Obama's Iraq Problem

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 02/27/2009

Obama speaks about Iraq during a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., today. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By President Obama's reckoning, we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place, but today -- even as he announced a timeline for the departure of American troops -- he more or less endorsed former president George W. Bush's possibly unattainable goals for the benighted country.

"This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant," Obama said today at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region."

Obama's decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq in 18 months, while leaving as many as 50,000 troops there in non-combat roles until the end of 2011, will strike some observers as too fast and others as too slow. It's certainly a bit slower than what he said he would do on the campaign trail.

But I have to wonder: What happens when we leave? And who gets the blame if things fall apart?

Some experts I respect (Peter Galbraith, for instance) maintain that, although violence has dramatically declined in Iraq, there is still no real stability there -- and that at some point in the future, quite possibly when we pull out, the ethnic tensions that exploded into civil war after Saddam Hussein's overthrow will almost certainly explode again.

That's no argument for staying longer. If things are going to explode either way, we might as well leave sooner than later.

But if Obama has really adopted Bush's goal of leaving behind a secure Iraq, then the failure, should it happen, would be his. And Bush's years-long strategy of kicking the can down the road will have worked.

In his speech today, Obama forthrightly described many of the challenges: "Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq’s future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has had difficulty delivering basic services. Not all of Iraq’s neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraq’s government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner – politically and economically – in the region, or with the international community."

He emphasized the "critical recognition that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political – not military....The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraq’s leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people. Iraq is a sovereign country with legitimate institutions; America cannot – and should not – take their place."

But then he repeated his intention to achieve that possibly impossible goal: "[A] strong political, diplomatic, and civilian effort on our part can advance progress and help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security."

With more on today's announcement, Anne E. Kornblut and William Branigin write for The Washington Post: "President Obama announced plans Friday to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and to pull out all remaining troops by the end of 2011, ending the war in Iraq and launching 'a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.'"

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times about how, so far, Obama is getting heartier support for his plan from Republicans than Democrats. Surprise.

AFP reports: "President Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal announcement Friday was likely to stoke a painful debate: With thousands of US dead, countless Iraqis killed, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, was the war worth it?"

And Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that Obama called Bush to brief him on the plan, as as courtesy.

I wonder if Bush said thank you.

UPDATE: Will Iraq now be Obama's failure? Weigh in in my White House Watchers group discussion.

Bush Legacy Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:09 PM ET, 02/27/2009

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Intelligence Committee is completing plans to begin a review of the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program, another sign that lawmakers are determined to have a public accounting of controversial Bush administration programs despite White House concerns about the impact of unearthing the past....

"The Intelligence Committee is not expected to single out specific Bush administration officials or intelligence operatives, and public hearings are unlikely. But the committee would be likely to produce an unclassified report detailing aspects of the agency's interrogation program."

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "The review, which could be announced as early as today, will use official testimony and hundreds of classified documents to piece together an authoritative account of one of the most secretive -- and, to some former and current agency officials, darkest -- chapters of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism war, the officials said.

"Lawmakers will try to determine not only how detainees were interrogated, but also whether the CIA's controversial methods produced useful intelligence, according to three congressional officials briefed on the plans. Former CIA leaders have said the use of waterboarding and other harsh measures yielded information that helped prevent a second wave of terrorist attacks after Sept. 11, 2001."

I wrote in a January 28 post about the lack of evidence to support any such assertion.

Meanwhile, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, continues to push for a "truth commission" that would much more publicly investigate not just torture and secret prisons, but the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program and other Bush administration misdeeds.

On Wednesday, he announced a hearing entitled "Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry," to be held on March 4.

Some critics -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- are concerned that such a commission would grant immunity to people who might merit criminal prosecution.

Glenn Greenwald writes for Salon: "It's true that those who create the Commission might...intend it to be a substitute for prosecutions rather than a precursor to them. It's also possible that the Commission can be designed merely to placate those who are demanding that something be done, and -- if immunity is doled out to high-level Bush officials -- it could simply whitewash these crimes and even make prosecutions impossible. But it's just as possible that once an independent body is created with real subpoena power and an authentic mandate to dig and disclose, it could turn into a Frankenstein: capable of doing damage far beyond what its creators intended."

Meanwhile, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "The Justice Department, in an abrupt change in policy from the Bush administration, is preparing to bring terrorism-related charges against a man identified as an operative of Al Qaeda who has been held in a military brig for more than five years, government officials said Thursday.

