washingtonpost.com
Where's the Cowboy Talk Now?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 19, 2006 1:00 PM

What is the single greatest security threat facing our country today?

If you believe esteemed security analysts like Harvard University's Graham Allison , it is that a terrorist organization gets hold of a nuclear weapon and sets it off in an American city.

In the wake of North Korea's nuclear test, that threat has been dramatically heightened. Kim Jong Il is the only leader of a nuclear weapons state who might conceivably consider it in his interests to sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden.

So forget for a moment how we got here. Put aside partisan politics. Wouldn't this be a good moment for the American president to draw a very distinct line in the sand?

Wouldn't it be appropriate for him to make clear to the North Koreans that if they do any such thing, they will suffer cataclysmic consequences? Wouldn't this be a good time for some of that famous cowboy talk?

President Bush seemed to be building up to it the day after the North Korean nuclear test, when he said in a statement : "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action."

But at a news conference two days later, on October 11, Bush weakly ducked the question of what the new "red line" was for North Korea. He just wouldn't say.

Last night, ABC News's George Stephanopoulos aggressively questioned Bush on that issue. Here are some video excerpts .

Bush seemed appropriately stern, promising that North Korea would be "held to account" for any transfer of nuclear weapons, and would suffer "grave consequence[s]."

But then he seriously undermined his own rhetoric by likening those consequences to the sanctions recently imposed against North Korea -- sanctions whose implementation, not to mention effectiveness, are very much in question.

Said Bush: "I want the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he'll be held to account. Just like he's being held to account now for having run a test."

That's a far cry from, say, threatening a devastating military attack.

One doesn't usually think of Bush as meek. So what's going on here? Is it possible that his Iraqi misadventure has scarred him?

Certainly, Bush must be aware that talk of taking military action based on intelligence findings would remind the public of the last time he said that, and rekindle doubts about his credibility. Similarly, Bush has repeatedly expressed regrets for some of his more bellicose talk in the months after 9/11.

But is that preventing him from saying the right things now, when there is a much more plausible and terrible threat?

Or could it be that Bush knows he's not prepared to do what needs to be done?

Former secretary of defense William J. Perry wrote on the Washington Post op-ed page last week: "The president has warned North Korea not to transfer any materials from its nuclear program. But the warnings we have sent to North Korea these past six years have gone unheeded and its acts unpunished. It is not clear that this latest one will have any greater effect. If a warning is to have a chance of influencing North Korea's behavior it has to be much more specific. It would have to promise retaliation against North Korea if a terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in one of our cities. It must be backed by a meaningful forensics program that can identify the source of a nuclear bomb."

The Transcript

ABC for some reason doesn't seem to be posting the transcript of its Bush interview.

So here's the transcript of Bush's exchange with Stephanopoulos on North Korea:

Stephanopoulos: "Last week, after their first test, you went into the White House and you said that any transfer of nuclear material by North Korea would be considered a grave threat to the security of the United States. I went back and checked, you've used that phrase once before in your presidency about Iraq. So, are you saying then if North Korea sold nukes to Iran or al Qaeda. . . . "

Bush: "They'd be held to account."

Stephanopoulos: "What does that mean?"

Bush: "Well, at the time they find out, George, one of the things that's important for these world leaders is to hear is, you know, we use means necessary to hold them to account."

Stephanopoulos: "So if you got intelligence that they were about to have that kind of a transfer. . . . "

Bush: "Well, if they get - if we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer and we would deal with the ships that were taking the - or the airplane that was dealing with or taking the material to somebody."

Stephanopoulos: "And if it happened, you'd retaliate."

Bush: "You know, I'd just say it's a grave consequence."

Stephanopoulos: "And that's about as serious as it can get."

Bush: "Well, my point is, is that I want the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he'll be held to account. Just like he's being held to account now for having run a test."

A Vietnam Metaphor

Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Wednesday that the current surge of violence in Iraq 'could be' comparable to the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, a succession of battles that became a milestone because it helped turn the American public against the conflict and its political leadership.

"Bush has strongly resisted comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, but with U.S. casualties continuing to mount, he agreed to an interviewer's analogy and said he detected a spike in attacks timed to the congressional elections in three weeks with the goal of forcing the United States to lose its will."

Here's the transcript of that exchange:

Stephanopoulos: " Tom Friedman [subscription required] wrote in the New York Times this morning that what we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive. . . . "

Bush: "Yeah."

Stephanopoulos: " . . . in Vietnam in 1968. Tony Snow, this morning, said he may be right. Do you agree?"

Bush: "Mm-hmm. He could be right. There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence. And we're heading into a an election."

Anderson Cooper interviewed David Gergen on CNN about Bush's response.

"COOPER: David, were you surprised the president said could be another Tet?

"DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: Very surprised. As you know, Anderson, the administration for a long time now has been stoutly resisting every comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. And there's a good reason for them to reject that, because once people start accepting as the president did today, that what's going on in Iraq might be like what went on in Vietnam, it's not long.

"It's only a nanosecond before critics said, 'Yes, you're right. It's a quagmire in Iraq, just as it was in Vietnam.'"

