Bush the Bystander

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 13, 2006 1:32 PM

The Middle East is exploding and what is President Bush doing about it? Not much.

Here's the transcript of this morning's joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which Bush sounded more like a bystander on the world stage than the leader of its only superpower.

Other than definitively supporting Israel's right to defend itself, Bush was more timid and wishful than assertive. He spoke in unusually deferential terms about collaborating with other world leaders and pretty much ruled out military action against Iran. His comments about the current situation in Israel suggested a highly unrealistic notion of how well things were going there up until now, and a naiveté about the effect Israel's actions may have on Lebanon's embryonic democratic government.

Stopping off in Germany on his way to the G-8 summit in Russia, Bush reserved his greatest enthusiasm for tonight's pig roast -- technically, a wild-boar barbecue -- bringing it up three times. "I'm looking forward to that pig tonight," he gushed.

Describing the message he expects his fellow summiteers to deliver to Iran on abandoning its nuclear weapons program Bush said, almost whining: "We're not kidding."

One reporter asked Bush about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday mocked Vice President Cheney by likening Cheney's recent criticisms of Russia to his accidental shooting of a hunting buddy in February. Bush's reaction? He just giggled. "It was pretty clever. Actually, quite humorous -- not to dis my friend, the Vice President."

The president who for many years took pride in never deferring to other countries on matters of national security described his talks with Merkel today as "more than a discussion, it's really a strategy session, is the way I'd like to describe it. . . . It's an interesting conversation, you know, when you toss out what may seem to be a problem that's insoluble, and all of a sudden, two people start thinking about how to solve it, solve the problem. And that's what we're doing."

And the president who used to say he never takes options off the table seemed to be doing just that when it came to Iran: "There's no question that this issue can be solved diplomatically" he said.

His analysis of the Israeli peace process was at best odd. "We were headed toward the road map, things looked positive, and terrorists stepped up," he said.

Things looked positive? And the road map was alive and well? Not even close. As Greg Myre noted in the New York Times last month, "the internationally backed peace plan known as the road map . . . stalled almost immediately after it was introduced three years ago."

On Iran, Bush acknowledged his inability to say anything definitive: "Your question really is, how fast should the process move along? And my attitude is, the answer to that is, it should move as fast as necessary to make it effective, which is a non-answer, admittedly. But the truth of the matter is, diplomacy takes a lot of work, and there are different interests involved here."

And on Lebanon, Bush embraced what sounds like an improbable goal. "Whatever Israel does, though, should not weaken the Siniora government in Lebanon," he said. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon."

But you've got to think that Israel's bombing of the Beirut airport and blockade of Lebanese ports and airspace doesn't exactly strengthen Premier Fouad Siniora's hand.

Here's an exchange toward the end of the session:

"Q Does it concern you that the Beirut airport has been bombed? And do you see a risk of triggering a wider war?

"And on Iran, they've, so far, refused to respond. Is it now past the deadline, or do they still have more time to respond?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I thought you were going to ask me about the pig.

"Q I'm curious about that, too. (Laughter.)

"PRESIDENT BUSH: The pig? I'll tell you tomorrow after I eat it."


I wrote in Monday's column, Desperately Seeking Doctrine about Mike Allen and Romesh Ratnesar 's cover story for Time entitled "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy." I called attention to David E. Sanger writing in the New York Times that Bush's Chicago news conference on Friday demonstrated how the president was "discovering the limits of his own pre-emption doctrine."

I wrote in last Thursday's column about Bush's Foreign Legacy which is not looking good.

But today, the news coverage is dramatically more dire than even just a few days ago.

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration suddenly faces three rapidly expanding crises in the Middle East, but it has limited options to defuse tensions in any of them anytime soon, U.S. officials and Middle East experts say.

"Israel has sent troops into Gaza and Lebanon over three captured soldiers -- one held by Hamas in Gaza and two seized yesterday by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The United States and its allies set a collision course with Iran over its nuclear program. And there is mounting concern that Iraq's sectarian violence is crossing the threshold to a full-blown civil war."

"A common thread in the three crises is Iran -- for its support of the two Islamist groups, its alleged funding and arming of Iraqi militias and extremist groups, and its refusal to give a final response to the Western package of incentives designed to prevent it from converting a peaceful energy program into one to develop nuclear weapons."

But Bush's Middle East policy -- especially the invasion of Iraq -- has if anything emboldened Iran.

Wright quotes Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program, as saying: "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."

Janine Zacharia writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush and U.S. diplomats, distracted by threats from North Korea to Iraq, are playing a minor role as an escalating confrontation between Israelis and Arabs risks wider Middle East violence.

"David Welch, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Elliott Abrams, deputy assistant to the president, only arrived in the region yesterday, 17 days after the abduction of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip set off the crisis. Bush hasn't spoken to any Middle Eastern leaders in the past couple of weeks, according to National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones."

Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, tells Zacharia that American involvement may be too late.

"We should have been much more active earlier when it might have been easier to head off this disaster."

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush's foreign policy has been driven by blunt talk, a willingness to threaten or use military force, and a belief that American power can reorder the world.

" 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,' a White House aide famously told journalist-author Ron Suskind in 2002.

"Reality has bitten back. . . .

"Virtually every president faces a plethora of global crises, sometimes simultaneously. What's new is that the United States' ability to influence events has shrunk, largely because U.S. troops and treasure remain mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iraq war has diminished foreign confidence in American leadership, according to foreign policy experts and some U.S. officials."

Strobel quotes Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert who worked in the Clinton White House and is now a vice president of the MacArthur Foundation: "The administration is seen as so deeply wounded by Iraq and by the fading presidency, that a lot of people (in other capitals) are thinking about the next presidency."

Opinion Watch

Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder writes on TPMCafe: "A consensus seems to be emerging, at least in the mainstream media, that Bush has given up on the unilateralism of his first term and is now firmly committed to a multilateralist foreign policy."

But, Daalder writes: "While there has been a shift in foreign policy during Bush's second term . . . it's not so much a shift from unilateralism to multilateralism as it is a shift from relying on the use of force to doing nothing.

"The big change in the second term is that Bush has abandoned one of the defining characteristics of his first term foreign policy: the reliance on unilateral force as a means to change a regime's policies, if not the actual regime itself. It was this combination of unilateralism, preemptive force, and regime change that made Bush's foreign policy revolutionary. Abandon the idea of preemptive force, and you're left with nothing more than hoping for change. And hope, as Colin Powell was wont to say, is not much of a strategy."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "Good foreign policy should be metronomic in pace--measured, steady, dependable. That's especially true when you're the world's only superpower, and you want to keep things that way. The key is to inspire respect, trust and faith in your judgment. That's called leadership. But for six years now, George W. Bush's foreign policy has resembled a pendulum swinging out of control, lurching wildly from hubris to 'help us.' . . .

"In Bush's first term, the pendulum swung too far toward in-your-face unilateralism. Now, in his second term it has swung dramatically back toward the most squeamish sort of multilateralism--the kind of thinking that says, 'Without partners, I don't dare make a move.' . . .

"Burned by his bitter Iraq experience, Bush is hiding behind the skirts of multilateralism as an excuse for not grappling with these problems personally."

But Hirsch notes that "without decisive American action in dealing with the Mideast, Iran and North Korea, things can quickly spin out of control."

Former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon: "President Bush was against diplomacy before he was for it. But with the collapse of U.S. foreign policy across the board, he has discarded talk of preemptive strikes and reluctantly claimed to have become a born-again realist. . . .

"Just two years ago, he appeared before the Republican Convention boasting of his 'swagger, which in Texas is called walking.' But in the face of the consequences of his failures, he has not adopted a new doctrine so much as swaggered into a corner. The cowboy's White House has become Fort Apache."

And David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column that the biggest international trouble spot, amongst many, is one of Bush's own making: Iraq.

"This country was transformed by Bush's war of choice, and it is increasingly doubtful that the change is for the better. Instead of the tyranny and brutality of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are facing the daily carnage and bloodshed of an undeclared civil war between Shiite and Sunni militias.

"The fragile new government in Baghdad, on which the United States has pinned all its hopes, so far seems incapable of restoring order or guaranteeing its citizens a modest level of personal safety. The United States is becoming more and more a helpless bystander, not willing or able to impose its will on an occupied country."

The White House Spin

The White House has a response to all this negativity: Hyping the prodigious effectiveness of Bush's Texas plain talk.

Steve Holland of Reuters delivers the message: "President George W. Bush, who irked key allies with his war in Iraq, is pushing diplomacy more in his second term and will use his penchant for Texas plain talk and slapping backs on visits this week to Germany and Russia. . . .

"Behind the scenes, Bush is a straight talker who lays out his position with little ambiguity, occasionally ruffling feathers. . . .

"Although he is often portrayed as a bit of a bull in a china shop, White House spokesman Tony Snow credited Bush with 'a chess player's ability to think several moves ahead' in his dealings with foreign leaders."

And here's another fan, at least with regards to Bush's approach to Iranian nukes: Robert Kagan writes in his Washington Post opinion column that, just possibly, Bush has a secret, brilliant fallback plan.

Maybe, Kagan writes, Bush "has already decided that he will not leave office in January 2009 without a satisfactory resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem. Let's imagine that he has already determined that if he cannot obtain Iran's agreement to dismantle its nuclear weapons program voluntarily and verifiably, then he will order some form of military action to destroy as much of that program as possible before he leaves."

The Pig and the Fish

White House Brieifing reader Andrea Bernstein e-mailed me this morning: "Is it just me, or is the 'leader of the free world,' far more interested in the pig for dinner than the world that is falling apart at the seams? Is that really possible?"

Well, it does remind me a bit of my May 8 column , in which I wrote: "Is it possible that President Bush doesn't really enjoy his job?

"Asked by a German tabloid to name the most wonderful moment of his presidency, Bush on Friday said it came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake."

Geneva or Bust?

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration urged Congress on Wednesday to write a law ratifying its use of makeshift military commissions to try detainees in the war on terror, rather than mandate new tribunals with strict legal codes so they would conform to the recent Supreme Court ruling that President Bush's commissions are unconstitutional.

"The administration's position illustrated anew that the June 29 Supreme Court decision is still subject to conflicting interpretations, and it remains unclear what the Bush administration is doing to abide by it. While Bush verbally pledged to abide by the ruling, the administration's plea to Congress suggests that it wants the legislature to rubber-stamp the policy the court found illegal."

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times that "a day after saying that terror suspects had a right to protections under the Geneva Conventions," which was "widely interpreted as a retreat . . . testimony to Congress by administration lawyers on Wednesday made clear that the picture was more complicated."

But Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that in spite of the apparent acquiescence to whatever the administration wants by House Armed Service Committee Republicans, Sen. John McCain "said yesterday that at a long White House meeting, with [Sen. Linsday] Graham and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley an agreement was reached that legislation would use the military code -- not the administration's plan -- as the framework, and a final bill would adhere to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "Human rights advocates are skeptical about whether the administration really will make changes in its aggressive tactics or is simply trying to blunt last month's Supreme Court decision. . . .

"At face value, the Geneva provision now embraced by the administration would bar tactics that have been used against terrorism detainees by the military and the CIA. Those include: sleep deprivation, exposing prisoners to extreme hot and cold temperatures, forcing captives to stand or sit in uncomfortable positions for hours and using a tactic that makes a prisoner believe he is drowning."

What About Those Secret CIA Camps?

McClatchey's Talev and Taylor also raise an interesting point, writing that "questions remained as to whether that policy applies to the CIA, which reportedly holds detainees in secret prisons abroad.

"A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, said the new policy applies uniformly across the executive branch because that's what the Supreme Court decision requires, but he said he didn't know if Bush had issued a formal order to that effect. Lisaius wouldn't discuss the CIA, and the CIA declined to comment.

"Skeptics noted that so far only one executive agency, the Defense Department, has issued a formal policy change in writing to make its practices conform to the court's decision.

" 'Show me the opinion that says that,' said Scott Silliman, an expert on the law of war at Duke University, regarding the White House's assurance that the entire executive branch is covered by the policy change. 'I want to see it in writing.' "

Several of my readers, noting that Article Three envisions a role for an "impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross" offering its services, have asked how that could happen in a secret prison. Good question.

Novak Redux

I wrote in yesterday's column about Robert Novak 's not-terribly-revealing column about his role in the Valerie Plame leak.

But the fact that he made it super-official that Karl Rove was one of his sources is not entirely without significance.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter/blogger Dick Polman writes: "If White House promises are intended to be taken at face value -- and if, indeed, sentences spoken in plain English are intended to be taken literally -- then empirical evidence suggests that master strategist Karl Rove should no longer be employed by the Bush administration."

Novak was on Fox News yesterday. Here is video and a transcript of his interview with Brit Hume.

White House Salaries

Alexis Simendinger of the National Journal beat me to the punch with the latest White House salary list.

She writes: "President Bush's most senior aides -- the ones who hold the coveted title of 'assistant to the president' -- recently received a $4,200 cost-of-living bump-up in compensation and now earn a top pay rate of $165,200, according to an internal White House list of staff salaries. . . .

"Those at the bottom of the White House staff pay scale -- the folks answering phones and responding to the president's mail, for example -- remain stuck at last year's pay floor of $30,000."

The liberal Think Progress blog came out with its list of the "four most overpaid White House staffers," by virtue of their job titles: Deborah Nirmala Misir, Ethics Advisor, $114,688; Erica M. Dornburg, Ethics Advisor, $100,547; Stuart Baker, Director for Lessons Learned, $106,641; Melissa M. Carson, Director of Fact Checking, $46,500.

And that prompted a particularly pointed floor speech by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.):

"Mr. Speaker, yesterday the President said we continue to be wise about how we spend the people's money.

"Then why are we paying over $100,000 for a 'White House Director of Lessons Learned'?

"Maybe I can save the taxpayers $100,000 by running through a few of the lessons this White House should have learned by now."

After suggesting a few, Emanuel noted the other positions highlighted by Think Progress and concluded: "Maybe the White House could consolidate these positions into a Director of Irony."

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