"The charges would move the case of the only enemy combatant to be held on American soil, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, into a civilian criminal court. The Bush administration had argued that he could be held indefinitely without being charged."

Carrie Johnson and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post: "Marri is the last remaining 'enemy combatant' in the United States....Since 2003, he has been housed in a South Carolina brig where at points he was subjected to painful stress positions, extreme sensory deprivation and violent threats while he was denied access to lawyers, according to court filings by his legal team.....

"Marri's prosecution could clear the way for some of the approximately 245 detainees remaining at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be indicted in U.S. courts, though authorities have said significant legal and diplomatic hurdles remain. Among them is whether evidence secured through classified intelligence channels or harsh interrogation techniques is too sensitive or tainted to introduce into the American legal system.

"In one of his first steps since taking office last month, President Obama explicitly directed government lawyers to review the status of Marri's case. He also ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year....

"Human rights advocates cheered the move in the Marri case as 'another crucial step in the right direction,' in the words of Geneve Mantri, a government relations director specializing in counterterrorism and human rights issues at Amnesty International.

Jane Mayer wrote at length about al-Marri's case in the New Yorker last week.

And Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post: "A United Nations special investigator has concluded in a report scheduled for release Friday that foreign intelligence agents sent to question U.S.-held terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay had violated international human-rights laws.

"According to an advance copy of the report, obtained by The Washington Post, Martin Scheinin, a Finnish diplomat and the U.N. special investigator for human rights, said foreign agents visiting Guantanamo or secret U.S. jails overseas committed 'an internationally wrongful act' even if they merely observed interrogations....

"Scheinin praised President Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo by the end of the year. But he said the Obama administration and Congress should not ignore alleged abuses committed in the pursuit of terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, urging them to press charges against anyone suspected of breaking U.S. laws against torture or other crimes."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:03 PM ET, 02/27/2009

Lymari Morales writes for Gallup: President Barack Obama's address to Congress Tuesday night appears to have bolstered confidence among many Americans. Four in 10 (41%) say they are now more confident in his plans to improve the economy, including 57% of those who watched or listened to the speech live."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's first presidential directive, outlining the organization of his national security structure, adds the attorney general, the secretaries of energy and homeland security, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to the formal National Security Council.....Another directive made available this week by Secrecy News, orders an interagency review of the White House homeland security and counterterrorism structure."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence yesterday announced the selection of Charles W. Freeman, Jr. to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council. "As Chairman, Ambassador Freeman will be responsible for overseeing the production of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and other Intelligence Community (IC) analytic products." Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I recently called Freeman "a one-man destroyer of groupthink."

Citing new cooperation coming from the Egyptian, Afghan and Pakistani governments, Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "The honeymoon period between President Obama and Congress may be running its course in Washington. But on the world stage, the romantic flame is still flickering."

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that he is lifting a 1991 government ban on news coverage of the return of the remains of fallen service members to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and will let families decide whether to allow photographs and videos."

Farah Stockman and Bryan Bender write in the Boston Globe: "As President Obama rolls out one of the most ambitious agendas in US history, federal agencies are struggling to administer hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of new projects and to enact sweeping policy changes with a mere handful of senior staff members in place, in part due to an increasingly tough vetting policy initiated by Obama himself. Only about 70 people have been formally nominated to fill the roughly 500 senior posts in the Defense, State, Treasury, and Education departments and dozens of other government agencies, according to White House records. Dozens of nominations are still pending as FBI and White House officials scrub potential nominees' tax returns, financial ties, and former activities in government."

Vice President Biden writes in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed: "Today, in Philadelphia, the White House Task Force on Middle Class Families is holding its inaugural meeting.....The task force's first order of business is to evaluate how investing in green jobs will help build a strong middle class."

ABC News's Jonathan Karl and Karen Travers talk to Laura Bush, who tells them that she and her husband are settling into a normal, post-presidency life at their new home in Dallas, and that she did not watch President Obama's address to Congress on Tuesday night because she "totally forgot about it."

Obama's Big Gamble

By Dan Froomkin
11:28 AM ET, 02/27/2009

Copies of Obama's budget at the General Printing Offieice. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama and his top aides looked at the profound economic challenges facing the nation and concluded that the biggest risk was in doing too little rather than too much.

In the ambitious, course-changing budget proposal released yesterday, and in his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Obama has argued that he inherited a federal government headed so profoundly in the wrong direction that nothing less than a dramatic U-turn was called for.

