Reversal in the Works?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, February 24, 2005; 12:18 PM

After getting an earful from European leaders about his approach to Iran, the habitually stick-wielding president of the United States is apparently considering some carrots.

During three days of closed-door meetings, President Bush was given assurances that Europeans share his conviction that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons. But he was also strongly encouraged to consider the value of negotiating with Iran -- rather than just threatening it.

And this morning, Bush -- who has said he was on a listening tour -- promised to think about it.

Here's the telling transcript from a photo op with the prime minister of Slovakia:

"Q Mr. President, you've talked a lot about Iran in many of your meetings on this trip, and we understand that you did a lot of listening about incentives for Iran, using them as negotiating tools, if you will. And first I'd ask you, why will you not join the EU 3 in direct talks with Iran? And then, what would you approve of as possible incentives? Did you hear anything that you liked?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I appreciate that. First of all, we talked about Iran here, with our great friend. The reason why we talked about it, because it's a world problem. And one of the things I wanted to make sure I heard clearly from our friends in Europe was whether or not they viewed the Iran problem the same way I did. And they do. Chancellor Schröder and Prime Minister Blair and President Chirac all said loud and clear that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon.

"And secondly, I was listening very carefully to the different ideas on negotiating strategies. We have a common objective, which is to convince the Ayatollahs not to have a nuclear weapon. And I'm going to go back and think about the suggestions I've heard and the ways forward. But the key thing is, is that we're united in our -- in the goal.

"The most effective way to achieve that goal is to have our partners -- Great Britain and France and Germany -- represent not only the EU, not only NATO, but the United States. And hopefully we'll be able to reach a diplomatic solution to this effort. We're more likely to do so when we're all on the same page. And I know we're on the same page on this issue when it comes to a common goal."

As Adam Entous wrote for Reuters: "This may mark a change of course for his administration, which accuses Tehran of aiming to build such weapons and which, instead of incentives for Iran, was pushing to bring the dispute to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions."

Craig Gordon of Newsday wrote in a pool report to his colleagues right after the photo op: "Also note Bush's comments on Iran that mostly stuck to the I'm-listening-and-thinking line offered yesterday by national security adviser Stephen Hadley but appeared to edge/inch/pick-your-verb closer to affiliating U.S. with European talks."

The Build Up

The furious parsing over a possible Bush shift began in earnest yesterday.

Bush's comments about Iran in a joint appearance with German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder (here's the transcript) were interpreted by some as a softening of his position on negotiations with Iraq. But the comments were enigmatic at best.

Then, in a briefing for reporters, national security adviser Stephen Hadley described what looked more and more like signs of movement. Here's that transcript.

"There was a lot of discussion about where we go from here," Hadley said. "And there's some ideas that have been floated around. You have seen some of them in the press, discussions about should there be a mix of carrots and sticks, and who should the carrots come from and what should they be. And, as I say, the President did a lot of listening. I think the Chancellor did a lot of listening. This has been an issue that we've talked about on every stop on this trip. And the President has really got to go back and think about it, quite frankly."

Reporters tried to pin him down:

"Q Let me take one more whack at it. Is the President now open to the idea that the United States, itself, would offer carrots?"

Hadley replied: "I think where he is, is he's heard a lot of suggestions, had a lot of discussion, and he's, I think, going to have to go back and give some thought. He may have some views right now; he's a decisive guy. He hasn't shared them with me. But I think he heard a lot. He came here to listen and I think he's obviously got some ideas. But I think he wants to go back and think about it and talk to his national security team, not all of which was here."

Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times, taking an expansive view of the pool reporter job, wrote in his report to colleagues: "Please note: During the arrival ceremony on the tarmac in Bratislava, in search of clarification, I pulled aside a senior administration official and asked about POTUS's expression of support today for the EU-3 negotiations with Iran.

"The SAO said yes, it represents a shift (in attitude). 'Last fall, we were yelling at each other,' he noted."

James Harding and Hugh Williamson write in the Financial Times: "France, Germany and Britain have led negotiations with Iran, which the Bush administration has supported in principle but refused to join. The European troika has pleaded with Washington, arguing that without the offer of US economic incentives and security guarantees it will be unable to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

Harding and Williamson write that Bush's "new willingness to consider a European-led diplomatic approach . . . underlin[ed] one of the chief messages of his trip to Europe that he has no appetite for another war."

Judy Keen and Barbara Slavin write in USA Today: "In his first four years, Bush was unwilling to offer Iran anything concrete in return for freezing its nuclear program. Divisions within the administration between those who sought to destabilize the Iranian government and those promoting diplomatic engagement left the administration without a detailed policy."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The tactic of incentives, favored by the Europeans, had been roundly rejected by the Bush administration as recently as two weeks ago. . . .

"Until now, the Europeans have in effect been offering Iran all the carrots in the talks, economic and political incentives if Iran disarms. In contrast, the United States has been offering sticks focused on the demand that the matter be referred to the United Nations Security Council, where political and economic sanctions would be considered."

Bumiller also calls attention to one of Bush's assertions yesterday in Mainz. Bush said: "Look, first, let me just make this very clear -- the party that has caused these discussions to occur in the first place are the Iranians. And the reason we're having these discussions is because they were caught enriching uranium after they had signed a treaty saying they wouldn't enrich uranium. So there is a -- these discussions are occurring because they have breached a contract with the international community. They're the party that needs to be held to account, not any of us."

Bumiller writes: "In his public comments about Iran's uranium enrichment, Mr. Bush appeared to have misspoken, because the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty permits uranium enrichment for commercial purposes as long as a country declares the activity and allows inspections.

"In Iran's case, it hid enrichment facilities from the International Atomic Energy Agency for a number of years, but when caught, said all of its nuclear activities are solely for commercial purposes. The United States has charged that Iran is secretly pursuing weapons development, but the agency says that it has found no concrete evidence of such a weapons program."

But Meanwhile, in Tehran

Ali Akbar Dareini writes for the Associated Press: "Iran will not give up its nuclear program despite deep differences with Europe, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Wednesday as President Bush called for international unity in persuading the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

"Khatami also said Bush's recent comments that Washington is not planning to attack Iran -- a big fear in the region -- were made after the United States found little support for such an approach. 'They've learned their claims are unacceptable and for this reason they are taking back their words,' he said."

Today's Big Announcement

Peter Baker and Walter Pincus write in this morning's Washington Post: "President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to announce a package of measures today to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, a threat highlighted in a recent U.S. intelligence report warning that Russian nuclear material could still fall into terrorist hands, according to U.S. officials familiar with the accord."

Baker and Pincus write that "the joint statement to be released at the presidential summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, could be used as a counterpoint to the rising tension in U.S.-Russian relations over Putin's crackdown on domestic dissent. . . .

" 'We're trying to demonstrate that we can make progress and move forward despite these other issues,' a senior Bush administration official said."

Bush and Putin will come out and speak just past my deadline. Here, however, are some key documents that emerged before that: The joint statement on nuclear security cooperation, and a summary of the "Bratislava Initiatives."

Joseph Schuman writes in the Wall Street Journal Online: "Throughout President Bush's relatively successful goodwill trip through Europe this week, today's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin loomed as the unavoidable friction point. But it turns out the White House was saving the most substantive achievement for last. . . .

"The timing of the agreement, and the fact that it was kept under wraps until this morning, cap what must be one of the most effectively stage-managed presidential trips abroad."

But Meanwhile, in Moscow

Maria Golovnina reports for Reuters: "Russia, ignoring U.S. concerns, is set to sign a deal with Tehran this weekend that will pave the way for the start-up of Iran's first nuclear power plant.

"President Vladimir Putin last week cleared the way for the $1 billion Russian-built Bushehr reactor project to go ahead when he said he was sure that Tehran -- branded part of an 'axis of evil' by Washington -- had no plans to make atomic arms."

The Slovak Model

Reuters reports: "President Bush told thousands of Slovaks Thursday that Iraq's attempts to gain democracy rank with the 1989 revolutions that swamped communist governments in Eastern Europe. "

Here is the text of his remarks.

AFP notes that in that same speech, Bush also "predicted former Soviet republics Moldova and Belarus would embrace democracy."

About Those Transatlantic Relations

Glenn Kessler writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "With the United States pinned down in Iraq, where the continued deployment of nearly 150,000 troops has severely strained the U.S. military, European leaders no longer expect further military expeditions in Bush's second term. And so they have been gracious -- but assertive, thus reflecting how far the United States has fallen from 'hyperpower' status -- a term coined about America by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. . . .

"The net effect is a Europe more willing to go its own way even as the Bush administration has engaged in a charm offensive in recent weeks to rebalance relationships badly frayed by the Iraq war."

Mainz Watch

Richard Bernstein writes in the New York Times about how Mainz was basically emptied out for Bush.

"[T]his president was entirely sealed off from Germans -- other than Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the German journalists at a news conference, and even a town-meeting-type encounter with Mainz residents was scrubbed out of worry the mood would be hostile. A meeting with a group of carefully screened 'young leaders' was put in its place. . . .

" 'Most Germans are still emotionally averse to what Bush stands for -- going it alone, not paying attention to due process, which we love in Europe,' said Eberhard Sandschneider, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Germans remain anxious that their country will yet be drawn into a foreign military venture by a president who, as Mr. Bush has affirmed several times so far on his European tour, keeps all options, including military action, on the table."

Jeffrey Fleishman, who interviewed regular Germans for the Los Angeles Times, summed it up this way: "Talk of Bush is often imbued with suspicion. But compared with two years ago, German critics are less inclined to liken him to Hitler."

The Daily Guckert

This morning, Jim Guckert, the psuedo reporter formerly known as Jeff Gannon, was on NBC's Today Show, with Campbell Brown.

"Campbell Brown: Were you in that press conference as a plant by the White House?

