The Incredible Shrinking Agenda

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 9, 2008; 12:37 PM

As President Bush kicks off what is a widely regarded as a futile trip to the Middle East, he's redefining his goals on the fly.

Bush, who as recently as a week ago was promising a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians before the end of the year, is now describing a more modest goal: a shared vision of what a Palestinian state would look like.

Jonathan Finer and Michael Abramowitz noted in The Washington Post yesterday that Bush was "already scaling back" his ambitions for a peace accord, "saying now it may be possible to set only the 'definition' of a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office."

That earned Finer and Abramowitz a scathing response from the White House press office, ostensibly "setting the record straight" and insisting that Bush has been "consistently focused on defining a Palestinian state."

But unless you consider agreement on a "vision of a two-state solution" tantamount to a "peace treaty," then Bush's own words define a retreat.

Here, for instance, is Bush speaking at his Annapolis peace summit in November: "In furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements.

"We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."

Here's Bush as recently as last week -- on Jan. 2-- talking to journalists from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot: "I believe -- to answer your question -- yes, there will be a comprehensive peace signed by the end of this year, because if they're committed, like they say they are -- and I believe they are, and I believe their people -- the majority of the people, want there to be peace -- now is the time to move."

But sometime in the subsequent two days, Bush apparently decided -- or was told -- that he needed to stop promising quite so much. Here he is on Jan. 4 talking to a journalist from Israel's Channel 2 News:

Q: "Why do you believe that you can reach peace in 12 months, when it hasn't been attainable in the seven years of your presidency -- and long before that?"

Bush: "I think we can reach a vision of what a Palestinian state would look like. But I have made it abundantly clear that the existence of a state will be subject to the obligations in the road map. And so the goal is to have something other than just verbs -- words. In other words, here's what a state will look like. . . .

"And so I'm optimistic that we can have the outlines of a state defined. In other words, negotiations on borders and right of return and these different issues can be settled. . . . "

Q: "So there won't necessarily be a complete, ratified signed agreement by the end of your -- "

Bush: "There will be an agreement on what a state would look like, in my judgment. I think it'll happen."

And here's Bush yesterday in the Rose Garden: "[I]t's important to lay out a vision in order for there to be a Palestinian state once road map obligations are met. What has to happen in order for there to be a peaceful settlement of a longstanding dispute is there to be a outlines of a state clearly defined, so that at some point in time, the Palestinians who agree that Israel ought to be -- exist, and agree that a state ought to live side by side with Israel in peace, have something to be for."

Today's Press Conference

At his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today, Bush sidestepped any talk of specific goals. "Step one of any complicated process that is going to require a lot of hard work and serious dialogue is whether the mind-set is right," he said. "The fundamental questions that I was seeking at Annapolis and on my return trip is -- is -- is the understanding about the power of what a vision will do for peace. . . .

"I come -- you know, people in America say, 'Well, do you really think these guys are serious? You know, we've heard a lot of rhetoric in the past, a lot of grand proclamations.' I wouldn't be standing here if I did not believe that you, Mr. Prime Minister, and President Abbas and your negotiators were serious. . . .

"In the rest of my trip, I will be talking about the opportunity for Middle Eastern peace and reminding people in the neighborhood that if they truly want to see two states living side by side in peace, they have an obligation -- Arab leaders have an obligation -- to recognize Israel's important contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East, and to encourage and support the Palestinians as they make tough choices. I'm an optimistic people -- person. People say, 'Do you think it's possible during your presidency?' And the answer is, I'm very hopeful, and we'll work hard to that end."

Bush promised to be tough when needed: "If it looks like there needs to be a little pressure, Mr. Prime Minister, you know me well enough to know I'll be more than willing to provide it."

But Olmert made it clear that Bush hasn't started pressuring him yet -- or if he has, it isn't having any effect. "I hope that I don't disappoint anyone, certainly not the president, because we talked at length, if I will say that the president didn't ask for me to make any commitments other than the ones that Israel made already with regard to the peace process, and as I've spelled it out on many different occasions."

Welcome to Israel

Joel Greenberg writes in the Chicago Tribune that Bush is encountering in Israel "a political landscape that has changed little in the weeks since Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged at a Mideast peace conference to revive negotiations.

"The international gathering hosted by Bush at Annapolis, Md., in November was supposed to jump-start talks between the Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008.

"Instead, both sides have reverted to familiar patterns of behavior, bogging down early efforts to revive the negotiations. There is little faith among ordinary Israelis and Palestinians that a breakthrough is possible.

