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No Questions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.

Anya Schmemann, a council spokeswoman, pointed out to me this morning: "We have plenty of other opportunities with other administration officials where council members can discuss issues openly and freely."

And indeed, just last week, for instance, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke to council members in New York about terrorism -- and took questions. Here, from the transcript , is the very first one he got:

"QUESTIONER: Thank you. Alan Blinken, former United States ambassador to Belgium. You said the president has said clearly, 'We do not torture.' Was the vice -- two part question. One, was the vice president in the room when he said that -- (laughter) -- which I'm being serious about.

"[Council Chairman Peter G.] PETERSON: I told you this was a tough audience. (Laughter.)

"QUESTIONER: And two, would you state, as part of the administration, unequivocally tonight that the CIA and its surrogates, in whatever form they are, do not torture any place in the world?"

Gonzales's reply, in its entirety: "The president speaks for the administration. We all work for the president of the United States, including the vice president of the United States and including every member of the CIA."

Tomorrow's Topic

What precisely will Bush talk about tomorrow? Schmeman says that the White House hasn't been any more specific than to say that it will have something to do with the war on terror.

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday that Bush would likely "focus more on some of the economic and reconstruction side of things" in his next speech.

What the Polls Mean

It's pretty clear that the American public isn't happy with Bush, and in particular isn't keen on his Iraq policy. But what exactly does the public want to see happen in Iraq?

The answers -- in a variety of polls -- have been inconsistent. But the reason for that could be that the questions have been inconsistent, too.

Mark Blumenthal , who blogs as the Mystery Pollster, recently posted a fascinating analysis of the Iraq poll results. He suggests that public assessments of the current situation are quite consistent, but that when it comes to prospective questions -- i.e., what should the government do now? -- the responses may have a lot to do with phrasing differences.

"For example, review the questions asked since Labor Day as posted by the Polling Report and you will find some highly consistent results:

* "Approval of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq varied between 32% and 36%, with disapproval between 62% and 65%, as measured by six different pollsters.

* "Differently worded questions about the worthiness of the war (asked by Gallup, CBS, ABC/Washington Post and NBC/Wall Street Journal) found between 31% and 40% that found the war worth the cost and between 52% and 60% that said it was not.

* "Differently worded questions about whether the decision to go to war was right or wrong (asked by Gallup, CBS and the Pew Research Center), found 42% to 45% who say the US made the right decision in going to war, between 50% and 54% who say we made the wrong decision or should have stayed out.

"However, look at the range of questions about prospective policy and the results are all over map. Here is a sampling (full details at the Polling Report):

* "CNN/USA Today/Gallup (11/30): 'If you had to choose, which do you think is the better approach for deciding when the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Iraq: to withdraw U.S. troops only when certain goals are met, or to withdraw U.S. troops by a specific date and stick to that time-table, regardless of conditions in Iraq at that time?' 59% when goals are met, 35% by a specific date, 6% unsure."

* "FOX News/Opinion Dynamics (11/29-30): 'Do you think there should be a publicly announced timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq?' 47% should, 41% should not, 12% unsure."

* "Harris (11/8-13): 'Do you favor keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there OR bringing most of our troops home in the next year?' 35% wait for stable government, 63% bring home next year, 3% unsure."

* "FOX News/Opinion Dynamics (11/8-9): 'What do you want U.S. troops in Iraq to do? Do you want them to leave Iraq and come home now or do you want them to stay in Iraq and finish the job?' 36% leave now, 55% finish the job, 9% unsure."

* "NBC News/Wall Street Journal (11/4-7): 'Do you think that the United States should maintain its current troop level in Iraq to help secure peace and stability, or should the United States reduce its number of troops now that Iraq has adopted a constitution?' 36% maintain level, 57% reduce number, 4% both depends, 4% unsure."

* "ABC News/Washington Post (10/30-11/2): 'Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties; or do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?' 52% keep forces in, 44% withdraw forces, 4% unsure."

* "CBS News (10/30-11-1): 'Should the United States troops stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy, even if it takes a long time, or should U.S. troops leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable?' 43% stay as long as it takes, 50% leave ASAP, 7% unsure."

* "Pew Research Center (10/6-10): 'Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?' 47% keep troops, 48% bring home ASAP, 5% unsure."

