Can You Marginalize a Majority?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 23, 2005; 11:51 AM

In a move to preempt the antiwar protesters converging on Washington this weekend, President Bush yesterday put forth the following equation: Withdrawing from Iraq equals letting the terrorists win equals more 9/11s.

The White House's goal is to cast anybody who supports a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq as sadly delusional, reckless and not to be taken seriously.

But Bush may be in trouble here, because he's trying to marginalize a majority.

A recent Gallup Poll , for instance, found that 63 percent of Americans -- almost two out of three -- support the immediate partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Fewer than one in three Americans support Bush's handling of the war.

The White House, so aware of the power of staying on message, can take some solace from the fact that the antiwar movement is deeply conflicted, lacks clear leadership, and is being kept at arm's length by many top Democrats.

And yet slowly but surely, at least one consistent theme is emerging from the silent majority. And it is a theme that has the potential to neutralize, if not upend, Bush's central message.

That theme: Staying doesn't make things better, it makes things worse.

What Bush Said

Here is the text of Bush's remarks at the Pentagon yesterday. He read from a prepared text, flanked by Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers. Also nearby were counselor Dan Bartlett, national security adviser Steve Hadley, homeland security adviser Frances Townsend, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and senior political adviser Karl Rove.

"Listen, there are differences of opinion about the way forward; I understand that," Bush said. "Some Americans want us to withdraw our troops so that we can escape the violence. I recognize their good intentions, but their position is wrong. Withdrawing our troops would make the world more dangerous, and make America less safe. To leave Iraq now would be to repeat the costly mistakes of the past that led to the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. The terrorists saw our response to the hostage crisis in Iran, the bombings in the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attack, the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. The terrorists concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves, and so they attacked us.

"Now the terrorists are testing our will and resolve in Iraq. If we fail that test, the consequences for the safety and security of the American people would be enormous. Our withdrawal from Iraq would allow the terrorists to claim an historic victory over the United States. It would leave our enemies emboldened and allow men like Zarqawi and bin Laden to dominate the Middle East and launch more attacks on America and other free nations. The battle lines are drawn, and there is no middle ground: either we defeat the terrorists and help the Iraqis build a working democracy, or the terrorists will impose their dark ideology on the Iraqi people and make that country a source of terror and instability to come for decades.

"The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission. For the security of the American people, that's not going to happen on my watch. We'll do our duty. We'll defeat our enemies in Iraq and other fronts in the war on terror. We'll lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush won't be in town for this weekend's anti-war demonstrations, but he had an early rebuttal Thursday for protesters' demands that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq."

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that mistakes made by three of his predecessors . . . had emboldened terrorists and helped set the stage for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Bush said he was determined not to repeat the pattern by pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq before the insurgency there is contained and Iraqi forces are able to provide adequate security. . . .

"Bush's characterization of progress in fighting terrorism was questioned by some.

"Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the number of 'significant terrorist attacks' tracked by the State Department had reached its highest level and that most occurred in Iraq.

"'There are nine times as many terrorist attacks in Iraq this year as there were last year,' Markey said. 'What kind of progress is that?'"

A Reader's Critique

White House Briefing reader J. Harley McIlrath of Grinnell, Iowa, e-mailed me yesterday some insightful questions about just one sentence of Bush's speech.

In fact, his questions about that one sentence alone were more penetrating and important than any of the coverage I read of Bush's whole speech this morning.

The sentence from Bush: "The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission."

McIlrath wrote:

"1. Who are 'the terrorists?' He's talking about Iraq. Are 'the insurgents' also 'the terrorists?' Has Bush ever defined just who 'the terrorists' are?

"2. What would constitute a 'win' for the terrorists? What do they want? Do we know? Has Bush ever asked himself what 'the terrorists' want and whether or not it's reasonable? Tactics aside, what do they want? Don't tell me 'they hate freedom.'

"3. What constitutes 'losing our nerve?' Is it losing one's nerve to pull resources back from an ineffectual approach and apply them to an approach that is more promising? How many times in WWII did we pull resources off one front to reinforce another?

"4. What is 'the mission.' Can we abandon a 'mission' that has never been defined? To quote George Harrison: If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.

"Imagine if the press corps took this one short sentence and forced Bush to define his terms."

Where's Osama?

