Bush's Alternate Reality

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 21, 2008; 1:16 PM

President Bush on Wednesday said something demonstrably false and inflammatory about Iran -- asserting that the Iranian government has "declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people."

The Iranians have never done any such thing -- and for Bush to say so at a time of great tension between the two countries is bizarre at best.

So why did he say it? Was he actively trying to misrepresent the situation? Was it just a slip of the tongue? Or does he believe it, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary?

It seems unlikely that Bush would choose this particular venue to launch a disinformation campaign: His comment came midway through a softball interview with an obscure U.S.-funded Farsi-language radio station, on the occasion of Persian new year. And the Iranian audience knows best that what he said is untrue. Such a blatant distortion only strengthens the Iranian government's position that Bush is a liar.

So did Bush just misspeak? The White House certainly suggested that yesterday, with a spokesman insisting that Bush had simply spoken in "shorthand," combining Iranian threats against Israel with concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

And yet, as disturbing as the third possibility is -- that Bush is operating in an alternate reality -- it's supported by this simple fact: He's said almost exactly the same thing at least once before.

As Olivier Knox of AFP pointed out on Aug. 6, Bush said at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that day: "It's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to a destabilizing force. After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."

Then, as now, there was no official retraction.

Washington wisdom has it that whatever military action against Iran Bush and Vice President Cheney might have been hatching was shelved after a national intelligence estimate released late last year concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years earlier.

But a variety of reports have indicated that neither Bush nor Cheney were persuaded. For instance, Michael Hirsh wrote for Newsweek in January that in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush "all but disowned the document." In yesterday's column, I described Cheney's brazen refusal to endorse its central conclusion.

In short, it seems clear that Bush remains convinced that the Iranians continue to pursue nuclear weapons. Does he also somehow believe they've acknowledged this publicly? Or that they may as well have? Is this the kind of stuff that Cheney -- often the last person to talk to Bush before important decisions -- whispers in his ear?

It's worth getting Bush on the record about exactly how he understands the facts here.

And -- especially after the suspicious dismissal of Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon earlier this month, and given Cheney's conviction that the legislative branch can't limit the executive's war-making powers -- it may be worth asking ourselves if there's anything that would prevent the president and vice president from acting on their delusions.

What the President Said

Here's the exchange in question, from Bush's interview with Parichehr Farzam of Radio Farda:

Farzam: "Mr. President, as you and your allies launched a global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism, what do you think is your most important challenge to expose and stop the secretive ambition of Iran's government to enrich uranium, while assuring its citizens that their happiness and prosperity and peace is a benefit within their reach?"

Bush: "Sure, absolutely. Well, one thing is, is to reiterate my belief that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear power program. It's in their right to have it. The problem is the government cannot be trusted to enrich uranium because one, they've hidden programs in the past and they may be hiding one now, who knows; and secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable to the United States and it's unacceptable to the world."

William Branigin was first to break this story yesterday, writing on washingtonpost.com that, contrary to what Bush said, "the Iranian government has not publicly declared a desire to obtain such weapons. In fact, Iranian leaders have said the opposite, repeatedly insisting that they do not want nuclear arms and asserting that their nuclear program is intended only to generate electricity. . . . "

"Asked to explain Bush's comment, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he spoke in 'shorthand,' combining Iranian threats against Israel with concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

"'The president was referring to the Iranian regime's previous statements regarding their desire to wipe Israel off the map,' Johndroe said. 'The president shorthanded his answer with regard to Iran's previously secret nuclear weapons program and their current enrichment and ballistic missile testing.'"

Branigin also put Johndroe's depiction of Iran's view of Israel in its proper context: "In an October 2005 speech to a conference on a 'World without Zionism,' Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by a state-run Iranian news agency as agreeing with a statement by Iran's late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that 'Israel must be wiped off the map.' Iran's foreign minister later said the comment had been incorrectly translated from Farsi and that Ahmadinejad was 'talking about the [Israeli] regime,' which Iran does not recognize and wants to see collapse.

"According to Farsi-speaking commentators including Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, Ahmadinejad's exact quote was, 'The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.' Cole has written that Ahmadinejad was not calling for the 'Nazi-style extermination of a people,' but was expressing the wish that the Israeli government would disappear just as the shah of Iran's regime had collapsed in 1979."

