A Lot to Answer For

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 12:51 PM

Beware the cut-and-run straw man tonight, when President Bush delivers a prime-time speech about Iraq with troops from the nation's largest army base as his backdrop.

To the extent that Bush acknowledges the growing public opposition to his leadership of the war at all, it may well be to disparage those who would "cut and run" rather than "stay the course."

But the public discontent over Bush and the war is too deep for him to ignore, and too reasoned for him to write off so easily.

According to the latest polls, Americans are not saying that U.S. troops should leave instantly. They're saying they feel the country is bogged down in a war that was a mistake in the first place, they're saying they feel misled by the president and have lost confidence in him, and they're saying they want to know the way out.

They're not saying abandon the troops; they're saying support the troops. They're not saying dishonor the dead, they're saying stop the dying. They're not saying let the terrorists win; they're saying they don't think that victory in Iraq will have a major impact on terrorism elsewhere.

So will Bush address this growing chorus?

In yesterday's briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan was repeatedly asked if there would be anything new in Bush's speech. His answer: It's a new speech.

Will people hear anything they haven't heard the president say before? His answer: "I think many Americans have not heard much of what the President has to say tomorrow night."

McClellan said Bush will not announce any change in course, but he did offer that the president would "talk in a very specific way about the way forward."

So it's possible that Bush will in great detail explain the military goals in Iraq, put forth benchmarks for success, and tell the public how it can measure progress toward pullout. That would indeed not be a change in strategy, but rather an overdue and welcome clarification.

But reading the tea-leaves on the home page of the White House Web site suggests instead a lot of rehashed talk about "freedom and democracy."

Of course, even if Bush does not engage the growing unease about the war and just rephrases his previous assertions, he will still come out ahead if the press coverage highlights the new sound bites -- rather than explaining that he failed to address the mounting concerns of the American public.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, eagerly responding to your reactions to and questions about the speech.

The Backdrop

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush will try Tuesday to rally flagging public support for the war in Iraq with a prime-time speech from Fort Bragg, N.C., a setting that makes full use of patriotic feelings toward America's soldiers.

"Bush will offer an update on the war and outline his strategy for success from the home base of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army's oldest and most storied airborne unit. Fort Bragg, which also houses secret special-operations units, has sent nearly 11,000 troops to Iraq. At least 83 Fort Bragg soldiers have died there."

But Hutcheson writes: "The president isn't expected to say anything new."

And he reminds readers: "Bush played similarly to patriotic feelings when he declared that major combat in Iraq was over on May 1, 2003, in a speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The president, who'd landed on the carrier in a plane he piloted and appeared on deck in his flight suit, stood beneath a banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished.' "

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The best clue to what President Bush wants to tell the American people about Iraq today can probably be found in his selection of the nation's largest Army base as a backdrop for his prime-time address.

"Even as he tries to rally a nation increasingly skeptical about the war's progress, there is no signal from the White House that Bush plans to offer a new direction, acknowledge missteps or reach out to critics.

"If past speeches at military bases are any guide, Bush's nationally televised address before troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., will feature soaring words about the accomplishments of the U.S. armed forces, the political achievements in Iraq, and the high stakes for America's security."

What the Polls Say

Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "As President Bush prepares to address the nation about Iraq tonight, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that most Americans do not believe the administration's claims that impressive gains are being made against the insurgency, but a clear majority is willing to keep U.S. forces there for an extended time to stabilize the country.

"The survey found that only one in eight Americans currently favors an immediate pullout of U.S. forces, while a solid majority continues to agree with Bush that the United States must remain in Iraq until civil order is restored -- a goal that most of those surveyed acknowledge is, at best, several years away."

That's the good news for the White House.

Or, as Gary Langer puts it for ABC News: "A sense of obligation balances negative public views on Iraq."

Here are the complete poll results. Amid the bad news for the White House: Bush's approval rating is at 48 percent, with 51 percent disapproving and a record 40 percent strongly disapproving; 53 percent think the war was not worth fighting; 62 percent think we're bogged down in Iraq; 52 percent think Bush was intentionally misleading as he made the case for war; 57 percent think he intentionally exaggerated the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush delivers a prime-time address Tuesday to a public that is increasingly doubtful of his justifications for going to war in Iraq and wants a timetable set for U.S. troops to come home -- a step Bush has ruled out. . . .

