No Questions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, December 6, 2005; 1:36 PM

President Bush will deliver the second in a series of four speeches on his Iraq strategy tomorrow in Washington to several hundred members of the Council on Foreign Relations -- an august group of scholars, policymakers and journalists whose Web site is an Internet hotspot for intellectual foment about foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular.

But rather than probe the group's expertise or even respond to its concerns, Bush is just using it as a backdrop.

In a sharp break with the council's own traditions, Bush is being allowed to speak -- for 50 minutes -- then leave without taking any questions.

"Obviously, we strongly suggested -- certainly made the case -- that it would be in the interest of the president and in the interest of our membership that the president take questions," council vice president for communications Lisa Shields told me this morning.

"But true to his format, they declined."

But why accept? Why agree to leave what would certainly be important, consequential questions unasked?

"On balance, we had to make a decision," Shields said. "And we're honored to have him come and speak to our members and this is the format that they have selected."

Tomorrow's event, at 11 a.m. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, will nevertheless still not be quite as thoroughly stage-managed as Bush's typical outings these days. For instance, the president won't be surrounded by carefully crafted slogans -- just the Council on Foreign Relations banner.

And Bush is not likely to see the same sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm from this audience that he is used to seeing from hand-picked supporters, on-duty military audiences or intimidated employees.

But he's not likely to encounter any undiplomatic behavior from this dignified crowd, either. And their inevitable standing ovations, out of respect for the office, will play well on television.

The council president Richard Haass, who was Colin Powell's chief of policy planning until 2003, has been critical of Bush's Iraq policy. He was recently quoted in George Packer's book on Iraq as saying that he would go to his grave not knowing why we went to war in Iraq.

But Haass is unlikely to stick any zingers into his introduction of the president.

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