Reuters reporter Toby Zakaria did ask one good question yesterday, however: "Why has it been so difficult to catch bin Laden and Zarqawi? And can you really say that you are making progress in the war on terrorism when these people have been, you know, able to stay free for so long?"

In part of his drawn-out response, Bush had this to say: "No question that some of their leaders are still at large, isolated, however, kind of in remote parts the world. But make no mistake about it, we're doing everything we can to find them. And when we do, we'll bring them to justice."

The Saudi Critique

Joel Brinkley writes in the New York Times: "Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said Thursday that he had been warning the Bush administration in recent days that Iraq was hurtling toward disintegration, a development that he said could drag the region into war. . . .

"Prince Saud's statements, some of the most pessimistic public comments on Iraq by a Middle Eastern leader in recent months, were in stark contrast to the generally upbeat assessments that the White House and the Pentagon have been offering."

The President, the Hurricane, and the Cameras

I wrote in yesterday's column that the While House was getting fully prepared to deploy a massive federal response -- and the president himself -- at a moment's notice.

I had no idea they were going to move this fast.

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "It took President George W. Bush four days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans to set foot on the Gulf Coast to survey the damage.

"Today, Bush is planning to visit his home state even before Hurricane Rita does. . . .

"The White House said at the time that Bush delayed visiting the hardest-hit parts of New Orleans so the security-heavy presidential entourage wouldn't get in the way of rescue and recovery efforts. In Texas today, Bush is planning to visit emergency crews as they are preparing for Rita, but Bush spokesman Scott McClellan insisted, 'We're not going to get in the way.'"

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Under intense pressure to show that he has learned the practical and political lessons of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush planned on Thursday to pack his foul-weather gear and head to Texas on Friday ahead of Hurricane Rita, trying to make clear that he is directing an all-out federal effort to cope with the storm.

"Mr. Bush, who was photographed strumming a guitar in San Diego on the morning that New Orleans was being flooded 23 days ago, appeared intent on ensuring there would be no off-message pictures this time and no question of where his attention was focused. . . .

"Asked whether Mr. Bush's pre-hurricane advance work in Texas was anything more than a photo-op, the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said the president 'wants to go and be able to see some of the preparations that are under way' and thank police, fire, medical and other emergency personnel who are assembling to work on the storm."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing, easily worth reading just for ABC News correspondent Terry Moran's withering scorn and McClellan's protestations that Bush was just holding the guitar backstage, not actually giving a concert.

Abramoff Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff bragged two years ago that he was in contact with White House political aide Karl Rove on behalf of a large, Bermuda-based corporation that wanted to avoid incurring some taxes and continue receiving federal contracts, according to a written statement by President Bush's nominee to be deputy attorney general."

CBS Defends Itself

Vaughn Ververs writes in CBS News's new transparency blog about a complaint registered by the conservative Media Research Center over a report by Sharyn Alfonsi on Tuesday night.

The center complained: "After reciting a list of problems people are having in New Orleans, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi jumped to a soundbite of Bush in Mississippi, declaring: 'Every time I come back here, I see progress.' Alfonsi gratuitously pointed out that Bush was 'speaking inside an air-conditioned tent' and noted how 'he toured a Folgers plant in Louisiana' but, she stressed, 'small business owners say this kind of progress is the exception.' Then, over video of a row of damaged and abandoned store fronts in New Orleans, she countered: 'This is the reality.' Alfonsi made it personal, holding Bush responsible for the frustrations of a French Quarter restaurant owner: 'After five visits in three weeks, they want the President to wake up and smell the coffee.'"

And here's the response from "Evening News" Executive Producer Jim Murphy:

"Please explain to me what's WRONG with pointing out the President spoke from an air-conditioned tent, which to most people on the gulf would be a more than welcome relief from their existence. It was not gratuitous, it was an interesting note.

"And Sharyn's use of the well-known phrase, 'wake up and smell the coffee,' was attributed to the restaurant owners as THEIR feeling, NOT hers. It's just good, colorful, pointed writing."

Request to a King

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday asked Jordan's King Abdullah II to bring his 'voice of reason' to the Middle East peace process by paying visits to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

"After meeting with Abdullah in the Oval Office, Bush said the king 'graciously agreed' to his request."

Here is the text of their remarks.

Jewish Circuit

Bush has been celebrating with Jews a lot lately. Last Wednesday, he didn't stick around the United Nations for very long after his address to the General Assembly, instead choosing to zip back to Washington to visit a synagogue and speak at a dinner commemorating 350 years of Jewish life in America.

Just this Wednesday, Bush was the lunch speaker at the Republican Jewish Coalition 20th anniversary celebrations.

Today, as Emily Bazar writes in USA Today, Bush will award the Medal of Honor to Tibor Rubin, who Bush has called "one of the greatest Jewish soldiers America has ever known."

It's always interesting to see who Bush brings along with him when he speaks to different groups. Typically, he calls attention to members of his entourage who have something in common with his audience.

At the first event, he brought along Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten (a Jew) -- and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson (not a Jew).

At the second event, he called attention to the presence of, among others, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. Presbyterian, Mormon, Catholic.

He noticeably did not bring along the only Jewish member of his Cabinet, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. I guess Chertoff has better things to do with his time.

Katrina Watch

Peter G. Gosselin and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar write in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush tackles the monumental task of easing the social problems wrought by Katrina, he is proving deeply reluctant to use some of the big-government tools at his disposal, apparently out of fear of permanently enlarging programs that he opposes or has sought to cut.

"Instead of depending on long-running programs for such services as housing and healthcare, the president has generally tried to create new, one-shot efforts that the administration apparently hopes will more easily disappear after the crisis passes. That has meant relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has run virtually all of the recovery effort."

Immigration Watch

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times: "White House political strategist Karl Rove is offering lawmakers new details of an administration-backed guest worker program that would temporarily legalize the status of millions of illegal workers, according to Republicans who have attended the meetings. . . .

"Some lawmakers see the recent White House sessions as evidence that Bush intends to pursue his plan as soon as this fall -- despite the strains Hurricane Katrina has put on the legislative agenda and despite ongoing opposition within his party."

Don't Hold Your Breath

Agence France Presse reports: "North Korea is seeking a visit from US President George W. Bush or other prominent US figures in an effort to improve ties between the two countries, a news report said."

Aussie Golfer Nearly Burns Down White House

Andrew Both writes in the Age: "Leave it to Australian Mark Hensby to almost burn down the White House. During Wednesday night's official Presidents Cup dinner hosted by US President George W. Bush, Hensby's menu caught fire when he knocked over a candle while listening to a choir entertaining the guests."

Hensby, who apparently has a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, explained to Both: "Everyone was saying, 'Something's burning', and Bush was looking around and the lady next to me said, 'It's your menu'. I picked it up and I'm blowing on it because half of it was on fire.'"

Both writes: "The flames were quickly extinguished, no harm was done and although Hensby was more than a little embarrassed, it didn't stop him from leaving the White House with an invitation to go mountain biking with Bush.

"'I asked him how his (recent) ride with Lance Armstrong was, told him that I rode a bit, and he said, 'We should get together some time'.

"'I was going to say, 'How about you give me your number', but I bit my tongue. It's the President of the US and I was too flustered but I told him he's got to lower those taxes.

"'He said, 'They should be lower'."

Desperately Seeking Bianca

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush treated White House reporters to a decidedly goofy moment yesterday, when he kept demanding the whereabouts of the junior Bloomberg News correspondent during a mini-press conference at the Pentagon. 'Bianca?' Bush inquired, looking down at a list of White House press poolers (notably Bloomberg reporter Bianca Davie). 'Nobody named Bianca? Well, sorry Bianca's not here. I'll be glad to answer her question.' While Vice President Cheney and other high officials smiled supportively, Bush explained: 'Just trying to spread around the joy of asking a question.' More official smiles. The President wouldn't give up. 'Are you Bianca?' he asked another young woman. 'No, I'm not,' the woman answered. 'Anita - Fox News.' Bush responded with determination: 'Okay. I was looking for Bianca. I'm sorry.'"

Blogger Wonkette writes: "Sources inform us that Bianca was at the Pentagon for the President's remarks, but she was sitting in the back, and she's in radio so she had headphones on. After the conference, someone said: "Who's Bianca?' She said sheepishly: 'I am.' Someone asked, 'Didn't you hear him?' She said: 'I didn't have a question.'"

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive