Bush, the Blessed Peacemaker

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; 1:04 PM

President Bush's self-image continues to amaze. Wrapping up an eight-day Middle East trip, the man who has launched two wars and may be hankering for a third told ABC News yesterday that he is terribly misunderstood in the region.

"I mean, my image [is]: 'Bush wants to fight Muslims.' And, yeah, I'm concerned about it. Not because of me, personally. I'm concerned because I want most people to understand the great generosity and compassion of Americans," Bush told Terry Moran.

"But yeah, look, I'm sure people view me as a warmonger and I view myself as peacemaker."

Bush said he had something to prove on his trip. But, he said, "it's not so much to prove for my sake. It's really to prove for peace."

How does he intend to turn his image around? "You just have to fight through stereotypes by actions," he said, adding that he intends to let "the results speak for themselves. . . .

"I mean, when this democracy in Iraq solidifies and emerges and is whole, people will understand what I meant about the democracy agenda."

Bush said he still believes that freedom and democracy are possible in the region, and will ultimately be the way to bring an end to terrorism against the United States.

"Look, I know I've been accused of being a hopeless idealist. On the other hand, I don't see any alternative, if you believe it's an ideological struggle. . . .

"And so the freedom agenda is absolutely essential. And the freedom agenda doesn't develop in one man's term of office. It takes a while. My job is to plant the seeds. [The] truth of the matter is that freedom is advancing quite amazingly in the Middle East.

"The other thing is, if I could be perfectly blunt about it, I think people who say we can be free, but you shouldn't be, are elitist," Bush said.

Apparently forgetting his "I'm a war president" motto of the 2004 campaign, Bush said: "I don't believe democracies, you know, generally lead to war-like governments. You know, 'Please vote for me, I promise you war.' It's not something that tends to win elections."

The latest polls (see yesterday's column) show Bush's approval rating at dismal levels, with 4 out of 5 Americans saying the next president should set the nation in a new direction.

But Bush literally laughed off Moran's question about his poll numbers. "What am I supposed to do, go into a fetal position because of your polls?"

Moran wrapped up the interview with some questions about Bush's sightseeing in the Holy Land: "You went to the Mount of the Beatitudes, where by tradition Jesus is understood to have said 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.' And yet a lot of people here -- and back home -- see you as a warmaker."

Bush: "Yeah. Well, we'll see what history says. I happen to believe that the actions I've taken were necessary to protect ourselves and lay the foundation for peace. That's what I believe. But history -- I've often said this -- I don't think the history of my administration is going to be written during your time as a newscaster, or my time on Earth. I believe that it's going to take a while for people to determine whether or not the foundation of peace has truly been laid."

Asked what he was thinking as he looked out on the Sea of Galilee, Bush said: "I reflected on the story in the New Testament about the calm and the rough seas, because it was on those very seas that the Lord was in the boat with the disciples, and they were worried about the waves and the wind, and the sea calmed. That's what I reflected on: the calm you can find in putting your faith in a higher power."

For more on Bush's self-image, see my Jan. 7 column, Bush's Messiah Complex.

Wrapping Things Up

Hannah Allam writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush wraps up a weeklong tour of the Middle East Wednesday, leaving many Mideast political observers mystified as to the purpose of the visit and doubtful that the president made inroads on his twin campaigns for Arab-Israeli peace and isolation for Iran.

"Bush is heading back to Washington mostly empty-handed, said several analysts and politicians throughout the region. Arab critics deemed Bush's peace efforts unrealistic, his anti-Iran tirades dangerous, his praise of authoritarian governments disappointing and his defense of civil liberties ironic.

"'There is no credibility to his words after what the region saw during his presidency,' said Mohamed Fayek, the Cairo, Egypt-based director of the nonprofit Arab Organization for Human Rights. He cited the war in Iraq, the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal. 'American policy threw the region off-balance and destabilized it. The visit caused deep disappointment. I don't see any results.'"

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush received renewed promises of bargaining for Mideast peace and a polite hearing for his warnings about Iran, and he collected major bling from his Arab hosts.

"But neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors assured Bush that they will do what the United States asks on issues ranging from democratic reform and unauthorized Israeli housing expansion to high gas prices. . . .

"Although pleased that Bush has given personal attention to peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, Arab leaders are skeptical that either side is ready or willing to make concessions. Their publics and sometimes timid press are openly skeptical that Bush is the man for the peacemaker's job."

Laurent Lozano writes for AFP: "Bush made a flying visit to Egypt on Wednesday, wrapping up a Middle East tour after failing to win wholesale backing from Arab allies for his efforts to seal a peace deal and isolate Iran."

In a joint statement with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el Sheikh, Bush sounded a bit defensive about his peace initiative: "I told the President I'm going to stay -- there's a wonder whether or not the American President, when he says something, whether he actually means it. When I say I'm coming back to stay engaged, I mean it. And when I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying."

