Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Democrats Stab MoveOn in the Back

Memo to Democrats: you control the Congress. That means you can decide what bills come to the floor for votes--and what don't. So why, in a week where Republicans blocked the restoration of habeas corpus, voting rights for DC and adequate rest time for our troops between deployments, did you allow Republicans the opportunity to score a cheap PR stunt by approving a resolution condemning a week-old newspaper ad by Moveon.org--on the same day Republicans once again voted to keep indefinitely continuing the Iraq war?!

It boggles the mind. I have no idea what Harry Reid was thinking. Does he think that by repudiating Moveon.org suddenly Fox News will like him? That Ann Coulter will take back all those nasty things she said? That Republicans will stop trying to blame the Democrats for losing this war?

MoveOn has been one of the most effective and persistent voices pushing for progressive change inside the Democratic Party. They helped elect politicians like Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia, who today stabbed the group in the back. MoveOn didn't start this war. George Bush did. And General Petraeus is keeping it going. They've only been in the majority for nine months, but you'd think by now Democratic leaders in Congress would be able to comprehend the obvious.

A War We Just Might Lose

Written by Matthew Blake:

Back in July, support for the war in Iraq was at an all-time low, with prominent Republican Senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Pete Domenici of New Mexico advocating the need for an exit strategy. But then, as the New York Times notes Thursday, the White House unveiled a new campaign to sell the surge.

Key enlistees in this PR effort were Brookings Institution Senior Fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack. Their July 30 New York Times op-ed ("A War We Just Might Win") and endless parade of subsequent public appearances supposedly lent credibility to the idea that US military commander David Petraeus (who invited his old Princeton buddy O'Hanlon over for a visit) was winning over Iraqis, leading to region-by-region improvements and an overall decrease in violence.

On Thursday, O'Hanlon and Pollack assembled at the National Press Club, along with four other Brookings colleagues, to evaluate the surge in the wake of Petraeus' and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony on Capitol Hill.

The panel reached a consensus that a real change in Iraq policy will only come with a new president. They also agreed--O'Hanlon and Pollack included--that the stated goal of the surge--to create space for political reconciliation--had not been achieved. Yet O'Hanlon and Pollack continued to put a positive spin on the war while their colleagues offered damning indictments.

O'Hanlon and Pollack both spoke of a "Sunni awakening" and credited the US military with gains in specific provinces such as Anbar and Mosul. "Petraeus and Crocker are pragmatic," O'Hanlon said. "They adopted beyond the counterinsurgency manual."

But their Brookings colleagues pointed out that the official name of the surge is the Baghdad Security Plan and Baghdad is neither secured as a city or a site for the national government. "The surge is not meeting its stated goals of buying time for Iraqi leaders to reach political reconciliation," said Brookings Senior Fellow Philip Gordon.

And Gordon and his colleagues directly differed with O'Hanlon and Pollack on the question of whether the surge should be given more time to work.

"The bar for success in Iraq is falling so quickly that we better duck before it hits us on the head," Gordon said. "Whatever happened to a model democracy?"

Brookings Middle East policy expert Bruce Reidel said the opportunity costs in Iraq are too great to stay. "You cannot judge this policy alone," he said. "You put forces in some place and you can't put them somewhere else."

Brookings Senior Fellow Susan Rice, a foreign policy advisor to Senator Barack Obama, spoke of a "fundamental disconnect between our military strategy and the realities on the ground."

"There is an insurgency and a raging civil war," she said. "The surge is a counterinsurgency tactic not relevant to dealing with the civil war."

And moderator Carlos Pascual ended the session noting, "Getting a country in the middle of a war to politically fix themselves is a departure from any historical precedent."

Before the war, Brookings played a major role in drumming up support for the invasion among Democrats. Since then, most of its foreign policy, as evidenced by Thursday's event, have become war opponents. We'll see if these dissenting colleagues get to join O'Hanlon and Pollack on the talk show circuit.

