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Bush's Anti-Chavez Tour

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; 12:48 PM

Just before heading off for a six-day visit to Latin America, President Bush yesterday attempted to co-opt the populist rhetoric of his hemispheric arch-nemesis, President Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela.

Speaking to the "tens of millions in our hemisphere" who "remain stuck in poverty, and shut off from the promises of the new century," Bush said: "My message to those trabajadores y campesinos is, you have a friend in the United States of America. We care about your plight."

But if you think Bush has a credibility problem in his own country, it's even worse south of the border -- especially when it comes to issues of social justice.

Let there be no doubt about this: Bush's attempt to persuade Latin Americans that he is the champion of the poor -- given his pro-business bent and six years of an almost exclusive focus on free trade and terrorism -- is utterly doomed. Almost laughably so.

Bush leaves for Brazil on Thursday, then travels to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Here's the text of his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday. Startlingly, it contains the phrase "social justice" fully five times.

Bush even associated himself with the forces of revolution (albeit a slow-burning one.)

Hearkening back to two great liberators -- Simon Bolivar and George Washington -- Bush said "it is our mission to complete the revolution they began on our two continents. The millions across our hemisphere who every day suffer the degradations of poverty and hunger have a right to be impatient. And I'm going to make them this pledge: The goal of this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected, where all find room at the table, and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home. By extending the blessings of liberty to the least among us, we will fulfill the destiny of this new world and set a shining example for others."

The Libby Verdict

The verdict in the Scooter Libby trial is coming right at my deadline. Check back tomorrow for all the details.

The Bush Trip

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "He talked of grinding poverty and called it 'a scandal' that democracy and capitalism have not delivered more to Latin Americans. The working poor need change, he declared. He invoked Simon Bolivar, the 'great liberator,' and vowed to 'complete the revolution' and bring true 'social justice' to the region.

"Hugo Chavez? No, George W. Bush.

"As he prepares to embark on a six-day trip to Latin America this week, the president is launching a new campaign to compete with Chavez for the region's hearts and minds, employing language mirroring the Venezuelan leader's leftist populism but rooted in traditional American conservatism. After six years of focusing elsewhere in the world, Bush in his final two years wants to convince the nation's neighbors that, as he put it yesterday, 'we care.'

"But he faces an enormous gulf between ambition and reality, analysts say."

Ron Hutcheson and Pablo Bachelet write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush, laying the groundwork for an eight-day trip to Latin America that's likely to deepen the struggle for influence with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, acknowledged Monday that U.S.-backed economic policies and free-trade agreements have failed to lift millions of Latin Americans from poverty.

"Sprinkling his speech with Spanish words and phrases, Bush announced a series of relatively modest efforts to help the poor, including a plan to send U.S. military medical teams to the region. . . .

"The speech was the opening shot in a battle with Chavez that will play out during the president's travels. . . .

"Chavez, a fiery leftist who recently called Bush the 'king of liars,' also will be on the road. He'll host an anti-Bush rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday in advance of Bush's stop in neighboring Uruguay."

The experts doubt Bush can turn things around.

" 'Unfortunately, in over 40 years of study of the region, I have rarely seen a moment where there is as much mistrust of the United States and as strong a rejection of the U.S. posture in the world,' said Arturo Valenzuela, a former Clinton official who heads the Latin America program at Georgetown University."

Maura Reynolds, Patrick J. McDonnell and Chris Kraul write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, eager to counter the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, declared Monday that he was heading to Latin America this week as a social reformer committed to alleviating poverty and social injustice.

"The emphasis on addressing inequality marks a shift for the president, who has been assailed for stressing free trade and democracy south of the border and ignoring the social ills that continue to stymie the region. . . .

"Bush in effect has signaled his intention to present a counter-version of Chavez's well-crafted image of a social crusader standing up to U.S. 'imperialism' at every opportunity."

But what ammunition does he have to make his case? Not much.

David Jackson writes in USA Today on some of Bush's proposals for the region: "Bush said he was sending a Navy medical ship to 12 Latin American and Caribbean nations to treat an estimated 85,000 patients and perform up to 1,500 surgeries.

