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Another 'Mission Accomplished' Moment?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; 1:20 PM

President Bush's startling assertion yesterday -- that at the end of 33 days of warfare between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, Hezbollah had been defeated -- once again raises questions about his ability to acknowledge reality when things don't turn out the way he intended.

Here, from the transcript of his appearance at the State Department, are his exact words: "Hezbollah started the crisis, and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis. And the reason why is, is that first, there is a new -- there's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon, and that's going to be a Lebanese force with a robust international force to help them seize control of the country, that part of the country."

My first question: Did he really mean to say that?

Bush clearly intended to blame every bit of the terrible carnage on Hezbollah, even though most of it was inflicted by Israel. That point, he made over and over again. And his central point -- also controversial, but not new -- was this: "The conflict in Lebanon is part of a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region."

But the conclusion that Hezbollah had been defeated was a rare, possibly unscripted moment of news-making amid a public appearance heavy on timeworn talking points about the march to freedom.

Furthermore, the White House position on winners and losers as expressed by spokesman Tony Snow just hours earlier was noncommittal.

"Q As you look at this, the month-long war in the Mideast, who won?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not sure -- right now what's won is diplomacy has won."

My second question: If Bush did mean to say it, how will he and his aides defend it?

The defeat of Hezbollah was clearly Bush's goal in stalling the international drive for a humanitarian cease-fire for a month. White House hawks, led by Vice President Cheney, argued that Israel should be given time to score a major military victory in a proxy war against Iran.

But Bush's insistence that Hezbollah lost appears to be wishful thinking.

Hezbollah, by most accounts, suffered some military setbacks but has emerged in a stronger political position than ever before. Israel, by contrast, is generally considered to have lost its aura of military invincibility. American clout in the region has taken a big hit. Lebanon's fragile democracy has suffered a terrible blow. And the biggest losers, of course, were the people of Lebanon.

The Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush asserted yesterday that Hezbollah was defeated in its month-long conflict with Israel, casting the fighting that killed hundreds of Lebanese and Israeli civilians as part of a wider struggle 'between freedom and terrorism.' "

But as Fletcher notes: "The campaign did not go as well as the United States and Israel had expected. Despite a devastating air assault and an intense ground campaign, Israel's military was unable to gain full control of the border area in southern Lebanon against elusive and well-fortified Hezbollah fighters. Also, some observers believe the conflict burnished the popularity of Hezbollah in Lebanon, even as it resulted in hundreds of civilian causalities and massive destruction of infrastructure across Lebanon."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Monday defended his handling of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, declaring that Hezbollah had been the loser in the monthlong fight and warning Syria and Iran against resupplying the Lebanese militia.

"Mr. Bush spoke as he and his advisers sought to portray the cease-fire deal that was established under a United Nations Security Council resolution as an affirmation of American foreign policy.

" 'It took a while to get the resolution done,' Mr. Bush said at the State Department. 'But most objective observers would give the United States credit for helping to lead the effort to get a resolution that addressed the root cause of the problem.' "

But, Rutenberg writes: "Even as they expressed optimism, White House officials said nonetheless that only time would tell whether the cease-fire would hold and whether Hezbollah would ultimately be disarmed. And a senior official, who agreed to speak candidly in return for anonymity, acknowledged the possibility that Hezbollah would build public support in southern Lebanon by flooding the area with rebuilding money, as it has vowed to do."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For weeks, the Bush administration resisted international pressure for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, insisting that only disarming the militant group would cure a 'root cause' of hostility.

"But the truce that took effect Monday left Hezbollah largely intact and outlines no clear path to its disarmament -- a far less dramatic conclusion than many in the administration had hoped for when the fighting began last month.

"That contrast was evident Monday, as President Bush sought to portray the United Nations deal as a success, calling his administration's efforts with Israel and Lebanon part of a 'forward strategy of freedom in the broader Middle East.'

"But when asked how the resolution would weaken Hezbollah and cut it off from its sponsors in Iran and Syria, the president could make no assurances beyond a sense of optimism."

They Should Know

Molly Moore writes in The Washington Post from Jerusalem: "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday acknowledged mistakes in the war against Hezbollah as the Israeli government confronted widespread criticism and political recriminations over the conflict. . . .

"Olmert and other political and military leaders have been criticized in the news media and by political analysts as Israelis attempt to grapple with the perception that their military, the most advanced in the Middle East, has been losing a war to guerrilla fighters. . . .

"Speaking to a domestic audience skeptical of his decision to accept a cease-fire -- one that ended most of the fighting a day after Hezbollah sent one of its heaviest rocket barrages of the war across the border -- Olmert insisted that the military 'has struck a major blow to this murderous organization.'

"He added, however, 'The extent is not known.' "

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times from Beirut that Hezbollah "lighted up the night sky with fireworks Monday and declared itself triumphant over Israel.

"Israel meant to break Hezbollah with its monthlong offensive, but instead the militant organization has been strengthened politically in Lebanon, analysts say. The movement has a fresh boost of popularity, at least for now, and a renewed sense that it is entitled to keep its armed militia outside the control of the Lebanese army, they say.

