By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 30, 2006; 12:36 PM
With his vision of Iraq belied not only by an insurgency that he didn't anticipate, but also by sectarian rivalries that he disregarded before the invasion, President Bush has come up with a new rhetorical line of attack: It's not my fault, it's Saddam's.
Agence France Presse reports: "President George W. Bush said former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's brutal divisive legacy, rather than the US-led invasion, was to blame for Iraq's current sectarian violence."
Bush made the comments in a speech before a small audience at Freedom House, an organization that tracks and promotes liberty around the world.
"Today, some Americans ask whether removing Saddam caused the divisions and instability we're now seeing. In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. He is a tyrant who exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power," Bush said.
"The argument that Iraq was stable under Saddam and that stability is now in danger because we removed him is wrong. While liberation has brought its own set of challenges, Saddam Hussein's removal from power was the necessary first step in restoring stability and freedom to the people of Iraq."
Richard Keil and Catherine Dodge write for Bloomberg: "The sectarian violence that has enveloped Iraq is boiling over now because Hussein left the nation 'physically and emotionally scarred' by purposely dividing ethnic and religious groups to prevent them from challenging him, Bush said.
" 'He sought to establish himself as the only force that could keep Iraqis together,' Bush said. . . . 'It is no wonder deep divisions and scars exist.' "
The new argument is just the latest in a long line of shifting rationales and excuses related to the war.
And it comes only a few days after Don Van Natta Jr. wrote in the New York Times about a British memo chronicling a meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair several weeks before the invasion, during which Bush predicted that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups."
So the same person who didn't see it coming, now says it was foreordained -- and not his fault.Looking for News
When the president of the United States gives what is billed as a major speech on Iraq, and then sticks around to answer questions for another hour or so, one could reasonably expect that he'd make a lot of news -- or at the very least offer new insights into his thought processes. Otherwise, what else is the point of talking that long?
But so little of what Bush said was new that reporters once again found themselves scrambling for something to lead with.
For instance, in The Washington Post, Peter Baker noted that Bush once again called for a unity government in Iraq -- but this time, a little more bluntly than usual.
"President Bush urged quarreling Iraqi leaders yesterday to set aside disagreements and forge a coalition government that will rein in illegal militias. His comments signaled increased frustration with the political deadlock in Baghdad more than three months after landmark parliamentary elections," Baker wrote.
" 'It's about time you get a unity government going,' Bush said, addressing Iraqi leaders. 'In other words, Americans understand newcomers to the political arena, but pretty soon it's time to shut her down and get governing.' "
In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller picked up on Bush's response when asked what he could to do about the decline of freedom in Russia.
"President Bush said Wednesday that it would be a mistake for the United States to boycott the Group of 8 meeting in Russia this summer.
"He also said he needed a personal relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia so he could walk into a room with him and have him 'not throw me out,' Bumiller wrote.Rambling Man
Read the text of yesterday's event, and it's clear that while Bush is indeed taking more unscreened questions than ever before, he's not really that interested in answering them. Most of the time, he uses them as launching pads for long, rambling amalgamations of familiar talking points that are only generally related to what he was asked.
For instance, Bush was asked to what degree he thought the insurgency inside Iraq is dependent on foreign support. Good question.
Bush's response was an 872-word rehash of previous statements about the makeup of the Iraqi insurgency, Syrian interference with Lebanon, the multilateral approach to Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the difficulty of negotiating with non-transparent societies.
There was nothing directly responsive to the question, of course.
So what's the point of taking questions, if not to answer them? Could it be to simply appear to be answering questions? Or just to repeat, repeat, repeat?
Yesterday, you almost got the feeling that he was just talking to run down the clock.
But why would he do that? One possible reason yesterday was: To preempt any television coverage of a press conference at which leading Democrats were unveiling their Bush-bashing security agenda.
Indeed, Bush's event had originally been scheduled for 1:20 p.m. yesterday. But Tuesday afternoon, the White House suddenly moved it up to 12:50. The Democratic press conference was scheduled to start at 1. Bush finally wrapped up his talk at 2:22. Anyone know when the Democrats stopped talking? Anybody see anyone in the audience giving him hand signals?The Democracy Exception
After speaking so passionately about the glory of democracy and insisting repeatedly that democracies don't war with each other, Bush was faced with a counterexample: A democracy that Bush is trying to punish, and one he accuses of wanting to make war on its neighbor.
"Q Thank you, Mr. President, and I think I sprained my arm trying to get your attention. The main reason for that is because I think I speak for the unheard people. I'm a Palestinian. My name is Bushra (phonetic) and I come from a refugee camp and I'm currently working at the World Bank.
"THE PRESIDENT: Welcome.
"Q Thank you. What can I say to my cousins, my friends, people in the streets who are asking, why is the United States punishing us and cutting funds for people who choose fair and free elections? I think the National Endowment for Democracy has characterized it as the textbook, fair and free elections. Then why are we punishing the people -- I don't mean the government -- the people of Palestine -- the refugees, the poor, the malnourished mothers and children?"
