NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
Bush's Skeptical Audience

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 20, 2006; 12:14 PM

President Bush's credibility problem in this country, while serious, is nothing compared to his credibility problem everywhere else.

As Bush delivered a speech to the United Nations yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder: What were those stony-faced world leaders really thinking?

Were they thinking that Bush was lying? That he was deluded? Or that he was sincere?

No one can ignore the president of the United States, but one can certainly argue over whether he's helping or hurting the quest for peace and freedom that he spoke of with such fervor.

Audience reaction at the United Nations is muted by tradition.

Historically, that's been unpleasant for Bush, who prefers obliging crowds that cheer all the applause lines written into his scripts. But yesterday, maybe it was all for the best. Silence is certainly better than a lot of harrumphing.

The Coverage

Maggie Farley and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush on Tuesday called for Muslims and other residents of the Middle East to reject extremism and empower 'voices of moderation,' offering the latest defense of his 'freedom agenda' that has rankled allies abroad and drawn criticism from Democrats at home. . . .

"Bush addressed a crowd left skeptical by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, launched without U.N. endorsement, and Washington's hard line on Iran. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the assembled diplomats that 'billions and billions' of dollars spent in Iraq could have been used to lessen hunger and poverty around the world.

"U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized Bush's policies for fighting terrorism, particularly his administration's controversial practices of secret detention and transferring prisoners to other countries for interrogation, which the White House refers to as 'extraordinary rendition.'"

Tony Karon writes for Time: "The U.S. media will occasionally challenge facts presented by the White House, but rarely will it challenge the President's basic credibility when he's talking to Americans about a threat to national security. He is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief, and privy to the nation's best intelligence. At the UN General Assembly, however, President Bush's warnings to Iran to 'abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions,' and his cloaking of the invasion of Iraq as part of a march of freedom in the region, are likely to be greeted far more skeptically. . . .

"President Bush's audience at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday cannot help but recall his address to the same forum four years ago, when he made a case for war with Iraq based on a litany of what turned out to be spurious claims concerning active nuclear and chemical weapons programs and ties with al-Qaeda."

Karon writes that even Bush's attempt "to frame his Middle East policy as a campaign for democracy in support of the region's long-suffering citizens" faces wide-ranging skepticism. For instance: "[T]he very Arab moderates on whose behalf President Bush claims to be fighting are often among the strongest critics of his policies, warning that by pursuing democracy through military action, the U.S. may be breeding more extremism than progress."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Bush's goals -- while entirely laudable -- are undercut not just by the poisonous claims of the jihadi movement. They are undercut by his own record. . . .

"And when he appealed for agreement on 'a world beyond terror,' he reached for a landmark U.N. document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 'This document declares that the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world,"' Bush said.

"That's the same Universal Declaration that prohibits torture or 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' It's the same Universal Declaration that promises everyone 'a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.' And it's the same Universal Declaration that promises everyone charged with a penal offence 'a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.'"

On Iran, Bowing to Reality?

Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "Striking a more conciliatory tone than in previous addresses on the subject, Bush said Tuesday that the United States has no objections to Iran achieving a 'truly peaceful nuclear power program' and told the Iranians that he looks forward 'to the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace.' . . .

"For Bush, Tuesday's remarks seemed a different kind of exercise than his recent speeches on terrorism and Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. While he has used previous speeches to paint an alarming portrait of Iran -- he called it a 'grave threat' to the world just two weeks ago in Salt Lake City -- on Tuesday he emphasized painting a more benign picture of U.S. intentions. Whether the effort will succeed is uncertain, given the long history of bitter feelings in Iran over past American interference in Iranian affairs, including the overthrow of an elected prime minister in 1953."

Jim Rutenberg and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times that "in a sign of the uphill battle that is facing the United States as it tries to hold together its coalition seeking to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions, there was little talk of sanctions. Senior Bush officials had initially predicted a breakthrough on a sanctions resolution this week."

The Root Cause of Sept. 11

Bush, not surprisingly, came right out of the gates with a mention of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But his analysis of their root cause surely raised some eyebrows.

"Some have argued that the democratic changes we're seeing in the Middle East are destabilizing the region. This argument rests on a false assumption, that the Middle East was stable to begin with. The reality is that the stability we thought we saw in the Middle East was a mirage. For decades, millions of men and women in the region have been trapped in oppression and hopelessness. And these conditions left a generation disillusioned, and made this region a breeding ground for extremism."

But weren't 15 of the 19 hijackers from Saudi Arabia?

And I found it odd that Bush couldn't allow his declaration of respect for Islam to go unqualified: "Today, I'd like to speak directly to the people across the broader Middle East," he said. "My country desires peace. Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false, and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror. We respect Islam, but we will protect our people from those who pervert Islam to sow death and destruction."

We respect Islam, but?

Credibility Test Case: Syria

Bush was particularly harsh on Syria: "Today your rulers have allowed your country to become a crossroad for terrorism," he said. "In your midst, Hamas and Hezbollah are working to destabilize the region, and your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran. This is increasing your country's isolation from the world. Your government must choose a better way forward by ending its support for terror, and living in peace with your neighbors, and opening the way to a better life for you and your families."

But who in that chamber could have heard Bush talking about Syria without thinking about the story that led the morning newspapers yesterday, about an innocent Muslim Canadian citizen who was secretly whisked by U.S. authorities to Syria, where he was tortured?

Ian Austen follows up today in the New York Times: "A software engineer who was exonerated of any involvement in terrorism by a Canadian government inquiry said Tuesday that he wanted the United States to explain why he was sent to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured."

Richard B. Schmitt and Christopher Guly write in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said Tuesday that the United States had acted lawfully when it deported a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, to Syria, where Arar says he was tortured during a yearlong incarceration."

Flooding the Zone

James Carney writes for Time: "President Bush has been so busy lately giving speeches and taking questions about terrorism and Iraq and the ideological battle against Islamo-fascism that he's practically owned the airwaves. Which is just what Karl Rove wanted. Bush's address at the United Nations General Assembly today may have been a long-scheduled, annual diplomatic event. But it was also a key piece in an elaborate Labor Day political strategy devised by the man whose job it is to keep Republicans in control of Congress in November and thereby salvage the President's legacy. . . .

"The result has been saturation coverage of the President talking tough on terror, just as Rove planned."

Nothing New

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "President Bush had nothing to say at the United Nations today. This was the clearest message of his 25-minute speech before the General Assembly -- that he has no plans to change course, no desire to talk with his enemies, no proposals to put on the table, no initiatives of any sort, except to name an envoy to Sudan.

"His address was full of stirring words, signifying nothing. At one point, he spoke 'directly to the people across the broader Middle East.' To Iraqis, he said, 'We will not abandon you' -- which many Iraqis must have taken as a mixed blessing at best. To Afghans, he said, 'We will stand with you,' to which they could be forgiven for blinking a skeptical eye. . . .

"The sad fact is that, even among Middle Eastern countries governed by aspiring or actual democrats, the United States is less and less a moral model. Our beacon has dimmed not because of who we are but because of what we've done. And President Bush made clear today that he's not going to do anything differently."

Torture Watch

Here's press secretary Tony Snow in a press briefing last week: "There is one proposal that says, here's what the law is, and if you break it you won't get punished by American authorities. What we're saying is, no, you can't do that. In a law, what you have to do is to say, these activities are illegal. That's what laws do."

But apparently that's not operative any more.

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "Rather than reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit inhumane treatment, to allow the CIA to continue aggressive interrogation practices, the White House has expressed a willingness to have Congress clarify the 1996 War Crimes Act. That maneuver would give American operatives leeway to conduct interrogations without the fear of prosecution, senators said."

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "The developments suggested that the White House had blinked first in its standoff with the senators, who include John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain of Arizona. But few details were available, and it was not clear whether a compromise was imminent or whether the White House had shifted its stance significantly."

Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist signaled yesterday that he and other White House allies will filibuster a bill dealing with the interrogation and prosecution of detainees if they cannot persuade a rival group of Republicans to rewrite key provisions opposed by President Bush."

Finally, some needed context in the news columns of the New York Times yesterday. Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote: "In his showdown with rebellious Senate Republicans over bills to bring terrorism suspects to trial, President Bush has repeatedly called for clarity in the rules for what he calls 'alternative interrogation techniques' used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

"What Mr. Bush really wants, legal experts on both sides of the debate say, is latitude so the interrogators can use methods that the military is barred from using under a recently issued Army field manual. . . .

"'They can't come out and say we want more leeway to rough these people up,' said John Radsan, who was assistant general counsel for the intelligence agency from 2002 to 2004 and now teaches at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. 'That doesn't sell. So he says we need clarity. It doesn't play well to say we need to deprive them of sleep and play loud music.'"

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Is it ever appropriate, for example, to put a naked detainee in a cold cell and douse him with water? If so, for how long? Should interrogators be able to lead people to think they are drowning (a practice known as waterboarding)?

"Many lawmakers thought they had settled some of these questions last December, when they passed an antitorture amendment by broad majorities in Congress. But in his signing statement, President Bush claimed executive powers to exempt members of his administration from the amendment, should circumstances warrant.

"Ever since, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and others have sought clarification on what, exactly, the Bush administration had ruled inbounds for detainee treatment.

"President Bush says that 'tough' alternative interrogation techniques are needed and have been useful, but won't disclose what they include."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Bush's view of the world is based on the idea of American exceptionalism: that this country is unique, that its ideas and values are not just worthy or admirable but superior to any others. This attitude annoys the rest of the world to no end -- a lot of other countries think they're pretty special, too -- but accept for the moment that the American system is in fact the best of all systems and that the great experiment begun by the Founding Fathers was a signal event in the history of mankind. Accept, if you will, Bush's view that the United States is steadfastly blessed by a loving God.

"What do you imagine God might think about torture, Mr. President?"

Cheney Speaks

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney cast the global war on terror on Tuesday as a 'war of nerves,' borrowing a phrase Harry Truman used to describe the Cold War. Cheney asserted that the hopes of the civilized world depend on a U.S. victory.

"'We are not going to let down our guard,' Cheney told a convention of automobile dealers."

Here's the text of his speech.

Iraq Watch

Remember Iraq? That's the topic the White House is glad we're not writing about so much right now. And here's why:

Ann Scott Tyson writes in the Washington Post: "The U.S. military is unlikely to reduce forces in Iraq before next spring because the current contingent of more than 140,000 troops is battling sectarian violence that could prove 'fatal' to the country if not arrested, the top American commander for the Middle East said yesterday....

"Asked point-blank whether the United States is winning in Iraq, Abizaid replied: 'Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we're winning the war.'"

Poll Watch

Jill Lawrence and Susan Page write for USA Today: "Amid falling gas prices and a two-week drive to highlight his administration's efforts to fight terrorism, President Bush's approval rating has risen to 44% in a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll . That's his highest rating in a year."

Eric Boehlert writes for the liberal Media Matters Web site: "Despite the obvious signs it exists -- and has for nearly 20 months -- the pervasive buyer's remorse that hovers around President Bush's second term, as measured by public opinion polls, remains off limits for the press. . . .

"The issue of buyer's remorse is directly connected to a larger, twofold problem surrounding the ongoing coverage of Bush's polling numbers. First, there's developed a pervasive press obsession with trying to be the first to document Bush's rebound in the polls. . . .

"Secondly, and just as disturbing, is the categorical refusal by the press to put Bush's consistently dreadful poll numbers into any kind of historical context."

Laura Bush Watch

The White House press office liked this Mike Allen story for Time so much, they sent it out on their e-mail list: "This First Lady has always had a quietly aggressive schedule, spending much of 2004 holding rallies and raising money in Democratic and swing areas where her husband would be less welcome. Often, she was introduced by her twin daughters. Now, she is stepping out on the policy stage, serving as what her chief of staff, Anita B. McBride, calls 'the public face of the U.S. government commitment on AIDS, on human rights, on democracy' and 'a voice for the commitments that the U.S. government is making on these issues.'"

In fact, it's a full-on PR blitz, carefully managed by the White House.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "On Monday, Laura Bush convened an international conference on literacy. Tuesday, she hosted a roundtable aimed at prodding the United Nations into action on the humanitarian crisis in Burma. Wednesday, she will address the Clinton Global Initiative. And Thursday, she is to receive a major international award. . . .

"'Any one of those events on their own for a first lady is significant,' said Anita McBride, Laura Bush's chief of staff. 'Together, they are profound.'"

Fletcher writes that the first lady's "sustained presence at the center of the world stage is unprecedented, which White House aides are promoting in the belief that her emerging profile can only help bolster President Bush's sagging popularity."

Bush v. Blitzer

CNN asks for questions Wolf Blitzer should ask Bush, in an interview to be aired at 7 p.m. ET today.

Olbermann Lets Loose Again

Here's MSNBC host Keith Olbermann on Monday ( text and video ): "The President of the United States owes this country an apology. . . .

"With increasing rage, he and his administration have begun to tell us, we are not permitted to disagree with them. . . .

"Between your confidence in your infallibility, sir, and your demonizing of dissent, and now these rages better suited to a thwarted three-year old, you have left the unnerving sense of a White House coming unglued - a chilling suspicion that perhaps we have not seen the peak of the anger; that we can no longer forecast what next will be said to, or about, anyone who disagrees."

Woodward Watch

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News that Carl Bernstein came to Bob Woodward's defense at a dramatic reading of "All the President's Men" in New York Monday night, after Air America host Sam Seder criticized Woodward for being soft on the Bush White House.

"Calling Seder's remarks 'wholly inappropriate,' Bernstein said: 'Most of what we know about the Bush White House comes from Bob Woodward's reporting.' . . .

"Woodward, still an editor at The Post more than 30 years after Watergate, told me: 'I appreciate Carl's remarks, but I also understand the passions that blind people, quite frankly, when they want certain political outcomes. And reporters have to stick to what happens and what they can find out.'"

McClellan Critiques Press Corps

In a press release about his signing up to participate on a new Web site, former press secretary Scott McClellan is quoted thusly: "I fielded dozens of questions a day, yet I often felt like I was not being asked about the issues that really mattered to most Americans."

Didion on Cheney

Joan Didion reviews what we know about Vice President Cheney in the New York Review of Books:

"The question of where the President gets the notions known to the nation as 'I'm the decider' and within the White House as 'the unitary executive theory' leads pretty fast to the blackout zone that is the Vice President and his office."

Edsall on Rove

Thomas B. Edsall has an article in the New Republic (subscription required) that's adapted from his new book, "Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power."

Edsall sees the story of Karl Rove's ability to persevere in spite of his dysfunctional family as a metaphor for the Republican movement generally.

And it's a heck of a story.

"Karl Rove was not yet a celebrity in 1997 when he told me the following story. In December 1969, during his freshman year in college, his father left his mother; and, shortly thereafter, his mother largely withdrew from his life. She 'packed up the car, had the house on the market, and moved to Reno and said good luck,' Rove recalled. After that, he was on his own. Rove put himself through two years at the University of Utah, working part time, earning a partial scholarship, and living in a makeshift bedroom under the attic eaves of his fraternity house. His father sent support checks, but his mother kept them, never telling her son. 'My mother was one of these people who really thought often of what it was that she wanted in life, and not necessarily what was good or right for her family,' Rove said. 'And that was just her way. She never grew up. She could never think long term. She was always in the moment.' When he was 21, Rove discovered that his father was not, in fact, his biological father and that he was the offspring of an earlier relationship. His real father had disappeared, and the man he knew as his father had adopted him. (Years later, he would track down his biological father, who refused to acknowledge that Karl was his son.) When Rove was in his mid-20s, his mother would call to borrow money. Occasionally, she sent him packages with magazines from his childhood or old, broken toys. 'It was like she was trying desperately to sort of keep this connection,' he recalled. Finally, in 1981, his mother 'drove out to the desert north of Reno and filled the car with carbon monoxide, and then left all of her children a letter saying, don't blame yourselves for this.' It was, Rove said, 'the classic [expletive]-you gesture.'"

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive