By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 27, 2006; 12:48 PM
President Bush's angry nonanswers to two straightforward questions yesterday were among the best illustrations yet of his intense aversion to responding to his critics' actual arguments.
Rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, Bush makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.
Here's the transcript of Bush's appearance yesterday alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Let's take a close look at the president's answers to two questions. I've highlighted key passages:
"Q Thank you, sir. Even after hearing that one of the major conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate in April was that the Iraq war has fueled terror growth around the world, why have you continued to say that the Iraq war has made this country safer?"
"PRESIDENT BUSH: I, of course, read the key judgments on the NIE. I agree with their conclusion that because of our successes against the leadership of al Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent. I'm not surprised the enemy is exploiting the situation in Iraq and using it as a propaganda tool to try to recruit more people to their -- to their murderous ways.
"Some people have guessed what's in the report and have concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake. I strongly disagree. I think it's naive. I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe."
OK, that's straw-man number one. Nobody I've heard of is suggesting that going on the offense against terrorists is bad. The question at hand is whether going on the offense against Iraq -- which had nothing to do with 9/11 -- made us less safe. By using this absurd straw-man, Bush leaves that issue unaddressed.
Bush: " The terrorists fight us in Iraq for a reason : They want to try to stop a young democracy from developing, just like they're trying to fight another young democracy in Afghanistan. And they use it as a recruitment tool, because they understand the stakes. They understand what will happen to them when we defeat them in Iraq."
Here, Bush makes it sound like the fight in Iraq is between the United States and terrorists. But of course the vast majority of fighting is now sectarian in nature, with U.S. troops caught in the middle.
Bush: "You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq, we would see a rosier scenario with fewer extremists joining the radical movement requires us to ignore 20 years of experience."
Here, Bush paraphrases his critics somewhat accurately. But his ensuing argument is bizarre.
Bush: " We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq, and thousands of fighters were trained in terror camps inside your country, Mr. President. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. We weren't in Iraq when they bombed the Cole. We weren't in Iraq when they blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "
David E. Sanger addresses that one in the New York Times this morning -- in the last two paragraphs of his story: "Mr. Bush has grown increasingly insistent that nothing he has done in Iraq has worsened terrorism. America was not in Iraq during the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, he said, or during the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole or embassies in Africa, or on 9/11.
"But that argument steps around the implicit question raised by the intelligence finding: whether postponing the confrontation with Saddam Hussein and focusing instead on securing Afghanistan, or dealing with issues like Iran's nascent nuclear capability or the Middle East peace process, might have created a different playing field, one in which jihadists were deprived of daily images of carnage in Iraq to rally their sympathizers."
And yet Sanger is being too gentle, because this is perhaps the ultimate Bush straw-man argument, this one so absurd is almost defies description.
No one is suggesting that the invasion of Iraq was responsible for terrorist act that predate that invasion! The argument is that invading Iraq has made the threat of terrorism since then worse than it otherwise would have been. Reciting past terrorist acts is almost laughably nonresponsive. And yet it's a staple of Bush's argument. Let's return to the transcript:
Bush: " My judgment is, if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse, because they have ambitions. "
But was it a mistake to give them such a powerful and motivating excuse? Bush won't address that one.
Bush: "They kill in order to achieve their objectives. You know, in the past, Osama bin Laden used Somalia as an excuse for people to join his jihadist movement. In the past, they used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a convenient way to try to recruit people to their jihadist movement. They've used all kinds of excuses.
"This government is going to do whatever it takes to protect this homeland. We're not going to let their excuses stop us from staying on the offense. The best way to protect America is defeat these killers overseas so we do not have to face them here at home. We're not going to let lies and propaganda by the enemy dictate how we win this war."
And here, of course, Bush is planting the idea that his critics -- whose arguments he has refused to face head on -- are succumbing to the lies and propaganda of the enemy.
Later, Bush was asked this question:
"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Former President Clinton says that your administration had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months after he left office. Is that factually accurate, and how do you respond to his charges?"
This time, Bush simply refused to answer at all.
"PRESIDENT BUSH: You know, look, Caren, I've watched all this finger-pointing and naming of names, and all that stuff. Our objective is to secure the country. And we've had investigations, we had the 9/11 Commission, we had the look back this, we've had the look back that. The American people need to know that we spend all our time doing everything that we can to protect them. So I'm not going to comment on other comments."
But he used the question as a springboard to some familiar talking points -- and some more straw men.
Bush: "But I will comment on this -- that we're on the offense against an enemy that wants to do us harm. And we must have the tools necessary to protect our country. On the one hand, if al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates are calling somebody in the country, we need to know why. "
For the record, Bush's critics are not suggesting that the U.S. shouldn't eavesdrop on suspected terrorists. They are simply suggesting that he get warrants to do so. And when they ask him why he can't achieve his goals within the law, he refuses to explain.
Bush: "And so Congress needs to pass that piece of legislation. If somebody has got information about a potential attack, we need to be able to ask that person some questions. And so Congress has got to pass that piece of legislation.
"You can't protect America unless we give those people on the front lines of protecting this country the tools necessary to do so within the Constitution. And that's where the debate is here in the United States. There are some decent people who don't believe -- evidently don't believe we're at war, and therefore, shouldn't give the administration what is necessary to protect us. "
But of course that's not where the debate is in Washington. Bush's critics acknowledge the battle against terrorists and want to give him the tools to win it. The debate is over how to conduct the war, and how to provide the executive branch with the necessary tools without violating the law and the Constitution.
Bush: "And that goes back to Jennifer's question, you know. Does being on the offense mean we create terrorists? My judgment is the only way to defend the country is to stay on the offense. It is preposterous to think if we were to withdraw and hope for the best, things would turn out fine against this enemy. "
And here, Bush muddles the distinction between Iraq and the global war on terror to suggest that those who advocate a withdrawal from Iraq -- a majority of the American public -- are also advocating a surrender to terrorists.
What's even more astonishing than the fact that the president makes a mockery of legitimate criticism rather than confront it is the fact that the press corps routinely lets him get away with it. Aside from a few paragraphs here and there, like those from the Sanger story above, most reporters quoted Bush's statements without putting them in the appropriate context.Rhetoric Watch
As it happens, just yesterday, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times took a stab at writing about Bush's rhetorical excesses. But he made an overbalanced muddle of it:
"As the White House intensifies a campaign to paint its opponents as wobbly in the war on terrorism, Democrats say it is engaging in a rhetorical device that subtly distorts their positions to make them seem extreme or misguided, raising phantom positions and implying they belong to Democrats before knocking them down as dangerous.
"Current and former administration officials say some cases cited by the Democrats are legitimate interpretations of Democratic positions through a deductive, if Republican, lens. Other times, they say, Democrats were seeing things that were not there.
"Each side agrees, however, that the White House is seeking to draw as sharp a distinction between Republicans and Democrats on terrorism as possible, something it has done skillfully in the past two election cycles. And so far this year it has lived up to its reputation of being particularly adept at using carefully chosen language to cast its opponents as unflatteringly as possible -- and to define their positions for voters before they can define them themselves."
Rutenberg offers a fascinating, insider's perspective: "Adam Levine, a former assistant press secretary for Mr. Bush, described the process as taking opponents' positions to their logical conclusions.
"'The way that it works is, you take the other side's view, and you articulate what it sounds like to you,' Mr. Levine said. 'It also is effective rhetorically because it at least on its face acknowledges the other side's argument, even if it is an extreme version of it.'"
But Rutenberg basically writes off Bush's behavior as standard operating procedure in the long history of heated political discourse. And that misses the point. What's going on here is not the standard criticism, or even insulting, of opponents. There's something more widespread and deceptive about it.
Here are just a couple more recent examples:
Sept. 15 : "I would hope people aren't trying to rewrite the history of Saddam Hussein -- all of a sudden, he becomes kind of a benevolent fellow."
Sept. 11 : "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone."
Also see some of my previous " Straw Man Watch " items.
Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press did a better job on this story back in March, when she wrote: "When the president starts a sentence with 'some say' or offers up what 'some in Washington' believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.
"The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Mr. Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.
"He typically then says he 'strongly disagrees,' conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.
"Mr. Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed 'critics,' is just as problematic."
It was during yesterday's press conference, of course, that Bush made the surprising announcement that his administration would release an edited version of the National Intelligence Estimate in question.
Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "In announcing yesterday that he would release the key judgments of a controversial National Intelligence Estimate, President Bush said he agreed with the document's conclusion 'that because of our successes against the leadership of al-Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent.'
"But the estimate itself posits no such cause and effect. Instead, while it notes that counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged and disrupted al-Qaeda's leadership, it describes the spreading 'global jihadist movement' as fueled largely by forces that al-Qaeda exploits but is not actively directing. They include Iraq, corrupt and unjust governments in Muslim-majority countries, and 'pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims.'"
Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The section released by the White House does not include an explicit conclusion that the war in Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to Americans. But the thrust of the report's 'key judgments' is that the terrorist danger is morphing and growing and that the Iraq war is a major contributing force in that trend."
And like Sanger, Miller at least gave his readers some indication that some of Bush's statements yesterday were questionable.
"'To suggest that if we weren't in Iraq we would see a rosier scenario with fewer extremists joining the radical movement requires us to ignore 20 years of experience,' Bush said. 'The best way to protect America is defeat these killers overseas so we do not have to face them here at home.'
"But the implication that there was a connection between Baghdad and any of those attacks -- or the Al Qaeda terrorist network -- was not supported by intelligence estimates before the war, and has been widely discredited since.
"At one point, Bush defended the invasion by saying the war on terrorism requires 'going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people.'
"However, the most comprehensive intelligence estimate on Iraq before the war -- a National Intelligence Estimate published in October 2002 -- concluded that Baghdad was 'drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks' against the United States, and that only 'if sufficiently desperate' was Hussein likely to seek a partnership with a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda."So Why Release It?
Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush criticized his own intelligence agencies yesterday as 'naive' for saying the Iraq war was spreading terror worldwide and rallying new recruits for Al Qaeda. . . .
"Bush ordered excerpts of the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate to be made public yesterday because he implied they would support his argument.
"But excerpts of the estimate, compiled by 16 spy agencies including the CIA, appeared to contradict Bush."
Timothy Noah asks, in Slate: "Can Bush Read?": "Bush was clearly wrong to suggest that the Times mischaracterized the NIE. The document he released says what the New York Times reported."
Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The White House complained that news reports focused on one paragraph taken 'wildly out of context' from the nine-page key judgments in the NIE. Still, much of the four-page summary released Tuesday focuses on the role Iraq has played in fomenting terrorism."
But Katherine Shrader and Jennifer Loven write for the Associated Press: "For Republicans, the excerpts of the document -- declassified under orders from President Bush on Tuesday -- are more evidence that Iraq is central to the war on terrorism and can't be abandoned without giving jihadists a crucial victory."Not Just Bush
And it's worth pointing out that refusing to directly address legitimate criticism isn't just a presidential tic; it's administration policy.
Here's the transcript of a briefing by homeland security adviser France Fragos Townsend yesterday.
Q: "Every time Iraq comes up in this, you've responded, the President has responded, it's the central front, and therefore, it is integral to terrorism. But another way to read these key judgments is that the order in which we took these things made a difference and that one might conclude from this, though it does not explicitly state it in any way here, that had we not done Iraq first, had we stayed for a while to do Afghanistan or focused on Iran first or something else, that you might not have created what they refer to here as the Iraqi jihad movement that has attracted so much motion.
"That, the President doesn't go to, not the question of whether Iraq is or is not, but whether it was -- whether it has, itself, because of it's timing, turned the tide somewhat against us. Can you address that?
"MS. TOWNSEND: Sure. David, first, let me start with the notion of the central front in the war on terror. What's -- forget what the -- put aside for the moment what the President has said, because he's been clear about the administration's view. Let's look at what bin Laden and Zawahiri have said -- and Zarqawi -- about this being either where they're going to have ultimate victory or ultimate defeat when the President went through those -- the quotations from al Qaeda, themselves.
"Q But [they] made that statement only after we had invaded. In other words, had we chosen to delay invasion dealing with Iraq for X number of years, would -- is it your conclusion from this that we would have avoided having to deal with an Iraqi jihad at the moment that we are dealing with all of the other elements of this problem?
"MS. TOWNSEND: Two points. First I would say to you, it presumes that when you say, the order of things, that we can't do more than one thing at a time. And as we know, we're fighting in Afghanistan while we're fighting in Iraq. Second, what I would say to you is, there's always an excuse. I mean, we weren't in Iraq on September the 11th when we got hit, and they hit us anyway. There are always going to be some excuse for them to propagate their hateful ideology -- whether it's the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's the conflict in Afghanistan, it's our troop presence in the Gulf -- there's always an excuse. And so I think that that's not -- I just don't think that holds weight."Poll Watch, Part I
Incidentally, the public long ago made up its mind that the war in Iraq had made the U.S. less safe, rather than safer.
See Pollingreport.com . In the USAToday/Gallup poll, 48 percent said the U.S. was less safe, in the CNN poll, it was 55 percent. In the Newsweek poll, it was 63 percent.Poll Watch, Part II
Lydia Saad writes for the Gallup News Service: "According to a recent Gallup Panel survey, the American public puts the primary blame on Bush rather than Clinton for the fact that bin Laden has not been captured. A majority of Americans say Bush is more to blame (53%), compared with 36% blaming Clinton."Detainee Watch
R. Jeffrey Smith and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met with Republican senators yesterday in an effort to reach final agreement on legislation that would govern the military trials of terrorism suspects, but they did not resolve a dispute over whether the captives should have access to U.S. courts.
"The complex measure, which President Bush has called a top legislative priority, nonetheless appears likely to win approval by the time Congress adjourns at the end of this week. A vote is expected in the House today on a version of the legislation that the White House supports."
Smith and Babington note several recent changes to the bill. "In one, the administration and its House allies would give the defense secretary wide latitude to depart, without independent judicial scrutiny, from the rules and detainee protections the legislation would create. It would allow him to do so whenever he deems it 'practicable or consistent with military or intelligence activities.'"Warrantless Eavesdropping Watch
Jonathan Weisman and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "A high-profile Republican effort to clarify the legality of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program will almost certainly not pass before Congress recesses at week's end for the fall campaign, leaving the legislation in deep trouble, congressional leaders conceded yesterday.
"Efforts to reach agreement on a single version of the bill that could be brought before the Senate and House this week foundered yesterday on the insistence of key House members that they vote on a House version that they say is significantly tougher than the Senate's."Pre-9/11 Thinking
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The election-year debate over terrorism has triggered a full-blown spat between the camps of President Bush and former president Bill Clinton as the two sides trade barbs over who was more responsible for failing to disrupt al-Qaeda before it could attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Bush complained yesterday that Clinton was engaging in 'finger-pointing' by attacking the current administration's actions before the hijackings. 'I don't have enough time to finger-point,' Bush said. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did, calling Clinton's version of events 'flatly false.' . . .
"Rice came under fire for her assertion that 'we were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaeda' by Clinton's team. In fact, Clarke sent Rice an al-Qaeda memo on Jan. 25, 2001, along with a strategy to 'roll back' the terrorist network, but the Bush team decided to conduct the policy review."All About the Body Language
Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush met yesterday with Afghanistan President Harmid Karzai and last Friday with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Tonight, joined by Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he will bring both men into the old family dining room of the White House for a private chat. 'It will be interesting for me to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are,' Bush told reporters."Valerie Plame Watch
Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who investigated whether senior Bush administration officials illegally leaked the name of a CIA operative for political payback, has spent $1.4 million in his probe over the past three years, his office reported yesterday -- a figure that establishes him as remarkably frugal in the ranks of recent special investigators.
"Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigations of President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his ties to the failed Whitewater land investment cost $71.5 million and took eight years. Independent Counsel David M. Barrett's examination of Clinton housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros over an extramarital affair and potential illegal payments cost $21 million and lasted 10 years."Cartoon Watch:
I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come visit.