Allow me to throw this weekend's Time magazine poll into the mix, too. "Should the United States withdraw most troops in the next 12 months or so regardless of conditions in Iraq; keep most of the troops in Iraq until the new Iraqi government is stable, even if it means keeping troops in Iraq for a number of years; or, should we increase the number of troops in Iraq?" 47% withdraw in 12 months, 40% wait for stable government, 8% increase troops, 5% other or unsure.

Blumenthal concludes: "[W]hen pollsters ask what we should do next in Iraq, results are highly inconsistent. Support for leaving sooner varies anywhere from 35% to 63% on the questions listed above. Support for staying the course (in one form or another) varies from 36% to 59%. Ask a question with three or more options (as RT Strategies and Gallup did above) and, not surprisingly, at least a third of Americans opts for the middle category. When it comes to prospective policy, Americans - like their leaders - are divided and collectively not quite sure what to do next."

As blogger Kevin Drum notes, Ohio State University political science professor John Mueller recently argued in Foreign Affairs: "Public support for the war in Iraq has followed the same course as it did for the wars in Korea and Vietnam: broad enthusiasm at the outset with erosion of support as casualties mount. The experience of those past wars suggests that there is nothing President Bush can do to reverse this deterioration -- or to stave off an 'Iraq syndrome' that could inhibit U.S. foreign policy for decades to come."

Duke University political science professor Christopher Gelpi , whose research partner Peter Feaver is now a key member of Bush's national security staff, then responded that "the public's willingness to bear the human cost of war has varied substantially during different phases of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The key variable is the perceived likelihood that the mission will succeed."

Mueller then countered: "Gelpi and Feaver are also much too confident that presidential cheerleading can increase support for a military venture, as Bush, like Lyndon Johnson before him, seems to be finding out."

Jonathan Rauch wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece over the weekend: "The administration's fundamental problem is not that the public is discouraged by U.S. casualties, or that news from Iraq has been bad, or that the president needs to give better speeches. The problem is that many Americans see no stakes in Iraq sufficient to justify the military effort and diplomatic cost."

He predicts: "So by spring, if not earlier, look for Bush to announce that progress in Iraq allows U.S. forces to start coming home. He will say that the drawdown is the best way to help the Iraqis stand on their own. He will argue, much as he did with his tax cuts, that whatever pace he sets is precisely the right pace, and that withdrawing any faster or slower would be the height of irresponsibility."

9/11 Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The federal government received failing and mediocre grades yesterday from the former Sept. 11 commission, whose members said in a final report that the Bush administration and Congress have balked at enacting numerous reforms that could save American lives and prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

"The group also said there has been little progress in forcing federal agencies to share intelligence and terrorism information and sharply criticized government efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction or establish clear standards for the proper treatment of U.S. detainees."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times that "[t]o the likely disappointment of the White House . . . the commission's Republicans voiced some of the strongest criticism of the administration and Congress on Monday at a news conference held to release the report.

" 'The American people ought to demand answers,' said James R. Thompson, a Republican commissioner and a former Illinois governor. 'Why aren't our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives? What's the rationale? What's the excuse? There is no excuse.' "

Here's the report , which for instance calls attention to problems with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by statute last December. "We see little urgency in the creation of this Board. The President nominated a Chair and Vice Chair in June 2005, and sent their names to the Senate in late September. To date, the Senate has not confirmed them. Funding is insufficient, no meetings have been held, no staff named, no work plan outlined, no work begun, no office established."

Here's the White House response , which insists: "President Bush's Top Priority Is The Safety And Security Of The American People."

A Los Angeles Times editorial concludes: "The report card is a public relations nightmare for President Bush, who was reelected largely on the perception that he could keep Americans safer than the opposition. Bush's appointees have thus far done little to reform the nation's intelligence operations, which are still mostly failing to share information either within the federal government or with state and local agencies. No action has been taken to declassify the overall intelligence budget, meaning congressional oversight of intelligence spending is impossible, and the administration's failure to develop standards for detention and prosecution of captured terrorism suspects is destroying U.S. credibility abroad."

