White House Watch: Obama in Middle East, Apologizing to the Muslim World, More

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 3, 2009 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com.

He was online Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about his blog and the latest White House news.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Lots to talk about, including Obama's big trip and bigger speech (see my recent Middle East coverage); his Supreme Court pick, and one of our perennial favorite topics here, former vice president Cheney.

I also posted this morning, over on NiemanWatchdog.org, my thoughts on the substanceless fawning on display in last night's "Inside the White House" special on NBC.


Washington, D.C.: Personally, I find The Post's articles/some opinions saying that Obama needs to apologize to an Arab Muslim nation as disgusting. When have they apologized for world terrorism? Or the horrible incitement in their schools and media? Or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, denying other religions a place of worship in their country? Or how they brainwash you from a young age not to study math and science, but religion....creating generations of terrorists.

You can't have the kind of social and domestic policies these nations have, which create terrorists, and than demand an apology from the people who fight back.

Dan Froomkin: They're not demanding an apology, so much as we have (it seems to me) no choice but to deliver one. Or, actually, many. I'll have a post out about that in moments, but my central point is that the entire neoconservative "war on terror" that was supposed to strike fear in the hearts of our enemies instead backfired spectacularly, turning into a failed and contemptible war on Islam -- complete with torture chambers -- at enormous cost to our nation's security and moral standing. And it behooves us to acknowledge what went wrong.

I am so sick of the "well they don't apologize" or "well, they behead people" arguments I can't tell you. Just because others don't live by our moral code doesn't mean we should abandon ours. Good grief!

I'll post a link when it's up.


Anonymous: What's your opinion of the ideas submitted for the White House initiative on open government?

Dan Froomkin: I haven't had a chance to look over them thoroughly yet. (They're here. And deputy CTO Beth Noveck explanation of the next steps is here.)

As I wrote last week I liked some of them.

And Micah L. Sifry blogged for TechPresident.com yetserday on how "the Open Government Dialogue created as part of the Obama administration's new initiative to engage the public in a participatory discussion of ways to make the federal government more transparent and collaborative looks like it is being overrun by the so-called 'birthers'--conspiracy nuts who think the President isn't legitimately a U.S. citizen."

He also notes: "All online interactive sites are subject to gaming, especially when the stakes are high. Presumably the more often government invites public participation and the lower the visibility of the results, the less often these nuisances will occur."

I would add that when more people participate, the ideas will be better, too.

What did you think?


Lunchtime: Do you treat your staff to Five Guy burgers like Obama (and pick them up)? If that covers readers as well, I'll take mine medium rare with lettuce and tomato...

washingtonpost.com: I second this suggestion.

Dan Froomkin: Sadly, producer Paul is the closest thing I have to a "staff" -- and he "works" for "me" one hour every two weeks.


Key West, Fla.: Brian Williams' first half of "Inside the Obama White House" last night -- did you see it? I found it interesting but wanted to know what an insider, like you, thought of it. Was it an accurate representation of daily goings on there or was there some bravado exhibited perhaps. Thanks for your columns and, most of all, your important oversight.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not so much an insider, just an observer. My sense was that it was largely accurate -- in showing a lot of people going to a lot of meetings, for instance. I suspect some folks were hamming it up a bit -- including Obama, taking orders for his staff and going out to Five Guys. By and large, though I found it superficial and a missed opportunity. (See link in intro.)


I'm confused...: When has the Post ever run a news article that says Obama should apologise to Muslims (or anyone else, for that matter)? There may be some pundits on the op-ed page making that case, but not in the news. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Dan Froomkin: Ah, that's a good point. Of course you're not wrong.

As far as I know, I'm the only person at all affiliated with The Post who has called for an apology -- and that happened after the reader asked his question.

Yes, my post is now up: Of Course Obama Should Apologize.

There was an Iraqi shop clerk calling for an apology in Anthony Shadid's extraordinary, richly reported story in The Post this morning.