Picking a New AG

This email from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just hit my inbox: "This Nation Needs A New Attorney General, And It Can't Afford To Wait."

The subhead below read: "Democrats Who Asked For New Leadership Will Soon Have The Opportunity To Expeditiously Confirm A New Attorney General."

In other words, get ready for an announcement--soon--of a new Attorney General.

The rumor mill in Washington says the frontrunner is Ted Olson, the former Bush Administration solicitor general who argued Bush v. Gore.

Back in the 1990s, he helped the American Spectator magazine run its notorious "Arkansas Project," which heaped mounds of dirt, much of it later proven untrue, at the Clintons. Democrats tried to raise the issue at Olson's solicitor general confirmation hearing, but the investigation was stymied by then-Chairman Orrin Hatch, another rumored Attorney General candidate.

"I have become concerned that Mr. Olson has not shown a willingness or ability to be sufficiently candid and forthcoming with the Senate," current Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said in 2001. The Judiciary Committee deadlocked on whether to confirm Olson, by a vote to 9-9, and eventually he was narrowly confirmed by the full Senate, 51-47. Democrats Ben Nelson and Zell Miller (who later left the party) were the only ones to vote aye.

If Olson is selected as AG, will his background as a conservative operative and Bush partisan remain an issue? At least some Democrats think so.

Said Senator Chuck Schmer this week: "Clearly if you made a list of consensus nominees, Olson wouldn't appear on that list."

Spinning a False Exit

All he did was say that by the summer of 2008, US troop levels in Iraq would be the same as in December 2006. Yet David Petraeus, ever the stoic general, sat before Congress and claimed this would be a "very substantial withdrawal."

Critics of the war long suspected this was the Bush Administration's strategy: revert to status quo pre-surge levels--130,000 troops--while trumpeting the exit and warning that anything more would lead to genocide/Iranian domination/US defeat/an Al Qaeda caliphate, etc, etc.

The question now is whether the media and political class will fall for the Administration's PR trap?

Some in the media already have.

"The General's Long View Could Cut Withdrawal Debate Short," write the usually astute Karen DeYoung and Tom Ricks in the Washington Post. "Prospect of pullout raises some hope," said the Detroit Free-Press. "Petraeus upbeat over reducing US troop levels," wrote The Guardian of London.

Others in the media, however, sniffed out the Bush Administration's long-term plan. "Bush policy to bequeath Iraq to successor," read the headline of an excellent Los Angeles Times analysis. "Viewed more closely," Paul Richter writes, "his [Petraeus] presentation, and that of US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, were better suited to the defense of an earlier strategy: 'stay the course.'"

The latest manifestation of the Administration's Iraq offensive might temporarily reassure the restless Republicans who waited until September to decide what to think about Iraq and then liked what they saw. But it shouldn't satisfy Democrats in Congress. Rather than giving Petraeus the red-carpet treatment, they'd be smart to listen to their Democratic constituency, which is hopping mad over party leaders' inability to effectively question Petraeus and refusal to use every tool in their arsenal to try and bring a close to a seemingly never-ending war.

Questioning Petraeus' Credibility

In advance of General David Petraeus' testimony to the House of Representatives today, MoveOn.org is running a hard-hitting ad in the New York Times questioning his credibility.

"General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" the ad asks. "Cooking the Books for the White House."

The ad cites an op-ed Petraeus wrote in September 2004--six weeks before the presidential election--in which he boasted of "tangible progress" in Iraq and that "Iraqi leaders are stepping forward." It also notes that in claiming a reduction of violence, the Pentagon, under Petraeus' directive, is ignoring car bombs, routine types of assassinations (shots to the back of the head count, front do not) and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. The ad references an Associated Press report that Iraqi civilian deaths and American troop casualties are higher in the last three months than any other summer.

