Nothing if Not Blunt

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 17, 2006; 1:46 PM

It's the sort of accident that puts a spring in the step of White House watchers everywhere.

Somehow, the microphone in front of President Bush was left on during private conversations with his fellow world leaders at today's closing luncheon of the G-8 Summit in Russia.

And what do we learn?

That even when he thinks the public isn't watching, Bush doesn't put on airs. He's garrulous and a little vulgar, he talks while he chews, and he's a little unclear on geography. And, contrary to the speculation that he is turning into some sort of carefully calibrating multilateralist, he doesn't do nuance. He's nothing if not blunt.

Here's the full text as compiled by The Washington Post. CNN has a subtitled video of a good chunk of the captured conversation.

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post: "During a lunch with other leaders at the Group of Eight summit on Monday, Bush was caught on a live microphone talking in tough, occasionally profane terms with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the latest conflict in the Middle East. Bush criticized the position taken by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and said he would soon send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region."

From the full text:

Bush: "I think Condi's going to go pretty soon. . . ."

Blair: "Well, it's only if it's -- I mean, you know, if she's gotta -- or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were. Obviously, if she goes out, she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk."

Bush: "See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

Baker writes that the overheard conversation also "punctured the White House line that the leaders all shared the same view of the Middle East" as "Bush expressed irritation at Annan's position."

Said Bush: "I don't like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically ceasefire and [then] everything else happens. You know what I'm saying?"

And Baker notes: "Bush said he did not plan to make extended remarks as the summit ended and expressed impatience for the long-winded speechifying that is typical at such gatherings.

" 'No, just going to make it up,' he said. 'I'm not going to talk too damn long, like the rest of them. Some of them talk too long.' "

Jane Perrone blogs for the Guardian: "Other less pivotal but nevertheless revealing moments from the transcript include the US president hailing the British prime minister with the words 'yo Blair' and calling Bashir Assad, the Syrian president, 'Bashad'."

Here's an excerpt from the transcript :

" The camera is focused elsewhere and it is not clear whom Bush is talking to, but possibly Chinese President Hu Jintao, a guest at the summit.

"Bush: Gotta go home. Got something to do tonight. Go to the airport, get on the airplane and go home. How about you? Where are you going? Home?

"Bush: This is your neighborhood. It doesn't take you long to get home. How long does it take you to get home?

" Reply is inaudible.

"Bush: Eight hours? Me too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country.

" At this point, the president seems to bring someone else into the conversation.

"Bush: It takes him eight hours to fly home.

" He turns his attention to a server.

"Bush : No, Diet Coke, Diet Coke.

" He turns back to whomever he was talking with.

"Bush: It takes him eight hours to fly home. Eight hours. Russia's big and so is China."

Open Season on Hezbollah

Jim Rutenberg writes for the New York Times: "The Bush administration on Sunday appeared to give Israel tacit approval to cripple Hezbollah, casting the widening conflict in the Middle East in terms of a wider war on terrorism.

"That was a central theme of both public and private statements from senior United States officials, even as President Bush and his aides issued a statement that included a call for restraint in Israel's attacks on Lebanon. . . .

"But many European officials privately said that Mr. Bush was facing another of the unintended consequences of the war in Iraq. They cited the administration's claims, in 2003, that toppling Saddam Hussein would empower Middle East peace efforts; three years later, they noted, fighting has resumed and that effort is moribund. Iran, they contended, felt emboldened by the fact that the United States was distracted in Iraq. . . .

"Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said failures to address the deeper issues in the Middle East had ultimately led to the creation of Al Qaeda. . . .

"Mr. Bartlett's comments appeared to be part of a White House effort to link all Middle East militant groups together, and to suggest that strangling all of them -- from Hezbollah to Al Qaeda -- was critical to establishing a long-term peace."

Janine Zacharia writes for Bloomberg: "The U.S. is banking on Israel achieving in Lebanon what years of diplomacy and conflict have so far failed to do: limit the ability of Syria and Iran to use Islamic radicals to undermine regional stability. . . .

" 'There are two nation-states that are very much involved with stopping the advance of peace, and that would be Iran, and that would be Syria,' Bush said at news conference yesterday with U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair in Strelna, Russia."

But Zacharia writes: "Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during Bush's first term, said it is 'unrealistic' to expect Israel will be able to neutralize the threat from Islamic militants."

And, Zacharia notes: "Few people in Israel expect the crisis to be resolved militarily, said David Ivry, the former head of the Israeli Air Force. 'At the end of it, somebody will have to come up with a political solution,' he said in a telephone interview from Israel yesterday."

Christopher Dickey, Kevin Peraino and Babak Dehghanpisheh write in Newsweek that Bush on Friday made it clear that he thought Iran was behind the attacks on Israel.

