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Bush: 'That's How I Work'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 29, 2007; 1:40 PM

In the wake of last month's shooting of 17 civilians by Blackwater gunmen in Baghdad, the Bush administration is finally acknowledging -- more than four years late -- that private security contractors in Iraq should operate under the law.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted to Congress that the State Department had inadequately supervised those contractors. As Karen DeYoung wrote in Friday's Washington Post, "Pressed to express regret for what Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) called "the failures of your department, your failures," Rice said, "I certainly regret that we did not have the kind of oversight that I would have insisted upon."

Rice agreed that "there is a hole" in U.S. law that has prevented prosecution of contractors.

But did we really need an apparent massacre to point out this giant loophole and its perils?

As it happens, President Bush has been aware of the hole for some time -- and deserves some of the blame for not fixing it earlier. Confronted about it in public more than a year ago, Bush literally laughed off the question -- and then, tellingly, described his response as a case study in how he does his job.

The setting was a question-and-answer session after Bush spoke at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in April of 2006. (Here's a video clip.)

One student, a first-year in South Asia studies, told the president: "My question is in regards to private military contractors. Uniform Code of Military Justice does not apply to these contractors in Iraq. I asked your Secretary of Defense a couple months ago what law governs their actions.

Bush: "I was going to ask him. Go ahead. (Laughter.) Help. (Laughter.)"

Student: "I was hoping your answer might be a little more specific. (Laughter.) Mr. Rumsfeld answered that Iraq has its own domestic laws which he assumed applied to those private military contractors. However, Iraq is clearly not currently capable of enforcing its laws, much less against -- over our American military contractors. I would submit to you that in this case, this is one case that privatization is not a solution. And, Mr. President, how do you propose to bring private military contractors under a system of law?"

Bush: "I appreciate that very much. I wasn't kidding -- (laughter.) I was going to -- I pick up the phone and say, Mr. Secretary, I've got an interesting question. (Laughter.) This is what delegation -- I don't mean to be dodging the question, although it's kind of convenient in this case, but never -- (laughter.) I really will -- I'm going to call the Secretary and say you brought up a very valid question, and what are we doing about it? That's how I work. I'm -- thanks. (Laughter.)"

Iraq Watch

Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post about his conversations with soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, who will soon wrap up 15 months patrolling a war-torn neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad.

"Their experience in Sadiyah has left many of them deeply discouraged, by both the unabated hatred between rival sectarian fighters and the questionable will of the Iraqi government to work toward peaceful solutions," Partlow writes.

"Asked if the American endeavor here was worth their sacrifice -- 20 soldiers from the battalion have been killed in Baghdad -- [Sgt. Victor] Alarcon said no: 'I don't think this place is worth another soldier's life.'"

Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial, ubiquitous Iraqi politician and one-time Bush administration favorite, has re-emerged as a central figure in the latest U.S. strategy for Iraq. . . .

"Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki named Chalabi as head of the services committee, a consortium of eight service ministries and two Baghdad municipal posts, that is tasked with bringing services to Baghdad, the heart of the surge plan.

"Chalabi 'is an important part of the process,' said Col. Steven Boylan, [Gen. David] Petraeus' spokesman. 'He has a lot of energy.' . . .

"Chalabi, in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, provided White House and Pentagon officials and journalists with a stream of bogus or exaggerated intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorism."

Poodle Watch

Simon Walters writes in the Daily Mail: "Tony Blair was too worried about falling out of favour with George Bush to warn him of the perilous consequences of war with Iraq.

"That is the damning portrait of the former Prime Minister that emerges from the highest level of the British and American governments in the latest extracts of a new book by political biographer Dr Anthony Seldon.

"The attacks are led by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who, according to 'Blair Unbound', secretly plotted with ex-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to restrain Mr Bush and Mr Blair.

"They will do little to help Mr Blair shrug off claims that he was Mr Bush's 'poodle'"

Said Powell: "Jack and I would get him all pumped up about an issue. And he'd be ready to say, 'Look here, George.' But as soon as he saw the President he would lose his steam."

Walters writes that "in 2002 Mr Blair resolved to write to Mr Bush and tell him of his fears that the momentum for war was growing too fast in America.

"But he 'faltered and pulled his punches' and effectively told the President: 'You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I'll be with you.'

"According to the book, Britain's ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, was horrified: ''Why in God's name has he said that again?' he asked [a colleague]. . . .

"Mr Blair's private doubts about Mr Bush dated back to the attacks on the World Trade Center when the President took to the skies in Air Force One, the book says.

"'Blair was troubled that Bush's priority appeared to be keeping out of danger.'"

Here are parts one and two of the excerpts from Seldon's book.

Another Powell quote about his chats with his British counterpart: "We were worried that our two leaders might not have a strong enough sense of the consequences of removing Saddam militarily.

"One of us made a quip about regime change - that it might not be regime change in Baghdad that we should be worrying about."

Iran Watch

Brian Knowlton writes in the New York Times: "Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged the Bush administration on Sunday to soften its statements about Iran while maintaining diplomatic pressure to halt the nuclear enrichment that could lead to the production of a nuclear weapon. . . .

"'We cannot add fuel to the fire,' Dr. ElBaradei said on ' Late Edition' on CNN. 'I would hope we would stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue.'"

Michael Hirsh writes in Newsweek that after "weeks of hawkish anti-Iran rhetoric from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top U.S. officials, some U.S. allies worry that, as [one] European diplomat said, 'the U.S. administration is going ahead on its own.' What had begun as a multilateral effort to stop Tehran from getting nuclear-bomb know-how has turned into a broadside out of Washington, said the diplomat, whose position also required him to speak anonymously. As justification, the administration blames Tehran for nearly every ill wind in the Mideast, criticizing not just the nuclear program but Iranian interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories."

For background, see Friday's column: Going It Alone on Iran.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "America's allies and increasingly the American public are playing a ghoulish guessing game: Will President Bush manage to leave office without starting a war with Iran? Mr. Bush is eagerly feeding those anxieties. This month he raised the threat of 'World War III' if Iran even figures out how to make a nuclear weapon.

"With a different White House, we might dismiss this as posturing -- or bank on sanity to carry the day, or the warnings of exhausted generals or a defense secretary more rational than his predecessor. Not this crowd."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Bush's loose talk of World War III doesn't seem to be deterring the Iranians, but it's scaring the heck out of America's allies in the region. Some talk as if war is almost inevitable. . . .

"Military action would be irrational for both sides. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. I wish the Bush administration could see that with each step it takes closer to conflict, it is walking toward a well-planned trap."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column that "the claim that Iran is on the path to global domination is beyond ludicrous. Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in many ways, and it would be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear weapons. But let's have some perspective, please: we're talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden's.

"Meanwhile, the idea that bombing will bring the Iranian regime to its knees -- and bombing is the only option, since we've run out of troops -- is pure wishful thinking. Last year Israel tried to cripple Hezbollah with an air campaign, and ended up strengthening it instead. There's every reason to believe that an attack on Iran would produce the same result, with the added effects of endangering U.S. forces in Iraq and driving oil prices well into triple digits."

New York Times columnist David Brooks tells PBS's Jim Lehrer that he doesn't think Bush will attack Iran -- based on his body language.

Brooks talked about Bush's meetings with a group of conservative columnists so far to the right that Brooks is "sort of the Fidel Castro of the group. . . .

"And we get together with the president periodically. And there are two of my colleagues who, every time they ask about Iran, and the president knows the questions are coming, it's sort of a joke between us, and we see his body language and response to these questions. Some of it is on the record; some of it is off the record.

"But if you look, read his language, if you look at his body language, you see a man that's totally different than before Iraq. He is preparing the way for the next administration to have some means to deal with the situation. He believes in the diplomacy. But unless I totally misread him, I think he has no inclination to launch a military action."

Bush and Darfur

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "In April 2006, a small group of Darfur activists -- including evangelical Christians, the representative of a Jewish group and a former Sudanese slave -- was ushered into the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a private meeting with President Bush. It was the eve of a major rally on the National Mall, and the president spent more than an hour holding forth, displaying a kind of passion that has led some in the White House to dub him the 'Sudan desk officer.'

"Bush insisted there must be consequences for rape and murder, and he called for international troops on the ground to protect innocent Darfuris, according to contemporaneous notes by one of those present. He spoke of 'bringing justice' to the Janjaweed, the Arab militias that have participated in atrocities that the president has repeatedly described as nothing less than 'genocide.' . . .

"Yet a year and a half later, the situation on the ground in Darfur is little changed: More than 2 million displaced Darfuris, including hundreds of thousands in camps, have been unable to return to their homes. The perpetrators of the worst atrocities remain unpunished. Despite a renewed U.N. push, the international peacekeeping troops that Bush has long been seeking have yet to materialize. . . .

"The president who famously promised not to allow another Rwanda-style mass murder on his watch has never fully chosen between those inside his government advocating more pressure on Sudan and those advocating engagement with its Islamist government, so the policy has veered from one approach to another."

Bush and the Church

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle that Bush has apparently stopped going to church: "Another Sunday and President Bush skipped church. We can't remember the last time he went. He never used to miss church -- and we know, because we get Sunday pool duty all the time and have to get up in the dark and go with him."

Mason checks her files: "9/23 pool report: The president of America eschewed church on this fine Sunday and instead went for a bike ride in Virginia. . . . 9/30 pool report: The evangelical president did not go to church today, but he did go on a bike ride. . . . 10/7 pool report: (Bush gave a speech at the National Fire Academy) . . . . 10/14 pool report: (Bush was on his Crawford ranch) 10/21 pool report: Pool reported this morning and headed straight for biking, no church. . . . 10/28 pool report: No church, and uneventful bike ride at Fort Belvoir, Va."

Cheney Speaks

Here's the transcript of Vice President Cheney's interview on Friday with CNBC's Larry Kudlow. Among the softballs:

Question: "President Bush is speaking today, this morning, about his unhappiness with the congressional appropriations process and spending overruns. He's already vetoed the SCHIP bill. He's kind of become the budget warrior this year. What can you say about that?"

Cheney: "Well, he's doing it and he's enjoying it."

Asked about a Democratic tax plan, Cheney responded: "Well, I don't like it. I think it's bad in several respects. It raises the rate on capital gains. It raises the rate on dividends. It raises the top rate on the income tax. Those are terrible ideas. Those are all rates we reduced when we came in, in 2001 and 2003. They've been absolutely crucial to driving this economy and to creating the incentives out there for businesses to invest and to create more jobs and more wealth. They're the prime reason we've seen an increase in tax revenues. And also the fact that we've got a deficit next year that's 1.2 percent of GDP, which is half what the deficit has been over the last 40 years."

But that's bunk. As I've explained many times before, there is near unanimity among economists that Bush's tax cuts didn't come close to paying for themselves, let alone result in added revenue. Tax cuts cause deficits, they don't reduce them.

Cheney also acknowledged his unlikely relationship to Barack Obama.

Question: "Speaking of another Democratic frontrunner, you and Senator Obama are apparently related. This information comes from your wife, Lynne, who appeared on our program not too long ago. Mareen and Susan Duvall, immigrants from France -- have you spoke to Mr. Obama about this shared experience?"

Cheney: "Cousin Barack? (Laughter.) No, we haven't -- haven't had the opportunity to talk about it."

The First Lady on Fox

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "First lady Laura Bush, an increasingly prominent voice on matters at home and abroad, says the difference lately is not her policy role in the White House but rather the attention she gets for it.

"'The fact is, I've been involved for a long time in policy, and I think I just didn't get a lot of coverage on it,' she said in a rare Sunday talk show appearance.

"'I mean, I really do think there's a stereotype. And I was stereotyped as being a certain way because I was a librarian and a teacher and, you know, had the careers that traditional women have,' she said.

"She returned last week from the Middle East, where she promoted breast cancer awareness in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan."

But here's the transcript of the softball interview on Fox News Sunday. The only concrete example of being involved in policy that the first lady offers is that of Burma, where she has indeed been outspoken of late.

Questoin: "Do you weigh in on policy with the President? Do you weigh in on the war in Iraq or Iran?"

Laura Bush: "You know, sure. I mean, I talk to the President about Burma. I meet with Burmese dissidents. I've had the chance to talk about that."

So is she really giving her husband a lot of policy advice? Or is she just trying to shed her well-earned image as a non-entity (certainly compared to her predecessor)? Because first lady of 43 is apparently not a fan of the first lady of 42.

As AFP reports: "First Lady Laura Bush may be a champion of women's rights but that does not extend to endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton's bid to become America's first female president. . . .

"Laura Bush said the Republican candidate would get her vote in next year's presidential race, even if Senator Clinton has the best shot yet of ensuring that a woman occupies the Oval Office.

"'I mean, I'm looking forward to voting for a Republican woman, whenever that is, but I'll be supporting the Republican,' she said, insisting that policy positions trumped gender."

Cabinet Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that "acting secretaries running the departments of Agriculture and Veterans Affairs. The VA vacancy is particularly perplexing, given the political troubles facing the White House on that issue and the fact that R. James Nicholson announced his departure more than three months ago.

"Veterans groups are sounding restive. 'I just don't think that VA is on the radar screen of the White House,' said David W. Gorman of the Disabled American Veterans. 'They think it is a lower priority in the whole scheme of things.' "

Bush the Jacobin?

Fran┬┐ois Furstenberg writes in a New York Times op-ed that "future historians examining Mr. Bush's presidency within the longer sweep of political and intellectual history may find the French Revolution useful in understanding his curious brand of 21st- century conservatism."

Dowd's Fantasy

New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd imagines an unleashed Cheney talking to NBC's Tim Russert:

Russert: "Conservatives are tossing around some lock-and-load language. The president is talking about Iran sparking a 'nuclear holocaust' and World War III. Giuliani adviser Norman Podhoretz thinks we're in World War IV. Shouldn't you at least give the new sanctions against Iran a chance to work?"

Cheney: "Oh, we have, Tim. The sanctions were announced Thursday. It's now Sunday."

The Hugger in Chief

Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post: "The wildfires in Southern California this week have served to remind the world once more about one of the singular and underappreciated skills of George W. Bush: The man is a generous hugger."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Tomorrow on a scary Halloween costume; David Horsey on Cheney's haunted house; Ann Telnaes and Jeff Danziger on Iran; Tony Auth on Bush's achievement; Mike Luckovich on Bush's relevance.

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