Looking Ahead

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 15, 2006; 12:42 PM

Just how badly weakened President Bush is on the international stage should come into focus in the next eight days as he tours Asia.

Bloodied by the Democratic victory last week, Bush goes into the trip with an even fresher wound: Congress's unexpected refusal to approve a trade bill he intended as a good-will gesture to his hosts in Vietnam.

And although diplomatic gatherings are always exceedingly polite, the subtext and the body language as Bush deals with other world leaders should be telling.

The damage to Bush's international stature is only one thing to watch for in the coming days and weeks, as we try to get a better sense of what the last two years of the Bush presidency will be like.

This column is going on an extended Thanksgiving break as of tomorrow. It will return on Monday, November 27.

Here are just some of the questions you might well ask as you fend for yourself on the various news sites and blogs that keep an eye on the White House:

* Is Bush's claim that he wants to work in a bipartisan manner a genuine change -- or a ruse? Watch what he says -- but even more so, what he does.

* What will life be like with oversight? We've just gone through not only six years of congressional obedience, but six years of ignorance. Congressional oversight has historically put enormous amounts of important, otherwise secret information into the public domain -- about the government and the private sector alike. If you think bloggers have been a potent political force thus far -- just wait until oversight gives them better material to work with.

* Is Bush's credibility problem going to become a bigger issue? Will an emboldened Washington press corps more aggressively challenge the accuracy of White House statements? Now that the Washington echo chamber is at least partly owned by the opposition, will the credibility issue start to resonate?

* And what will Bush do about the elephant in the room? I mean, of course, Iraq. Is he ready to accept the brutal reality that things there are getting worse, rather than better? Is he ready to abandon the mythology that the major strategic decisions about Iraq are being made by the military? Is he ready to change not just tactics, but his strategy and his goals?

About Iraq

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who was elected Senate majority leader yesterday, said last night that President Bush still has not grasped the urgent need to change course in Iraq. Reid vowed to press quickly for phased troop withdrawals, a more international approach to Iraq's problems and a rebuilding of the depleted U.S. military. . . .

"Voter anger over the war swept his party to power with the unlikely defeat of six Republican senators, he said. Democrats must respond to that anger, he added, with hearings to keep the heat on the Bush administration, and with calls for a regional Middle Eastern conference and a revitalized Iraqi reconstruction effort."

Said Reid: "My displeasure with the president, he doesn't understand the urgency of this. It's all victory for him, but I don't know what that means anymore in Iraq. I do know what we are doing now doesn't work."

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush formally launched a sweeping internal review of Iraq policy yesterday, pulling together studies underway by various government agencies, according to U.S. officials. . . .

"The White House review could give the administration alternatives so that it feels less pressure to fully implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, foreign policy experts said.

"Bush made the decision after his national security team held secret meetings Friday and Saturday to discuss the disparate efforts inside the administration and the implications for Iraq after the Republican defeat in the midterm elections. Further informal meetings were held Monday before yesterday's decision, officials said."

It was on Monday, of course, that Bush and Cheney actually met face-to-face with the members of the bipartisan study group, led by James Baker.

So, after lots of warm words for the group, is this the first sign that Bush doesn't intend to follow their suggestions? Or is this a sign that members of his brain trust are actually starting to rethink things?

Wright writes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "has been doing 'a lot of thinking' about the issue over the past two months, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. . . .

"Rice's trip to Baghdad last month was a turning point in her thinking, officials said."

That would appear to suggest that her thinking has changed. But would that put her ahead, behind, or entirely out of sync with her boss?

Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post about Bush's public comments after his meeting with the group:

"Bush offered little indication that he is planning to adjust his approach, telling reporters gathered in the Oval Office that 'the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground' in Iraq."

Abramowitz and Ricks describe a "rapidly evolving political landscape for the White House, which finds itself trying to balance the desire for change voiced by the electorate last Tuesday with the president's frequently stated conviction that the United States must remain engaged militarily in Iraq until the government there can maintain its own security.

