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The Heart of the Matter

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 8, 2006 12:50 PM

Long live the British press!

In contrast to the small-bore questions that American reporters posed to President Bush yesterday about his Iraq policy, two British journalists cut right to the central issue of the president's credibility.

In his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush spoke of embarking on a "new course" in Iraq -- even as he effectively rejected all the major recommendations of the scathing bipartisan Iraq Study Group report.

American reporters dutifully but fruitlessly tried to get Bush to explain what he meant. Their colleagues from across the pond took a different tack.

Why, the two Brits asked Bush in slightly different ways, given your track record on Iraq, should we believe you now?

Not surprisingly, Bush failed to provide a persuasive answer.

Here's the transcript of the press conference.

First off was Nick Robinson of the BBC: "Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as 'grave and deteriorating'. You said that the increase in attacks is 'unsettling'. That won't convince many people that you're [not] still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq, and question your sincerity about changing course."

Bush's response was at first testy, then jokey, then righteously indignant.

"It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?" Bush snapped. Then he chuckled.

"Q: Why did it take others to say it before you've been willing to acknowledge for the world --

"PRESIDENT BUSH: In all due respect, I've been saying it a lot. I understand how tough it is. And I've been telling the American people how tough it is. And they know how tough it is. And the fundamental question is, do we have a plan to achieve our objective. Are we willing to change as the enemy has changed? And what the Baker-Hamilton study has done is it shows good ideas as to how to go forward. What our Pentagon is doing is figuring out ways to go forward, all aiming to achieve our objective.

"Make no mistake about it, I understand how tough it is, sir. I talk to families who die [sic]. I understand there's sectarian violence. I also understand that we're hunting down al-Qaeda on a regular basis and we're bringing them to justice. I understand how hard our troops are working. I know how brave the men and women who wear the uniform are, and therefore, they'll have the full support of this government. I understand what long deployments mean to wives and husbands, and mothers and fathers, particularly as we come into a holiday season. I understand. And I have made it abundantly clear how tough it is.

"I also believe we're going to succeed. I believe we'll prevail. Not only do I know how important it is to prevail, I believe we will prevail. I understand how hard it is to prevail. But I also want the American people to understand that if we were to fail -- and one way to assure failure is just to quit, is not to adjust, and say it's just not worth it -- if we were to fail, that failed policy will come to hurt generations of Americans in the future.

"And as I said in my opening statement, I believe we're in an ideological struggle between forces that are reasonable and want to live in peace, and radicals and extremists. And when you throw into the mix radical Shia and radical Sunni trying to gain power and topple moderate governments, with energy which they could use to blackmail Great Britain or America, or anybody else who doesn't kowtow to them, and a nuclear weapon in the hands of a government that is -- would be using that nuclear weapon to blackmail to achieve political objectives -- historians will look back and say, how come Bush and Blair couldn't see the threat? That's what they'll be asking. And I want to tell you, I see the threat and I believe it is up to our governments to help lead the forces of moderation to prevail. It's in our interests.

"And one of the things that has changed for American foreign policy is a threat overseas can now come home to hurt us, and September the 11th should be a wake-up call for the American people to understand what happens if there is violence and safe havens in a part of the world. And what happens is people can die here at home.

"So, no, I appreciate your question. As you can tell, I feel strongly about making sure you understand that I understand it's tough. But I want you to know, sir, that I believe we'll prevail. I know we have to adjust to prevail, but I wouldn't have our troops in harm's way if I didn't believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we'll succeed. Thank you."

Robinson blogged about Bush's response: "I've just been eyeballed long and hard by George Bush for suggesting he might be in denial re Iraq."

In a later post, he added: "The detail of his response was fascinating. In his answer, he mentioned 9/11, the danger that Iraq would become a safe haven for terrorists (as Afghanistan was), the nuclear threat (presumably he meant Iran), and oil. So it seems that while the president is on the back foot at home on Iraq, he tried to raise all the things that would encourage the American people to support him."

What Bush didn't do, of course, was answer the question he was asked.

Next up was Bill Neely of ITV News.

"Q: Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group said that leaders must be candid and forthright with people. So let me test that. Are you capable of admitting your failures in the past, and perhaps much more importantly, are you capable of changing course, perhaps in the next few weeks?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I think you're probably going to have to pay attention to my speech coming up here when I get all the recommendations in, and you can answer that question, yourself. I do know that we have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed. I do understand that progress is not as rapid as I had hoped. And therefore, it makes sense to analyze the situation and to devise a set of tactics and strategies to achieve the objective that I have stated. . . .

"You wanted frankness -- I thought we would succeed quicker than we did, and I am disappointed by the pace of success."

Bush's response to Neely's question was particularly telling because it demonstrated that the president still doesn't think he himself did anything wrong in Iraq. He recognizes that things didn't go as planned there, but doesn't seem to think any of it was his fault.

That indeed casts doubt on his ability to change course. As I pointed out in my October 20 column, the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem.

Frank James blogs about the Brits for the Chicago Tribune: "We American reporters aren't sure why our British cousins don't stand when they ask questions of our president or their prime minister like we do," he writes.

"But they sure have a suave way of asking the impertinent questions we reporters are duty bound to ask the powerful."

The Coverage

Bush claimed to have read the Iraq Study Group report, but so far there are no signs that it has changed his mind about anything. In addition to rejecting its key proposals yesterday, Bush continued to use the sort of soaring rhetoric about democracy, ideological struggle and victory that the report's authors pointedly avoid as irrelevant to the current dire situation on the ground.

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, responding Thursday to a scathing bipartisan assessment of the Iraq war, vigorously rejected the idea that deteriorating conditions there require the United States to scale back its goals and said that he remains committed to 'victory in Iraq.' . . .

"As he has many times before, Bush cast the Iraq war as part of a global struggle between violent ideological extremists and defenders of freedom and democracy.

"'We will stand firm again in this first war of the 21st century,' the president said. 'We will defeat the extremists and the radicals. We will help a young democracy prevail in Iraq. And in so doing, we will secure freedom and peace for millions, including our own citizens.'"

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush vowed yesterday to come up with 'a new strategy' in Iraq but expressed little enthusiasm for the central ideas of a bipartisan commission that advised him to ratchet back the U.S. military commitment in Iraq and launch an aggressive new diplomatic effort in the region. . . .

"The emerging debate over the report sets a baseline for the administration's own internal review of Iraq policy, which officials hope to complete in time for Bush to give a speech to the nation before Christmas announcing his new plan for Iraq. . . .

"Yet, while the president called the Iraq Study Group's ideas 'worthy of serious study,' he seemed to dismiss the most significant ones point by point. He noted that Blair is heading to the Middle East to promote Arab-Israeli peace, but he gave no indication that he plans an aggressive new push of his own as proposed by the commission. Bush said he, too, wants to bring U.S. troops home but noted that the group qualified its 2008 goal by linking it to security on the ground.

"And he repeated his refusal to talk with Iran and Syria unless Tehran suspends its uranium-enrichment program, Damascus stops interfering in Lebanon and both drop their support for terrorist groups."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "Three other reviews -- one by the Pentagon, one by the State Department and one by the National Security Council -- are under way, and Mr. Bush reiterated Thursday that while he believed that the nation needed 'a new approach' in Iraq, he would make no decision until he received those reports."

Reaching Out?

Stolberg and Zernike write about Bush's meeting on Wednesday with leaders of congressional committees that oversee foreign affairs, defense and intelligence.

"The Wednesday meeting opened with Mr. Bush making an overture to Democrats, [a] senior official said, and telling them that although they may believe he has made the wrong decisions, they needed to work together. 'The president started by saying that, you know, there's a lot of water under the bridge, but that while we may not share all the views of this report, we ought to use it as an opportunity to work together,' the official said, adding, 'I've been through a lot of those meetings, and sometimes you feel like people are going through the motions. And I felt yesterday that there was really a sincere effort, both Republican and Democrat, to say this could provide us an opportunity to find common ground.'"

