The Oval: Bush Works to Bolster Opinion on Iraq

President George W. Bush would like you to know that he has a plan for Iraq. And he’d like you to know that many times over. Bush’s aides see repetition as a virtue, since they believe that nobody pays much attention to the daily flow of news. So on Monday, the president began another series of speeches that will frame the third anniversary of his invasion of Iraq, and (according to his aides) perhaps  begin to turn the tide of negative public opinion that is against the war.

Unfortunately the insurgents in Iraq would also like you to know that they have a plan for their country. And they, too, would like you to know that many times over. They seem to believe that people pay far more attention to endless rounds of murder than endless rounds of presidential speeches.

Judging by the latest polls, the insurgents might be doing a better job than the president. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 37 percent approve of Bush's job performance—his lowest mark ever in the survey. In a Gallup analysis, two thirds of those surveyed say Bush does not have a clear plan for handling Iraq. And despite the conventional wisdom in Washington, the public is not more pessimistic about the Democrats’ ability to execute the war. Sixty-eight percent say Democrats don’t have a clear Iraq plan either, just one point higher than the president’s number. In fact, when compared directly to congressional Republicans, Democrats have an eight-point lead on the issue of Iraq.

Of course Iraq is far more important than partisan battles inside the Beltway or the congressional elections in November. But Bush’s latest speech—like those to come—is very much geared toward shifting opinion among the voting public. The numbers haven’t moved in Bush’s direction in a while. Around the time of his re-election, opinion was evenly divided on Iraq; it rapidly declined through 2005.

Bush’s aides say the new speeches are building on the last series in December, when the president came close to conceding that mistakes had been made in Iraq. Sure enough, Monday’s speech followed a similar pattern—lots of fresh detail about what is happening on the ground, including several instances where there have been failures. He also told the uplifting story of how a group of mostly Shiite police protected a Sunni mosque from an angry Shiite mob after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. He also told the less comforting tale about Iraqi units that allowed militia to pass through their checkpoints.

Senior White House officials say they don’t expect the polls to change any time soon (although they do credit the president’s speeches with lifting their numbers a little at the end of last year.) Instead, they say their goals are more modest. “I think the public still wants to know about the plan,” says one. “There’s a utility in talking about how the plan is working. As the president has said, is this sectarian violence that can be expected after 30 years of dictatorship or is it truly on the brink of civil war? He’ll continue to talk about why, at every step of the way, there hasn’t been one and that gives us reason to believe it won’t happen.”

Meanwhile, even as the president insists that Iraq has pulled back from the brink, there’s an almost daily flow of grisly news that suggests otherwise. Iraqi officials discovered 87 corpses Tuesday in a series of executions that partly seemed to be retaliation for a bomb and mortar attack in Sadr City that killed another 58 people.

The president’s most effective tactic is not one that shapes public opinion about the future in Iraq or the clarity of his plan. His most effective message is that there’s no alternative to his own strategy. “The only path to a future of peace is the path of unity,” he said Monday. He was speaking about Iraq’s leaders, but he might as well have been referring to America’s politicians, too. “Some of this is to force people to take a step back and say—whether a critic or supporter—that the strategy and the tactics have changed,” says the senior White House official. “There are people who want to support this but need a reason to support it.”

Of course, there are alternatives to the current strategy, even though the administration has firmly rejected them. One is the Jack Murtha approach, as outlined by the normally hawkish House Democrat and former Marine Corps colonel, which argues for a six-month withdrawal of U.S. troops. Another is to partition the country and negotiate a Dayton-style peace accord before any civil war, instead of after one. That may well be happening in any case. The new Iraqi Constitution creates a loose federation of mostly self-governing regions that share oil revenues. Most analysts believe the Sunni Iraqis will never agree to a breakup of Iraq because they would be left with no oil. But without breakup, they will be left as a minority under the political and military control of the Shiite majority—a prospect that some insurgents are actively fighting. That prospect has also severely hampered the lengthy talks to stand up a new Iraqi government.

To date, there are no serious discussions inside the White House about either withdrawal or breakup. There’s too much political capital invested in the current strategy to broach any other option. “We have quietly continued our Iraq briefings with members of Congress,” the senior Bush aide said, “We’ll continue to emphasize the importance of not only that we’re going to see it through, but how we’re going to see it through.”

The Allen Mystery

The mystery over former White House adviser Claude Allen’s arrest last week on retail fraud charges continues to mystify administration officials and longtime friends of the former Bush aide. Allen, who served as the president’s domestic policy adviser until he resigned early last month, was regarded by friends and colleagues as a devoutly religious father of four—someone who agonized over the long hours he spent in his West Wing office that kept him away from his family. At his going-away party last month, a few of his colleagues even shed tears when hugging Allen goodbye, according to one White House aide. No one suspected that Allen was in trouble. When a close friend questioned Allen's reasons for the leaving the White House, the Bush adviser insisted his departure was strictly related to his desire to see his wife and kids more. "This is all about them," Allen insisted.

Administration officials say they saw no outward signs that Allen was in trouble, either legally or financially. When Allen told White House chief of staff Andy Card and counsel Harriet Miers of his Jan. 2 run-in with police, the top Bush aides gave Allen “the benefit of the doubt,” according to Press Secretary Scott McClellan, based in part on the aide’s repeated background checks. At the same time, Allen’s personnel records didn’t raise any red flags. His most recent personal financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics in April 2005 lists no major debts—though it is notable for its omission of any major assets, including property.

According to public records, Allen owned a four bedroom house in Reston, Va., until last June, when it was sold for $850,000. Records show that Allen and his family had lived in the home slightly more than a year. The Bush aide had purchased the Reston home in May 2004 for $706,000. Last October, Allen and his wife, Jannese, purchased a $958,300 home in Gaithersburg, Md., near their church, the nondenominational Covenant Life. Records show the sale was finalized on Oct. 13. Charging documents filed in connection with Allen’s arrest last week show his first fraudulent return occurred on Oct. 29 at a Target near his home, where police say Allen was caught on video obtaining a refund for a $525 Bose Home Theater system.

All told, police have alleged 25 instances in which Allen made fraudulent returns between October and January. Allen’s lawyer, Mallon Snyder, has denied the charges and told NEWSWEEK that it was all a “misunderstanding.” Yet Snyder has declined to comment further on charging documents in which police say Allen admitted “that he was committing fraudulent returns” when he was first apprehended by a Target manager on Jan. 2.

Over the weekend, Allen sought refuge and comfort from friends and members of his church, where he and his wife have been active members. Covenant Life’s senior pastor Joshua Harris addressed Allen’s arrest during two sermons on Sunday, telling parishioners that Allen had requested pastoral care. Harris told the church that he could not shed light on Allen’s alleged transgressions, but warned worshipers against “speculation and gossip” and not to believe everything they read in the media. “Our concern is for his soul,” Harris said, according a statement posted on the church’s Web site. “Our desire—and Claude shares this—is for him to walk with humility and integrity.”

Yet Allen’s alleged crimes still have left many friends and former colleagues wondering how this happened to someone who had been viewed as a rising star in Republican politics. John Dodd, a friend and former colleague of Allen’s who runs the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina, told NEWSWEEK that he is shocked at the allegations but believes Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt. “He is one of the finest men I have ever known,” Dodd told NEWSWEEK. “I have never seen anything that would even make me question the high regard in which I hold him.” Noting that Allen had served the country well and  “at great personal sacrifice,” Dodd said he believes the former White House aide “deserves an opportunity to clear his name.”