"'Things haven't moved very much, and the question is why anyone expected that they would,' said Mark Heller, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. 'Expectations were artificially inflated by the hype surrounding Annapolis, which was made to look like something more significant than it really was.'"

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "In the six weeks since Bush declared at an international gathering in Annapolis, Maryland, that 'the time is right' to make peace, two perennial obstacles to Mideast peacemaking have already reared up: Israeli settlements and violence.

"Even before formal talks began on Dec. 12, Israel announced plans to build homes in areas claimed by the Palestinians. Two Israeli hikers were killed later by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, and Israeli attacks have killed dozens of militants in the Gaza Strip in response to ongoing rocket fire. Israeli troops also kept the West Bank militant hotbed of Nablus under siege for several days."

National security adviser Steve Hadley, talking to reporters on the plane ride over, had this to say about the recent events: "[T]here have been a lot of, obviously, distractions -- and by distractions I don't -- this is on the record, right? By distractions I mean some serious issues that have appeared. The Palestinians are very concerned, obviously, about settlements; the Israelis are very concerned, obviously, about the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. These issues need to be addressed."

Said Hadley: "I think the President will encourage the parties to get after it, to stay focused. . . .

"I don't think you're going to see him jumping into the middle of these negotiations."

Here's Bush as he arrived in Tel Aviv: "We seek lasting peace. We see a new opportunity for peace here in the Holy Land, and for freedom across the region."

Blogging the Trip

From Dana Perino's press gaggle yesterday: "One note. As we leave for the Middle East trip today, we will begin posting periodic updates from the senior staff that's traveling with the President on a website -- on our website, whitehouse.gov. It will be called " Trip Notes from the Middle East." This is new to us. We encourage you to log on and to check back often to read some of the updates that the staff will be posting throughout the trip. So it will be just a little bit of a blog."

Q: "Blog?"

Perino: "A little bit like a blog, yes -- dare I say."

Reporting Back From Iraq

Bush met in person and by video with leaders of provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq yesterday. One reporter, Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, was allowed to sit in.

Loven writes: "The situations the leaders reported ranged from the dire to the celebratory.

"John Jones, the provisional reconstruction team leader in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, gaped in awe at the report from another team leader, Angus Simmons. Simmons had talked about all the ways his team was helping boost tourism in the southern province of Najaf, home to holy sites, including assisting the Iraqis' dream of a new airport. It was a situation unimaginable to Jones in his area, which has become a messy new stronghold for extremists who have been pushed out of Anbar province by the increased U.S. troop presence there.

"'We're still struggling,' Jones said. 'The key thing for us is we're making small steps.' The biggest victory Jones reported was getting access from the provincial governor, a Shiite Muslim in a predominantly Sunni area. . . .

"Bush talked little, asking a few questions, making a couple of jokes and giving a brief pep talk."

Who's Fooling Whom?

From Bush's Rose Garden remarks yesterday: "I also spoke by video with [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki to discuss the return of the Iraqi parliament that -- it was clear from my discussions that there's great hope in Iraq, that the Iraqis are beginning to see political progress that is matching the dramatic security gains for the past year. There's still work to be done, but it was a very hopeful conversation."

Does Bush really believe Maliki is a credible reporter of progress? That's hard to imagine.

As David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "A new movement to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is gathering force in Baghdad."

And while the movement is not getting overt support from the U.S. government, Ignatius writes: "'Clearly there is a sense among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that the government isn't doing what it's supposed to do,' [a senior U.S. official in the Iraqi capital] explained. 'It needs to get better quick.'"

And Thinkprogress.org reports that at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, "Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs Mark Kimmitt said 2008 will be 'far more difficult' than 2007 for the U.S. strategy because 'it depends far more on the Iraqis themselves to show progress on key legislation, on their economy, and reconciliation.' Kimmitt predicted only a mild chance that 'surge' security gains will last.

Said Kimmitt: "2008 and beyond will be a success, the surge will be a success, if the gains in security can be translated into gains in stability . . . if I had to put a number to it, maybe it's three in 10, maybe it's 50-50, if we play our cards right."

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, Harvard security expert Sarah Sewall wonders how exactly you pull out of a country that lacks a functioning national political process: "U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine assumes a functioning host nation government. American officials increasingly express frustration about the ability of Iraq's national government to act in a unified or decisive manner on critical issues. What happens to the other elements of U.S. strategy in Iraq when the center cannot hold?"

Iran Watch

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush warned Iran yesterday that its confrontation with three U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf on Sunday was a provocative act. . . .