But much of today's coverage concludes that advocating more modest steps sure would have been less risky politically.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama's first budget -- with its eye-popping $1.75 trillion deficit, a health-care fund of more than $600 billion, a $150 billion energy package and proposals to tax wealthy Americans even beyond what he talked about during his campaign -- underscores the breadth of his aspiration to reverse three decades of conservative governance and use his presidency to rapidly transform the country.

"But in adopting a program of such size, cost and complexity, Obama has far exceeded what other politicians might have done. As a result, he is now gambling with his own future and the success of his presidency."

John Harwood writes in the New York Times: "Whatever else it is, President Obama's budget is a political gamble of the first order."

Maura Reynolds and Peter Nicholas write for Tribune: "It was the political equivalent of an 'all in' moment in a high-stakes poker game."

Balz writes that it was "the same instinct for the audacious" that put Obama in the White House. "The problems occurring now, however, will test him even beyond the trials he weathered as a candidate. Turning his large, complex and controversial proposals into legislative victories will require not just a bold vision but also leadership of a kind he has not yet been required to demonstrate."

In fact, Balz raises a lot of questions about whether it can -- or should -- get done.

"With his new budget, [Obama] indicated his belief that both short- and long-term economic problems must be dealt with now, rather than later. As he put it, this is a time to deal with the foundations of the house. But is now, with the economy in such a fragile state, the time to dig at its foundations?...

"Can Obama put together majority coalitions to pass universal health care or a new energy policy?...

"Can he win passage for a cap-and-trade energy plan that the budget says would produce more than $600 billion in revenue by 2019?...

"Even if willing, can Congress move as swiftly as Obama would like?...

"That the Reagan paradigm of conservative governance has taken a beating is indisputable. But is the country ready for government activism of the size and scope he has proposed?"

I might have asked some other questions, focusing more on the risks involved if Congress fails to make the dramatic U-turn Obama is calling for. Among them:

* Can the country afford only incremental change when so many of our current governmental approaches have proven so spectacularly inadequate?

* What is the cost of continuing to postpone action on health care, energy and education?

* Does this only look radical compared to the profound irresponsibility of the Bush administration to address critical challenges?

* Will the guardians of the status quo in Washington -- from both parties, and in the media -- succeed in stymieing his plans?

* Isn't this what Obama was elected to do? Turn things around dramatically?

* Isn't it precisely Obama's audacity that has led to his enormous popular support? Why would that change now? Would it be undermined if the media repeatedly referred to him as a gambler?

Here's Harwood looking at Obama's odds:

"In his ambition to put his own stamp on liberalism and to move domestic policy leftward, Mr. Obama has much going for him.

"The nation seems to be yearning for leadership, and his political standing is strong. In an era where taxpayers and markets are confronting bad numbers in the trillions, the price tags on some of his initiatives do not seem quite so breathtaking, and, in any case, good economic policy demands that the fiscal floodgates remain open for a while. Populist anger could render Republican arguments against taxing the rich less powerful.

"But Mr. Obama faces many constraints. He is asking Congress to take on a wide-ranging set of complicated issues all at once, after years during which it had trouble grappling directly with almost any of them. His own party remains seared by the last time it followed a new Democratic president on a course of tax increases and ambitious social engineering. Interest groups, while demonized by the White House, have hardly fled from Washington and are already mobilizing for battles that could have big winners and losers...

"Whether Mr. Obama has overreached or succeeded in putting the nation on a sharply different course will largely depend on the same political skills that delivered him the presidency.

"To translate the vision embedded in his budget into legislation he can sign into law will require assembling coalitions on Capitol Hill issue by issue, holding together his own party while peeling off Republicans here and there. To keep the pressure on Congress, he will have to keep public opinion on his side through what could be a long, deep recession and through necessary but unpopular steps like allocating hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars to bailing out banks."

Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Obama knows his agenda is unlikely to prevail "if he cannot change the way business is done in Washington.

"It's not simply a matter of toning down the partisan rhetoric, putting aside the reflexive ideology and getting people together at cocktail parties at the White House, though all of those are important. The bigger challenge is to get Americans and their representatives in Washington to take a broader view of their own self-interest -- to see that the benefits they'll get from finally balancing the budget or reforming health care or weaning the economy off its carbon addiction are so great that they will more than offset the sacrifices they might have to make in terms of paying higher taxes or losing a subsidy or accepting some increase in government regulation.

"Judging from the reaction to his budget on Capitol Hill and K Street yesterday, it would seem that Obama's got a long way to go."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The budget outline suggests that Obama is ready to start spending his political capital -- a recent Gallup poll found that 67% of Americans approved of the way he was handling the stimulus bill -- and risk making enemies in the pursuit of ambitious policy goals.

