Associate Editor for The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 12, 2006 11:30 AM
Join Robert Kaiser on Tuesday, September 12, at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss President Bush's primetime televised speech on the fifth anniversary of September 11th. The sentiment surrounding the attack and the question of if homeland security has improved will be among topics considered.
Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.
Robert Kaiser: Hello to all, and welcome. I have an impressive number of questions already, and will do my best to answer as many of your questions as is humanly possible over the next hour or so. And I welcome comments from you that I can post without having to add one of my own.
The president's speech last night fascinated me as an example of how a politician reacts to trouble. Bush is, obviously, in a pretty deep hole. He is trying, for the umpteenth time, to persuade the country that he has a strategy for fighting terrorism and winning in Iraq, and that both fights are worth the lives and treasure they are costing.
His problem is pretty simple. It was nicely summarized, I thought, by Max Boot, a neoconservative analyist who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who gave my colleague Dan Balz yesterday this explanation for Bush's dilemma:
"We are losing a war right now, and there's no way to get around that."
Boot's comment appears in a good analysis by Balz and Mike Abramowitz that we will link to here.
Now on to your questions...
washingtonpost.com: President Tries to Win Over a War-Weary Nation (Post, Sept. 12)
Rochester, NY: I have a sense that the recent Bush PR offensive is largely being ignored except by those people whose job it is to cover it. Do you have that sense as well?
Robert Kaiser: This is an important question which, alas, I cannot answer, not knowing how Americans are reacting to the latest PR offensive. But we'll have polls in the days ahead to give us a good clue.
I note that although The Post featured the story of Bush's speech on the top of our front page this morning, the NY Times and many other papers didn't feature it, an ominous sign for the White House.
More substantively, the polls tells us that much of the president's case has already been firmly rejected by the public. People canof course change their minds, but at present, big majorities of Americans do not believe that the war in Iraq is the central front in the war on terrrorism, to cite one example.
Chicago, IL: Bush portrays the "war on terror" in purely military terms. As if the only way to win the war is on the battlefield. Anyone who has studied movements that are fundamentally nationalistic or chauvinistic know that in the final analysis they are defeated politically, not militarily. The World War II military defeats of Germany, Japan, and Italy were sealed politically by the Marshall Plan. The US actually defeated Iraq in May 2003 only to see it completely unravel through poor post-war planning, arrogance and world-class stupidity.
It's clear that if we continue to cast the "war on terror" solely in military terms, the end will result in a defeat for the US primarily because we will have run out of resources.
It's time to sound the alarm and hold this Administration accountable before this nation spends itself into poverty and irrelevance. Comments?
Robert Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I won't embrace your final recommendation, which sounds a
little empty to me anyhow, but is inappropriate for the likes of an old reporter to embrace regardless, but I firmly agree with the rest of your comment. I learned this lesson as a young reporter in Vietnam many years ago. There MUST be an effective political component to struggles of this kind, or they are doomed.
My own pessimism about Iraq today is rooted in this perception. What is the political component of our policy there today? Hope and prayer that the new government can hold the country together seems to be the sum of it. Not enough, I fear.
College Park, MD: Did you get the sense that the President has learned from mistakes over the last five years? He seemed to continue to associate 9/11 with Iraq, and then turned a vague reference into the mistakes of the Iraq war into a statement that pulling out of the war as some of his opponents have suggested would be a mistake. I'm looking for some growth in the President's outlook. Any examples?
Robert Kaiser: I would welcome others' answers to this important question. Mine is to wonder, with you, what's really going on inside the president's head. He is not a dope, contrary to the certainty expressed by so many of his detractors. I was intrigued in 2004 by an IQ expert's conclusion that Bush was actually brighter than John Kerry. Unprovable, of course, but I don't think anyone is served by a sweeping declaration that our president is a fool.
At the same time,friends and colleagues have repeatedly described him as incurious, and I have seen evidence of that. But by now he is certainly aware of how badly things have gone for his Iraq and Afghan policies, how far the situations in both countries are from the rosy pictures he has repeatedly painted over the last five years.
One of the White House's big problems now, I think, is that what they say just doesn't jibe with what Americans see and feel for themselves. I was surprised to see Cheney say on Meet the Press Sunday, "IF we had it to do over again, we'd do exactly the same thing" in Iraq. How many American would embrace THAT proposition? I hope we can do a poll and find out, roughly speaking.
