Bolten Pushes Bush to Listen

Special to
Monday, December 11, 2006; 12:00 PM

Newsweek today weighs in with a new White House narrative, this one starring Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

When Bolten took over from go-along-get-along Andrew H. Card Jr. in April, the expectation was that the change would be dramatic. By all public indications, it wasn't.

If Newsweek is to be believed, however, Bolten has for more than eight months been quietly and diligently working to lance the protective bubble that for so long encouraged President Bush to believe that his Iraq policy was succeeding.

And at long last, as exemplified by well-publicized events last week and this week, Bolten has finally succeeded in getting Bush to adopt an entirely new trick: Listening. Or at least giving the appearance of listening.

What's missing from this narrative, of course, is whether all this "listening" will actually lead Bush to change course.

Also missing: How Bolten has neutralized Vice President Cheney -- if he has at all. Because if Cheney is still the first and last person whispering into Bush's ear about Iraq, then whatever he may have heard in between doesn't really matter.

Weston Kosova is the author of the fascinating Newsweek story.

He writes: "For months, the White House had been girding for the release of the Iraq Study Group report. They knew from press leaks that it would be critical in tone and that the president wouldn't like some of its ideas -- especially a suggested pullback of U.S. troops and a proposal to reach out to Syria and Iran for help in quelling violence in the country.

"The challenge for Bush's team was to make the president appear as though he were taking the release of the report seriously, without necessarily embracing its conclusions. In the days following the report's release, Bush the Decider transformed himself into Bush the Listener. Usually prickly with war critics -- on the rare occasions he spoke to them at all -- the president now invited them in from the cold and kept quiet. . . .

"The change in Bush's approach had its beginnings well before [James A. Baker III's] group put pen to paper. It came about in part because of a slow, careful effort by Bush's closest aides -- under the direction of chief of staff Josh Bolten -- to convince the president that he had to listen to different voices on Iraq, and ultimately change direction. . . .

"When Bolten took charge of the West Wing last April, he was one of the few people in the White House who were willing to admit that Iraq was broken and that the president was stuck. He worried that Bush had been hearing the same bad advice from the same people for nearly three years. Over the summer, Bolten began the first of his efforts to puncture Bush's bubble by having the president sit down with some of the harshest critics of the war -- conservatives who had turned against the effort. At one session last summer at Camp David, Bolten sat Bush, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld across from a group of academics. 'They were folks who had actually been to the region and spent the time talking to noncommissioned officers and generals,' Bolten says. The academics were told not to hold back. A couple of weeks later, Bolten staged another session with Iraq experts, who met with the president at the Pentagon. Among them: Vali Nasr, an authority on the rise of the Shia. Bolten, who is known to obsess over the smallest details, makes careful seating charts for Oval Office briefings to put certain advisers directly in Bush's line of sight so the president will be more likely to listen carefully to their opinions. . . .

"In the weeks before the Republicans lost Congress, while Karl Rove was predicting victory, Bolten tasked a small group of trusted aides to plan for electoral defeat and its aftermath. The first step was to fire the abrasive, out-of-touch Rumsfeld and replace him with straight-talking Robert Gates. The second was to ready a respectful response to the pending Baker-Hamilton report but to downplay its importance by stressing it is just one of several government reports on the war effort that Bush is reviewing. The final phase was to move past the elder statesmen by introducing Bush's own strategy."

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