After once again insisting that "democracies don't war with each other," Bush explained his position this way: "If the goal of the United States is two states living side-by-side in peace, and one government elected says, we want to destroy one of the parties, it makes no sense for us to support that government. We support the election process, we support democracy, but that doesn't mean we have to support governments that get elected as a result of democracy. . . .
"I weep about the suffering of the Palestinians. I particularly weep about the fact that the leadership has let them down for year after year after year. And now is the time for strong leaders to stand up and say, we want the people to -- we want the people to decide. And I was pleased that there was an election in the Palestinian territories, and I agree with you that the elections were good elections. And -- but now the government has to make a choice, and we will continue to watch very carefully about the choice they make. "Freedom House
Incidentally, according to Freedom House's widely respected Freedom Book , which tracks freedom across the globe, Iraq still gets a failing grade of "Not Free."
Freedom House's most recent survey of the region found "modest gains" in Iraq, "where, despite brutal violence carried out by insurgents and terrorists, elections for an interim parliament and a constitutional referendum were conducted."
But it called those elections only "modestly successful" and warned that they "could be wiped out if the current level of violence escalates into outright civil conflict among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds."Quipping Man
Jennifer Loven chronicles some of Bush's numerous quips for the Associated Press:
"He was full of wisecracks.
" 'I like a good lobbyist,' Bush told a questioner seeking U.S. help for the West Africa country of Mali.
"When a magazine reporter stood up with a question, Bush seemed surprised that the press was seated in the audience. 'This is what we call embedding,' he said.
"A member of Freedom House said he had given Bush a copy of the group's annual report, titled 'Freedom in the World.'
" 'You're going to ask me if I read the book,' Bush said. 'Little print, no pictures. Go ahead.'
" 'It's the bible of freedom, yes,' the Freedom House official said, prompting laughter and a lighthearted presidential objection.
" 'I'm the funny guy,' Bush said."
And noting that he was off to Cancun later in the day, Bush cracked: "No Speedo suit here. . . . Thankfully."Staff Shakeup Watch
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Joshua B. Bolten, the incoming White House chief of staff, is expected to press President Bush to assemble new economic and Congressional relations teams and overhaul the management of the West Wing, Republicans close to the White House said Wednesday.
"A prominent Republican in Washington who consults often with the White House said Mr. Bolten, who is to assume his duties next month, wants Mr. Bush to replace the Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, with someone who can more forcefully communicate the administration's message that the economy is strong. . . .
"Republicans said Mr. Bush had not ruled out bringing in an experienced Washington hand to help calm Congressional Republicans who have complained with increasing boldness and exasperation that the White House staff is exhausted and adrift. While Mr. Bolten's appointment was generally well received by the party, many Republicans said on Wednesday that the staff changes did not go far enough.
"Mr. Bush was described as paying close heed to such advice."
Robert Novak writes in his syndicated column that Bolten's "selection becomes understandable as a confirmation of Karl Rove's supremacy in the White House.
"Rove holds the mundane titles of senior adviser to the president and deputy chief of staff, but scarcely anything happens in the Bush administration without his approval. Now he is more influential than ever. Andrew Card, the departing chief of staff, served (as a Cabinet member) under the senior President Bush (as Rove did not). In contrast, Bolten can thank his rise in the second Bush regime to Rove, his nominal subordinate."
Bolten replacing Card "advances Rove's project, which was obvious as early as the mid-'90s, of removing the influence of people close to the elder Bush," Novak writes.
Financial Times commentator Edward Luce writes: "Few American presidents can have received the same advice so consistently from so many different quarters as George W. Bush. And few can so consistently have ignored it. Whether from conservative allies on Capitol Hill and in the Weekly Standard, the neo-con house journal, or from liberal critics in the Democratic party and the opinion columns of the New York Times, it has been strikingly similar: overhaul your tired and discredited administration.
"Given Mr Bush's well-advertised disregard for the opinions of those outside his fiercely loyal inner circle, it is not surprising that the president has ignored such counsel."South of the Border
Ginger Thompson writes in the New York Times from Cancun: "President Bush arrived here on Wednesday evening for a summit meeting that was intended in part to allay this country's concerns that he will not have sufficient political capital to push through broad-ranging changes in American immigration policy."Remember Canada!
Although much of the talk today is about immigration and Mexico, Bush is in fact also meeting with the new Canadian prime minister.
North of the border, the big issue is a long-simmering dispute between the United States and Canada regarding softwood lumber. Three years ago, Bush began imposing import duties on Canadian lumber after American producers complained of de facto subsidies by the Canadian government. Arbitrators for the North American Free Trade Agreement decided in Canada's favor last summer. The U.S. stopped collecting duties, but Canada wants the $5 billion collected before that returned to its lumber producers.