The White House spin on all this is likely to focus on the suggestion that jihadists are stepping up their attacks for political effect -- to help the Democrats. But is there any evidence of that?

It's seems more likely, in fact, that the recent increase in violence is just the continuation of the trend toward total civil war.

For instance, Ellen Knickmeyer writes in The Washington Post from Baghdad that the unprecedented number of casualties "underscores both the surging nature of sectarian violence and the increasing lethality of roadside bombs, which claim the most American lives in Iraq despite efforts to bolster armor and use high-technology devices to disable bombs."

Iraq Watch

Bush also spoke more generally about Iraq in the ABC News interview.

Stephanopoulos: "Now, I know you don't think that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war right now."

Bush: "Right, right."

Stephanopoulos: "But whatever you call it, aren't American men and women now dying to prevent Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other?"

Bush: "No, I, George, I - it's dangerous. And you're right. No matter what you call it, the fundamental question is, are we on our way to achieving a goal, which is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself, and be an ally in the war on terror in the heart of the Middle East?"

Stephanopoulos: "But it seems like every month we're going farther from that goal."

Bush: "Well, I don't know why you would say that."

Secret Plan?

And, speaking of Vietnam metaphors, does Bush have a "secret plan" for the war in Iraq?

Matt Gouras writes for the Associated Press from Montana: "Sen. Conrad Burns says he believes President Bush has a plan to win the war in Iraq but is keeping it quiet, a statement Democrats pounced on Wednesday as reminiscent of comments made during another divisive war.

"Burns, at a debate Tuesday night with Democratic challenger Jon Tester, said he believes Bush has a plan to win -- but added: 'we're not going to tell you what our plan is.' . . .

"Democrats likened Burns' comments to statements by President Nixon that led to news reports that he had a 'secret plan' to end or win the war in Vietnam. Like Nixon, Burns never used the word 'secret' but made it clear it wasn't in the president's or the country's interest to discuss any plans he has for winning the war."

Opinion Watch: Iraq

From a USA Today editorial : "Violence among rival religious sects is eclipsing the insurgency and pushing Iraq toward all-out civil war. . . .

"All of which raises the question: What, exactly, is the goal that U.S. forces are fighting and dying for? President Bush's idealistic goal -- of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq and the wider Middle East -- is tantalizing but looks more and more like a mirage in the desert. . . .

"After 3½ years and nearly 2,800 U.S. military deaths, no one wants to leave Iraq as a failed state or a haven for terrorists, which would be among several unappealing consequences of an abrupt pullout. But U.S. men and women should not be sent to futile deaths in the pursuit of an illusion.

"The mistaken war and botched aftermath have created such a mess that the only credible course change must be predicated on this painful question: Is there an achievable goal that makes the further sacrifice of American lives worthwhile?

"With each passing day, that is looking less and less likely."

More From ABC

Bush also told Stephanopoulos he hadn't read any of the many books about his presidency. "I don't feel comfortable reading about myself," he said.

Asked what personal quality he felt would be most important for the next president, Bush replied: "Determination and compassion."

As for the midterms, Bush said: "I'm not on the ballot. . . .

"I have always found that when a person goes in to vote, they're gonna wanna know what that person's gonna do. What is the plan for a candidate on Iraq? What do they believe? Frankly, I hear desperate voices all over the place from the Democrats' side about Iraq."

Campaign Watch

Edward Luce and Caroline Daniel write in the Financial Times: "George W. Bush used to win elections for Republicans. But with the exception of private fund-raising events, at which he still excels, most of the US president's fellow Republicans are now pretending he does not exist."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "While Bush's schedule for the final weeks of the campaign hasn't been finalized, a tentative schedule provided by a senior administration official has the president on the road for just two to three events each week before Election Day--not the heavy schedule one might expect for a president whose party is in real jeopardy of losing control of Congress."

Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "Four months ago, the White House offered a set of clear political directions to Republicans heading into the midterm elections: embrace the war in Iraq as critical to the antiterrorism fight and belittle Democrats as advocates of a 'cut and run' policy of weakness.

With three weeks until Election Day, Republican candidates are barely mentioning Iraq on the campaign trail and in their television advertisements."

Nagourney and Rutenberg write that this development "suggests that what has been a classic strategy of Mr. Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove -- to turn a weakness into a strength -- is not working as well as the White House had hoped. . . .

"Republicans and Democrats said the White House effort to turn the war into an affirmative Republican issue was undercut by the increasing violence there, along with more American deaths that have brought the war home in the form of mournful articles in local newspapers."

Running Scared?

Here's what Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is telling the Republican National Committee mailing list this morning: "Everything our Party has achieved in the past six years is at risk of being lost in just one day."

Poll Watch

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "Bush's approval rating is at 38 percent, a one-point decline from a previous NBC/Journal poll released earlier this month."

Here are the full results .

Clinton Watch

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Former president Bill Clinton said yesterday that the governing Republican majority has abandoned the common good in favor of ideologically driven politics that demonize its opponents, has forced ordinary Americans to fend for themselves and has too often left the United States isolated internationally."

