Safer or Not?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, March 17, 2004; 10:35 AM

It's not often that a question from a reporter makes President Bush laugh out loud.

But at yesterday's photo-op with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, when a Dutch reporter suggested that many Dutch people think the war in Iraq may have actually encouraged rather than discouraged more terrorism, Bush chuckled.

Here's the question:

"Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. President, according to opinion polls, most Dutch people want to withdraw the Dutch troops from Iraq. Many Dutch people think the war in Iraq has little to do with the war against terrorism, and may actually encourage terrorism." [This is where Bush chuckles.] "How would you respond to those Dutch people who want to withdraw?"

Bush's response, in part:

"I would ask them to think about the Iraqi citizens who don't want people to withdraw, because they want to be free. And I would remind the Dutch citizens that al Qaeda has an interest in Iraq for a reason, and that interest is, they realize this is a front in the war on terror, and they fear the spread of freedom and democracy in places like the greater Middle East. They can't stand the thought of free societies springing up in the Middle East, because they understand a free society is against their very wishes."

Here's the full text of the remarks by Bush and Balkenende or better yet the video.

But it's not just one Dutch reporter asking about the notion that the war in Iraq made the world more dangerous, rather than safer.

Barbara Slavin writes in USA Today: "When President Bush announced on the evening of March 19, 2003, that the invasion of Iraq had begun, the main justification he gave for ordering American men and women into war was that U.S. national security depended on it. . . .

"A year later, Saddam Hussein is in jail, his Baathist regime is history and a new Iraq is taking shape. But no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and Islamic terrorists still menace Iraqi and Western targets.

"Are Americans safer because of the president's decision?

"Polls show a nation divided. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll in early March found that half of respondents thought the war had made the USA safer from terrorist attacks, while 37% said the war had made the nation less safe.

"Among politicians, opinion tends to divide along party lines. . . . "

There was a similar poll taken by AP-Ipsos that I mentioned in my March 4 column. In that poll, Will Lester reported, a majority of the people living in Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Mexico and Spain said they think the war in Iraq increased the threat of terrorism in the world. In the United States, people were evenly divided on whether the war has increased or decreased the terror threat. (More results here.)

In his story today for the Washington Post on a new international poll from the Pew Research Center, Dana Milbank notes: "Ominously, the poll showed some increased support in Muslim countries for suicide bombings and other forms of violence; 82 percent of Jordanians, 40 percent of Moroccans, 41 percent of Pakistanis and 15 percent of Turks said such violence could be justified. Majorities in Pakistan and Jordan had favorable views of Osama bin Laden, while majorities in Jordan and Morocco said attacks against Americans and Westerners in Iraq are justified."

Writes Milbank: "A year after the invasion of Iraq, anti-American views have hardened in Europe and in Muslim countries, where lopsided majorities oppose President Bush and are suspicious of U.S. motives, according to a new nine-country opinion poll."

After all the back-and-forth I wrote about in yesterday's column regarding whether foreign leaders support Bush, I want to note again: Foreign leaders -- and foreigners in general -- do not get to vote in the November election.

But, as Milbank puts it: "The dispute is part of a broader split between the two parties over foreign policy. Democrats accuse the Bush administration of squandering goodwill toward the United States, while the Bush administration says Democrats would surrender American sovereignty to the United Nations."

Here are the Pew Research Center poll results.

War Week Continues

Iraq will inevitably be the center of attention in the coming days.

Richard W. Stevenson and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "A year after ordering the invasion of Iraq, President Bush is moving the war to the forefront of his re-election effort with a weeklong barrage of speeches, an orchestrated set of interviews with senior Pentagon officials and a new television advertisement questioning Senator John Kerry's support of the troops. . . . "

"[I]n making the case that toppling Mr. Hussein was a vital step in protecting the United States from terrorism, the White House is also setting out a broad strategic framework built on the idea that bringing peace and democracy to Iraq and the Middle East would generally undercut the forces that have bred Islamic militancy."