"Bush has succeeded in persuading Americans that a stable government in Iraq is important for the United States. Ninety-three percent say it's important; two of three call it extremely or very important.

"Even so, 51% want a timetable set and followed for removing troops from Iraq regardless of the situation there. There is also growing skepticism about the president's core argument that the Iraq war is a crucial part of protecting Americans from terrorists."

CNN notes: "The number of Americans disapproving of President Bush's job performance has risen to the highest level of his presidency, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday.

"According to the poll, 53 percent of respondents said they disapproved of Bush's performance, compared to 45 percent who approved."

The Challenge

John Yaukey of Gannett News Service writes: "President Bush now faces one of the major challenges of his presidency."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column about one particular aspect of that challenge: "Because the administration has said there will be no change in the Iraq policy, the only rhetoric at its disposal is repetition of old arguments.

"The result is a somewhat muddled message: Attack the polls, or cite them? Attack the skeptics, or persuade them?"

Bush met with bipartisan congressional leaders over breakfast this morning.

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: " 'I think it's time for the president of the United States to level with the American people,' House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said after a breakfast meeting with Bush at the White House.

"Bush should outline a strategy to turn over security to Iraqi forces and obtain more international help, she said. 'We cannot come home until there is stability in Iraq, because that will make us safer here. It is a situation that we created . . . and now it is a magnet for terror.'"

TV Coverage

Paul J. Gough writes in the Hollywood Reporter: "Three of the four broadcast networks had yet to decide late Monday whether they would carry President Bush's speech on Iraq Tuesday in front of soldiers in Fort Bragg, N.C. By then, only ABC had said it would carry the address. . . .

"CBS, NBC and Fox all said they would decide sometime Tuesday whether to carry the speech. Concerns centered on the potential newsworthiness of the speech and the fact that it was being given not in the Oval Office but far from Washington. . . .

"NBC was faced with the possibility of having to pre-empt or reschedule the heavily promoted original reality series 'Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back.'"

Tim Grieve writes in Salon that there are several precedents for much-hyped Bush speeches on Iraq that turned out to be long in rhetoric but short on specifics.

Anniversary of What?

Bush's speech was timed to celebrate the first anniversary of Iraqi sovereignty.

Rick Jervis writes in USA Today: "Iraq is run by democratically chosen leaders. Yet many people in Baghdad don't leave their homes for fear of suicide bombers."

Aamer Madhani of the Chicago Tribune writes: "Many Iraqis are looking at June 28 not as a watershed day in the nation's history but as a benchmark in the intractable guerrilla war that has gripped much of the country for the last year."

Borzou Daragahi writes in the Los Angeles Times that L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, "handed formal control of Iraq over to the interim government of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in a low-key June 28, 2004, ceremony that lasted less than 20 minutes. But the reality of Iraqis taking control of their own streets, government and borders has been a longer and more tangled story."

Downing Street Memo Watch

Morin and Balz write: "Part of the administration's apparently growing credibility problem may be the result of recent disclosures about prewar planning, including what has come to be known as the Downing Street memo, reflecting notes of a July 2002 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers."

And in another example of how the best way to cover the White House may be from anywhere but the White House, London-based Glenn Frankel in today's Washington Post revisits the whole run up to war based on the eight secret documents disclosed in recent months by British journalist Michael Smith and his own interviews.

"The documents indicate that the officials foresaw a host of problems that later would haunt both governments -- including thin intelligence about the nature of the Iraqi threat, weak public support for war and a lack of planning for the aftermath of military action. British cabinet ministers, Foreign Office diplomats, senior generals and intelligence service officials all weighed in with concerns and reservations. Yet they could not dissuade their counterparts in the Bush administration -- nor, indeed, their own leader -- from going forward. . . .

"A U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of the events said the concerns raised by British officials 'played a useful role.'

" 'Were they paid a tremendous amount of heed?' said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 'I think it's hard to say they were.' "

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A series of three-year-old British documents seized upon by those who think the Bush administration manipulated intelligence before the war with Iraq has demonstrated unusual staying power. That is due in part to declining public support for the conflict -- but it also has much to do with an Internet campaign by war critics prodding journalists to talk about them."

Negotiating With Terrorists?

Bill Schneider of CNN wonders out loud: "The U.S. describes its adversaries in Iraq as terrorists. . . . A report in the 'London Sunday Times' reveals that the U.S. held two face-to-face meetings with leaders of the insurgency. . . .

"Is the U.S. negotiating with terrorists? It depends on the ability to make distinctions between terrorists . . . and other insurgents. . . . Making that distinction is not so easy."

Valerie Plame Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "The Supreme Court refused yesterday to hear an appeal from two reporters who say they should not be forced to reveal their confidential sources to a prosecutor investigating whether senior Bush administration officials illegally leaked a covert CIA operative's name."

The court's action reignited speculation over where special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald stands in his investigation of government efforts to discredit Bush critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, the husband of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Here's Time magazine's official view: "Statements from the Special Counsel's office suggest his investigation has changed substantially since last summer, when he presented secret evidence to the district court. There is reason to believe, for example, that the Special Counsel may have determined that disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak did not violate the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. If that is correct, his desire to know the sources for a subsequent article by Mr. Cooper and others, that appeared on Time.com, may be solely related to an investigation into whether witnesses made false statements during the course of his investigation into this non-crime. Such an investigation of obstruction of justice or perjury may not rise to the level that justifies disclosure of information from or about a reporter's confidential sources under federal common law."

Farhad Manjoo writes on Salon.com that "lawyers who've been watching Fitzgerald's moves in the case suggest that he may already have some idea of who leaked the name, and the fact that he hasn't yet charged someone in the case may indicate that there's not enough evidence to move forward on the prosecution. Instead, what Fitzgerald seems to be after is a much weaker charge of obstruction of justice -- a low-level, catchall accusation that federal prosecutors use all the time when their main investigation runs dry."

The topic came up in yesterday's briefing:

"MR. McCLELLAN: What I said is the President wants to get to the bottom of the investigation; no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than he does. It is a very serious matter and the President has said that if anybody has information, they ought to provide that information to the prosecutor so that they can continue forward on their investigation."

Bush, Schroeder and Iran

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder vowed yesterday to take a firm stance with the newly elected government of Iran over the country's nuclear development program, foreshadowing a fresh season of discord with an increasingly defiant Tehran."

Here's the transcript.

Gavin Evans and Hector Forster report for Bloomberg: "Crude oil traded above $60 a barrel after U.S. President George W. Bush said the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran would be 'unacceptable,' heightening concern about political tension in the Middle East, supplier of 30 percent of the world's oil."

Africa Claim Doubted

Reuters reports: "U.S. aid to Africa has increased 56 percent over the last four years, but has not tripled as President Bush claimed earlier this month, according to a report on Monday by the Washington-based Brookings Institution."

Here's the report.

Halliburton Watch

Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post: "Pentagon auditors have questioned more than $1 billion in costs by contracting giant Halliburton Co. for its work in Iraq, a number several times higher than previously disclosed, according to a report by congressional Democrats."

Erik Echkolm notes in the New York Times: "Large contracts awarded to the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root have been a focus of questions and criticism since even before the Iraq invasion in 2003, in part because some were awarded without competition and because of allegations that the company, formerly led by Dick Cheney before he became vice president, was aided by political connections."

Comeback Watch

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Despite the public confidence aired by Democratic leaders that they've got President Bush on the ropes, most still believe he'll mount a public comeback leading up to the 2006 elections. But the question of many is what will be the issue he rides back up in the polls."

State Dinner Coming

The Names and Faces column in The Washington Post reports: "India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is coming to Washington next month, and the White House is (finally!) hosting a state dinner, reports The Post's Roxanne Roberts. The White House has not officially announced it, but President Bush and the first lady are hosting a dinner for Singh on July 18. This will be the first state dinner since Bush was reelected in November, and only the fifth of his administration."

Cheney's Heart

New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove smells something fishy about the denials from Vice President Cheney's office about a rumor that he received impromptu medical care Friday in the cardiac unit of a Colorado hospital.

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