In the Rose Garden, It Was All Al-Qaeda

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 25, 2007

Is there no safe haven for President Bush?

It happened midway through his news conference in the Rose Garden yesterday morning, in between his 10th and 11th mentions of al-Qaeda: A bird flew over the president and deposited a wet, white dropping on the upper left sleeve of his jacket. Bush wiped the mess off with his bare hand.

There was no evidence that Osama bin Laden was responsible for this particular attack, and -- who knows? -- maybe the terrorist leader believes the superstition that bird poop is good luck. But just about everything else that came up during the hour-long news conference was traced to bin Laden's terrorist network.

The session was called to draw attention to the fact that Democratic leaders had just caved in to Bush's demand that the Iraq spending bill have no withdrawal timeline. But as frequently happens at presidential events these days, it quickly became al-Qaeda, all the time. Bush invoked the terrorist group 19 times and even suggested it was going after individual reporters' kids.

"They are a threat to your children, David," he advised NBC's David Gregory.

"It's a danger to your children, Jim," Bush informed the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg.

This last warning was perplexing, because Rutenberg has no children, only a brown chow chow named Little Bear. It was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased "chatter in the system" about chow chows in general.

Rutenberg, informed of the pet threat, asked Bush a follow-up question about bin Laden. "Mr. President, why is he still at large?"

"Why is he at large?" Bush shot back. "Because we haven't got him yet, Jim."

Hard to argue with that. Even Steve Hadley, the poker-faced national security adviser, smiled. And Bush proceeded to favor his listeners with more intelligence bulletins about the al-Qaeda leader. "He's not out there traipsing around. He's not leading many parades," the president reported. "He's not out feeding the hungry."

Bush allowed himself only a brief gloat over the Democrats' surrender -- he showed only a hint of a smile when he noted that "we removed the arbitrary timetables for withdrawal" -- before moving on to outline the latest strategy in Iraq -- targeting al-Qaeda, of course. He cited "new opportunities to partner with local tribes to go after al-Qaeda."

"Is that a Plan B?" asked Jim Axelrod of CBS News.

"Actually, I would call that a plan recommended by Baker-Hamilton, so it would be a Plan B-H," Bush answered, then checked to see how his joke about the Iraq Study Group went over. "You didn't like it?"

Bush appeared to be in good spirits as he walked briskly across the lawn to the podium. Once there, he casually slid his heel in and out of his shoe as he spoke. He teased a reporter for wearing a loose necktie: "Go ahead and take the tie off -- it's halfway down anyway."

His tone was jaunty, whether the topic was China ("They need to be eating U.S. beef. It's good for them. They'll like it.") or allegations that Justice Department officials broke the law ("It's just grand political theater").

He also showed a playful interpretation of history, observing at one point that "the Middle East looked nice and cozy for a while." But when it came to the terrorists, Bush spoke with the cool ruthlessness of a dissident shareholder at an annual meeting. "We have had good success in the chief operating officer position of al-Qaeda," he reported.

The president displayed his legendary ability to stick to his message. Five times, he offered a variation on his theme that war decisions belong to "commanders on the ground, not politicians here in Washington." Thrice, he offered a version of his al-Qaeda theme: "It's better to fight them there than here."

The repetition technique, as usual, prevented Bush's questioners from eliciting more specifics about the war.

CNN's Ed Henry asked why he ignored warnings that invading Iraq would help al-Qaeda. "We were warned about a lot of things," the president said before expanding anew on the al-Qaeda threat. "Al-Qaeda's going to fight us wherever we are," he said. "They want to establish a caliphate."

When NBC's Gregory asked Bush to explain why he's "still a credible messenger on the war," the answer eventually arrived again at the al-Qaeda threat: "They're dangerous. And I can't put it any more plainly: They're dangerous."

After several such iterations of the threat, the Times' Rutenberg asked Bush to be philosophical about bin Laden. "What do you think your own reaction would have been five years ago had you been told that toward the end of your term he would still be at large with that kind of capability, from Iraq no less?"

The answer went back to another restatement of the threat. "We are under threat," the president said. "Now some may say, 'Well, he's just saying that, you know, to get people to pay attention to him, or try to scare them for some reason.' You know, I would hope our world hadn't become so cynical that they don't take the threats of al-Qaeda seriously, because they're real."

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