"Hezbollah's newfound clout has come at a staggering cost to Lebanon's infrastructure, economy and civilians, hundreds of whom died under the rubble of Israeli bombs. The fragile central government, which the U.S. administration strove to present as an example of democracy taking root in the Arab world, also has suffered from the month of fighting."

Steven Erlanger writes in the New York Times: "For the moment, Hezbollah is bathed in a heroic light, not just in Lebanon but throughout the Muslim world. . . .

"Israel's vaunted military invincibility, which has been a big part of its defense strategy, has taken a serious knock."

The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid talks to Hezbollah fighters emerging from the rubble in southern Lebanon. "We're still here," says one.

Et Tu, George?

George F. Will writes in The Washington Post: "Hezbollah has willingly suffered (temporary) military diminution in exchange for enormous political enlargement."

And Will doesn't stop there. He savages Bush on Iraq and argues that law enforcement, not firepower, is the most useful tool against the terrorists who threaten us today -- an argument long advanced by Democratic Sen. John Kerry. In fact, Will takes blistering aim at the kind of straw-man argument so frequently made by the White House.

"Immediately after the London plot was disrupted, a 'senior administration official,' insisting on anonymity for his or her splenetic words, denied the obvious, that Kerry had a point. The official told The Weekly Standard :

" 'The idea that the jihadists would all be peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people if it weren't for U.S. policies strikes me as not a valid idea. [Democrats] do not have the understanding or the commitment to take on these forces. It's like John Kerry. The law enforcement approach doesn't work.'

"This farrago of caricature and non sequitur makes the administration seem eager to repel all but the delusional. But perhaps such rhetoric reflects the intellectual contortions required to sustain the illusion that the war in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism, and that the war, unlike 'the law enforcement approach,' does 'work.' . . .

"It is the language of foreign policy -- and domestic politics -- unrealism."

The Politics of Terror

There were some fresh straw-men yesterday from the president himself, who regularly takes on the made-up arguments of imaginary opponents.

For instance: "Some say that America caused the current instability in the Middle East by pursuing a forward strategy of freedom, yet history shows otherwise," Bush said. He then argued that because America was the object of terror attacks before his policies, they couldn't possibly be responsible.

But of course Bush's real critics don't argue that his agenda is the only cause of terrorism. They do argue that the application of brute force might be making it worse. And they argue that Iraq is a distraction in the fight against terrorists.

In fact, as Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Seeking to counter White House efforts to turn the reported terrorist plot in Britain to Republican advantage, Democrats are using the arrests of the suspects to try to show Americans how the war in Iraq has fueled Islamic radicalism and distracted Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress from shoring up security at home. They say they intend to drive that message home as the nation observes the coming anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks."

All this also reminds me of Lisa Byer 's article in Time a while back explaining that Hezbollah really has nothing to do with the global jihad generally considered the target of Bush's war on terror.

Poll Watch

CBS News reports: "While the war in Iraq remains the number one problem facing the country, terrorism has risen to the number two concern, according to 17 percent of the respondents, up from just 7 percent last month."

But in contrast to a much-ballyhooed Newsweek poll , CBS reports: "The arrests in Britain have not helped President Bush's popularity so far, the CBS poll finds. His job approval remains exactly at 36 percent, where it was a month ago. Even the president's rating for handling terrorism -- his strongest suit -- remains unchanged at 51 percent."

Similarly a new Gallup Poll found Bush's approval rating back down to 37 percent. And while most of the poll's interviews were conducted before news of the terror plot broke, Gallup reports that "interviews conducted after the news became public were only slightly more favorable to Bush than those conducted before."

Gallup also notes that "because Bush's approval ratings have remained fairly stable for more than two months, data from June through August can be combined to allow for in-depth . . . analysis of which groups are more or less likely to support him."

That makes for some interesting, although hardly surprising, figures. For instance, Bush's approval rating is lowest in the East (30 percent) and highest in the South (44 percent); his approval among blacks is 14 percent; and women (34 percent approval) dislike Bush even more than men (42 percent approval.)

The Politics of Terror, Part II

Robert Block and Sarah Lueck write in the Wall Street Journal: "Following the foiled United Kingdom bomb plot, the Bush administration is expected to use the terrorist threat to regain the upper hand in congressional debates and push for government action before the November elections.

"Republicans appear to be circling around a new strategy to advocate stronger counterterrorism laws and expand domestic surveillance, while pushing back against civil libertarians."

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on Monday ordered a side-by-side review of American and British counterterrorism laws as a first step toward determining whether further changes in American law are warranted.

"The plot to blow up airliners bound from Britain to the United States has highlighted differences in legal policies between the two allies, with American officials suggesting that their British counterparts have greater flexibility to prevent attacks."

Blogger Glenn Greenwald writes: "Bush supporters have been attempting to exploit the U.K. terrorist plot to bolster support for an array of extremist and lawless Bush policies -- from warrantless eavesdropping to torture -- even though there is not a shred of evidence that any of those policies played any role whatsoever, either in the U.S. or England, in impeding this plot."

