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Bush's Choice

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 21, 2006; 12:38 PM

Presented with a crisis on the Israeli-Lebanese border in which the two pillars of his foreign policy -- fighting terror and spreading democracy -- were conspicuously at odds with each other, President Bush made it clear which pillar is dearest to his heart.

Bush is strongly supporting Israel's furious wave of attacks against Hezbollah and other targets in Lebanon, even going so far as single-handedly thwarting a humanitarian-based international consensus for a cease-fire.

But the cost to the fragile Lebanese government -- up until now, the greatest success story in Bush's push for democracy in the Middle East -- has been enormous.

"The country has been torn to shreds," Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told diplomats in Beirut on Wednesday. "Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions? . . . You want to support the government of Lebanon? Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, no government can survive on the ruins of a nation."

Interestingly enough, there might have been a way for Bush to be spared such a grim choice, having to pick one pillar over another. Conceivably, at least, if Bush had opened lines of communication with Hezbollah's patrons in Syria and Iran, he might have been able to, in the president's own immortal words, " stop this shit ."

The Bush White House has a long-standing aversion to engaging in dialogue with its enemies -- foreign or domestic. At least in part, that's based on an intense desire not to reward bad behavior. But the aversion to rewarding enemies by talking to them has not historically risen to the level of doctrine.

Overcoming that aversion would have been difficult for the White House, at least in the short term. But would it really have been more painful than watching one of its two central foreign policy pillars fall by the wayside?

The White House, of course, probably doesn't see the choice as starkly as that. The official line is that Israel's military action in Lebanon is actually tidying things up over there, strengthening the democratic government in the long run. Just like in Iraq.

But the Lebanese prime minister, who Bush welcomed so warmly to the White House just three months ago, certainly doesn't see it that way.

And as David Ignatius wrote in his Washington Post opinion column on Wednesday: "Rather than bringing positive change, military action in the Middle East tends to bring unanticipated consequences."

Bush's View

This past Tuesday, Bush offered an insight into his dispassionate analysis of the situation, saying: "Sometimes it requires tragic situations to help bring clarity in the international community."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post today about how Bush's approach to the conflict is coldly calculating, how he thinks he's smarter than all those other world leaders, and how of course he could be dead wrong.

"When hostilities have broken out in the past, the usual U.S. response has been an immediate and public bout of diplomacy aimed at a cease-fire, in the hopes of ensuring that the crisis would not escalate. This week, however, even in the face of growing international demands, the White House has studiously avoided any hint of impatience with Israel. While making it plain it wants civilian casualties limited, the administration is also content to see the Israelis inflict the maximum damage possible on Hezbollah. . . .

"In the administration's view, the new conflict is not just a crisis to be managed. It is also an opportunity to seriously degrade a big threat in the region, just as Bush believes he is doing in Iraq. . . .

" 'The president believes that unless you address the root causes of the violence that has afflicted the Middle East, you cannot forge a lasting peace,' said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. 'He mourns the loss of every life. Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.'

"One former senior administration official said Bush is only emboldened by the pressure from U.N. officials and European leaders to lead a call for a cease-fire. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan demanded yesterday that the fighting in Lebanon stop.

" 'He thinks he is playing in a longer-term game than the tacticians,' said the former official, who spoke anonymously so he could discuss his views candidly."

Abramowitz notes: "Many Mideast experts warn that there is a dangerous consequence to this worldview. They believe that Israel, and the United States by extension, is risking serious trouble if it continues with the punishing air strikes that are producing mounting casualties. The history of the Middle East is replete with examples of the limits of military power, they say, noting how the Israeli campaign in Lebanon in the early 1980s helped create the conditions for the rise of Hezbollah."

Snow in the Morning

White House spokesman Tony Snow was making the rounds of the network news shows this morning.

On NBC's Today Show , Snow asserted: "We have not been doing military collaboration or planning with the Israelis. What we have been doing instead is urging the Israelis to practice restraint knowing that civilian casualties not only were going to be inevitable because Hezbollah uses civilians as human shields, but also because that is the nature of warfare. We continue to make that caution because we want the government of Prime Minister Siniora to survive not only in Lebanon but to be able to assert its authority over the whole country.

"You got to keep in mind Hezbollah is a rogue force that basically took over parts of southern Lebanon, crossed over the Israeli border, started an international incident, did absolutely nothing in the way of notification. So that's the important thing to keep in mind."