"He also touted a $75 million program to allow Latin American youths to study English in the USA and a $100 million effort to provide mortgages to working families."

But Larry Rohter writes in the New York Times that Bush's "promises of American support and assistance are likely to fall short of what Mr. Chavez, with his oil wealth, has been delivering recently."

Rohter writes that Chavez "is acting as if the trip, which he mocks as doomed to failure, is aimed solely at combating his influence, and has responded with a maneuver of his own. While Mr. Bush is in Uruguay on Friday and Saturday, Mr. Chavez plans to be leading anti-Bush demonstrations just across the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he has cultivated an increasingly friendly relationship with that country's Peronist president, N?stor Kirchner. . . .

"An overwhelming majority of government officials and academic analysts in Latin America take it as a given that the United States has been jolted into action by the inroads Mr. Chavez has made. But American officials dispute that notion."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Second-term presidents often find comfort in foreign policy and overseas travel as they lose clout at home. A statesman-abroad strategy, however, will not work particularly well for President Bush on a six-day Latin American trip designed to signal a revitalized U.S. commitment to the region.

"Bush is unpopular throughout the globe, even in this country's backyard, and will find it hard to escape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no matter where he goes."

And John D. McKinnon and Matt Moffett write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush travels to Latin America this week to take on Hugo Chavez's militant brand of economic populism. But the weakened U.S. president could spend much of the trip defending against charges his own economic policies have helped shortchange the region."

Here's the transcript of an extensive briefing on the trip by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley yesterday. All you really need to know is this exchange:

"Q How much of this is an anti-Chavez tour?

"MR. HADLEY: It's really not."

Yeah, right.

Here's Bush's itinerary from the White House.

Anybody Listening?

Attendance was sparse at yesterday's White House press briefing, leading New York Times reporter Sheryl Stolberg to ask:

"Q Tony, we've just come off the weekend where Senators Clinton and Obama generated a lot of news coverage with their trip to Selma. We're sitting here now in practically an empty briefing room. The President has said repeatedly that he believes he has the microphone still. But are you concerned that you are losing the microphone, and the President is losing his microphone?

"MR. SNOW: No, if you'd come earlier, it was fuller. (Laughter.) The fact is, Sheryl, the President is not losing his microphone. And when you take a look -- whether it is the conduct of the war on terror or domestic policy, the President is the one who is out there with not only a message, but proposals that are going to shape a lot of what goes on in terms of the domestic political debate, and they ought to. They're good ideas, and contrary to the suspicions of some earlier on, he is somebody who has been bold and not cautious in terms of tackling big problems."

Walter Reed Watch

William Branigin writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush today appointed former senator Bob Dole and former health and human services secretary Donna E. Shalala to co-chair a new presidential commission that will look into problems at the nation's military and veterans' hospitals. . . .

" 'I'm as concerned as you are about the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center,' Bush told the American Legion today. 'My decisions have put our kids in harm's way, and I'm concerned about the fact when they come back they don't get the full treatment they deserve.'"

The administration's PR approach on Walter Reed, after initially not paying the story much attention, now generally calls for contrition. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday sternly expressed disappointment that some "have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation."

Even Vice President Cheney struck a nondefensive note in a speech yesterday: "President Bush has made our administration's priority very clear to the Congress and to the country: There will be no excuses, only action. And the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down. We're going to fix the problems at Walter Reed, period."

But either press secretary Tony Snow didn't get the memo, or he just chose to ignore it, or this contrition thing only goes so far.

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing:

First question:

"Q Is it something the President should do, as Commander-in-Chief, to say, the buck stops here and take responsibility for the scandal at Walter Reed?

"MR. SNOW: Well, in a sense, the President, and also everybody within the chain of command are taking responsibility." Snow then rattled off various administration actions, and concluded: "So we take a very exhaustive look at this. It is very important to figure out what's wrong, and get it fixed. And the President is committed to that."

Reasonable follow-up question:

"Q But the President hasn't said in any way, shape, or form, this is my responsibility, this is on me?"

