Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, July 18, at 11 a.m. ET .

Baker has been in Russia, covering President Bush's trip to the G-8 Summit: Microphone Captures Bush's Unscripted Comments at G-8, (Post, July 17, 2006)

Leaders Work Out Plan For End to Mideast Crisis, (Post, July 17, 2006)

The transcript follows.


Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Sorry to be late. Checking in here from Russia, where President Bush and the rest of the G-8 just wrapped up the first summit ever in this country. Lots to chat about, so let's get started.


Laramie, Wyo.: Have you seen that video of Bush grabbing Chancellor Angela Merkel on the shoulders like he was going to give her a massage and totally freaking her out? Can you believe the LA Times description:

"Entering the meeting room, as relayed by a Russian television camera, Bush headed directly behind the chancellor, reached out and, placing both hands on the collar of her gold jacket, gave her a short massage just below the neck.

She smiled."

Not what I saw.

Peter Baker: The summit gave us a few unscripted moments between world leaders, but I confess I didn't see that one.


Fairfax, Va.: Now that you have had a little bit of time to analyze what was accomplished or not at the recent G8 meeting, are you able to draw any conclusions? In the scheme of things, is the meeting a "relationship" meeting which the parties use to to develop and/or change positively or negatively the relationships between them or is it a meeting of real substance where something positive or negative will grow out of it at some future date?

Peter Baker: Most of these sorts of meetings involve lots of prearranged statements and "agreements" that sometimes don't seem to add up to much. There's lots of discussion going on in the NGO world about whether the G-8 has lived up to commitments made last year on world poverty and disease. This year, the official topics of energy, infectious disease and education were relegated to the sideline by the Middle East crisis, and in this case the leaders actually negotiated a plan to end it themselves rather than just leaving it to aides. Now whether it leads anywhere is another question. One of the most interesting and controversial ideas they put forward was an international security force in Lebanon to separate the two sides once fighting stops. But there's an unhappy history of foreign forces in Lebanon as well.


Washington, D.C.: You wrote, "President Bush and other world leaders put aside their differences Sunday and crafted a plan to stop the fighting in the Middle East, calling on Islamic militias to halt their rocket attacks on Israel and on Israeli forces to end their military response."

I understand it is customary to toast each other with massive amounts of vodka in Russia.

Were you 'toasting' too, or did you drink the Kool-Aid that Nick Burns brought to the press availability?

"Crafted a plan?"

I don't understand how making nice at the end of a G-8 summit and issuing a joint communique counts as "crafted a plan to stop the fighting in the Middle East". It is undeniable that if the two sides stop shooting at each other this would 'stop the fighting,' I don't see any 'plan' here.

Bush's unscripted, comments, caught live on the open mike; his description of the 'root-causes' for the violence in Lebanon and Israel were clearly at odds with the rest of the world.

Did I miss a real plan of joint action that they agreed to?

Peter Baker: Well, the plan specifically calls for Hezbollah and Hamas to release the Israeli soldiers they seized and cease rocket attacks, and for Israel to end its military operation and release Palestinian officials they arrested. It also calls for the U.N. to consider an international security force. This may or may not go anywhere, it may or may not be a good plan or a comprehensive plan, but it adds up to a little more than the more predictable statement of regret about the violence.


Los Angeles, Calif.: One question for the Bush Administration: "Are you just as certain about Iran and Syria 'calling the shots' regarding Hezbollah's current conflict with Israel as you were in determining Iraq processed WMDs?" While Administration officials including Bush make statements like "There is no doubt of Iran's and Syria's hand is this" or "Everybody knows Hezbollah would not make this move without Iran's and/or Syria's approval" it would help build confidence that the Bushies' intelligence capability has rebounded since the Iraq WMD debacle if concrete evidence was shown (ala President Kennedy's Administration showing photos of Russian missiles on the ground in Cuba during that crisis). This is not to imply Iran and/or Syria are innocent or blameless. But rather, showing concrete evidence would elevate the discussion above speculation and build confidence in the Administration's capabilities since it appears Joe Wilson is otherwise too busy with his lawsuit to take another trip at the behest of Administration officials.

Peter Baker: You raise interesting questions. The administration certainly made no concrete evidence available in St. Petersburg to back up the assertions about Syrian and Iranian involvement. That's one reason why other leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, said they refused to name those countries in the joint statement on the Middle East.


New York, N.Y.: After reading your article Leaders Work Out Plan For End to Mideast Crisis (Post, July 17), I am left with the impression that the G8 leaders have no plan at all. Do you think there is any likelihood this "plan" will have any effect on the conflict?

Peter Baker: There's lots of reasons to be skeptical. So far neither Hezbollah nor Israel shows any sign of backing down. The United States, obviously, has no influence with the former and doesn't want to use its influence with the latter.


Hanover, N.H.: Hi, Peter,

Is there a U.S. foreign policy? Are we ginning up for an attack on Iran and/or Syria?

Peter Baker: I see no signs of that, certainly not at the moment. We've written not long ago that the Pentagon has been drafting contingency plans for military strikes on Iran if the dispute over the nuclear issue leads to such a decision, but that doesn't mean it's really happening, at least not at this point. The military is obviously pretty well occupied next door in Iraq and not all that eager to take on new missions.


Bethesda, Md.: So what's with bumping you to the Style section with your insightful analysis of the President today? Joining the fun crowd?

On welfare to cattle farmers whether they need it or not, is it fair to say that the Bush administration through tax and program policies have systematically shifted government resources to the white, rich, and red Stated? It seems that the needy are derided for receiving "welfare" while the privileged are just entitled. I'm genuinely shocked at the Administration's approach. Bush's Bull Session: Loud And Clear, Chief, (Post, July 18)

Peter Baker: Bumped? No way, we love to write for Style. It makes us story-a-day hacks think we can play with the clever set. Just an illusion, of course, but pleasant while it lasts.

On the other question, I assume you're referring to the provocative series examining federal agriculture subsidies that grew to more than $25 billion last year, despite near-record farm revenue. Eye opening reporting, including today's piece by Gilbert Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen. For those who haven't seen it yet, we'll see if we can post it in a minute.

_______________________ No Drought Required For Federal Drought Aid, (Post, July 18)


Washington, D.C.: What are other leaders saying/thinking about the events in Israel and Lebanon and how long this will drag on?

Peter Baker: There's a growing alarm among other leaders, a rising fear that we're seeing the beginning of another protracted and deadly crisis not just a momentary surge of fighting. A lot of these leaders have been through this before in the region and don't want to go down that road again.


Charlottesville, Va.: Do you think that the President's self-satisfied vulgarity and confidence in his own opinions is as unsettling to the leaders of the European Community as it is to many of us here at home?

Peter Baker: Interesting question. None of them said so yesterday, in any case. And some of them have foul mouths of their own. President Putin has been known to brag that he would "wipe out" Chechen rebels in the, well, outhouse is a nice word for it. He also once suggested a reporter who questioned him on human rights abuses in Chechnya should be circumcised.


Arlington, Va.: Has the President taken any interest in the glories of St. Petersburg or is it pretty much like when he went to India and ignored the "obligatory" trip to the Taj Mahal?

Peter Baker: He's been to St. Petersburg at least a couple times before and Laura dragged him to the Hermitage museum but he only lasted 30 minutes there before leaving. On this trip, he didn't do any sightseeing other than to pay homage at a memorial to the residents of Leningrad who endured the 900-day Nazi siege during World War II. Of course, the official events were at some pretty interesting glories -- Peterhof, which was Peter the Great's summer palace and can fairly be said to rival Versailles, and Konstantinovsky Palace, a modest 1,000-room crib that Peter started but was never finished until Putin decided to rebuild and regild it a few years back.


Springfield, Va.: Hi Peter,

Do you think that President Bush is actually pleased that Israel is attacking the Hezbollah, but can't really admit it to the world--so instead he says,"I think Israel has the right to defend themselves." Thanks--keep up the good work.

Peter Baker: Good question. Hard to read his mind, maybe he'll say something around an open mike and tell us. I've certainly heard that speculation, though, that perhaps he's not so unhappy about an opportunity for Israel to cripple Hezbollah.


Kansas City, Mo.: Not sure if you can do this, but if you saw the Post's story on agricultural subsidies, any chance of asking Bush if he supports this seemingly wasteful program?

Peter Baker: It's a great question and one we should pose to him when we have the next opportunity.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The war in Iraq has emboldened leaders of North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah, among others. Europe denies the threat of military action in favor of diplomacy. What will it take for European leaders to use or employ the threat of military action? $100 per barrel gas prices? All out war in the Middle East? New U.S. leadership?

Peter Baker: It certainly does seem to be a crisis-filled summer, doesn't it? Bush tried to rein in some of the swaggering style of his first term to rebuild relations with European allies and try more diplomacy in the second. But it would be an interesting debate to look at whether one approach has worked any better than the other. What the administration would say, I'm sure, is that there is progress simply in the fact that the Europeans, Russia and China are working together with the United States on Iran, even if not in total harmony, and that China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are working with the U.S. on North Korea, with the same caveat. But we haven't seen the bottom line results yet. Time may help us answer the question.


Washington, D.C.: The footage I've seen of the conversation going on between Bush and Blair shows all the other leaders, sitting around rather blaze. I guess I wonder if any of them are at all surprised by this language from Bush-both the actually wording, and general tone. Their facial expressions read like "oh there he goes again".

And just a comment. A lot has been printed about Bush's relationship with Merkel. I am amazed that Bush would walk up behind her and massage her shoulders. That is such an American way of males displaying dominance.

Peter Baker: A lot of reaction to Bush's unplugged moment. I'll post a few.


Washington, D.C.: Despite the bruhaha surrounding Bush's use of profanity at the G-8 summit, doesn't the discussion speak volumes about his analytical thinking.

The idea that Syria (Assad) can call off Hezbollah is simplifying the situation to a great degree. Further, the lack of urgency that the USG is putting on resolving this issue is striking.

Also, Bolton's comments indicating that Lebanese civilian deaths are not equitable with Israeli civilian deaths is grotesque. Their both innocent, so what's the difference. This type of moral ambiguity regarding innocent life is troubling coming from a senior U.S. official.

Besides this, the flow of conversation was amusing. "Russia's big, China's big". Sounded like a discussion a 4th grader might have, not a man with an MBA. (or the leader of the free world) I couldn't imagine Bush I or Clinton having the same conversations.

Peter Baker: Here's another.


New Mexico: Regarding Bush's little mic-slip, everyone is focusing on him dropping the S-bomb but isn't the more serious issue the fact that he betrayed little diplomatic (or even just basic human behavior) knowledge by saying "what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this -poop] and it's over."

I mean, how simpleminded is that? It's like saying "All we've got to do to end the war is to get everyone who's fighting it to stop fighting it."

Peter Baker: And here's another.

One thing I'd note, just for the sake of the discussion, is that we should remember that the open-mike caught only four minutes of informal lunchtime chit chat, as opposed to the hours and hours of serious talks that took place behind closed doors over the weekend. So we only have a very limited window into the thinking.


Burke, Va.: Did the intensity of the Israeli reaction to the cross-border raid surprise you as much as it did me? I didn't expect as much bombing as what happened.

Peter Baker: I think it caught a lot of people off guard. Just from external appearances, at least, it seemed to have surprised the Bush people as they were traveling to Europe. Externally, at least, they appeared slow to really react with the gravity the situation would seem to invite. Now, to be fair, they deny that's the case and say they were privately all over this, making phone calls and so on that we didn't see. But the president in his first public remarks on the crisis while in Germany did not dwell much on it and his repeated jokes about the pig he was to be served for dinner may have unintentionally muddied the message.


Boston, Mass.: In Bush's defense, Russia and China -are- big.

Peter Baker: True enough!


New York, N.Y.: Until recently I looked forward to the discussion every day. Lately however it seems to have become one predictable Bush-bashing "question" after another. I'd really prefer questions seeking informative answers. I doubt that anyone reading the discussion is going to be swayed by comments concerning Bush's "vulgarity", etc. Grow up people!

Peter Baker: I hear you and agree that these chats are more fun when they're about trading information rather than making political points. So what we need are more probing questions. There's your homework assignment.


Washington, D.C.: I can't stand President Bush, but those who are obsessing about him using the S-word need to grow up. Who cares? The guy isn't Jimmy Carter, I think we all have that figured out by now.

Peter Baker: It doesn't seem to me that it's all that shocking that presidents use the same kind of language off stage (or when they think they're off stage) that many of us do. All you have to do is go back and read Michael Beschloss's terrific compilations of the LBJ tapes to get a sense of genuinely raw presidential patter.


San Francisco, Calif.: Wait, wait, wait, Peter, you'd have us believe that this President participated in hours and hours of behind-closed-doors debate and discussion? Isn't the "s--t" talking Bush the one you in the press corps see all the time but don't write about?

Peter Baker: He did in fact participate in hours and hours of closed-door discussions. Now, as he himself said, he grew weary of it. Too many of them talk too long, he said. But no, we're not covering up any Bush profanity, if that's what you mean.


Crystal City, Va.: Chirac and other European leaders complained about Israel's "disproportionate" response - did any journalist bother to ask them what type of response they thought would be proportionate to cross border attacks and a rain of missiles targeting civilians?

Peter Baker: A good question and I don't know if they were asked. (My French isn't as good as it was in high school -- sorry, Mrs. Thomason.) What does qualify as a proportionate response? One bombing? Ten? A hundred? I think part of what was behind their concerns was the choice of some of the targets -- airports, power stations, roads, bridges, civilian locations, not just areas where they think rockets were launched from.


Margate, N.J.: On balance, if Bush vetoes the stem cell research bill, do you think it will hurt or help him politically? Of course, the veto will play to the religious right, so presumably it will bolster his credentials there. But is that really enough at this point? I'm also sure that there are those in the religious right who are squirming right now over Bush's "on-mike" language at the G8 summit. For many evangelicals, those words are no-no's.

Peter Baker: Lot of questions today on the stem cell debate. If it's okay, I'm going to pass just because I've been out of the country the last week and haven't really been able to tune into the latest dialogue on it in Washington. Looking forward to catching up when I get back.


Duncanville, Tex.: Over the weekend "Condi" Rice stated on ABC's This Week, that "The president is talking to who 'we' think he should." "WE"? Bush was overheard garbling "I think she (Rice) is going in (Mideast) soon..." "THINK"? Who decides for the decider anyway? And why hasn't the media picked up on this fractured chain of deciding?

Peter Baker: Hmm, that may be reading more into it. Every president has advisers who together with him decide who he should talk with in a crisis. A presidential call is a very specific tool in the diplomatic arsenal and not pulled out at random or by whim. At least in general. Now some presidents are more active than others in bypassing this sort of process.


Washington, D.C.: Hello-

What do you make of the body language between Bush and Blair. I just know that I would have stood up if I were Bush. Do you think he could have done this if it were another foreign leader that he had a more formal relationship with? To me, it comes off quite rude, without even getting into the S-bomb. Safe travels.

Peter Baker: Maybe, but remember they'd been together for three days by that point. Anybody been to an office retreat or a family reunion that goes on for days? At a certain point you don't really stand on ceremony. But there was something interesting in the sense that Blair is approaching Bush seeking to press his points on a few issues and the president feels free to interrupt and change the subject if he wants. Again, I think moments like this are wonderfully revealing but don't want to go too far in drawing overarching conclusions based on four minutes of open mike.


That open mike!: What did President Bush's attitude to Tony Blair show about who's top dog in that relation? (I'm a UK ex-pat)

Blair suggested twice, I think, that he should go to the Mid East, and got the brush-off, imo. What's yours?

Peter Baker: I'm sure this will be viewed with a certain perspective in Britain where Blair has been widely lampooned as a "lapdog" for Bush for many years. No doubt the tabloids are already eating this up. Still, let's face it, like it or not, there are very few relationships in which the president of the United States, no matter who he is, isn't the top dog.


New York, N.Y.: About the tone of the chat: I've been surfing between this chat (and thank you for it) and the chat on the Middle East. The chat on the Middle East has more substance than style. It seems to me that politics has become overwhelmingly about style, provoking the questions the politics reporter is asked. If you tune into a chat on an issue, you probably want more information. Not the reporter's fault, he's answering the questions that come in.

Peter Baker: Fair point. Glad someone's doing substance today! Politics is a lot about style, that's true, but a good mix would be healthy.


Peter Baker: Okay, on that note I'm going to sign off here. Thanks for playing today. 'Til next time. And watch out for those microphones.




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