Matt Lauer pressed Snow on the overall effects of the Bush Doctrine on the Middle East. "He said if we bring democracy to Iraq that will stabilize the region. If we encourage democracy in other countries, that will stabilize the region. . . . This policy was supposed to make the region more stable and us safer. How do you answer critics who say it hasn't worked?"

Snow's response, in part: "The president never said this would be easy. September 20th, 2001, he goes to Congress and talks about the war on terror. What did he say? He said it's gonna take time. Everybody who wants this kind of egg-timer diplomacy, who thinks, 'OK these things ought to happen quickly,' you don't understand human nature."

Siniora's View

In today's Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius writes: "The problem is that the American diplomatic timetable is so slow that by the time a cease-fire is reached -- more than a week off, by U.S. estimates -- Lebanon may be too broken to be put back together anytime soon. . . .

"Siniora has privately warned the Bush administration that by bombing so many targets in Lebanon, Israel is undermining its own strategic goals. Lebanese are angry with Hezbollah for starting the war by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, and most want to see the militia under government control. But Siniora has asked why the Israelis are hitting Lebanese airports, ports, roads, villages and other targets that primarily affect civilians. And he has criticized attacks on the Lebanese army, which even the Israelis say is the key to long-run stability and security."

Proxy Battle?

Lawrence Kaplan writes in the New Republic that "the administration views the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as a classic case of great-power brinkmanship--in this case, pitting the United States against Iran. The paradigm that the Bush team has drawn on in its response to the Lebanon crisis isn't the war on terrorism. It's the proxy battles of the cold war. . . .

"Were the status quo left in place, explains one member of the Bush team, it would amount to a tremendous victory for Tehran. Conversely, any settlement that confirms a crushing defeat of Hezbollah would cut short Iran's reach and humiliate it for the entire region to see."

But over in Foggy Bottom, there are some doubts: "Having encouraged and taken pride in Lebanon's Cedar Revolution--in which a combination of popular outrage and Western pressure forced Syrian troops from Lebanon last year--State Department officials, particularly those in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, lament the country's unraveling."

Bolton Watch

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush is considering a new effort to have John Bolton confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a year after appointing him to the job over Senate objections, aides said on Thursday. . . .

"Bush appointed Bolton while the Senate was in recess last August after senators blocked the former State Department official's confirmation saying he had an abrasive style.

"Bolton's appointment runs out at the end of the current congressional session in January and Bush could make another recess appointment but then Bolton would not be entitled to receive a salary."

In a Washington Post op-ed yesterday, Sen. George V. Voinovich, a former Republican critic of Bolton, wrote that he had changed his mind.

Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: " 'We welcome the willingness of Senator Voinovich to take another look, and we hope that other Senators will also be willing to,' said Dana M. Perino, a White House spokeswoman. . . .

"Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Mr. Lugar, whose committee would oversee the nomination, said the White House had already filed paperwork for Mr. Bolton's nomination months ago and it was now up to the Senate to push it through."

Domestic Spying Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A Senate surveillance bill personally negotiated by President Bush and Vice President Cheney ran into immediate trouble this week, as Democrats and other critics attacked the proposal while key GOP leaders in the House endorsed a different bill on the same topic. . . .

"The proposal was billed as a rare and noteworthy compromise by the administration when unveiled last week. But the legislation quickly came under attack from Democrats and many national security experts, who said it would actually give the government greater powers to spy on Americans without court oversight. . . .

"[Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)] defended the proposal during a committee hearing on Tuesday, calling the agreement with Bush 'a major breakthrough' that included necessary but acceptable compromises. He also argued that the language acknowledging Bush's legal authority has no real impact but was insisted on by White House negotiators."

NAACP Visit

Here is the official transcript of Bush's remarks to the NAACP convention yesterday. Here is a less official transcript . I had some initial impressions in yesterday's column .

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In his first speech to the N.A.A.C.P. since taking office in 2001, President Bush acknowledged on Thursday that 'many African-Americans distrust my party,' and defended his record on domestic issues, including education, prescription drug coverage and Hurricane Katrina."

The NAACP president, Bruce S. Gordon, "later gave the speech a grade of B. Others were not so generous.

"Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, said Mr. Bush had 'scored when he said he looked forward to the Senate approving the Voting Rights Act.' But Mr. Lewis said it would be difficult for blacks to overcome their anger over the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, whose devastation disproportionately affected them. . . .

