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Humoring Condi

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 26, 2007; 1:37 PM

President Bush's indolent approach to tomorrow's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis suggests that he's just going through the motions to make his beloved secretary of state happy.

Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said "that her goal is to wrap up a peace deal by the end of the Bush presidency. But people who have spoken to Bush in recent weeks say he has made it clear that he has no intention of trying to force a peace settlement on the parties. The president's fight against terrorism has given him a sense of kinship with Israel over its need for security, and he remains skeptical that, in the end, the Palestinians will make the compromises necessary for a peace deal. . . .

"Arab officials are skeptical that the conference will amount to much, in part because Bush has remained relatively silent on the matter since he announced the peace talks this summer, said Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as Bush's ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. 'You don't get a sense that he's invested in it,' Kurtzer said. 'Nobody associates President Bush with this policy.' . . .

"Flynt Leverett, Rice's former top aide on Middle East issues, said she indicated to him that she wanted to be bolder in helping the Palestinian side of the equation but folded in the face of intense opposition from Vice President Cheney, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other conservatives."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's national security advisor said Sunday that the president would not adopt a more activist role in Mideast peace negotiations that start today, even though many observers believe the United States must step up its direct involvement if the effort is to succeed.

"On the eve of a U.S.-convened conference in Annapolis, Md., launching the first formal peace talks in seven years, Stephen J. Hadley said Bush believed Washington's role should be to aid and encourage Israelis and Palestinians, not 'lean on one side or another and jam a settlement through.' . . .

"Many Arab and European diplomats say they believe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to make progress toward peace in the Middle East, but they fear that Bush does not fully share her views and has at times limited her role."

The Unmotivated President

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about "Bush's near-absence from the Middle East during his presidency. He has traveled to the region four times, but two of those visits were one-day trips to Iraq, and one was for a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The only time Bush traveled for the express purpose of trying to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace agreement came in 2003. He met Arab allies in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and then attended a three-way summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, then prime minister and now president of the Palestinian Authority.

"Bush's record stands in contrast to that of former president Bill Clinton, who traveled to the Middle East seven times, all but one visit focused on the peace process in one form or another, according to records kept by Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS Radio correspondent."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush once talked bullishly about Middle East peacemaking. He would 'ride herd' on recalcitrant leaders, picking up the telephone whenever necessary and helping produce a long-elusive agreement.

"In truth, Bush has been more a sporadic speaker than engaged enforcer during his seven years in office. . . .

"Nathan Brown, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, 'What's remarkable is the extent to which he's been disengaged, with only episodic parachuting in with absolutely no follow-up.' . . .

"Bush has met and talked many times with the pivotal Mideast players. But everyone from White House officials to outside observers, when asked about the highlights of his involvement, cites speeches: one on June 24, 2002, when he pledged support for an independent Palestinian state, becoming the first president to do so publicly; and one this past July 16, when he called for the U.S.-sponsored conference set for Washington and Annapolis, Md., this week."

Rice's Legacy So Far

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "Rice comes to Middle East peace negotiations relatively late, having downplayed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while she was national security adviser and spent her first years as secretary of state pushing Arab democracy as the cure to the region's woes."

How did that work out for her? Not so well.

In an excerpt from her new Rice biography, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller describes how the radical Islamic movement Hamas's sweeping victory in Palestinian elections in January 2006 caught Rice flat-footed.

"Ms. Rice, who had heralded the election as a symbol of the new stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, was so blindsided by the victory that she was startled when she saw a crawl of words on her television screen while exercising on her elliptical trainer the morning after the election: 'In wake of Hamas victory, Palestinian cabinet resigns.'

"'I thought, "Well, that's not right," Ms. Rice recalled. When the crawl continued, she got off the elliptical trainer and called the State Department.

"'I said, "What happened in the Palestinian elections?"' Ms. Rice recalled. 'And they said, "Oh, Hamas won." And I thought, "Oh my goodness, Hamas won?"'

"Ms. Rice's credibility was further damaged when she delayed calling for a cease-fire as Israel plunged into a two-front war in Lebanon and Gaza that summer."

Rice's boss shared her naïveté. Kessler and Abramowitz write: "Leverett recalled that, in 2002, Bush said in the White House situation room that once a Palestinian leadership was democratically elected, it would concentrate on providing services to its constituents and 'you would get a Palestinian leadership less hung up' on such issues as borders and Jerusalem.

"Leverett, who has become a fierce Bush critic, said he was shocked at Bush's comment at the time. 'It was one of the most profoundly ignorant statements anyone has ever uttered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,' he said."

