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The Missing Links

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 22, 2006; 3:00 PM

It's ironic that at the same press conference where President Bush flatly acknowledged that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, he was putting forth -- largely unchallenged -- a new and equally specious linkage between Iraq and terror.

Bush's new assertion -- and it is apparently going to be his central message in the run-up to the November elections -- is that pulling out of Iraq would embolden terrorists and lead them to strike here again.

It's a politically potent message, that's for sure. But the more you know about what's really going on in Iraq, the less sense it makes.

Most of the violence in Iraq today has little if anything to do with al-Qaeda or the global jihad; it involves rival Muslim sects killing each other and, all too often, American troops caught in the middle.

National security experts overwhelmingly see Iraq not as a killing zone for terrorists, but as an incubator -- both because the occupation arouses anti-American sentiment among many Muslims and because the current lawless violence makes for a perfect training ground in terror tactics.

Indeed, there's a powerful argument to be made that leaving Iraq would make the American public safer. It certainly would put an end to the horrible daily toll on Americans in uniform.

There were some tough questions at yesterday's press conference, and there was some skepticism and context in the coverage. But by and large, it was Mission Accomplished for the president. He got his message out.

American Psyche-Out

The part of the press conference that got the most media pick-up was Bush's discussion of his personal emotions, and his assertion that the war has strained the American psyche.

Asked if he personally was frustrated about the war, Bush replied: "Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times. These are challenging times, and they're difficult times, and they're straining the psyche of our country. I understand that. You know, nobody likes to see innocent people die. Nobody wants to turn on their TV on a daily basis and see havoc wrought by terrorists."

It was a curious and captivating answer, and the attention it got is understandable. But as far as I can tell not one journalist pointed out the striking falsehood at its heart: Americans are most certainly not seeing havoc wrought by terrorist on a daily basis on their televisions.

The violence in Iraq is almost entirely taking place off camera. When was the last time you saw a dead or grievously wounded American soldier on TV? And if Americans were actually seeing what's going on now, it would be mostly havoc wrought by feuding Muslims -- not terrorists.

That part of Bush's answer makes me wonder how much else of what he said isn't true either.

The Coverage

Here's the transcript of the press conference. I had some initial thoughts about it in yesterday's column .

Michael A. Fletcher and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "Resolute and at times exasperated during a 56-minute news conference, Bush cast the war in Iraq as part of a broader struggle against Islamic extremism that holds serious implications for the security of the United States. Bush's defense of his Iraq policy touched on familiar themes, but his passionate and lengthy plea to keep fighting was striking in light of the plummeting support for the war among the public and -- more worrisome for the White House -- among Republicans."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush seized on Monday on Democratic calls for withdrawal from Iraq to make an election-year case that his political rivals did not properly understand the threats to the nation and would create a more dangerous world.

"It was the most direct attack on Democrats that Mr. Bush has made from a White House lectern this election year, and it effectively signaled the beginning of a more outright political season for him and his aides as they work to help Republicans maintain control of Congress."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "by summoning the White House press corps during a slow week in August for a nearly hourlong give-and-take on national security, Bush appeared intent on redefining the debate that threatens to cost his party control of Congress.

"As Democrats try to frame the coming election as a referendum on the president's decision to stay the course in Iraq, Bush sought to portray it as a choice between confronting terrorists at home or abroad. . . .

"Democrats were quick to accuse Bush of being out of touch.

" 'The American psyche isn't the problem. The problem is this administration's disastrous Iraq policy,' said Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who lost to Bush in the 2004 election.

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "White House aides said yesterday's press conference was the beginning of a more aggressive plan to help Republicans convince the public that, despite setbacks in Iraq, Democrats don't understand that success in Iraq is critical to the broader war against terrorism. . . .

" 'The Republicans are planning to make national security their issue, as they have before, and they are very brazen in how they do it,' said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Boston University who is writing a book on national security and politics. 'Republicans want to link Iraq to homeland security -- that is the core issue,' he said. 'Democrats want to separate the issues and argue Iraq is not a part of the homeland security strategy.' "

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The president is supporting a strategy already outlined by the GOP and played out on the campaign trail by Vice President Dick Cheney and others based on the view that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would leave Americans more vulnerable to terrorism at home."

In the Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten had a very interesting look at the press conference and Bush's use of the media: "Democrats are eager to score points with voters this fall by talking about President Bush's handling of the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and gas prices. On Monday, Bush showed that he too is eager to discuss those knotty topics -- but he framed them as winners for Republican candidates in November, even if polls show voters disagreeing now. . . .

"Bush underscored GOP strategists' hopes that even a president plagued by low approval ratings can use his bully pulpit to fill the airwaves with a message designed to help the party's candidates. . . .

"Although he has often been accused of avoiding critical questioners, Bush's appearance suggested he was settling into a pattern of regular, wide-ranging interactions with reporters in which he can appear confident and presidential."

Paul Koring writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "With a rising Democrat chorus accusing Mr. Bush of waging a failed war on false pretenses and some calling to bring U.S. troops home -- after more than three years and 20,000 casualties amid worsening sectarian strife -- Mr. Bush made it clear that his Republican Party is girding for electoral battle this fall across the United States, and that an election fought over Iraq and the wider war on terrorism was fine with him. . . .

