By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 16, 2006; 12:42 PM
The White House made a big to-do about President Bush's meeting Monday with four outside experts on Iraq. Spokesman Tony Snow held the meeting up as proof that the president is interested in -- and consistently exposed to -- different points of view, and even dissent.
But the only thing that meeting demonstrated is that true dissent is still not welcome at the White House, unless you define dissenters as anyone who doesn't agree with the president on absolutely everything.
By all independent accounts, none of the academics who were granted an audience with the president Monday criticized his fundamental approach to Iraq. At most, they suggested minor course corrections.
And none of them told him what he evidently refuses to hear: That it's not working.
I've written a fair amount about the Bush Bubble over the past nearly three years. And it seems to me that, with a tiny handful of exceptions, the bubble is still fully operational.
When it comes to Iraq in particular, Bush has no interest in engaging in genuine dialogue with people who disagree with him -- even though polls suggest those people now represent a large majority of the American public.
He has no interest in actually arguing the merits of his approach, or substantively defending against the increasingly focused critique by congressional Democrats.
Rather, he describes his approach in platitudes, and uses inflated rhetoric to mock the made-up arguments of imaginary opponents. He counts on the skillful use of imagery and human backdrops to deliver his very simple core message -- "I am protecting you" -- without actually making his case.
He hides behind the presidency.What Snow Said
Here's Snow on Monday , in anticipation of the meeting with the outside expert: "I think it's safe to say what the President does in sessions like this is invite people to express very openly their candid views on things. . . .
"Q Even dissenters?
"MR. SNOW: Yes, absolutely. And, Helen, that's an important point. We do not [deal] in 'Amen' choruses. What you do is you invite smart people in who have different points of view."
Here's Snow yesterday , after the meeting:
"Q Did the President hear from critics?
"MR. SNOW: Yes, the President always does. And this is a point I've tried to make. These are not meetings where he comes in and gets cheerleaders. What he gets is smart people who look at issues at different angles and in different ways, because that's the only way -- just as he's trying to get his people to think creatively, he needs to think creatively, too. The only way you do that is bringing in all different points of view so that you're not simply looking at it from the standpoint of what policy papers may come your way. You need some new ways. And these have led to -- meetings like this have led to conversations with folks who have not always been congenial with administration policy, but have extensive experience in whatever region or whatever topic matter may be under discussion. And it's very useful for the President.
"Q They don't get Oval Office syndrome, pull their punches?
"MR. SNOW: No, they really don't. I mean, you've been around the President. The President knows how to make people relax. And that's one of the things he does. He wants them to feel comfortable. And otherwise, it doesn't work."The 'Dissenters' Speak
Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times that "none of the academics openly criticized Bush administration policy, according to those in attendance."
Paul Richter and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times that "the analysts who attended the Pentagon lunch, which lasted nearly two hours, said it was arranged as a fact-gathering session, rather than a policy debate." So there was no such debate.
And, they add: "Although at least three of the four experts have criticized U.S. policy in the Middle East, none has called for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq."
I spoke at some length yesterday with one of the participants in the meeting, trying to get a sense of whether Bush was exposed to any substantive critique of his Iraq policy. The answer: apparently not.
Eric M. Davis is a political science professor at Rutgers University, best known for his optimism about Iraqi democracy. Like the other participants, he has in the past expressed some views that aren't entirely in line with the White House's.
For instance, Davis said he personally feels that Bush "let the genie out of the bottle and made some major mistakes" in Iraq. But, he adds: "now that we've done that, we need to stay there." And Davis said he didn't get into that first part with Bush. "That's water under the bridge."
In fact, the closest thing to dissent on Monday, he said, was his assertion that the U.S. should stop preventing political involvement by Baath Party members who were part of the government prior to Saddam's seizure of power in 1979.
And even that didn't go over well. "Let's just say it wasn't warmly received," Davis said.
Davis sent me a copy of his prepared remarks. He started this way: "First, Mr. President, you have done a forceful job of explaining to the American people what is at stake in Iraq. However, I believe that the American people do not fully understand the potential domino effects that the collapse of Iraq into disorder and anarchy would have on the Middle East and the global political system."
And his big finish: "[T]he message is clear: Iraqi democrats need and deserve our support."
Davis said the biggest surprise for him on Monday was "the extent to which everyone is really committed to sticking this thing out."
Why was that a surprise? Because Davis had been hearing rumors that the White House was "trying to find ways to legitimate our withdrawal from Iraq" or might be considering the idea of partition.
"That's absolutely not on the agenda," Davis said with relief.What Bush Really Thinks
In addition to pointing out just how insulated from genuine dissent Bush's staff continues to keep him, the meeting also provided more evidence that if you want to know what's really going on inside the White House -- or inside Bush's head -- the last person to ask is a White House official, particularly a spokesman.
By contrast, journalists who interviewed the meeting's participants yesterday gleaned some interesting insights.
For one, Bush is apparently very frustrated at the lack of boosterism for his war not just in this country -- but in Iraq as well.
Shanker and Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .
"[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd. 'I do think he was frustrated about why 10,000 Shiites would go into the streets and demonstrate against the United States,' said [a] person who attended. . . .
"One participant in the lunch, Carole A. O'Leary, a professor at American University who is also doing work in Iraq with a State Department grant, said Mr. Bush expressed the view that 'the Shia-led government needs to clearly and publicly express the same appreciation for United States efforts and sacrifices as they do in private.' "
Does Bush not understand that the American military is seen as an occupying force by many Iraqis? Does he not understand that publicly expressing support for America would be a huge political liability for government officials?
Maybe if some actual dissenters had been present, they might have asked him. Or they might have explained.
And is the fact that the Iraqis aren't grateful for everything he did really his top concern right now?
Richter and Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush told Middle East experts at a private meeting this week that a three-way division of Iraq would only worsen sectarian violence and was not an option for solving the country's problems, the analysts said Tuesday.
"Rejecting a policy alternative that has been gaining support in the U.S. and abroad, Bush told the experts that dividing Iraq would be 'like pouring oil on fire,' said Eric M. Davis of Rutgers University, one of the experts who met with the president Monday over Texas brisket and iced tea at the Pentagon.
"The experts said in interviews that Bush signaled that he intended to make no policy changes in Iraq, despite warnings from military leaders and election-year arguments from Democrats that the war is a drain on resources and a distraction from the administration's campaign against terrorism."The Politics of Terror
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday he has made the nation safer but warned that it remains threatened by terrorists, accelerating an election-year debate over his leadership in the global fight against Islamic extremists five years after the attacks of Sept. 11.
"Bush touted his accomplishments in a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center a week after British authorities broke up what they called a major plot to blow up airliners bound for the United States. But former president Bill Clinton accused Republicans of using the reported plot for political purposes and questioned Bush's national security priorities."
Craig Gordon writes in Newsday that Bush "tried to hold himself above the fray yesterday, making a reviewing-the-troops-style visit to what amounts to the national nerve center for anti-terror intelligence, while dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to whack Democrats on the issue."
Ed Henry reports on CNN about "the president and vice president both signaling that they're going back to Karl Rove's playbook: Focus hard on the war on terror.
"Day two of President Bush's summer war on terror tour, five hours at the Secret of National Counterterrorism Center. Message? It's a dangerous world this August and I'm not on vacation. . . .
"With the war on terror a key issue in the midterm elections, the president wants to show he's engaged, unlike last summer when he took a political hit for a slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina. So he's taking credit for thwarting the plot to blow up as many as 10 jetliners headed from the U.K. to America."
Here's the text of Bush's statement. He took no questions.Contortions Required
The White House playbook evidently calls for answering pretty much any question about Iraq or Lebanon with Sept. 11 -- even if bizarre rhetorical and intellectual contortions are required. (See George F. Will 's column yesterday.)
Here's Tony Snow yesterday afternoon :
"Q But what about this central Democratic argument that the money spent on the Iraq war has taken away from homeland security and the war on terrorism?
"MR. SNOW: Well, it's an argument that seems to indicate the war on terror would not exist if we were not in Iraq. Let me remind everybody that the war -- that terrorists spent years plotting September 11th. . . .
"Q I think, to follow up on Steve's point, the argument is not that the war on terror would not exist if the U.S. was not pursuing a war in Iraq, it's that it's a drain on resources, not only in dollars, but also in the capacities that the government has.
"MR. SNOW: Well, Michael Chertoff is not suiting up and going to Iraq. The fact is that you can have different departments and agencies doing this."Iran Watch
Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Seeking to counter the White House's depiction of its Middle East policies as crucial to the prevention of terrorist attacks at home, 21 former generals, diplomats and national security officials will release an open letter tomorrow arguing that the administration's 'hard line' has actually undermined U.S. security."Lieberman Gets White House Boost
Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush gave a boost to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's re-election bid as an independent by taking the rare step of refusing to endorse the Republican candidate running for Lieberman's U.S. Senate seat.
" 'We are not making any endorsement in Connecticut. The Republican party of Connecticut has suggested that we not make an endorsement in that race and so we're not,' said White House spokesman Tony Snow."
Or, as Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post, in an article about former president Clinton's slap at Lieberman: "Lieberman is having better success with the current president than the former one."First Lady, Fundraiser Extraordinaire
Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush is scheduled to headline three events for Republican candidates in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia today, capping a stretch of five fundraisers this week for a first lady who often jokes that she does not much like politics.
"The frequent use of the first lady by Republican candidates as a fundraising draw underscores the ferocious battle they face to retain control of Congress, and also reflects the standing of a woman whose popularity has endured even as public antipathy toward her husband has grown. . . .
"While the president remains a potent fundraiser, many GOP candidates are reluctant to campaign with him because of his low approval rating -- making the first lady all the more valuable as a political commodity."
Interestingly enough, while the first lady's favorability rating of 69 percent is vastly higher than her husband's, according to the June Gallup Poll, it's down sharply from February of last year, when it was at 80 percent. And her 22 percent unfavorable rating is at an all-time high.Plame Watch
Gina Keating writes for Reuters: "A lawyer plans to use a legal precedent that allowed President Bill Clinton to be sued while in office to force Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove to testify in a lawsuit brought by former CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband.
"California attorney Joseph Cotchett said he will ask a federal court to order Cheney, his ex-chief of staff Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and Rove to testify in depositions about their role in disclosing her classified status. . . .
"Cotchett, who took over as trial counsel in Plame's case on Tuesday, said legal precedent for whether Cheney and the others could claim legal immunity in the case comes, in part, from Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against Clinton."
Justin Rood writes for TPM Muckraker: "Vice President Dick Cheney has hired a lawyer to defend him against the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson civil suit, court documents reveal.
"The lawyer, Emmet T. Flood of Williams & Connolly, certainly has White House experience: he was a member of former president Bill Clinton's impeachment defense team."
And a CREW press release announces that the Wilsons have "engaged the non-profit, public interest organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) as successor counsel and Joseph Cotchett and Frank Pitre with the law firm of Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy as trial counsel. . . . Erwin Chemerinsky, Professor at Duke University School Of Law, will continue to serve in the case as co-counsel."
Meanwhile, Andrew Zajac blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Hard to say if U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should sign any long-term leases in Chicago based on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' response to a question Monday about whether President Bush is committed to keeping the high-profile lawman in his post for the remainder of the Bush presidency."Dowd, Bush and Camus
Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required) with a possible answer to Bush's odd reading selection: "Strangely enough, we find two famous men reading Albert Camus's 'The Stranger' this summer.
"One is Jean Girard, the villainous gay French race car driver hilariously played by Sacha Baron Cohen (a k a Ali G and Borat) -- the sinuous rival to Will Ferrell's stocky Ricky Bobby in 'Talladega Nights.'
"Girard, a jazz-loving, white-silk-scarf-wearing, America-disdaining Formula Un driver sponsored by Perrier, is so smooth he can sip macchiato from a china cup, smoke Gitanes and read 'L'Etranger' behind the wheel and still lead the Nascar pack.
"Frenchie contemptuously informs 'cowboy' Bobby that America merely gave the world George Bush, Cheerios and the ThighMaster while France invented democracy, existentialism and the menage a trois.
"The other guy kindling to Camus is none other than the aforementioned George Bush, who read 'The Stranger' in English on his Crawford vacation and, Tony Snow told me, 'liked it.' "Personnel Watch
Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "White House buzz has it that Salvatore Antonio 'Tony' Fratto, assistant secretary of the Treasury for public affairs, is headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to fill one of two deputy spots in a reshuffling of the press operation under spokesman Tony Snow."
The White House last week announced a slew of other personnel moves at the deputy assistant and special assistant levels.TMI
Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "First they put the White House press corps in a trailer.
"And now the toilet is clogged."Is Bush an Idiot?
The Crooks and Liars blog calls attention to a whole segment devoted to that topic on MSNBC last night: "Joe Scarborough started his program tonight asking the question 'is Bush an idiot?' . . . Not only did he do a great run down of clips involving some of the most famous
'Bushisms', but he did have an interesting conversation about this question with Lawrence O'Donnell and John Fund."
Here's the video .Online Humor
On Slate, satirist Evan Eisenberg imagines what Bush's Internet search terms might be; On Salon, Louis Bayard imagines Bush's book report on 'The Stranger'; at McSweeney's, Jeff Barnosky imagines Bush's Andover report card.Live Online
I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. EDT.