Media uncritically reported Bush's statement that he is "accountable" for Iraq war, even as he continues to pass the buck

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous media outlets reported without challenge President Bush's assertion that the "ultimate accountability" for the Iraq war "rests with me" -- some even asserting that he "took full responsibility for the war." But these reports ignored Bush's consistent pattern of deflecting questions regarding his judgments on Iraq by stating that he defers to others, including top generals, the intelligence community, and the Iraqi government, in making such decisions.

During an October 25 press conference, President Bush asserted that the "ultimate accountability" for the Iraq war "rests with me." "That's what the 2004 campaign was about," he said. "If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president." Numerous media outlets subsequently reported these remarks without challenge, some even asserting that he "took full responsibility for the war." But such reports ignored Bush's consistent pattern -- both in prior statements and during the October 25 press conference itself -- of deflecting questions regarding his judgments on Iraq by stating that he defers to others, including top generals, the intelligence community, and the Iraqi government, in making such decisions. Moreover, numerous outlets reported his statement that "the 2004 campaign was about" accountability, but failed to note the troubling disclosures about Bush's handling of the war that have surfaced since his re-election.

Midway through the press conference, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker asked Bush why no one has been "held accountable" for the fact that "the war in Iraq is not going as well as you wanted," noting reports that Bush has repeatedly dismissed suggestions from his senior staff that he replace Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld:

BAKER: When you first ran for president, sir, you talked about the importance of accountability. We learned from [Post managing editor] Bob Woodward's recent book that Secretary [and former Bush chief of staff Andrew] Card, on two occasions, suggested that you replace Secretary Rumsfeld, and both times you said no. Given that the war in Iraq is not going as well as you want, and given that you're not satisfied, as you just told us today, why hasn't anybody been held accountable? Should somebody be held accountable?

BUSH: Peter, you're asking me why I believe Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a good job, I think, if I might decipher through the Washington code.

BAKER: Or someone else. No one else --

BUSH: Well, let's start with Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld. I've asked him to do some difficult tasks as the secretary of defense -- one, wage war in two different theaters of this war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the same time, asked him to transform our military posture around the world and our military readiness here at home. The transformation effort into itself is a big project for any secretary to handle. But to compound the job he has, he's got to do that and, at the same time, wage war. And I'm satisfied of how he's done all his jobs.

[...]

BUSH: [L]et me say -- the ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me. That's the ultimate -- you're asking about accountability, that's -- rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. If people want to -- if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president. I believe our generals are doing the job that I asked them to do. They're competent, smart, capable men and women. And this country owes them a lot of gratitude and support.

Elsewhere in the same press conference, however, Bush laid the responsibility on others when questioned about his decision-making in Iraq. Indeed, when asked by Reuters staff writer Steve Holland whether he is "considering sending more U.S. troops to Iraq," Bush answered that such judgments lay with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. commander in Iraq:

HOLLAND: Are you considering sending more U.S. troops to Iraq? What would be the justification for it? And how reliable is this new timetable of 12 to 18 months?

BUSH: The -- I will send more troops to Iraq if General Casey says, "I need more troops in Iraq to achieve victory." And that's the way I've been running this war. I have great faith in General Casey. I have great faith in [U.S.] Ambassador [to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad. I trust our commanders on the ground to give the best advice about how to achieve victory.

Later, New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg asked Bush whether the United States "wants to maintain permanent bases in Iraq." Bush responded that it was not his decision whether to establish permanent U.S. military bases there, but that of "the Iraqi government":

RUTENBERG: Does the United States want to maintain permanent bases in Iraq? And I would follow that by asking, are you willing to renounce a claim on permanent bases in Iraq?

BUSH: Jim, the -- any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government. And, frankly, it's not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world is going to look like five or 10 years from now. They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short term. And they need our help. And that's where our focus is. But remember, when you're talking about bases and troops, we're dealing with a sovereign government.

