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Piling on the Defenders of U.S. Policy in Iraq

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

You knew it was a bad day for the White House when even Fox News was piling on President Bush's counselor, Dan Bartlett.

E.D. Hill, one of the "Fox & Friends" morning show anchors, said she thought the Iraq war "was a justified one" but now worries "that there's not a plan to actually win that ground war."

"Well, E.D., I can assure you that's not the case," Bartlett assured her. Allowing that it's been a "bumpy process" with "difficult days," he asserted: "We have the right strategy to prevail."

Hill was not reassured by this assurance. "I guess I'm not convinced," she replied.

Nor, it seems, is most of the country. A nationwide poll released Monday by American Research Group showed Bush's approval rating at 36 percent -- a new low that, if accurate, would put him in the unhappy company of his father just before his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before his loss to Ronald Reagan. Antiwar demonstrators dog Bush at his ranch and at every stop on the road, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has said we "should start figuring out how we get out of" Iraq. Constitutional negotiators are bickering, and some talk of civil war.

Under that dark cloud, the White House yesterday morning rushed to distribute umbrellas. Bartlett signed up for six morning television interviews, on the three networks and the three cable news channels. The White House announced that Bush, vacationing in Idaho, would come out to face the cameras. The Pentagon said Donald Rumsfeld would hold a news conference. The State Department scheduled an "open press" event for Condoleezza Rice but, perhaps sensing overkill, later said there would be "no Q&A."

There was no mistaking administration talking points. Bartlett said 11 times that the president and the nation appreciate the "sacrifice" of the troops in Iraq, while seven times he spoke of "progress" and the need to be "patient" and "prudent." Pulling out the troops, he said, "would be a disastrous mistake for national security here in America."

But Bartlett spent his tour of the airwaves almost entirely on the defensive.

CBS's Harry Smith: "You have almost two-thirds of the American people thinking the war in Iraq is going badly."

NBC's Matt Lauer: "The Iraqis have once again failed to meet a deadline for a final draft of the constitution."

CNN's Miles O'Brien: "Doesn't look like much progress has been made there."

And everybody wanted to know about Hagel, and everybody got the same answer. "He's a decorated Vietnam War veteran," Bartlett said. "But we couldn't disagree more with his assessment."

A few hours later, Bush took his turn, granting reporters a 12-minute appearance at the Tamarack Resort in Donnelly, Idaho. "We're making progress on two fronts," he said.

Asked about the Sunni leader who raised the prospect of civil war, Bush said he was just one "fellow" among many in the process. Fox News continued its tough posture on Bush, asking if an Islamic constitution really could respect the rights of women; Bush said Rice had assured him it would.

Like Bartlett, Bush hit his main theme: There's no alterative to staying in Iraq. "I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States," he said.

After the State Department spokesman took his midday stab at reassurance -- "what we are watching is history unfold" -- the stage was left to the administration's best performer, Rumsfeld.

The secretary was, at first, uncharacteristically subdued. Rumsfeld allowed that "the process has been delayed a bit," and that "regrettably, completing the constitution is not likely to end all the violence."

Invited to comment on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier in Iraq bedeviling the administration with her war protest, Rumsfeld was soothing. "Anyone who lives the lives we live in this department and meets families of those that have died and meets families of those who have been wounded has to feel a great deal of empathy for each one of them," he said.

Dispensing with those sensitive subjects, Rumsfeld returned to form. He likened critics of the Iraq war, in its 30th month, to those who said in the early days of the Afghanistan war that the United States was in a quagmire. He dismissed as a "dead ender" an Iraqi Sunni who warned about civil war. To those who see Iraq pulling apart, he retorted that "just opposite's been happening." He suggested "those being tossed about by the winds of concern" should pull themselves together.

Asked about Hagel's comparing Iraq to Vietnam, Rumsfeld cut down the senator with one sentence. "The differences are so notable that it would take too long to list them," he said, although earlier in the briefing he asserted that the Iraq insurgents "are not Ho Chi Minhs."

Ultimately, Rumsfeld returned to the same argument Bush and Bartlett had employed: There's no choice but to stay in Iraq. "The alternative would be to turn that country and 25 million people over to terrorists," Rumsfeld said. "That would be to turn to darkness."

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