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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Perpetual Bush 

We commend to your attention an excellent five-part series by WaPo columnist Dan Froomkin, writing at his downtown crib, the Nieman Watchdog. The subject? What Mr. Bush will likely do to ensure that his pernicious influence lingers on well past the end of his benighted term as President. From installment #1, "Do We Really Expect the Bushies to Go Quietly?":

In any number of ways -- some overt, some covert – Bush, Vice President Cheney and their loyalists are assuredly taking steps to assure that their successors will find themselves hemmed in by limited options, balky subordinates, and inescapable obligations. Journalists should be looking for them and exposing them for what they are.

PART I: Iraq, Iran, and the Military

Iraq: The Petraeus Factor

The Bush legacy that has the most inertia, of course, is Iraq. The next American president will take office with as many as 140,000 troops still in harm’s way in Iraq, inheriting a war that will be hard to end even in the best-case scenarios. And while Obama is committed to a rapid pullout, there are ways the Bush administration can make it even more difficult than it has to be to change course. Among them: Putting stubborn loyalists in key military positions; continuing to build near-permanent bases until the last minute; letting out multi-year contracts; and committing to long-term agreements with the Iraqi government. In fact, the Bushies are doing all those and more . . . .

There are lots of other ways Bush can try to make it easier to stay in Iraq than to go. One particularly effective way is to make long-term commitments before he leaves office. To that end, two accords are currently being negotiated between the White House and the Iraqi government: a status of forces agreement and a separate "strategic framework."

Administration officials insist that the new agreements will not specify troop levels or otherwise tie the hands of the next president – but a “Declaration of Principles” signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in November describes “a long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship” and calls for the U.S. to help Iraq defend itself “against internal and external threats.”

Negotiations on both accords are being held in secret, and the White House has said it does not intend bring the agreement before the U.S. Congress.

Some elements of the American negotiating position were recently leaked to Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who wrote that Bush wants to retain the use of more than 50 military bases in Iraq and is insisting on immunity from Iraqi law for U.S. troops and contractors, as well as a free hand to carry out military activities without consulting the Baghdad government. At the same time, Iraqi resistance to such an accord is apparently on the rise, with many Iraqi lawmakers saying Bush's terms would infringe on Iraqi sovereignty and perpetuate the violence there. For more, see my June 5 column for washingtonpost.com, Bush’s Secret Iraq Deal.

And here’s one possibility Bush is likely to fight tooth and nail: Karen DeYoung wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that the Iraqi government may request an extension of the United Nations security mandate authorizing a U.S. military presence, due to expire in December, which would leave the negotiations over a future U.S.-Iraqi relationship and the role of U.S. forces in the country to the next American president.

Q. What are the White House’s goals in negotiating these two agreements? How are the negotiations proceeding? Why isn’t there greater transparency? Will Congress at least exercise its oversight power to find out what’s going on?

One particularly contentious issue is that of “permanent military bases.” It should be clear to everyone by now that when Bush administration officials deny that they are building permanent military bases, that doesn't mean a thing. See, for instance, this exchange last month between Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and Assistant Defense Secretary Mary Beth Long. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a permanent military base. So even as Bush officials insist they have no intention of establishing permanent bases in Iraq, they have spent the last five years doing just that.

From installment #2, "Midnight Rulemaking, Last-Minute Hires and Executive Fiats":

Q. Are political appointees continuing or even accelerating their attempts to drive key civil servants out of their jobs?

A recent example of such behavior comes from Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune, who reported in early May that Mary Gade, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Midwest office, was forced out of her job after turning up the pressure on Dow Chemical to clean up dioxin contamination in Michigan.

A particularly unique facet of Bush’s approach to the executive branch has been a pattern of driving out competent, senior-level civil servants – often by removing their decision-making power – and replacing them with unqualified Republican loyalists. As Princeton University Professor David E. Lewis wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org, the effect of that can be profound:

Driving out career employees can result in a loss of expertise, institutional knowledge, long term perspective, and break up networks of relationships that facilitate governance across agencies. Career employees at the management level have worked their way up through the agency and know how it works, its routines, its culture, where the power is, and the ins and outs of policy. They often know and have ongoing relationships with key stakeholders. These stakeholders are key for implementing any agency policy. When careerists leave or get forced out it becomes harder to manage the agency.

FEMA’s incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina will of course be one of the lasting legacies of the Bush term. The White House’s disregard for scientific findings that don’t support their political beliefs is another hallmark. But there is also reason to believe that by removing people who know how to make government work, Bush political appointees have presided over a stealthy but steady erosion of government competence across the board. The question now is how bad have things gotten, and will they keep pushing good people out until the last minute . . . .

Q. Are appointees in federal agencies trying to cover their tracks? Are documents being properly retained?

As Steven Aftergood recently wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org:

The next President will have the authority to declassify and disclose any and all records that reflect the activities of executive branch agencies. Although internal White House records that document the activities of the outgoing President and his personal advisers will be exempt from disclosure for a dozen years or so, every Bush Administration decision that was actually translated into policy will have left a documentary trail in one or more of the agencies, and all such records could be disclosed at the discretion of the next President.

But that, of course, depends on appointees not destroying key documents.

Coming later this week: "Pardons and the Courts" (Wednesday); "Vice President Cheney" (Thursday); "Trying to Keep the GOP in Control" (Friday).

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