On the issue of Iraq, Bush said: "The decision to send more troops is working. Violence is down. Secretary Rice came back from Iraq yesterday and briefed me that she was able to see life returning back to the streets. The moms are out with their children, normal life is coming back. And political life is moving."

Opinion Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Blessed is the peacemaker who comes bearing a $30 billion package of military aid for Israel and a $20 billion package of Humvees and guided bombs for the Arabs. . . .

"W. has resumed his mantra of having a vision that turns into freedom that could develop into global democracy.

"W.'s peace train quickly gave way to the warpath, however, with Mr. Bush devoting a good chunk of time to the unfinished war in Iraq and the possibility of a war with Iran. . . .

"Arab TV offered an uncomfortable juxtaposition: Al Arabiya running the wretched saga of Gaza children suffering from a lack of food and medicine during the Israeli blockade, blending into the wretched excess scenes of W. being festooned with rapper-level bling from royal hosts flush with gazillions from gouging us on oil."

I wrote yesterday that Bush apparently said something incendiary in an interview with Fox News on Monday. (The interview isn't set to air until tonight.)

Dowd has the dope: "In meetings with leaders, [Bush] privately pooh-poohed the National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. On Fox News, he openly broke with intelligence analysts, telling Greta Van Susteren about Iran: 'I believe they want a weapon, and I believe that they're trying to gain the know-how as to how to make a weapon under the guise of a civilian nuclear program.'"

No Visit to Iraq?

Hard to believe, but it looks like Bush is heading back from the Middle East without a "surprise" visit to Iraq.

As I wrote in my Sept. 17 column, Bush has made only three visits to Iraq since declaring that major combat operations were over more than four years ago, all of them stealthy and short. His total time in country: Less than 15 hours.

Jawboning Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "With oil prices hovering around $90 a barrel, President Bush on Tuesday urged oil-rich countries to raise their output, but Saudi Arabia's oil minister said the world's largest producer would do so only 'when the market justifies it.' . . .

"Tuesday, the White House made oil a centerpiece of its public communication in the capital of the world's biggest oil producer, and Bush made clear his concern that the sharp increase in prices was a threat to the U.S. economy."

Speaking with reporters on Air Force One as the president flew from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino related Bush's description of his conversation with Saudi King Abdullah: "He says that the King says that he understands the situation. He's worried about high oil prices and how they can negatively affect economies around the world. The President said there's a hope that as a result of these conversations that OPEC would be encouraged to authorize an increase production."

When reporters asked if she could explain what that hope is based on, Perinos replied: "No."

Ask the White House

The White House Web site yesterday excitedly announced that Bush himself would host " Ask the White House" at 1 p.m. and answer questions about his trip. It's supposed to be a "live chat" -- and would have been Bush's first.

But somehow, the " transcript" of the event was up on the web site before 11 a.m.

Here's one of the only seven questions: "Dear Mr. President, In your opinion, what strategy can the United States of America pursue in order to maintain close ties with the Middle East to promote peace, liberty, and democracy, while maintaining a strong foothold on the fight against terror? In deep gratitude for your service to this great nation."

Here's another: "Mr. President, A silly question, but who picks your attire for all the important events you attend? Love your ties."

And here's yet another: "Dear President Bush, I would like to know why the government doesnt invest in research to try to create some kind of big battery that would replace the use of oil."

Not surprisingly, Bush -- or whoever -- didn't exactly break any news. And he concluded: "No question we've had a great trip -- but it's also no question I'm happy to get home. I'm looking forward to seeing Laura and Barney and Beazley and the Kitty. After all, there's no better place to lay your head than in your own bed with people you love."

White House E-mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House has acknowledged recycling its backup computer tapes of e-mail before October 2003, raising the possibility that many electronic messages -- including those pertaining to the CIA leak case -- have been taped over and are gone forever.

"The disclosure came minutes before midnight Tuesday under a court-ordered deadline that forced the White House to reveal information it has previously refused to provide."

Here is the White House response from Chief Information Officer Theresa Payton to four simple questions from the magistrate, including: "Do the back-ups contain the emails said to be missing that are the subject of this lawsuit?"

In her statement, Payton says the White House made regular backup tapes that captured "snapshots" of the White House network, including all e-mails stored in archives or individual mailboxes at the time. And she says that backup tapes can be used to recover lost e-mails, though "the process is complex, labor intensive and costly."

But, she writes: "Consistent with industry practices relating to tape media management for disaster recovery back-up systems, these tapes were recycled prior to October 2003."

As for the missing emails, her answer is essentially: What missing emails?

"I am aware of a chart created by a former employee . . . that purports to identify certain dates and EOP [Executive Office of the President] components for which the chart's creator appears to have concluded that certain EOP components were missing emails on certain dates in the 2003-2005 time period. Specifically, the chart appeared to have concluded that some components on some dates had either (i) a lower-than-expected number of emails preserved in the normal archiving process, or (ii) no emails preserved in the normal archiving process," she writes.

But her office "has reviewed the chart and has so far been unable to replicate its results or affirm the correctness of the assumptions underlying it."

Payton says the White House has "undertaken and independent effort" to determine what's missing. "That process is underway and we expect the independent assessment to be completed in the near term."

In a statement from one of the plaintiffs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, chief counsel Anne Weismann said: "With this new filing, the White House has admitted that although it has long known about the missing emails, it did nothing to recover them, or discover how and why they went missing in the first place."

Sheila L. Shadmand, counsel for the other plaintiffs, the National Security Archive, said: "It is a victory to finally get the White House to respond to the Archive's claims, but somehow I suspect we will have many battles ahead of us to preserve the documentary history of the government for the American public."

Torture Tapes Watch

Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post with the latest on the destruction of video recordings of intelligence officers using simulated drowning to extract information from suspected al-Qaeda members.

"Congressional investigators have turned up no evidence that anyone in the Bush administration openly advocated the tapes' destruction, according to officials familiar with a set of classified documents forwarded to Capitol Hill. 'It was an agency decision -- you can take it to the bank,' CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in an interview on Friday. 'Other speculations that it may have been made in other compounds, in other parts of the capital region, are simply wrong.'

"Many of those involved recalled conversations in which senior CIA and White House officials advised against destroying the tapes, but without expressly prohibiting it, leaving an odd vacuum of specific instructions on a such a politically sensitive matter. They said that [then-director of clandestine operations, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.] then interpreted this silence -- the absence of a decision to order the tapes' preservation -- as a tacit approval of their destruction.

"'Jose could not get any specific direction out of his leadership' in 2005, one senior official said. . . .

"The tapes were discussed with White House lawyers twice, according to a senior U.S. official. The first occasion was a meeting convened by Muller and senior lawyers of the White House and the Justice Department specifically to discuss their fate. The other discussion was described by one participant as 'fleeting,' when the existence of the tapes came up during a spring 2004 meeting to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the official said."

The Gates Effect

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe about Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's considerable effect on the Bush administration: "[I]n an alliance with his former aide, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has helped to roll back some of the most hawkish stances of the first six years of the Bush presidency - on the use of torture, US-Iranian relations, and the policy of preemptive war that Vice President Dick Cheney, [former defense secretary Donald H.{rcub} Rumsfeld, and others espoused, according to interviews with current and former administration officials and private analysts. . . .

"'What you have is a change in the climate around the president,' said Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for the first President Bush, when Gates served as his deputy and Rice oversaw Soviet affairs.

"Given his background as a former CIA analyst and president of a major university, Gates has a 'different kind of personality and outlook' than his highly ideological predecessor, Scowcroft said. Gates's influence has helped replace the 'formidable pressure' exerted on the president by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative allies with 'a much more nuanced foreign policy.' . . .

"'There is no more talk about spreading democracy' by force, said Joseph Nye, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration who teaches at Harvard University. 'Bob is a very practical, sensible person. I think they would have been a lot better off if he had been the defense secretary in 2001.'"

On the Lighter Side

The Post's Michael Abramowitz marvels at the spectacle of the president and top aides -- including "National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams, better known in Washington as possibly Israel's staunchest supporter inside the White House" -- happily donning full-length, fur-lined robes -- gifts from the Saudi King.

CBS's Bill Plante offers a video tour of the filing center.

Martha Raddatz blogs for ABC News about being turned away from the Marriott hotel gym in Riyadh -- because it's only open to men.

In the Loop

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen picks the winners of his contest to guess the real target of the suspicious fire in Vice President Cheney's office last month. "One thing is clear: There's a lot of anger out there. Dozens of entries referred to the devil, torture and waterboarding tapes, sparks from an office door left open to the gates of hell and such," Kamen writes.

Among the winning entries:

"Federalist 47, regarding the tyranny of the executive." -- Thurgood Marshall Jr., a Washington lawyer and Clinton White House Cabinet secretary.

"Cheney's two-page-long list of other words to call Sen. Patrick Leahy." -- Dave Grimaldi, Washington lawyer and former House aide.

"List of future hunting partners." -- Jay B. Tabor of Martinsburg, W.Va.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart pores over video from Bush's trip and concludes: "A lot of the greetings he got in these countries appeared to disintegrate into some kind of international game of how silly can we make America's president look?"

Stewart also had quite a bit to say about Bush's statement to troops in Kuwait on Saturday that "There is no doubt in my mind when history was written, the final page will say: Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world."

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Cartoon Watch

David Horsey on Bush's Saudi hypocrisy.

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