"In an exclusive interview with Newsweek's Richard Wolffe, President George W. Bush said . . .: 'There's a lot of people who believe that the Iranians are trying to exert more and more influence over the entire region and the use of Hizbullah is to create more chaos to advance their strategy.' He called that 'a theory that's got some legs to it as far as I'm concerned.' "

What's the Root Cause?

Bush referred to the "root causes" of instability seven times in his brief remarks with Blair on Sunday morning. His point: "One of the interesting things about this recent flare-up is that it helps clarify a root cause of instability in the Middle East -- and that's Hezbollah and Hezbollah's relationship with Syria, and Hezbollah's relationship to Iran, and Syria's relationship to Iran. Therefore, in order to solve this problem it's really important for the world to address the root cause."

The official statement from the G-8 leaders also used the phrase "root cause" -- but differently.

The statement asserts: "The root cause of the problems in the region is the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace."

The statement asserts that "extremist elements and those that support them" are responsible for the "immediate crisis" -- but they're not the root cause.

Putin's Ripostes

Here's the transcript of Saturday's joint press availability with Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I thought the discussion was a good discussion. It's not the first time that Vladimir and I discussed our governing philosophies. I have shared with him my desires for our country, and he shared with me his desires for his. And I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing. . . .

"PRESIDENT PUTIN: We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly. (Laughter.)

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Just wait."

Putin also had this to say: "I have already mentioned that we will not participate in any crusades, in any holy alliances. This is true. I reaffirm our position in this matter."

At a press briefing with national security adviser Steve Hadley later on, the following exchange ensued:

"Q Can I ask, what did you take President Putin to mean when he said that they wouldn't participate in any crusades or any holy alliances? What was that a reference to?

"MR. HADLEY: You know, I asked myself the same question. (Laughter.)

"Q Did you get an answer? (Laughter.)

"MR. HADLEY: I'm still taking it under advisement. (Laughter.) I'm going to let myself know what I think a little bit later."

Signing Statements Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "In his dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court's decision on Guantanamo Bay military trials earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave a presidential signing statement significant weight in determining the meaning of a statute, marking a milestone in the debate over the Bush administration's expansion of executive power. . . .

"Scalia's dissenting opinion gave Bush's signing statement on a Guantanamo-related law passed by Congress equal weight to statements by the bill's authors, suggesting that there is no legal difference between the views of Congress and the president about what a law means."

Here's the section of Scalia's dissent , in which he writes sarcastically: "Of course in its discussion of legislative history the Court wholly ignores the President's signing statement, which explicitly set forth his understanding that the DTA ousted jurisdiction over pending cases."

Richard A. Epstein , a conservative law professor at the University of Chicago, writes in a Chicago Tribune opinion column: "President Bush dishonors traditions in his aggressive use of signing statements as one way among many to circumvent the congressional and judicial checks built into the Constitution. . . .

"Signing statements, I fear, could be the opening wedge to a presidential posture that judicial decisions may limit the president's ability to use courts to enforce his policies, but cannot stop him from acting unilaterally. On this theory, the president could continue to order wiretaps and surveillance in opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after a court had determined that he has exceeded his powers -- he just couldn't use the evidence acquired in court. Different branches of government have different views of the law, yet the executive marches on. A major check on executive power goes by the boards."

Blogger Andrew Sullivan writes: "Epstein is a limited government conservative with libertarian leanings. Hence his resistance to King George."

Ramesh Ponnuru blogs for the National Review: "Signing statements could be an 'opening wedge,' but they aren't necessarily."

The Definition of Humane

Joseph Margulies writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that "important questions remain unanswered" about the administration's detainee policy in the wake of a Pentagon memo that insists that the U.S. military already complies with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as humane treatment is already the rule.

Writes Margulies: "But we know what the administration means by humane treatment. These are the same people who said it was humane to hold a prisoner in solitary confinement with no human contact except interrogators and guards until, according to an FBI agent, he became delusional. Then it was humane to subject the same prisoner to an eight-week series of interrogations that lasted 18 to 20 hours a day. Interrogators doused him with water if he fell asleep and forced him to stand at attention for hours at a time if he did not cooperate. They made him bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists, tied a leash to his neck and led him around the room, and made him perform a series of dog tricks. They forced him to wear a bra and place a thong on his head. They forcibly administered an enema. Even when his heartbeat slowed to 35 beats a minute and he was placed in a doctor's care, loud music was played in his cell to 'prevent detainee from sleeping.' (All of this according to the Pentagon.) If this interrogation was not cruel, humiliating and degrading, if it did not offend personal dignity, then the words have no meaning. . . .

"If the administration finally gives up the attempt to use techniques that are cruel, humiliating or degrading, then we really have a change that could justify the headlines. But if not, then the announcement means nothing."

No Retreat

Bloggers are being particularly merciless about the traditional media's reporting of the so-called "retreat" by the White House on domestic spying.

I wrote about this on Friday (see the section on 'A Spectral Compromise'.)

Glenn Greenwald writes: "Anyone with a basic understanding of what FISA was and of the conflicts in play could read the Specter bill and see that the last thing it does is entail 'compromises' on the part of the White House."

And it's not just the bloggers who think the initial press coverage missed the boat.

Here's a Washington Post editorial : "This bill is not a compromise but a full-fledged capitulation on the part of the legislative branch to executive claims of power."

The 9/11 Halo

David S. Broder and Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post that "a survey experiment commissioned by The Washington Post and conducted by Stanford University communications Prof. Shanto Iyengar showed that, even five years later, visual reminders of the attacks of Sept. 11 can -- modestly -- affect attitudes about Bush, the causes of terrorism and how to combat it.

" 'The best way of summarizing this pattern of results is that it appears as though President Bush has a 9/11 halo,' Iyengar said. 'When people see 9/11, they immediately respond more positively to the president. In this context, given that his evaluations are fairly low, what we're saying is, it makes them less negative.'

"That makes it likely that reminders of those attacks and threats of global terrorism again will be seen in campaign ads for this fall's elections and in 2008."

Executive Power and the War

Here's a New York Times editorial : "The president's constant efforts to assert his power to act without consent or consultation has warped the war on terror. The unity and sense of national purpose that followed 9/11 is gone, replaced by suspicion and divisiveness that never needed to emerge. The president had no need to go it alone -- everyone wanted to go with him. Both parties in Congress were eager to show they were tough on terrorism. But the obsession with presidential prerogatives created fights where no fights needed to occur and made huge messes out of programs that could have functioned more efficiently within the rules."

The Real Budget Story

Greg Ip and Deborah Solomon write in the Wall Street Journal: "In announcing a big drop in its estimate of this year's federal budget deficit, the Bush administration was quick to credit itself. . . .

"But this explanation falls short. . . .

"What has changed isn't the size of the economy, but how the economic pie is divided. The share of national income going to corporations and the wealthiest individuals, already large, has expanded, while the share going to typical wage earners has shrunk. Because corporations and the wealthy generally pay income tax at higher rates than does the typical wage earner, that shift benefits the federal Treasury."

And Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times that "the real news is not that tax revenues are particularly high; they are not. The big change is that tax revenues have become more of a crapshoot -- more volatile, more unpredictable and more buffeted by swings in the stock market than they were 10 years ago.

"Why? Because tax revenues are increasingly dependent on the fortunes of the very rich."

Abramoff Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "The House Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed the former law firm of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff for records of any contacts he or members of his lobbying team had with the Bush White House."

NAACP Watch

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "After not appearing before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for five years, President Bush has tentatively agreed to speak to the group on Wednesday in what aides said was the latest White House effort to improve relations with African-American leaders."

Kelly Brewington writes in the Baltimore Sun: "A visit by President Bush is expected at this week's NAACP convention, but judging from a fiery speech by the civil rights group's chairman last night, the president may feel less than welcome."

Valerie Plame Watch

Here's the transcript of Robert Novak's appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

Editor and Publisher reports that "he reversed course in his dispute with 'Newsday,' now saying that the paper did not misquote him on a key point but rather that he misspoke. He continued to claim that he did not really 'out' covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. And he defended not only talking about sources with the prosecutor, but also refusing until now to confirm he had testified."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The lawsuit filed last week by Valerie Plame and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, against Vice President Dick Cheney and senior White House officials delighted opponents of the Bush administration. . . .

"But before the case can go to trial, courts must decide whether those named in the suit have immunity."

Crybaby

This photo by Jim Bourg of Reuters is inspiring caption contests everywhere.

Faves in 2008

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: "White House insiders say President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are engaged in a good-natured bid to push their faves for the 2008 presidential nomination. 'There are two wild cards in the race,' says our tipster. 'The first lady likes Condi' Rice, the secretary of state. 'She has a great story to tell,' says the insider of Rice. But Bush likes his bro, Jeb Bush, the Florida governor. 'He thinks Jeb'd be the best.' One problem: Neither wants the job."

Bush's Intellect

Jonathan Chait writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Way back when he first appeared on the national scene, the rap against George W. Bush was that he might be too dumb to be president. As time passed, questions about Bush's mental capabilities faded away. . . .

"Yet it is now increasingly clear that Bush's status as non-rocket scientist is a serious problem. The problem is not his habit -- savored by late-night comedians -- of stumbling over multisyllabic words. It is his shocking lack of intellectual curiosity."

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