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What's the Motivation?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 4, 2006; 12:52 PM

President Bush often complains about lack of transparency in places like North Korea or, more recently, Cuba -- and contrasts that with the United States.

Here he is in Vienna in June: "We're a transparent democracy. People know exactly what's on our mind. We debate things in the open. We've got a legislative process that's active."

But the reality is that, particularly when it comes to Bush's foreign policy, the minimal press access to the intensely secret inner workings of the White House and the almost complete lack of effective Congressional oversight have left Bush's decision-making process largely a mystery.

Case in point: What is really motivating our policy in the Middle East? And who's really making the decisions? We don't know.

These are particularly important questions as the Bush White House's nearly absolute deference to Israel in the current Lebanese conflict strains other alliances and arguably makes the situation in the Middle East deadlier and more intractable every day.

So we look for clues.

Some Clues

On Wednesday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times about how Bush's strong predisposition to support Israel contrasts with his father's.

"Unlike the first President Bush, who viewed himself as a neutral arbiter in the delicate politics of the Middle East, the current president sees his role through the prism of the fight against terrorism. This President Bush, unlike his father, also has deep roots in the evangelical Christian community, a staunchly pro-Israeli component of his conservative Republican base."

Today, Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers writes: "If there's a starting point for George W. Bush's attachment to Israel, it's the day in late 1998 when he stood on the hilltop where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and, eyes brimming with tears, read aloud from his favorite hymn, 'Amazing Grace.'

" 'He was very emotional. It was a tear-filled experience,' said Matthew Brooks, a prominent Jewish Republican who escorted Bush, then governor of Texas, and three other GOP governors on the Middle East visit. 'He brought Israel back home with him in his heart. I think he came away profoundly moved.'

"Eight years later, Bush is living up to his reputation as the most pro-Israel president ever. As Israel's military action in Lebanon heads into its fourth week, the president is standing firm against growing international pressure for an immediate cease-fire."

Yesterday, I noted former Newsday and Knight Ridder White House correspondent Saul Friedman 's essay on NiemanWatchdog.org: "I believe this to be the first time in modern American history that a president's religion, in this case his Christian fundamentalism, has become a decisive factor in his foreign and domestic policies. It's a factor that has been under-reported, to say the least, and that begs for press attention."

Former Clinton official Sidney Blumenthal sees another, related form of evangelism at work: The neoconservative variety. He writes in Salon: "By secretly providing NSA intelligence to Israel and undermining the hapless Condi Rice, hardliners in the Bush administration are trying to widen the Middle East conflict to Iran and Syria, not stop it. . . .

"The neoconservatives are described as enthusiastic about the possibility of using NSA intelligence as a lever to widen the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas into a four-front war."

The End Times?

And here's another data point: Joel C. Rosenberg, who writes Christian apocalyptic fiction, told me in an interview this week that he was invited to a White House Bible study group last year to talk about current events and biblical prophecy.

Rosenberg said that on February 10, 2005, he came to speak to a "couple dozen" White House aides in the Old Executive Office Building -- and has stayed in touch with several of them since.

Rosenberg wouldn't say exactly what was discussed. "The meeting itself was off the record, as you could imagine," he said. He declined to name the staffer he said invited him or describe the attendees in any way other than to say that the president was not among them. "I can't imagine they'd want to talk about it," he said.

"I can't tell you that the people that I spoke with agree with me, or believe that prophecy can really help you understand what will happen next in the Middle East, but I'm not surprised that they're intrigued."

The White House press office wasn't able to confirm the visit for me, but there have been previous reports about White House Bible study groups inviting Christian authors to come speak.

Rosenberg -- like Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the authors of the phenomenally popular "Left Behind" series -- writes fiction inspired by biblical prophecy about the apocalypse. The consistent theme is that certain current events presage the end times, the Rapture, and the return of Jesus Christ. Rosenberg's particular pitch to journalists is that his books come true.

Here he is in a recent interview with Christian talk-show host Pat Robertson , talking about what he thinks is going to happen next: "Now I have to say, Pat, I believe that Ezekiel 38 and 39 -- the prophecies that we're talking about -- I think this is about the end of radical Islam as we know it. God says He's going to supernaturally judge Iran, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, these other countries. We're talking about fire from heaven, a massive earthquake. It's going to be devastating and tragic. But I believe that afterwards there's going to be a great spiritual awakening. We're seeing more Muslims coming to Christ right now than at any other time in history. But I think that's just the beginning. We've got dark days ahead of us. But I believe there's a light at the end of that tunnel."

