to win seats in parliament in these elections, and capable of really helping the country get on its feet? It seems possible to me. But we're just too far removed, literally and figuratively, to know.


Asheville, N.C.: Bush and his spokespeople have consistently retorted that when internationally everyone had the same intelligence, it is wrong to blame him. But if he couldn't get an approval for the use of force through the U.N. Security Council, and his "coalition of the willing" is a flimsy pretext, can he claim he made no greater mistake than any other country? When he takes responsibility for going to war then all the same, doesn't he admit to bad judgment?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


Springfield, Va.: "Why does President Bush continue to refer to Iraq and September 11 as though they have anything to do with one another?" As the President has said many times - statements you should be familiar with - 9/11 changed Bush's and most of America's view. We were no longer protected and isolated from terrorism, and leaving Saddam alone while he developed WMDs (as most western intel agencies thought) would be foolish and irresponsible.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this good post.


Yakima, Wash.: I wonder if Bush will consider an Islamic Theocracy, wich is the most likely outcome aligned with Iran a victory?

Robert G. Kaiser: This of course is a very important question. If the Shia religious bloc wins a big victory in these elections, then we will have an Iraqi government that will naturally ally itself with Iran, I fear. Not a great outcome.


Bethesda, Md.: Isn't turning a blind eye toward the anti-democratic tendencies of Mubarak and the House of Saud pretty much a given, until we treat our national oil addiction?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, Mubarek has no oil. But the oil addiction certainly does limit our freedom of maneuver in the region, I think.


Sewickley, Pa.: I confess, Mr. Kaiser, I am confused. It looks to me as if this idea of planting democracy in the Middle East grew out of the failure to find WMD. It had an ad hoc feel as though the administration was casting about for a grand design to supercede the initial war rationale-- sort of a legacy argument. Now with the tough talk about Syria and Iran and the rhetoric from Ms. Rice regarding 60 years of failure in U S foreign policy I am growing more convinced that the Bush Doctrine really does mean more pre-emptive war for the purpose of democratic nation building. My question is do you think the country will have an open honest debate about this and will the American people sign on to sacrificing their sons and daughters for a pallid shadow of democracy we would never lay down our lives for in this country?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the post. Personally I think another preemptive war during Bush's second term is about as likely as our beloved new Washington Nationals winning the World Series. Actually, I'd consider another preemptive war LESS likely than that. Our military forces are on the ropes right now; there is simply no way they could launch another big military operation in the near-term.


Washington, D.C.: Ironic that there is no mention of OSAMA BIN LADEN....NONE!

Robert G. Kaiser: This doesn't qualify as irony, does it? Isn't more like a habit by now?


Arlington, VA: The President said to Brian Williams the other day that "A lot of my job is foreign policy".

I ask you Mr. Kaiser, seriously: Is that or is that not the response of a 3rd grade student ?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think so. As a matter of fact, I was surprised by the three Brian Williams interviews of the president on Dec. 12. We will link to the transcripts of them here; I recommend that you take a moment to read what Bush said.

To my eye this is something of a new Bush, more human, more able to discuss reality and more self-critical than we are used to seeing. As my colleague Peter Baker wrote last week, Bush is looking for ways -- obviously painful for him -- to acknowledge the obvious fact that the war hasn't gone very well. He even admits in that interview that he looks at the morning newspapers, something he tried to deny in the past.

_______________________ NBC Interview Part I

NBC Interview Part II

NBC Interview Part II

_______________________ Bush Estimates Iraqi Death Toll in War at 30,000 , ( Post, Dec. 13, 2005 )


New York: Were you actually watching the speech in the room live or were you watching it on TV (closed circuit or C-Span)? Just wondering how you journalists do your "analysis" if you are not actually there.

Robert G. Kaiser: I was watching it on my favorite provider of instant news, Do you think it would make analysis easier, or better, to be in the room? Can't say I see how.


George Town, Grand Cayman: You referred to "the transformed political situation in Washington, particularly in Congress."

What exactly IS that situation. Is support for Bush and the war declining, and does that place the entire was effort in jeopardy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this, a subject I did want to discuss today!

A president with approval ratings at 40% or lower is a weak president. We're just beginning to see the impact of that; it will become a theme over the next year, I suspect. The Republicans in Congress are very nervous; it is conceivable, if not yet likely, that they will lose a lot of seats next November in the House and Senate; they could even lose their majorities in one or both houses, though it is much too early to predict that.

As I wrote in our Outlook section last year, we have been living through an extraordinary period in American history of one-party rule in which "congressional oversight" became almost an oxymoron. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate gave up their independence and let the White House largely dictate policy (with a few striking exceptions). That changed this year, first signaled by the collapse of Bush's Social Security reforms. Now we see periodic manifestations of Congressional independence and feistiness, however you spell that. I expect to seem more.

How this affects the war effort will depend entirely on conditions on the ground, and popular patience with the steady escalation of the numbers of Americans killed and maimed in the war.


Fayetteville, N.C.: I wonder if Iraqis want Democracy. There seems to be an ideal of the benevolent dictator in the history of some of these countries. Mustafa Kemal, powerful clerics that are revered, etc..

And I doubt they're all that impressed by Bush and the stories of corruption in the U.S.

Could that be why middle east countries like Egypt and Turkey are voting in Islamists? Wouldn't that imply that the only politicians that have a chance of being elected in Iraq are the ones approved by the most popular Imams?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good questions, which I cannot answer. I think often of the elections in Algeria in the '90s, I've forgotten the year, when Islamic fundamentalists clearly won a reasonably free and fair election. The Army and other conservative forces in Algeria never let them take power.

We have no guarantee that Iraqis or anyone else will choose our brand of democracy. Russians, sadly, seem to have rejected it, at least for now. Bush's confidence that all the world wants to be free like us is, to put it gently, debatable.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Does anyone consider our own history with Iraq and how ordinary Iraqis might view us? Consider that we supported Saddam through the Cold War and as a counterweight to Iran. We supported the Iraq/Iran War. After the Persian Gulf War, we encouraged Shiites to rise up against Saddam and they used the gunships we gave back to them to slaughter them. Then, we bombed them into the stone age in the '90s. If you take off the American lens for a second, isn't it asking a bit much for the ordinary Iraqi to buy into what we're trying to get them to pull off here?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


Burleson, Tex.: Re Iraq and 9/11:

He's not talking about a direct relationship between Iraq and 9/11. He's talking about the realization, after 9/11, of what could happen if terrorists or rogue states got possession of nuclear and other WMD.

Let's quit using the "Iraq-9/11 connection" straw man and actually argue the point he's trying to make...

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I'd just like to point out that all these statements asserting that criticism hurting troop morale, suggest a fragility of purpose, and a lack of sophistication and understanding of the democratic process that those same troops might find insulting and condescending.

If we allow that troop morale might truly be fragile, surely this has more to do with Bush's inept leadership over the past year (or five) than with any questioning in the press or in Congress.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting.


San Diego, Calif.: Two questions/comments based on the progress of this discussion. First, is it totally naive to look upon Turkey as an example of a functioning democracy in the Islamic (although not Arabic) world? Second, is Bush entitled to a sense of frustration, if not betrayal, regarding comments on the intel, when, for example, The Washington Post supported the invasion of Iraq, despite its own reporting that cast doubt on the presence of WMD?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Turkey is a functioning democracy; Turkey is an historically Muslim country. But Turkey had Attaturk, its great nationalist leader who imposed a secular order on the society that is still preserved. Not a model for the Arab world, in my opinion.

I'll let you decide what President Bush is entitled to feel; not my department! But sure, he enjoyed support from The Post's editorial page and a lot of other places, which had to embolden him at the time. We in the news department of The Post have nothing to do with editorials, and the editorial page staff has nothing to do with news coverage, but I do note that the Post editorial page has become sharply critical of the incompetence of the war effort, while never abandoning support for its underlying rationale.


Dale City, Va.: Do you think that skimming the headlines of the newspaper or newspapers is really being sufficiently informed for the leader of the free world? Whatever points he earned with "looking at" the papers was soon lost when he pretty much said most of what he knows he is told or shown by his staff. How is this different from we believed all along? He didn't imply that they show him what he doesn't want to see as a regular habit. They may have only mentioned "the bubble" after it clearly became a problem.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, maybe. Personally I've never been persuaded by the "Bush is a dunce" critique, which in my view gives comfort to many of his critics on the left, but actually makes it harder for them to realize why Bush beat them in two elections.


Washington, D.C.: Unfortunately with the Democrats, it seems no matter how well things go - whether it be in Iraq to support our troops, economy, etc. They will always maintain a negative position, and never offer an alternative plan. At this pace, and as much as the country is waiting for their "plan", they better come up with a doozie. And if they fail to have a cohesive one, there may be serious repercussions. Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you.


Troop Morale: My husband is an Army officer with 18 years in and his take on the people that think open debate hurts morale is that those are the same folks that think a ribbon decal on the SUV helps morale.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for that.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank you for pointing out the absurdity of the assertion that "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." Has the U.S. played directly into bin Laden's hands with our vast expenditure of resources and international goodwill in Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: I fear that's a possibility, though I wouldn't put too much emphasis on Bin Laden personally, who seems to be in no position (whatever position he is in!) to take advantage of this situation. But fundamentalist extremists who share Al Qaeda's goals can, I fear, profit from the consequences of the Iraq war.


Washington, D.C.: Great discussion ... thanks. You made one point in your opening remarks that I would like to respectfully disagree with. You wrote "There is no North Vietnam in Iraq, a huge advantage." But there is and that is a big part of the problem. The North Vietnam in Iraq is Iran. Any attempt at resolving our dilemma without resolving our problems with Iran is doomed to failure.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, by definition, Iran -- which uses another language, and has a very distinct history different than Iraq's -- cannot qualify as a version of North Vietnam in my view. But I take your point. A Shia-dominated Iraq allied with Iran, a very distinct possibility in the near future, would/will be a big headache for the U.S.


Toledo, Ohio: It's amazing how fast the hour goes by during these discussions. It is also amazing to see the variety of locales people are writing from, and the diversity of opinion in a relatively liberal newspaper. Thanks so much.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is NOT a "relatively liberal newspaper." This is the Web site of the Washington Post, where all shades of opinion are welcome all the time, as they are on The Post's op-ed page (heavily populated by conservative commentators, among others) and our Sunday Outlook section.

Thanks to all for taking part. I'll be back before long, I hope, to continue the conversation.

And I agree with Toledo about how fast these hours go by. I enjoy them a lot, thanks to all of you.

_______________________ President Bush Delivers Remarks on the War on Terrorism , ( White House Release, Dec. 14, 2005 )


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