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Bush v. Baker
Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore write in the Los Angeles Times: "Senior Bush aides offered at least four explanations for the cancellation -- finally dispatching a more junior official to tell reporters late Wednesday that Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II had decided mutually that a three-way conversation was not necessary."
Maliki's aides apparently released several different explanations as well.
Thomas DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "There was a time when American clients wouldn't dare snub a President of the United States. But these are hardly normal times - not for Iraq, nor a seriously weakened President.
"White House spinners tried to confect a benign explanation for yesterday's cancellation of a dinner date between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But ... the dinner no-show was an undeniable embarrassment for Bush."
DeFrank also notes: "The embarrassing memo has triggered a wave of conspiracy theories. Some Bushies speculate the Hadley leak was a premeditated ploy to stiffen Maliki's spine that backfired horribly. Others wonder whether someone in Vice President Cheney's shop or at the Pentagon, angry at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ouster, was playing payback.
"Whatever the reality, 'These are the kind of things that don't happen when you're riding high,' a senior Bush counselor moaned."
In her nytimes.com piece this morning, Stolberg notes that Maliki himself appeared to dismiss the suggestion that he had cancelled the meeting out of pique, "saying the meeting -- which had been scheduled to include King Abdullah II of Jordan -- was not necessary because the prime minister and the king had already had discussion earlier in the day. 'So there's no problem,' Mr. Maliki said. . . .
"Still, tensions seemed to bubble just under the surface. The two leaders barely looked at one another during the news conference. And when Mr. Bush, at one point, asked the prime minister if he wanted to continue taking questions from reporters, the prime minister swiveled his head toward the president and shot Mr. Bush an incredulous look."
This separate briefing, from two senior administration officials, reads like an Abbot and Costello routine at times.
One official says he (or she?) didn't think Maliki was ever supposed to be at the dinner, and says "I'm not sure where the trilateral idea came from, but it was not what we decided in the end was really the optimal way to spend the president's time."
A reporter asked: "Who is the 'we'? When you say 'we decided,' who's the 'we'?
"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was not on the plane, so I can't answer as to any decisions on the plane."
Then the other senior administration official, who apparently did expect Maliki at the meeting, says: "And they decided it would be superfluous. As my colleague was saying, you've got to figure out what the most effective use of the President's time is going to be. And it's --
" Q: 'They' who?"
He (or she) couldn't say, of course.
" Q: The appearance is the president was snubbed. That's the appearance.
" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no, no. This is something that you can feel free to ask the Prime Minister about tomorrow, and you will get an answer that there's no snub. That much we do know. It's not a snub of the president, nor is it a snub of the prime minister, period.
" Q: How do you know that?
" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because we've had our conversations with people on the ground who have had --
" Q: But you don't know who canceled it, you don't know --
" SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't like the word 'cancellation.'"
Opinion and Analysis
Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "The president and his senior staff arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday with a deep sense of discontent about the direction of Iraq. But that doesn't translate into a major course correction, no matter what the pundits -- or the Democrats, or James Baker's study group -- suggest. Somewhere between Stay the Course and Reverse Course lies Bush's new approach. Call it Adjust the Course
"[A]nyone -- such as the newly empowered Democrats -- expecting troop withdrawals will have to wait either until Iraq is able to govern itself, or until Bush leaves office."
Michael Hirsch writes in Newsweek: "The forthcoming report by James Baker's Iraq Study Group has enjoyed the biggest public buildup since the Segway. And it is likely to be just as big of a bust.
"Here's why the Baker-Hamilton report is destined to land with a thud, after weeks of messianic hype. According to sources who have seen the draft report introduced this week, the group will recommend deeper engagement with Iran and Syria in hopes these countries can help us quell the violence in Iraq. But George W. Bush, who remains a true neocon believer -- 'It's the regime, stupid' -- is very unlikely to cut deals with such evil states, except in the most foot-dragging way. . . .
"The biggest reason why Baker-Hamilton will bust big time, however, is that while the diplomatic Baker cautiously forges consensus, the fast-moving events in Iraq are making him look as if he's standing still. . . .
"What's happening in Washington right now is the worst sort of cover-your-backside politics. The nation's officialdom, Republicans and Democrats both, continue to indulge in the outer-galactic notion that Iraq is 'winnable' or 'losable.' President Bush still seems to be deluding himself that 'Al-Qaeda' is behind the violence in Iraq, as he said in Latvia yesterday. . . .
"Iraq is not winnable or losable. All it is, in the best case, is manageable. What's needed instead of careful consensus building in Washington is a Richard Holbrooke or a Henry Kissinger out in the field, a tough, no-nonsense negotiator who can grapple with the reality of the American failure in the region and simply seek the most honorable way out."
Here's Jack Cafferty on CNN: "The administration has little confidence in al-Maliki. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley calling him a strong leader, but said he's having trouble figuring out how to do his job.
"He has no job. He doesn't govern anything. Iraq is in the throes of an escalating civil war and the elected government there is powerless to do anything about it. The power in Iraq is in the hands of the militias."
Dave Clark writes for AFP with this reminder: "Baghdad's overflowing morgues have welcomed another grim daily harvest of bullet-riddled corpses as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met U.S. President George W. Bush and vowed to halt the violence.
Will v. Webb
George F. Will writes in his Washington Post opinion column that newly elected Virginia Senator Jim Webb acted like a "boor" at a recent presidential reception, when Webb didn't respond warmly to Bush's question about his son, a Marine in Iraq.
Here's Michael D. Shear's story in The Post about the incident.
Writes Will: "Never mind the patent disrespect for the presidency. Webb's more gross offense was calculated rudeness toward another human being -- one who, disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another."
The comments from washingtonpost.com readers are coming in fast -- and furious.
And Greg Sargent writes on TPMCafe that Will left out a key part of the exchange -- "the pissy retort from the President that provoked Webb."
Civil War Watch
Diala Saadeh writes for Reuters from Dubai: "Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday Iraq had descended into civil war and urged world leaders to accept that 'reality.'"
From a USA Today editorial: "The sad reality is that 'civil war' is too simple a term to describe what's happening inside Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 had the same effect as smacking a beehive with a baseball bat."
The Wall Street Journal reports that a new Harris Interactive poll finds that 68 percent of Americans "believe there is a civil war in Iraq compared with 14% who disagree and 18% who aren't sure."
Also: "About half of those polled would like the government to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, while 18% favor withdrawing all U.S. troops now and 19% favor sending more troops to stabilize the situation."
Christopher Beam explains in Slate how a typical presidential motorcade works.
Andy Bromage writes in the New Haven Advocate on a study by Christopher Lohse, a social work master's student at Southern Connecticut State University, who "says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years. . . .
"Lohse's study . . . found a correlation between the severity of a person's psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush."
Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner writes in a pool report about the flight to Amman:
"Shortly after takeoff, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow brought a jaunty Karl Rove to the press cabin, where the political strategist passed out chocolates to reporters.
"'Boy, you guys must be really worried about the Hadley memo,' your pooler ventured.
"'You mean you bought that story about the phony memo?' Rove joked before scurrying toward the front of the plane.
"Before boarding, when your pooler asked Rove about Republican losses in the midterms elections, he replied: 'It'll turn out all right -- we'll get 'em next time.'"