Stabilization Is Its Middle Name
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A17
With all the chaos and uncertainty in Iraq, this would be a good time to call on the White House's Iraq Stabilization Group. At least it would have been a good time to call on the Stabilization Group if the group itself had not become, er, unstable.
President Bush and his aides announced with some fanfare in October that they were creating the Iraq Stabilization Group within the National Security Council to increase the White House's role in coordinating Iraq policy. "We're trying to mobilize the entire U.S. government to support this effort" in Iraq, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said at the time.
But seven months later, the four original leaders of the Stabilization Group have taken on new roles, and only one remains concerned primarily with Iraq. A search of the White House Web site indicates the phrase "Iraq Stabilization Group" has not been mentioned publicly since October.
An NSC spokesman said the Stabilization Group members "still meet regularly." Critics of recent U.S. actions in Iraq, including some within the White House, said the destabilized Stabilization Group is a metaphor for an Iraq policy that is adrift as U.S. ambitions in the country are thwarted by an insurgency and a prisoner-abuse scandal.
"The White House has ordered a major reorganization of American efforts to quell violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and to speed the reconstruction," the New York Times trumpeted on its front page on Oct. 6. The Iraq Stabilization Group, led by Rice, was called an effort to assert more White House control over Iraq and to reduce the Pentagon's role.
"We're making good progress in Iraq," Bush said when asked about the group then. "Condi's team is going to make sure that the efforts continue to be coordinated so that we continue to make progress." As described by administration officials, the group would have four components: counterterrorism, run by Frances F. Townsend; economic development, run by Gary R. Edson; political transition, run by Robert D. Blackwill; and public relations, run by Anna M. Perez.
And where are they now?
Perez has decamped for Hollywood, taking a job last month overseeing communications for NBC as it acquires Vivendi Universal Entertainment. The Hollywood Reporter ran a statement from Perez saying, "There couldn't be a more exciting time to join NBC as it prepares to become one of the world's largest and most dynamic media companies." Perez has been succeeded by Jim Wilkinson.
Townsend, too, has turned her attention to non-Iraq matters. Bush announced April 30 that she would become his homeland security adviser -- continuing to hold down her counterterrorism duties "until a replacement has been identified."
Edson remains on the job, but only nominally. Colleagues say he is focused almost entirely on being Bush's "sherpa" for the upcoming Group of Eight summit of world leaders, which the United States is hosting in Georgia next month.
That leaves Blackwill, the former ambassador to India, who is functioning as a one-man Iraq Stabilization Group. And while Blackwill remains devoted entirely to Iraq, he is being spread a bit thin: Bush announced April 19 that in addition to working with the United Nations and concentrating on "issues related to Iraq's governance," Blackwill would also become Bush's "presidential envoy to Iraq," serving with the new ambassador, John D. Negroponte.
In his free time, Blackwill listens to jazz and watches old movies.
The line between politics and official White House business continues to blur.
On May 3, Vice President Cheney delivered a speech to the employees of the Wal-Mart distribution center in Bentonville, Ark. According to local newspapers, both Wal-Mart and the Bush-Cheney campaign described the speech as official -- taxpayer-funded -- White House business.
For all anyone around here knew, it was an official visit," columnist Brenda Blagg wrote in the Morning News of northwest Arkansas. "The Arkansas office for Bush-Cheney '04 certainly thought so and was appropriately 'hands off,' as a spokesperson put it. . . . The visit came about, according to a Wal-Mart spokesman, because the White House called the company's Washington office and said the vice president wanted to come tour the distribution center, meet the company's associates and 'say good things about Wal-Mart.' "
But at the speech, Cheney did more than say good things about the retailer. He said a lot of bad things about John F. Kerry.
"This November, the American people will have a clear choice on the economy," he said. "President Bush has stood firmly by his conviction that lower taxes are critical to growth and jobs. The president's opponent takes a somewhat different view." After more than 600 words picking apart Kerry's record, Cheney said: "I am confident that six months from now, with a clear choice before them, the American people will choose the confident, steady, principled leadership of President George W. Bush."
Democrats say the trip, if official, would have violated campaign finance rules. Rep. John W. Olver (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee governing White House expenses, wrote to the White House seeking an explanation. But Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems said that the trip was, from the start, a campaign event, and that those who said otherwise were misinformed.
Among the misinformed was Wal-Mart's chief spokesman, Jay Allen. "I was under the impression it was initially a White House event," Allen said. "I was told in the last few days it was a campaign event."
Either way, Allen said, "we were honored."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company