Rosenberg says he got a call last year from a White House staffer. "He said 'A lot of people over here are reading your novels, and they're intrigued that these things keep on happening. . . . Your novels keep foreshadowing actual coming events. . . . And so we're curious, how are you doing it? What's the secret? Why don't you come over and walk us through the story behind these novels?' So I did."

Judy Keen first wrote back in October 2002, in USA Today, that "some White House staffers have been meeting weekly at hour-long prayer and Bible study sessions."

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in the New York Times last year that "intelligent design was the subject of a weekly Bible study class several years ago when Charles W. Colson, the founder and chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, spoke to the group."

Ann Banks wrote about apocalyptic fiction in The Washington Post's Book World section in 2004: "The White House won't disclose whether the president has read the 'Left Behind' books. . . . Whatever his personal theology, however, many of the policies of the Bush administration 'strike prophecy believers as perfectly in harmony with God's prophetic plan,' according to Paul S. Boyer, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education."

Somebody finally asked Bush for his views on the subject in March, during a visit to the City Club of Cleveland :

"My question is that author and former Nixon administration official Kevin Phillips, in his latest book, American Theocracy, discusses what has been called radical Christianity and its growing involvement into government and politics. He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?"

Bush stammered and laughed nervously as he responded: "The answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way. . . . The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow."

As Sabrina Eaton wrote at the time for Newhouse News Service: "Bush critics, including [author Kevin] Phillips, contend the president feigned confusion. Had the president embraced the controversial views of his religious backers, the critics say, he would have alienated moderates."

Domino Theory Revisited

And then, of course, there is the Cheney view of the apocalypse.

I wrote in my June 23 column, 'It's Not Just About Iraq' , about how Vice President Cheney, in an unusually revealing glimpse of his worldview, described a sort of new domino theory whereby withdrawal from Iraq would have cataclysmic effects across the globe and put the homeland at risk.

The New York Times editorial board noticed more of the same coming from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday: "You could practically hear the dominoes falling as he told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that it was dangerous for Americans to even talk about how to end the war in Iraq."

Not Talking

Imad Moustapha , the Syrian ambassador to the United States, writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Although the media have reported that no contacts have been made between the two countries over the last three weeks, administration officials have sent vague signals that this might be happening through back channels.

"But no communication whatsoever has taken place. U.S. policy remains to ignore the Syrian government. And it remains fundamentally wrong. . . .

"Currently, the White House doesn't talk to the democratically elected government of Palestine. It does not talk to Hezbollah, which has democratically elected members in the Lebanese parliament and is a member of the Lebanese coalition government. It does not talk to Iran, and it certainly does not talk to Syria.

"Gone are the days when U.S. special envoys to the Middle East would spend hours, if not days, with Syrian officials brainstorming, discussing, negotiating and looking for creative solutions leading to a compromise or settlement. Instead, this administration follows the Bolton Doctrine: There is no need to talk to Syria, because Syria knows what it needs to do. End of the matter."

Quibbling Over Definitions

Here's what Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday: "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular. And that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war."

Not surprisingly, this came up at yesterday's White House gaggle with spokesman Tony Snow. Immediately after quibbling with Abizaid's characterization, Snow came out against quibbling. But in neither case did he actually address the central question.

"Q Does the President agree with General Abizaid's assessment today, that Iraq is in danger of civil war because of the recent sectarian violence?

"MR. SNOW: I think what he said -- I think he specifically avoided 'civil war.' I think he said he was worried about sectarian violence, and also reiterated something we've talked about on a number of occasions, which is the importance of security [in] Baghdad -- which is why, pursuant to General Casey's recommendations, you're going to see a little more of a troop presence in Baghdad, to try to suppress some of those. Obviously, sectarian violence is a concern.

"Q I think he did say that he thought civil war was a possibility.

" MR. SNOW: Okay. Well, I don't think the President is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations."

Incidentally, there are objective characteristics that all modern civil wars share. Harvard political science professor Monica Toft lists six commonly accepted criteria. And guess what? Iraq meets all of them.

Thomas L. Friedman writes in his New York Times opinion column today (subscription required): "It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war. . . .

"[T]he administration now has to admit what anyone -- including myself -- who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can't throw more good lives after good lives."


Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A White House-endorsed plan to formally legalize the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program ran into more political problems yesterday in the Senate, as Democrats successfully maneuvered to block a committee vote on the proposal.

"In addition, three of the committee's leading Democrats announced that they would block the confirmation of a senior Justice Department official in protest of a recent move by President Bush. The president effectively stopped a probe into the NSA program by denying security clearances to Justice Department investigators. . . .

"[Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)] said that he believes much of the Democratic opposition to his proposal stems in part from Bush's faltering popularity. 'There's a real opposition to the president today which you see everywhere, and it manifests itself here. . . . There's an attitude that if the president's in favor of it, there must be something wrong with it.' "

What--Bush blocked a probe of the NSA program? And you don't recall seeing that on the front pages anywhere? See my July 19 column, Cover-Up Exposed?

The Run-Up to War

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee lashed out at the White House on Thursday, criticizing attempts by the Bush administration to keep secret parts of a report on the role Iraqi exiles played in building the case for war against Iraq.

"The chairman, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, said his committee had completed the first two parts of its investigation of prewar intelligence. But he chastised the White House for efforts to classify most of the part that examines intelligence provided to the Bush administration by the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group."

Mazzetti calls this "a sign that more than three years into the conflict, emotions remain raw over the role that the Iraqi group and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi -- who was close to Pentagon officials and Vice President Dick Cheney -- played in the administration's decision to wage war against Saddam Hussein."

Matt Stearns writes for McClatchy Newspapers that even with two parts of the report complete: "That leaves unfinished three reports in the so-called Phase II investigation, including the potentially explosive one that compares the pre-war public statements of government officials to the intelligence they had at the time. Opponents of the war have said the administration routinely exaggerated the menace presented by Iraq."

Signing Statement Watch

George Pyle , an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, complains in the Tribune's editorial blog that I did not include his paper's Sunday editorial in my Wednesday column about editorials from all over the country expressing outrage about Bush's signing statements.

The Tribune wrote: "Congress and the courts must rein in this presidential power grab. To do otherwise would be to court tyranny."

And yes, in 2004, the Tribune endorsed Bush.

Cuba Watch

Bush released this statement on Cuba yesterday: "I urge the Cuban people to work for democratic change on the island. We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

Anthony Boadle writes for Reuters: "Cuba bristled at U.S. President George W. Bush's call for democracy for the Communist island amid growing uncertainty after ailing President Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to brother Raul."

And Patrick Lescot writes for AFP: "Cuba is on heightened alert, wary of a possible invasion by US-based Cuban exiles."

Vacation Watch

Bush settled down last night at his Crawford home for a 10-day summer vacation.

Michael Fletcher writes in the Washington Post about last year's disastrous vacation: "The image of Bush on an extended stay away from the White House while Katrina flattened much of the Gulf Coast and left New Orleans engulfed by floodwater proved to be a defining moment of his presidency."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The White House was taking pains to make sure it didn't appear that the president was tuned out from the world's problems, even temporarily. Bush's national security adviser and secretary of state were to arrive at the ranch Saturday to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today, shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

When Bubbles Collide

Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon slams Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban for turning down Bush's dinner invitation Sunday night.

"[I]t's silly to the point of being preposterous, and probably just another way for the most controlling of football coaches to control something and somebody else. . . .

"So, it's as simple as this: Saban would rather lock himself in a cave and watch film, tinker with schemes, pore over depth charts and sit around with his assistants plotting the exciting intricacies of the next day's practices than have dinner with the president for two hours."

Briefing Room Follies

Where I saw insults at Bush's last visit to the briefing room before a nine-month renovation on Wednesday, Time's Mike Allen saw good humor.

Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: "Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents Association and a senior C-SPAN producer, said at least three organizations have expressed an interest in the press briefing room items, which are being removed today and put in storage by the U.S. General Services Administration."

David S. Hirschman writes in Editor and Publisher with some expert advice for Karl Rove, on the assumption that he is "scheming with GOP architects and interior designers about ways to use the new room's design to further neuter the Washington reporters. . . .

" 'If you want to make people uncomfortable, you should have sharp edges of things coming at them, like pointed walls or beams overhead,' says Michele Sayres, who runs a design and feng shui consulting firm in New York. . . .

"Sayres also said that color has an effect, and that the administration might consider changing the blue curtain in the backdrop to a more 'powerful and energetic' red, or even to an American flag. She also suggested the White House could make the podium larger and higher, so that the person fielding questions seems to be towering above the reporters in the gallery. 'That says, 'I'm important and you're nothing.' "

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