"Another civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said he spoke to Mr. Bush backstage after the speech and urged him to begin 'a meaningful dialogue'' with a broader range of black organizations.

" 'He said, "Well, talk with Karl Rove," ' Mr. Jackson said, referring to Mr. Bush's chief political adviser."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush was benefiting from the soft bigotry of low expectations when he addressed the NAACP convention yesterday. But that wasn't quite enough to get him through. . . .

"For what may have been the first time since the 2001 attacks, Bush gave a full-length speech with no mention of terrorism, Iraq or the Middle East. 'Compassion' was back, and it was as if, for a moment, the past five years had never happened. Bush, suffering from the recent departure of chief speechwriter Mike Gerson, reprised some of the greatest hits of his first campaign for the presidency."

Milbank also notes the airbrushing away of heckling and boos in the White House transcript.

Dick Polman writes in his blog that he was most interested in a quick line at the top of the Bush's speech: "I come from a family committed to civil rights."

Writes Polman: "That, really, is the crux of the matter. Yesterday's address wasn't just about trying to woo some black voters away from the Democrats party in the run-up to the '06 elections. It was, more importantly, the latest attempt (among countless attempts going back several generations) by a Bush family member to win over the black community simply by insisting that he is personally pure of heart. The Bushes have long sought to trumpet their good intentions, in the hopes that this would translate into mass black political support. The effort has never worked, but they keep trying anyway."

The liberal Think Progress blog looks askance at Bush's promotion of the repeal of the estate tax.

"President Bush's 'death tax' pitch demonstrates his stunning disconnect from the African-American community. According to an American Progress analysis, just 59 African-Americans will pay the estate tax this year, and that number will drop to 33 in 2009.

"Meanwhile, as of 2004, 24.7 percent of African-Americans lived under the poverty line (up from 22.7 in 2001) -- that's more than 9 million people. The number of times Bush mentioned 'poverty' in his speech: 0."

The 'White' House

The National Journal noted recently that there are no African-Americans or Asians among Bush's inner circle of White House advisers, and only one Hispanic.

From yesterday's briefing:

" Q Yes. Does the President think that he can keep diverse points of view in his mind if his senior staff -- that means, assistant to the President or the equivalent -- are more than 80 percent men, all white, one Hispanic, four women, no blacks? . . .

" MR. SNOW: What the President does is he looks for the best available people.

" Q And they're all white?

" MR. SNOW: I don't know, why don't you tell me? (Laughter.) You can come aboard and do personnel. You want to?

" Q I'm asking you a question.

" MR. SNOW: I know you are, but it's an argumentative question that also applied to other previous administrations. Would we like more blacks and Hispanics on? Yes, sure.

" QUESTION: And Asians?

" SNOW: Asians, too, yes, thank you. Let me leave no one behind. Just, every group, raise your hand, we want you."

That's the Rub

I first wrote about this in Tuesday's column , but Jake Coyle writes for the Associated Press: "An impromptu back rub that President Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now massaging millions of funny bones.

"A 5-second video and series of photographs recently posted on YouTube.com and various blogs show Bush surprising Merkel at the G-8 Summit by quickly rubbing the back of her neck and shoulders. The chancellor immediately hunches her shoulders, throws her arms up and grimaces, though she appears to smile as Bush walks away.

"The video has been one of the most popular clips on the Web and spawned countless remarks on the particulars of etiquette for world leaders."

The New York Post yesterday called it Bush's "Rootin' Teuton Massage."

Here's Kate Snow on ABC's Good Morning America yesterday: "The reason it resonates: Maybe because nobody wants someone to invade their personal space, even if that someone is the president of the United States."

MSNBC is doing an online poll on whether people are making too much of the back rub. As of this writing, the answer is definitely not.

Hands On

Blogger Holden calls this photo from Bush's visit to the NAACP another "dominance display."

Cartoon Watch

Here are Tom Toles on Iraq and Bush fundamentalism ; Pat Oliphant on the end of cowboy diplomacy and the imperial torturer ; Jack Higgins on Bush's mouth and his NAACP visit ; and Stuart Carlson on stem cells .

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today, shortly after 2 p.m. ET. Feel free to call in, at (877) 767-8107 or e-mail comment@washingtonpost.com .

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