Stumping for Tax Cuts

John D. McKinon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) from Kernersville, N.C.: "Talking up the economy to workers at a factory here, President Bush offered glimpses of his agenda for next year, as well as an early blueprint for his party's message to voters in the 2006 elections.

"In an appearance at a Deere-Hitachi construction-equipment plant, Mr. Bush assured a crowd of about 600 that the economy is strong and getting stronger and credited his policies and the efforts of workers themselves. He called on Congress to maintain the economy's recent momentum by extending his signature tax cuts and passing White House proposals to improve health care and pensions. . . .

"While the economy has been humming along by many objective measures, Mr. Bush's approval ratings on the issue have languished.

"One reason is spillover from concerns about the Iraq war. But White House aides believe another big reason is the reality that many front-line workers aren't fully participating in the economy's gains, because of rising health-care costs and high energy prices, as well as continued dislocations among old-line manufacturers.

"Mr. Bush's speech here carefully took aim at those concerns."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In seeking credit for the economy's performance, however, Bush faces something of a balancing act: Because the recent gains in the economy do not apply across the board, an overly rosy portrayal might give the impression that he is out of touch."

Michael A. Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Intensifying his efforts to focus more public attention on the economy, President Bush on Monday renewed his demand that Congress extend tax cuts on investment dividends and capital gains, saying they are vital to keeping the nation's economy growing.

"Since 2001, Bush has been able to practically dictate tax policy to Congress. Tax cuts have passed each of the past five years, totaling $1.8 trillion over 10 years. But a tax-cutting call that was once readily heeded on Capitol Hill is now facing stiff resistance from lawmakers of both parties, who maintain that efforts to rein in the deficit cannot rely solely on cuts to programs for the poor."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "In his remarks in Kernersville, Mr. Bush again laid blame on 'too many politicians back in Washington who preach fiscal discipline while voting against spending cuts.'

"The remark drew strong criticism from Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, who said in a statement that the president was chastising ' "Washington" for creating record deficits and debt and allowing spending to run out of control' while 'conveniently ignoring that he and his party have had total control of our nation's capital for the last five years.' . . .

"Mr. Bush's speech to the Deere-Hitachi workers received friendly applause, but some in the audience said afterward that the president had chosen to present his message of economic cheer at one of North Carolina's big success stories, and not at one of the state's hard-hit textile mills or furniture manufacturers.

" 'It's not a Deere-Hitachi economy everywhere,' said Bryan Watson, 39, a welder at the plant. 'I'd like to see everybody doing this well.' "

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Monday that American companies must honor promises to their retired workers, and he urged Congress to pass tough legislation so retirees don't see their pension checks slashed."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Hoping to divert attention from the cycle of death in Iraq, President Bush seized yesterday upon good economic news and pushed for more tax cuts despite the cost of fighting two wars."

William Douglas and Kevin G. Hall write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Every president claims credit when the economy is prosperous, but independent experts long have agreed that presidents have little influence over short-term economic conditions.

"However, several warned Monday that Bush's drive to make his income-tax cuts permanent could injure the economy in the future."

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

Here's an Associated Press photo of Bush, wearing safety glasses and work gloves, tightening a hose under the watchful eye of his "safety manager" on the factory floor, Jesse Bland.

The Winston-Salem Journal has audio of Bland coaching the president on how to tighten a hose. "Leaks would be very dangerous," Bland says.

Wesley Young writes in the Winston-Salem Journal about how Kirby Hartsell became an anecdote in Bush's speech.

"Hartsell said that his superiors told him last week that 'an important VIP' might be coming to the plant and that 'they were looking for a family with two or three kids who had benefited from the tax relief.' . . .

"The Hartsells got a chance to meet with Bush shortly before he went out to speak.

" 'It was real brief,' Hartsell said. 'We introduced the kids and took photos. He asked us about the $2,200 in tax relief, if that was accurate.'

"Before meeting the president, the Hartsells had to be vetted by all the governmental security agencies. They even had to show tax returns."

And Winston-Salem Journal columnist Scott Sexton notes that much has changed since the last president visited the tiny town.

"The first time a sitting president visited Kernersville, he came without entourage. No phalanx of Secret Service agents. No attendant media horde. No photo opportunities and certainly no aides scurrying about to make sure the president's message was spun properly.