Or, as Michael McAuliff puts it in the New York Daily News: "Bill Clinton ripped the Bush administration and leaders in Congress yesterday as narrow-minded, extremist drones bent only on helping their rich pals."

Opinion Watch: Military Commission Bill

From a New York Times editorial : "While the Republicans pretend that this bill will make America safer, let's be clear about its real dangers. It sets up a separate system of justice for any foreigner whom Mr. Bush chooses to designate as an 'illegal enemy combatant.' It raises insurmountable obstacles for prisoners to challenge their detentions. It does not require the government to release prisoners who are not being charged, or a prisoner who is exonerated by the tribunals.

"The law does not apply to American citizens, but it does apply to other legal United States residents. And it chips away at the foundations of the judicial system in ways that all Americans should find threatening. It further damages the nation's reputation and, by repudiating key protections of the Geneva Conventions, it needlessly increases the danger to any American soldier captured in battle."

Former Army JAG Christopher Graveline writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "Unfortunately, this legislation demonstrates that both the administration and Congress have failed to learn important lessons from what Bush described as the 'biggest mistake that's happened so far' in Iraq: the detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib.

"By dissociating potential criminal responsibility from overly aggressive interrogation practices that could be classified as 'minor' breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and setting up a situation in which different interrogation practices can be used by our military and the CIA, our national leadership has ensured more abuse scandals."

And from a commentary by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann : "This President now has his blank check.

"He lied to get it.

"He lied as he received it.

"Is there any reason to even hope, he has not lied about how he intends to use it, nor who he intends to use it against?"

Snow's Moonlighting

From a Denver Post editorial : "The White House press secretary should be a trusted link between the president and the American people. It's never been a post for political fundraising, and it shouldn't be now.

"Tony Snow should drop his campaign activity and stick to the work at hand.

"Modern presidents wear at least two hats, serving as leader of the country and also as leader of their political party. Until Snow climbed on board, however, press secretaries have played only one role - representing the president of all the people to all the people."

Signing Statement Watch

William Matthews writes for Air Force Times: "Congress said it wants next year's defense budget to include funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Bush has indicated he may ignore that request.

"In a ' signing statement ' released when he signed the 2007 Defense Authorization Act on Oct. 17, the president listed two dozen provisions in the act that he indicated he may or may not abide by.

"Among the provisions is Section 1008 of the Authorization Act, which requires the president to submit defense budgets for 2008 and beyond that include funding for the wars and contain 'a detailed justification of the funds requested.' . . .

"The wars have been paid for through emergency spending bills and 'bridge funds' that amount to about $450 billion so far. . . .

"A key congressional complaint about war funding through supplementals and bridge funds is that lawmakers see far fewer details about how the money will be spent, and supplementals must be approved by appropriations committees, but not by authorizing committees. Regular defense budgets must be approved by both."

Impeachment Watch

John Nichols blogs for the Nation: "From Vermont to Illinois to California, voters this fall will be deciding the fate not just of candidates for Congress but of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

"Communities that are home to more than 1 million Americans will have an opportunity to cast ballots on the question of whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against the president and vice president."

Skip That Joke

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "In Pennsylvania today, President Bush might have to fine-tune -- or completely jettison -- the light-hearted remarks about candidates' spouses that are a fixture of his standard stump speech.

"'We both married above ourselves,' Bush frequently says about candidates he backs. . . .

"So, what's a president to say when headlining a fundraising reception for a candidate whose indiscretions with a woman other than his wife -- and 35 years his junior -- loom as a campaign issue?"

Snow: Losing It

From Monday's briefing :

"Q One on Iraq again. Sorry. Just the simple question: Are we winning?

MR. SNOW: We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define 'winning'?

From yesterday's gaggle :

"Q Tony, does the deaths of 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq today cause the President to rethink his strategy there?

"MR. SNOW: No, the strategy is to win. The President understands not only the difficulty of it, but he grieves for the people who have served and served with valor. But as everybody says, correctly, we got to win."

How Will We Know?

Libertarian author James Bovard writes in an Editor and Publisher opinion piece: "How will we know when a dictatorship has arrived? Not from reading the Washington Post. The Post's story today -- ' Bush Signs Terrorism Measure ' -- looks like just another routine report on the approval of a piece of legislation, accompanied by the usual 'he said/ she said' balancing quotes.

"The Military Commissions Act is widely seen as legalizing torture, but the article avoids any such mention of the T-word. Though the act revolutionizes American jurisprudence by permitting the use of tortured confessions in judicial proceedings, the Post discretely notes only that defendants will face 'restrictions on their ability to . . . exclude evidence gained through witness coercion.' . . .

"The Post neglects to mention that the bill codifies the president's power to label anyone on Earth an 'enemy combatant' -- based on secret evidence which the government need not disclose. . . .

"And this is how the Washington Post and much of the Establishment media portray almost every government seizure of power. It is never a question of looming tyranny: instead, it is only a question of different perspectives on how best to serve the American public. Waiting for the Washington press corps to sound the alarm on Leviathan is like waiting for Bush to renounce his love of power."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive