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This Is Diplomacy?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 7, 2006; 2:22 PM

As President Bush's foreign policy oscillates between "cowboy diplomacy" and "post-cowboy diplomacy" and back again, it's worth pointing out that it's not really correct to call it diplomacy if he invariably refuses to talk to people who disagree with him.

The U.N. resolution Bush was pushing this morning from his vacation home in Texas bears the hallmarks of non-diplomacy: It's a supposed cease-fire resolution that the parties most desperate for a cease fire are condemning as unworkable, unsatisfactory and doomed.

Perhaps that's because the Bush administration is only engaging in direct talks with one party to the hostilities: Israel. The United States refuses to conduct negotiations with Hezbollah or its sponsors, Syria and Iran.

And the views of the democratically-elected government of Lebanon -- where the continuing Israeli air strikes have killed more than 550 people, mostly civilians -- are being dismissed by the White House as the overly emotional arguments of people who don't know what's best for them.

At a morning press availability, (here's the transcript ) Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brushed off Lebanese opposition to the proposed agreement, which would keep Israeli troops in Southern Lebanon until an international force is ready to help relieve them.

Bush made it clear that the continued presence of Israeli troops in Lebanon is non-negotiable. "We must not create a vacuum," he said.

Asked about Lebanese objections, Rice responded dismissively: "I understand how emotional this is for the Lebanese."

Said Bush: "I understand both parties aren't going to agree with all aspects of the resolution, but the intent of the resolutions is to strengthen the Lebanese government so Israel has got a partner in peace." (Israeli reaction to the agreement, by the way, while muted, has been positive.)

Both Bush and Rice were dispassionate about the carnage in the region, savoring instead what they insist are important geopolitical gains. An unconditional cease-fire three weeks ago, Rice said, "would not have addressed any of these items that both sides know are going to have to be addressed if we're going to have a sustainable cease-fire in the future.

"So this has been time that's been well-spent over the last couple of weeks."

Asked about his administration's continued refusal to engage with Syria, Bush said, "We have been in touch with Syria." But the contacts he cited date back to long before last year's withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador in Damascus. And he showed little enthusiasm for two-way communication. "Syria knows what we think," he insisted. "They know exactly what our position is."

Responding to specific questions about the resolution and the conflict, Bush tirelessly dipped into his small store of stock answers, repeatedly extolling the universal appeal of liberty and asserting the importance of addressing the "root cause" of the violence -- terrorists in general, Hezbollah in particular -- as part of "the great challenge of the 21st century."

A Trap?

In their press briefings yesterday, Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley not coincidentally used the exact same phrase to describe what they expect will happen after the resolution is approved: "We'll see who is for peace and who isn't."

Of course, if you believe Lebanese officials, that's because the resolution is a trap.

Nora Boustany and Edward Cody write in The Washington Post that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called the resolution "'impractical' because it would leave Israeli occupation troops and Hezbollah militiamen face to face in the border hills, virtually certain to keep fighting."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Security Council experts went over the draft for several hours Sunday, and diplomats said there was a widespread feeling that it did not sufficiently take Lebanon's concerns into account."

About Not Talking

Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's policy of refusing to engage with nations and groups linked to terrorism, including Syria, Iran and Palestinian factions, has sharply limited U.S. maneuvering room during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, according to former administration officials and outside experts.

"Iran is Hezbollah's prime sponsor, and Syria is the key conduit for the flow of missiles that have rained on Israeli territory -- facts that experts say make those countries essential to achieving a lasting solution. But after nearly six years in office, the administration has had increasingly limited contacts with those countries, if such contacts exist at all. Former officials charge that the administration has missed numerous opportunities to encourage Syria and Iran to cooperate more closely with U.S. interests."

Renée Montagne of NPR talked to former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage on July 26: "Armitage says U.S. officials haven't used 'all the levers' in finding a solution to the crisis, including having Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talk directly to the Syrian government. Syria and Iran are considered to have influence on Hezbollah.

"'I think [the Syrians] want to get involved,' Armitage says. 'I think they want to become more central to the solution and you might as well give them the opportunity.'

"'We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies,' he adds."

Here's Wolf Blitzer talking to Hadley yesterday on CNN:

"BLITZER: Will you speak directly to Syria and Iran, to appeal to them to use their influence to get Hezbollah to stop launching rockets against northern Israel?

"HADLEY: Well, in some sense, Wolf, we just did. In the comments we've made publicly, there are a number of countries who we are in touch with who are sending that message. And we are sending that message as well."

And in his Sunday briefing, Hadley said something about contacts with Syria that may simply be untrue. Hadley said that "we continue to have an embassy there, we continue to have a chargé who does have -- attempt to have conversations with the Syrian government." According to Syrian officials, the U.S. has made absolutely no such overtures. That seems worth following up.

Biking Without Irony

Reuters White House correspondent Steve Holland was invited to go biking with Bush on Saturday:

"Confident that a U.N. resolution on southern Lebanon was essentially complete, Bush broke away from his ranchhouse for a spin around his 1,600-acre Texas ranch, across single-track trails that he helped hack out of the dry, dusty environs.

