A Lesson Learned

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 19, 2005; 4:21 PM

It's hard to learn from your mistakes if you won't admit you've made any. And President Bush has been notoriously reluctant to cop to errors in judgment.

That's why last night's speech at an International Republican Institute dinner here in Washington was such a departure for him. The White House was well aware of its significance -- in fact, officials sent the press corps two copies of the speech, one before Bush had even delivered it, to make sure everyone was paying attention.

Bush implicitly accepted the criticism that his administration wasn't sufficiently prepared to handle the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

"One of the lessons we learned from our experience in Iraq is that, while military personnel can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world, the same is not true of U.S. government civilians," he said.

Bush said that he now recognizes that the government must do a better job of helping nations emerging from tyranny and war. "Democratic change can arrive suddenly," he said. "And that means our government must be able to move quickly to provide needed assistance."

Bush said he wants to create "a new Active Response Corps, made up of foreign and civil service officers who can deploy quickly to crisis situations as civilian 'first responders.' This new Corps will be on call -- ready to get programs running on the ground in days and weeks, instead of months and years. . . . If a crisis emerges, and assistance is needed, the United States of America will be ready."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In a rare moment of self-criticism, President Bush suggested Wednesday that the United States did not move civilian workers into Iraq quickly enough to stabilize the country after the military invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. . . .

"The problematic nature of rebuilding Iraq -- which has been marred by a sense of disorganization and allegations of mishandled funds -- has been widely acknowledged by foreign policy analysts and some administration officials.

"But Bush, who once famously declared that he was stumped when a reporter asked if he had made any mistakes during his tenure, rarely concedes missteps. Despite accusations from Democrats and other critics at home and abroad that the administration has bungled the rebuilding, he has been a steadfast defender of U.S. actions in Iraq.

"Wednesday's remarks appeared to indicate a shift in tone by a president whose legacy rests, in large part, on a successful reconstruction effort."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, and his remarks amounted to an argument as to why the transition from tyranny to democracy there and elsewhere is inherently challenging and prone to setbacks. . . .

Stevenson also notes that Bush's speech last night would have been unthinkable five years ago. "Mr. Bush used the speech to continue his gradual reversal from a central commitment of the 2000 presidential campaign: that he would never use the United States military for what he called 'nation building.' "

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post that the speech was an expansion on the theme of spreading liberty, the centerpiece of Bush's second-term foreign policy agenda.

"President Bush cautioned last night that the recent burst of freedom in once-repressive nations such as Ukraine and Afghanistan is likely to be followed by heightened expectations and deep disappointments that can only be withstood by the solid pillars of democracy, including a free press, an independent judiciary and guaranteed rights for citizens," Fletcher writes.

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

Prescient Ignatius

Washington Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius had a prescient piece on this very topic yesterday morning.

He wrote that the administration was thinking hard about "transforming the military services, the State Department and other agencies in ways that would help the United States do better what it botched so badly in Iraq. Don't call it the 'Colonial Office,' but in many ways, that's a model for the kind of far-flung stabilization force that officials are discussing.

"The driver for these changes, as with so much else in Washington, is the administration's equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld."

Ignatius mentions two seminal documents on the topic available on the Internet: A Defense Science Board report from December called "Transition to and from Hostilities;" and an article by Thomas P.M. Barnett entitled "The Pentagon's New Map."

Grenade Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "A hand grenade that landed within 100 feet of President Bush during his visit last week to a former Soviet republic was a threat to his life and the safety of the tens of thousands in the crowd, the FBI said Wednesday. . . .

"The grenade's discovery has led to questions about the adequacy of the extensive security measures used to protect the president. . . .

"The number of metal detectors set up by the Secret Service, based on predictions by Georgian authorities, proved far too few. The crowd was one of the largest Bush has addressed. After three hours, authorities were overwhelmed by the enormous number of people and let many go around the detectors."

"The Secret Service is looking into all those issues," press secretary Scott McClellan said.

About That Nuclear Option

So is the White House just sitting idly by as the Senate debates whether to ban filibusters of judicial nominees? Not a chance.

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "At the White House, the official line on the fight over ending filibusters of judicial nominees is that it is a matter for the Senate to decide.

"But behind the scenes, the White House, directly and through its allies, is playing an active role in keeping up the pressure on the Senate to assure that President Bush's nominees have up-or-down confirmation votes, Republicans involved in the effort said. . . .

"The aides said any heavy-handed pressure from the White House could backfire by making the issue seem less about fairness than about the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, a topic on which senators of any political stripe might be loath to side with the administration."

David S. Broder , writing in his Washington Post opinion column, makes it clear that the White House is in this fight up to its eyeballs.

"President Bush has staked his prestige on a direct challenge to Senate Democrats by renominating for the appeals courts seven judges whose confirmations were blocked in the last Congress by the threat of Democratic filibusters," Broder writes.

"The White House has pressed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to outlaw a repetition of such tactics by lining up 50 votes to sustain a ruling by Vice President Cheney that judicial filibusters are not protected by Senate rules. Were more than five of the 55 Republican senators to desert the president on that issue, it would be a heavy blow to his influence."

The Rove Factor

As with any fierce partisan battle, White House chief political strategist Karl Rove is right in the thick of things. But CNN's John King tells Judy Woodruff that Rove has a special relationship with Priscilla Owen, one of Bush's judicial nominees, and both sides are abundantly aware of that.

"That is one of the reasons this fight is so personal. In a word, it's about Texas. In two words, you might say it's about Karl Rove. She doesn't really know the president all that well. But back in 1994, she was an underdog at [the] beginning of the race running for the Texas Supreme Court. They elect judges in Texas. Well, there was another underdog running for governor. His name was George W. Bush. No one thought he could beat Ann Richards at the time.

"Priscilla Owen and George W. Bush shared one thing: Karl Rove. He was their political consultant in both of the races and he, of course, is a larger-than-life figure here in Washington, as well as in Austin. Owen's supporters say his role is exaggerated in her nomination. But Democrats will tell you, if you look at all judges in play, her record is not really much different than any of the others. One of the reasons they think it would be advantageous for them to take her down in this partisan fight, is, they say -- it is Texas, it's about Karl Rove. They think it would be a clear shot to the White House."

Star Wars, Part I

Is Darth Vader supposed to remind you of George Bush? (See Monday's column .)

David M. Halbfinger writes in the New York Times that "the heroes and antiheroes of Mr. Lucas's final entry, 'Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith,' were on their way to becoming the stock characters of partisan debate by mid-Wednesday, hours before the film's opening just after midnight."

He asks "just what was Mr. Lucas -- who could not be reached for comment Wednesday -- thinking when he told a Cannes audience that he had not realized in plotting the film years ago that fact might so closely track his fiction?

Steve Silberman's interview with Lucas on Wired.com goes a long way toward answering that question.

Lucas: "The thing I like about fantasy and science fiction is that you can take issues, pull them out of their cultural straitjackets, and talk about them without bringing in folk artifacts that make people get closed minded."

Silberman: "Give me an example of what you mean by a folk artifact."

Lucas: "Fahrenheit 9/11. People went nuts. The folk aspects of that film were George Bush or Iraq or 9/11 or -- intense emotional issues that made people put up their blinders and say, 'I have an opinion about this, and I'm not going to accept anything else.' If you could look at these issues more open-mindedly -- at what's going on with the human mind behind all this, on all sides -- you could have a more interesting conversation, without people screaming, plugging their ears, and walking out of the room like kids do."

Silberman: "And you do that by --"

Lucas: "By making the film 'about' something other than what it's really about. Which is what mythology is, and what storytelling has always been about. Art is about communicating with people emotionally without the intellectual artifacts of the current situation, and dealing with very emotional issues."

Star Wars, II

Agence France Presse reports that the McClellan yesterday denied the New York Times report that changes under consideration could lead to the fielding of offensive and defensive weapons in space.

But the Russians are on alert.

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "Russia would consider using force if necessary to respond if the US put a combat weapon into space, according to a senior Russian official. . . .

"Vladimir Yermakov, senior counsellor at the Russian embassy in Washington, on Tuesday told a conference on space militarisation that Russia was working through diplomatic channels to urge the US not to move towards fielding weapons in space. But he said Russia would have to react, possibly with force, if the US successfully put a 'combat weapon' in space."

Newsweek Watch

After Tuesday's " Nuclear Briefing ," yesterday's White House press briefing was relatively sedate. There was only a bit of talk about the tensions between the White House and the press.

Here's the transcript .

"Q In the aftermath of your comments yesterday, some have suggested that you were trying to dictate to the press. How do you feel about the criticism of that?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I kind of laugh at it because I don't think that's possible. We have a free media in the United States, and the only point I was making yesterday was that they said they got it wrong, this was a report that had serious consequences, people lost their lives, the image of the United States abroad was damaged by the report, and I think that there's a responsibility to help repair the damage. And like I said, I've seen Newsweek officials out on television shows or appearing on Nightline. I mean, I would hope that they would be appearing on Arab networks, as well, and talking to the region about this issue. I think that that would help repair the damage. And I think that's the point I was making yesterday. . . .

"I think the American people are outraged about the report, to learn that it turned out to be wrong. And we share in that outrage. And that's why it's important to work to repair the damage that has been done by that report."

Terry Moran and Hugh Hewitt on the Press Corps

ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran's question Tuesday -- "With respect, who made you editor of Newsweek?" -- got a lot of play in the blogs and on talk radio.

Radioblogger captured the transcript of Moran's appearance on conservative talk jock and blogger Hugh Hewitt's radio show. There's a lot of material there. Here are a few excerpts.

"HH: Why are you guys so thin-skinned? Why don't you understand the contempt the White House press corps is held in by the American public?

"TM: Well, I do understand that. I understand it both on the right, people who don't want any kind of challenge to the president they support, and people on the left who think we went easy on the president, and allowed him . . .

"HH: Terry, wait. Time out. Where do you get this, don't want any kind of challenge to the president they support. They're just sick and tired of journalists with big heads and little resumes, acting like they know how the world works. . . .

"TM: Hugh, can I ask you a question? When was the last time you were in Iraq?

"HH: I have not been to Iraq.

"TM: Huh.

"HH: What does that establish?

"TM: Little resume."

And later:

"HH: Are there members of the White House Press Corps, Terry, who actually hate Bush?

"TM: I would say the answer to that is yes.

"HH: And what percentage of them, do you think that amounts to?

"TM: Uh, small, I would say, but some big fish."

"HH: What's your guess about the percentage of the White House Press Corps that voted for Kerry?

"TM: Oh, very high. Very, very high.

"HH: 95%?

"TM: Huh?

"HH: 95%?

"TM: No, I don't think that high. But I would certainly say, you know, it's hard for me, but I'd guess it's in . . . upwards of 70, maybe higher. You know, it's hard for me to say, but I would say very, very high."

Moran also divulges to Hewitt that his brother has a blog called Right Wing Nut House .

"HH: Why didn't he work on you? What happened to you?"

Today's Calendar

Bush is off to Milwaukee today, primarily to hold one of his "conversations" on Social Security at the Milwaukee Art Museum. But, intriguingly, his calendar calls for a brief meeting just before that with young workers at OnMilwaukee.com , a local Web site that just the other day asked its readers what they would like to say to Bush.

Stay tuned. Could be interesting.

Poll Watch

Tim Russert talks to Brian Williams about the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Williams: "Tim, how are people feeling about the direction of their nation and the man running it."

Russert: "It's not good news, Brian."

John Harwood writes about it in the Wall Street Journal.

And here are the complete poll results .

Bush's approval rating is down one point from last month to 47, but not quite at his all-time low for this survey, which was 45 percent in June 2004.

Palestinian Tightrope

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "It's hard to overstate how much the White House is betting on the next several months of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President George W. Bush's national-security officials suggest that if all goes well with Israel's withdrawal from Gaza -- and if an effective and peaceful Palestinian state emerges there -- the administration will find new diplomatic openings across the region, the broader Muslim world and even across Europe. . . .

"Those sky-high expectations will meet their first test when Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House next week in his first meeting as the Palestinian president with Bush -- an opportunity that was denied to his predecessor, Yasir Arafat. How Bush handles Abbas will come under intense scrutiny across the Middle East, posing by far the trickiest challenge for the U.S. president in terms of awkward foreign leaders."

The Porn Star and the President

Richard Leiby writes in his final Reliable Source column for The Washington Post: "When a news release crossed our desk yesterday proclaiming that a porn star named Mary Carey would attend a June dinner with President Bush, we figured it had to be a hoax. But it's true. It just won't be an intimate dinner with the prez.

"Carey's boss, hard-core porn producer Mark Kulkis of Los Angeles, has ponied up $5,000 for two tickets to a National Republican Congressional Committee event called the President's Dinner and Salute to Freedom. Kulkis, who locked in his tickets by credit card yesterday, tells us he will take the 24-year-old Carey (real name: Mary Cook ) as his date. . . .

"Contemplating a run for California lieutenant governor next year, the voluptuous actress says she hopes to network with GOP officials here. 'I'm especially looking forward to meeting Karl Rove,' she cooed in a statement. 'Smart men like him are so sexy.' "

Here is a (not easy to find) clothed photo of Carey.

White House as Editor

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "When the Senate Democratic Policy Committee asked the head of a business organization advocating an overhaul of Social Security to testify at a hearing last week, the members expected him to take the White House line.

"They didn't know he would also take the White House editing."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive