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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Smiles Belie Fault Lines

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; 11:54 AM

Amid the smiles, the backslapping and cheerful joint statements coming out of President Bush's European trip, some troubling international fault lines are also coming into focus:

• Some Europeans are clearly suspicious that Bush is already gearing up to attack Iran. And when Bush passionately denied that yesterday -- but then immediately said he couldn't rule anything out, either -- the audience at the European Union's headquarters literally laughed out loud.

• In an overt show of teeth, Bush expressed "deep concern" over Europe's plan to lift the arms embargo against China, warning that any action that could threaten Taiwan might enrage the U.S. Congress.

• And Bush meets tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who by some accounts is prepared to respond to any further criticism of his rollback of democratic institutions by raising his own concerns about American torture of Iraqi prisoners -- and Bush's own contested 2000 election.

Simply Ridiculous?

Yesterday, at Bush's second press conference of the day (here's the transcript) a reporter asked him: "[D]o you actually commit to, for instance, prevent from launching action, strikes against a sovereign member state, state like Iran, without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council?"

Bush spoke about how he is "getting good advice from European partners" about Iran, but then concluded:

"And finally, this notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous."

Short pause.

"And having said that, all options are on the table."

Even the White House stenographers felt obliged to note the result: "(Laughter)".

This morning, in his press availability with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (here's that transcript), Bush revisited his remarks.

"It's vital that the Iranians hear the world speak with one voice that they shouldn't have a nuclear weapon. You know, yesterday I was asked about the U.S. position, and I said all options are on the table. That's part of our position. But I also reminded people that diplomacy is just beginning. Iran is not Iraq. We've just started the diplomatic efforts, and I want to thank our friends for taking the lead and I will -- we will work with them to convince the mullahs that they need to give up their nuclear ambitions."

Michael A. Fletcher and Keith B. Richburg write in this morning's Washington Post: "European nations would like the United States to join talks with Iran -- now involving Germany, France and Britain -- by offering Tehran security and economic guarantees in exchange for abandoning its nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration has refused to participate in the talks."

Given an opportunity this morning, Fletcher asked Bush about that: "Chancellor Schroeder has said that Iran will abandon its nuclear ambitions only after knowing that its economic and legitimate security concerns have been addressed. First of all, do you agree with that assessment, and can that happen without the United States joining the talks with Iran?"

In his response, Bush didn't say anything one way or the other about Iran's economic and security concerns. Nor did he address the issue of joining the European talks with Iran. But he did say: "Look, first, let me just make this very clear -- the party that has caused these discussions to occur in the first place are the Iranians. . . . They're the party that needs to be held to account, not any of us."

And finally, with a big finish, he concluded: "[W]e will continue to talk tactics, to make sure that we achieve the objective: Iran must not have a nuclear weapon." He thumped the podium for effect. "For the sake of security and peace, they must not have a nuclear weapon. And that is a goal shared by Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States. And working together, we can get this accomplished."

The China Syndrome

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "A simmering dispute with Europe came to the forefront on Tuesday when President Bush said there was 'deep concern' in the United States that lifting the European Union's arms embargo against China would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan. . . .

"In his most explicit public argument, the president said lifting the ban would allow the transfer of critical military technology to the Chinese that would 'change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan, and that's of concern.'

"The issue has been one of the few disagreements to spill into the open during Mr. Bush's trip to repair relations across the Atlantic. He and European leaders have worked intently to ease hard feelings over the Iraq invasion, and they have played down the conflict that has risen in the last few months over the arms embargo. Even as he expressed his concerns on Tuesday, Mr. Bush insisted that he was willing to listen to European views on the issue."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush warned European leaders on Tuesday that their plan to end a 15-year arms embargo on Beijing could upset the strategic balance between China and Taiwan, and he suggested that Congress might retaliate by limiting arms sales to Europe. . . .

"In his remarks here, Bush said he had told French President Jacques Chirac and other European leaders that they must 'sell' their arms shipment plan not only to him, but to Congress. . . .

"The House this month passed a resolution declaring that an end to the arms embargo would be 'in direct conflict with U.S. security interests' and that such action would 'necessitate limitations and constraints . . . that would be unwelcome on both sides of the Atlantic.' "

Russia Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's determined effort to raise Russia's crackdown on independent businesses and internal dissent with President Vladimir V. Putin when they meet this week is likely to get a tart response, according to the Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov.

"In written answers to questions submitted by The New York Times before Mr. Bush left for Europe on Sunday, Mr. Ushakov said Mr. Putin was likely to respond to Mr. Bush's criticism by raising 'our own concerns about the situation in the United States and certain troubling aspects of Washington's policies.'

"He noted that 'parts of public opinion in Russia are not necessarily supportive of some of America's actions in certain regions of the world' and that 'there are others who are highly critical of your electoral system.'

"Mr. Ushakov did not offer specifics, but Bush administration officials suggested that he was referring to such matters as the detention of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the 2000 presidential election, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Bush in a recount dispute, effectively securing his victory."

There were more harsh words directed at Russia this morning in a background briefing by a senior administration official: "I always get suspicious when people put any adjective in front of democracy -- People's Democracy, Proletarian Democracy, Aryan Democracy, Managed Democracy," he said. "I am still very much for a constructive relationship with Russia: cooperate where we can but remain true to your values. . . . That is easy to say but hard as hell to do."

Scott Peterson, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, quotes Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, describing Russian reaction to the Bush critique: "From the Russian perspective, this is all a double standard," Hill says. "There is certainly this widespread anti-Americanism within the Russian elite, a feeling that the US lost any moral high ground it could possibly have because of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and increasing concern of US intentions locally."

The big meeting will take place tomorrow in Slovakia. And Radio Slovakia International notes: "Slovak offices of the non-governmental organizations Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth have sent an open letter to American President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their concerns over a lack of respect for international standards in the area of human rights, as well as social and environmental rights in the international policies of the United States and Russia. The organizations are concerned that current policies of the USA and Russia are shaped by 'narrow, one-sided interests rather than commitments to international rights.' "

Old Europe, New Europe

Fletcher and Richburg in The Post describe yet another fault line: "Still, an underlying schism is emerging between the United States and some of the countries -- particularly France and Germany -- that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously labeled 'Old Europe.'

"Specifically, those countries and others would like to see the E.U. become the main institutional link between the United States and Europe, so they were delighted at Bush's visit to E.U. headquarters. But the United States remains committed to seeing NATO as its primary connection to the continent -- and Bush pointedly spent more time at NATO headquarters, where he lunched with alliance leaders and held a mini-summit with the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko."

Some Initial Reviews

Richard Bernstein writes in the New York Times: "Europeans watching President Bush's trip are clearly glad to see an American president once thought hostile showing a friendlier, conciliatory side. Still, most of the press commentary after Mr. Bush's 'new era' speech in Brussels on Monday night was heavily tinged with skepticism about whether the changed tone of American pronouncements would be followed by practical trans-Atlantic cooperation."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The confidence that the president has exuded throughout his meetings with European leaders and the media is born partly of the political victory that handed him his second term. The president has staged a news conference a month in the U.S. since re-election and had two Tuesday in Brussels."

James Harding and Daniel Dombey write in the Financial Times: "By President George W. Bush's standards, he leaves Brussels this morning having done his bit to meet the Europeans half way.

"He initiated the outreach to Europe immediately after re-election, he came to Brussels capping two months of diplomatic re-engagement, he hailed a 'strong Europe', he ladled on the bonhomie with each and every European leader, he trod gently around US concerns on planned European arms sales to China and he was open to the unwelcome possibility of Nato reform floated by Germany and France.

"And what has Mr Bush received in return? 'We look to Europe to respond,' says a senior Bush administration official, suggesting that the sense within the White House is that the reconciliation effort has been a little lop-sided."

BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb writes: "The president is wonderfully un-European -- refreshingly so in the view of those of us who have worked in Brussels.

"He is unsmooth. He stumbles over his sentences. He uses short, plain, sometimes almost babyish words, while the sophisticated multilingual Euro crowd prefer obfuscatory long ones. . . .

"It was interesting that on the White House bus back into town, the journalists did not need to compare notes or discuss the president's words and what they meant.

"On the other hand, for Chirac and Schroeder there was a discussion that would have made an old-style Kremlinologist blush."

First Name Watch

Bush continues to publicly greet his fellow leaders by their first name -- and they continue not to reciprocate.

In their exchange of toasts today, for instance, Schroeder started off: "Dear Mr. President, Mrs. Bush, ladies and gentlemen: Let me begin by sharing with you how very pleased, indeed, my wife, Doris, and I are about this opportunity of welcoming you, Mr. President, and your wife, Laura, not only to Germany, but here to Mainz, as well."