Press Corps Follies

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The White House press corps spent its first day in exile yesterday, banished from the White House compound for the first time since the John Adams presidency while the West Wing briefing room undergoes a renovation.

"As if to deepen the isolation, press secretary Tony Snow, stepping over some plywood and into the new digs on Jackson Place NW for his daily briefing, adopted the Borscht Belt comics' practice of answering questions with questions.

"Does President Bush think the cease-fire in Israel and Lebanon will undermine support for Hezbollah?

" 'Well, we're going to find out, aren't we?' Snow replied. . . .

"Does Bush support the Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut, Alan Schlesinger?

" 'Why do you ask?' Snow counterquestioned. 'Is there something about the candidate that I should know about that would lead to judgments?' "

Milbank concludes: "Snow's performance. . . . fits neatly in a renewed Bush administration effort to keep the media at a safe distance."

Milbank was referring to a story in The Washington Post on Saturday in which Peter Baker wrote that "increasingly in recent months, Bush has left town without a chartered press plane, often to receptions where he talks to donors chipping in hundreds of thousands of dollars with no cameras or tapes to record his words for the public. Barred from such events, most news organizations will not pay to travel with him. And so a White House policy inclined to secrecy has combined with escalating costs for the strapped news media to let Bush fly under the radar in a way his predecessors could not. . . .

"The idea that Bush could travel across the country without a full contingent of reporters, especially in the middle of a war, highlights a major cultural shift in the presidency and the news media."

Press corps critic Eric Boehlert writes on Huffingtonpost.com that "the White House knew full well that not taking the press along whenever the president traveled was unprecedented, it knew journalists would interpret the move as insulting, and it knew the ramifications -- the organized push back -- would be non-existent. And of course, the White House was right."

Bush v. Who?

Adam Cohen writes on the New York Times editorial page: "The ruling that stopped the Florida recount and handed the presidency to George W. Bush is disappearing down the legal world's version of the memory hole, the slot where, in George Orwell's '1984,' government workers disposed of politically inconvenient records. . . .

"There are several problems with trying to airbrush Bush v. Gore from the law. It undermines the courts' legitimacy when they depart sharply from the rules of precedent, and it gives support to those who have said that Bush v. Gore was not a legal decision but a raw assertion of power. . . .

"The Supreme Court's highly partisan resolution of the 2000 election was a severe blow to American democracy, and to the court's own standing. The courts could start to undo the damage by deciding that, rather than disappearing down the memory hole, Bush v. Gore will stand for the principle that elections need to be as fair as we can possibly make them."

Karl Rove Watch

James Moore , co-author with Wayne Slater of the unauthorized Karl Rove bio "Bush's Brain," writes that "Karl is not happy" with the upcoming sequel: "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power."

Writes Moore: "Just as he did with 'Bush's Brain,' Rove managed to acquire an early galley version of the new book. He is disturbed about several matters but appears most deeply troubled about how the narrative proves he has had a complex relationship with convicted felon Jack Abramoff. Information provided to us for the book by an eyewitness and participant in Rove and Abramoff meetings gives lie to Rove and the White House's claims that Abramoff was barely known by the administration. Karl has always known who has money to spend on politics and how to use those people. Our witness, who also told the same story to federal investigators, details meetings between Rove and Abramoff that show the two were using each other for their own political ends.

"After reading the galley, Rove called Slater and denied the meetings ever occurred. He wants us to believe that our source simply made up the events and also lied to federal investigators. Of course, Karl Rove is the same man who claimed he did not speak to reporters about Valerie Plame's identity until her name was published by Robert Novak and he is the same person who told the world Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I do not believe anything he says nor should anyone in our country."

Bush Gets Cross

Randal C. Archibold writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Monday signed a law transferring a 29-foot-tall Latin cross high on a hill in San Diego to the federal government, stepping into a long-running dispute over the separation of church and state."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. EDT. Questions? Comments? Let me have 'em .

Cartoon Humor

Pat Oliphant on going to war with the leadership you have; Mike Luckovich on Cheney's idea of dialogue; Stuart Carlson on how a bill becomes a non-law.

Stranger and Stranger

The report that Bush read Albert Camus' existential classic "The Stranger" during his vacation has pundits mystified on many levels.

John Dickerson writes in Slate that Bush's aides "will not tell us what he made of the story of a remorseless killer of Arabs. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush 'found it an interesting book and a quick read' and talked about it with aides. 'I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism,' said Snow. . . .

"Surely someone is going to think that Bush read the book because he identifies with [the protagonist]. There's got to be another explanation. Does his experience in Iraq push him to read works replete with themes of angst, anxiety, and dread? Was the president trying to gain insight into the thinking of Europeans who are skeptical of his plan for democracy in the Middle East, founded as it is on the idea of a universal rational essence that existentialists reject? Did he just want to read something short for his truncated vacation? This may be the first time that national security demands an official version of literary criticism. We want a book report!"

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