Wilmington, DE: Bush has said that we must fight the terrorist in Iraq or they will "follow us" if we pull out our troops. Does he really think that there is a finite supply of willing terrorists and its only a question of time before we kill them all or is simply doing some political posturing to continue his justification for the war?
Robert Kaiser: There is a good story in today's Post by Karen DeYoung which I hope we can link to here, which reminds us what the real objectives of the Al Qaeda-related terrorists are. It's interesting to me that neither Bin Laden nor his associates have recently threatened any action inside the United States, and they are now talking very specifically about Lebanon and the Gulf states. Obviously, most of the people shooting at Americans in Iraq are in no position to come next to Chicago or Phoenix if we have to leave in defeat from their country. Nor are they Cubs fans--they won't be interested in Chicago, I'm quite sure.
Bush's repeated attempts to make "the terrorists" into a unified and coordinated "network," the term he used last night, just don't coincide with what we know about the many different strains of Islamic radicalism, from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Iraqi Sunnis and Shias to the Pakistani and Afghan-based remnants of Al Qaeda.
Waltham, MA: What do you make of the administration's various references to historical examples - Bush compared himself to Truman in the recent WSJ interview with Paul Gigot and he is clearing attempting to link the GWoT to WWII as our "generation's" calling. What accounts for all of this oversimplified historical reasoning? Have you ever seen so much of it before?
Robert Kaiser: Thanks for the post. Yes, we have seen this before. The Munich analogy has featured in much political rhetoric throughout my 43 years at The Post; it was invoked in Vietnam, in the Cold War, and now again by this administration. And Republicans from Reagan to Bush II have loved to compare themselves to Truman who, I suspect, spins in his grave every time he hears it.
What accounts for this? Politics. Bush is on the ropes, as is his party--this is a simple matter of fact. I am not predicting their defeat in November, but it's entirely possible, as they know.
And this, I'm certain, is why we got the sort of speech we got last night: not at all the promised "unifying" address on the anniversary of a national tragedy, but another attempt to sell a political position in a hostile political environment.
washingtonpost.com: Al-Qaeda Calls on Muslims To Fight in Lebanon, Israel (Post, Sept. 12)
Washington, DC: Doesn't the Administration face a real problem if it admits invading Iraq was a mistake (even if deep down they know it was). Their supporters will feel deceived and their critics would pummel them all the more. With very few exceptions, American politicians don't admit mistakes (at least not while they are in office). Bill Clinton did only when he was facing legal charges. Given the blood and treasure that has been wasted on this mistake, how could Bush and Cheney admit they blew it on Iraq without submitting their resignations at the same time?
Robert Kaiser: Good questions. And Clinton only admitted his mistake to save his skin. Lyndon Johnson never really admitted that he had made a mistake in Vietnam, he just quietly folded his tent and left town. I think you're right that nothing is harder for an American president than admitting a mistake. And I also think you're right that in our polarized political culture, Bush's enemies would hardly be pacified or pleased by an admission of error now--they'd just jump all over it. Bush is trapped, it seems to me. His only real hope is a happy outcome in Iraq. How likely is that?
Charleston, SC: I thought the President's speech was appropriate for the day and appropriate for the debate now occuring. We are now evaluating the effectiveness of the war on terror thus far and how we should proceed in the future. The President is straightforward in his analysis of the root causes of the threat. Namely, that bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East will give the people of that region an avenue to address their grievances and temper the extremeist forces present there now. It is an undeniable fact that pulling put of Iraq would signal weakness and embolden the terrorists, and Iran for that matter. I, for one, applaud the President for bringing these crucial issues to the debate. The American people will ultimately speak on the best direction for the future. You thoughts?
Robert Kaiser: I thank you for a thoughtful comment.
I will comment on one aspect of it: that we are "bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East." I am a fan of both, and would love to see them reach the Middle East, but I fear that isn't really happening now, despite administration rhetoric. Let's enumerate: In Egypt democracy has been set back in recent years and, despite occasional critical noises from Washington, the administration has done nothing about it. In Saudi Arabia there has been no noticeable progress toward democracy. In Central Asia, which I toured in 2002, democracy has been set back dramatically in the last few years in the two biggest countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Syria is as undemocratic as ever. Iran seemed to be opening up five years ago, and is now moving in the opposite direction. So we are far, far from achieving the benefits of democracy in the Middle East which, I agree with you, would be very positive in theory.
