Reality Check on Bush's Rose Garden Talk

President George W. Bush went on the offensive Tuesday against the Democrats, who've retreated from Washington for spring recess. From the sun-splashed setting of the Rose Garden, the president suggested that it was lazy—and possibly even unpatriotic—for the Democratic-controlled Congress to depart with a half-finished Iraq spending bill. "In a time of war, it's irresponsible for the Democrat leadership in Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds," Bush told reporters. He vowed to veto any bill that set a deadline for troop withdrawal, as legislation approved by both the House and Senate does.

The administration is justifiably worried that the new Congress will use its constitutional prerogative to cut off funding for the Iraq War at a time when, after four years of miscues, Bush thinks he's finally got the right strategy and team in place. But upon closer inspection, some of Bush's warnings suggest that the president is holding the Democrats to a different standard than he held his own party when it ruled Capitol Hill-and building a political case against Congress' course that doesn't quite add up.

Bush began by complaining that it had been "57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops." He said that if Congress doesn't give him a bill he can sign by mid-April, the Army will be "forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces," as well as training, so that money can go to "troops on the front lines." And if he doesn't get a bill by mid-May, Bush said, "the problems grow even more acute"—forecasting delays in funding repair depots, training active-duty forces needed overseas, and in forming new brigades.

Yet previous Republican-controlled Congresses have left for spring recess without passing the sort of supplemental bill Bush was talking about. In 2006, the GOP Congress didn't approve the supplemental until the middle of June. Sen. Jack Reed, a leading Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee, told NEWSWEEK that "there was no concern then about the dire consequence of running out of funds." Besides, Congress has already passed a huge $70 billion bridge fund last fall that will tide the troops over-even if the spending bill doesn't go through. (This was created because previous Congresses have been concerned that the administration tends to fund the war hand-to-mouth with supplemental bills, rather than asking for the money up front in its annual Defense budget.) "It's hard not to view this [Bush's charges] as somewhat hyped up," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based military think tank. "In addition to [the bridge fund], the Pentagon can tap its regular budget for the last quarter of the fiscal year, and shift money from procurements with a long lead time, like a new armored fighting vehicles. It creates some inefficiencies, but it's part of the process."

In his morning press conference, Bush also charged that the supplemental bill is ungainly and loaded up with Democratic "pork"—i.e., unrelated funding for projects back home. But the main reason for the supplemental in the first place, many Democrats charge, is to avoid tallying the real cost of the Iraq War in the regular budget. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., called the supplemental a "shell game" and told "Fox News Sunday": "If the president had been honest with what he needed for this war in his regular budget, then we wouldn't be having this."

The president also announced that thus far only 40 percent of the troops called up in the "surge" have reached Iraq. Bush said he found it "somewhat astounding that people in Congress would start calling for withdrawal even before all the troops have made it to Baghdad." When will they get there? By "early June," Bush announced. And yet the administration has previously made a point of suggesting strongly that this summer is a fair time to assess the surge's effectiveness. Gen. George Casey, the previous multinational forces commander in Iraq, was asked in late December when he thought troops could come home. "I believe the projections are late summer," Casey told reporters. At a congressional hearing on Jan. 11, new Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the surge's duration would be "a matter of months." Now, without quite saying so, the president seems to have pushed back the target date for the surge's success—and withdrawal. Says Jack Reed: "Most counterinsurgency specialists talk about success coming in years, not months."

Also on Tuesday, Bush countered a reporter's question about the Iraqi government's readiness by ticking off the ways in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his cabinet have stepped up. "They said they'd name a commander for Baghdad. They have done that. They said they'd send up-you know, they'd send troop out into the neighborhoods to clear and hold and then build. They're doing that. They said they would send a budget up that would spend a considerable amount of their money on reconstruction. They have done that. They're working on an oil law that is in progress." Bush added: "The whole [surge] strategy is to give the Iraqi government time to reconcile."

But by many accounts, political progress on reconciliation in Iraq is frozen and possibly has even gone into reverse. The legislature has declined to take up the oil apportionment law, which is critical to creating a sense of unified statehood for ever-bickering Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. And The New York Times reported Tuesday that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in the country, is opposing a U.S.-backed plan to allow thousands of former Baath Party members to re-enter the government. The plan, the chief legacy of the just-departed U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, was the Bush administration's main means of reaching out to Sunnis who back the insurgency. But Sistani's word is as good as law for many Shiites. "I think that really hurts the cause," says Andrew Krepinevich, a leading military strategist in Washington whose strategy for "spreading oil spots" of stability in Iraq is largely the one that Bush has adopted.

All in all, Bush delivered a powerful broadside in his Rose Garden performance on Tuesday—especially since few Democrats were around to answer him. But a quick reality check suggests that his Rose Garden offensive was all about politics, not policy. His administration knows it badly needs a victory in the arena of public opinion, which continues to tilt in support of early withdrawal. Perhaps that's one reason that Bush tried to make the case — in what was no doubt his biggest stretch — that the Democratic plan calling for a withdrawal date by 2008 "will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines." That's a particularly difficult case to make—since the same day, the newspapers carried stories about how the surge was shrinking the amount of time troops had at home between tours of duty. And his own plan calls for an open-ended commitment—not exactly a hurry-home strategy. Despite Bush's attack on the Democrats Tuesday, "the administration...has lost control of the [Iraq] narrative," says Krepinevich. Bush, with just 20 months left to serve, is trying mightily to get the country once again to listen to his side of the story.

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