"While some of his Democratic critics have complained he spends too much time on his bike, Bush said the exercise helps him deal with the pressures of the presidency.

"'Riding helps clear my head, helps me deal with the stresses of the job,' a sweat-soaked Bush said after an hour-and-20-minute ride that shot his heart rate up to 177 beats per minute at the top of one climb.

"The president set a brutal pace for his accompanying riders, who included two Secret Service agents, White House spokesman Tony Snow and this reporter, who managed to gasp his way through the 12 1/2-mile ride. . . .

"Bush does not ride quietly, constantly shouting out in his Texas twang the names of trees and geographic features and yelling at himself to pedal faster.

"'Air assault!' he yelled as he started one of two major climbs, up Calichi Hill, which he named for the white limestone rock from which it is formed."

Yes, he actually yelled out "air assault."

Thinking Things Up

Holland also writes: "Bush said he spent the previous evening thinking about the Middle East while sitting on the porch of his ranchhouse waiting on first lady Laura Bush to arrive.

"'I was thinking about the right strategy for the United States in the Middle East. I spent a long time thinking about it, went in and wrote some notes, I then shared my thoughts this morning with some of my inner circle,' Bush said."

Hadley, in his briefing on Sunday, had more to say about Bush's thinking: "He's in the process, obviously, of developing an overall strategy for the Middle East as to sort of what comes next -- which is something that the President is good at and encourages us to do: How does this fit into an overall strategy? We had an opportunity to talk about that at lunch.

"We then went off and did a number of things, in part carrying out what the President had directed us to do and then to get some additional information. Before dinner that evening we had another discussion and, in some sense, had a sort of strategic discussion of: Okay, let's assume we get through the first and second resolution, where do we head, in terms of the Middle East, more generally? This kind of a brainstorming session."

A History of Rosy Views

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "When Syrian troops left Lebanon in April 2005, ending a 29-year occupation, the Bush administration was quick to call their departure and the events that followed a victory in its campaign for democracy in the Middle East. . . .

"With Lebanon now convulsed by its worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, that assessment, like much of the Bush administration's rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Middle East, appears to have been too rosy. . . .

"The criticism that the Bush administration failed to think through its policies is similar to that leveled against it in Iraq, where the White House and the Pentagon failed to plan for the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, and in the Palestinian territories, where the administration pushed for elections that brought the terrorist group Hamas into government."

Bush Chaos Theory

Craig Crawford writes in his Congressional Quarterly column about Bush's continued ability to see "opportunity" amongst the carnage.

"You might think that it would take a truly self-delusional person to conjure up such a bright vision for this darkening corner of the world. But the president's rosy Mideast scenario is right in line with what has become a governing principle for him. Call it the Bush Chaos Theory.

"The president seems to think that the best way to get results is to blow things up and then see what happens. It is sort of like what curious kids do in their back yards until they learn that somebody could get hurt. Bush enjoys unsettling things, confident in the belief that an unseen hand will reach down, clean up the mess and make it all better. Create chaos, he apparently believes, and somehow an orderly world to his liking will emerge."

The Battle Over 'Civil War'

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about the fallout from Thursday's warnings from military leaders about the possibility of a civil war in Iraq.

"Those two words -- civil war -- further complicated what was already a daunting challenge for the administration: convincing battle-weary Americans that the war was winnable while acknowledging the grim reality of the bloodshed.

"Bringing the public back behind the Iraq campaign has been a fundamental White House goal for at least the last year, crucial to reducing public pressure to withdraw troops before the White House believes the mission is complete. It would also bolster the Republican Party's prospects during Congressional elections in November."

Civil war "'is sort of a proxy term for wars we cannot win,' said Christopher F. Gelpi, a professor of political science at Duke University who has worked on gauging opinions on Iraq with Peter D. Feaver, a fellow Duke professor who took leave to become a special adviser to the White House."

Richard Wolffe and John Barry write in Newsweek: "The Bush administration insists Iraq is a long way from civil war, but the contingency planning has already begun inside the White House and the Pentagon. President Bush will move U.S. troops out of Iraq if the country descends into civil war, according to one senior Bush aide who declined to be named while talking about internal strategy."

In his remarks this morning, Bush had this to say on the topic: "You know, I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that. the Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box. And a unity government is working to respond to the will of the people."

But for a little reality check, Tom Lasseter writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "While American politicians and generals in Washington debate the possibility of civil war in Iraq, many U.S. officers and enlisted men who patrol Baghdad say it has already begun."

Claude Allen, Katrina Victim

Ernesto Londoño writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Former White House adviser Claude A. Allen took responsibility yesterday for shoplifting from stores in Montgomery County last year, saying that the months leading up to the thefts were marked by huge stress and sleep deprivation. . . .

"His wife cited Hurricane Katrina as one of the stressful issues that Allen was grappling with last fall. . . .

"'Claude's 14-hour workdays became more demanding after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.''

According to Scott McClellan on August 31 of last year, Allen was at that point in charge of the White House's Katrina task force. And in September, Allen took part in a briefing about hurricane-related initiatives.

But inside the White House, Allen was not considered a major player; he was mostly trotted out to attempt damage control.

For instance, as William Douglas wrote for the Knight Ridder News Service in October: "Claude Allen, Bush's domestic policy adviser, said the president is responding to the needs of African-Americans in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions severely damaged by Katrina.

"'Just the mere fact you have pictures of the president on TV embracing grieving mothers, embracing pastors of churches that have been destroyed,' Allen said. 'That speaks about the personal character of our president, who is truly concerned about healing our nation.'"

Avoiding Bush

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about the "diverse ways, large and small, that Republican candidates are trying to put distance between themselves and the president and his most unpopular policies. . . .

"For now, a White House that once brooked little dissent from Republicans appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to new freelancing from GOP candidates. Its attitude, GOP strategists say, is that candidates need to do what is necessary to get reelected given the huge stakes involved -- though there are limits to its tolerance."

For instance, "White House aides did little to disguise their distress" over "Maryland GOP Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, who caused a tempest with his comments knocking Bush for the Iraq war and the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina." Abramowitz writes that "senior adviser Karl Rove called Steele to find out what happened, sources said."

Cheney Watch

Nancy Benac writes for the Associated Press that in certain circles, Vice President Cheney remains a rock star.

"Cheney, always a stalwart campaigner for the party, is outpacing his schedule from the 2002 midterm elections. He has logged 80 fundraisers so far this election cycle, bringing in more than $24 million, with the heaviest campaign travel still to come. By comparison, he logged 106 fundraisers for all of 2001-2002."

And yet: "Some GOP candidates are finding ways to put distance between themselves and Cheney, even as they happily gather up the campaign checks that his visits attract. Some Cheney fundraisers are closed to the media, for example. . . .

"In March, when Cheney visited New Jersey to raise money for GOP Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr., the candidate didn't arrive until 15 minutes after Cheney left. Kean said he got held up in traffic; Democrats were skeptical."

Vacation Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Instead of parking here for the whole month, Mr. Bush, who arrived Thursday night, will spend just 10 nights before returning to the White House. During his stay, his aides are taking pains to present Mr. Bush as deeply engaged in world events; on Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, arrived to brief him on the Middle East. . . .

"'It was a political calculation that his advisers persuaded him that he needed to do, and I think he knew it,' said one Republican with close ties to Mr. Bush, who would discuss internal White House decisions only if not quoted by name. He added, 'I don't think he is resentful or angry or anything; I think he is resigned to it.'

"Mark Knoller of CBS News, whose statistics on presidential trips to Crawford are so comprehensive that the White House refers inquiries to him, said the current visit was Mr. Bush's 59th trip to his ranch since taking office; as of Saturday, he had spent all or part of 384 days there."

Snow Mocks Sheehan

Richard Benedetto writes for USA Today: "Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose vigil outside President Bush's ranch dogged the president during August 2005, returned Sunday for another unsuccessful attempt to meet him."

Last summer, the Bush White House stood by as the moral authority of a mother who had lost her son in Iraq cost them dearly in the battle for public opinion.

This time around, press secretary Tony Snow came out swinging with sarcasm.

Here's what he had to say at Saturday's gaggle : "I would advise her to bring water, Gatorade, or both.

"Q Are you going to send anybody out to see her, any surrogates?

"MR. SNOW: You know what, honestly, when you're talking about the kind of issues we've been talking about, Cindy Sheehan just has not risen to the level of staff meetings at this point."

Noted Without Comment

The Associated Press reports: "As he did last year, Bush took three history books along to his Texas ranch. . . .

"Two of the books were about Republican Party hero Abraham Lincoln -- 'Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power,' by Richard Carwardine, and 'Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural,' by Ronald C. White Jr.

"His third choice, 'Polio: An American Story,' by University of Texas historian David M. Oshinsky' won the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of polio in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, including the establishment of the March of Dimes and the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines."

Poll Watch

Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush's hopes of attracting a new generation of voters to the Republican Party may be fading, as younger Americans are far more critical of his job performance than the broader population.

"A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll of Americans age 18 to 24 found Bush's approval rating was 20 percent, with 53 percent disapproving and 28 percent with no opinion. That compares to a 40 percent approval rating among Americans of all ages in a separate Bloomberg/Times poll."

Doonesbury Watch

Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau imagines Mark Slackmeyer at a Bush press conference: "Sir, I've noticed that whenever you frame a debate, it always contains false choices. . . . The 'debate' you're willing to have is always between options of your own choosing. It's the same as if we were to ask you, 'Which would you prefer, admitting you're wrong or tearing the country apart?'"

New Yorker Quiz

Paul Slansky 's latest Bush Quiz is out.

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