And a Palestinian journalist wrote here calling for an apology as well.


Vienna, Va.: Dan: I find it interesting that a tape has been released, allegedly attributable to Osama Bin Laden, that is a saber- rattling diatribe against the President (al-Zawahiri has also recently released a "statement").

Is it possible that the strategic and tactical changes proposed by the new commander in Afghanistan (Lt. General McChrystal), together with the President's diplomatic charm offensive in the Middle East, has scared the pants off of the old al Qaeda organization?

It always seemed to me that the bluff and bluster of the Bush administration, coupled with the terrible and costly distraction of the Iraq conflict, was exactly how Bin Laden and his crew wanted us to respond.

Dan Froomkin: I think Obama in Cairo is scaring the pants off al Qaeda.

And I loved how William Maclean, writing from Reuters from London, put it: "For some, al Qaeda's concerted attempt to upstage Obama is a propaganda own goal that shows its normally media-savvy operatives in disarray following the departure of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush."


Toronto, Canada: For obvious reasons we in Canada have great interest in the economic, social and political well being of the US. Pres, Obama is much liked and respected here and my question is on "openness." My sense is that he is naturally disposed to it on most matters. How do you view this aspect of his Presidency so far? Has he been given enough time to show this?

Dan Froomkin: I've been massively disappointed. Yes, I find the administration overall considerably more open than the previous one, and some of its initiatives are nothing short of exciting to disclosure fanatics like myself. But compared to what he promised, it's been a big bummer. See my May 28 item, Obama's Not-So-Open Government.


New Orleans: Here in New Orleans, we're three days into hurricane season.

In his inaugural speech, President Obama replaced "natural disaster" with the more accurate representation "levee failure." That was a welcome change from "heckuva job" and the falsehood that "no one could have predicted the levees would fail."

Now it appears that the Corps and other agencies implicated in the disaster, such as HUD and FEMA, are well on the way to making the same mistakes. Harry Shearer on Huffingonpost seems to be alone in following this story, and he's not even a full-time journalist.

Given that burger and Broadway show runs are deemed worth mention, can New Orleanians (and for that matter, anyone who depends on Federal civil works) expect to see better coverage of what Obama is doing to make sure we don't have another "heckuva job" when Nature presents another challenge?

washingtonpost.com: Shearer: Slow-Walking Disaster Response Four Years Later

Dan Froomkin: An excellent question. I don't have any answer. Bless Harry Shearer for keeping at this.


McLean, Va.: I've noticed that the Obama Administration has been loath to do anything that would alienate the career people at Defense, State, CIA, etc. Those folks often made life difficult for both Clinton and GW Bush. Is this a conscious decision, or am I just seeing a pattern that isn't there?

Dan Froomkin: I'm intrigued by what also looks to me like a pattern (although I wouldn't include State in that list). But I haven't quite made sense of it. Data points, of course, include: not releasing the abuse photos; doubling down in Afghanistan; asserting state secrets privilege; continuing with NSA warrantless surveillance (at least I think so); not immediately repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell"... .

Any other data points, people?


Boston: Where you there for the cute but vicious attack by Bo the puppy on the mike of that TV camera the other day? I know its frivolous and not worth reporters' time to comment on, but I love puppies. And the 24 hour news networks really don't have enough stuff to talk about for 24 hours anyway. (Well they would if they wanted to actually talk about stuff, but since they don't I appreciate the puppy break over another segment talking about Newt's twitters).

Dan Froomkin: Look, I love puppies, too. But honestly, with all the things happening right now, there's plenty for the 24-hour networks to talk about (not to mention the half-hour nightly news shows) without descending to this stuff.

Although I can't really fault your suggestion that it beats some of what passes for political discourse these days.

Every so often I go back to the essay I published on Inauguration Day, about the opportunity to raise the level of that political discourse, and just sigh a hopeless sigh.