Moreover, according to the Washington Post, Petraeus resisted the original findings of the recent National Intelligence Estimate and "succeeded in having the security judgments softened to reflect improvements in recent months." The Department of Defense also altered a General Accountability Office report that originally found that Iraqis had met only three of the 18 benchmarks required of them. After US officials in Iraq protested, the GAO changed the status of two benchmarks from "did not meet" to "partially met."

Yet Republicans are directing their fury at the rightful target--MoveOn. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this morning condemned the ad as "childish tactics that are insulting to everyone fighting for freedom in Iraq." Just last May, McConnell predicted that "the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall." And he called the lack of progress by the Iraqi government, "a great disappointment to members of the Senate on both sides."

So McConnell, like the rest of the "wait until September" crowd, has been converted.

If only you could say the same about the rest of the military's top brass, who increasingly diverge with Petraeus. The Joint Chief of Staff want troop levels cut in half by the end of next year. Admiral William Fallon this summer recommended "slashing US combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010," according to the Post.

The American public, a clear majority of whom want to decrease the number of troops in Iraq and set a timetable of next spring for withdrawal, are even more skeptical of Petraeus. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 39 percent of the public believes Petraeus will "honestly reflect the situation in Iraq" in his testimony today.

No Plans To Leave Iraq

On his recent trip to Iraq, President Bush commented about the future of the US mission. "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," he said near the end of his speech in Anbar province.

Speculation abounded back in Washington. Was Bush hinting that at least some US troops might be coming home soon? Was he heeding the calls of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocate cutting the US presence in half over the next year? Could the war even end on Bush's watch?

Not likely. In an interview with USA Today published this morning, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said that "I don't think that any realistic observer thinks that by the time the president leaves office in 2009 it'll be possible--- safely--to get all or even most of the American troop presence out."

Critics of the war have suspected all along that President Bush would try to run out the clock and pass the mess in Iraq off to his successor. "Josh Bolten basically says 'we're gonna be there with troops for a long time,'" responded John Podesta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998-2001. "'We're handing this baby off.'"

President Bush admitted as much in a rare moment of candor in March 2006. "Will there come a day," he was asked, "when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?"

"That, of course, is an objective," Bush answered. "And that will be decided by future Presidents and future governments of Iraq."

A year later, Bush said he envisioned a "Korea model" presence for US troops in Iraq. At least 37,000 troops have been stationed in the Korean peninsula for over 50 years.

Not Waiting For Petraeus

What's left of the Republican Party in the Northeast is once again feeling anxious about the war in Iraq. They've been told over and over by party leaders to "wait until September." Well, September is here and six House Republicans don't need to hear from General Petreaus in order to make up their minds.

"Next week, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will submit a very important report to Congress regarding efforts to quell violence and reach political compromise in Iraq," they state in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner. "While we are hopeful that their report will show progress, we should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families."

The letter was signed by GOP Reps. Mike Castle, Phil English, Scott Garrett, Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Thomas Petri and House Democrats John Tanner, Tim Mahoney, Allen Boyd, Bob Brady and Dennis Cardoza, leaders of the party's Blue Dog wing.

Despite a relentless PR campaign to sell the surge, increased GOP defections spell more bad news for the White House, as moderate Republicans join with conservative Democrats in calling for a "bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home."

Bloomberg's Poverty Party

Written and reported by Matthew Blake:

One might expect that a briefing on the latest federal poverty data by an ostensibly liberal Washington, DC think tank would explore some of the root causes of poverty in the country---broken social services, AIDS and other diseases not being treated, record-high incarceration rates. It would also seem timely to mention the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about poverty in America.

But the Brookings Institution's "Poverty and Income in 2006" event in Washington today--coinciding with the release of the US Census Bureau's annual data on poverty--mentioned none of those things. Instead, bizarrely enough, it became a celebration of all things Michael Bloomberg, even edging into an impromptu event to draft the New York City Mayor to run as a third party candidate for President.

Brookings Senior Fellow and moderator Ron Haskins set the tone by stating, "A lot of people in Washington talk about poverty, but only mayors and governors do." Therefore, Sawhill concluded, Bloomberg "is the perfect public official" to be the first keynote speaker in the event's seven year history.