"When President Washington came to Kernersville, he didn't need a carefully arranged backdrop of photogenic factory workers, nor did he require a tightly managed audience to applaud on cue."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. EST.

Docu-drama

White House Briefing reader Randy Britton of Grantham, N.H., e-mails me that he followed my instructions in yesterday's column and found the hidden evidence in the PDF of the White House's Iraq strategy document that its author was political scientist Peter Feaver.

But Britton spotted something else as well: "You cite the 'properties' of the document to get to the true author, but did you notice that the title wasn't the same in the properties section?

"It says 'Our National Strategy for SUPPORTING Iraq.' Not 'VICTORY in Iraq'. . . .

"So, my question to you is, was this originally supposed to [have] the far-too-wimpy title of 'Our National Strategy for Supporting Iraq?'

"If so, who changed it to 'Victory?' Dr. Feaver? Maybe Dr. Feaver didn't really write the document, he just RENAMED it to the Victory thing."

Cheney and Delay

Just hours after a Texas judge upheld money-laundering charges that dashed his hopes of reclaiming his House majority leader post, Tom Delay got a major assist nonetheless.

Kristen Mack writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Vice President Dick Cheney came to Houston Monday to raise money for embattled U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, proving the Sugar Land Republican still has powerful allies and can call on help when needed.

"This is the vice president's first appearance on DeLay's behalf. As the high-dollar private event took place inside the Westin Oaks Hotel in the Galleria, protesters voiced their displeasure outside. . . .

" 'Cheney expressed deep friendship for Mr. DeLay,' said Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. 'He wanted everyone to know he valued the support Mr. DeLay has shown to the president and vice president in both the good times and difficult times. He's not a fair-weather friend.' . . .

"For $4,200, donors attended a VIP reception, took photographs with Cheney and received recognition at the event. For $2,100, attendees rubbed elbows and took photos with DeLay. Regular tickets, just to have a seat at the table, cost $500 per person.

"At least one protester infiltrated the event. Diane Wilson of the progressive women's group Code Pink said she paid only $50.

" 'I guess they needed people inside,' she said. 'You can get in pretty cheap. I didn't want to give too much.'

"She briefly disrupted Cheney's speech and rolled out a banner that reads: 'Corrupt greed kills from Bhopal to Baghdad.' "

Plame Watch

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Valerie Plame, the diplomat's wife whose secret resume was exposed in a newspaper column that eventually led to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, is leaving the CIA on Friday, people familiar with her plans said.

"Plame, 42, worked undercover for the CIA tracking weapons proliferation but saw her clandestine career imperiled after she was identified as an agency operative in the summer of 2003 in a syndicated column by Robert Novak.

"Friends said the mother of 5-year-old twins wanted to spend more time with her family, and that although she agreed to be photographed last year with her husband for an article about the case in Vanity Fair magazine, she had no plans to speak out."

Woodstein Speaks

Raja Mishra writes in the Boston Globe: "The Watergate-era reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein offered a spirited defense yesterday of anonymous journalistic sources, at a Harvard forum that explored the parallels between the Nixon administration they covered as young reporters and the current Bush presidency. . . .

"But much of yesterday's discussion of more than 90 minutes, including audience questions, focused on coverage of the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.

"Here, Bernstein was much more openly critical of Bush, while Woodward said his books, which he described as 'neutral,' offered a sufficiently detailed glimpse into the White House without being overly didactic.

"But Bernstein, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, said the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy resembles the presidency that the two reporters helped topple more than three decades ago. He suggested that the Bush administration's scrutiny in the CIA leak case also was similar to the problems faced by Nixon as the Watergate scandal unraveled.

" 'I think it is, in a little different way, happening again,' Bernstein said."

Twins Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post that the First Twins were spotted "dining at Dino in Cleveland Park Saturday night."

Just last week, the New York Post spotted Barbara Bush "snapping up a pair of Beja Boots for $300 at the Terra Plana shop on Elizabeth Street."

But wait. According to a recent Associated Press story about their dad getting summoned for jury duty in Crawford, State District Judge Ralph Strother told reporters that "one of Bush's twin daughters, Barbara, received a jury summons for his court a month ago. Someone called to reschedule her jury service, saying she would be out of the country for the next six months, the judge said."

Out of the county , maybe.

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