Bush's Tricky Trip

By Dan Froomkin
special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 5, 2005; 11:21 AM

What image will define President Bush's upcoming foreign trip: The president speaking glowingly of freedom in some of Europe's newer democracies? Or the president cheering as a Russian military parade rumbles by in Red Square celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany?

The White House is sure hoping it's the former.

But this trip is going to be tricky.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For a president who has made it his mission to champion democracy around the world, Bush's trip to Europe starting Friday presents one of the trickiest diplomatic challenges of his young second term, an uncomfortable balancing act of honoring the enormous Russian sacrifice during World War II without condoning the repression that followed.

"In a complex choreography to avoid sending the wrong signal, Bush will bracket his visit to Moscow with stops in two former Soviet republics that still resist Kremlin influence, Latvia and Georgia. Yet his attempt to prod Russian President Vladimir Putin into owning up to the dark side of the Soviet past evidently has failed. The Bush administration, U.S. sources said, privately tried to persuade Putin to use the occasion to renounce Stalin's agreement with Hitler dividing up Poland and permitting the Soviet Union to swallow up Latvia and its Baltic neighbors. . . .

"A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bush's team designed the trip 'not to fall into the Russian trap about the past' and 'go to a World War II commemoration on Red Square in front of Lenin's tomb celebrating something that was not liberation for a lot of Europe. A lot of people, not just the Balts, see it as trading one dictatorship for another.' So 'we tried to refine the trip to talk about important matters for the 21st century.' "

Baker notes that President Clinton attended 50th anniversary festivities in 1995, but boycotted the military parade to protest the Russian war in Chechnya.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The centerpiece of Bush's five-day trip will come Monday, when he joins Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at a military parade honoring Russia's role in defeating the Nazis 60 years ago. . . .

"The mix of images and agendas reflects the obstacles facing Bush as he pursues a foreign policy that, experts say, is proving far more nuanced than the lofty language he used in his Jan. 20 inaugural address, when he declared it U.S. policy to spread democracy with 'the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.' "

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek.com that Bush's mounting a stage to watch the military parade in Red Square "was meant to be the central focus of Bush's trip to Europe later this week. Instead, it looks increasingly like the photo op the White House would like to forget. . . .

"The White House hopes the images of such a Soviet-laden day will be forgotten once Bush arrives at his next stop, in Tbilisi, Georgia, the following day. There, Bush's aides are hoping for a crowd of 100,000 in Freedom Square to hear Bush talk about democracy on the march. There are only two problems. First, the crowd's response needs to be better than it was in Bratislava. There, Bush's democracy-heavy speech was greeted with silence or polite applause. That is, until Bush started talking about improving access to U.S. visas, when the crowd cheered wildly."

Here's the transcript of national security adviser Stephen Hadley's on-the-record, on-camera briefing on the upcoming trip, which includes stops in Latvia and the Netherlands, as well as Russia and Georgia.

"The purpose of the trip, really, is twofold: to honor the shared sacrifice of millions of Americans, Europeans and others to defeat tyranny, and at the same time, to mark the growth of democracy throughout Europe and the world, more generally," Hadley said.

But most of the questions Hadley faced were about the possible pitfalls.

"Q Do you consider this a diplomatically tricky trip? It would be easy to offend the Baltic leaders who don't want to go to Putin's party; it would be easy to offend Putin. Is this any trickier than the normal trip to Europe?

"MR. HADLEY: Look, it's a tricky world out there. There are a lot of challenges the world over. I think it is not tricky in this sense; that the President is going with a vision and a set of principles, and he's very clear about that vision and comfortable with those principles, and he believes that those principles provide the framework by which various issues of the day can be resolved. And that's the message he's going to send."

Tension Already

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On the eve of President Bush's trip to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat, another skirmish broke out Wednesday between the United States and Russia over a letter Mr. Bush sent to the presidents of the Baltics calling the end of World War II the beginning of the unlawful Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"Russian officials, who were already upset that Mr. Bush chose to bookend his trip to Moscow on Sunday and Monday with visits to the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia, angrily responded that Mr. Bush was rewriting history. . . .

"Moscow's position has been that the Baltics were allies.

"The White House said Mr. Bush's letter was in accordance with history. 'The letter speaks for itself,' said Frederick Jones, the spokesman for the National Security Council."

Here is Bush's letter , as posted on the Web site of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Daniel Dombey writes in the Financial Times that by contrast with Bush, the European Union "has been careful to avoid such remarks, which are seen as churlish by Moscow on the eve of ceremonies to mark the end of a war in which millions of Russians died. 'The relationship [with Russia] should be focused on the future, not the past,' the European Commission said yesterday.

"The issue is all the more sensitive because of Russian attitudes towards Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where 'freedom fighters' enrolled in the German army to fight against the Red Army."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Five days before President Bush meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the White House urged Russia to renounce the Soviet Union's decades-long domination of Eastern Europe to ease tensions with once-occupied countries."

The Latino Pitch

Warren Vieth and Sara Clarke write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush pitched his Social Security restructuring plan to Latinos on Wednesday, saying his approach would extend the benefits of ownership to low-wage workers who otherwise might not save for retirement. . . .

"But representatives of several organizations opposed to Bush's plan said that the more Latinos learned about the investment risks and benefit changes that would accompany personal accounts, the less they liked what they saw."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post that Bush "said he has directed several federal agencies to work with Hispanic business groups to help build financial literacy among Latinos to make them more confident about investing."

Here's the transcript of Bush's speech.

Background Briefing?

In spite of all the debate over anonymous background briefings (see yesterday's column ) and the decision to make Hadley's briefing on the record, there was apparently an anonymous background briefing yesterday about Social Security and Bush's push to preserve currently promised benefits for low-wage workers but reduce future payouts to middle-income and higher-paid retirees.

Vieth and Clarke write in the LA Times: "In a background briefing with reporters Wednesday, senior administration officials took issue with the way the plan had been characterized by opponents. They said it was a 'false choice' to compare benefits payable under the new formula with those scheduled under the current system, because payroll tax collections would be insufficient to support them over the long run."

John D. McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal apparently has more: "The White House moved to deflect attacks on President Bush's plans to rein in Social Security benefits for more-affluent workers, releasing an internal analysis showing their payouts still would be higher than those the Social Security system can actually afford by the middle of the century. . . .

"The White House analysis sought to further highlight the upside of their proposal. It showed that by 2050, middle-income retirees would be receiving about $1,532 a month in today's dollars under Mr. Bush's proposals, compared with the $1,208 that the system would actually be able to pay. That includes the effect of Mr. Bush's proposed scaling back of promised benefits, and also the prospective investment returns from the personal retirement accounts he wants to create using part of Social Security's payroll-tax revenues. The administration assumes an inflation-adjusted return of 4.6% on personal retirement accounts. . . .

"Democratic critics scoffed at the analysis. They noted that the administration's comparison of its plan with payable benefits essentially assumes that Congress will do nothing to shore up the program's finances in the years leading up to Social Security's insolvency in 2041, allowing benefits to fall by as much as 30%."

Live Online

In my Live Online discussion yesterday, we talked about scrutiny, the Social Security Trust Fund, questions for the president -- and of course, background briefings. Here's one exchange:

" Arlington, Va. : On background briefings, I feel you journalists are missing the point. When a person speaks with anonymity in this context, it means that the organization as a whole takes responsibility for the statement (that is, the statement is more 'official,' not less). Organizations of all types routinely issue statements that are attributed to the organization itself, not to any particular person. Background briefings are great, and when journalists report on them, they should be preceded with a lead-in such as "The White House announced today . . . " That is, it is the message which is important, not the particular person who delivers it. Any official who thinks the government is somehow less responsible for statements 'on background' is completely off base.

" Dan Froomkin : That's a very interesting point. Perhaps one solution, short of eliminating them, would be better explaining them to our readers. So: 'Blah blah,' said a senior administration official who, while anonymous, was designated by the White House to speak on President Bush's behalf. Whaddaya think?"

Meanwhile, on the Hill

Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum write in The Washington Post about Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his aggressive grab for control of Social Security legislation.

"His maneuver has undercut White House and House hopes that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) would assume the pivotal role in drafting changes to the Social Security program and has ignited a lobbying frenzy.

"Life insurers are determined to prevent the legislation from being so generous with its savings incentives that it reduces the market for life-insurance products. Airlines want Thomas's measure to include pension-law changes that would make it easier for them and other troubled industries to get out from under huge retirement responsibilities from their former employees. And retailers are busy making sure that a sales or value-added tax is not part of the section in Thomas's legislation that pays for the Social Security and savings incentive sections."

And Holly Yeager writes in the Financial Times: "As President George W. Bush returned the focus to personal investment accounts yesterday, Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, said he did not consider them an essential part of a Social Security reform package. . . .

"Mr DeLay also reacted cautiously to progressive indexing, the idea Mr Bush endorsed last week that would reduce future benefits for middle- and upper-income workers while preserving them for the poor.

" 'It has no relevance as a stand-alone solution,' Mr DeLay said."

Cuatro de Mayo

Here is the transcript from Bush's speech at the Cinco de Mayo festivities at the White House last night.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush offered a toast before dinner, flanked by a mariachi band at the front of the crowd. About 200 Mexican-American leaders and Hispanic administration officials sat in the brightly decorated 'Jardin de Rosa,' as Bush called it, with tables covered in pink, green and blue decorations and little orange lights strung from the garden's trees and hedges."

Said Bush: "I always look forward to Cinco de Mayo, especially because it gives me a chance to practice my Spanish. My only problem this year is I scheduled the dinner on cuatro de Mayo. (Laughter.) Next year I'm going to have to work on my math."

Here's a Reuters photo of Bush daughter Jenna sharing a toast with her boyfriend, Henry Hager.


Kamran Khan and John Lancaster write in The Washington Post that Bush yesterday hailed the capture on al Qaeda operative described by U.S. intelligence sources as the third-ranking figure in the terrorist organization as an important victory.

" 'Al-Libbi is a top general for bin Laden,' Bush said at the start of a previously scheduled speech on Social Security. 'He was a major facilitator and a chief planner for the al Qaeda network. His arrest removes a dangerous enemy who was a direct threat to America and to those who love freedom.' "

Somini Sengupta writes in the New York Times: "But some intelligence officials in Europe expressed surprise at hearing Mr. Libbi described as Al Qaeda's third-highest leader, pointing out that he does not figure on the F.B.I.'s most-wanted list."

Berlusconi Watch

AFP reports: "US troops bear some responsibility for the death of an Italian agent in Iraq but the incident should not affect the Italian troop presence there or relations between Rome and Washington, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told parliament."

A U.S. report on the shooting exonerated U.S. troops for any blame over the incident. The Italian version blamed the killing on the "inexperience" of troops acting under stress and without proper rules of engagement.

"On the eve of his appearance in parliament, Berlusconi received a soothing phone call from US President George W. Bush who reiterated his regret over the incident. . . .

"However White House spokesman Scott McClellan revealed that Bush and Berlusconi had not directly discussed the difference between the two accounts of the shooting."

First Lady Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush has a new 'do and new bling. We've confirmed an MSNBC report that Toka Salon owner Nuri Yurt of Georgetown is now managing the first lady's softer-looking coif. (FYI: A cut goes for $80, while color is $70.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Bush's sparkling jewelry caught many eyes during her Saturday night surprise speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Her crystal necklace and matching earrings were the handiwork of Georgetown jewelry designer Ann Hand, who created the set from different sizes of Swarovski crystals."

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "The Friars Club has offered standup comedian Laura Bush an honorary membership -- which permits her to enjoy the middling cuisine at the East Side clubhouse 'or just hang out at the bar, trading quips with what would become her 'fellow comics,' said Friars President Freddie Roman."

Carlson's View

Margaret Carlson writes in her Bloomberg column about the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner -- and how it reflects the cozy relationship between the press and the president.

"One element of living inside the Beltway is that we live in relatively close quarters. You're likely to run into Karl Rove at the movies or the Safeway, so you might not want to say his mother wears combat boots.

"It's a social structure based less on mutual admiration than on mutual dependence: The press wants access; the president would like to catch a break on private accounts or John Bolton. The reporters you saw in the East Room at last Thursday's press conference, preening for the cameras with multipart questions, were the same ones aching to be in on the joke Saturday night.

"Watergate and Lewinsky are aberrations. Unless you're going to score big and impeach the guy, it's safer to cozy up. Laura could have told a knock-knock joke and brought the house down."

Froomkin Watch

No column tomorrow. Back on Monday.

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