Oval: NIE Sheds New Light on Iraq

Amid all the hoopla about the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, it’s worth stepping back to gain a little perspective. Like three and a half years of perspective. Back in March 2003, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office just after the first military strikes in Iraq. “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” he said. “We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”

Never mind that the weapons of mass murder were never found. And never mind the suggestion, now retracted, that Saddam’s regime would coordinate operations with terrorists. The central premise of the war in Iraq was that military force would stop terrorists from attacking America—that troops would fight the threat in Iraq rather than firefighters rescuing the victims on the homeland.

Does the NIE’s key findings support that strategy? Not exactly.

Iraq has not stopped the prospect of firefighters rescuing Americans from terrorist attacks because the global jihadist movement has grown. There are, according to the NIE, four reasons for this growth: entrenched grievances, the Iraq jihad, the slow pace of reforms in the Middle East and pervasive anti-American sentiment. In fact, the NIE also blames the pervasive anti-American sentiment on the Iraq conflict. So Iraq is really two of the four factors in the growth of the movement.

Does that mean the White House spin is out of control? Not exactly.

The NIE points out that defeat of the jihadis in Iraq would stop the movement’s growth. It also points out that jihadi success in Iraq would inspire more to join the cause. In that sense, Bush’s words in March 2003 were wrong at the time, but correct now.

Like the struggle against global jihadism, the political fight over Iraq and terrorism has adapted to the new realities on the ground. The battle over the NIE is a wonderful chance for both parties to lob their own grenades: Democrats can accuse Republicans of failing to make America safer, while Republicans can accuse Democrats of failing to have a plan for victory in Iraq.

Is this a trivial debate, a case of dirty election tricks? Not at all. There’s no more important debate facing voters in November’s elections and beyond. The NIE is not the knockout blow that Democrats had hoped for, and it’s not the vindication that the White House says it is.

But for voters, it’s probably the single most important document to emerge in this election. The NIE report is a comprehensive assessment of terrorism produced in April by American intelligence agencies. After parts of it were leaked to The New York Times, President Bush announced yesterday that portions of it were being declassified and released to the media. In the NIE’s analysis, the war in Iraq has not made America safer, but defeat in Iraq would make America even less safe than it is today.

Until the NIE emerged, the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway was that the election would come down to a struggle between terrorism and Iraq. If the debate were about terrorism, the GOP would win; if about Iraq, the Democrats would win.

Instead, the NIE sheds light on a different debate that is all about Iraq. In November, voters will have a relatively simple choice: they need to decide whether to punish the GOP for starting the war or trust the GOP to end the war.

It’s My Party

Vice President Dick Cheney is a man who clearly doesn’t like surprises. On Monday evening, en route back from a pair of party fund-raisers in the Midwest, Cheney’s staff summoned reporters traveling with the VP to the front cabin of Air Force Two to watch as they presented Cheney with a cake celebrating his 100th fund-raiser for the GOP this election cycle.

It was a notable milestone. According to the Republican National Committee, Cheney has raised roughly $34 million for Republican parties and candidates over the last 10 months—making him the most prolific fund-raiser in the party after President Bush, who has raised more than $175 million for the GOP. On Monday, Cheney held his 99th and 100th events for the party: a rally for Wisconsin Republicans in Milwaukee and a private fund-raiser for GOP Senate candidate Mike Bouchard in Michigan.  And Cheney has no plans of slowing up. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the veep is set to headline at least 15 more events, including upcoming stops in Montana and Texas where he’ll campaign for several congressional candidates.

On Air Force Two, Cheney’s aides gathered around a red, white and blue sheet cake decorated with tiny paper U.S. flags that read 100 … ON TO VICTORY! Summoned from his private cabin, Cheney looked less surprised and more like a deer in headlights. Eying his staff and reporters a tad warily, Cheney seemed uncertain what to do or say. “What’s this?” the veep asked, with an awkward smile.  A few feet away, a White House photographer clicked away on his camera, capturing the moment for history’s sake.

As one staffer handed Cheney a large knife to cut the cake, Mel Raines, Cheney’s political director, explained the reason for celebrating. ‘You’re the only one here who’s been to all 100,” she said.  Cheney wore a slight smile. “And I’m the only one who always has to give a speech,” he quipped, as he moved to cut a narrow slice of cake. “Does my wife know about this?”

Handing a piece of cake to a reporter and the knife to his press secretary, Lea Anne McBride, Cheney lingered in the room for only a few minutes longer, before retreating back to his private cabin without sampling the cake. While the VP took just one question—about his fund-raising—the brief encounter was enough for reporters on the trip to wonder: was this the awkward beginnings of a Cheney charm offensive?

There are signs that Cheney has moved to improve his image. While reporters aren’t always invited on Cheney’s trips, they are asked to accompany him more often these days than in the past. Moreover, the VP’s aides have moved to allow reporters to observe Cheney more candidly. Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Cheney’s aides allowed a handful of reporters to accompany the veep and his family to a memorial service that had initially been off-limits to the press. At the same time, Cheney’s approval ratings are looking less dismal these days. A year ago, a CBS News poll found Cheney’s approval rating was at a mere 19 percent, an all-time low. Two weeks ago, a Harris Interactive poll found Cheney’s ratings up to 30 percent approval—about 10 points shy of his boss. Not great, but for a veep pegged by Democrats and some Republicans as a political bogeyman, not bad either.

Numbers, of course, seldom tell the whole story. On Monday, Cheney’s aides were willing to answer one burning question that White House spokesman Tony Snow and the RNC were not willing to answer about Bush: of the 100 fund-raising events Cheney has attended this year, 56 have been closed to the press, preventing candidates or donors from being publicly photographed with the veep. The number suggests that in this tough election year, Cheney’s image rehab still has some ways to go.

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