CTV , the Canadian television network, reports "that secret high-level meetings took place weeks earlier between the Prime Minister's Office and the White House -- talks which could form the basis of an announcement of the resumption of negotiations in the contentious softwood dispute. . . .
"Sources told CTV's Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife that Ian Brodie, Harper's chief of staff, and Derek Burney, the head of Harper's transition team and former ambassador to the U.S., traveled to Washington two weeks ago for high-level talks.
"The pair met in the White House with U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Bush's senior political advisor Karl Rove and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card (now resigned). . . .
"Harper's team was then called into the Oval Office for an unprecedented meeting with Bush to discuss the softwood dispute, which has tarnished relations between the two countries for years. 'The president (told) them, "We are going to resolve this issue".' . . .
"While the invite to the Oval Office came from the president, Fife learned the idea stemmed from his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
" 'President Bush Sr. went to Camp David, the presidential retreat, and he told his son: 'Look, Stephen Harper wants to end the mean-spiritedness that has characterized Canada-U.S. relations,' said Fife.
" 'And he said, "George, you are going to have to . . . resolve this softwood dispute with Canadians and then you will see much better relations".' "
James Travers writes in the Toronto Star: "U.S., Mexican and Canadian leaders like to be known as the Three Amigos. But when two presidents meet a new prime minister here today, they will be the Three Ducks. George W. Bush is a lame duck, Vicente Fox is a dead duck and Harper is the duck that didn't die."Jill Caroll Released
Bush spent a minute with the press this morning, reacting to the release of American journalist Jill Carroll, who had been held hostage in Iraq.
"Q Mr. President, do you have a reaction to Jill Carroll's release?
" THE PRESIDENT: Thank God.
" Q What is your reaction?
" THE PRESIDENT: I'm really grateful she was released and thank those who worked hard for her release, and we're glad she's alive.
"It's good to see you all. And I'd like to make sure you work, more than you play.
" Q Are you optimistic you can resolve the softwood dispute today?
" THE PRESIDENT: I'm always optimistic."A Different World
The transcript of Vice President Cheney's interview yesterday with the aggressively conservative talk-show host Tony Snow offers a fascinating window into Cheney's worldview, which evidently remains unshaken by the unraveling of the administration's initial case for war.
"Q Today's release by Democrats contains a lot of second-guessing about what led up to the war and the early execution of it, including the notion that it was based on faulty security. Recently a number of documents that had been retrieved from Iraq have been translated, and what we're starting to get is a picture of Saddam Hussein actively involved in training terrorists, and even talking about weapons of mass destruction. Is it possible that we actually underestimated Saddam's involvement in the international terror network?
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, some of us didn't. I think there are -- there's been a debate, obviously, and we've got a lot of folks who don't believe that there was any kind of a relationship there between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. I think the record is abundantly clear that Saddam Hussein was, in fact, a prime sponsor of terror. . . .
"Q Including Osama bin Laden?
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, we don't know the full scale of it there yet, and I don't want to make a hard and fast prediction here. But there is reporting, obviously, that we've seen over the years that there was some kind of a relationship there between the Iraqis and Osama bin Laden."
Blogger P. O'Neill writes about the transcript that "if you took out the labels for when a question is being asked or answered, it would be impossible to tell which is which." And he finds some other oddities as well.Cheney the Jokester
Peter Carlson writes in The Washington Post: " 'I feel very comfortable up here,' Dick Cheney said as he stood at the podium at the 62nd annual Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner last night at the Hilton Washington.
" 'The lighting could be better, but I can still see the whites of your eyes,' the sometime quail hunter joked.
"The vice president was the featured speaker at the event, and he brought along a comic slideshow. He was pretty funny, and he seemed to be having a good time. Several times he even smiled, sort of. . . .
" 'This picture shows me at my birthday bash, when I felt myself almost losing control,' he said. And, presto, on the screen popped up a picture of a room crowded with revelers and, at the center, Cheney, sitting and poring over a stack of documents.
John Eggerton writes for Broadcasting & Cable that Cheney "said that when White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan advised him to actually show up and deliver the remarks, Cheney replied: 'Why not just post them . . . on the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (the paper given the story about Cheney's hunting accident). . . .
"Cheney ran a humorous slide show lampooning, among other things, the NSA spying flap and talk that he was being frozen out at the White House. Saying he had a picture of his 'senior advisor for wiretapping,' he showed a picture of Henry Kissinger. As he talked about a meeting he was supposed to have with the President, slide after slide showed Cheney alone.
" 'I really spend a lot of time every day with the most powerful man in Washington,' Cheney said, as a slide of Karl Rove appeared to loud laughs. 'So powerful, in fact, that he inserted that line in my remarks,' Cheney added. . . .
"Cheney said McClellan told him to rethink his whole approach to the news media. 'Here's how I've been getting ready for the press corps,' said Cheney, as a slide appeared showing him aiming what looked like a high-powered rifle with a scope."