Snow paused, looked daggers at the questioner, and responded with angry sarcasm.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I'll take the rhetorical flourish under advisement."

Twisting Words

One of Snow's frequent habits that I didn't address in my Friday column, The Spokesman Made for Cable, is his rephrasing of the questions he is asked, generally twisting reporters' words.

An excellent example from yesterday:

"Q Tony, U.S. forces killed a number of Afghan civilians over the weekend, including 10 who were shot by American troops. Can you tell us -- the Afghan government has condemned it, Karzai, in particular. The U.S. military says it was -- they acted in self-defense. And can you tell us what this says about winning hearts and minds, at a time when the Taliban are resurgent and al Qaeda is regrouping?

"MR. SNOW: Yes, a couple of things. First, everything is under review, so I don't want to try to presume. Secondly, there's a real difference between the Taliban, which kills innocent as a matter of policy, and the United States, which abhors the death of any innocent. And that's just -- they're two different approaches. And, frankly, in the battle of hearts and minds, the Taliban already lost that. What they're trying to do, once again, is to use terror to impose their will -- and it's not going to happen.

"But it is certainly the case that -- again, I want to make it very clear that any attempt to draw a moral comparison between terrorists who kill innocents as a matter of policy, and the United States, which is trying to save innocents as a matter of policy, is utterly unwarranted. There is no moral parallel between the two.

"Q You just draw that parallel; I didn't. But what is the U.S. going to be doing --

"MR. SNOW: Well, but it's embedded in the question, when you talk about winning hearts and minds -- when you're saying in winning hearts and minds, it would insinuate that there was something there that would, in fact, constitute a deliberate assault on hearts and minds. So I just -- well, I think a lot of people would construe it that way, so I wanted to make sure that there was no confusion."

Benchmark Watch

And Snow yesterday was rewriting history again.

The announced goal (see this Jan. 10 White House background briefing) was for three additional Iraqi brigades to be in Baghdad by mid-February, not the end of February. And, according to most reports, those three brigades still are nowhere near fully manned.

Snow yesterday: "But you may recall, we were talking not so long ago about a series of things that would qualify as benchmarks, such as having three brigades in by the end of February -- it happened."

No reporters challenged him.

The Dems

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Senior House Democrats, seeking to placate members of their party from Republican-leaning districts, are pushing a plan that would place restrictions on President Bush's ability to wage the war in Iraq but would allow him to waive them if he publicly justifies his position.

"Under the proposal, Bush would also have to set a date to begin troop withdrawals if the Iraqi government fails to meet benchmarks aimed at stabilizing the country that the president laid out in January."

Budget Watch

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The White House is ready to ask Congress for more money for President Bush's plan -- already hotly debated -- to send 21,500 new combat troops into Iraq. . . .

"The latest request could come as early as Tuesday, modifying last month's $93.4 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30.

"Though the changes may be relatively modest, they nonetheless are embarrassing to the White House and the Pentagon, which earlier dismissed criticism from lawmakers that the original $5.6 billion estimate for the troop buildup was too low....

"White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten paid a rare visit to the Capitol to press Senate GOP leaders for the additional money."

Cheney's Scare

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney is being treated for a blood clot that his doctor discovered in his left leg, his office announced yesterday.

"Cheney's doctor at George Washington University discovered the clot during an examination yesterday after the vice president experienced mild discomfort in his calf, spokeswoman Megan McGinn said. The doctor prescribed blood-thinning medication, which Cheney is to take for several months, she said.

"Cheney, who may have developed the clot during a recent trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Australia and elsewhere that involved extensive air travel, saw his doctor after delivering a speech yesterday morning to the national legislative conference of the Veterans of Foreign War. He then returned to the White House and continued to work."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Lawrence K. Altman write in the New York Times: "Although blood clots in the leg can be dangerous if left untreated, experts say most are successfully treated with the anticoagulant drugs that the White House says Mr. Cheney is now receiving.

"A crucial determinant in treating blood clots in the leg is the size of the clot, which a statement Monday from Mr. Cheney's office did not describe. Nor did the statement state the clot's specific anatomical location."

Denver Three Watch

Jim Spencer writes in his Denver Post column: "Liar. Liar. Pants on fire. . . .

"For nearly two years, the Bush administration has lied about its role in throwing three people out of a public, taxpayer-financed Presidential Social Security Forum in Denver. . . .

"James O'Keefe, a senior White House advance representative, and Steve Atkiss, then-deputy director of the White House advance office, separately told volunteer Mike Casper to ask Weise, Young and Bauer to leave, Casper testified Friday."

The Denver Post editorial board writes: "It's one thing to eject hecklers who try to shout down speakers they disagree with, infringing on the rights of others who came to hear the message. It's another thing entirely to profile residents based on their bumper stickers or what others suspect about their politics. . . .

"This incident is a measure of the arrogance of an administration that acknowledges almost no limits to its power or any accountability for its conduct. It's unacceptable in our democracy that people can be ousted from a public event without cause. The White House owes them an apology at the very least."

Poll Watch

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "A new USA Today/Gallup Poll shows deepening pessimism on Iraq, even as many Americans are reluctant to limit money or troops for the war effort."

Like other polls, this one shows that until you get in the weeds, there are enormous margins on Iraq-related issues:

"Only 28% say the United States will probably or definitely win the war, down from 35% in December and the lowest since the question was first asked in September 2005. The share of people who now call the war a mistake is 59% -- the same as September 2005 and the highest level in the 58 times the question has been asked since the war began.

"The poll asked about proposals circulating on Capitol Hill as Congress weighs how to exert influence on President Bush's Iraq policy. House Democrats could unveil their plans this week.

"Six in 10 people said they want Congress to set a timetable to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2008. Three-quarters said Congress should require that U.S. troops come home if Iraqi leaders don't keep pledges to reduce violence, and that U.S. troops have at least a year's stay in the USA between deployments to Iraq. The mandatory break is part of a plan by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.

"At the same time, six in 10 people said they don't want Congress to deny funding for additional troops to be sent to Iraq. A slim majority, 52%, said they don't want lawmakers to revoke the authority they gave Bush in 2002 to use military force in Iraq. . . .

"Bush's approval rating in the new poll was 33%, while 63% disapproved of his performance. That was a slight dip from last month, when 37% approved."

Here are the complete results.

Bush's Privacy Board

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "A White House privacy board is giving its stamp of approval to two of the Bush administration's controversial surveillance programs -- electronic eavesdropping and financial tracking -- and says they do not violate citizens' civil liberties.

"Democrats newly in charge of Congress quickly criticized the findings, which they said were questionable given some of the board members' close ties with the Bush administration. . . .

"After operating mostly in secret for a year, the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Board is preparing to release its first report to Congress next week.

"The report finds that both the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program and the

Treasury Department's monitoring of international banking transactions have sufficient privacy protections, three board members told The Associated Press in telephone interviews."

How all those alleged protections failed to prevent something like this, of course, is another question.

Twins Watch

Bob Minzesheimer writes for USA Today: "Jenna Bush, in a rare interview, says her forthcoming book for teens -- about a 17-year-old single mother in Panama who is living with HIV -- will end with a 'call to action.'

"HarperCollins announces today that it's publishing Bush's Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope this fall. It will be illustrated with photographs by Mia Baxter, a former classmate of Bush's at the University of Texas.

"The president's daughter, 25, says the book is not political. It's aimed at 'getting kids thinking and involved,' Bush said Monday by phone from Panama, where she has worked since September as an unpaid intern for UNICEF. . . .

" 'I'm willing to give up some of my anonymity' to promote the book and 'start a dialogue with kids.' . . .

"She says she 'very, very modestly' hopes her book will have some of the influence of two books about girls caught up in the Holocaust: Lois Lowry's novel Number the Stars and Anne Frank's The Diary of Anne Frank."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart sees White House buck-passing on responsibility for Walter Reed as the latest in a long line of failures to take responsibility: "I'm not picking my nose," Stewart says. "My hand is picking my nose. Please direct all questions about nose picking to my hand."

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