Friday, September 14, 2007

War without end

It's not worth my while to offer a lengthy critique of President Bush's latest war address; trust me, you've heard most of his lines many times before.

He did say a few new things, however. He insisted, for instance, that Iraq is a war that our troops "can win," which is a tad bleaker than what he said in December 2005, when, in one of his Knute Rocknesque flights of fancy, he insisted that "'we are winning the war in Iraq."

And last night he also came up with a few lines that would be downright comical if not for the fact that our soldiers are fighting and dying over there. I am referring, of course, to his expression of gratitude to those allies who are fighting and dying with us ("We thank the 36 nations who have troops on the ground in Iraq") - a seemingly impressive roster, until one actually does a bit of fact-checking, and discovers that he is giving a shout-out to such powerful stalwarts as Bulgaria (currently, 155 soldiers ), Estonia (35), Macedonia (33), and Moldova (12). He also conveniently omitted the fact that 18 countries have pulled out their troops, and that Britain is in the process of drawing down. Worse yet, his claim that 36 nations "have troops on the ground" is contradicted by his own State Department, which, in its Aug. 30 report, puts the number at 25.

But this war has always been an America-centric operation (unlike the substantive coalition that Bush's father assembled in 1990), and, in the big news of the night, the younger Bush made that abundantly clear:

...Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship...

There it is, the Bush legacy, his gift to his successor in 2009: Open-ended war, with scant guidance from Bush himself on how we should define success or failure.

Speaking of such definitions, there was one overriding question that Bush needed to address last night: How does he plan to capitalize on the troop surge's military gains, and ensure that Iraq's sectarian leaders use the opportunity to achieve political reconciliation? That goal, after all, is what our soldiers this year have been dying for. Bush himself said in January that he expected Iraq's leaders to get their act together, and that he intended to measure their progress along the way; as he put it at the time, "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

But, in his speech last night, he essentially confessed that he has no sway over the sorry situation in Baghdad: "The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks - and in my meetings with Iraqi leaders, I have made it clear that they must."

Or else he'll do what? Pull out the U.S. troops?

No, that won't happen - because, as he announced moments later, we're poised to build "an enduring relationship." Nowhere in his speech does he warn that the Iraqi government would pay a price if it continues to fail. The bottom line is that he has nothing new to offer about how to mop up his own historic mess. That task will fall to his successor, and you can bet that if the new leader is a Democrat, and that Democrat decides to speed up U.S. troop withdrawals, Bush will be out on the lecture circuit passing the blame.


And on that cheerful note, have a great weekend. Regarding the weather forecast, however, I would first advise checking to see what General Petraeus has to say.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hillary and a boy named Hsu

In her quest for the presidency, Hillary Clinton must dampen the suspicion, shared by many, that she is just another establishment shill for the status quo. Clearly, her most devoted supporters don't see her that way; nor does she. The problem at the moment, however, is that the Norman Hsu scandal is threatening to become a metaphor for Clintonian politics as usual.

Addicted to the money race, virtually all the major presidential candidates have come to rely on "bundlers" - free-lance power players who hit up their hundreds of friends, employes, associates, and acquaintances for campaign donations, then bundle them for delivery to the grateful White House aspirant - and at times there have been bipartisan embarrassments.

Roughly a dozen of George W. Bush's bundlers were investigated for sleazy business dealings; one was Jack Abramoff, the GOP super-lobbyist who now lives in the slammer, and another was Thomas Noe, an Ohio player who pleaded guilty to embezzling state money and laundering his own campaign donations through his employes. Mitt Romney was embarrassed recently by a bundler who got indicted on fraud charges. A John Edwards 2004 bundler has been indicted on a laundering charge similar to Noe's. One of Barack Obama's bundler's was indicted last autumn on fraud charges.

But with regards to the Norman Hsu saga...well, this guy (now under arrest after trying to flee a new court appearance on an old fraud charge) is in a class by himself. He raised at least $850,000 for Hillary - an amount that dwarfs the known output of all other bundlers - and he seemed to have a suspicious talent for bundling campaign donations from people of quite modest means. Consider, for instance, the Paw family in California, which has somehow managed to donate roughly $300,000 to various candidates (including Hillary) over the past three years, even though the Paw head of household is a mail carrier with annual earnings of $49,000.

The FBI is conducting preliminary inquiries into Hsu's bundling activities and business dealings; the Manhattan DA is investigating whether Hsu bilked a private equity firm in a Ponzi scheme. But what interests me is how the Clinton campaign has reacted to all this:

With all the speed of a turtle trundling through molasses.

Its first response, last June, was total denial. When a California businessman reportedly emailed the campaign to warn that "there is a significant probability that a man using the name of Norman Hsu is running a Ponzi scheme," a campaign official emailed back to say, "I can tell you with 100 certainty that Norman Hsu is NOT involved in a ponzi scheme. He is COMPLETELY legit."

Its second response, also last June, was to search public records for information about Hsu, but aides turned up nothing. Apparently they didn't look very hard, because The Washington Post pointed out yesterday that "a commonly used public record search shows that Hsu had multiple business lawsuits filed against him dating back to 1985, filed for bankruptcy in 1990, and was a defendant in two Californis court matters listed as possible criminal cases."

The campaign's third response, when suspicions about Hsu surfaced in the press in late August, was to praise their bundler. A Clinton flak said: "Norman Hsu is a longtime and generous supporter of the Democratic party and its candidates, including Senator Clinton. During Mr. Hsu’s many years of active participation in the political process, there has been no question about his integrity or his commitment to playing by the rules, and we have absolutely no reason to call his contributions into question." The campaign also said that it would not return any of the Hsu-related campaign contributions.

The campaign's fourth response was to grudgingly give ground. After it became clear that Hsu was a fugitive from justice, and after other Democratic candidates made it clear that they intended to purge themselves of Hsu money, Clinton did the same, by donating to charity $23,000 that Hsu had personally donated. But the campaign made this announcement in the early evening, after most East Coast news deadlines...and made it clear that Clinton was refusing to give back the donations that Hsu had bundled from others.

The campaign's fifth response came this past Monday evening. After learning that the FBI was on Hsu's trail, and after learning that The Los Angeles Times had obtained those aforementioned emails (the heads-up from the California businessman, and the 100 percent denial from the campaign), Clinton decided to give back the donations that Hsu had bundled from others. That's the $850,000. But the campaign, to soften the blow, made this announcement in the early evening (sound familiar?), after most East Coast news deadlines, and after the network news shows had gone on the air in the East, mostly with the dominant coverage of the Petraus hearings on Iraq. And now the campaign is refusing to disclose the names of the 260 bundlees who are poised to get their money back.

Bottom line: If Hillary Clinton intends to stump for the presidency by associating herself with only the upside of her husband's presidency (economic prosperity, for instance), while skipping past the downside (the campaign finance scandals of 1996, for instance), she may well need to become more vigilant in her responses to the Hsu disclosures, and others that might come along. Otherwise, she might have a problem convincing independent swing voters that she, more than her rivals, best embodies the politics of change in Washington.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"My level of confidence is under control"

With regards to the Bush adminstration's latest PR push for open-ended war in Iraq, it is significant that designated cheerleader Ryan Crocker has barely been able to muster even a smidgen of rah-rah enthusiasm.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, much to his credit, doesn't seem to share the president's penchant for strolling through wreckage with rose-colored glasses. Indeed, Crocker's behavior this week during his Washington visit can probably be viewed as a reasonably accurate barometer of just how badly the war is going - and how Bush is basically at the mercy of ground-level events that are out of his control.

After two days on Capitol Hill, and a press conference this morning, Crocker (always appearing with General David Petraeus) is leaving behind a string of downbeat remarks that are worth recounting:

"I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq....There is an enormous amount of dysfunctionality in Iraq, that is beyond question. The government, in many respects in dysfunctional...I frankly do not expect us to see rapid progress through these benchmarks...It's hard to do nation-building or reconciliation in the face of widesprread sectarian violence, which has been the situation over the last 18 months...It's no exaggeration to say that Iraq is, and will remain for some time to come, a traumatized sociey...The failures are there on the Iraqi side, it's frustrating to me...My level of confidence is under control..."

It was also striking that Crocker strayed so far from the latest Bush spin about how the war in Iraq is really about our need to defeat al Qaeda. Crocker barely mentioned al Qaeda all week; apparently, he thinks there are bigger problems in Iraq than the presence of fighters who identify themselves with al Qaeda. (Virtually every study of the conflict has concluded that al Qaeda fighters constitute a small minority.) As Crocker said this morning, the prime headache in Iraq is the ongoing civil strife between home-grown Shiites and Sunnis - in his words, "an ethno-sectarian competition for power and resources."

