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Out of Touch on Iraq

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; 12:51 PM

President Bush's exclusive focus on suicide bombers -- "suiciders," in his parlance -- when asked about violence in Iraq yesterday once again suggests that he lacks a realistic sense of the current state of chaos in that country.

"That's the -- but that's one of the main -- that's the main weapon of the enemy, the capacity to destroy innocent life with a suicider," Bush said yesterday in a brief public appearance with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Suicide bombings in Iraq do sometimes result in dramatic death tolls. And their aftereffects tend to show up more often in television footage than, say, the carnage wrought by secretive death squads.

But they're hardly the main weapon afflicting either U.S. soldiers or civilians in Iraq today.

As anyone who monitors the situation in Iraq knows, a vastly greater threat to the 133,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there is posed by improvised explosive devices left along roadsides and elsewhere -- and, to a lesser degree, by gunfire and mortar fire from armed insurgents trying very much to stay alive.

And as far as Iraqi civilians are concerned, the primary security threat these days comes from paramilitary forces committing widespread sectarian murder, unimpeded by anyone in authority.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but ask people with first-hand experience in Iraq, and they'll most likely tell you that Bush's emphasis on suicide bombings is at best way out of date, and at worst an example of his utter cluelessness.

Was Bush being accidentally or intentionally ignorant? It's hard to know for sure.

One possible explanation for his comments is that the current White House narrative, supported by its endlessly repeated talking points, is that the terrorists in Iraq are fighting a battle for American public opinion -- and their horrific acts of violence are intended to " break our will ."

In that context, major suicide attacks may be one of their more effective devices, because they do occasionally show up on the news. The more omnipresent horrors that produce the endless, daily death toll of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis are in fact almost never depicted on television, even though they represent a far greater tragedy.

So if Bush is more focused on the battle for public opinion than the situation on the ground, his comments make a certain amount of sense.

Why No Coverage?

Another question that Bush's comments yesterday raised in my mind: Where was the media coverage? Why did reporters give Bush a pass on this one?

The most likely answer, at least in part, is that White House reporters are so used to Bush being out of touch on Iraq that they don't consider it news.

But it seems to me that this deserved some mention -- somewhere.

Instead, reporters who made any note at all of Bush's Iraq comments focused on his vague suggestion that it was time for another assessment of troop needs.

Terence Hunt wrote for the Associated Press: "President Bush, facing political pressure for troop cutbacks, said Tuesday he would make a fresh assessment about Iraq's needs for U.S. military help now that a new government has taken office in Baghdad."

Hunt even went so far as to recast Bush's statement on Iraqi violence in a more lucid way.

"Bush also said Americans should not judge what's happening in Iraq solely on the basis of the unrelenting violence. 'It is a difficult task to stop suicide bombers,' Bush said at a news conference."

Here, from the transcript of yesterday's remarks, is the exchange I found so telling. Also note, by the way, how Bush sets up a false straw-man argument in his response, between either measuring success by suicide bombing or by the "march to democracy."

The question came from ABC News's Martha Raddatz.

"Q The U.S. has the most powerful military in the world, and they have been unable to bring down the violence in any substantial way in several of the provinces. So how can you expect the Iraqis to do that?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: If one were to measure progress on the number of suiciders, if that's your definition of success, I think it gives -- I think it will -- I think it obscures the steady, incremental march toward democracy we're seeing. In other words, it's very difficult -- you can have the most powerful army of the world -- ask the Israelis what it's like to try to stop suiciders -- it is a difficult task to stop suicide bombers. That's the -- but that's one of the main -- that's the main weapon of the enemy, the capacity to destroy innocent life with a suicider.

"And so I view progress as, is there a political process going forward that's convincing disaffected Sunnis, for example, to participate? Is there a unity government that says it's best for all of us to work together to achieve a common objective which is democracy? Are we able to meet the needs of the 12 million people that defied the car bombers? To me, that's success. Trying to stop suiciders -- which we're doing a pretty good job of on occasion -- is difficult to do. And what the Iraqis are going to have to eventually do is convince those who are conducting suiciders who are not inspired by al Qaeda, for example, to realize there's a peaceful tomorrow. And those who are being inspired by al Qaeda, we're just going to have to stay on the hunt and bring al Qaeda to justice. And our Army can do that, and is doing that right now."


As Wikipedia helpfully explains: "George Bush's regular use of nonstandard grammatical constructions has some common characteristics that have given him a hallmark style."

Among them: "Adding agentive endings to words not usually accustomed to such treatment, such as 'suiciders' . . . and 'decider'."

Today's Iraq Primer

Don't look for suiciders in this latest crop of horror stories from Iraq.

Dexter Filkins writes in today's New York Times: "The headlong, American-backed effort to arm tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and officers, coupled with a failure to curb a nearly equal number of militia gunmen, has created a galaxy of armed groups, each with its own loyalty and agenda, which are accelerating the country's slide into chaos. . . .

"Some of these armed groups, like the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police, often carry out legitimate missions to combat crime and the insurgency. Others, like members of another Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, specialize in torture, murder, kidnapping and the settling of scores for political parties."

Suicide would appear to have been the last thing on the mind of Ziad Khalaf al-Kerbouly. Nelson Hernandez and Naseer Nouri write in The Washington Post: "An alleged agent of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq told a chilling story of hijacking, kidnapping and murder in the name of holy war Tuesday, a day after the Jordanian government announced his arrest in an operation carried out in Iraq. . . .

"His confession gave a rare glimpse into the mentality of the combatants in a conflict in which at least 40 Iraqis were killed Tuesday, in a string of bombings and shootings that have become routine for everyone except those who have to live with the consequences."

And on CNN , Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, acknowledged that parts of Iraq's Anbar province, an al-Qaeda stronghold, were under insurgent control. "[I]t's a difficult security situation that Iraq is going through," he said.

Michael Ware writes for Time from war-torn Ramadi: "There's no reason to believe that the Americans' battle against Iraqi insurgents is going to get better. With U.S. support for the war sinking, the Bush Administration is eager to show that sufficient progress is being made toward quelling the insurgency to justify a drawdown of the 133,000 troops in Iraq. The U.S. praised the naming of a new Iraqi Cabinet last week, even though it includes some widely mistrusted figures from the previous government. And even as commanders try to turn combat duties over to Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops back from the front lines, parts of Iraq remain as deadly as ever. At least 18 U.S. troops died last week, raising the total killed since the invasion in March 2003 to 2,456."

About That Turning Point

Talking about Iraq, Bush referred yesterday to "a new chapter in our relationship."

On Monday, he hailed the formation of a new Iraqi government as a "turning point."

But as Peter Baker and Bradley Graham noted in yesterday's Washington Post: "Bush has declared turning points and milestones in the war before. He called it 'an important milestone' when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003 and 'a turning point' when sovereignty was turned over to the interim government in June 2004. Elections in January 2005, he said, were both 'a turning point in the history of Iraq' and 'a milestone in the advance of freedom.'

"He called it a 'milestone' in October when Iraqi voters approved a constitution and 'a major milestone' two months later when they elected a parliament -- a moment he also termed 'a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom.' The selection of a prime minister last month was 'an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq' and, a week later, 'a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.' "

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Parsing Bush on Israel

Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strategy of withdrawing from isolated Jewish settlements on the West Bank and unilaterally imposing final borders over Palestinian objections if he cannot negotiate a peace plan with their leaders.

"Welcoming Olmert to the White House for the first time since his election eight weeks ago, Bush reserved judgment on the specifics of any 'realignment' plan but called the concepts 'bold ideas' and expressed satisfaction that the new Israeli leader would first make a serious attempt to craft an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas."

Jim Rutenberg and Steven Erlanger write in the New York Times: "Negotiations took place over the last week or so on how Mr. Bush would characterize Mr. Olmert's proposal for withdrawal, with the Americans eager not to be seen to support what the Palestinians would call an Israeli land grab of occupied territory.

"Having first suggested that Mr. Olmert's ideas were 'interesting,' the negotiators moved to 'constructive' and finally to 'bold,' which pleased the Israelis."

But Caroline Daniel write in the Financial Times that Bush "failed to endorse specific plans for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank."

And Tony Karon writes in Time: "By urging Olmert to try and negotiate a deal with Abbas before moving ahead on a unilateral basis, President Bush postpones a tricky political choice."

Viguerie Redux

I wrote in yesterday's column about Richard A. Viguerie 's opinion piece in The Washington Post decrying Bush's betrayal of the conservative base, and the ensuing e-mail blast from Peter H. Wehner, Karl Rove's deputy for strategy. Wehner's e-mail included six quotes of Viguerie criticizing Ronald Reagan during his presidency.

Now Viguerie has Web-published Wehner's e-mail on the Redstate.com blog.

And just where did the fruits of Wehner's research show up?

Well, one of my readers pointed out this part of Fox News anchor Brit Hume's report on Monday night. Said Hume: "The conservative activist Richard Viguerie, who pioneered direct mail in political fund raising, argues in Sunday's 'Washington Post' that conservatives feel betrayed by President Bush. And he urges them to avoid the polls in November, saying -- quote -- 'nothing will change until there is a change in the GOP leadership' -- end quote.

"Viguerie may no longer hold much influence with the Republican Party, but he has a history -- and he has a history of disillusionment with its leaders. In 1981, Viguerie said Ronald Reagan's Cabinet choices -- quote -- 'gave conservatives the back of the hand' and complained that Reagan allied himself with -- quote -- 'the liberals, the Democrats and the Soviets.' Viguerie later said of Reagan -- quote -- 'the emperor has no clothes on. Just about every conservative I know is now acknowledging it.' "

Policy Experts Need Not Apply

Demetri Sevastopulo, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Caroline Daniel write in the Financial Times: "Robert Zoellick, the US deputy secretary of state, is preparing to leave the Bush administration and has held talks with Wall Street investment banks on job options, according to people close to the administration.

"Mr Zoellick, who also served as trade representative during George W. Bush's first term as president, had hoped to replace John Snow, the Treasury secretary, whose departure has been the subject of constant speculation in Washington. . . .

"One influential Republican with close ties to the White House said Mr Zoellick was leaving 'soon' because he was not getting the Treasury job. The Republican added that the White House wanted someone who would be a better salesman. Mr Zoellick is more widely admired for his policy knowledge."

Separation of Powers

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "After years of quietly acceding to the Bush administration's assertions of executive power, the Republican-led Congress hit a limit this weekend.

"Resentment boiled among senior Republicans for a second day on Tuesday after a team of warrant-bearing agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned up at a closed House office building on Saturday evening, demanded entry to the office of a lawmaker and spent the night going through his files. . . .

"Lawmakers and outside analysts said that while the execution of a warrant on a Congressional office might be surprising -- this appears to be the first time it has happened -- it fit the Bush administration's pattern of asserting broad executive authority, sometimes at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches."

But don't get too excited.

"There is no sign that Congressional Republicans' discontent over this particular matter may spread into a more general challenge to the administration's expansive view of executive authority."

Cheney's Trip

Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times: "His former top aide is under indictment in the CIA leak probe. His poll ratings fall somewhere between bad and atrocious. Still, Dick Cheney can pack in the faithful like few others in the Republican Party.

"And so the vice president came to California on Monday and Tuesday for a series of fundraisers aimed at bucking up three GOP House candidates facing unexpectedly tough fights in this political season of scandal. Democrats were delighted."

Not surprisingly, Cheney didn't acknowledge any of the Republican scandals. "Instead, Cheney stuck to his practiced role as administration cheerleader and stiletto-wielding partisan. He lauded the economy's performance under President Bush and said the country had become a safer and stronger place thanks to Bush's 'sound decisions' over the last five years. . . .

"And he all but accused Democrats of lending aid and comfort to terrorists, saying advocates of 'a sudden withdrawal from Iraq are counseling the very kind of retreat that Osama bin Laden has been predicting and counting on.' "

Claude Allen's Replacement

The White House today announced that Karl Zinsmeister will replace Claude Allen as Bush's chief domestic policy adviser.

Allen resigned suddenly on Feb. 9, citing family reasons. It later came out that Montgomery County police were investigating him for felony theft, and eventually charged him with swindling Target and Hecht's stores out of more than $5,000 in a refund scheme.

Zinsmeister is editor-in-chief of American Enterprise magazine , which he founded 12 years ago, and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute .

Bush's official statement on Zinsmeister: "Karl has broad policy experience and a keen insight into many of the issues that face America's families and entrepreneurs, including race, poverty, welfare, and education. He is an innovative thinker and an accomplished executive. He will lead my domestic policy team with energy and a fresh perspective."

A quick look through some of his work shows that Zinsmeister has been a ferocious critic of negative media coverage of Iraq. "Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq," he wrote last year .

Let the paper trail hunt begin!

Tony and Helen

The biggest excitement out of Tony Snow's newsless press briefing yesterday was a friendly exchange with Hearst columnist Helen Thomas. Not over policy, mind you, but about the apple Thomas was holding.

"MR. SNOW: By the way, that's a nice apple. . . .

"Q Here. (Laughter.)"

Snow reached over to the front row and accepted the apple.

"MR. SNOW: Whoever thought Helen Thomas would kiss up to me. An apple for the teacher. (Laughter.)

"Q Hardly. Hardly. (Laughter.)"

Snow kept the apple on his podium for the rest of the briefing -- then gave it back.

The Tony Snow Show

Snow sits down with CNN's Lou Dobbs tonight for his first prime time interview.

A Lesson From the North

A Canadian reader alerts me to this story by Alexander Panetta of the Canadian Press: "About two dozen journalists walked out on Stephen Harper on Tuesday after he refused to take their questions, the latest chapter in an increasingly unseemly spat between the prime minister and members of the national media.

"The scene of reporters boycotting a prime ministerial news conference was described by Parliament Hill veterans as a first. It resulted in Harper being forced to make his announcement on aid to Darfur to a small handful of reporters, photographers and cameramen outside the House of Commons."

See, it turns out that the prime minister's office insists on choosing who gets to ask questions based on a list it compiles.

" 'We can't accept that the prime minister's office would decide who gets to ask questions,' said Yves Malo, a TVA reporter and president of the press gallery. 'Does that mean that when there's a crisis they'll only call upon journalists they expect softball questions from?' "

By contrast, Bush often goes into press conferences with a list of who he will call on, compiled by the press office from a list of attendees.

In fact, at many "press availabilities," Bush limits questions to two journalists (or, when he's appearing with a foreign leaders, to two journalists from each country). Those are almost always the Associated Press and Reuters correspondents, who can be counted on to ask topical, incremental questions.

It does raise the question of why everyone else even bothers to show up, if they're only going to serve as props.

But every so often, Bush veers a tiny bit off script. Yesterday, for instance, he called on Steve Holland of Reuters and -- surprise -- Raddatz of ABC News.

"I have no idea why he called on me," Raddatz told me this morning. She said she had no forewarning. "But you always prepare."

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