Distancing Himself From the Saudis

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; 10:45 AM

The most astounding claim in Michael Moore's polemical blockbuster, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that President Bush is, essentially, in Saudi Arabia's pocket.

So was it just a coincidence -- or a response to the movie -- when Bush yesterday publicly rebuked the Saudis for being soft on extremists and repressing democracy?

Mind you, you can't really give him points for boldness. He didn't actually mention them by name. He left that to his aides.

But it does seem to be an attempt to put some distance between his administration and the Saudis.

Since the Sept. 11 2001, terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, the Bush administration has been quietly pressing the royal family to crack down on extremists, but critics say Bush's relationship with the Saudis has still been too cozy.

Bush's comments also follow the beheading earlier this month of a kidnapped U.S. defense contractor and other recent attacks on Americans and other foreigners in Saudi Arabia.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush criticized unnamed U.S. allies in the Middle East for compromising with extremists and suppressing dissent and called on the Islamic world to move toward democracy as a way to safeguard the United States and reduce violence in the Middle East. . . .

"Bush did not specify which U.S. allies he was referring to, but an aide and outside experts said that Saudi Arabia was among them. Some U.S. officials have accused the kingdom's government of not working hard enough to suppress al Qaeda cells within its borders. . . .

"Bush offered no specific new proposals in his speech or details about how he planned to carry out previously announced visions to promote Middle Eastern democracy."

Allen provides some background on the extraordinary backdrop for the speech -- a university across the Bosphorous from a spectacular mosque (see this Reuters photo). "The White House tried to play up the historical flavor of the setting by renting Ottoman-style chairs with gold-painted backs.

"The audience of about 230 people, most of them Turkish officials and their spouses, listened in silence, which a U.S. Embassy official characterized as a sign of respect. The crowd applauded politely at the end of the 27-minute address."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Standing at the literal and metaphorical bridge between Europe and Asia, President Bush made an impassioned appeal Tuesday to Islamic nations to discard the past and embrace his vision of a democratic and pluralistic Middle East. . . .

"Bush singled out several countries, including Syria and Iran, for criticism. He derided Iran's leaders as 'tired, discredited autocrats [who] are trying to hold back the democratic will of a rising generation.' He also made a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia and other regional allies with repressive regimes."

Susan Sachs writes for the New York Times: "President Bush called on Muslim nations on Tuesday to embrace democracy and warned Middle East autocrats, including those who are American allies, that they 'must recognize the direction of events of the day.'"

In the Boston Globe, what Wayne Washington found most newsworthy was Bush's acknowledgement of the cultural excesses of the West. In short, Bush was saying that democratization doesn't necessarily mean Americanization.

"Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of Western popular culture and want no part of it. And I assure them, when I speak about the blessings of liberty, coarse videos and crass commercialism are not what I have in mind," Bush said. "There is nothing incompatible between democratic values and high standards of decency."

Of course, maybe Bush was talking about Michael Moore there, as well.

Here's the text of Bush's speech on the Middle East, from the banks of the Bosphorous.

Yesterday's words reflect some movement from Bush's seminal speech on the topic in November. Back then, he did mention the Saudis by name, but in a statement that critics said overstated their progress toward democracy. (See Robin Wright's contemporaneous analysis in The Washington Post.)

"The Saudi government is taking first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections," Bush said then. "By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region."

The Center for American Progress, a liberal research group, has a Saudi Primer online, a sort of hotlinked companion to Moore's Saudi allegations.

Speaking of Moore

Avery Johnson and Merissa Marr write in the Wall Street Journal: "Conservative anger over 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' the anti-Bush movie by filmmaker Michael Moore, is reaching a fever pitch -- but figuring out how to prevent the movie from becoming an even wider cultural phenomenon is dividing the political right.

"Some activists want to confront the movie's controversial assertions or even stop theaters from showing it; others, including the White House, are keeping a low profile to avoid hyping the film and thus broadening its potential audience four months before Election Day."

Howard Kurtz, in his Media Notes blog for washingtonpost.com, writes that "this Fahrenheit phenomenon is hotter than anything I've ever seen involving a political film. . . . [I]t is, for the moment, dominating the discourse, both at the pundit level and the local cineplex level." He links to many critiques.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Send me your questions and comments early and often.

My question for you today: If you had a 10-minute interview with President Bush, what question would you ask?

Cheney Watch

Tyler Kepner writes in the New York Times that Vice President Cheney visited Yankee Stadium yesterday, and watched the Yankees beat the Red Sox 11-3.

"During the singing of 'God Bless America' in the seventh inning, an image of Cheney was shown on the scoreboard. It was greeted with booing, so the Yankees quickly removed the image."

Cheney speaks at the D-Day Museum in New Orleans today.

The Woodward Prediction

Author and Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward on CNN's "Larry King Live" last night:

"So, we have a president of the United States who is under intense criticism, lots of political pressure. As we know, presidents have immense power, not just as commander in chief, but to rally people. I kind of have the feeling this summer we're going to see some surprises.

"Put yourself in the place of Karl Rove. He knows that the president has got to put something up on the board that is a political success in Iraq. They have to have something as the election comes down the road where they can say it was definitely worth it. The troops are coming home or something positive occurring. . . .

"We've talked before that, in many ways, Bush's opponent is the Iraq war, not Senator Kerry. And he -- he has to do something. I mean, my sense, I think the political imperative in all of this, in -- let's not forget we're in a political year -- is to say, hey, look, troops are coming home, even if only a token amount. . . .

"So, the president and Karl Rove would be able to say we are on the road to a better situation here, perhaps even some kind of success."

For now, however, signs are still pointing toward a continued American troop presence. In fact Josh White reports in today's Washington Post on the reactivation of 5,600 Army veterans who thought they had left the service.

That's What Friends Are For

Anne-Marie O'Connor profiles one of Bush's top fundraisers, bon vivant multi-millionaire Bradford Freeman, in the Los Angeles Times.

An old friend of Bush's, Freeman got custody of Ernie, one of the Bush's cats, when they moved into the White House. (Ernie never got de-clawed.)

Freeman comes off as a world-class shmoozer, but not necessarily the most discreet person in the world.

"Freeman is the first to admit that Karl Rove, White House senior political advisor, is reluctant to have him near the press," O'Connor writes. "During one phone disagreement, Freeman says, he told Rove, 'Karl, fire me,' and Rove abruptly terminated the call.

In January, Rove apparently took exception when Freeman told NBC that Bush had grown in office.

"Karl went crazy. He said, 'What was he, a midget?'" Freeman told O'Connor. "I said, 'Karl, if he didn't grow in office, you're not doing your job.' "

Freeman then suggested a prank.

"Tell Karl you're doing an article on me. . . . Say, 'Oh, he was reluctant at first. But then he gave me all these great anecdotes about Bush.'

"He'll go crazy."

The Importance of Allawi

Michael Buchanan of the BBC writes: "Who is the most important person to President Bush's re-election hopes?

"Political adviser Karl Rove? Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? Vice-President Dick Cheney?

"All will undoubtedly play some role in how November's presidential election turns out, but arguably the man who will trump them all is Iraq's Prime Minister Ayad Allawi."

Darfur Watch

The White House is calling attention to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's mission to the Sudan, where an enormous humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Darfur region.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Powell, who is scheduled to visit the western region of Darfur on Wednesday to draw attention to the crisis, said he urged the Sudanese government to halt its sponsorship of marauding Arab militias that have killed thousands of black Africans and made more than a million people homeless."

Here's a White House statement which asserts that the president himself "has directed Secretary Powell to travel to Darfur to urge the Sudanese Government to heed the concerns of the international community and find a quick resolution to the crisis."

Ashcroft Watch

David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times about all the political damage being suffered by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

They quote an administration official as saying: "The role the White House had cut out for Ashcroft even before 9/11 was the role of spear catcher. . . . It has allowed the president to have the running room he needs to get a lot of policies through. Ashcroft has been amazingly effective, but at great cost to his public persona. It's a role he accepts."

But they write: "It did not escape the notice of career lawyers at the Justice Department last month that when Mr. Bush gave a speech in Buffalo on the Patriot Act, he was accompanied on stage not by Mr. Ashcroft, who did not make the trip, but by Larry Thompson, the former deputy attorney general. In an aside during his presentation, Mr. Bush seemed to send a signal that Mr. Thompson, who stepped down last year after two years under Mr. Ashcroft, could be a contender for Mr. Ashcroft's job."

Laura Bush Watch

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today that "a more confident, glamorous and outspoken first lady is now on display for what she wistfully notes will be her final campaign.

"The Betty Crocker hairdo has been replaced by a sleek coif with streaks of blonde. Her toenails, peeking out from comfy espadrilles, are bright red. She still prefers to talk about education and reading, her pet issues and avocations, but she can dish up justifications for the war in Iraq, too. . . .

"She conducts solo news conferences when she's traveling and parries with reporters who challenge her husband's policies on controversial issues. Her voice is so soft, it's hard to imagine her yelling. But there is steel in her tone when she dislikes a question."

The first lady also had a somewhat unusual interview Monday with a Turkish television show.

She deftly handled what is arguably the most important question Turks have for anyone: What does Ataturk mean to you? And she answered a lot of questions about her daughters and her mother.

Late Night Humor

From the "Late Show With David Letterman" via the Associated Press:

"Top Ten George W. Bush Complaints About 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

"10. That actor who played the president was totally unconvincing.

"9. It oversimplified the way I stole the election.

"8. Too many of them fancy college-boy words

"7. If Michael Moore had waited a few months, he could have included the part where I get him deported.

"6. Didn't have one of them hilarious monkeys who smoke cigarettes and gives people the finger.

"5. Of all Michael Moore's accusations, only 97% are true.

"4. Not sure -- I passed out after a piece of popcorn lodged in my windpipe.

"3. Where the hell was Spiderman?

"2. Couldn't hear most of the movie over Cheney's foul mouth.

"1. I thought this was supposed to be about dodgeball!"

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