This morning, Crocker also sought to cheerlead to the extent that he felt comfortable. It was almost painful to watch his labors: "The trajectory is moving upwards, but the slope is not very great, because of what we're seeing at ground level...the slope is up, even if the gradient isn't very deep...a long hard grind...I think that grind is making progress."

But since he did manage at a few junctures to utter the word "progress," that should be enough for Bush, who is now slated to speak about Iraq in prime time tomorrow night. He'll second Petraeus' recommendation for a modest troop drawdown by next spring or summer (the troop reduction that was inevitable anyway), he'll praise Petraeus and Crocker for divining signs of encouragement (in Petraeus' words today, "a degree of hope"), and he'll call for more time and patience. And he probably won't offer any new thinking about how Iraq's political leaders can be coaxed to reconcile, post-surge, after refusing to do so during the surge. Given the extent to which most Americans have already tuned Bush out, it's safe to predict that millions will simply ignore him and surf to some other show.

Crocker hasn't been in Iraq for very long, but he already has the downbeat bearing of Robert McNamara in the last days of his Vietnam stewardship at the Pentagon. As a subordinate, he's in no position to recommend that Bush go on TV and announce a fundamental shift in strategy. For instance, he's in no position to write something like this:

"The public is waiting for leaders from both political parties to stand up to the president and say enough is enough. They would like this situation resolved - and soon - and there is no other solution acceptable to them other than bringing the troops home...It is my opinion that the best leaders are those who trust the will of the public, even if that means changing direction or admitting a mistake. This is true leadership and the kind of leadership our nation has always desired."

That's Matthew Dowd...Bush's pollster/strategist on the 2004 re-election campaign.


Hillary Clinton oughta be thrilled that her latest fund-raising embarrassment has been overshadowed this week by the Petraeus-Crocker story. I'll explain why tomorrrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Winning the war on Capitol Hill

Here's the bottom line on the Iraq debate: The guy with the most medals wins.

Or, more specifically, the president who hides behind the guy with the medals...he wins.

Fact and substance are apparently meaningless at this point. The troop surge is actually a failure - when measured against the original definition offered last winter by President Bush, and again last spring by General David Petraeus. Bush said the surge was supposed to create "breathing space" for the Shiites and Sunnis to effect political reconciliation in Baghdad; in May, Petraeus told the Associated Press' annual meeting that the goal of the surge "is the genuine demonstration of a willingness by all parties to reconcile with one another, to truly embrace what is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution -- one Iraq, minority rights, no safe haven for terrorists and a government that is representative of and responsive to all Iraqis, and all is underlined. I mean, that's, I think, where we're all sort of focusing like a laser beam."

Yet there has been virtually no political reconciliation, and little progress is foreseeable.

Moreover, for every "metric" of declining violence offered on Capitol Hill this week by Petraeus (who has been tasked by Bush with assessing his own work, and essentially defending the war in which he has long had a vested interest), there are a slew of countervailing "metrics" offered by far more independent analyists.

Moreover, his recommendation of a troop drawdown by next spring or summer is also virtually meaningless - it is perverse to even call it "news" - because (a) the troop surge was always supposed to be temporary (remember?), therefore a return to pre-surge troop levels during the summer of 2008 will leave us roughly where we were last winter, and (b) a reduction was always in the cards, given the severe strains on military readiness and the fact that roughly 30,000 soldiers would complete their 15-month tours of duty.

Moreover, his praise for the Iraqi government's buildup of security forces is also virtually meaningless. He stated Monday: "Currently, there are 445,000 individuals on the payrolls of Iraq's Interior and Defense Ministries. Based on recent decisions by Prime Minister Maliki, the number of Iraq's security forces will grow further by the end of this year, possibly by as much as 40,000" - but conveniently failed to mention that a new independent report helmed by retired General James Jones paints a grim picture of those same security forces. Jones says they are riddled with corruption and "rife with political and sectarian intrigues," which seems a lot more important than how many individuals are, in Patraeus' words, "on the payrolls."

Most Americans, of course, know full well that Bush's front man is merely putting a new spin on the old stay-the-course, plead-for-patience message - the one that Bush can no longer deliver on his own because his credibility is shredded (witness the latest New York Times-CBS poll, which found that only five percent of Americans put their primary trust in Bush to resolve the war). But most people are also cynical about Petraeus as well. According to the latest USA Today-Gallup poll, 53 percent do not believe that he is sufficiently independent or objective; in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, 58 percent said that the surge has failed (with only 36 percent saying otherwise); and in several polls, strong majorities said that Bush will keep doing what he wants anyway.

But, politically speaking, it really doesn't matter what the public thinks. The Petraeus road show (which continues today on the Senate side) has only two real purposes:

1. Mollifying congressional Republicans, who are unquestioningly loyal by instinct and have been desparately looking for a reason to remain supine.

2. Dividing the opposition, by sowing fresh discord between the characteristically timid congressional Democrats and the party's liberal antiwar base.

Bush's aim, of course, is to retain sufficient votes on Capitol Hill, in order to forestall any threat to his war policies as he enters his final year. And it looks like he is succeeding.

Keeping the congressional Republicans in line is crucial. Petraeus may well have offered enough "metrics," and enough sufficient teases about possible troop drawdowns, to satisfy enough of the wavering GOP members. Those Republicans (especially moderates facing tough '08 races) who, just a few months ago, were threatening to bolt from the president in September, may now convince themselves that they have been given enough political cover. Norm Coleman, the vulnerable GOP senator who is up for re-election in Minnesota, gushed his gratitude today, telling Petraeus, "I applaud the troop withdrawals...I applaud the fact that it will be at pre-surge levels next year."

So perhaps the new Republican battle cry will be "Let's wait to see what General Petraeus says next April." And if they hold firm, that will be enough to foil the Democrats, who are hampered by their thin majorities and thus can't do anything substantive to change the course of this war without scores of GOP defections.

The Petraeus talking points will probably also provide sufficient political cover to the '08 GOP presidential candidates. Bush has had them in mind for quite some time. In his interviews with biographer Robert Draper, he tipped his hand: "I'm playing for October-November, to get us in the position where the presidential candudates will be comfortable in sustaining a presence," referring to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

As for the perpetually flummoxed Democrats, I was struck by this passage this morning in The New York Times: "...only a few Democrats on two House committees seemed inclined to dispute with much vigor the assessments provided by a commander with medals on his chest and four stars on his shoulder." (No surprise there. Didn't I already signal that satirically, last Friday?)

And just as the Democrats were struggling to challenge their decorated celebrity guest, they also had to deal with fallout from the tactically stupid newspaper ad - the one that ran yesterday in The Times, which referred to Petraeus as "General Betray Us." This was truly a gift to the Republicans, who are happiest these days when they can obscure their Iraq failures by changing the subject. And when a group on the left suggests in an ad headline that a military general might be betraying his country...well, what a grand opportunity to change the subject.

It doesn't matter that the copy in the ad was far more reasonable - and accurate -than the headline (example: "We'll hear of neighborhoods where violence has decreased. But we won't hear that those neighborhoods have been ethnically cleansed.") What matters is that handed the Republicans a weapon, and the Republicans used it to hammer the elected Democrats who are already petrified of being branded as anti-military, to put the Democrats back on their heels right at the moment when Democrats were hoping that Petraeus' flawed arguments would dominate the news cycle.

For instance, Chris Dodd, one of the most outspokenly antiwar presidential candidates, had to devote precious air time last night to a denunciation of the ad. He told CNN, "This is not about the personality of General Petraeus. I have respect for him as a military individual here giving his best assessment. And even his assessments indicate this is not going to be easy at all, even under the best of scenarios they're describing here. So the debate ought not to be about the personalities. The debate is about the policy."

So when the Democrats are scuffling with their own base, that's another advantage for Bush.

All told, Bush appears closer than ever to achieving his goal: Kicking the can down the road; keeping at least 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq through the end of his tenure (with all the additional casualties that will ensue), and fobbing off his signature disaster on whoever comes next.

This isn't nearly as ambitious as his grandiose goal of turning Iraq into a peaceful western democracy, but at least his current objective is achievable.


Meanwhile, here's my favorite exchange, from Petraeus' Senate committee appearance this afternoon...

Republican Senator John Warner: Are you able to say at this time (that) if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here, this strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?

General Petraeus: Sir, I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

Senator Warner: Does that make America safer?

General Petraeus: Sir, I don't know, actually.

(Two hours later, Petraeus amended his response and said that he should have answered "yes.")

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hagel worsens his party's woes

Senator Chuck Hagel has long exasperated most of his fellow Republicans; his antiwar pronouncements about Iraq have been generally viewed as political blasphemy, particularly his declaration last winter that the Bush decision to launch a troop surge "represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." But they may well come to mourn his absence on the 2008 Nebraska ballot. His expected retirement - formally announced today - will put that Senate seat in play, and further burden the national GOP as it labors to avoid slipping even further into the minority.

In presidential election years, most public attention is focused on the contestants for the top job, but the composition of the House and Senate will be critically important when the new president starts work in 2009. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that a Democrat in the White House would be able to score big achievements without strong party majorities in both chambers. Which is why the Senate is a crucial '08 battleground.

And Hagel, by leaving, will make it tougher for the GOP to hang on to its fragile 49-51 minority.

Nebraska is a deeply red state in presidential elections, and it's hard to imagine that any Democratic hopeful can win there next year. But Nebraska's Republicans are also ticket-splitters, which helps explain the presence of the other senator, Democrat Ben Nelson, and the past successes of Democrat Bob Kerrey, who served both as governor and as a senator. And that same Bob Kerry (who has serious money and celebrity cache) is now thinking seriously about running for senator again, in 2008, now that Hagel is taking a pass.

There are other potentially strong candidates as well, including Mike Johanns, a former GOP governor who's now serving Bush as the U.S. secretary of agriculture, but the key point here is that the national Republicans will have to expend considerably more time and effort and money, just to defend its Nebraska seat, than they had originally planned. And the timing could not be worse, because they were already at pains to defend 22 of the 34 seats up for re-election next year.

Worse yet, virtually all of the vulnerable '08 seats are now held (or being vacated) by Republicans. Hagel is the third Republican to announce his departure, following Wayne Allard in Colorado (which has been trending blue) and, most recently, John Warner in Virginia (another major Democratic opportunity).

In addition, Republican incumbents are thought to be highly vulnerable in Maine (Susan Collins), Minnesota (Norm Coleman), New Hampshire (John Sununu), and Oregon (Gordon Smith). Smith is the only Republican senator on the west coast, and he's trying to hang on in a blue state. Sununu won a squeaker in 2002, but New Hampshire has been trending blue ever since. Collins, who voted to authorize war in Iraq, will face a Democratic congressman who voted no, in a state that supported John Kerry in 2004. And Coleman, who stayed loyal to Bush on Iraq, also hails from a pro-Kerry state.

Then there are the wild cards. Alaska GOP incumbent Ted Stevens and his New Mexico counterpart, Pete Domenici, are up for re-election next year, but both guys have had ethics problems (Stevens is under investigation in a federal corruption probe, and Domenici played a key role in the political purging of a U.S. attorney), and it would not be a shock if at least one of them announced the sudden desire to spend more time with the family rather than face the voters.

On the flip side of the ledger, the Democrats at present seem vulnerable only in Louisiana (where incumbent Mary Landrieu could be hurt by the exodus of thousands of Democratic voters, thanks to Katrina), and possibly South Dakota, where incumbent Tim Johnson, newly recovered from a brain operation, has yet to state his '08 plans (and he was a narrow winner anyway, back in 2002).

Moreover, as a reflection of the current national mood, Democrats are financially well positioned to play offense, in Hagel's Nebraska and across the map. Traditionally, they tend to have a lot less money than their GOP counterparts - but, at the moment, the reverse is true. At the end of June, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington had $20.4 million in the bank; the National Republican Senatorial Committee, only $5.7 million. Barring a money surge, it won't be easy for the GOP to spread limited largesse across an expanded number of competitive states.

All told, Senate handicapper Stuart Rothenberg noted today, "a Democratic gain of five to seven seats (is) a serious possibility next year."

Some Hagel foes on the right are celebrating his retirement; as one blogger on scoffed the other day, "The unctuous lightweight from Nebraska...has decided to pack his crap and get off the battlefield. Toodle-oo, Chuck." But the fact is that, despite Hagel's Iraq heresies, he generally voted with his party 90 percent of time - on everything from taxes to Supreme Court nominees. If the Democrats wind up winning that seat, and widening their margin of control in the Senate, the Hagel-haters may come to rue their own mockery.


Speaking of mockery, Hagel once lambasted his own Senate colleagues for their discomfiture on Iraq. He famously told them, "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes."

Well, proverbially speaking, now that Hagel has decided to go sell shoes - by freeing himself up to say and act as he pleases, without needing to worry about the '08 voters back home - is he more likely to work closely with Democrats on the war, in opposition to Bush, for the duration of his lame-duck Senate stint? The same question applies to John Warner.