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Laura Bush's Disastrous Diplomacy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 6, 2008 12:38 PM

When a country run by a despotic and isolationist regime is laid low by a massive natural disaster, the diplomatic thing to do is to respond with a show of compassion. Not kick 'em when they're down.

More than 22,000 people have died in the staggering devastation caused by this weekend's cyclone in Burma. But when First Lady Laura Bush made her first-ever visit to the White House briefing room yesterday, to talk about what's going on in that country, it was not to deliver a message of goodwill.

Rather than announce the launch of a massive relief effort that could take advantage of a rare diplomatic opening, the first lady instead tossed insults at Burma's leaders, blamed them for the high death toll, and lashed out at their decision to move forward with a constitutional referendum scheduled for this Saturday.

The traditionally issue-averse first lady's concerns about the Burmese junta and its abuses of human rights date back several years, and she's been particularly outspoken since last fall.

But why respond to a catastrophe with such hostility? The awkward timing, as it turns out, may have had something to do with an event entirely unrelated to the cyclone.

"I'm going to leave tomorrow for Crawford, for Jenna's wedding, and I wanted to be able to make a statement about Burma before I left," the first lady told reporters.

The Coverage

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush condemned the military government in Burma yesterday for its 'inept' response to a deadly weekend cyclone, marking an unusual foray by the president's spouse into a high-profile foreign policy crisis.

"Appearing at a White House news conference, the first lady said the military junta in Burma is preventing the United States and other nations from providing help in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, and she alleged that the country's rulers purposely declined to warn people of the impending danger. . . .

"Bush . . . called the Burmese regime 'very inept' and urged it to cancel plans for a referendum later this week, which she said would 'give false legitimacy to their continued rule.'

"The remarks underscore the first lady's uncommon emergence as the administration's most visible spokesman on Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is ruled by a junta that is widely criticized as one of the world's most oppressive and corrupt regimes. The news conference marked the first time that she presided at the White House briefing room, which is generally used for official pronouncements by President Bush or his senior aides."

But other countries aren't holding back -- and Burma is apparently begging for help.

Amy Kazmin writes in The Washington Post: "Burma's government, which is traditionally wary of international aid workers, issued a rare appeal for outside help. The United Nations, the United States, Britain and the European Union all expressed willingness to assist, while India said Monday that it was already dispatching two naval ships with relief supplies."

In fact, despite the first lady's claim that Burma was blocking delivery of international aid, "Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Burmese authorities 'are receptive to international assistance' and that 'discussions are taking place in New York and on the ground about what is needed, what the U.N. can provide and how to get it to the people.'

"U.N. officials said hundreds of thousands of people -- left homeless after the storm flattened fragile bamboo-and-thatch homes -- are in urgent need of clean drinking water and shelter. Teams from the local Red Cross have already begun distributing plastic sheeting and water-purification tablets from existing stockpiles in the country, but Horsey said far more will be needed, given the scale of the disaster."

Andrew Buncombe writes for the Independent: "The secretive military junta that has ruled the impoverished nation for two decades took the unprecedented step yesterday of issuing an urgent appeal for international help. . . .

"[A]t a meeting of foreign diplomats, Burma's Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, said he feared that 10,000 people could be dead and the worst of the damage was in the delta area. The diplomats were told that Burma welcomed international humanitarian aid including roofing materials, medicine, water-purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The first shipment of nine tonnes is due to arrive from Thailand today."

The Independent's editorial board writes: "If Burma's rulers have accepted that this disaster is too big for the country to handle on its own, and that relieving the suffering of their stricken people should take precedence over their hermit instincts, this is progress of a kind. The decision to open the country a crack is still progress, even if the response is born of fear for the regime's survival. . . .

"There have been times, though, when some real good has come of such aid efforts, when dire need has forced open not just the doors of government ministries, but minds of closed societies as well."

Richard Walden blogs on Huffingtonpost.com: "Most of us in the relief business have strong views pro or con about the governments of countries whose people we help. But when disaster strikes, a bad or ineffective local government is an obstacle to be danced around not bludgeoned to death thus guaranteeing it will not allow the entry of urgent humanitarian aid for its people.

"Laura Bush read the administration's long-standing talking points on Myanmar while simultaneously demanding that its government accept a team of US disaster officials to make an independent assessment of its needs. That the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the European Union and a number of highly competent relief agencies were already on the ground doing exactly that did not seem to matter. Giving Laura a mike and a little halo seemingly was the intent, especially with George W. Bush's popularity hovering at 27% in the polls."

The first lady tried to make a big deal of the aid the government had already provided: "Americans are a compassionate people and we're already acting to provide help. The U.S. has offered financial assistance through our embassy." But that financial assistance has thus far amounted to a total of $250,000 -- a mere trifle considering the scope of the disaster.

An Inappropriate Segue

And then she started talking about Jenna's wedding.

As Huffingtonpost.com reports: "A White House press conference given by First Lady Laura Bush took a bizarre and insensitive twist when the focus of the conference, the devastation wrought by a powerful cyclone in Myanmar, switched to Jenna Bush's upcoming wedding."

Andrew Malcolm blogs for the Los Angeles Times that "alas, MSNBC's directors in New York, who were carrying the Q and A part of her appearance live, left up the caption from the earlier part -- 'Breaking News First Lady talks about deadly cyclone in Myanmar' -- and continued showing looped news footage of the devastation while the bride's mom obligingly answered wedding queries about their idyllic country getaway, their daughter's happy day and getting their first son in the family."

Here's how the first lady's briefing on Burma concluded:

Q. "Is it true there is an altar of limestone --"

Mrs. Bush: "That's right, the President told that this morning on ' Good Morning America.' This was his idea, to build this beautiful limestone altar, and it's the Texas limestone -- the same that our house is made out of -- from a local quarry, and they're the ones that made it -- "

Q: "Is he more nervous or are you?"

Mrs. Bush: "Neither one of us are nervous. I'm very, very excited. It's a very interesting passage of life when you get to that time in your life when your child, first child is getting married -- and we're getting, for us, our first son. So it's a thrill and we're very happy about it."

Q: "When some grandchildren come will they be named George -- "

Mrs. Bush: "George or Georgia -- Georgina. Georgette. (Laughter.)"

Adding More Insult to Injury

President Bush this morning added to his wife's incitement of the Burmese junta, publicly signing a bill granting the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese democracy activist and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

"This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma, and who speaks in such a way that she's a powerful voice in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country," Bush said.

Then he added: "Burma has been hit by a terrible natural disaster. Laura and I and members of the Senate and House here express our heartfelt sympathy to the people of Burma. The United States has made an initial aid contribution, but we want to do a lot more. We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who've lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.

"So our message is to the military rulers: Let the United States come to help you, help the people. Our hearts go out to the people of Burma. We want to help them deal with this terrible disaster. At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society."

Bush's Twilight

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post with "Dispatches from the twilight of a presidency":

"Eight months before the end of his second term, President Bush is forgotten but not gone. Power has shifted to Congress, attention has moved to the campaign trail, and the White House seems at times to be just going through the motions. For many reporters who remain on the White House beat, it has become a time to phone it in -- literally.

"Four minutes after the scheduled start time for yesterday's White House briefing, only 14 of the 49 seats were occupied -- and the 14 included flamboyant radio host Lester Kinsolving, who sat in the Bloomberg News seat; Raghubir Goyal of an obscure Indian American publication, who occupied the New York Times chair; and a foreign journalist in the back row, perusing the White House's Cinco de Mayo dinner menu. Though attendance eventually swelled to 28, many of the nation's leading news outlets left their chairs empty. . . .

"To react to the main news of the day -- thousands of deaths from the cyclone in Burma -- Bush sends his wife out to make a statement. She criticizes the Burmese government for its failure 'to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path' and 'to meet its people's basic needs.' Reporters, too tactful to draw parallels to New Orleans, quiz her instead about daughter Jenna's wedding."

Show Trials a No-Show

Josh White writes in The Washington Post from Guantanamo Bay: "At the end of a tattered, sunbaked runway dotted with large green tents here is a building aptly called the Expeditionary Legal Complex Courtroom, surrounded by coils of concertina wire, where the most notorious alleged terrorists in U.S. custody are supposed to face charges related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Nearly seven years later, however, not one of the approximately 775 terrorism suspects who have been held on this island has faced a jury trial inside the new complex, and U.S. officials think it is highly unlikely that any of the Sept. 11 suspects will before the Bush administration ends.

"Though men such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, are expected to be arraigned in coming months -- appearing publicly for the first time after years of secret detention and harsh interrogations -- officials say it could be a year or longer before worldwide audiences will see even the first piece of evidence or testimony against them. . . .

"Although defense officials have said they want to start the Sept. 11 trials before the Bush administration ends -- and one high-ranking Pentagon officer has been quoted talking about the 'strategic political value' of doing so before the November elections -- those involved privately agree that opening statements could be a year or more away. . . .

"'This is a self-inflicted wound,' said Michael Berrigan, deputy chief defense counsel for the military commissions and a former longtime Army lawyer. 'It's a sad day in the history of this republic when we have abandoned the rule of law.'"

Back in December, when the administration announced to great fanfare the capital murder charges against half a dozen men allegedly linked to the 9/11 attacks, Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times that charges would likely "bring the election-year focus back on Bush's favorite issues."

The cases "represent a major part of 'the unfinished business' that Mr. Bush and his aides talk about when they vow 'to sprint to the finish.'"

More From Sanchez

Sig Christenson writes in the San Antonio Express-News about Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's description of a White House videoconference on the second day of fighting between Marines and entrenched guerrillas in Fallujah in April 2003.

"Sanchez, in a memoir to be released Tuesday, said Bush 'launched into what I considered a kind of confused pep talk' about the battle for Fallujah and an upcoming campaign to kill or capture radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and cripple his militia.

"'Kick ass!' Bush said. 'If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell!' . . .

"'Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking.' . . .

"Fueled by images beamed by the Al-Jazeera television network, the administration quickly reversed course, stopping Operation Vigilant Resolve. Soon after, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer dropped plans to capture or kill al-Sadr, even though the president had said during the April 7, 2003, meeting, 'It is essential he be wiped out,' according to the memoir. . . .

"Sanchez's nearly 500-page memoir, 'Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story,' takes the administration to task for a series of missteps that he says have made it impossible for America to leave Iraq. He wants a 9-11-style investigation into why the United States went to war in Iraq, and also said Bush's 'suspension' of the Geneva Conventions 'led to putting America on the path to torture.'"

William Arkin, blogging for washingtonpost.com, is unimpressed by this, as well as by the excerpt from Sanchez's book published by Time last week. Arkin writes: "So we are supposed to listen to the guy who presided over Iraq's implosion and Abu Ghraib?"

Torture Watch

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is holding a hearing today to examine the executive branch's role in authorizing interrogation methods.

Suicides

Avram Goldstein writes for Bloomberg: "The number of suicides among veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may exceed the combat death toll because of inadequate mental health care, the U.S. government's top psychiatric researcher said.

"Community mental health centers, hobbled by financial limits, haven't provided enough scientifically sound care, especially in rural areas, said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He briefed reporters today at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in Washington."

McCain Watch

Arianna Huffington writes at her blog: "At a dinner party in Los Angeles not long after the 2000 election, I was talking to a man and his wife, both prominent Republicans. The conversation soon turned to the new president. 'I didn't vote for George Bush' the man confessed. 'I didn't either,' his wife added. Their names: John and Cindy McCain (Cindy told me she had cast a write-in vote for her husband).

"The fact that this man was so angry at what George Bush had done to him, and at what Bush represented for their party, that he did not even vote for him in 2000 shows just how far he has fallen since then in his hunger for the presidency. By abandoning his core principles and embracing Bush -- both literally and metaphorically -- he has morphed into an older and crankier version of the man he couldn't stomach voting for in 2000."

Howard Kurtz and Juliet Eilperin blog for The Washington Post: "Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for McCain, said 'It's not true, and I ask you to please consider the source.'

"Asked why Huffington would make up her story about McCain not voting for Bush, longtime McCain aide Mark Salter -- who has previously tangled with the Huffington Post -- ripped into her. 'Why would she make something up? Because she's a flake, and a poser, and an attention seeking diva. And that's on the record.'"

Karl Rove Watch

Wendy Victora writes in the Northwest Florida Daily News about a Republican Party fundraising breakfast held at a Fort Walton Beach restaurant on Saturday, with headliner Karl Rove: "Restaurant owner, Tom Rice, said Rove was personable and shook everyone's hands. He talked about how he still has lunch every week at the White House and shared insights into what life is like there, Rice said.

"He also talked about the current presidential race.

"'He figured that Barack Obama would probably be the Democratic candidate,' Rice said. '(Rove) is a strategist. (He said) it would be difficult for Hillary (Clinton) to get the numbers she would need.'"

Bush's Competition

Jay Tolson writes in U.S. News: "Is George W. Bush's presidency shaping up to be one of the worst in U.S. history? You hear the question being asked more and more these days. And more and more, you hear the same answer. With Iraq a shambles and trust in the administration declining, it is probably not surprising that 54 percent of respondents in a recent USA Today/Gallup survey said that history would judge Bush a below-average or poor president, more than twice the number who gave such a rating to any of the five preceding occupants of the White House, including Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, including Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter."

It's too soon to say for sure, Tolson writes, but to help out, U.S. News sizes up the competition, with a list of the ten worst past presidents.

Uno in the Oval

Maria Baran writes for the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat: "Uno the beagle celebrated his third birthday Monday morning by meeting President and Laura Bush at the White House.

"'Oh, my gosh!' exclaimed breeder and co-owner Kathy Weichert, of Belleville. 'It was thrilling to shake his hand and he gave us a hug.'

"The Bushes gave Uno a red, white and blue collar and lead as a gift for the dog, who earlier this year claimed the title of Best of Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. . . .

"During the visit, the beagle did not make any new doggie friends.

"The Bushes' well-known black Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, are 'not very dog friendly -- terriers,' Weichert explained, so Uno did not meet them."

Wedding Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press about Jenna's wedding Saturday at the 1,600-acre Bush compound in Crawford: "Officially, the wedding is a private, family affair. The White House has issued no press releases, but the president and first lady have gradually dribbled out details about the nuptials Saturday at their 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas. . . .

"Doug Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush and author of a book on presidents' kin, calls Jenna's ceremony 'the anti-Alice Roosevelt wedding.' Former President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter was married in 1906.

"'That wedding took place during a time of prosperity and peace; this one at a time of economic struggle and war,' Wead said. 'The Roosevelt family was outgoing, flamboyant; this is a private family. That was one of the most popular presidencies in American history. Even John Adams didn't go on Mount Rushmore, but Teddy Roosevelt went on Mount Rushmore. This is an unpopular presidency. Alice had no bridesmaids. Jenna has 14.'"

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "Happy Cinco de Mayo. . . . And, of course, the President marked this occasion earlier today. President Bush said that Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity to recognize the strong ties of family, economy and culture that bind the United States and Mexico. That was nice. Yeah. Then the President said, 'Now, let's get back to building that fence.'"

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on Bush's turn to the dark side.

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