Communications director Dan Bartlett "said Mr. Bush would discuss that theme on Friday in a speech at the White House. The speech will be delivered to an audience of ambassadors from nearly all the nations that have lent some support to the fight against terrorism and is intended to rally support for the job of stabilizing Iraq and the entire Middle East, he said."

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "The presidential election took a sharply personal turn Tuesday, as President Bush aired a new television ad accusing Democrat John F. Kerry of turning his back on troops in Iraq while Kerry accused the administration of creating a 'credibility gap' by misleading the public on issues including weapons of mass destruction and the cost of a new Medicare drug benefit."

Harris also writes that "the president needled Kerry over his unsubstantiated assertion that foreign leaders have privately told him they back him. 'If you're going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you've got to back it up with facts,' Bush said.

"Vice President Cheney added in a campaign speech in Denver: 'We are the ones who get to determine the outcome of this election, not unnamed foreign leaders.' "

Here is the full text of Cheney's speech.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan didn't hesitate very long to attack Kerry, either. Here's the text of yesterday's briefing.

McClellan: "I mean, Senator Kerry has said that he met with foreign leaders and that he's heard from those leaders, and, yet, he refused to back up that claim. And that's why, yesterday, I said that it's either one of two things: Either he can back up those claims and say who it is, or he is simply making it up to attack the President of the United States. And that would be very unfortunate if that is the case. But this goes to an issue of credibility; it goes to an issue of being straight with the American people.

"And, certainly, if you're talking about foreign policy in this manner -- and this could be an important foreign policy matter -- if Senator Kerry has information that could affect our relations, or our policies regarding another country, then it should be shared with the American people, and it should be shared with the government."

And Milbank notes in the article mentioned above: "[F]ormer Vermont governor Howard Dean, Kerry's onetime rival for the Democratic nomination, defended the refusal to identify the foreign leaders, saying, 'This administration would clearly make their lives difficult.' "

The Spanish Exception

Conspiracy theorists generally maintain that an "October Surprise" in which the United States either goes to war or gets attacked just before the November election would be extremely beneficial to the incumbent, because Americans would inevitably rally round the president.

That didn't happen in Spain.

A reader from Denver, who sent in a question for my Live Online discussion yesterday, wrote: "I would think terrorism works to the advantage of more hawkish positions; I'm think[ing] of US, Turkey, Italy, Israel, and India. . . . my guess being the sense of perceived shared challenge. . . . [H]ave you heard why there should be a 'Spanish exception'?"

I got lots of e-mail about this afterward, with many readers saying they see Spain as a cautionary tale for the Bush administration.

And Keith B. Richburg of The Washington Post this morning explains: "Suspicion that the government manipulated information -- blaming ETA in order to divert any possible link between the bombings and Aznar's unpopular support for the war in Iraq -- helped fuel the upset victory of the Socialist Workers' Party in Sunday's elections."

Meanwhile, as Adam Entous of Reuters reports: "The White House said it may seek a new U.N. resolution that could help persuade Spain not to withdraw its forces, as threatened by its newly elected Socialist prime minister in the wake of a suspected al Qaeda-linked strike in Madrid."

But from Madrid, Reuters reports on the response: "Spain's prime minister elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said on Wednesday his position on withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq remained unchanged despite an appeal from President George W. Bush to stand by the United States. . . .

" 'I will listen to Mr. Bush but my position is very clear and very firm.' "

"Zapatero has pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq by July 1 if the United Nations does not take charge there.

" 'The occupation is a fiasco. There have been almost more deaths after the war than during the war,' he said. 'The occupying forces have not allowed the United Nations to take control of the situation.' "

Foreigners Can't Vote

No, foreigners can't vote.

But Arab-Americans can. And Shailagh Murray writes in the Wall Street Journal that "Arab-American voters strongly supported Mr. Bush" last time around. "But this time around -- after invading Iraq, cracking down on suspected Arab and Muslim extremists at home and abroad and consistently backing a hard-line Israeli government," Bush is not doing well with them in battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"A new Zogby International poll of voters in those four key states shows Arab-Americans strongly disapprove of Mr. Bush. Only 28% favor his re-election, while 65% want someone new."

About Health Care

William Douglas writes in the Knight Ridder Newspapers: "With health care looming as a marquee issue in November, President Bush touted his health-care proposal Tuesday and took veiled shots at Democratic presidential rival John Kerry's plan, dismissing it as old Washington thinking."

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press writes: "President Bush touted his proposals to rein in health care costs on Tuesday, portraying his election-year approach as a means to create jobs amid the Democratic clamor over disappearing jobs. . . .

"In his 'conversation on health care,' Bush did not mention the estimated 43 million Americans who have no health coverage."

Here's the full text of Bush's remarks.

Medicare Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "The Department of Health and Human Services inspector general is launching an inquiry into whether Bush administration officials committed any wrongdoing last year by withholding from Congress internal analyses showing that Medicare prescription drug legislation the White House supported would cost significantly more than lawmakers believed."

Robin Toner of the New York Times notes: "Mr. Bush and the Republicans have arguably wound up with more headaches than political advantage from the new law, at least so far."

Commission Watch

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "The federal panel reviewing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks disclosed its witness list Tuesday for its two-day hearing on counterterrorism next week, with scheduled testimony from top officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations."

The New York Times notes: "The witness list for next Tuesday and Wednesday includes George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence in both administrations; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William S. Cohen; and President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger.

"The list is notable for the absence of Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, who has refused an invitation from the commission to testify in public."

Today's Calendar

The president and first lady participate in a Shamrock Ceremony in the Roosevelt Room this morning, then Bush attends a St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the Capitol.

Here is the president's St. Patrick's Day message.

Cheney is speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., today.

Steve Holland of Reuters reports that "Vice President Dick Cheney will keep up Republican pressure on Democrat John Kerry on Wednesday by saying the next U.S. president must be unwavering in supporting the cause in Iraq and the war on terrorism and will suggest that Kerry would not be if elected."


From Candy Crowley's interview with Bush/Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman yesterday on CNN:

"I want to first play you something that Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, told us yesterday.


"SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: The White House was inept, incompetent. I was stunned by what happened. Not one Republican senator knew about this.

"I'm the senior Republican of Nebraska, co-chairman of the president's campaign. I didn't know about it until I saw the AP story that John Kerry had just put out defining Tony Raimando. This was gross incompetence on the White House part.


"CROWLEY: OK. Now, he was talking about the manufacturing czar appointment that never got announced. And the Kerry campaign hit it before it happened.

"And this is a senator from Nebraska, was a Nebraska businessman. Add to that, we had -- spent a couple of days on the 9/11 Commission, and whether it was going to be an hour, whether it was going to do other things. We had the controversy over the ads, using 9/11 images. We had one of the people from the economic advisory board talking about, well, that outsourcing isn't such a bad thing.

"It doesn't seem like, from the outside, that this is a gang that has shot straight for a long time. That is usually a pretty good political team that has really been off for the past couple of months. Do you disagree with that?

"MEHLMAN: I think that ultimately the day-to-day politics is less important than the choice the American people have. The American people are going to have an important choice on November 2nd. And it's a choice between a president who believes we need to go forward with strength and resolve to take on the terrorists, versus a United States senator that, as we pointed out today, voted against supporting our troops while they were in combat, voted to cut intelligence, voted against key defense programs.

"It's a choice on the economy. You mentioned the manufacturing issue. We believe we have a 6-point plan to create more manufacturing jobs.

"John Kerry will raise taxes in the first 100 days by $900 billion. That is going to do nothing but destroy manufacturing jobs."

Howard Stern Watch

Eric Boehlert of Salon and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post have both written recently about Howard Stern's possible impact on the November election.

Now ABC weighs in, calling Stern a "Political Pundit?": "Howard Stern is swapping his trademark trash talk for politics as the syndicated radio talk-show host becomes one of the Bush administration's most influential critics."

Watch the video.

© 2004