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Bush's Climate-Change Feint

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 1, 2007; 2:04 PM

The White House yesterday showed that it still knows how to play the American press like a harp.

President Bush yesterday put forth a new proposal on climate change that is most newsworthy for its attempt to muddy the debate about the issue and derail European and U.N. plans for strict caps on emissions. Bush's proposal calls for a new round of international meetings that would nearly outlast his presidency. The purpose of the meetings would not be to set caps on emissions, but to establish what the White House -- uncorking a bold new euphemism -- calls "aspirational goals."

But a change in rhetoric was enough to generate some headlines about the administration's attention to the issue: Bush Proposes Goals on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, reads the New York Times headline. Bush Proposes Talks on Warming, says The Washington Post's front page. Bush offers to take climate lead, proclaims the Los Angeles Times.

For a more pointed view of Bush's statement, let's travel across the Atlantic, where the style of journalism is less constrained than in the States.

Rupert Cornwell, writing in the Independent, described it like this: "In a last ditch -- and almost certainly unsuccessful -- bid to fend off international criticism of his climate change policies, President George Bush has called on 15 of the world's biggest polluting countries, including China and India, to agree on a target for reducing greenhouse gasses by the end of 2008. . . .

"Mr Bush's vague promise yesterday to work with other countries for 'a new framework for greenhouse gas emissions for when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012' will do nothing to satisfy critics.

"The American plan places its faith in free-market mechanisms and technology to solve the problem. . . . Under his scheme, individual countries would establish 'midterm management targets and programmes that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs'.

"But for critics, Mr Bush's proposals were simply more of the same -- a transparent attempt to create the impression that the US was not dragging its heels."

Cornwell's colleague Andrew Gumbel then launches into a heroic attempt to explain what Bush really meant:

"From the President's speech in Washington yesterday:

"'In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it.'

"Translation: In recent years, my refusal to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of global warming has turned me into a laughing-stock and contributed to my record low poll ratings. So now I have to look interested.

"'The United States takes this issue seriously.'

"Translation: Al Gore takes this issue seriously, his movie was a hit, and it's causing me no end of grief.

"'By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term goal for reducing greenhouse gases.'

"Translation: By the end of next year, I'll be weeks away from the end of my presidency and this can be someone else's problem.

"'To develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce the most greenhouse gasses, including nations with rapidly growing economies such as India and China.'

"Translation: We will look as busy as we can without doing anything.

"'The new initiative I am outlining today will contribute to the important dialogue that will take place in Germany.'

"Translation: The new initiative will put the brakes on the much more robust proposal the Germans are putting forward. As long as dialogue continues, we won't have to abide by any decisions."

(Note to readers: An earlier version of this column gave credit to Cornwell for these "translations," as they appear under his byline. But Gumbel actually posted them first here.)

Julian Borger, David Adam and Suzanne Goldenberg write in the Guardian: "George Bush yesterday threw international efforts to control climate change into confusion with a proposal to create a 'new global framework' to curb greenhouse gas emissions as an alternative to a planned UN process."

Reuters reports from Brussels: "President George W. Bush's plan to tackle climate change merely restates U.S. policy which has been ineffective in the past in cutting emissions blamed for global warming, the EU's environment chief said on Friday.

"'The declaration by President Bush basically restates the U.S. classic line on climate change -- no mandatory reductions, no carbon trading and vaguely expressed objectives,' EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, according to his spokeswoman.

"'The U.S. approach has proven to be ineffective in reducing emissions,' Dimas added of Bush's call on Thursday for 15 major countries to agree by 2008 on a long-term goal for cutting emissions."

Philip Stephens writes in the Financial Times: "Time and pressure have at last persuaded Mr Bush to admit the problem. Yesterday, the White House finally agreed that the US could no longer sit on the sidelines. . . .

"The US president, though, will have to forgive those who greet it with more than a touch of scepticism. Many will consider that it is as much spin as substance - calculated as much to avoid US isolation at the summit as to secure a credible international agreement."

Thomson Financial News reports: "Environmental campaigners accused US President George W. Bush of attempting to 'derail' negotiations over tackling climate change ahead of the G8 summit next week. . . .

"Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Greenpeace expressed strong disappointment at Bush's announcement, saying the effect of his move would be to 'wreck' the existing process."

From a BBC Q and A: "Has President Bush become the latest convert to the cause of tackling climate change by curbing emissions?"

A: "It is the first time the US president has publicly said that 'long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gases' are needed.

"Mr Bush's statement has caught the media's attention, but - so far - lacks the detail needed to assess whether the proposal marks a change of heart in the White House over the need for globally binding emission targets."

The Financial Times writes in an editorial: "George W. Bush is justly famous for his tendency cheerily to dismiss uncomfortable realities, but even by his standards, his comments yesterday on climate change showed astonishing chutzpah."

On This Side of the Pond

Skepticism was not absent on our own shores.

The Washington Post's spin-resistant Dana Milbank called attention to an exchange at yesterday's briefing by Jim Connaughton, the president's adviser on the environment:

"'Will the new framework consist of binding commitments or voluntary commitments?' asked CBS News's Jim Axelrod.

"'In this instance, you have a long-term, aspirational goal,' Connaughton answered.

"Aspirational goal? Like having the body you want without diet or exercise? Or getting rich without working?

"'I'm confused,' Axelrod said. 'Does that mean there will be targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, and that everybody will be making binding commitments?'

"'The commitment at the international level will be to a long-term, aspirational goal,' the Bush aide repeated.

"Axelrod had his answer. 'Voluntary,' he concluded.

"'Well,' said Connaughton, 'I want to be careful about the word 'voluntary.' '

"Connaughton may want to be careful, but the plan the White House outlined yesterday listed no concrete targets or dates, no enforcement mechanism, and no penalties for noncompliance. It also wouldn't take effect until four years after Bush leaves office. It was, rather, a call to spend the final 18 months of the Bush presidency forming an aspirational goal."

Today's USA Today story is headlined Reaction lukewarm to Bush on emissions.

Cartoonist Mike Luckovich didn't seem too impressed.

And a New York Times editorial reads: "Given Mr. Bush's history of denial and obstructionism when it comes to climate change, there are good reasons to be cynical about this sudden enthusiasm, coming as it does on the eve of the meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations."

The Three Lead Stories

Writing in The Washington Post, Michael A. Fletcher and Juliet Eilperin report: "President Bush sought yesterday to take the initiative on global warming talks in which the administration had previously been a reluctant participant, offering to launch negotiations aimed at having the world's most prolific polluters agree on long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"The proposal, which Bush unveiled in a speech outlining his priorities for the Group of Eight summit in Germany next week, signaled a shift in the administration's often-criticized approach to combating global warming while offering what the president called a 'new framework' for addressing the issue.

"Though the president is still not backing a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emissions, he made it clear that he would like the United States to play a major role in shaping global environmental policy after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports in the New York Times: "President Bush, fending off international accusations that he was ignoring climate change, proposed for the first time on Thursday to set 'a long-term global goal' for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and he called on other high-polluting nations to join the United States in negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement by the end of next year.

"If carried through, such an agreement would be the first in which the United States, the world's biggest source of the emissions that scientists say are warming the planet, has committed itself to a specific target for cutting them."

James Gerstenzang and Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times note -- albeit in their sixth paragraph: "On Thursday, neither the president nor senior administration officials presented specific goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such targets would be set in the next 18 months -- a period that would run one month past the election to choose his successor."

Bartlett Quits

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Dan Bartlett, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers and his longest-serving aide, said Friday he is resigning to begin a career outside of government.

"The move was announced on Bartlett's 36th birthday. He has been with Bush for nearly 14 years, from Bush's first campaign as governor of Texas. . . .

"As counselor to the president, Bartlett has been at the center of White House decision-making, stepping into the public eye in times of trouble to defend Bush on everything from the unpopular war in Iraq to the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the Republicans' loss of Congress.

"He is known as someone who has Bush's ear, one of few people who can give the president bad news or tease him about wearing a brown suit disliked by the White House staff and nicknamed Big Brown. . . .

"With the exception of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation last November, Bartlett's departure marks the first major turnover in Bush's senior staff since a major reshuffling a year ago to reinvigorate the administration and overcome low poll ratings. . . . Despite the changes, Bush a year later still remains near record lows in the polls. . . .

"It is a point of pride with Bartlett that he is Bush's longest serving staffer -- longer than even political strategist Karl Rove, another Bush confidant whose tenure was interrupted by work as a political consultant."

Bush said in a statement today: "Dan has been a true counselor to the President. His contribution has been immeasurable. I value his judgment and I treasure his friendship. Since coming to work for me fourteen years ago as I prepared to run for Governor, Dan has become a husband and a father. I understand his decision to make his young family his first priority."

Bartlett himself spoke to reports at this morning's gaggle.

Jay Carney blogs for Time that Bartlett's departure "means Karl Rove, Margaret Spellings and Alberto Gonzales are pretty much the last inner-circle Texans still with the President."

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: " You know a presidency is nearing its effective end when some of the most senior and influential people start leaving. . . .

"[Bartlett] often has served as the face of the administration on television, the first to hit the morning run of network news shows when the administration is pushing a talking point.

"But Bartlett, who had been director of communications before elevation to a more exalted position within the administration, also has long served as a behind-the-scenes shaper of the administration's agenda -- if you've guessed that he often has appeared in print as a senior administration official, you've guessed right."

The satirical Wonkette blog writes: "Bartlett is 'counselor to the President,' which means he tells Bush when his suit is ugly and then lies to the press in a very friendly manner. He has promised not to write a book, which is good, because he's apparently gone completely nuts."

As evidence, Wonkette quotes Bartlett in that AP story, saying of his White House years: "It's been a roller coaster that seems always to go up."

Scooter Libby Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "Lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr. urged a federal judge on Thursday to consider his long record of public service and spare him from prison on his felony conviction for his role in a C.I.A. leak investigation.

"The lawyers recommended that Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, be given probation, possibly with community service, when he is sentenced on Tuesday. . . .

"'Distinguished public servant. Generous mentor. Selfless friend,' begins the court filing in which Mr. Libby's lawyers asked that he be spared prison. 'This is the rich portrait of Mr. Libby that emerges from the description of him in more than 160 heartfelt letters submitted to the court on his behalf.'"

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald last week said Libby's punishment should match the gravity of the offense and the intensity of his investigation into what he considered a serious violation of national security laws. "He argued that Libby deserved an enhanced sentence because he 'substantially interfered' with the special counsel's probe, which reached into Cheney's office in an effort to determine who might have orchestrated the leak.

"Fitzgerald also said that the evidence he collected showed that Libby's lies followed substantial deliberation and were not 'inadvertent' or unplanned, as Libby's attorneys had argued.

"Defense lawyers said in court filings yesterday that no evidence was offered that Libby illegally leaked [CIA agent Valerie] Plame's identity to reporters and then lied to cover up that leak. They also questioned the 'unique' investigation that caught Libby, noting that no one was charged with knowingly leaking classified information, the crime the FBI set out to investigate in 2003."

There was no remorse expressed in the defense filings.

In one filing, the defense said: "Mr. Libby fully acknowledges that false statements and obstruction of justice are serious crimes. We feel compelled to point out, however, that the circumstances that led to Mr. Libby's conviction are unusual and perhaps unique."

And the defense said Libby has already been pilloried -- by the media. "The media commentary about Mr. Libby has often been particularly unfair. Although he did not 'out' Ms. Wilson, Mr. Libby has been continually blamed with leaking or orchestrating the leak of her identity. As the evidence at trial showed, as far back as September 2003, reporters were insinuating that Mr. Libby was the leaker."

That the reporters were correct isn't relevant, apparently.

As I wrote in Tuesday's column, Fitzgerald made it clear that he was hot on the trail of a coordinated White House campaign to out Plame until that line of investigation was cut off by Libby's repeated lies.

In yesterday's second filing, the defense aggressively argues that because Fitzgerald wasn't able to prove any "underlying offense," Libby shouldn't be punished too severely.

Isn't that the same as arguing that he should be rewarded because his obstruction was successful?

The defense even continues to dispute repeated assertions by the CIA that Plame was covert.

"[T]he government relies on a terse two-and-a-half page summary of Valerie Wilson's employment history that was generated by the CIA, which purports to establish that 'Ms. Wilson was a covert CIA employee for whom the CIA was taking affirmative measures to conceal her intelligence relationship to the United States.' We have never been granted an opportunity to challenge this conclusory assertions or any of the other unsubstantiated claims in this document, nor permitted to investigate how it was created."

Here's a blistering analysis of the defense filings from blogger Marcy Wheeler.

By contrast, the Wall Street Journal editorial board demands that Bush pardon Libby.

"It would be a blot on the Bush Presidency if Mr. Libby serves a day in prison for a political dispute over Iraq that became a criminal investigation largely due to the incompetence of so many in the Bush Administration. From the CIA, to the Justice and State Departments to the National Security Council, public officials failed to inform colleagues, blamed others and ducked political responsibility."

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge said Thursday he will release more than 150 letters he received regarding next week's sentencing of former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby.

"The letters are expected to show that, despite his conviction in March of perjury and obstruction in the CIA leak case, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney retains support from current and former government officials."

That South Korean Analogy

I wrote in yesterday's column about the problems with the White House's new analogy for Iraq, South Korea.

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate: "[W]e intervened in South Korea as a response to an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to contain Communist aggression. We intervened in Iraq as the instigator of an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to expand unilateral American power. We remained in South Korea to protect a solid (if, for many years, authoritarian) government from another border incursion. We are remaining in Iraq to bolster a flimsy government and stave off a violent social implosion.

"In other words, in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar."

Jonathan Alter writes for Newsweek on the underlying issue of permanent military bases: "So why the move to permanent bases in Iraq? For years, I have been reluctant to embrace the oil theory of American policymaking in the Middle East. I've subscribed to the notion that oil is only part of a complex set of strategic, political and moral issues animating American interests. I still believe that in the short term. Bush and the few remaining supporters of his policy are motivated by more than oil. They want to avoid a failed state in the middle of a volatile region.

"But what does that aim have to do with permanent bases? The only two reasons to station troops in the Middle East for half a century are protecting oil supplies (reflecting a pessimistic view of energy independence) outside the normal channels of trade and diplomacy, and projecting raw military power. These are the imperial aims of an empire. During the cold war, charges of U.S. imperialism in Korea and Vietnam were false. Those wars were about superpower struggles. This time, the 'I word' is not a left-wing epithet but a straightforward description of policy aims."

Intel Watch

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday questioned the continuing value of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret interrogation program for terrorism suspects, suggesting that international condemnation and the obstacles it has created to criminal prosecution may outweigh its worth in gathering information.

"The committee rejected by one vote a Democratic proposal that would essentially have cut money for the program by banning harsh interrogation techniques except in dire emergencies, a committee report revealed."

Torture Watch

Adam Zagorin writes for Time: "Many of the controversial interrogation tactics used against terror suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo were modeled on techniques the U.S. feared that the Communists themselves might use against captured American troops during the Cold War, according to a little-noticed, highly classified Pentagon report released several days ago. Originally developed as training for elite special forces at Fort Bragg under the 'Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape' program, otherwise known as SERE, tactics such as sleep deprivation, isolation, sexual humiliation, nudity, exposure to extremes of cold and stress positions were part of a carefully monitored survival training program for personnel at risk of capture by Soviet or Chinese forces, all carried out under the supervision of military psychologists.

"This troubling disclosure was made in the blandly titled report, ' Review of DoD-Directed Investigations of Detainee Abuse', which for the first time sets forth the origins as well as new details of many of the abusive interrogation techniques that led to scandals at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere -- techniques that some critics contend the Pentagon still has not gone far enough in explicitly banning. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the findings 'deeply troubling,' and signaled his intention to hold hearings later this year on the interrogation methods it describes. . . .

"The report, completed last August but only declassified and made public on May 18, suggests that the abusive techniques stemmed from a much more formal process than the Defense Department has previously acknowledged."

Bush, Conservatives, and Immigration

Kimberly A. Strassel writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column: "Say what you will about George W. Bush's plans for immigration reform, you can't accuse him of failing to understand what it is that inspires such emotion in this debate. Sitting among the optimistic yellows of the Oval Office, the president is quick to zero in on what has caused so many in his party to reject his efforts. 'I think people worry that this round of immigration will create two Americas,' he says, simply. Or, in his further explanation: 'E Pluribus Duum.'

"With that impromptu bit of engineered Latin, I get an answer to one big question I have at this Wednesday morning interview. Mr. Bush has been pilloried by his own followers in recent weeks, charged with everything from granting amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants, to failing to secure the borders. He stands accused of throwing over his most loyal supporters to join with Ted Kennedy and liberals to ruin America. Can it really be that this president--who has previously identified so well with the Everyman in his party--is completely off the reservation on this issue?

"The answer is no, although Mr. Bush is aware he'll have to work hard to prove it. In our 35 minutes together, he hardly comes across as blind to the fears and anger of his critics. 'I think that some of the signals that people have seen are very disturbing to very patriotic Americans, such as people flying Mexican flags during immigration rallies,' or 'people here illegally straining the social services of different communities,' or American towns wondering whether 'the basic culture of their community is going to be affected negatively by people from, basically, a foreign land,' he says.

"Yet he also points out that 'this isn't the first time our country has had to wrestle with waves of immigration'--noting Italians, Irish, Jews. He's enthusiastic in his belief that America still has the 'great capacity' to continue to 'assimilate' more cultures, which makes the nation stronger. Most notably, he's passionate that immigration is fundamentally a conservative cause, embodying core Republican values, and the issue is vital to his party's political future. 'Part of the reason why I think it's important for me to be out speaking about it is it might cause people to say, well, wait a minute, the president supports it, let me find out why.'"

But Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column: "What political conservatives and on-the-ground Republicans must understand at this point is that they are not breaking with the White House on immigration..... What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them. What President Bush is doing, and has been doing for some time, is sundering a great political coalition. This is sad, and it holds implications not only for one political party but for the American future."

Noonan writes: "This White House thinks its base is stupid and that its heart is in the wrong place. . . .

"They are trying to lay down markers for history. Having lost the support of most of the country, they are looking to another horizon. The story they would like written in the future is this: Faced with the gathering forces of ethnocentric darkness, a hardy and heroic crew stood firm and held high a candle in the wind. It will make a good chapter. Would that it were true!"

She concludes: "What I came in time to believe is that the great shortcoming of this White House, the great thing it is missing, is simple wisdom. Just wisdom -- a sense that they did not invent history. . . . "

Secrecy Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A newly disclosed effort to keep Vice President Dick Cheney's visitor records secret is the latest White House push to make sure the public doesn't learn who has been meeting with top officials in the Bush administration."

A Caring Person?

NPR's Michel Martin yesterday interviewed Elaine Johnson, whose son, Army Spc. Darius Jennings, was killed when a helicopter was shot down by Iraqi insurgents Nov. 2, 2003. Not long after her son's death, Johnson met with Bush.

"MARTIN: So when you left that meeting, did you leave with a determination to do something, or did that happen over time?

"Ms. JOHNSON: ... [I asked the president,] what's the mission? He couldn't give me an answer. I said well, I'm going to tell you what. I'm on my mission now. My mission has just begun. And my mission is to fight, to bring these troops home, to take care of these troops when they get home.

"Then he gave us a presidential coin.... And then after that, he told us 'Don't go sell it on eBay'. Now you tell me how insensitive that can be? What kind of a caring person is that?"

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