"Gannon: Absolutely not. I mean, look at it, Campbell. If the White House was going to use a plant, wouldn't they pick a better one than me?"

No argument there.

But Brown persists, asking "how does a guy who works for an obscure, Internet publication, with a background that is linked to Internet porn in some fashion, get into the daily briefings and get to ask the president a question at a news conference?

"Gannon: I asked to come. They allowed me to come. And apparently there isn't a very high threshold as far as somebody's personal life to gain access."

No argument there, either.

Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News: "Democrats in Congress are trying to keep an embarrassing GOP scandal alive by asking that the official probe of White House propaganda be widened to include how an alleged gay hooker with an alias got into the press room every day.

"Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) asked officials to see whether sometime reporter James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, violated a ban on 'fake' news stories by reprinting White House press releases verbatim."

Here are the latest requests from Slaughter and Conyers.

Joe Strupp writes in Editor & Publisher that Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is circulating a letter, too.

Message Control

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "The ranks of federal public affairs officials swelled during the Bush administration's first term, but that hasn't meant that government information is easier to get."

The Wead Tapes

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "All week, Doug Wead has said the reason he secretly recorded some of his phone calls with President Bush was for history's sake.

"But Wednesday, after a blast of criticism, Mr. Wead abruptly decided he had spoken too soon. 'History can wait,' he said, promising to turn over the tapes to Mr. Bush."

What does that mean? Will we ever hear the rest?

Kirkpatrick writes: "Because the tapes were made before Mr. Bush became president, they would not be subject to the regulations governing presidential papers, which require them to be declassified after 25 years, said Barbara Elias, freedom of information coordinator for the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group. Other lawyers suggested that the White House may seek to convey the tapes to an outside lawyer representing Mr. Bush, thus further shielding them under attorney-client privilege."

On NBC's Today Show yesterday, Norah O'Donnell asked Laura Bush about the tapes in an interview:

"I think it's very odd and awkward, to be perfectly frank, to tape someone while you're talking to them on the phone, and they don't know it, and then come out with the tapes later," the first lady said. "I don't know if I'd use the word 'betrayed,' but I think it's a little bit awkward for sure."

Social Security Watch

Andrea Stone writes in USA Today: "Despite weeks of campaign-style barnstorming and rides in the presidential jet and limousine, Bush doesn't have a single Democrat by his side."

Jonathan Weisman in The Washington Post looks at some of the alternative approaches to Social Security's problems.

Education Watch

Sam Dillon writes in the New York Times: "Concluding a yearlong study on the effectiveness of President Bush's sweeping education law, No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers drawn from many states yesterday pronounced it a flawed, convoluted and unconstitutional education reform initiative that had usurped state and local control of public schools."

Here's the report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When the Personal Touch Fails

Clifford Krauss writes in the New York Times: "The Canadian government has refused to take part in a planned North America missile defense system despite personal lobbying by President Bush here last November, United States diplomatic officials said Wednesday."

You may recall that last month, Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post about how Bush "leaned across a table in a private meeting and lectured Prime Minister Paul Martin about opposing the U.S. missile defense system."

Shh. Big Personnel Announcement

Bush yesterday promoted Harvey S. Rosen, an economist on leave from Princeton University who is already a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, to the position of chairman.

But, as Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times, "White House officials indicated that Mr. Rosen will serve only as an interim chairman and plans to resume teaching at Princeton next fall.

"Mr. Bush's decision to name Mr. Rosen came as a surprise to some Republicans, who had been expecting the White House to nominate Ben S. Bernanke, a member of the Federal Reserve board of governors.

"And the way Mr. Bush announced Mr. Rosen's elevation was also a surprise: His name was mentioned at the bottom of a long list of personnel decisions that began with the nomination of a man to serve on the board of the Washington-area airport authority."

Indeed. Here's that announcement. Typically, they lead with the most important jobs.

Just Plane Angry

Claudia Rach writes for Bloomberg: "Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Europe's No. 2 airline, may seek redress for cancellations and delays from German authorities who temporarily brought the Frankfurt area to a standstill yesterday for a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush, damaging business for local companies.

"Lufthansa had to cancel 92 flights, affecting 5,730 passengers, as a consequence of air traffic restrictions, said spokesman Thomas Jachnow in a telephone interview. Delays to another 330 flights totaled around 300 hours."

No Yolk

Terence Hunt reported for the Associated Press early this morning: "President Bush on Thursday said Iraq is following the lead of Slovaks who shook off the yolk of communism and became 'friends, allies and brothers' in the global fight for freedom."

Later versions changed the word to "yoke" -- but not before leaving a little egg on some faces.

Karl Rove (Conspiracy) Watch

Anthony Farmer writes in the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal: "U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, has not backed off comments he made over the weekend that the White House may be responsible for phony documents used by CBS last year in a report questioning President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. . . .

"Hinchey said Wednesday he never accused Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, of being behind the bogus documents and has no proof of that. But he believes it nonetheless."

© 2005