Bush started off: "Gerhard, before I raise my imaginary glass -- (laughter) -- I do want to thank you for your hospitality. You and Doris have been very kind to Laura and me, and we appreciate that. I want to thank all the folks who have come to say, hello, from around this great country. It means a lot to both of us that you're here."

Riskless Roundtable

Bush was originally scheduled to hold a town-hall meeting with regular German citizens today in Mainz. But when the German government couldn't guarantee friendly questions, that became a small, carefully-screened roundtable discussion with young Germans who have visited the U.S. on exchange programs.

And only part of it was even made public.

Somewhat ironically, according to the transcript of the public part, the first question was about free speech -- in Russia.

Mainz Watch

Bertrand Benoit, George Parker and Robert Anderson wrote in the Financial Times about the security lockdown in Mainz.

"In a contemporary echo of the Lady Godiva legend, anyone living on the route of the presidential motorcade is being discouraged from taking a peek at the 60- to 80-strong column of vehicles conveying the US president. In police leaflets, residents have been asked to keep their windows shut and stay clear of balconies 'to avoid misunderstandings'."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today, taking your questions and comments, although -- damn the luck -- I seem to be up against Morgan Fairchild.

Alleged Assassination Plot

The White House is not making any comments about the charges against a Northern Virginia man, accused of plotting to assassinate the president.

Jerry Markon and Dana Priest have all the details in The Washington Post.

The Deleted Chapter

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "At the National Security Council's request, the White House excised a full chapter on Iraq's economy from last week's Economic Report of the President, reasoning in part that the 'feel good' tone of the writing would ring hollow against the backdrop of continuing violence, according to White House officials. . . .

"Council members said they were striving for brevity even before the Iraq chapter was removed. But the White House intervention heightened concern among some economists that the Bush administration does not value lengthy, reasoned analyses of its policies."

The Daily Guckert

Eric Boehlert has another salvo in Salon on the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert scandal. He tracked down Joe Lockhart.

" 'When I was there we didn't let political operatives in. It was completely contrary to what the press room should be used for,' says Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary to President Clinton during his second term. Asked what would have happened if a reporter from a clearly partisan operation, say 'Democrats Today,' had requested a White House press pass, Lockhart said that if the chief of the Democratic National Committee were attending an event at the White House, then perhaps the Democrats Today reporter might be allowed in for that one day. 'But to be admitted as a reporter and sit in a chair and act like a reporter' for months on end the way Guckert did? 'No,' said Lockhart, 'that's not within the realm of what [is] proper.' . . .

"So the mystery remains: How did Guckert, with absolutely no journalism background and working for a phony news organization, manage to adopt the day-pass system as his own while sidestepping a thorough background check that might have detected his sordid past? That's the central question the White House refuses to address."

Here are some more questions, from a Detroit Free Press editorial: "How is it that an administration that screened thousands of people for attendance at Bush campaign rallies repeatedly let a fake reporter into the sanctorum of the White House pressroom under a false name? . . .

"What is the public to make of the fact that legitimate protesters are kept far away from President George W. Bush while an illegitimate 'journalist' who's really working for a Republican propaganda mill is repeatedly allowed into the White House pressroom and regularly called upon by the president and the president's press secretary to ask questions? . . .

"Based on the Guckert case, can any self-styled journalist from an obscure Web site or blog expect to obtain a daily pass to attend White House press briefings? Given the proliferation of same, is the White House prepared for a stampede of applications? Will all identities be verified? Will reporters from GOP-friendly media receive preferred seating?

"Is anyone in the Bush administration asking these questions? Or interested in answering them?"

The Wead Tapes

Tim Grieve writes for Salon about the attacks on presidential taper Doug Wead, from the likes of Linda Chavez.

Grieve writes: "Apparently stung by the attacks -- and God knows what he was hearing from the White House -- Wead now says it was all a mistake. In a message on his Web site, Wead writes: 'My thanks to those who have let me share my heart and regrets about recent events. Contrary to a statement that I made to the New York Times, I have come to realize that personal relationships are more important than history.'"

Late Night Humor

From Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" on Comedy Central:

"All past disagreements completely pushed aside, the president shared his vision of transatlantic cooperation in Iraq. (He plays audio of Bush telling Europeans: 'In the coming months, Iraq's newly-elected assembly will carry out the important work of establishing a government. . . . Now is the time for established democracies to give tangible political economic and security assistance to the world's newest democracy.')

"Yes, it's the Bush version of the Pottery Barn rule: We broke it, you bought it."


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