Bloomberg began by praising Brookings for being an institute above partisan politics, made a joke about how he was not running a stealth campaign for Attorney General and then launched into a 15-minute speech---about New York City education policy.

He finally got around to directly addressing poverty, rhetorically asking the crowd "How do you do it?" Bloomberg has presented himself as an alternative to the Republican right, but the former Democrat-turned Republican-turned Independent was quick to show that he's no liberal, either. "You can't fightpoverty without fighting the principle causes, which are poor education and dependence on government," he said. In respect to the latter, Bloomberg alleged that the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act is the prime example of government effectively establishing the proper incentives in helping its most vulnerable citizens.

"It's about breaking taboos like requiring mothers to work," Bloomberg said in reference to both the Welfare Reform Act and his own city policy to give the newly employed $150 a month in cash if they stay on the job. "You have to stick your neck out and try policies even if its results are unknown."

Bloomberg's poverty policy in question includes expanding the earned income tax credit in ways he hopes will end the "marriage penalty" and giving the aforementioned "conditional cash payments" to adults who obtain and keep new jobs. It garnered the adulation from Sawhill and the other assembled Brookings fellows who spoke when Bloomberg---and about 300 of the assembled crowd of 400---left.

"About Michael Bloomberg's proposals--I would just say amen," said Rebecca Blank, an economist and visiting fellow at Brookings. "I agree with it completely."

Senior Fellow Gary Burtless echoed Blank's words: "I think Michael Bloomberg is absolutely right in his proposal."

In the spirit of intellectual diversity, Brookings invited conservative commentator Robert George, whose New York Post columns have been caustically critical of the Mayor's conditional cash payment proposal. But even George had kind words for the Mayor, light-heatedly asking whether Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel or former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn would be his Presidential running mate.

Leaving the national press club, this reporter was swarmed by advocates with "Draft Bloomberg" posters and business cards. No word yet on whether they also received fellowships at Brookings.

Warner Buys Bush Time

Senator John Warner's call yesterday for an "orderly and carefully planned withdrawal" from Iraq is being read in Washington as yet another devastating blow to President Bush's Iraq policy. Certainly Warner's latest statement, coming just a few weeks before the much-awaited "progress report" from General David Petraeus, is not good news for the President. But it's not entirely bad, either.

Warner did not call for a timetable to end the war. He did not push for US troops to leave in a reasonable amount of time, such as a year. He only asked President Bush to begin a "symbolic" pullout of 5,000 troops by Christmas.

It's worth remembering that the US had 130,000 troops in Iraq last fall before adding 30,000 more in the "surge." So withdrawing 5,000 troops doesn't even come close to getting the US back to pre-surge levels. If Bush followed Warner's advice, he could brag about having a plan to end the war while doing nothing of the sort--like Nixon did in Vietnam. You can imagine this White House, Nixonian in so many ways, drawing up such a head fake as we speak.

By this point in time, Warner should know that President Bush is likely incapable of ending the war he started, especially if given wide latitude on how and when to do so. If Warner was serious about getting our troops out of harm's way, he'd make his symbolic withdrawal number far more concrete.

Hillary Silent on Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal this week is drawing the ire of some Democrats running for President.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd called the deal "a serious threat to our democracy." John Edwards urged fellow Democrats to oppose and block the merger and refuse campaign contributions from News Corp execs.

But the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, hasn't said a peep. Perhaps that's because Clinton has been courting the Aussie billionaire since she became a New York Senator---and vice versa. Murdoch threw a lavish fundraiser for her at the News Corp tower last year. And he and son James, the heir apparent, both wrote big checks to Clinton's presidential campaign this June. Nine News Corp executives have thus far given a total of $20,900 to Clinton this election cycle.

She calls him "smart and effective." He calls her "a good Senator" and "very, very gutsy originally on the war in Iraq."

So you see, the Journal is not Murdoch's only recent prize.

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