Bush met with congressional leaders today as well. Afterwards, he again spoke of cooperation: "I assured the leaders that the White House door will be open when the new Congress shows up. And I think we ought to meet on a regular basis; I believe there's consensus for that. And the reason you meet on a regular basis is so that the American people can know that we're working hard to find common ground. That's what they expect us to do; they expect us to work on big problems and solve them."

The Toughest Challenge

Stephanie Griffith writes for AFP: "The authors of a critical new report on U.S. policy in Iraq acknowledged that bringing a skeptical White House on board could prove one of the biggest challenges.

"One day after unveiling their report, the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, said little progress will be made in implementing its recommendations without President George W. Bush's support. . . .

"'The fact of the matter is that you have President Bush in office for two more years. The fact of the matter is that the report that we put before you must largely be implemented by the executive branch. You cannot dodge that fact,' said Hamilton, a former Democratic representative."

But Hamilton also spoke of the importance of oversight.

"'I think the Congress has been extraordinarily timid in its exercise of its constitutional responsibilities on the question of war-making and conducting war,' he said.

"'In a word, I think very robust oversight is necessary. I think it's been lacking. I think it has not been a strong performance by the Congress.'"

All Alone?

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "the grim assessment from the bipartisan group of an Iraq rapidly spinning out of control had already, a day after the release of its report, so undermined the ground on which Bush stood that it was unclear where he could turn for political support if he spurned its recommendations for change."

Word Watch

Farah Stockman writes in the Boston Globe: "Bush used the word 'prevail' 11 times in the hour-long White House press conference in his first expansive remarks since the Iraq Study Group offered a devastating assessment Wednesday of U.S. policy in Iraq.

"'I believe we'll prevail,' he said. 'I understand how hard it is to prevail. But I also want the American people to understand that if we were to fail . . . that failed policy will come to hurt generations of Americans in the future.'"

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "When he received his own copy of the Iraq Study Group report, President Bush praised the subtitle, 'The way forward -- a new approach.' On Thursday, it was clear he had added the phrase to his lexicon. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair used 'forward' or 'way forward' about two dozen times during their news conference about the war and problems in the Middle East."

From a Los Angeles Times editorial on Bush's repeated description of the report as "important": "Oh well. At least the Iraq Study Group had one 24-hour news cycle before it was dismissed as 'important.' In Washington, importance is the last stop before irrelevance; it's a graceful way to offer praise without support. On that score, there is reason for more than just the members of the group to be worried. The president and the prime minister used the word 46 times in 53 minutes, including to describe the goal of eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops and the need to be engaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"Semantics aside, Bush's performance Thursday was depressing. He turned truculent when pressed to describe the situation on the ground ('It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?') and was irritatingly simplistic explaining his rationale for staying there ('I wouldn't have our troops in harm's way if I didn't believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we'll succeed'). His opening remarks included the usual airy rhetoric about creating a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and ominous yet vague references to 'the forces of terror and extremism.' For minutes at a time, the conference sounded like it could have been taking place in 2003."

Opinion Watch

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The Decider isn't in the habit of letting mere facts get in the way of blind conviction."

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, writes in a New York Daily News opinion column: "Even if [the report's] recommendations are spot-on, even if the president accepted every detail, there is not the requisite diplomatic skill and expertise within this national leadership to pull it off.

"Not to mention that one of its key members, the vice president and his staff, are adamantly opposed to even making the effort. . . .

"How to circumvent him and his minions? It seems an impossible undertaking. With 88 people working directly for him on his own personal staff -- an unprecedented number -- and others strategically placed throughout the federal bureaucracy, Cheney is a formidable force. Isolated by the president or not, he can still wreak havoc, for example, with any attempt to empower Secretary of State Rice to conduct meaningful diplomacy in the region."