"Mr. Bush seems to be trying to push Democrats -- both those hoping to win key seats in Congress this fall and those eyeing a run for the presidency in 2008 -- into the political 'anti-war' minefield. 'I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me,' he said, raising the very issue. In fact, questioning the patriotism of political opponents who crossed the Bush administration over the war in Iraq, both before it was launched and ever since, has been routine.

"In Mr. Bush's world, and on Republican campaign platforms this fall, those who challenge the wisdom of the war in Iraq or question the need for sweeping presidential powers to monitor international telephone calls or sift through billions of financial transactions are going soft on the threat posed by international terrorism."

On Television

Here's Kelly O'Donnell on the NBC Nightly News: "What was so noticeable was the forcefulness of the president, his animated defense that American troops will stay in Iraq, despite public anxiety over the war. Pulling them out too soon, he said, in his words, would be a disaster," she reported. "He was emphatic."

Tim Russert followed up with some astute political analysis: "Sixty percent of Americans are against the war, but he faces a critical midterm election 12 weeks from tomorrow. . . . That's why 15 times you heard him say today, Brian, by my count, until the job is done, or until the mission is done, we're not going to leave Iraq. And then basically saying: The terrorists are watching this election and that what we have to do is not leave an Iraq behind that would be similar to Afghanistan because if you do that, it could bring a terrorist back over here or another September 11.

"That in fact is the formulation the president for the next 12 weeks is going to lay out to the country. The Democrats are going to respond saying, 'Wait a minute, Mr. President, you got us into Iraq and that was a distraction from finishing the job in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden and securing our ports and improving our airport security back here at home.' This is the entire election and the president tried to lay it out today."

On ABC's World News Tonight, Martha Raddatz told Charlie Gibson: "The President acknowledged that he is sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress in Iraq and worries about civil war. But he was adamant that the U.S. will stay the course."

On the much less viewed World News Webcast , Raddatz was a bit more critical: "There were moments of candor today, Charlie. In an hour where there weren't always moments of candor, there were a few of them. He said sometimes he does get frustrated with the situation in Iraq. But again and again, he goes over and over and says we can't take the troops out of there. He avoids specific questions about what might be going wrong, what is going well, but he is sticking to his course. He is sticking to his rhetoric."

On the CBS Evening News, Bill Plante reported: "One way or another, the president made the point more than a dozen times today: That the troops won't be pulling out of Iraq on his watch."

He played a clip from the press conference: "The American people have got to understand the consequence of leaving Iraq before the job is done."

Then he concluded: "And that's the argument that the White House will be making in this election year. But there are already signs that it isn't selling very well and that's making a lot of Republicans very nervous."

Anchor Bob Schieffer asked: "Well, what is the White House's attitude about that, Bill?"

Plante replied: "Well, you know, Bob, the president believes in this. And his advisers continue to believe that they can make a compelling argument by saying he's protecting the country from terrorist attack."

A General Malaise

Noting Bush's mention of strained psyches, Thomas M. DeFrank raises a potentially analogous moment: "In a July 1979 speech to the nation during a severe energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter warned of 'a crisis of the American spirit . . . a crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart, soul and spirit of America.'

"The address became widely known as the 'malaise speech,' and its pessimistic tone was credited by political analysts as a factor in Carter's reelection defeat by Ronald Reagan a year later."

Rewriting History

Forcefully asked what Iraq had to do with 9/11, Bush somewhat astonishingly responded: "Nothing, except for it's part of -- and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq."

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Nobody's ever 'suggested' it? Another stunner. Bush himself has 'suggested' it on many occasions. For instance, during a press conference on the eve of the war, while talking about Saddam, he reportedly invoked Sept. 11 eight times."

The liberal Think Progress blog documents some of those previous suggestions, and points to this excellent pre-war (March 2003) story by Linda Feldmann in the Christian Science Monitor: "In his prime-time press conference last week, which focused almost solely on Iraq, President Bush mentioned Sept. 11 eight times. He referred to Saddam Hussein many more times than that, often in the same breath with Sept. 11.

"Bush never pinned blame for the attacks directly on the Iraqi president. Still, the overall effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the American public: that the Iraqi dictator did play a direct role in the attacks. A New York Times/CBS poll this week shows that 45 percent of Americans believe Mr. Hussein was 'personally involved' in Sept. 11, about the same figure as a month ago."

And amazingly enough, according to a Harris Poll just last month, 64 percent of Americans now say they believe Saddam Hussein had strong links to al-Qaeda.

The Day in Pictures

Wire photos captured many a scene of Bush looking exasperated.

Over on Huffington Post , readers are trying to decipher Bush's notes, captured by a photographer shooting over his shoulder.

Reader Joh5n thought he could make out, on the left page, a series of Iraq-related notes: "history not written . . . empower to shape . . . what I have found from . . . vast majority . . . don't want to split. . . . Forces are united." On the right page, Katrina-related statistics: "lfi list: 118 billion . . . 16.7 b Housing . . . 6.8 b Levee's . . . " and the world "help".

In between the two pages, of course, is a seating chart. Anyone out there interested in trying to correlate it with this (which came from here) and this and this (which I just updated)?

Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "President Bush emphasized no fewer than 10 times in his news conference Monday that U.S. forces would not leave Iraq 'before the job is done.' It's a clever piece of rhetoric, appealing to Americans' sense of duty as well as their pride. Just one question: What was that job again?"

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "when you try to impose your simplistic, black-and-white template on a kaleidoscopic world, and you end up setting the Middle East on fire, either you're surprised or you're not paying attention."

John Aravosis writes in Americablog: "It doesn't matter how bad things get, how many Americans die, how much money it costs. It doesn't even matter how hopeless the situation becomes. He will NOT remove US troops from that country until 'we win.'

"But what if we can't win? . . .

"The man lost New Orleans, he can lose Iraq."

Fact Checking

I'm not one to ever criticize a newspaper for fact-checking. But this surely was not the statement that needed it the most.

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "'I may be the only person, the only presidential candidate who never carried the state in which he was born,' President Bush said on Monday.

"Uh, no, Mr. President. There have been quite a few, actually."

Of Seers and Suckers

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The president doesn't like my suit."

Poll Watch

Two new polls have Bush's approval rating up to 42 percent, a move in the right direction for a president facing an otherwise overwhelmingly gloomy picture of public opinion.

Susan Page and David Jackson write in USA Today: "The arrest of terror suspects in London has helped buoy President Bush to his highest approval rating in six months. . . .

"Terrorism is the only area in which Bush has a positive standing and the only one that significantly changed. His rating is below 40% on six other issues."

CNN reports on its poll: "Fewer than half of respondents (44 percent) said they believe Bush is honest and trustworthy, with 54 percent saying they do not believe he is. . . .

"In addition, a mere 35 percent favor the war in Iraq, while 61 percent oppose it -- the highest amount of opposition to the war in any CNN poll since the conflict began in 2003.

Idiot Watch

Conservative MSNBC talk-show host Joe Scarborough last night revisited his controversial segment last week entitled: " IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT' ?"

"Struck a nerve is an understatement!" Scarborough exclaimed, before replaying his collection of Bushisms.

"Look, I know the president, and he's no idiot," Scarborough said. "But history has also proved he doesn't like listening to dissent. He lacks intellectual curiosity, and he inspires fear among allies every time he gets behind a microphone."

In his blog , Scarborough suggested that White House staffers keep Bush away from the press.

"These days the President seems distracted, disjointed and dumbed-down in press conferences. His jokes fall flat and are often inappropriate. . . .

"Has anyone told him that making jokes about pig roasts after being asked about the bombing of the Beirut airport is not how a Commander in Chief acts in front of the international press corps?"

Over at Huffington Post, Kathleen Reardon writes: "This is trial balloon season for the Republican strategists. . . .

"Think about it. If selected, visible, staunch Bush supporters begin talking about how intellectually wanting the President is . . . there won't be an anti-Bush platform for the Democrats."

Doesn't Read True

My readers don't believe for a moment that, as Kenneth T. Walsh so credulously reported in U.S. News, Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove and so far has read 60 books this year, to Rove's 50.

Michael Herman e-mails from Walla-Walla, Wash.: "Hi Dan. I did a little research on the books from Bush's reading list. Of the twelve books listed, I come up with a total page count of 5,356 pages, including 1,585 pages not available until at least 4/2006 of this year. That is an average page count of 450 pages per book. Multiply by his 60 books so far this year for a total page count of 27,000. 27,000 pages means the President would have to average a little over 115 pages per day. Reading a quick pace of a little over a minute per page, that is two hours a day of reading, and let's be honest, longer if you want to retain information in these types of books. And this from a man who prides himself in not reading the paper. I don't buy it."

Craig Dukes e-mails: "60 books so far this year, except at least one of those books, 'Salt A World History', was on his last summer reading list. I know it has something around 500 pages, but is he still plowing through it?"

J. Harley McIlrath e-mails from Grinnell, Iowa: "Only a person who does not read books would think that a book reading contest will lend gravitas to his persona. Would entering a hot dog eating contest give him a better understanding of the culinary arts?"

Plame Watch

Matt Apuzzo and John Solomon write for the Associated Press: "The No. 2 State Department official met with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in mid-June 2003, the same time the reporter has testified that an administration official talked to him about CIA employee Valerie Plame.

"Official State Department calendars, provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, show then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage held a one-hour meeting marked 'private appointment' with Woodward on June 13, 2003."

Fart Watch

Just when you think nothing will ever surprise you anymore. . . .

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: "He loves to cuss, gets a jolly when a mountain biker wipes out trying to keep up with him, and now we're learning that the first frat boy loves flatulence jokes. A top insider let that slip when explaining why President Bush is paranoid around women, always worried about his behavior. But he's still a funny, earthy guy who, for example, can't get enough of fart jokes. He's also known to cut a few for laughs, especially when greeting new young aides, but forget about getting people to gas about that."

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