"The White House will also have to deal with a Congress controlled by Democrats, a difference highlighted by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) as he outlined the new agenda of the Armed Services Committee, which for the past four years has been largely deferential to Bush's conduct of the war. Levin said he plans to step up the committee's activities, reviewing the state of military readiness and conducting more oversight of such issues as the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries suspected of practicing torture."

No Rift?

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "The White House has rushed to deny claims of a diplomatic rift with its closest European ally Britain, after Prime Minister Tony Blair mooted a 'partnership' with U.S. foes Iran and Syria.

"As the impact of a major foreign policy address by the British leader started to sink in, the White House bristled Tuesday at suggestions Blair had struck out from Washington, issuing a fact sheet to debunk the claim. . . .

"The White House fact sheet unflatteringly compared coverage of Blair's speech by U.S.-based reporters on te New York Times and The Washington Post and their colleagues in London.

"London-based reporters for the two U.S. newspapers wrote that Blair took pains to ensure his remarks were not seen as a dramatic new policy shift.

"But the fact sheet noted colleagues on the same papers in the United States had wrongly seen Blair's speech as a policy shift on Iran and Syria, stating: 'Prime Minister Blair's Policy Is Not New and Is Similar to President Bush's Policy.'"

So does that mean Bush shares Blair's support for engagement with Syria and Iran -- and Blair's position that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "the core" of the broader effort for peace? Well, no.

Sylvie Lanteaume writes for AFP today: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ruled out talks with Iran or Syria unless they mend their ways, despite mounting global pressure for a new strategy to stabilise Iraq.

"Speaking to reporters Wednesday as she flew to Vietnam for an Asia-Pacific regional conference, Rice also rejected the proposition by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that a lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fuelling violence in Iraq.

"'I think we have to be careful not to say, well, if there is a Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, that will help in Iraq,' Rice said, shortly before her plane touched down for a stopover at a U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, en route to Hanoi.

"'Iraq is involved in its own struggle,' she said."

Rhetoric Watch

In the White House briefing room, it's hard to see any sign of a serious consideration of change in Iraq. Either press secretary Tony Snow hasn't gotten the memo. Or there is no memo. Or there never will be a memo.

From Monday's briefing:

"Q: Tony, when you talk about different strategies in Iraq, and listening to the Iraq Study Group, would you change your goal? And I know the goal is to win, or victory -- but can you see yourself changing the definition of what victory might be?

"MR. SNOW: No."

Snow's MO

Scott Rosenberg interviews Hearst columnist Helen Thomas for Express, The Washington Post Company's free daily newspaper:

"EXPRESS: How is your relationship with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow?

"THOMAS: We're talking to each other. His whole technique when you ask a tough question is a best defense is offense. So he starts attacking you personally. I take it in stride -- what the hell? The question is asked. He should be asked the questions. But he plays 'the best defense is an offense,' so he attacks the reporter, which I think is bad form. Just say, 'No comment' if you don't want to play around with it, but don't start attacking the reporter. We have a right to ask these questions and we would be defaulting on our duty if we didn't.

"I think he's enjoying it, but it's getting tougher because he's got to defend the indefensible."

Too Little, Too Late?

Michael Hirsh writes in his Newsweek column that it's simply too late for anyone to put Iraq back together.

"It is the story of this administration, of course: the inability to adjust prefixed ideas to reality, embodied in an incurious president who is unable to get on top of a problem because he doesn't follow up on details."

And Hirsch makes this point about Rumsfeld's resignation: "It's easy enough to blame the departing Donald Rumsfeld for this, as he leaves town like the biblical goat cast into the wilderness. But let's not forget that Rummy, for all his sins, wanted to pull out of Iraq quickly after the spring 2003 invasion and leave things to the Iraqi Army. It was Bush, with his vague ideas of a deeper transformation communicated just as vaguely to civil administrator Paul L. (Jerry) Bremer III, who opted to dismantle the Iraqi Army and Baath Party. That committed Bush to a long occupation, but he never bothered to check whether his Defense secretary was following through with the troops and resources that were needed (Rummy wasn't). If Barbara Tuchman were alive, she'd be adding another chapter to 'The March of Folly.'"

Detainee Policy

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Critics of U.S. detention policies warned yesterday that a brief legal document filed by the Justice Department this week raises the possibility that any of the millions of immigrants living in the United States could be subject to indefinite detention if they are accused of ties to terrorist groups.

"In a six-page motion filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Justice Department lawyers argue that an anti-terrorism law approved by Congress last month allows the government to detain any foreign national declared to be an enemy combatant, even if he is arrested and imprisoned inside the United States."

Eggen wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post: "After years of denials, the CIA has formally acknowledged the existence of two classified documents governing aggressive interrogation and detention policies for terrorism suspects, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"But CIA lawyers say the documents -- memos from President Bush and the Justice Department -- are still so sensitive that no portion can be released to the public. . . .

"The ACLU describes the first as a 'directive' signed by Bush governing CIA interrogation methods or allowing the agency to set up detention facilities outside the United States. . . .

"The second document is an August 2002 legal memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to the CIA general counsel. The ACLU describes it as 'specifying interrogation methods that the CIA may use against top al-Qaeda members.'"

A New York Times editorial today states: "Americans have a right to know what standards their president has been applying to the treatment of prisoners. The nation's image is at stake, as well as the safety of every man and woman who is fighting Mr. Bush's so-called war on terror."

Poll Watch

Jill Lawrence writes for USA Today: "President Bush's job approval ratings have slumped in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, with the president's rating hovering near the lowest of his tenure.

"In the poll, taken Thursday through Sunday, 33% of Americans approve of Bush's job performance and 62% disapprove. That compares to 38% approval and 56% disapproval in a USA TODAY/Gallup poll taken Nov. 2-5, just before the Nov. 7 midterm elections."

A CBS News poll gives Bush a 34% approval rating, exactly what it was before the election.

Stature Problem Abroad?

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Humbled by elections at home, President Bush is heading into talks with leaders in Asia and Europe who will be watching for signs of weakness, uncertainty or retrenchment.

"Bush's challenge is to demonstrate that U.S. leadership as the world's last superpower is undiminished on the world stage. . . .

"Some world leaders, particularly those who resented Bush's cowboy swagger and saw his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as a dangerous act of unilateralism, might be gloating privately at the president's political misfortunes."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Perceptions about Bush's clout could come into play as he tries to bolster a somewhat shaky international coalition that's working to stifle North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Russia, China, South Korea and Japan share Bush's desire to keep nuclear weapons out of the Korean peninsula, but they don't always agree with his tactics."

Bob Deans writes for Cox News Service: "Bush's weaker position could embolden other world leaders, particularly those who have opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and could hinder his bid to find support for efforts to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions."

Fresh Blood

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Prospects for Congressional approval of several free trade bills backed by the administration were thrown into doubt Tuesday when House Republican leaders abruptly withdrew the one aimed at Vietnam on the eve of President Bush's trip there this week.

"The failure of the Vietnam bill was a deep disappointment and embarrassment for the White House, which had hoped that the president would hail its passage as a milestone in improvement in relations with a country where tens of thousands of Americans died more than 30 years ago."

They Loved Clinton

Paul Alexander writes for the Associated Press: "When Bill Clinton came to Vietnam six years ago, he drew huge, jubilant crowds at every stop on the first visit by an American president since the end of the war in 1975.

"President Bush's reception at the Nov. 18-19 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi is likely to be considerably cooler."

Iraq as Vietnam

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Four decades after America became bogged down in an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, President George W. Bush finds himself increasingly haunted by an analogy the White House dreads -- Iraq as another Vietnam.

"The administration insists there are few parallels. Today's war in Iraq is fought by an all-volunteer military, the U.S. body count is much lower and there is nothing like the anti-war protests that caught fire in the 1960s.

"However, when Bush flies to Hanoi for the first time on Friday to attend an Asia-Pacific summit hosted by former foes, it will be a reminder of striking similarities between the conflicts."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, said a key difference is that the stakes are higher with Iraq."

India Nuke Watch

Here's something else Bush had hoped to deliver on his trip, but may not be able to.

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "The pending nuclear deal with India would reverse years of U.S. policies aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. U.S. law forbids selling civilian nuclear technology to countries such as India that have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Arms-control experts, concerned that the deal would have major ramifications for U.S. efforts to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, said yesterday that the White House plan would allow India to rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal. . . .

"In July, the House voted in favor of a similar bill. Lawmakers did not know at the time that the Bush administration was planning to sanction two Indian firms for selling missile parts to Iran -- a fact that seemed to undercut administration assurances that India's nonproliferation record is excellent.

"Democrats later accused the administration of deception, and Senate and House staff members said yesterday that they are concerned that the White House is still pushing for congressional approval without providing needed information."

For background, see my March 3 column, Did Bush Blink?

The Israeli View

Reuters reports: "President Bush will not hesitate to use military force against Iran if other options fail, Israel's outgoing ambassador to the United States said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"'I know President Bush well . . . From his standpoint, a nuclear Iran, ayatollahs with a bomb, is unacceptable,' Danny Ayalon told Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper.

"'I have been privileged to know him well, he will not hesitate to go all the way if there is no choice.'"

Of course, it's possible the Israelis are not the most objective judges of Bush's Middle East policies.

Consider, for instance, as blogger Holden points out, what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during an Oval Office photo op on Monday: "We in the Middle East have followed the American policy in Iraq for a long time, and we are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East."

New Leadership

Jim VandeHei writes for washingtonpost.com yesterday: "Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a close White House ally and a Cuban American, will take the job of general chairman of the Republican National Committee, President Bush announced to reporters at the White House this afternoon."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks

But Peter Wallsten and Nicole Gaouette write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's decision to back Sen. Mel Martinez to help lead the Republican Party, a move intended to appeal to disaffected Latino voters, drew sharp criticism Tuesday from some of the party's core conservatives, who disdain the Florida lawmaker's support for liberalized immigration laws."

Ralph Z. Hallow writes for the Washington Times: "Some RNC members greeted the news as another example of White House cronyism, reminiscent of President Bush's attempt to name his personal friend and general counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a nomination withdrawn in response to outrage from the party's conservative supporters."

Heckuva Job Watch

From that same announcement: "I do want to say that Ken Mehlman did a whale of a job as the chairman of the Republican Party. "

Momentum Killer

Chuck Todd writes for the National Journal: "There's plenty of evidence to suggest that President Bush may have been the deciding factor that killed the GOP's momentum in some key Senate races over the last week. One Republican consultant is convinced that Bush's last-minute visit to Missouri on behalf of ousted GOP Sen. Jim Talent did the incumbent in. According to the network exit polls, Democrat Claire McCaskill crushed Talent among those late-breaking voters who decided in the final three days (a full 11 percent of the electorate). Bush also made a last-minute trip to Montana, where anecdotal evidence indicates the president's rally for Republican Conrad Burns stopped the incumbent's momentum in Billings."

Rove Redux

Eric Boehlert writes for the liberal Media Matters Web site: "The Beltway press' gooey, ongoing crush on Rove has probably set some sort of record for longevity inside the Beltway as Rove's media stature seems to climb with each passing year, despite Bush's accumulating missteps -- missteps Rove helped choreograph. . . .

"The Rove hero worship was evident all summer long, like when pundits and reporters -- echoing Rove -- suggested Iraq was going to hurt Democrats at the polls and that Ned Lamont's primary win over Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut would cripple Democrats nationwide by tarring them with an anti-war image. (An image, it turned out, that actually propelled Democrats to victory last week.)"

Also see my Monday column, The Unbelievable Karl Rove.

Valerie Plame Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney asked a federal judge Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit brought against him by a former CIA operative who says the White House leaked her identity to the press. . . .

"'Plaintiffs invite the judicial branch to permit intrusive discovery into those communications and to discern which among them might be, as a matter of tort law, wrongful and which not,' Cheney's attorneys wrote. 'Such an inquiry cannot be squared with basic separation of powers principles.'

"The Justice Department also weighed in on behalf of Cheney and other Bush administration officials including presidential adviser Karl Rove."

As for the criminal trial, Apuzzo writes in a separate story: "Attorneys for former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby dismissed the idea of a White House plot to leak a CIA operative's identity to the press and said Libby plans to tell jurors at his perjury trial that he had no reason to lie."

Big Three Get Big Zero

Caren Bohan and John Crawley write for Reuters: "U.S.-based automakers left a White House meeting on Tuesday without specific promises of help and doubtful that President George W. Bush shared their concern that Japan manipulates its currency to their disadvantage."

Sholnn Freeman writes in The Washington Post: "After the meeting, Bush said the executives had 'tough choices' to make. He said he was confident that they were making the 'right decisions.'"

Bolton Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The confirmation of John Bolton to be U.N. ambassador appears to be dead, but it's not over yet. There's still talk that the White House may try to copy the Clinton administration's sleight of hand of keeping unconfirmed Justice Department civil rights chief Bill Lann Lee on as an unconfirmed acting chief. . . .

"If the U.N. move won't fly, there's talk that Bolton could become deputy national security adviser if J.D. Crouch decides to move."

Kamen also notes that the White House Web site's announcement of Bush's Asia visit originally featured the flag of South Vietnam, which hasn't existed since 1975. "The White House figured it out last night and put up the correct flag," he writes.

Two More Fighting Nominations

Bush has nominated Andrew G. Biggs to be deputy commissioner of Social Security. Biggs is one of the foremost advocates of Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security.

And the Associated Press reports: "President Bush on Tuesday renominated the chairman of the agency that directs U.S. overseas broadcasts even though the nomination has been stalled in the Senate amid allegations of misconduct."

Last year, after sparking controversy by asserting that programs carried by public broadcasters have a liberal bias, Tomlinson resigned from the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

So We Meet Again

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "The last time Carol Shea-Porter had been in the same room as President Bush, she said, her T-shirt's message -- 'Turn your back on Bush' -- won her a push out the door from a Bush supporter as she left an airplane hangar in Portsmouth.

"When Shea-Porter saw Bush again Monday night at the White House, she shook his hand as the next House member from New Hampshire's First District. The conversation was cordial, Shea-Porter said, but that doesn't mean she's forgotten the message of change that sent her to the nation's capital."

Bush Joke

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle that this joke is in circulation:

"Q: How is Vietnam different from Iraq?

"A: Bush had a plan for getting out of Vietnam."

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on climate change; Tom Toles on a second opinion; Mike Keefe on Bush's smirk;

On Lying

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Washington's easy acceptance of lying, especially presidential lying, is beyond lamentable. . . . In the most recent case, Bush not only lied but compounded the lie by lying about why he lied in the first place."

Cohen revisits how, less than a week before the election, Bush told three wire service reporters that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't going anywhere. Then, the day after the election, he announced Rumsfeld's replacement.

"The president had his excuses ready," Cohen writes. "He lied for the sake of the troops. . . .

"In fact -- and this is a fact -- the lie about Rumsfeld was consistent with the White House's political line that everything is just hunky-dory in Iraq and that only Democrats and advocates of same-sex marriage could think otherwise. It would have been inconsistent with the political line for Bush to have admitted doubts about Rumsfeld. It had nothing to do with the troops. . . .

"In this way, Bush lied about the lie and then, as has become customary, draped an American flag over it. . . .

"It has now been a week, and the president's lie has been forgotten . . . or excused . . . or minimized. . . .

"How dare these people lie to you and me and send Americans to die in Iraq for reasons that turned out to be wholly nonexistent? One way to return to the truth is to find the liars. I ask this not for myself but -- and I mean it -- for the troops."

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