Robin Wright writes in this morning's Washington Post: "Experts on Iran and nuclear proliferation said the president's statement was wrong. 'That's as uninformed as [Sen. John] McCain's statement that Iran is training al-Qaeda. Iran has never said it wanted a nuclear weapon for any reason. It's just not true. It's a little troubling that the president and the leading Republican candidate are both so wrong about Iran,' said Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

"Others said it is unclear whether the president believes what he said or was deliberately distorting Iran's position.

"'The Iranian government is on the record across the board as saying it does not want a nuclear weapon. There's plenty of room for skepticism about these assertions. But it's troubling for the administration to indicate that Iran is explicitly embracing the program as a means of destroying another country,' said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the State Department until last year and now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Asked if Iran could exploit Bush's inaccurate comment for political purposes, Johndroe replied: 'I'm not concerned about that. If they want to spin it a certain way, they can do it any way they want.'"

Deja Vu All Over Again

Here's what Knox wrote for AFP in August: "US President George W. Bush charged Monday that Iran has openly declared that it seeks nuclear weapons -- an inaccurate accusation at a time of sharp tensions between Washington and Tehran. . . .

"Iran has repeatedly said that its nuclear program, which is widely believed in the West to be cover for an effort to develop atomic weapons, is for civilian purposes. . . .

"Asked to provide examples of Tehran openly declaring that it seeks atomic weapons, White House officials contacted by AFP said that Bush was referring to Iran's defiance of international calls to freeze sensitive nuclear work."

Patterns of Deception

This wouldn't be the first time Bush has been deceptive -- accidentally or on purpose -- about the Iranian threat.

As I wrote in my Dec. 4 column, the national intelligence estimate about Iran didn't just undermine a key element of Bush's foreign policy, it raised questions about whether the president and vice president knowingly misled the public about the danger posed by Iran.

And the following day, I chronicled how Bush likely knew for months that he was promoting fundamentally false impressions about the danger posed by Iran.

Faces of the Fallen

In the first week of our sixth year in Iraq, Rick Hampson and Paul Overberg of USA Today unveil a new database of the fallen.

"One in six were too young to buy a beer. About two dozen were old enough for an AARP card. Eleven died on Thanksgiving Day, 11 on Christmas, and at least five on their birthdays. One percent were named Smith.

"As the nation approaches its 4,000th Iraq war fatality -- on Thursday the toll stood at 3,983 servicemembers plus eight Defense Department civilians -- a USA Today analysis shows who gave their lives, where they came from and how they fell."

Washingtonpost.com's own Faces of the Fallen Web site continues to be a comprehensive and up-to-date resource.

Cheney and Oil

Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "Vice President Dick Cheney will discuss 'problems' in energy markets in two days of talks with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that will also focus on security concerns, a Cheney aide said.

"'They will review a broad agenda of diplomatic and security issues, as well as where we are now in the global energy market,' National Security Adviser John Hannah told reporters on the flight from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia today. . . .

"[A] senior administration official, who briefed reporters traveling with Cheney, said the vice president may not seek anything more than a thorough discussion about the current situation in the global energy markets."


I wrote in yesterday's column about Cheney's response to an interviewer's observation that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the war in Iraq.

Said Cheney: "So?"

The White House press corps got into the spirit of the occasion at yesterday's briefing with Dana Perino.

Perino: "It's one of those days I have nothing to start with."

Q: "So? (Laughter.)"

Perino later tried to explain that the president and the vice president act on principle and not based on public opinion. That led to a classic exchange with Hearst columnist Helen Thomas:

Thomas: "The American people are being asked to die and pay for this. And you're saying they have no say in this war?"

Perino: "No, I didn't say that Helen. But Helen, this president was elected --"

Thomas: "Well, what it amounts to is you saying we have no input at all."

Perino: "You had input. The American people have input every four years, and that's the way our system is set up. . . . "

Thomas: "Supposed to be a government for the people, of the people, by the people?"

Perino: "I would submit to you that people across America, if asked what type of a President do you want: one that stands on principle or that one that chases polls? And I think that they would want --"

Thomas: "What's the principle of going to war against the people who did nothing to us?"

Mission Accomplished

The Associated Press points out a Perino gaffe: "Who knew? President Bush wants to be unpopular.

"Not really, of course, but that's what his press secretary said Thursday.

"Spokeswoman Dana Perino was making the case that it's no surprise that Bush has low poll ratings because he is overseeing an unpopular war. But then her argument went off the tracks.

"'Both the president and the vice president have long believed, and it's a part of what has made them the leaders that they are, which is not to chase popularity polls but to hold themselves to a standard that requires people not to like them,' she said."

Poll Watch

Ernie Paicopolos writes for Fox News: "With far more Americans identifying themselves as Democrats than Republicans, President Bush's job rating has hit a new low, according to the latest Fox News poll.

"Three in 10 Americans (30 percent) now approve of the job Bush is doing as the nation's leader, with 6 in 10 disapproving.

"While disapproval of the president has been higher (for example, 61 percent in both July and March of 2007), his approval rating has never sunk this low before.

"Majorities in every major sub-group except Republicans, conservatives and born-again Christians give a negative rating to Bush's performance in the White House. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65 percent) approve of Bush.

Here are the complete results. Asked if they think Bush's endorsement will help or hurt Republican presidential candidate John McCain, 27 percent said it would help -- 47 percent said it would hurt.

China Watch

Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush is avoiding public statements on the intensifying Chinese crackdown on Tibet, relying instead on private messages to the Chinese leadership, pressing Beijing to show restraint, allow U.S. observers into Tibet and have open trials of people arrested, administration officials said.

"The president, one senior administration official said, is counting on what he regards as an 'extraordinary relationship' with President Hu Jintao to help guide Chinese political leaders to change their response to anti-China demonstrations in Tibet and to begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The White House yesterday ruled out linking the Tibet issue -- or other human rights concerns -- to Bush's attendance at the Olympics this summer in Beijing. . . .

"Administration officials privately acknowledge that, on Tibet, they have little to show for their efforts."

Fraud Watch

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "House Democrats demanded documents Thursday about a multibillion-dollar overseas contracting loophole to track down how -- and why -- the Bush administration slipped it into plans to protect taxpayer money. . . .

"Last May, facing growing cases of fraud and increasing spending overseas, the Justice Department introduced plans to force companies to notify the government about evidence of contract abuse worth $5 million or more. Currently, contractors report evidence of abuse on a voluntary basis, and the number of company-reported fraud cases has declined steadily over the past 15 years.

"By November, after it left the Justice Department and was published in the Federal Register, the proposed rule specifically exempted 'contracts to be performed outside the United States.' . . .

"'Preventing fraud by contractors overseas should be a high priority,' Democrats wrote in letters sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget and four other executive agencies. 'Instead, the exemption for contracts to be performed overseas appears to have been inserted in the rule late in the process and against the wishes of the Department of Justice, which raises serious questions as to why and how such a policy was developed.'"

Which office is the most likely culprit? Well, let's just quote Jordan: "OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy has repeatedly declined to comment on the loophole or how it was added to the overall fraud crackdown."

Contempt Watch

John Bresnahan writes for the Politico: "The House General Counsel's Office, which is representing the Judiciary Committee in a civil contempt lawsuit against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, has asked a federal judge to set up an expedited schedule to resolve portions of the case, a schedule that would require a ruling by this summer, according to court documents filed today."

Karl Rove Watch

Karl Rove argues in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Democrats are still weak on security. But what his cherry-picking of poll results really demonstrates is that when pollsters frame the issue in Republican terms, Republican positions do better in polls.

Churns Like a Duck . . .

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune about Perino's interview of Dee Dee Myers, press secretary to former President Clinton, for C-SPAN's BookTV.

The two commiserated about facing the press corps. Myers said she sometimes invited friends to watch her briefings, and they were shocked at how rough it was.

Perino replied: "Mine'll say, 'You're so -- How do you stay so calm?' Well, maybe I might look like it on the outside sometimes. But it's like a duck. You look really calm above the water, but underneath, you're churning."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart revisits five years of war and concludes: "Maybe we've all been wrong in viewing this war on a linear space-time continuum. Perhaps to view this war as a success, we have to look at it the way the president does: Backwards."

It does seem to get better and better, if you look at it that way.

Stewart also reviews the dismal results of the vice president's foreign trips, and casts Cheney as the International Man of Misery.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Jim Morin, Stuart Carlson, Tony Auth and David Horsey on the fifth anniversary; Mike Luckovich on Iracking the economy; John Sherffius on the public's opinion; and an Ann Telnaes animation on what Cheney is smoking.

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