Iraq Critics Meet Familiar Reply

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005

Beset by criticism of its handling of intelligence before the Iraq war, the Bush White House is fighting back with familiar weapons. There have been sarcastic one-liners from Vice President Cheney. There have been rapid-response rebuttals to unfavorable editorials. Most of all, there have been pointed suggestions from President Bush that the people questioning his policies are emboldening America's enemies.

These tactics have worked before -- never more so than during Bush's successful reelection bid in 2004. And it is not a coincidence that they are being revived now. White House officials say they are quite consciously borrowing tested campaign techniques -- aggressive opposition research and blistering partisan invective, to name two -- to lift Bush out of his current problems of mounting criticism and falling public support for the Iraq war.

Cheney, dressed in a tuxedo as he addressed a conservative gala Wednesday night, began his remarks with a sneering wisecrack at some leading Democrats who voted for the war three years ago but have since leveled criticism: "It's a pleasure to see all of you. I'm sorry we couldn't be joined by senators Harry Reid, John Kerry or Jay Rockefeller. They were unable to attend due to a prior lack of commitment."

After Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) called yesterday for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, White House press secretary Scott McClellan accused him of endorsing "Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party" and called his stance a "surrender to the terrorists."

On a similar note, the White House so disliked a New York Times editorial accusing the administration of distorting prewar intelligence -- "Decoding Mr. Bush's Denial," the headline read -- that it issued a point-by-point rejoinder that at 11 pages and more than 5,000 words was several times the length of the editorial itself.

The White House news release that accompanied the document began with a cutting reference to an ethics scandal that was one of the newspaper's most embarrassing moments: "On Tuesday we were greeted by an editorial from the newspaper that gave us Jayson Blair. 'Decoding Mr. Bush's Denial' is so replete with half-truths, misstatements, and false statements that it boggles the mind, until one recalls whence it came."

Acknowledging the length of the rebuttal, the White House statement explained, "as parents of young children and dog owners know, it takes longer to clean up a mess than to make one."

Such trash-talking of opponents is commonplace for politicians in campaign mode. Even in the context of a polarized capital, it is noteworthy for a White House to strike such a tone in making its case on a sensitive national security issue. Bush aides suggested that if they sound as though they are waging a campaign, it is because a campaign is being waged against them.

"One way to look at it is that the need to respond aggressively is born out of the audacity of the Democratic attacks," said Nicolle Wallace, White House communications director. ". . . We recognized the need to set the record straight in a way that hasn't been necessary since the campaign."

The stakes surrounding the public's perception of the war could not be higher for the White House. With the American death toll in Iraq approaching 2,100, skepticism about both about the administration's case for war and the effectiveness of the war effort has been deepening. Public opinion is now decidedly against the war, an unease that has begun to erode confidence in Bush's credibility, polls show.

Overall, Bush's approval ratings are now at the lowest point in his presidency, paralyzing many legislative efforts and causing some once-loyal Republicans to back away from him politically.

But while the White House fights to restore the president's political standing with aggressive public relations, some observers believe that the public's view of the war and the administration will not change until there is demonstrable change on the ground in Iraq.

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