Rice's Turnaround

Early in the administration, Rice enthusiastically carried water for Cheney and others who had no interest in trying to bring peace to the region. Bumiller describes how Rice even went so far as undermining then-secretary of state Colin Powell's efforts to set up a peace conference in 2002.

But that's in the past, Bumiller writes: "For Ms. Rice, Annapolis reflects her evolution from passive participant to activist diplomat who has been willing to break with Mr. Cheney and other conservatives skeptical of an American diplomatic role in the Middle East."

Bumiller writes that Rice's supporters say "she is determined to fashion a legacy in the Middle East that extends beyond the war in Iraq."

And how has she persuaded Bush to go along? "Ms. Rice was able to engineer the administration's shift in large part because of her extraordinarily close relationship with the president -- Mr. Bush 'loved Condi,' said Andrew H. Card Jr., the former White House chief of staff -- and her ability to move him at critical moments."

In another excerpt, Bumiller writes: "Condoleezza Rice and President Bush are often described as opposites, but their closest advisers say they are remarkably alike. Both are products of their own elites -- Mr. Bush from the old East Coast establishment, Ms. Rice from Southern black professionals -- who are supremely self-confident on the surface but harbor resentments underneath. Ms. Rice, like Mr. Bush, has been underestimated her entire life, as an African-American, as a woman and often as the youngest person in the room.

"Ms. Rice's unusually tight bond with Mr. Bush has helped her as secretary of state in his second term to prod the president toward diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. But administration officials have long said that her devotion to Mr. Bush made her unwilling to challenge the president when needed during his first term, when she served as a less than confident national security adviser."

The Cheney Factor

Although Rice has changed her views, Bumiller writes that Cheney "today surrounds himself with senior advisers dubious about the Annapolis meeting."

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that one former top Cheney aide said last week that Israeli-Palestinian peace should not be a U.S. government priority.

"'Priorities for the United States right now should be three or four major crises that are reaching the near acute stage,' David Wurmser, formerly the U.S. vice president's senior adviser on Middle East issues, said Tuesday at an Israel Project luncheon in Washington, D.C.

"Wurmser cited nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea, instability in Pakistan and the radicalization of the Venezuelan government. He expressed amazement at seeing 'a secretary of state almost tearing a hole in the atmosphere flying to Israel and the Palestinian territories trying to negotiate a peace treaty.'"

Wall Street Journal reporters Cam Simpson and Jay Solomon have more from Wurmser: "The point is that right now we've invested the Secretary of State's time in something I don't think is central to our interests," Wurmser said. "We need to change the subject into something that we can handle and we can defeat Iran with."

High Stakes, Low Expectations

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, who has avoided playing much of a role in the Middle East peace process, is now gambling that the time is right for progress in the troubled region. But the risks are high, and the odds for success seem long. . . .

"Failure to achieve concrete results would have 'devastating consequences in the region and beyond,' a bipartisan group of foreign policy luminaries said. They include former White House national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former House International Relations Committee chairman Lee Hamilton and former diplomats Thomas Pickering and Carla Hills.

"'The outcome of the conference must be substantive, inclusive and relevant to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians,' they wrote Bush and Rice last month.

"Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar at the University of Maryland, agreed. 'It would be a disaster if we fail. People know that, if this initiative is aimed to bolster the Arab moderates, and they fail after raising expectations so high, then Hamas wins without lifting a finger.'"

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post that "pre-conference talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not produce a joint statement outlining the peace process to follow this week's largely symbolic gathering. The failure highlights how contentious the talks will be when participants take up issues such as the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel.

"Even though a majority of the 22-member Arab League agreed to attend, Arab officials have expressed deep reservations about how much the conference will achieve, given the late hour of the Bush administration's diplomacy and the violent divisions within the Palestinian electorate."

The White House Line

"I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush said Sunday in a statement. "The Israelis and Palestinians have waited a long time for this vision to be realized, and I call upon all those gathering in Annapolis this week to redouble their efforts to turn dreams of peace into reality."

Here is National Security Adviser Hadley's briefing for reporters yesterday, which includes his thoughts on why the timing is so propitious.

Here is Bush this morning after his meeting with Israeli President Ehud Olmert: "I'm looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the President of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or nor peace is possible. I'm optimistic, I know you're optimistic, and I want to thank you for your courage and your friendship. I'm proud your -- proud of you."

Iraq Watch

Steven Lee Myers and Alissa J. Rubin write in the New York Times: "With American military successes outpacing political gains in Iraq, the Bush administration has lowered its expectation of quickly achieving major steps toward unifying the country, including passage of a long-stymied plan to share oil revenues and holding regional elections.

"Instead, administration officials say they are focusing their immediate efforts on several more limited but achievable goals in the hope of convincing Iraqis, foreign governments and Americans that progress is being made toward the political breakthroughs that the military campaign of the past 10 months was supposed to promote.

"The short-term American targets include passage of a $48 billion Iraqi budget, something the Iraqis say they are on their way to doing anyway; renewing the United Nations mandate that authorizes an American presence in the country, which the Iraqis have done repeatedly before; and passing legislation to allow thousands of Baath Party members from Saddam Hussein's era to rejoin the government. A senior Bush administration official described that goal as largely symbolic since rehirings have been quietly taking place already."

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Top military leaders at the Pentagon want to avoid a repeat of the last public assessment of the Iraq war -- with its relentless focus on the opinion of a single commander -- when the Bush administration makes its next crucial decision about the size of the U.S. force. . . .

"Defense officials believe [Gen. David H. Petraeus]'s testimony succeeded in muting a congressional debate and in giving them breathing room for their counter-insurgency strategy, but at a potentially high cost. In addition to the burden on Petraeus, some officials believe, an incessant spotlight on one general risks politicizing the military and undermining the public's faith that military leaders will give honest assessments of the war's progress."

Operation Enduring Relationship

Here's a White House photo of Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (via videoconference) signing a new "U.S.-Iraq Declaration of Principles for Friendship and Cooperation" this morning. Here's a White House " fact sheet" on the agreement which states that "Iraq's leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America, and we seek an enduring relationship with a democratic Iraq."

The Associated Press reports that Iraq's government, "seeking protection against foreign threats and internal coups" is offering the U.S. "a long-term troop presence in Iraq in return for U.S. security guarantees as part of a strategic partnership."

From this morning's briefing by "war czar" Doug Lute:

Question: "Will there be a long-term military presence, and how large of a military presence will there be?"

Lute: "So shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, U.S. presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States. So it's too soon to tell what shape and size that commitment will take. But you can be sure that that will be a key part of the negotiations that are framed in today's document."

Question: "And permanent bases?"

Lute: "Likewise. That's another dimension of continuing U.S. support to the government of Iraq, and will certainly be a key item for negotiation next year."

Afghanistan Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "A White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan has concluded that wide-ranging strategic goals that the Bush administration set for 2007 have not been met, even as U.S. and NATO forces have scored significant combat successes against resurgent Taliban fighters, according to U.S. officials. . . .

"[O]ne senior intelligence official, who like others interviewed was not authorized to discuss Afghanistan on the record, said [the military] gains are fleeting. 'One can point to a lot of indicators that are positive . . . where we go out there and achieve our objectives and kill bad guys,' the official said. But the extremists, he added, seem to have little trouble finding replacements. . . .

"Senior White House officials privately express pessimism about Afghanistan. There is anxiety over the current upheaval in neighboring Pakistan, where both the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain headquarters, logistical support and training camps along the Afghan border."

Pakistan Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that Bush last week "offered his strongest support of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying the general 'hasn't crossed the line' and 'truly is somebody who believes in democracy.' . . .

"The comments, delivered in an interview with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, contrasted with previous administration statements -- including by Bush himself -- expressing grave concern over Musharraf's actions. . . .

"Several outside analysts and a key Democratic lawmaker expressed incredulity over Bush's comments and called them a sign of how personally invested the president has become in the U.S. relationship with Musharraf.

"'What exactly would it take for the president to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists?' asked Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. 'He's already done all that. If the president sees Musharraf as a democrat, he must be wearing the same glasses he had on when he looked in Vladimir Putin's soul.'"

Bush Loses Another Ally

Rohan Sullivan writes for the Associated Press: "Conservative Prime Minister John Howard suffered a humiliating defeat Saturday at the hands of the left-leaning opposition, whose leader has promised to immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and withdraw Australia's combat troops from Iraq.

"Labor Party head Kevin Rudd's pledges move Australia sharply away from policies that had made Howard one of President Bush's staunchest allies."

Raymond Bonner writes in the New York Times: "The defeat of John Howard, Australia's prime minister, in Saturday's election deprived President Bush of one of his most steadfast allies and will bring changes in Australia's foreign policy that will be felt in Washington.

"During recent years, Mr. Howard was unabashedly in the American corner at times when other world leaders were keeping their studied distance, and his loss is likely to be particularly acute for Mr. Bush, who puts great stock in personal relations in the conduct of foreign relations."

The Boston Globe has a slide show of Bush's vanishing allies on Iraq.

Playing Small Ball

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "As President Bush looks toward his final year in office, with Democrats controlling Congress and his major domestic initiatives dead on Capitol Hill, he is shifting his agenda to what aides call 'kitchen table issues' -- small ideas that affect ordinary people's lives and do not take an act of Congress to put in place.

"Over the past few months, Mr. Bush has sounded more like the national Mr. Fix-It than the man who began his second term with a sweeping domestic policy agenda of overhauling Social Security, remaking the tax code and revamping immigration law."

Budget Watch

And yet as long as he maintains Congressional Republican support, Bush can still obstruct like a champ.

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush seems to have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a full nelson.

"Just a year after Democrats charged into power on Capitol Hill against a Republican president with bottom-scraping poll numbers and a soured war, it's the Democrats who are crying uncle in the biggest budget confrontation since the 1995 government shutdown. . . .

"Pelosi and Reid have already begun backing down. The Democratic speaker from San Francisco and the Senate leader from Nevada wrote the White House this month asking for negotiations. Last week, Reid offered to 'split the difference' with Bush on the spending bills. The White House refused. . . .

"With a narrow House majority and a one-vote margin in the Senate, Democrats face an almost-impossible task trying to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override Bush vetoes. If House Republicans continue to support the White House and if Democrats want to avoid a government shutdown, Democrats may find themselves with little choice but to cave in to Bush's demands."

Cheney and the Economy

Nina Easton writes in Fortune: "President Bush's economic legacy is emerging as a central debate point in the 2008 presidential campaign. But it's important to remember that this is also a Cheney legacy - one that gets less attention than his record as a chief salesman of the unpopular Iraq war and zealous advocate of executive authority, but will have trillion-dollar consequences for America's well-being.

"The fact is, Cheney plays a surprisingly major role in shaping the administration's economic policy. . . .

"In the coming months, as the administration struggles with the threat of recession, White House insiders say the staunchly free-market Vice President can be expected to resist any impulse to soften the blow with government action.

"'The fact is, the markets work, and they are working,' said Cheney in an interview in his White House office."

Easton writes that "if there's anything about the economy that keeps Dick Cheney up at night, it's the prospect of sabotage aimed at disrupting the oil market. . . .

"So when President Bush's 2008 budget was coming together, with the goal of balancing the budget in five years, Cheney nevertheless insisted on a $947 million line item: a speedup of the flow of crude into the Texas and Louisiana salt caverns housing the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

"The budget guys pushed back: Can't we wait until crude prices level off? No, the word came back from Cheney, this was urgent. That was all it took. 'He doesn't weigh in on a ton of issues,' said a person close to those negotiations. 'But when he does. . . . '

"'He's an extremely effective bureaucratic operator,' says Peter Wehner, formerly Bush's director of strategic initiatives."

Easton writes that "the Vice President's role is both formal and informal. 'I sit in on virtually all the economic policy sessions,' Cheney says, including the regular Wednesday luncheon of economic principals. And he stands out as the one economic policy advisor with routine private access to Bush."

And Cheney talked, I believe for the first time, to Easton about one of his more legendary quotes. During internal debates over proposed tax cuts in 2002, Cheney reportedly told a skeptical Paul O'Neill, who was then Treasury secretary, that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

Easton writes: "So do they? 'They do,' Cheney answers with his trademark terseness. 'The [deficit] conversation, as I recall, was in a political context.'"

Bush Tells Interviewer Nothing New

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker writes up her interview with Bush last week: "George W. Bush has accepted that he won't live long enough to witness his legacy, though he still hopes to capture Osama bin Laden before leaving office in just over a year.

"These were among his thoughts during an in-flight interview on Monday following a Thanksgiving address in Virginia."

But Parker also levels with her readers that "Bush offers few new insights these days. . . .

"I asked the president if he found comfort in the possibility that, assuming democracy ultimately flourishes in the Middle East, history will vindicate him.

"No, he said. Bush finds comfort in knowing that he didn't betray principle for popularity, that 'I didn't sacrifice my soul for politics.'"

Bush v. Gore

David Jackson blogs for USA Today: "The White House is playing down expectations today for three big meetings with the prime minister of Israel, the president of the Palestinian Authority -- and Al Gore.

"Gore is coming to the White House as part of a ceremony to honor the American recipients of various Nobel Prizes. He shared the Nobel Peace prize for his work on global warming.

"Bush will meet privately with Gore in the Oval Office before the photo opportunity with the other Nobel winners, said press secretary Dana Perino.

"'The president is very pleased' that both Gore and wife Tipper will be at the White House, Perino said. Bush personally called Gore to invite him."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the changing White House Iraq policy; Mike Luckovich on Bush, Musharraf and Putin; John Sherffius on Bushgiving.

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