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Did Bush Blink?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 3, 2006; 12:30 PM

In addition to all the predictable reactions (pro and con) to the landmark nuclear agreement reached in India yesterday, a powerful and unexpected new concern has emerged based on a last-minute concession by President Bush.

It appears that, to close the deal during his visit, Bush directed his negotiators to give in to India's demands that it be allowed to produce unlimited quantities of fissile material and amass as many nuclear weapons as it wants.

The agreement, which requires congressional approval, would be an important step toward Bush's long-held goal of closer relations with India. It would reflect India's status as a global power. And, not least of all, it would more firmly establish India as a military ally and bulwark against China.

Critics have long denounced such an agreement, saying it would reward India for its rogue nuclear-weapons program and could encourage other nations to do likewise.

But now the criticisms may focus on this question: By enabling India to build an unlimited stockpile of nuclear weapons, would this agreement set off a new Asian arms race?

And here's another question: Were Bush and his aides so eager for some good headlines -- for a change -- that they gave away the store?

The Coverage

Jim VandeHei and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "Bush and [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh praised the deal at a joint news conference, but they did not mention that it would allow India to produce vast quantities of fissile material, something the United States and the four other major nuclear powers -- China, Russia, France and Britain -- have voluntarily halted. The pact also does not require oversight of India's prototype fast-breeder reactors, which can produce significant amounts of super-grade plutonium when fully operating. . . .

"Last week, during a private meeting with a group of congressional leaders, [undersecretary of state for political affairs R. Nicholas] Burns suggested it was unlikely the sides would be able to quickly bridge significant gaps on the separation plan. But a last-minute decision by Bush to accept India's demands sealed the deal. . . .

"Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the International Relations subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation, said he welcomed better ties with India, but not at any cost. In a statement, he said the agreement had 'implications beyond U.S.-India relations' and that the 'goal of curbing nuclear proliferation should be paramount.' He warned that Congress would not be rushed into backing the deal. . . .

"But supporters said the pact was an important part of a White House strategy to accelerate New Delhi's rise as a global power and as a regional counterweight to China."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Somini Sengupta write in the New York Times: "In New Delhi, American and Indian negotiators working all night reached agreement on the nuclear deal at 10:30 a.m. Thursday local time -- only two hours before Mr. Bush and Mr. Singh announced it -- after the United States accepted an Indian plan to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities. . . .

"India . . . retained the right to develop future fast-breeder reactors for its military program, a provision that critics of the deal called astonishing. In addition, India said it was guaranteed a permanent supply of nuclear fuel. . . .

" 'It's not meaningful to talk about 14 of the 22 reactors being placed under safeguards,' said Robert J. Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who served as a top nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration and the early days of the Bush administration. 'What's meaningful is what the Indians can do at the unsafeguarded reactors, which is vastly increase their production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. One has to assume that the administration was so interested in concluding a deal that it was prepared to cave in to the demands of the Indian nuclear establishment.' "

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times that "it appeared in the hours after the announcement that India had emerged a winner. . . .

"[CSIS's] Einhorn said the U.S. had initially offered to let India produce weapons materials at its two planned fast-breeder reactors -- enough to produce as many as six bombs a year. But India, underscoring its interest in a more robust weapons program, rejected the deal, he said."

Farah Stockman writes in the Boston Globe that "critics of the deal, under negotiation since July, said Bush did not drive a hard enough bargain. They said he failed to win any major restrictions on India's nuclear arsenal, such as a halt to the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

" 'India has wanted this deal for 30 years,' said Jon Wolfsthal, a former policy adviser for the US Department of Energy under President Clinton who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'For them, this is the Holy Grail of international acceptance, and we sold it for pennies on the dollar. In the end, the major players in the Bush administration feel it's OK for India to have a large nuclear arsenal as long as its not directed at the United States, and that there might even be benefits, for instance, to deter against China.' "

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: " 'This deal not only lets India amass as many nuclear weapons as it wants, it looks like we made no effort to try to curtail them,' said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 'This is Santa Claus negotiating. The goal seems to have been to give away as much as possible.' "

James Sterngold writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "While some officials hailed President Bush's announcement Thursday of a nuclear cooperation deal between the United States and India as a sign of warmer ties, a number of experts and some members of Congress reacted with deep concern, saying the proposal could allow India to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal. . . .

"India has a stockpile estimated at 40 to 50 warheads, which it developed to counterbalance threats from China and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed countries with which India has had military conflicts. In 1998, India and then Pakistan conducted underground tests, bringing them to the brink of a nuclear exchange, prompting many security experts to call for steps toward disarmament in the volatile region rather than an increase in nuclear technology. . . .

"[N]ow that the two sides have agreed on specific terms, the skeptics said the deal could allow India to expand its arsenal even further and possibly encourage a regional nuclear arms race."

In Other Indian News

Jim VandeHei and Daniela Deane write for The Washington Post: "President Bush concluded his first visit to India Friday by calling for tighter trade and military relations that could 'transform the world.'

"In a night-time speech at Purana Qila, an historic fort in New Delhi, Bush said America should not fear India's rapid economic growth and shut itself off to expanding trade opportunities with the world's second most populous country."

Earlier in the day, Bush chatted with a panel of young Indian entrepreneurs. Here's the transcript . Asked about outsourcing, he replied: "People do lose jobs as a result of globalization, and it's painful for those who lose jobs. But the fundamental question is, how does a government or society react to that."

Anand Giridharadas and Hari Kumar write in the New York Times: "For the second day in a row, raucous protests against President Bush's visit erupted across India on Thursday."

Off To Pakistan

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "President Bush may be taking one of the most dangerous trips of his presidency today.

"He is scheduled to fly to Pakistan for an overnight visit in the capital, Islamabad. The trip comes a day after a suicide car bomber killed U.S. diplomat David Foy and three others and wounded 50 in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. . . .

"Bush's trip comes six years after President Clinton visited amid elaborate security: After switching planes in India, Clinton flew to Islamabad aboard an unmarked executive jet, behind another plane disguised as Air Force One.

"And that was a year before 9/11."

Agence France Presse reports: "Pakistan's capital is under security lockdown ahead of a visit by US President George W. Bush and a nationwide strike by Islamists against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed."

Katrina Video Still Making Waves

Peter Baker and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "The release of a pre-storm video showing officials warning Bush during a conference call that the hurricane approaching the Gulf Coast posed a dire threat to the city and its levees has revived a dispute the White House had hoped to put behind it: Was the president misinformed, misspoken or misleading? . . .

"To Bush aides, the seeming conflict between Bush's public statements and the private deliberations captured on tape reflects little more than an inartful statement opponents are exploiting for political purposes. . . .

"Reflecting the sensitivity of the controversy, the White House issued a three-page statement yesterday to 'set the record straight,' defend the president's actions before, during and after the storm, and accuse Democrats of using the new video 'to falsely attack the White House's Hurricane Katrina's response.' "

But Baker writes: "With midterm elections in the fall, such a video could return in the form of campaign commercials attacking Bush, and by extension Republicans, for losing an American city. In the shorter term, Bush advisers worry that it will reopen Katrina wounds and complicate the president's efforts to bring together quarreling parties to focus on reconstructing the city and region."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The subject of this particular meeting happened to be a natural disaster, but to many Americans, it might as easily have been Iraq, national security or the economy.

"Critics see a president ignoring warning signs, displaying no inquisitiveness and expressing unfounded confidence in his administration's capabilities, with disastrous consequences.

"Supporters see an engaged chief executive taking control of a situation and being unfairly blamed for circumstances beyond his control."

John Dickerson writes in Slate, I think somewhat tongue in cheek: "Based on what I'd been told by White House aides over the years, I expected to see the president asking piercing questions that punctured the fog of the moment and inspired bold action. Bush's question-asking talents are a central tenet of the president's hagiography. He may not be much for details, say aides, but he can zero in on a weak spot in a briefing and ask out-of-the-box questions."

Of course, Dickerson acknowledges this isn't the first time that this particular mythology has been challenged: "Those in the room with him during other briefings also say he didn't ask very sharp questions then, either. Former anti-terrorism official Richard Clarke and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill both wrote about Bush's lack of curiosity."

Seth Borenstein writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers about 12 longtime disaster experts: "All but one of them -- which included Republicans and Democrats, two former Federal Emergency Management Agency directors, former state and local disaster chiefs and academics who collectively have more than a century's experience -- whom Knight Ridder interviewed Thursday said they had a hard time buying the Bush administration's line."

I wrote at some length about the video in yesterday's column . The conservative Redstate blog wasn't impressed: "Dan Froomkin isn't interested in the real story -- just his cut and paste storyline. Tomorrow, more ways we can blame President Bush for the crabgrass in your lawn."

Poll Watch

Apparently, the CBS News poll wasn't a complete fluke.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Americans overwhelmingly oppose the proposed sale of cargo operations at six major U.S. seaports to a Dubai firm, calling it a threat to the nation's security, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Tuesday and Wednesday."

And not unrelatedly: "Bush's job-approval rating is 38%, 1 percentage point above the lowest rating of his presidency. His disapproval rating is 60%. The proportion who strongly approve of him has fallen to 20%, its lowest ever. The proportion who strongly disapprove has risen to 44%, the highest ever."

Here are the poll results .

Bush also experienced his poorest showing ever when it came to whether people consider him honest or trustworthy (52 percent said no, 47 percent said yes) or capable of managing the government effectively (59 percent said no; 40 percent said yes).

Fox News is out with new numbers as well: "For only the second time of his presidency, the poll finds that President Bush's overall job approval rating has fallen below 40 percent -- today 39 percent of Americans say they approve and a 54 percent majority disapproves. Late last year the president's approval hit a record-low of 36 percent (8-9 November 2005).

"This is also one of only a handful of times that Bush's approval has dropped below 80 percent among Republicans. Today 77 percent of Republicans approve, down from 82 percent in early February. Disapproval among Democrats went from 79 percent in early February to 84 percent today. Approval among independents is essentially unchanged at 35 percent."

Here are the Fox News poll results , and Bush's approval ratings by sex and party.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Americans, by a greater than 3-1 margin, oppose the proposed deal that would allow a state-owned Arab firm to assume control of operations at several U.S. ports, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. . . .

"Buffeted by resistance to the port transaction and discontent over the turmoil in Iraq, President Bush's approval rating fell to 38%, the lowest level recorded for him in a Times poll. His disapproval rating rose to 58%.

"And, in a trend that could affect turnout in the November midterm elections, Bush confronts what might be called an intensity gap: The percentage of Americans who said they strongly disapproved of his performance on a wide range of issues greatly exceeded the share who strongly approved."

Here are the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll results.

What the President Knew

I didn't have time yesterday to do much more than link to Murray Waas 's latest National Journal story. But it's worth revisiting. So let me try to summarize.

First of all, the story is based on super-secret one-page intelligence summaries that Bush can't say he didn't read. In at least one case, Waas writes, CIA Director George Tenet made Bush read them right in front of him.

The story asserts that even as Bush was repeatedly warning that Saddam might use chemical or biological weapons against the United States (or provide such weapons to terrorist groups) he knew that intelligence agencies were unanimous that Saddam was in no way an imminent threat to the U.S. -- with the possible exception of if he was attacked.

The story also asserts that even as he was publicly saying that Saddam's acquisition of high-strength aluminum tubes was evidence of a nuclear weapons program, Bush knew that some intelligence experts strongly dissented from that view.

Go read Waas's story -- then revisit Bush's State of the Union address on January 28, 2003. Read Bush's speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002. Troll around the House Government Reform minority office's Iraq on the Record database. Search for mentions of aluminum tubes and the like.

Torture Watch

Josh White and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Bush administration lawyers, fighting a claim of torture by a Guantanamo Bay detainee, yesterday argued that the new law that bans cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody does not apply to people held at the military prison.

"In federal court yesterday and in legal filings, Justice Department lawyers contended that a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cannot use legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to challenge treatment that the detainee's lawyers described as 'systematic torture.' . . .

" 'Unfortunately, I think the government's right; it's a correct reading of the law,' said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. 'The law says you can't torture detainees at Guantanamo, but it also says you can't enforce that law in the courts.' "

Flash back to Bush's Jan. 26 press conference , where Bush said: "No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world."

Now in addition to asking him what he meant by "torture" I guess we have to ask him what he meant by "anywhere in the world."

Scooter Libby Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a court affidavit released yesterday that indicted former White House official I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby is not entitled to know everything that government investigators learned about other leaks to reporters regarding Valerie Plame's employment as a covert CIA operative."

Personnel Watch

Bush announced three new White House hires yesterday.

Erin P. Billings anticipated one of them in Roll Call (subscription required) on Tuesday: "Sean O'Hollaren, a senior government relations official at Honeywell International, is returning to the Bush legislative affairs shop to take over as the lead Senate liaison for the White House, several sources confirmed Monday."

O'Hallaren worked in legislative affairs at the White House from 2003 to 2004 before going to lobby for Honeywell, a major government contractor.

Lisa E. Epifani will be special assistant to the president for economic policy; Brian V. McCormack will be special assistant to the president and deputy director of public liaison.

What's Luck Got to Do With It?

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Some commentators speak of the series of disasters now afflicting the Bush administration -- there seems to be a new one every week -- as if it were just a string of bad luck. But it isn't.

"If good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, bad luck is what happens when lack of preparation meets a challenge. And our leaders, who think they can govern through a mix of wishful thinking and intimidation, are never, ever prepared."

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