washingtonpost.com
The White House 'After Party'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 28, 2007 1:18 PM

A day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas nebulously agreed to begin negotiations, President Bush is hosting them at the White House -- but not, apparently, to lean on them for concessions and to start the arduous process of hashing out peace.

Rather, in the words of White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, "it's like the after party."

Most Middle East experts agree that the chance of yesterday's summit leading to anything remotely concrete will decrease from slim to none without Bush's intense personal engagement.

But other than presidential lip service to delegates at a conference at the Naval Academy yesterday -- "I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government," he said-- there are scant signs that he intends to follow through.

As I wrote in Monday's column, Bush's flirtation with Middle East summitry looks more like an attempt to humor his beloved secretary of state than it does a departure from his hands-off and ardently pro-Israeli posture of the past seven years.

There were clear signs of ambivalence yesterday. Bush mangled the names of his two guests of honor, calling them "Ehud Elmo" and "Mahoomed Abbas." And, after his speech, Bush didn't even stick around for the afternoon's events.

Dark Rhetoric, But No Action?

In an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, Bush was unable to say precisely what he would do next.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush expressed concern Tuesday about the risk of failure in the first major Mideast peace talks in seven years, warning that could spawn a generation of radicals and extremists. Still, he said, 'It is worth it to try.' . . .

"While Bush has been criticized for standing back from Mideast peacemaking for most of his presidency, he described himself as 'very engaged, up to the moment' in bringing Israel, the Palestinians and more than 40 countries together for a conference in Annapolis, Md., to launch the first major peacemaking effort in seven years. . . .

"'A moment like today just doesn't happen. It requires work to lay the groundwork for,' Bush said. . . .

"From here on, Bush described his role in the peace process this way: 'I work the phones, I listen, I encourage, I have meetings. I do a lot of things.'

"He wouldn't say either way whether he thought he would eventually travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories to help move things along. 'We'll see. You don't have to be in a particular country to have influence over whether or not the process moves forward. But I'd like to go Israel. I'd like to go to Saudi Arabia,' Bush said."

Here are some interview excerpts: "It is important that people understand that we're dealing not only with a lot of history, but we're dealing with terror and extremists and radicals who murder -- you've heard me say this a lot -- who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives. And therefore, the first step in getting to the process we ended up on today is to -- for me to have recognized that the problem is terror, and states cannot accept terror on their border, particularly democracies, nor can a state be formed because of terror," Bus said.

"So step one in getting to the process today was recognition of the significant problem that terror poses for the creation of a state."

Glenn Kessler notes in The Washington Post how Bush's speech, with its emphasis on terrorism, contrasted sharply with those of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"In his speech, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seized the opportunity to directly address Arab officials, a group that included 16 representatives of the 22-member Arab League, among them the deputy foreign minister of Syria. He referred to the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as 'my friend' and said that Israelis understand the humiliations that have been inflicted on Palestinians and how that has fed hatred against Israel. 'We are not indifferent to this suffering,' he said. . . .

"In his speech, Abbas also expressed his hope for peace and praised Olmert"

But: "In his own speech, Bush sketched a much more ominous view of the region than Olmert and Abbas. 'The battle is underway for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists,' he said. 'With their violent actions and contempt for human life, the extremists are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people, a vision that feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the Holy Land. If this vision prevails, the future of the region will be endless terror, endless war and endless suffering.' . . .

"Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said Bush's speech seemed jarring next to the more uplifting visions of Olmert and Abbas. 'It plays so badly in the region when he tries to make this an anti-terrorism conference,' he said.

The Agreement

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Israeli and Palestinian leaders formally agreed at an international conference Tuesday to launch their first set of peace negotiations in seven years, but failed in tortuous private discussions to resolve key questions over the content and structure of the talks.

"As a result, a day that began with handshakes and hopes for peace ended with undispelled doubts over the prospect for success of the renewed effort to end decades of strife in the Middle East. . . .

"Despite statements of mutual support, the vague wording of the joint declaration signaled that the Israelis had emerged from the conference with more of what they wanted than the Palestinians. It also underscored the wide chasm separating the two sides as they begin trying to reach a deal."

Steven Lee Myers and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "The agreement stopped short of the binding negotiating outline that many Palestinians had hoped for, but it revived a peace process that the United States had left dormant for seven years.

"Its success, both sides said, will depend in part on how vigorously President Bush pushes Palestinians and Israelis toward resolving the core issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979: the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who left, or were forced to leave, their homes in Israel."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "The outcome of Bush's new effort, in the twilight of his presidency, will depend greatly on the personal commitment he is willing to invest in the unfolding process, according to officials and experts on the Middle East.

"'At this point, he's come to an event and he's made a speech,' said Dennis Ross, the Middle East peace envoy of Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. 'The investment will come if he starts engaging in serious diplomacy.'"

Trying to Look Statesmanlike

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's effort this week to jump-start Mideast peace negotiations resembles other presidents' late-term bids to become peacemaking international statesmen.

"Some of them have made progress on foreign-policy problems, as Bill Clinton did with his own 2000 Camp David Mideast summit, but the grand gestures usually fail to erase their domestic troubles. The low expectations surrounding this particular summit make it unlikely to earn Bush a sudden wave of domestic acclaim.

"For one thing, he's shown limited interest in international diplomacy until now and arguably none in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. He's never visited Israel, has been reluctant to get directly involved in talks and spent only about four hours Tuesday at the conference in Annapolis, Md. . . .

"'The public's not going to buy this. They'll see it as too little too late,' said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of political science at Florida State University.

"For another, nothing that happens at Annapolis is likely to overshadow the problems dogging Bush, notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stumbling American economy."

That Last-Minute Drama

What drama there was yesterday came from the last-minute agreement on a joint statement.

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press: "Mere minutes before the Mideast peace conference was to open, the deal still wasn't done.

"Months of behind-the-scenes wrangling and a final marathon round of talks that had lasted until 3 a.m. and resumed at 5 a.m. still hadn't yielded an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on a joint statement to launch a new round of peace talks.

"The parties were still stuck on the wording of one key paragraph.

"And the Palestinians were still objecting to calling Israel a 'Jewish state.'

"So President Bush pulled aside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert individually for a couple of minutes each, as they arrived at the conference, hoping to impress upon them the value of issuing a statement."

A great moment for Bush's presidency? You would think so, from the White House's telling. From yesterday's briefing:

Question: "You also said that the President helped encourage them to finalize their statement while at the trilateral. I noticed he was wearing his glasses, suggesting to me they didn't have time to get it into large print. Was it that close, I mean, minutes?"

Perino: "Yes, sir, it was. But the President got there and he was informed by Secretary Rice that they were very close, but there were just some issues that still needed to be worked out, and the President helped finish -- helped them resolve those differences. Secretary Rice and her counterparts, the Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, stepped aside, worked on the language and brought it back, and everyone agreed to it. And the President said, why don't I read this at the top of my speech, and they all agreed."

But how exactly were those differences resolved?

Lee of the AP explains: "Representatives from all three sides were dispatched from a larger meeting to finish drafting the statement, officials said. About 25 minutes later, they decided simply to take out the disputed paragraph and make a couple of wording adjustments."

Here's the final version.

The Post's Kessler describes the whole thing this way: "A deadlock over the statement was broken only minutes before the conference started, mainly by the watering down or elimination of phrases that troubled each side. In a sign of the difficulties, talks had dragged on as late as 4 a.m. yesterday and the statement still did not specifically address any of the core issues dividing the two sides or mention previous U.N. resolutions that are supposed to form the basis for future talks."

More About Today's Meeting

Also from yesterday's briefing:

Question: "Presumably the President offered encouragement and inspiration when he met with the two leaders [Monday]. I wonder if he gets down to negotiating [Wednesday], if he starts to look at specific issues when he talks with them?"

Perino: "Well, we'll see. But my instinct is that that's not the intention of these meetings. This is going to be a situation where the Israelis and the Palestinians are going to have to work through these core substantive issues and look carefully at what President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert said today. They both said that they're committed to doing that; that they're not going to leave any issue untouched; and that it's going to be painful and difficult and it's going to be a long road, but that they are committed to doing it. And so the President can help guide them, but he is not going to do the negotiating for them.

Question: "So it's more inspiration tomorrow, then? More encouragement?"

Perino: "Well, we'll see."

Middle East Flashback

Here's Bush talking about all the progress he's making in the Middle East: "The first signs of peace happen when people make up their mind to work toward peace. And that's what you saw."

But wait! That was in June 2003. Never mind.

Opinion Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column that Rice is running "a seat-of-the-pants operation, which seems designed to rescue the images of a secretary of state and president who have spent more time working out in the gym than working on the peace process. . . .

"After subverting diplomacy in his first term, now W. does drive-by diplomacy, taking a playboy approach to peace. He wants to look like he's taking the problem of an Israeli-Palestinian treaty seriously when his true motivation is more cynical: pacifying the Arab coalition and holding it together so that he can blunt Iran's sway.

"When they invaded Iraq rather than working on the Palestine problem, W. and Condi helped spur the greater Iranian influence, Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiment that they are now desperately trying to quell."

Those who are praising the summit are doing so without much enthusiasm.

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The considerable skepticism that surrounds the new talks is justified. Yesterday's meeting resembled the Madrid peace conference arranged by the first Bush administration in 1991, a festival of speeches followed by negotiations that soon bogged down. Yet 16 years later there are some encouraging differences, starting with the far clearer commitment of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make peace."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Something real did happen in Annapolis. The process that began Tuesday may not lead to peace, but that doesn't mean that Annapolis was simply a gaudy, empty show. . . .

"Critics talked for months about how the conference wouldn't happen and wouldn't matter anyway. Well, it did, and it does. A peace process, with all its ambiguity and occasional sophistry, is underway."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Even at the best of times, issues that Bush and Rice want to resolve by the end of next year -- how to divide Jerusalem, how many Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return home -- are hard and solutions have been elusive.

"Even so, the Mideast peace process has always been about years of frustrating toil punctuated by sudden breakthroughs. By rolling up their sleeves and getting everyone back to the bargaining table, Bush and Rice have taken the first vital step on a journey that eventually may look more promising."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "In his opening speech, President Bush, assured Israel and the Palestinians that 'America will do everything in our power to support their quest for peace.'

"We hope that he means it -- and that he makes that clear to all those White House aides who keep extolling the virtues of not getting too involved.

"If there is any hope of pulling this off, Mr. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, will have to invest their time, their reputation and their best arm-twisting, including offering bridging proposals to nudge both sides beyond their long-fixed positions. There's no chance at all if Mr. Bush goes back to the sidelines."

Thomas L. Friedman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "President Bush said in opening the Annapolis conference that this was not the end of something, but a new beginning of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. You won't need a Middle East expert to explain to you whether it's working. If you just read the headlines in the coming months and your eyes glaze over, then, as the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea put it to me, you'll know that Annapolis turned the ignition key 'on a car with four flat tires.'

"But if you pick up the newspaper and see Arab and Israeli moderates doing things that surprise you, and you hear yourself exclaiming, 'Wow, I've never seen that before!' you'll know we're going somewhere."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Where there is even the faintest hope, we must protect and nourish the fragile embryo of peace."

Iraq Watch

The Pew Research Center reports on its latest poll: "For the first time in a long time, nearly half of Americans express positive opinions about the situation in Iraq. A growing number says the U.S. war effort is going well, while greater percentages also believe the United States is making progress in reducing the number of Iraqi casualties, defeating the insurgents and preventing a civil war in Iraq. . . .

"However, a rosier view of the military situation in Iraq has not translated into increased support for maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq, greater optimism that the United States will achieve its goals there, or an improvement in President Bush's approval ratings.

"By 54%-41%, more Americans favor bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible rather than keeping troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. The balance of opinion on this measure has not changed significantly all year.

"Similarly, Americans remain evenly divided over whether the U.S. is likely to succeed or fail in achieving its goals in Iraq; improved perceptions of the situation in Iraq have not resulted in a changed outlook in this regard. In addition, Bush's overall job approval now stands at 30%, which is largely unchanged since June and equals the lowest marks of his presidency."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that the poll results "reflect, or perhaps explain, a turn in Washington. . . .

"While Bush and Congress are still fighting over the war, the debate has moved to the back burner as Iran, spending, health care, the economy and other issues generate more political energy. . . .

"The shift has strategists in both parties reevaluating their assumptions about how the final year of the Bush presidency and the election to succeed him will play out. If current trends continue, Iraq may still be a defining issue but perhaps not the only one, as it once seemed, according to partisan strategists and independent analysts, particularly if the economy heads south as some economists fear. . . .

"[A]t least to an extent, the Washington debate has moved on. Congress made only a faint effort to pass legislation mandating a troop withdrawal as part of a $50 billion war spending bill this month and then quickly shelved it. Not counting the Turkish conflict with Kurdish rebels, Bush at his most recent news conference last month was not asked about the Iraq war until the 10th question. Not a single Iraq question came up at four of White House press secretary Dana Perino's seven full-fledged briefings this month."

In a separate report, Pew finds that, according to a new survey of journalists covering the war from Iraq, "many believe the situation over the course of the war has been worse than the American public has perceived."

And David Morgan writes for Reuters: "Forty-four percent of journalists believe reporting has treated the Bush administration fairly, while 43 percent said coverage has been too easy on U.S. officials."

Pakistan Watch

Pamela Constable reported in Monday's Washington Post: "Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan late Sunday, greeted by crowds of frenzied supporters after seven years in exile. His arrival injects a new element of complexity into the country's chaotic political scene and presents a powerful challenge to the military president who deposed him."

In yesterday's Associated Press interview, Bush strongly implied that Sharif is naive about terrorism -- maybe the worst sin in Bush's universe.

Said Bush, in response to a question about Sharif: "One of the things that President Musharraf has -- what he did that impressed me was he clearly understands the nature of the radical threat, and has worked hard to make sure his country doesn't become a haven for radicals. . . .

"And I would be concerned about any leader who didn't understand the urgency of dealing with radicals and extremists who want to attack the United States and/or any other nation."

AP: "Is Sharif in that category?"

Bush: "Well, I don't know him well enough. I would be very concerned if there was any leader in Pakistan that didn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today."

Iran Watch

Also from the AP interview:

AP: "OK, so, on Iran. It seems like every time you say you're trying to tamp down this march to war with Iran, then there seems to be another opening, and then you go back into being really hard on Iran again. The rhetoric kind of tends to go up and down a little bit. When you do that, the Americans are really afraid of war, and we're trying to figure out why you're doing that."

Bush: "Doing what now?"

AP: "Why you are stoking the rhetoric. . . .

Bush: "You mean the one time I -- one time I recently said, if you want to avoid World War III -- that time?"

AP: "Well, OK, that's a good example. I think there have been others, but maybe that's the most recent big example."

Bush: "I have consistently . . . ."

AP: "-- just the stoking of the rhetoric, I think -- we're wondering about what's behind that."

Bush: "Well, my concern that if they end up with a nuclear weapon, a generation is going to pay a terrible price. And the reason I've said that is because their own president has said that, 'we want to wipe out Israel,' for example. So when somebody says that, my judgment is, we ought to take them seriously."

AP: "So you're not concerned that it worries Americans thinking we're going into another war?"

Bush: "I have also said, if not once, a hundred times, that we want to try to solve this issue diplomatically."

AP: "Are you speaking to. . . ."

Bush: "And I think we can solve it diplomatically. And that's what we're trying to do. . . .

"In all due respect, I think this 'march to war' claim is pretty well created by punditry. I'm not suggesting you, although your language kind of made me believe that maybe you are part of trying to create this march to war.

"My language has been consistent, and very clear, and hopeful that we can solve the issue diplomatically. And I believe we can."

So why would anyone get such a ridiculous idea? Well, consider this new report, out yesterday, from the neoconservative American Foreign Policy Council -- a reliable mouthpiece for the office of the vice president.

Among the report's modest proposals: "Conducting a comprehensive assessment of Iran's operational and tactical vulnerabilities," "targeting Iran's ballistic missile arsenal as a way of downgrading its offensive and nuclear capabilities," "severing Tehran's ties to its terrorist proxies -- with force, if necessary," and -- get this -- "building the capacity for unconventional warfare within Iran."

Olbermann's Fact-Checking

Here's the video and transcript of Keith Olbermann's evisceration on MSNBC last night of Karl Rove's latest Iraq war revisionism.

As I noted in yesterday's column, Rove told PBS's Charlie Rose that it was Congress's fault that America invaded Iraq before the administration was really ready, by passing a use-of-force resolution prematurely.

Said Rove: "There was an election coming up in a matter of weeks. We thought it made it too political. We wanted it outside the confines of it. It seemed to make things move too fast. There were things that needed to be done to bring along allies and potential allies abroad."

Rove called it an "untold story."

Here's Olbermann last night: "It's an untold story because it isn't true. Here is what really happened according to a rogue Web site called Whitehouse.gov. Despite Rove's claim that the White House opposed voting on Iraq in the Fall of 2002, on the first full day of Fall that year the president urged Congress to pass an Iraq resolution, quote, ' Promptly.' A week later, the president and the House Republicans agreed on Iraq resolution. A week after that, President Bush was pleased with the House vote on Iraq. And a week after that, Mr. Bush signed the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq."

Olbermann also recalled a November 2005 Los Angeles Times article quoting Tom Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota. Here's an excerpt: "The time was September 2002. The place was the White House, at a meeting in which President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pressed congressional leaders for a quick vote on a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.

"But Daschle, who as Senate majority leader controlled the chamber's schedule, recalled recently that he asked Bush to delay the vote until after the impending midterm election.

"'I asked directly if we could delay this so we could depoliticize it. I said: "Mr. President, I know this is urgent, but why the rush? Why do we have to do this now?" He looked at Cheney and he looked at me, and there was a half-smile on his face. And he said: "We just have to do this now." '"

Said Olbermann's guest, Arianna Huffington: "I think it's the work of a shameless, remorseless and, perhaps, soulless political animal who cannot help himself even when he's out of the White House trying to rewrite history in his own way."

Another Departure

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's top economic adviser is stepping down at the end of the year, the latest in a series of White House departures.

"The resignation of Al Hubbard.. reflects how Mr. Bush's second-term agenda has stalled, particularly since the 2006 elections that put Democrats in charge of Congress. Already this year, Mr. Bush has seen the departures of his top political adviser, Karl Rove; communications chief Dan Bartlett; and budget director Rob Portman, among others.

"Mr. Hubbard's departure comes as the White House confronts one of the biggest economic challenges of Mr. Bush's presidency, the mortgage crisis that has triggered big losses on Wall Street, rising foreclosures and recession fears."

Here is Bush's statement about Hubbard this morning: "His work has resulted in creative, sensible policies that have helped Americans continue to compete and prosper and live better lives." Bush adds: "Keith Hennessey will succeed Al as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. Keith has been an important member of my White House team for more than five years."

Investigator Under Investigation

John R. Wilke writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The head of the federal agency investigating Karl Rove's White House political operation is facing allegations that he improperly deleted computer files during another probe, using a private computer-help company, Geeks on Call.

"Scott Bloch runs the Office of Special Counsel, an agency charged with protecting government whistleblowers and enforcing a ban on federal employees engaging in partisan political activity. Mr. Bloch's agency is looking into whether Mr. Rove and other White House officials used government agencies to help re-elect Republicans in 2006."

E-Mail Watch

Mary Ann Akers blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Earlier this year, it was discovered that Rove and other White House aides had been using private e-mail accounts at the RNC to send messages about controversial government matters, such as the firings of U.S. attorneys. When investigators came calling, the RNC couldn't find the e-mails but promised to look.

"Now, The Sleuth has learned, the hunt for those missing gigabytes has cost the RNC more than $250,000.

"According to an RNC filing with the Federal Election Commission, the committee paid $231,615 in October to Stroz Friedburg, a forensics firm chock full of former FBI agents hired to retrieve the lost electronic data. The report shows the committee also paid $41,217 in October to Covington & Burling, the law firm representing the RNC on the missing e-mail controversy. . . .

"But now that we know the RNC has paid Stroz Friedburg nearly a quarter million dollars, does that mean they've found the missing e-mail messages?

"The RNC isn't saying, nor is Stroz Friedburg."

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson, Jeff Danziger and Dwane Powell on Bush and the Middle East.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive