Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Brinksmanship with his back to the wall

It’s time yet again to fact-check President Bush. This has become one of life’s more onerous but necessary chores - the journalistic equivalent of chopping ice or cleaning the cat box – and I’d frankly prefer to focus on something else. But no. I’d be remiss if I failed to address Bush’s fact-defying remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden.

So much of what he said about Iraq and the Democrats was so far removed from empirical reality that I am tempted to recall what the writer Mary McCarthy once said about her contemporary Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.” With respect to the president, that’s probably too harsh. He did, after all, start by saying “good morning,” and it was indeed a nice morning. He also vowed again to veto any congressional bill that includes a U.S. troop withdrawal timeline, and we can probably believe that, too.

It’s the other assertions that seemed problematic. To be charitable, let's just say that he repeatedly engaged in highly selective semi-truthiness. For instance:

1. He said that unless the Democratic Congress bows to his agenda, and speedily agrees to keep financing his war with no strings attached, the funds will start drying up this month, and our military resources will be severely strained: “Congress’ failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines, and others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.”

But there’s a problem with trying to label the Democrats as anti-loved ones. The hitch is Bush’s own treatment of the loved ones. Long before the Democrats took over Congress, military leaders were warning that the military was overstretched; long before the Democrats won a share of the power, loved ones were being repeatedly sent back to the front lines, or getting their tours extended beyond the norm.

In fact, just 24 hours before Bush tried to pin that on the Democrats, here’s what the wire services reported: “For just the second time since the war began, the Army is sending large units back to Iraq without giving them at least a year at home, defense officials said Monday. The move signaled how stretched the U.S. fighting force has become….The Army will try not to shorten the troops' U.S. time, ‘but in this case we had to,’ said a senior Army official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. ‘Obviously right now the Army is stretched,’ the official said.”

Indeed, voters decided last year that the burden on our “loved ones” was unacceptable – which is one reason why they rebuked Bush by kicking his GOP congressional enablers out of power and installing the Democrats.

And this is why Bush no longer has the standing to claim that he speaks for “the American people.” On Iraq, according to every poll from Gallup to Fox News, he essentially speaks these days for about 30 percent of the American people (that’s the share that supports his handling of the war). He is also playing a weak hand in the current showdown with the Democrats. In the latest Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans support an ’08 withdrawal timeline; 80 percent support stricter readiness criteria for troops heading to Iraq. Both those positions are in the (as yet unreconciled) Democratic measures that Bush has vowed to veto. The latest Pew poll puts timeline support at 59 percent; the latest Newsweek poll, at 57 percent.

2. At another point yesterday, the president asserted that the Democrats are “more interested in fighting political battles in Washington than providing our troops what they need” – this, from the same president who has repeatedly failed to provide our troops what they need, starting with sufficient body armor.

In January 2006, a Pentagon report concluded that, during the first two years of the war, troops were issued only enough body armor to cover part of their chests and backs, and that as many as 80 percent of Marines who had been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if the government had provided sufficient body armor. (Lest we forget, Bush and his war planners worked with a Republican Congress from January 2003 to January 2007.)

Bush’s attempt yesterday to pin that problem on the Democrats is further undercut by a new report issued just two months ago, by the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. This one goes far beyond body armor: “(Soldiers) experienced shortages of force-protection equipment, such as up-armored vehicles, electronic countermeasure devices, crew-served weapons, and communications equipment. As a result, Service members were not always equipped to effectively complete their missions.”

3. Bush chided the Democrats for taking their spring recess before finishing work on his Iraq supplemental bill, thereby implying that while they gambol, the troops will be hung out to dry. Perhaps he simply forgot that when the Republicans ran Congress in 2006, they too took their spring recess before finishing work on that year’s Iraq supplemental bill; indeed, they didn’t sign off on Bush’s spending request until mid-June.

And did the money for the troops run out when his allies went on vacation – as he claims will occur because the Democrats are currently out of town? Nope. That’s because the Pentagon merely shifted money from other accounts and covered the troop funds in the interim. The same kind of thing would happen again. Somehow Bush failed to mention yesterday that Congress last autumn set up a $70-billion emergency fund, to keep bankrolling the war in the event that money glitches arose in 2007.

4. He claimed that the Democrats, by seeking to attach conditions to the war money, are defying "the voters of America" who "don't want politicians in Washington telling our generals how to fight a war." This was a fascinating remark, since it was Bush himself - as Washington's top-ranked politician - who last winter told the generals how to fight the war. Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid had both testified last fall that a U.S. troop hike would probably be ineffective - in Abizaid's words, "I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future" - and by early January, they were out the door.

5. Bush insisted that, in the wake of his troop escalation, the Iraqi government is making all kinds of gains: “They have said that they will send Iraqi forces into Baghdad to take the lead, along with U.S. troops, to bring security to Baghdad. And they've done that. They said they'd name a commander for Baghdad. They have done that. They said they'd send up -- you know, they'd send troop out into the neighborhoods to clear and hold and then build. They're doing that. They said they would send a budget up that would spend a considerable amount of their money on reconstruction. They have done that. They're working on an oil law that is in progress. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the prime minister yesterday about progress on the oil law.”

But somehow he air-brushed these realities out of his rosy picture: Leading Shiites still oppose political reconciliation with the Sunnis, perhaps the most crucial goal (on Monday, the top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, signaled his opposition); there is still no law to rein in the sectarian militia death squads; no law extending amnesty to former insurgents; no law paving the way for provincial elections (originally slated for this June); and no indication that the Iraqis will meet their April deadline for taking full control of their own army.

6. Bush still seems unwilling to acknowledge that he is out of sync with prevailing American sentiment. At one point, he said: “I'm very aware that there are a group of people that don't think we should be there in the first place.” Well, let’s try to define our terms properly. “A group of people” is what you go to a ballgame with. “A group of people” is what you play poker with. “A group of people” does not seem to be an accurate way to describe 60 percent of the citizenry. Which is why the Democratic Congress seems unfazed by Bush’s threats of brinksmanship.

And speaking of public opinion, consider this remark, uttered yesterday: “You are not having a success in the hearts and minds of Iraq. There’s simply too many killers there, too many factions that don’t want democracy. And I’m not sure, no matter what surge you have, that you can overcome the Iraqi people not cooperating.”

A hostile reporter, berating Bush? A Senate Democrat, pleading for a U.S. surrender?

No, that was Bill O’Reilly.


This just in: Barack Obama raised $23.5 million during the first quarter of 2007, virtually matching the vaunted Clinton political machine. Nearly all this money is earmarked for the primaries, whereas much of Hillary's Clinton haul (she won't say how much) is reserved for the general election, assuming she's the nominee. Another striking statistic: Obama got money from 100,000 people - double the Clinton tally, which suggests that she relied far more on big contributors giving the maximum allowed by law.

Clinton will now have to endure a few rough news cycles; no doubt her people will claim that being dueled to a standstill by a newcomer is really no big deal at all. More on this early tomorrow.