Los Angeles, CA: thanks for taking questions. I've heard some on the left assert that a primary reason for our presence in Iraq is to line the pockets of Cheney's business friends & interests (Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.). I had to turn off MTP on Sunday as I couldn't stomach Cheney's obfuscations - do you think he is a profiteering opportunist or that he genuinely holds an ideology that in his belief, would ultimately benefit the Mideast, and by extension, the West?
Robert Kaiser: Thanks for the post. I do NOT think Dick Cheney's views are based on profiteering or a desire to make his friends rich. As far as I know, they already ARE rich. It is one of the sad facts of our current political culture that merely disagreeing with someone is often perceived as insufficient: many want to depict their enemies as fools, crooks, charlatans etc. Personally I find that unhelpful most of the time--nearly all the time.
Cheney and those who lined up with him in the first Bush administration had a clear position that they believed in sincerely, I think. Max Boot, quoted above, explained the problem: things didn't pan out as Cheney and other expected and promised. We are losing a war in Iraq, which can have truly awful consequences.
Philadelphia, PA: Always a fan of your chats and this is a good occasion for one. My comments:
I love politics and commentary on our government, but I could care less right now what our President and Vice-President have to say (registered Republican, by the way, though disenchanted for some time). They almost seem as irrelevant as the are ineffectual (except at getting and keeping power).
We've become so accustomed to the rapid speed of change in this country and culture(s), the speed with which people and trends pop-up, dominate conversation and then drop off again, never to be heard from. Or come back again in five years as nostalgia or forgiven of some wrong.
I wonder if we're seeing something different this time -- a really large snowball slowly rolling and picking up size and speed. You see it in articles where "normal" Americans are just coming to grips with what highly attentive Americans have known for some time -- no link between Iraq / Saddam and 9/11 / OBL; no WMD; etc. I wonder if this core of Americans, slow to notice and focus on the betrayal of their trust, will just forget all about it? Or will they retain it as a core truth, learned in the course of having a big illusion exposed for them.
Maybe we're going to witness a real-life example of the little boys who cried wolf -- which may be the ultimate tragedy for this nation, as there are surely wolves out there.
Robert Kaiser: A very thoughtful comment; thank you for it.
Philadelphia,PA: How about an analysis of the Pentagon's lack of post-war planning b/c they didn't think it would fly with the American people?
Robert Kaiser: Not sure the origin of your last phrase, "because they didn't think it would fly with the American people?' Personally I think the failure was to appreciate what kind of situation we were getting into in Iraq, and how important it would be to have a real strategy for securing the country and getting it back on its feet after Saddam was defeated.
I think this because I have read most of my colleague Tom Ricks' remarkable book FIASCO. I know many of you have been reading it too, it's a big best seller, as it should be. Tom is America's best military reporter, a sensible, non-ideological, patriotic American who has laid out just how egregiously this war was conducted from the beginning. I urge everyone who cares about these subjects to read FIASCO.
Syracuse, NY: An observation on President Bush's speech last night.
First he should ALWAYS give speeches from the Oval
Office. He was firm, commanding and articulate. No
smirks, no defensive posturing, he actually looked
That said, the one thing that jumped out at me was his
assertion that the key to the safety of the United States
was winning the war in Iraq. If that's "the key" then why,
oh why, are we not throwing the kitchen sink at it? We're
seemingly understaffed and over stretched there and with
our safety in the balance there is a big disconnect
between what he says and what we actually do. We spent
3 ¿ years in World War II fighting over two oceans and
we've spent the same time in one country the size of
California . . . and we're losing.
Robert Kaiser: thanks for the post.
Carlisle, PA: Robert, I view last night's speech as an opportunity lost; and probably the President's last chance to reverse the course of his administration.
In my view he could have used the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attack to do something dramatic like call on all Americans to begin to sacrifice in the "shared struggle" against the enemy. He could have called for a tax increase to pay for increasing the war effort and he could have called on the young to volunteer for service. (Maybe one of his daughters could have been the first to answer the call.)
Now there can be nothing new that he will offer. Control of the Congress will have to change or we will have two more years.
Robert Kaiser: Thanks. One thought is, we're going to have two more years, whoever controls Congress.
New York, NY: One of Bush's most famous malapropisms is "The question is: is our children learning?" To answer the question posed by someone above, and asked also by you, in my opinion President Bush hasn't learned a thing in the five years since 9/11. You can't learn when you refuse to recognize, and accept responsibility for your mistakes. By the way, despite his penchant for mangling the English language, I'm not saying that Bush is stupid (his IQ scores vis a vis Kerry are irrelevant). But he is clearly intellectually rigid and stubborn. I simply see no evidence that Bush responds to anything other than political pressure and political expediency when it comes to the either Iraq, or the larger war on terror. At every step of the way in Iraq, since the fall of Saddam, we have been reactive. We've been reactive because we didn't go in with a plan for what happened after the fall.
My question is, what will it take for Bush to recognize what Alfred Einstein once said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
Robert Kaiser: thanks for the comment.
Baltimore MD: Mr. Kaiser: Re what the president really thinks about Iraq, I would point out that Mr. Bush has made no secret of his heavy use of alcohol until the age of 40. Nearly every heavy drinker, or alcoholic (the two are different) engages in a pattern of denial about his or her drinking--"I don't drink that much," "People are making a big deal out of nothing," "I can quit any time I want to," etc.
This pattern of denying the facts in a central part of one's life carries over of course--even after the drinking stops.
In Iraq, Mr. Bush is simply seeing the facts he wants to see. (And I offer this as an alcoholic with about 20 years of sobriety.)
Robert Kaiser: I'm not going to buy into this theory. Bush after all personally decided to stop drinking after his 40th birthday--he didn't deny his problem then, he acted on it.
Again, I can't buy attempts by people who disagree with Bush to explain his positions as the products of dark forces, profound stupidity, etc.
Iowa: Discussing yesterday's 9/11 commemoration with a co-worker, we agreed that one of the greatest subsequent losses was the wanton squandering of both the national and international goodwill that enveloped the U.S. after the tragedy. Speeches like the one given by the President last night illustrate how far we've (sadly) traveled from that "teachable" moment.
Robert Kaiser: Many questions today reflect a similar view.
I noted in today's Post one troubling statistic: In Britain, our closest ally for generations, a new poll shows that 55% of voters think their government is too closely aligned with the United States. Wow.
But we have to face up to the fact that we are really quite alone in the world today. No major government acts in full concert with the U.S. except Tony Blair's, which has a 31 percent approval rating in Britain. Public opinion everywhere has turned against the United States.
Los Angeles, CA: Saying we must win in Iraq to avoid dire consequences is reminiscent of dire prediction about not winning in Vietnam. Remember the so-called domino theory under which all of Asia would fall to communism followed by the Americas. Of course, now we hav dioplomatic relations with Vietnam.
Many things short of a catastrophe will occur if the U.S. redeploys away from Iraqis fighting Iraqis or leaves Iraq, and some of those things will be good. But fear is a powerful political device and Bush is fear monger in chief.
Robert Kaiser: I disagree with you. This comparison with Vietnam doesn't work for me. In Vietnam the communists were nationalists; their cause was to expel foreigners from their country, which they accomplished. When they accomplished it, they could, eventually, turn to normal concerns and preoccupations. That isn't what's in prospect in Iraq.
What will a post-war Iraq be like? What chance is there it will be stable, orderly, non-violent? Who will gain control of the second-largest oil reserves on earth? Who can or will hold Iraq together as one nation? Who will prevent terrorist groups from exploiting chaos in Iraq for their own purposes? We could spend the rest of the day enumerating the problems ahead, alas.
Granger, IN: Aristotle wrote that people are reluctant to heed
persuasive appeals if they distrust the character of the
person making the appeals. Mr Bush's primary rhetorical
problem is that the majority of the country (according to
polls) no longer views him as trustworthy.
The speech did nothing to repair this perception. For
example, how can the president expect people to take him
seriously when he says we must "put aside our differences
and work together" while just days earlier Mr. Rumsfeld
compared dissenters to Nazi appeasers and Mr. Cheney
made similar accusations? Smearing political opponenents
has been a hallmark of this presidency -- we even have a
new term for it: "swift-boating." To suddently call for
unity at this late date makes Mr . Bush sound hypocritical
and self-serving, qaulities that are unlikely to rally the
nation to his cause.