Sewickley, Pa.: If you had access to President Obama, what would you ask him? Our little military family would ask what he would say to the millions of folks who worked, contributed, and ultimately voted for him in order to bring about change but see precious little of it. We still practice rendition and warrantless wiretapping; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are projected to go on for years; Guantanamo is no closer to closing; and single-payer health care is off the table. What has changed?

Dan Froomkin: A lot has changed. But I would ask about many of the things on your list. I'm most interested in his reversals, how they happened, and who pushed him.


Long Beach, Calif.: Is it a given that Obama will seek re-election? And if that's true, do you expect Obama to show his true colors after he starts his final term in office?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, and yes. With absolutely no empirical evidence to support this, I firmly believe that if he hasn't done it already, in his second term he will endorse gay marriage and raise taxes on the upper middle class and the rich, especially the super-rich. Given what I can tell about his political and moral philosophy, those are the two most obvious things that he is not advocating, solely for political survival purposes. (Although things are moving so fast on gay marriage, that may no longer be the case soon.)

Allow me to quote my friend Tony Kushner, from a recent Newsweek profile: "Pbbbht! Of course he's in favor of gay marriage!.. He's absolutely in favor. Does anybody actually believe that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama think that we shouldn't have - that this man who is a constitutional-law scholar - is it a complicated issue? Obama is capable of parsing infinitely more complicated questions than this. Read the Iowa Supreme Court decision - it's magnificently crystal clear. There's no issue here. It's over. It's done. Could the first black man or white man or Jesus Christ himself get elected in 2008 saying he believes in gay marriage? Of course not."


LA: I've read that a vegetarian diet by an individual reduces greenhouse gases more than if that person were to drive a hybrid. With that in mind, is Obama doing the nation a disservice by glamorizing dead cow flesh as yummy burgers on the news?

Dan Froomkin: OK, that is now the No. 1 question I would ask Obama if I had the chance.


Philadelphia: "doubling down in Afghanistan"

This of course was a campaign promise. Agree or disagree, we're getting exactly what we should have expected...

Dan Froomkin: I never really bought it as a campaign promise. I thought it was just political posturing. So that's why I still consider it something of a cave-in.


Harry Shearer?: Like, the guy from "This is Spinal Tap?" The guy who does the voice of Principal Skinner?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. He is a many of truly extraordinary talents. Here is his Huffington Post blog. Here's his Web site. Get to know him.


Presidential Dates: Hate to harp, but I'm a fiscally conservative Dem. As a federal employee I just took a redeye connecting flight to try to save taxpayers $700 and a day in the office. My efforts were blown by my CnC on a $24,000 date night in NYC. Not exactly inspiring, but I feel vindicated by Bernake's remarks today about reigning in spending. So can we get the WH to lead by example and do future "date" nights at theaters in the DC area?

Dan Froomkin: I can't believe this is a big deal. And yet, perhaps I have misread it.


Doylestown, Pa.: What is your take on Cheney's media tour. Is he really trying to save his legecy or is there some other motive.

Dan Froomkin: Like I wrote here, I think he has an understandably strong desire to avoid investigation or prosecution in the near future -- and ignominy in the history books.


Boston MA: My biggest disappointment with Obama is definitely the Uighur's.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. And see Mike Melia's story for the AP from Gitmo:

"In Obama's less than five months in office, the U.S. military has opened communal spaces and started building a new classroom in the prison, and some cell blocks now have satellite television, DVDs and wireless headphones. But nearly half the detainees are still locked up alone for most of the day, and one of every eight prisoners is on hunger strike.

"Shane Kadidal, who meets with detainees as an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said expectations for dramatic change have ebbed. He said prisoners know that only two prisoners have been released since Obama took office, compared with more than 500 under the administration of former President George W. Bush.

"'They're saying, 'At least Bush sent some people home,' he said."


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I have to run. Sorry I couldn't get to more questions. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive