Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, May 10, 2007

  About Bush's "Nixon moment" with those tough-talking Republicans

For the past day, reporters and bloggers have been chattering about what is being described as a "watershed moment" for George Bush two days ago. He met with eleven Republican Congressmen who, we're told, spoke bluntly to Bush and warned him that he was going to lose Republican support in Congress unless he 'fixed' Iraq. This is supposed to be something like the beginning of the end of Bush politically.

Except that the entire episode amounts to practically nothing. Those 'tough' warnings come from a group of marginalized Republicans whose alleged demands of Bush make no sense. They promised, in effect, to continue supporting for the foreseeable future a President they claim they don't trust, while opposing all attempts to rein in his failed policies in Iraq. In other words, they're spineless fools at best.

One of the two leaders of the group is my own do-nothing Congressman, Charles Dent, so I think I can speak directly to this issue.

I won't bother to analyze the exaggerated importance that many have already attributed to this private meeting, following the lead of Tim Russert and Keith Olbermann. These representatives can claim anything about what they said to Bush, since no transcript of the meeting has been released. I will note, though, that they waited to meet with Bush when Dick Cheney was out of the country. That gives you some measure of how "tough" these members of Congress are.

They do want the public to suppose that they took a hard-line with Bush; they rushed right out to talk up their "secret" meeting with reporters. But what did they demand of Bush, actually?

[O]ne said “My district is prepared for defeat. We need candor, we need honesty, Mr. President.” The president responded, “I don’t want to pass this off to another president. I don’t want to pass this off, particularly, to a Democratic president,” underscoring he understood how serious the situation was.

Brian, the Republican congressman then went on to say, “The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There is no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus.” The meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes and was, in the words of one, “remarkable for the bluntness and no-holds-barred honesty in the message delivered by all these Republican congressmen.”

Well, that's certainly hard-nosed: a demand for candor and honesty, and then (paradoxically) an announcement that Bush can't be trusted in any case. The latter has been obvious to nearly everybody for the last, ohhhh, several years. So why are they just getting around now to telling the President they don't believe his lies regarding Iraq?

As for the demand that Gen. Petraeus should do the White House's talking in the future, that boggles the mind. First, it is a political job that the Congressman wants to delegate to a member of the military. Second, setting aside the inappropriateness of it, why would Petraeus be trusted to say anything other than what Bush wanted to be said? So how does that make any such pronouncements more trustworthy? Third, if Bush can't be trusted, shouldn't he resign and permit the nation to be led by a President who can be?

As a side issue, I note that Gen. Petraeus hardly has won much trust in recent months. As soon as Bush decided to promote him, Petraeus began toeing the Bush line. For example, consider Petraeus' reaction to the recently published survey of the mental health and ethics of troops serving in Iraq.

At the Associated Press’ annual meeting in New York on Tuesday, I sat in the audience observing Gen. Petraeus on a huge screen, via satellite from Baghdad, as he answered questions from two AP journalists. Asked about a military study of over 1,300 U.S. troops in Iraq, released last week, which showed increasing mental stress -- and an alarming spillover into poor treatment of noncombatants -- Petraeus replied, "When I received that survey I was very concerned by the results. It showed a willingness of a fair number to not report the wrongdoing of their buddies."

That's true enough, but then he asserted that the survey showed that only a "small number" admitted they may have mistreated "detainees."

That was a lie. Actually, the study found that 10% of U.S. forces reported that they had personally, and without cause, mistreated civilians...

Well, it was also a lie to say he "was very concerned by the results". Petraeus took no steps at all to address the survey's findings until last week, after it was revealed to the public. But the survey was completed last November. The policies Petraeus has been endorsing since that time run flatly counter to the findings of the survey, which emphasized above all that the troops' increasingly severe problems with mental health and levels of rage were largely a factor of the length and frequency of the tours in Iraq.

But rather than reduce the rotations, Petraeus agreed to allow them to be lengthened from 12 to 15 months. The promise, absurdly enough, was that this would be offset somehow by permitting troops to have their full year out of theater before being rotated back to Iraq. But even that fig leaf has now been abandoned.

So Petraeus' "concern" about the survey amounted to ignoring the damage Bush's war was doing to the military and pressing ahead with even more damaging policies in order to satisfy the unreasonble demands of his boss.

This is the man whom the tough-minded Republican congressmen want to turn into the WH spokesman for the Iraq war.

To return to what they demanded of Bush:

Top Republicans have said an expected September review by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, may decide the future of the war. Bush must be able to show by September that the push to pacify Baghdad and its surrounding provinces is working, LaHood said.

"The American people are war-fatigued. The American people want to know there's a way out," LaHood said. "We will hang with them until September, but we need an honest assessment in September," he said of his fellow congressmen. "People's patience is running very, very thin."

An "honest" assessment in September is what they want. That's an admission that the administration's and the Pentagon's reports until now have been dishonest. And yet, the only impact it has had upon them is that they now demand that the third quarterly report from the Pentagon (not the second one, due in June) should be honest:

The Republicans told Bush they had little faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "to get his act together" and expected a "very candid report" from Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on the progress of Iraq's government this fall, LaHood said.

"We want a very candid report in September," LaHood said. "We don't want politics mixed into it. And the way forward after September, if the report is not good, is going to be very, very difficult."

These are supposed to be brave and tough-minded Congressmen, all but inviting the administration to 'mix in some more politics' in the 2nd quarterly report, yet daring to demand an honest 3rd report? This part from CNN gets closer to what this group really was up to:

One source who attended the meeting said that Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, told Bush that without positive results soon in Iraq, his district will be prepared for defeat. The message from the lawmakers was "we're all with you now, but we have concerns about where we will be next year," a House GOP leadership aide said.

So the Congressmen warned the President sternly that they would stick by Bush (whom they don't trust even to speak about Iraq) for another half year. Then, if there weren't better results, they would be prepared for "defeat"; their main concerns are about "where we will be next year".

In other words, this meeting was not about Bush's failures in Iraq; nor about the need for new advisors; nor about urging him to adopt a new course that these Congressmen thought preferable. It was not about saving American or Iraqi lives this year—they're going to have to continue being hostages to Bush's refusal to face up to his own failure.

Nor was it about putting Bush on notice that the Republicans in Congress would force his hand in Iraq, now, or soon, or in September, or really at any time. The 'rebels' assured Bush that they would vote en masse against the Democratic proposal to pass supplemental bills to pay for the war in two-month installments.

Representative Charles Dent...said lawmakers wanted to convey the frustration and impatience with the war they are hearing from voters. "We had a very frank conversation about the situation in Iraq," he said. Even so, the Republicans who attended the White House session indicated that they would maintain solidarity with Bush for now by opposing the latest Democratic proposal for two-stage financing of war...

Indeed, another proposal is coming to the floor today in the House, the Iraq Redeployment Act, which would begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. You can bet these eleven "rebels" will vote against that bill as well. They're planning on standing four-square with Bush for the foreseeable future—a man, remember, whom they say they don't trust.

No, this meeting was an opportunity for the eleven Congressmen to whine to Bush that their supporters were telling them to expect very difficult re-election campaigns in 2008 if Iraq continues to be such a mess. This meeting was a reaction to negative poll results, or something like it.

If the September report shows things haven't improved in Iraq, LaHood said, "I think public opinion probably turns even worse than it is."

More from CBS:

Mr. Bush was reportedly told that the war is unsustainable without public support and is having a corrosive effect on the GOP's political fortunes. Congressman Charles Dent says he told the president that his Pennsylvania constituents are "impatient, and in some cases have a sense of futility" about the war.

Their own political futures—that's what they value. Not the lives that are being shredded in Iraq, not the families of American soldiers who are suffering endless torment, not the damage to the military from this war, not the obscene levels of debt we're accumulating. Not even, particularly, the rank dishonesty of the administration. It's just the fact that voters are reaching the end of their patience with these wet noodles.

But until the political circumstances become utterly desperate, these brave souls will continue to make excuses for Bush's incompetent policies. That's what they're used to doing.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTake my own second-term Congressman, Charles Dent. Like the others who met with Bush on Tuesday, he's not the brightest candle in the box. Dent has tried to ingratiate himself with the Party by by doing the bidding of the Republican leadership in all but their most extreme battles.

And right from the start, he has backed Bush loyally on the Iraq fiasco. Half a year into his first term, Dent traveled to Iraq and came back with glowing words about 'progress' being made there.

I left Iraq feeling optimistic and hopeful that the slow, gradual pace to normal life in much of Iraq is progressing – not without setbacks and heartbreaking loss of life, but still with purpose and determination.

Here is Washington Post on Dent's Iraq report:

His assessment afterward was upbeat. "Ultimately, life is slowly but gradually returning to normal," Dent told reporters. "There is a lot of room for optimism here. There's really no choice but to be optimistic at this point. It's just a matter of patience and will."

By contrast, this is the kind of thing I was writing about in the summer of 2005: Iraq Interior Ministry: Torture Inc.. I didn't need to fly into Iraq to observe the signs of imminent collapse of society. Dent's upbeat "progress" report, by the way, once was displayed prominently on Dent's website, but now it's accessible to the public only if you know where to find it in the archives.

Since that much-derided report, Dent has mostly fled from the issue of Iraq, preferring to remain silent for the most part about the largest political issue of our times. When pressed about where he stands, Dent becomes evasive. Here he is in July 2006.

Republicans, especially those in swing districts, had no choice but to shift the emphasis of their war talk, lawmakers said. "The Iraq issue is the lens through which people are looking at the federal government," said Rep. Charles W. Dent (Pa.), another swing-district Republican. "That is the issue to most people. There's no question about that."

To pretend the war is resolving itself nicely is no longer an option, he said.

Quite a mouthful from Dent. Iraq is the main issue, he admits, though he remains all but silent on it...and to judge by the "demands" he and his fellow wet noodles made of Bush on Tuesday, he's going to remain mum until at least Autumn.

Dent also implies that he once thought "pretend[ing] the war is resolving itself nicely" was in fact an option. You would have gotten the same impression, of course, from reading his report on "progress" dating only 11 months earlier.

In Jan. 2007, the Washington Post even featured a profile of the wishy-washy Dent as he struggled to decide whether to give Bush yet another blank check in Iraq.

Rep. Charlie Dent wrestled all week with President Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.

On Monday, the two-term Republican from eastern Pennsylvania told a hometown reporter that it would take "a pretty hard sell" for Bush to win him over. He fretted Wednesday about the Iraqis: "Are they going to be up to the task?" By Thursday evening, 24 hours after Bush's address from the White House library, he was nursing huge doubts and a jumble of emotions.

"I'm very skeptical, I'm very concerned," Dent said wearily, slumping in a leather chair in his office. "What would be the mission of our troops? I'm not sure the president addressed it."

Dent has reason to worry. He won reelection in November by a surprisingly narrow margin against an obscure opponent, and Democrats have no intention of letting him off easily again. Depending on the course of the war, Iraq could prove an even bigger impediment for Republicans in 2008....

Dent decided on a blended approach.

"I think we have the obligation to process this a little bit," he said carefully. "But I still think the president has to make a case, a strong case. He's got a lot of selling left to do."

By "blended", Dent meant that he was caving in to Bush but trying to portray himself as (slightly) independent-minded. Thus Dent voted against a non-binding resolution objecting to Bush's policies in Iraq. As this blogger remarked, that's just par for the course for Dent.

To sum up, all the opposition that Dent has been able to muster until this week has been fall into line always and forever with the President:

One person [Dent] regularly speaks with is John Brinson, a West Point graduate and local conservative political commentator who owns a chain of fitness clubs in Dent's district. "I'm going to advise him to be quiet about the war and support the president 100 percent," Brinson said. "In fact, I'm going to call him right now and tell him that."

Brinson, his trusted advisor, is this laughing-stock. You would have to look long and hard to find a stupider man than he.

Anyhow, that's the kind of "thinking" Charlie Dent has been using up until now regarding Bush's policies. What has changed is that Dent, like the others who pleaded with Bush for changes, is facing a very real prospect of defeat in 2008. The Democrats have not fielded credible opponents in either of Dent's two races:

Dent caught a break in November. Although he represents a moderate district centered in the Lehigh Valley -- he has dubbed it "Deep Purple" -- Democrats failed to recruit a seasoned candidate to run against him. Instead, Dent faced Charles Dertinger, a little-known county councilman who spent just $66,000 on his grass-roots campaign. Dent spent more than $1 million, but he captured just 53 percent of the vote...

As the 2006 midterm elections approached, Dent's strategy was to repeat his successful approach from two years earlier of talking about Iraq as little as possible. "He never said a word during the campaign about the war," Dertinger said.

Dertinger was nearly invisible in 2006 and had little support from the Party anyway, so his 47% of the vote was largely an anybody-but-Dent message. Democrats would be foolish not to back a strong challenge in 2008 to Dent, who is extremely fearful of defeat (in 2006, he went so far as to try to obtain the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate, in order to run unopposed in the fall).

That, dear reader, is the actual story from the White House meeting: A significant number of Republican members of the House anticipate defeat in 2008 unless Bush changes course in Iraq before then.

And the troops now serving there? Well, as far as this gang is concerned, there's no need to worry about their future's quite yet. 2008 will be plenty soon enough to sort things out.

crossposted from Unbossed

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