Friday, September 07, 2007

Exclusive! The Petraeus testimony in advance!

As we all know, General David Petraeus is slated early next week to deliver his long-awaited congressional testimony on Iraq. Don't expect any big surprises. In fact, I happen to have the advance transcript right here, complete with the senatorial exchanges that haven't even happened yet. Here's an exclusive excerpt.

PETRAEUS: "...And so, in conclusion, my assessment of the most feasibly relevent metrics has led me to determine that while we are indeed making measurable progress and success toward achieving our strategic goals, some difficult challenges still need to be assessed in order to cement our success and progress. Put another way, while we do face many significant challenges in the short, medium, and long terms, with respect to our optimal stability goals, we are indeed making progress on some metrically measurable fronts. And therefore it would be prudent to ask for more patience, and to continue current policies, with the goal of reassessing all our success and progress in perhaps another six months. I thank the committee for this opportunity, and I look forward to answering your questions."

DEMOCRATIC Q: "Thank you, General, and if you would permit me, I would like to offer a note of skepticism. But first, I do want to emphasize that I am impressed and gratified by the rows of medals and ribbons that adorn your uniform, all of which are testaments to your unimpeachable bravery and valor and honor, and that goes as well for a uniform that, at least from my humble vantage point, seems truly to have been pressed and ironed with such patriotic precision that, dare I say, the buttons on your sleeves are glinting in the sunlight that is flooding our committee room -- "

REPUBLICAN Q: "Excuse me, but at the risk of talking out of turn, may I say that I think it is only fair to point out that the general's sleeve buttons are glowing, not merely 'glinting,' and the suggestion of only a glint constitutes an unfair Democrat attack on our brave fighting men and women. On this anniversary week of 9/11, this is a time when we all must support our troops, and for a member of this chamber to even imply that one of their commanding officers is less than fastidious about his -- "

DEMOCRATIC Q: "Oh my yes, yes, sorry, sorry, I do apologize, truly I do, and, yes, on second thought, I do concur that those buttons are indeed glowing. And I want to also assure the general that I intend no disrespect whatsoever, with respect to any skepticism I may wish to express regarding his testimony. I do confess, though, that I am a bit confused about one or two points. You testified, for example, that, according to Pentagon figures, sectarian violence in Iraq has declined since the surge began. Yet there have been a number of independent reports that have concluded otherwise. And I have here a Washington Post report, from last week, in which intelligence analysts complain that the Pentagon has simply eliminated whole categories of death, such as car bombs, in order to make the overall numbers go down. With your permission, may I read one quote from that Post story? 'If a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian. If it went through the front, it's criminal.' I would be grateful if you could comment on that."

PETRAEUS: "I have not read that report, which appeared in a newspaper that is not known to be a friend of the administration, which I loyally serve. And if we fail to count deaths from bullets in the back of the head, then we will be fighting them over here."

DEMOCRATIC Q: "I appreciate the opportunity to follow up, by noting, with all due respect and deference, that you wrote a guest column for that same newspaper, shortly before the 2004 election, in which you expressed optimistic views about Iraq. At the time, you were being entrusted by the Bush administration to build and arm the Iraqi forces. You wrote - and I have it right here - that we were making "tangible the effort to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load of their own security." Yet now we have a new report, from an independent commission headed by a retired Marine general which says that the Iraqi forces will need at least another 12 to 18 months to stand up on their own. May we perhaps conclude, general, that, as you assess the surge,you are not the most objective observer? And in no way whatsoever do I consider that question to be an attack on our brave fighting men and women, please don't -- "

PETRAEUS: "We have made tangible progress because of the surge, but there is more hard work to be done - as that commission indeed suggests. So if it is wise to stay the course over the next 12 to 18 months, I am sure that our brave fighting men and women are up to the task of preventing another 9/11, the sixth anniversary of which is this week."

REPUBLICAN Q: "Mr. Chairman, I must protest this persistent star-chamber treatment of our illustrious guest in whom our president has rightly placed his trust. And at the risk of breaching the decorum of this august body, I also wish to note something that our president said the other day on the far side of the world. He reportedly told the deputy prime minister of Australia, that, with respect to our troops in Iraq, 'We're kicking ass.' Setting aside my Democrat friend's unhelpful questions, may I say that 'kicking ass' in the global war on terror is one metric we can all understand."

DEMOCRATIC Q: "I applaud my Republican friend for pointing that out, and I do believe that all my questions have been satisfactorily answered. But now I will issue a challenge to all my esteemed Republican colleagues. I want them to join us in sponsoring new war legislation - we just finalized the language - which is designed to take the notion of a cautious, incremental troop withdrawal, and turn that notion into a concept, whereupon, if there is tangible progress on the surge in six months time, we will take that concept and turn it into an idea, with the future objective of turning that idea into a goal. General Petraeus? Sir? Would you be willing, in six months time, to return here, with your glowing sleeve buttons, and assist us further in our deliberations?"

PETRAEUS: "You forgot to mention my uniform."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Republican line of march

Iraq is just not a quagmire for the troops. It's also a quagmire for the '08 Republican presidential candidates.

This was readily apparent last night, during the latest GOP debate, sponsored this time by Fox News. Any undecided independent voter who tuned in hoping to hear some fresh ideas probably surfed away in total frustration. With the exception of the unelectable antiwar candidate Ron Paul, the white guys on stage (minus Fred Thompson, who opted to yuk it up on Jay Leno) seemed cognitively incapable of straying from the familiar George W. Bush template.

That's a savvy strategy as far as it goes, since, according to the latest CBS News poll, 62 percent of Republicans support Bush's handling of the war - and the GOP base is crucial to winning the nomination. The problem is that, in terms of the '08 general election, marching in lockstep with Bush is political suicide; as evidenced in the CBS poll, only 21 percent of independent voters still back Bush on the war.

Mitt Romney embodied the GOP dilemma last night. When asked to explain his current stance on the war, and the possibility of a U.S. troop drawdown, he said this:

"...(T)he surge is apparently working. We're going to get a full report on that from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker very soon. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Brookings have come back with positive reports. If the surge is working, then we're going to be able to start bringing back our troops levels slowly but surely, and play more of a support role over time. Ultimately, down the road, I would anticipate that we're not going to have a permanent presence in Iraq, and we'll be in a standby mode in surrounding nations. But, of course, when we consider moving to a support role and bringing, at some stage, our troop levels back, we're going to be doing that from a position of strength because the surge has worked."

That sure sounded familiar. In fact, we heard all that on Monday, from Bush himself. During his photo-op in Iraq, Bush suggested that a working surge might lead to eventual and unspecified troop withdrawals, but that first we must hear from Petraeus and Crocker, and, besides, on the drawdown issue, he doesn't have any time frame in mind. Now we have Romney suggesting that a working surge might lead to eventual troop withdrawals, but first we must hear from Petraeus and Crocker, and, besides, on the drawdown issue, "I don't have a time frame that I've announced."

Not surprisingly, a citizen questioner, whose son is serving in Iraq, complained shortly thereafter that he was dissatisfied with Romney's response, on the grounds that Romney had been vague on how he would end the war. (No wonder Romney was vague. He was echoing Bush.) The questioner, a deputy sheriff, said: "I didn't hear how you would end it. I didn't hear an end game plan from you, and I would like a response on that."

Whereupon Romney ignored the thrust of the question, and instead offered more rhetoric from the Bush playbook, basically about how "this battlefield of Iraq is a place where we have to be successful because the consequences of what will happen on this global battlefield are enormous."

Indeed, Romney was so locked into Bush mode that he even exhibited one of Bush's most enduring traits: the ability to utter statements that are contradicted by factual reality. Scroll back to that first quote, and note his remark about how the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently came back with a "positive" report about how the surge is going. That is not accurate.

Anthony Cordesman, the leading Iraq expert at the CSIS think tank, recently came back from his Iraq visit and authored a nuanced report that is laced with skepticism. Cordesman writes that some of the anti-American violence has ceased not because of the troop surge, but because Sunni fighters, out of self-interest, have chosen to cut deals to work with the Americans; indeed, "the same fighters who were killing Americans could be killing them again in a matter of weeks or months...(W)hile the surge strategy has had value in some areas, much of this progress was not the function of the surge strategy, U.S. planning, or the actions of the Maliki government. In fact, the 'new' strategy President Bush announced in January 2007 has failed in many aspects of its original plan."

All told, despite Romney's sunny that the CSIS report was "positive," Cordesman wrote this: "The political and economic dimensions of the surge strategy have also failed to materialize at anything like the rate planned in Washington...Iraq has not made anything like the political progress required, and the effort to expand and revitalize the U.S. aid effort to help the Iraqi central government improve its dismal standards of governance and economic recovery efforts have already slipped some six months, and are far too dependent on the U.S. military." (And this report was written nearly one month before the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that the Iraqis have flunked the benchmark test, surge notwithstanding.)

And yet, despite all of Romney's lockstep Bush rhetoric, and his sunny Bush-style defiance of fact, that still wasn't good enough for some of his GOP rivals last night. John McCain, in particular, took umbrage that Romney had not been sufficiently sunny. Exhibiting the behavior that has made him a joke among the independent voters who once revered him, McCain took issue with one crucial word in the Romney rap on Iraq.

In Romney's initial remarks, he had said that "the surge is apparently working." Well, McCain bridled at the italicized word, and demanded that Romney expunge all traces of skepticism from his mind. McCain lectured Romney: "Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir. It is working. No, not 'apparently.' It's working...It's working, and we have to rally the American people."

Rudy Giuliani also marched in lockstep, echoing the Bush argument that we can't allow Iraq to become a "headquarters for Islamic terrorism" - which is reasonable as far as it goes, as long as one ignores the historical context, which is that Bush, by invading Iraq, converted the country into a headquarters for Islamic terrorism.

On occasion, a few candidates did try to tiptoe away, ever so tentatively, from the line of march. Sam Brownback actually dared to say that "we don't have a political solution of the ground that works in Iraq...we need to recognize that reality," but few Republicans consider him a viable candidate at this point - especially in crucial New Hampshire (site of this debate), where his religious conservatism is out of step with the voters.

But the award for creative tiptoeing surely went to Mike Huckabee, who is currently enjoying his post-Iowa straw poll boomlet, and who offered this rationale for staying the course in Iraq:

"We have to continue the surge, and let me explain why, Chris. When I was a little kid, if I went into a store with my mother, she had a simple rule for me: If I picked something off the shelf at the store and I broke it, I bought it. I learned I don't pick something off the shelf I can't afford to buy. Well, what we did in Iraq, we essentially broke it. It's our responsibility to do the best we can to try to fix it before we just turn away. Because something is a stake....whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we're there.
We bought it because we broke it."

Where have I heard that one before...Oh yes. That's what Colin Powell reportedly said to Bush, when the first-term Secretary of State tried to warn the president about the potential downside of invading Iraq: "You break it, you own it."

Which means that Huckabee was being quite daring, in a way. Last night he was essentially arguing that we should stay the course with the surge not because it is working, but because we have screwed things up so badly in Iraq that we have no choice except to make amends by persevering.

And that's basically what passes for dissent these days within the Republican presidential field.


As best I can determine, here's the most up-to-date Larry Craig chronology:

He was against resignation (last week) before he was for it (last Saturday). But then he was against it again (Tuesday) after he was for it (last Saturday). And now he is apparently for resignation yet again (today), after having been against it (Tuesday) and for it (last Saturday) and against it (last week).