"'It is a dangerous situation, and they should not have done it, pure and simple,' Bush told reporters at the Rose Garden, hours before departing for a seven-leg tour of the Middle East. 'I don't know what their thinking was, but I'm telling you what I think it was: I think it was a provocative act.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times that "administration officials say they believe that Iran was trying to provoke the United States on the eve of the president's visit to the Middle East."

At his press conference in Israel today, Bush added that "there will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple. And my advice to them is don't do it."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is not clear what game the Iranians were playing or even who was giving the orders. President Bush's refusal to engage Iran diplomatically makes it even harder for American officials to deconstruct Iran's motives and increases the risk of future miscalculation on both sides."

E-Mail Watch

What some of us have long suspected turns out to be true: It takes a federal court order to get a straight answer from the White House.

Then again, I may be getting ahead of myself. The White House hasn't actually answered yet.

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A federal magistrate ordered the White House on Tuesday to reveal whether copies of possibly millions of missing e-mails are stored on computer backup tapes.

"The order by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola comes amid an effort by the White House to scuttle two lawsuits that could force the Executive Office of the President to recover any e-mail that has disappeared from computer servers where electronic documents are automatically archived.

"Two federal laws require the White House to preserve all records including e-mail.

"Facciola gave the White House five business days to report whether computer backup tapes contain e-mails written between 2003 and 2005.

"The time period covers the Valerie Plame affair in which at least three presidential aides were found to have leaked Plame's CIA identity to the news media."

Here's the order. The judge writes that it is "possible that a small amount of information not currently in the record may have a large affect on the resolution of this Motion and the direction of this lawsuit. With that understanding, the court will order the defendants to provide answers to the following questions:

"1. Are the back-ups catalogued, labeled or otherwise identified to indicate the period of time they cover?

"2. Are the back-ups catalogued, labeled or otherwise identified to indicate the data contained therein?

"3. Do the back-ups contain emails written and received between 2003-2005?

"4. Do the back-ups contain the emails said to be missing that are the subject of this lawsuit?"

"To date, the White House has evaded answering questions about whether it permanently destroyed over 5 million e-mails about issues such as Hurricane Katrina, the firing of United States Attorneys, and the exposure of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, one of the two parties suing the White House. "This order will force the Executive Office of the President to tell the public whether it really erased key records of the nation's history or whether it has made any effort to preserve the information."

For background, see my Nov. 13 column, Where Are the E-mails? and the Web sites of the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Torture Tapes Watch

Rep. Jane Harman writes in a USA Today op-ed about the CIA's destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogation of terror suspects: "While it is suddenly difficult to find anyone at CIA, the Justice Department or the White House who believed that the tapes should have been destroyed, the fact is they were -- resulting in a breach of faith with Congress and possible criminal wrongdoing. It would be grossly unfair to make some in the agency take the fall for decisions made by others. This smells like the coverup of the coverup."

For more background, see this recently declassified 2003 exchange of letters between Harman, then the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, and the CIA's general counsel.

Tax Cut Watch

Michael M. Phillips writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Faced with recession fears, the White House is considering tax rebates for individuals to encourage spending and tax breaks for businesses to encourage investment, according to people familiar with the matter. . . .

"The president's main options include a tax rebate of perhaps $500 for individuals to encourage spending and a change in tax laws that would allow companies to deduct from their taxes a substantial portion of investments in equipment, according to people familiar with the discussions. President Bush is expected to prepare the economic-stimulus package before his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28."

Kamen's Contest

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen writes: "The deadline is midnight tonight for the In the Loop contest to guess what the intended target was in that still-suspicious fire last month in Vice President Cheney's office in the Old Executive Office Building.

"Send your entries to hitthevault@washpost.com."

The Roots of Change

Blogger Jack Balkin writes: "If 2008 turns out to be a pivotal election, defining a new political era, it is important to give credit where credit is due." One big reason, he writes, will be "the almost complete political failure of George W. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. . . .

"The Bush/Rove strategy of accentuating divisions along partisan lines was a bold gamble that ultimately failed, because it depended on the Bush presidency being successful. . . .

"Now add to this the President's remarkable intransigence in the face of his policy failures and his growing unpopularity since 2005. President Bush has never been more sure of himself (at least in public) than he is today, and, with the aid of his Republican allies in Congress, he has been successful in batting back almost everything the Democratic Congress has sought to do. The result makes politics appear even more hopeless than it actually is, and this only spurs on the public's desire for change and for unity."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on what's behind all that desire for change

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