Further, in his opening statement, Bush cited several "setbacks" that the United States had encountered since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But again, in each of these cases, Bush avoided taking direct responsibility:

  • Bush stated, "We overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people." But this statement overlooks the fact that numerous U.S. intelligence agencies directly warned the White House that the Iraqi infrastructure was in poor shape. Further, the intelligence community stressed the need to develop a thorough postwar plan before invading -- a recommendation the Bush administration ignored.
  • Bush said that in the "early phase of the war" the U.S. "saw how quickly Al Qaeda and other extremist groups would come to Iraq to fight and try to drive us out." "We did not expect the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, to melt away in the way that it did in the phase of advancing coalition forces," he said. But this account ignores that the Bush administration was presented with numerous prewar assessments by intelligence agencies and foreign policy experts -- including former members of the George H.W. Bush administration -- that an invasion of Iraq would result in U.S. forces fighting an insurgency.
  • Among the developments that Bush called "not encouraging" was that the U.S. "did not find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction." But he made no mention of the substantial evidence that he and senior officials in his administration ignored direct warnings from the intelligence community that there was no Iraqi weapons threat.

Bush has been questioned in the past about the Iraqi insurgency and, particularly, about whether he could have prevented this resistance by deploying more troops to Iraq following the invasion. On this issue as well, Bush has acknowledged that some see his decision-making on troop levels as "a mistake," but has emphasized that he simply deferred to then-Gen. Tommy Franks on the matter. From Bush's response at a December 19, 2005, press conference, when asked to name the "biggest mistake you've made during your presidency":

BUSH: I'm fully aware that some have said it was a mistake not to put enough troops there immediately -- or more troops. I made my decision based upon the recommendations of Tommy Franks, and I still think it was the right decision to make. But history will judge.

Just as media figures used the above quote to claim that Bush admitted mistakes on Iraq, several news outlets uncritically reported that he accepted responsibility during the October 25 press conference. Chicago Tribune staff writer Mark Silva not only credited Bush for "[t]aking the blame," but reported that he had "admitted miscalculations" and "misjudgments" -- falsely suggesting that he himself took responsibility for these mistakes. From Silva's October 26 article:

He admitted miscalculations in the invasion of Iraq and disappointments after more than three years there, and offered a rare acknowledgment of the American body count in this, the deadliest month for U.S. forces in a year.

[...]

Taking the blame

Asked who should be held accountable for failures in the war, the president pointed to himself.

"The ultimate accountability ... rests with me," Bush said in an East Room news conference--his second in a month, a rarity of its own. "It's what the 2004 campaign was about. ... If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."

Bush acknowledged misjudgments, including bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq cited as rationale for the U.S.-led invasion and "overestimating" the ability of Iraqis to maintain "essential services" afterward.

Numerous other reporters simply quoted Bush's statement that the "ultimate accountability" for the war "rests" with him. Associated Press White House correspondent Terence Hunt even reported that Bush "took full responsibility for the war":

  • Bush doggedly defended the job that defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has done. "I'm satisfied at how he's done all his jobs. He's a smart, tough, capable administrator," the president said.

    Then, the commander in chief took full responsibility for the war.

    "You asked me about accountability. It rests right here," he said, pointing at his chest for emphasis, "That's what the 2004 campaign was all about." ["Bush acknowledges discontent with Iraq war," Hunt, AP, 10/25/06]

  • As for whether anyone else should be held responsible for the missteps in Iraq, Bush said, "The ultimate accountability ... rests with me. ... It's what the 2004 campaign was about. If people want to -- if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president." ["Bush Is Reassuring on Iraq But Says He's 'Not Satisfied,'" Baker, The Washington Post, 10/26/06]
  • While Mr. Bush has said repeatedly that the two parties' approaches to Iraq should be a major issue in November, he acknowledged Wednesday that ultimately one person should be held responsible for progress in the war. ["Conceding Missteps, Bush Urges Patience on Iraq," Rutenberg, The New York Times, 10/26/06]
  • If his party's candidates want to change the subject, Mr. Bush surely did not help them on Wednesday. While the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the tumult over the war has already thrust the issue to the center of the political stage, Mr. Bush spent more than an hour discussing Iraq with reporters at the White House, acknowledging the overriding importance of the issue and stating flatly that he should ultimately be held accountable. ["Bush Focuses on Iraq as G.O.P. Tries to Change Subject," John Broder, The New York Times, 10/26/06]
  • Bush cited successes in Iraq such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 and successful elections. He also listed failures, including loss of American lives and not finding weapons of mass destruction. "The ultimate accountability," Bush said, "rests with me." ["Iraqi leader bristles at idea of timetable," David Jackson and Rick Jervis, USA Today, 10/26/06]
  • "In his hour-long news conference, President Bush also expressed confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying he's done everything that's been asked of him. The president called Rumsfeld a 'smart, tough, capable administrator' and then pointing to himself, the president added, quote, 'The ultimate accountability rests with me. It's what the 2004 campaign was about.'" [Fox News White House correspondent Bret Baier, Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/25/06]

By contrast with the above reports, Los Angeles Times staff writer Peter Wallsten pointed out in his October 26 article that Bush's statements at the press conference "were complicated and at times contradictory." Wallsten went on to juxtapose Bush's acceptance of "full responsibility for the war" with his subsequent statement that "it was up to the generals to ask for more troops if they needed them." And on the October 25 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, guest host John King pointed out: "When it comes to Iraq, you'll hear the president say he's accountable, that there have been setbacks. What you won't hear him say is that he's been wrong."

Moreover, several of the reporters listed above quoted Bush's assertion that "the 2004 campaign was about" accountability -- including Hunt, Baker, and Baier. But none noted that Bush's suggestion that the public ratified his Iraq policy by granting him another four years in office is highly disingenuous in light of the numerous disclosures regarding the White House's handling of the Iraq war that have come to light since the 2004 presidential election:

  • Troop levels: In his new book State of Denial: Bush At War, Part III (Simon & Schuster, September 2006), Washington Post managing editor Bob Woodward disclosed that then-National Security Council Iraq adviser Robert D. Blackwill specifically warned the Bush White House in September 2003 that as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops would be needed in Iraq to suppress the growing insurgency. According to Woodward, Blackwill delivered a memorandum laying out this course of action and later briefed then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on the matter, but the White House ignored his recommendations.
  • CPA cronyism: In a September 17 article, Washington Post assistant managing editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran detailed the process by which many individuals who "lacked vital skills and experience" were assigned to positions in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq based on their "loyalty to the Bush administration." Chandrasekaran quoted multiple sources detailing a process conducted by a political appointee within the Pentagon, who screened applicants for key CPA posts and passed over more qualified candidates in favor of people, who, "because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people." According to the article, the CPA's hiring process "is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2-year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors."
  • Downing Street memo: In June 2004, a British government document surfaced indicating that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence in 2002 order to justify war with Iraq. The memo described Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British foreign intelligence agency MI6, stating that in Washington, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
  • Aluminum tubes: In a March 30 National Journal article, investigative journalist Murray Waas reported that an internal White House review found that Bush "had been specifically advised" in a January 2003 intelligence briefing "that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon -- might not be true." Waas further reported that White House senior adviser Karl Rove had actively worked to keep under wraps the January 2003 briefing until after the 2004 elections, due to concerns that its disclosure could "severely damage[]" Bush's re-election prospects.

From the October 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BAIER: In his hourlong news conference, President Bush also expressed confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying he's done everything that's been asked of him. The president called Rumsfeld a "smart, tough, capable administrator" and then pointing to himself, the president added, "The ultimate accountability rests with me. It's what the 2004 campaign was about."

From the October 25 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

KING: When it comes to Iraq, you'll hear the president say he's accountable, that there have been setbacks. What you won't hear him say is that he's been wrong. Which is what makes the following admission from a Republican all the more surprising.

REP. MARK KENNEDY (R-MN) [video clip from ad]: None of us like war. And we've made some mistakes in Iraq. We're facing an enemy that must be defeated.

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