On Talking

Bush certainly has an odd concept of what "conversation" means.

"It's really interesting to talk about conversations with countries -- which is fine; I can understand why people speculate about it -- but there should be no mistake in anybody's mind, these countries understand our position. They know what's expected of them," he said.

"There is -- if we were to have a conversation, it would be this one, to Syria: Stop destabilizing the Siniora government. We believe that the Siniora government should be supported, not weakened. Stop allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq. Don't provide safe haven for terrorist groups. We've made that position very clear."

Isn't the whole point of having a conversation that it goes both ways?

Poll Watch

Nancy Benac writes for the Associated Press: "Americans are overwhelmingly resigned to something less than clear-cut victory in

Iraq and growing numbers doubt the country will achieve a stable, democratic government no matter how the U.S. gets out, according to an AP poll.

"At the same time, dissatisfaction with President Bush's handling of Iraq has climbed to an all-time high of 71 percent. The latest AP-Ipsos poll, taken as a bipartisan commission was releasing its recommendations for a new course in Iraq, found that just 27 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, down from his previous low of 31 percent in November."

Does the White House care about such polls?

George Stephanopoulos says on ABC this morning: "They have to care, because the president's going to try to get support for his change in strategy . . . and with poll numbers like this, it's going to be tough."

Those Enormous Supplementals

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "In a little-noticed section of its report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group lambasted the method the Bush Administration has used to pay for the Iraq war, saying its reliance on 'emergency' budgeting procedures has circumvented congressional oversight and led to billions of taxpayer dollars spent on extras and pet projects not directly related to the war.

"The White House early next year plans to send Congress its largest supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the budgeting practice began in 2001. The total figure is still being worked out, but congressional officials have been told it could be as much as $160 billion -- the vast majority to be spent on Iraq. . . .

"Members of Congress have repeatedly called on the White House to use the traditional budget process to pay for the war. Sen. John McCain Republican of Arizona, and Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, co-authored legislation requiring the war funding to be routed through the normal federal budget process. . . .

"Bush signed the defense bill containing the McCain-Byrd amendment this fall, but he later issued a 'signing statement' asserting he has the power as commander-in-chief to ignore the budgeting law."

Medal of Freedom Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush on Thursday announced the recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award."

Among the recipients: blues singer and guitarist B.B. King and historian David McCullough.

Here's the full White House list.

And no, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld isn't getting one. So there's no reason to even bring up the 2004 event, when Bush presented the medal to Gen. Tommy Franks, former CIA director George Tenet and former Iraq proconsul L. Paul Bremer.

Mary Cheney's Pregnancy

Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column about the news that Mary Cheney, the vice president's lesbian daughter, is pregnant.

"[W]hether she intends it or not, her pregnancy will, I think, turn out to be a watershed in public understanding and acceptance of the phenomenon. This is the Ellen DeGeneres moment of national politics. . . .

"Perhaps Cheney's high-profile pregnancy will help the Republican Party come to grips with [gay marriage]. If not, though, she's going to have to explain to her child what mommy was doing trying to help a party that doesn't believe in fairness for families like theirs."

Oh Christmas Tree

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "In traditional fashion, President Bush presided over the lighting of the national Christmas tree Thursday by asking the country to remember and honor its troops."

Here are Bush's remarks celebrating the "Christmas Pageant of Peace."

Happy BarneyCam!

What would the holiday season be like without a BarneyCam movie? Thank goodness, we don't have to find out yet.

The fifth annual Barney holiday video is out, entitled " Barney's Holiday Extravaganza." You can find links to the previous four here.

This one's a bit listless, I'm afraid, in spite of the appearances by the president, the first lady, Dolly Parton and Emmitt Smith.

The highlights: Karl Rove and Tony Snow contributing breakout performances (they're natural actors); and Barney's attempt to take over the under-construction briefing room for his holiday extravaganza. "You can't have the press room, okay? It will really tick them off," Snow tells the dog, eliciting a growl.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the Iraq Study Group report.

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

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