Robert Kaiser: thanks for the post.
Annandale, VA: As a Vietnam reporter don't you think you are slanted with regards to this country's ability to finish something it starts? Namely a war to topple a murderous dictator who funded suicide bombers and invaded the rest of the middle east once (remember Robert--the first Gulf war?). Your comment about believing Bin Laden and Al Queda that they wouldn't harm us again is ludicrous. It's like beleiving Hitler that he wasn't going to start war. I'm sorry but 43 years of reporting have evidently given you a cynical outlook on the ability of this country to create good and defeat our enemies.
Robert Kaiser: How's that again? Your facts are, um, debatable. We DID topple that dictator, remember? The trouble began right aftterward.
I did not say and do not believe that Bin Laden doesn't want to hurt us again. Of course he does, and I fear he will. What Karen DeYoung's story points out is that Al Qaeda's present agenda is elsewhere, but for sure they'll try again to hurt us, it's important to the image of themselves they want to promote, I think, that they can wound the great America.
My question to you is, what example can you cite where we have accomplished a goal as challenging as the one we face now in Iraq? Afthanistan is moving int he wrong direction; Iraq is a mess; our "strategy" is, alas, no real strategy at all. Please read FIASCO, and contact me in the next discussion.
Marana, AZ: It seems that more assessment and discussion of the nature and scope of this "war on terror" is starting to coming to the top these days. The recent article by John Mueller in Foreign Affairs succinctly questions the terrorist threat. I believe it is a very necessary discussion to counter balance the notion that the war on terror is against a monlithic all-powerful organization. Do you think that this discussion will gain traction? I know the Democrats are afraid taking it on for fear that they will be painted as weak. What are your views on the terrorism hype? Thank you.
Robert Kaiser: Thanks, Larry. In my view nothing is more important than a reasoned, careful discussion of who and what we are really up against. The "war on terror" is an inadequate and misleading phrase in my opinion. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. Who employs terror, and why? That's what we need to understand a lot better than we do.
Annapolis, MD: Bush, like most politicians, is politically motivated in his speeches and actions. My question is: is he following a good game plan to help the Republicans maintain control of Congress ? I do not think that he has any real good options.
Robert Kaiser: Good point.
Williamsburg VA: Mr. Kaiser,
Are you disturbed by President Bush associating Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda with Hitler and Stalin? Does it not give a degree of legitimacy to Bin Laden's "army" that it did not previously have? I think the movement we are facing and the war we are fighting have very little in common with wars with rational, though misdirected, state actors. Bush seems to be leading the ameican people down a path that doesn't make much sense to me.
Robert Kaiser: Thanks for the post. I'd love more time to write thoughtfully about this comparison of Bin Laden to Hitler or Stalin. I find it a hard one to make myself. Bin Laden is the embodiment of a fringe figure, someone way out on the edge. No regime on Earth that I know of (might the new Sudan government be an exception? Maybe) would have anything to do with him. And his ideology is not popular in the Arab world, though it is obviously gaining adherents in recent years. He has no army, no state, no real status except as a creative nut-case terrorist. So I'm with you on that point.
Alexandria, VA: Now that Syrian forces have protected our Embassy from terrorists at the cost of their own lives, do you think Bush will be more willing to negotiate with Syria?
This is profoundly different to the situation with regards to Iran, which took our diplomats hostage and shows not sign of repentance.
On another note, some one poster has compressed his history. The Marshall Plan was successfull in keeping post-war Western and Southern Europe from going Communist, but it was started some years after the end of World War II and had nothing to do with defeating the Axis or ensuring their surrender.
However, it is true that the reputation of Americans as humane and responsible in their treatment of POWs was responsible in reducing the ferocity of Italian and German forces at the end and in getting them to surrender. Consider what Bush has squandered with his inhumane and hateful policies.
Robert Kaiser: thanks for the good comment.
Robert Kaiser: Phew, that was a workout. I wondered if anyone would tune in to this chat, and I've had more than 220 questions to try to deal with. I did not get to many, many good ones from our thoughtful (and sometimes not so thoughtful)readers. Thanks to all for the interest. This is quite a moment in American history, I think, and the November elections are going to tell us a lot about the state of the nation. I'll be back soon.
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