And Ted Stevens, the ethically-challened Republican senator whose house has been raided by the FBI, is probably thinking, "Keep owning that news cycle, Larry."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The thing that wouldn't leave

Christmas has come early this year for the Democrats...because America's favorite toe-tapper, Senator Larry Craig (R-Restroom), is now signaling that he may well un-resign (despite having said on Saturday that he intends to resign), and that he now plans to fight in Minnesota to get himself declared un-guilty (despite the fact that he has already pled guilty).

This is probably Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's worst nightmare, made worse because it's happening during waking hours. The last thing he wants, at this point, is to burdened any further by a "family values" colleague who is now known, nationwide, for his practice of sliding his fingers along the underside of a neighbor's toilet stall.

Thirty years ago on Saturday Night Live, John Belushi played a character called "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave," an unwelcome houseguest who refused to hit the road despite his host's persistent entreaties. Craig apparently wants to do the sequel. McConnell, who is not particularly happy about this turn of events, said at a press conference this afternoon: "My view remains what I said last Saturday. I thought he made the correct decision -- the difficult but correct decision to resign. That would still be my view today."

Every day that Craig keeps himself in the news is another bad news day for his fellow Republican senators - who are already facing a tough electoral landscape in 2008, and the very real prospect of losing more seats. And every day that this guy stays in the news is a bad day for the '08 Republican presidential candidates - most of whom are slated to debate tonight on Fox News. (Perhaps the fair-and-balanced questioners will ask the obvious question: "Do you candidates believe that Larry Craig should keep his Senate seat as he explores his legal options, or should he resign for the good of the party?")

Craig seems to be juiced by the argument that he was unfairly railroaded by the cops and prosecutors after his arrest at the Minneapolis airport, an argument offered twice in recent days by Senator Arlen Specter, a former prosecutor and the ranking GOP member on the Judiciary Committee. Specter told the Associated Press yesterday that "the more people take a look at the situation, there may well be second thoughts," and contended that if Craig hadn't pled guilty to disorderly conduct and had instead insisted on going to trial, "I believe he would have been exonerated." (Conservative commentator Dean Barnett notes ruefully, "If you’re the kind of Republican who suspects Arlen Specter is at the root of all things evil, this is a story for you.")

I've heard this argument as well. An ex-colleague of mine emailed to say, "Am I alone in believing that had Craig not pled guilty, the case against him was probably unwinnable? Since when do you get convicted for foot and hand signals? Craig said nothing and offered no proposition before the cop busted him. And on the (police) tape, he denies everything. I think civil libertarians should be incensed. Even gay-bashing (expletives) have rights."

All told, Craig's press secretary insisted on some wiggle room yesterday: "We're still preparing as if Senator Craig will resign Sept. 30, but the outcome of the legal case in Minnesota and the (Senate) ethics investigation will have an impact on whether we're able to stay in the fight - and stay in the Senate."

But his task in Minneapolis - to cancel his guilty plea - won't be so easy. He could claim, for starters, that he was unfairly entrapped by the undercover cop, but many legal experts doubt whether that defense will work. The general rule of thumb is that the defense succeeds only when the defendant can show that he was strongly invited to behave in a manner that he would not otherwise have exhibited.

In this case, however, the arrest report details a lot of uninvited behavior; as legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin said the other day on CNN, "Craig did a heck of a lot more than just pick up a piece of paper in the stall. He rubbed his hand along the side of the stall, and he lingered outside and looked through the crack and rubbed his fingers together. I mean, there were a whole series of signals. And the jury might very well have believed the officer rather than Craig."

And as for the guilty plea itself, that might be tough to expunge. The Minnesota courts reportedly do permit the withdrawal of guilty pleas, but the hitch is that the guilty must show there was "manifest injustice." That might be a tough standard to meet in Craig's case, especially since he was warned ahead of time by the prosecutor that his guilty plea would appear on his criminal record, yet still agreed to the plea after more than two weeks of deliberation.

The senator from Idaho is surely entitled to pursue all remaining legal options, but, for our purposes, it's the political realm that matters most. One of his many lawyers, Stanley Brand, told NBC today that Craig should not be punished in the Senate for his "private conduct," but Dean Barnett, the conservative commentator, doesn't buy the idea that a guilty plea stemming from conduct in an airport john meets the definition of "private." As Barnett puts it, "The kind of behavior he engaged in wasn’t just illegal. It was also narcissistic and immoral. Once again, children use that restroom..."

Many GOP sympathizers recognize that the party will remain under an ethical cloud as long as Craig sticks around. In the words of conservative blogger John Hawkins, "The moment he pled guilty, his political career was over and even if he manages to 'lawyer' his way out of the guilty charges, the public isn't going to buy it at this point...Whether Craig likes it or not, it's game over for him and he might as well go quietly with as much dignity as can be mustered under these sorry circumstances."

Which is surely the opposite of what Democrats are whispering to themselves this morning. Something along the lines of, "Larry, you can stay as along as you like."


Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, we have "The Thing That Wouldn't Stay." That would be longtime fugitive Norman Hsu, the former Hillary Clinton fundraiser (or, in the campaign's parlance, "Hillraiser"), who today skipped a court date in California, after first promising that he would show up to answer for his '91 guilty plea to a grand-theft felony rap. The guy has disappeared. And now that he's on the lam again, a fresh warrant has been issued for his arrest.

History apparently repeats itself. As I recall, scores of shady Democratic donors fled the country in the wake of the 1996 Bill Clinton fund-raising scandal, rather than face questioning.

Actually, we don't know whether the "apparel executive" has fled the country. But if he's hiding out in Idaho, he might want to avoid the public restrooms.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Refreshing the president's memory

Well, well. The plot thickens (or sickens).

As I wrote here yesterday, President Bush was asked recently by scholar Robert Draper to explain why and how his administration had made the disastrous decision, in May 2003, to disband the Iraqi army – and to thereby create a huge pool of unemployed and humiliated men, many of whom would soon join the nascent anti-American insurgency. In response, Bush said: “Yeah, I can’t remember,” and suggested that somehow the administration policy “to keep the army intact” had been countermanded without his knowledge. In Bush's recollection, he was flummoxed by the news that the army had been disbanded - and asked his aides, "what happened?"

Now we have a new development, and it’s yet another black mark on the administration’s rich record of incompetence.

L. Paul Bremer III, the presidential envoy who made the decision to disband the Iraqi army, read Bush’s comments, as reported yesterday in The New York Times. Apparently he was not pleased. He suspected that he was being hung out to dry, and that blaming him would be unfair – because he had proof, in writing, that Bush knew what was going on, in advance.

Bremer happened to have, in his possession, an exchange of letters with Bush, dated May 2003. His letter to Bush specifically pointed out that he intended to disband the Iraqi army (even though Bush had signed off on a plan, two months earlier, to keep the army intact and put it to work on postwar reconstruction). Bush responded in writing with fulsome praise for Bremer, and gave no indication whatsoever that he was concerned about Bremer’s intention to disband the army.

Perhaps in the hopes of refreshing Bush’s memory, Bremer yesterday provided these letters to The Times. In his communiqué to Bush, dated May 22, 2003, he wrote that, after taking a strong measure to purge Saddam Hussein’s party members from government, “I will parallel this step with an even more robust measure dissolving Saddam's military and intelligence structures to emphasize that we mean business.”

In effect, Bremer was telling Bush: I intend to contradict Bush administration policy. (Indeed, there was vociferous opposition, within the U.S. military, to the idea of disbanding the Iraqi army, for fear that such a move would give the insurgents a recruiting tool.)

But, in his May 23 response letter to Bremer, Bush merely replied: “Your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence. You also have the backing of our Administration that knows our work will take time.”

Bremer dissolved the army that same day. These letters help to explain why Bremer kept telling his skeptical colleagues, “I have my instructions.” But what’s not so easily explained is why Bush is now claiming “I don’t remember.” Here are some possibilities:

1. Bush clearly recognized what Bremer intended to do, but is now claiming amnesia, in order to distance himself from the catastrophic decision by pinning the blame on his former subordinate.

2. Bush did read the key passage in the letter, but somehow failed to recognize its significance – that Bremer was seeking permission to overturn Bush’s own policy.

3. Bush never read the letter; his inner circle simply signed off on Bremer’s plan without Bush’s input – and without informing Secretary of State Colin Powell or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Powell and the joint chiefs have long stated that they were never asked for advice, or informed of the decision in advance.)

Apparently, the fog of war is not limited only to the battlefield. Chalk up this new tiff with Bremer as just another blow to the credibility-challenged president. It’s no wonder that the ’08 Republican presidential candidates so rarely rouse themselves to mention Bush by name. Let's see how often that happens in the next GOP debate, tomorrow evening. Clearly, Bush is trying to give the GOP candidates a little breathing room on Iraq, suggesting yesterday that he might endorse the vague possibility of future troop drawdowns.


By the way, Slate has exclusive excerpts from the Draper book on Bush.

Monday, September 03, 2007

"Yeah, I can't remember"

It often pays to read the entire front section of the newspaper, because you never know where you might find an item that belongs on page one.

Witness the Sunday story, in The New York Times, which detailed how Bush scholar/biographer Robert Draper scored a coup by persuading his fellow Texan, the commander-in-chief, to sit for a rare series of interviews. The Times story started on page one, and meandered along at great length about how President Bush is feeling "reflective" and "sorrowful" and "optimistic," about how he ate a low-fat hot dog and swatted at flies, about how he put his feet up on the table, about how the public won't give him a fair shake on Iraq ("every time I start painting a rosy picture, I get criticized," he laments), about how he says he has "God's shoulder" to cry on...

Then suddenly, on the jump page, way down near the bottom of the story, we discover this buried treasure:

Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.” But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush’s former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army’s dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ” But, he added, “Again, Hadley’s got notes on all of this stuff,” referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.

To fully appreciate Bush's key remark - "Yeah, I can't remember" - I'll provide some context:

On May 23, 2003, three weeks after Bush declared that major combat was over, his newly appointed Iraq administrator, Paul Bremer (who had no previous experience working in the region) signed an order that dissolved the Iraqi armed forces (thereby putting 385,000 people on the street). He also dissolved the existing police and domestic security forces (tens of thousands more). as well as the presidential security units that once worked for Saddam Hussein (50,000 more people).

With the stroke of his signature, Bremer created a vast pool of humiliated and newly politicized men, all of whom were familiar with warfare and weaponry. As Col. John Agoglia, deputy chief of planning at Central Command, later complained to Fiasco author Thomas Ricks, the Bremer decision was a disaster: "We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and created an insurgency.” The decision erased one of the few unifying national institutions, and aggravated the simmering sectarian tensions.

More tellingly, the decision appeared to contradict Bush administration’s policy, as stated only two months earlier. Bremer's predecessor, Jay Garner, had told Pentagon reporters that “one of our goals is to take a good portion of the Iraqi regular army” and put them to work on reconstruction, because “the regular army has the skill sets to match the work that needs to be done.” Indeed, as author Ricks pointed out, Bush had signed off on keeping the army intact, during briefings on March 10 and 12.

The mystery deepens. Why did Bremer do the opposite? If he was contradicting Bush policy, why did he not suffer the consequences? Or had Bush policy somehow changed behind the scenes? Bremer, at the time, kept telling his worried subordinates, "I have my instructions," without saying who had issued those instructions.

So let us review: Robert Draper, the Bush scholar in The Times story, asks Bush to explain how his administration perpetrated one of the most disastrous miscalculations in contemporary U.S. foreign policy....and Bush says he “can’t remember” what happened. And can't explain what happened, even after the fact ("Hadley's got notes on all this stuff").

Is it accurate to call this guy The Decider, when he can't even remember how this fateful policy was decided, or whether he indeed had any role in deciding it?