"The breadth of the budget has an advantage: Even if Obama achieves only part of his goals, that could leave a long record of accomplishment. But by proposing action on such a wide range of fronts, Obama also risks overloading the often cumbersome legislative machinery of Capitol Hill."

David Leonhardt writes in his New York Times column about yesterday's historical significance: "The budget that President Obama proposed on Thursday is nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters....

"More than anything else, the proposals seek to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years. They do so first by rewriting the tax code and, over the longer term, by trying to solve some big causes of the middle-class income slowdown, like high medical costs and slowing educational gains....

"Over the last three decades, the pretax incomes of the wealthiest households have risen far more than they have for other households, while the tax rates for top earners have fallen more than they have for others, according to the Congressional Budget Office.....

"Before becoming Mr. Obama's top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers liked to tell a hypothetical story to distill the trend. The increase in inequality, Mr. Summers would say, meant that each family in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution was effectively sending a $10,000 check, every year, to the top 1 percent of earners."

Jeanne Cummings of Politico waves the bloody shirt of class warfare, in a story titled: "Class Warfare Returns To Washington."

"Obama's creative juices seemed to run dry as he turned Thursday to his party's most predictable revenue enhancer: taxing the wealthy," she writes. "Obama defended his $1.3 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years with a little class warfare."

Her evidence? This quote from his remarks yesterday:

"'I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington, who think our budget and tax system is just fine as it is. No wonder — it works for them,' the president said. 'I work for the American people, and I'm determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November.'"

By contrast, Gerald Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama's tax increase on the wealthy "is the sort of thing that might set off a bit of class warfare -- except that, in this case, the class being hit includes an awful lot of Obama supporters....

"One of the intriguing surprises of the 2008 election was that a majority of the wealthiest Americans went against type to support the Democrat, Barack Obama, even though he told them, clearly and explicitly, that he would raise their taxes."

Another thing: In proposing to roll back the marginal federal tax rate for the wealthy to 39.6 percent -- what it was before the Bush tax cuts -- Obama is still not talking about really soaking the rich, at least not by historical standards. From 1944 to 1963, the marginal federal tax rate for the highest earners was 91 or 92 percent. As late as 1981 it was 70 percent. As late as 1986 it was 50 percent. Here are the numbers.

White House budget director Peter Orszag writes in his new blog(!): "One of the questions I received throughout the day today, as we released the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, is why we are proposing to raise taxes on high-income taxpayers during a recession. And the answer is simple: we're not....

"[T]he revenue increases for those with incomes of $250,000 or more a year would become effective January 1, 2011 – and not before."

Here's a little reaction from the editorial pages:

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "President Obama's new budget represents a huge break, not just with the policies of the past eight years, but with policy trends over the past 30 years. If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course.

The New York Times editorial board writes that "Obama's budget plan makes a bold and long overdue commitment to overhaul the dysfunctional and far-too-costly American health care system." And it "recognizes what most of Washington has been too scared or ideologically blind to admit: to recover from George W. Bush's reckless economic policies, taxes must go up."

The Washington Post editorial board asks: "Is the administration concentrating enough on the task at hand, which is helping to right the economy, or does it overreach in envisioning new taxes and programs?"

The USA Today editorial board writes: "A flood of red ink is unavoidable for a year or two to save the economy from collapse. This would produce the largest deficits in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. But after that, the president had a chance to live up to his rhetoric and set ambitious targets for getting the budget on track. He failed."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "With yesterday's fiscal 2010 budget proposal, President Obama is attempting not merely to expand the role of the federal government but to put it in such a dominant position that its power can never be rolled back....

"Democrats will want to rush all of this into law this year while Mr. Obama retains his honeymoon aura and they can blame the recession on George W. Bush. But Americans are only beginning to understand the magnitude of Mr. Obama's ambitions, and how much of their own income will be required to fulfill them. Republicans have an obligation to insist on a long and considerable debate on all of this, lest Americans discover in a year or two that they live in a very different country."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:35 AM ET, 02/27/2009

Pat Oliphant, Jim Morin and Charlie Daniel on Obama and the GOP, Walt Handelsman, Nate Beeler, Adam Zyglis and Bob Englehart on the debt and the deficit, Nick Anderson and Rob Rogers on conflicting directions, John Cole on the stress test, and Pat Bagley on the real class warfare.

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