The Tripping President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 4, 2008; 12:33 PM

And he's off.

President Bush leaves this afternoon for a week-long trip to Asia, the highlight of which will be three languorous days watching the Olympics in Beijing with the whole Bush clan.

But, try as he may, he can't escape controversy.

Paul Alexander writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's visit to Beijing almost looks like a vacation -- right down to a family reunion. But his three-nation Asian trip also takes him to the doorsteps of two troublesome regimes while forcing him to balance the Olympic spirit with the delicacies of diplomacy."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that Bush's trip "has the potential for fireworks at every stop.

"The prospect for controversy at the Olympics in Beijing, where Bush is to arrive Thursday, has already been well documented. But stops in Seoul and Bangkok -- aimed at celebrating ties with two of the United States' closest allies in Asia -- could also make Bush's ninth, and probably final, trip to the region something less than the triumphal tour the White House has been hoping for.

"Korean protesters angry about the resumption of U.S. beef imports are girding to hit the streets when Bush arrives in Seoul on Tuesday night. . . .

"Political repression in neighboring Burma will be high on Bush's agenda in Bangkok. He will meet with dissidents at the U.S. Embassy while Laura Bush tours refugee facilities on the Thailand-Burma border. Yet the Thai government is seen by many in the region as a major enabler of Burmese military strongman Than Shwe.

"Burma will be 'a tricky one' for Bush in Thailand, said Mike Green, a former Asia adviser to Bush who briefed reporters last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies."

The Associated Press has the itinerary. Reuters summarizes the key issues on the first stop, in Seoul.

China Watch

Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "After coming into office with a confrontational stance toward a rising China and open belligerence toward North Korea, the Bush administration has developed an Asia policy that has lowered the temperature of some of the world's toughest security threats, experts in the region say. . . .

"But they also say that prickly issues remain -- some of which Bush will confront on his trip. Some experts contend that a looming issue of America's gradual eclipse by a roaring Asia has been exacerbated by America's poor domestic performance over the Bush years.

"'On a superficial level, the Bush administration leaves the US on better terms in Asia than in other regions,' says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. 'But at a deeper level, there's been a hollowing out of our capabilities and a deteriorating of our strengths that will require full attention at home. That inward focus, he adds, 'will reduce our attraction in such a dynamic region as Asia.'"

Michael Forsythe and Dune Lawrence write for Bloomberg: "When Barack Obama or John McCain takes over the presidency in January, he will inherit a stable U.S.-China relationship. Part of the credit will belong to someone who gets few kudos for his foreign-policy initiatives: George W. Bush.

"The president, who travels to China for the fourth and last time of his presidency this week to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing, 'leaves a relationship that is basically in good shape,' says Kenneth Lieberthal, who was director for Asia on the White House National Security Council during Bill Clinton's presidency.

"Since taking office 7 1/2 years ago, Bush has personally eased tensions over Taiwan. Henry Paulson, his Treasury secretary, stopped Congress from escalating trade disputes; Robert Zoellick, his former No. 2 diplomat, invited China to play a bigger role internationally. Meanwhile, the administration enlisted China's support to fight terrorism and persuade North Korea to begin dismantling its nuclear program.

"China's leaders 'will miss him after he steps down,' says Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

"Bush will bequeath his successor a base to work from in dealing with a country that owns more than $500 billion in Treasuries, is the top source of U.S. imports and is on track to become the world's second-biggest economy in a decade."

But, to some extent, Bush's China policy is an accident of history. As Forsyth and Lawrence note: "When he took office in 2001, Bush signaled he was ready to take a hard line, labeling China a 'strategic competitor' in contrast to the Clinton presidency's description of a 'strategic partnership.' . . .

"The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced Bush to engage China more closely."

And don't forget the aforementioned $500+ billion in Treasury bills -- more than enough for China to wield considerable power over our economy.

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal that the trip "will help mark China's emergence on the world stage but will also seek to reassure longtime allies in the region that the U.S. still stands with them. To some of China's nervous neighbors, though, the U.S.'s actions -- or lack thereof -- don't always match its words. . . .

"Countries like Japan, South Korea and Thailand fear that the live-and-let-live U.S. attitude toward Asia is encouraging China to assert its military might in addition to its economic power. They point, for example, to China's increasingly far-ranging navy, which is pushing farther into the Pacific. . . .

"In a bid to reassure such fears, and underscore U.S. interests in Asia broadly, Mr. Bush gives a major speech in Bangkok on Thursday." In the speech "the president likely will seek to reassure the region that countries can develop their relations with China while hedging against China's rise as a military power through U.S.-backed security alliances."


Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is so emphatic about going to the Olympics in China that one might think flying halfway around the globe to attend the games is what presidents do.

"But never before has an American leader shown up at an Olympics on foreign soil. And Bush is doing more than just dropping by. He is planning to soak in as much as he can, with large blocs on his Beijing schedule devoted to watching athletes compete. . . .

"Bush plans to attend the men's basketball showdown between the United States and China. He will pick other events as he goes along.

"'I'm pretty relaxed about it,' Bush said in an interview with Asian reporters. 'Not every single minute of every day has to be totally organized. And so I'll be with a lot of my family, and they're fun to hang around with. I'm sure we'll walk around the different venue sites and just get a sense for the while atmosphere of people from all around the world.'

"The president does have some Olympic-themed meetings on his agenda -- as he put it, 'all the stuff you're supposed to do.'

"Bush says he is fascinated by China's effort to get the most medals, although it is seen by some outside the country as a government-run enterprise, like factory-made athletes.

"Once again, Bush draws a line between politics and sports.

"'Our objective is to get more medals than anybody,' the president said, sounding every bit like a coach for the whole U.S. Olympic team. 'That's what competition is about.' "

Spy Watch

CBS News reports: "A senior White House official says staffers accompanying President Bush to China have been told to leave their BlackBerries at home, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer.

"The mobile e-mail blackout is the latest sign of U.S. concerns over Chinese cyber-spying. Sensitive presidential communications are always encrypted, but government cyber-security experts are worried about electronic eavesdropping on the BlackBerries, which are difficult to protect from snooping."

North Korea Watch

P. Parameswaran writes for AFP: "In circumstances echoing the Iraq war controversy, hardliners in US President George W. Bush's administration spun intelligence and triggered a nuclear crisis with North Korea, says a new book to be released this week.

"Intelligence on a North Korea effort to acquire components for uranium enrichment was politicized to depict the hardline communist state running a full-fledged production facility capable of developing a nuclear bomb, said the book by former senior CNN journalist Mike Chinoy. . . .

"There was no credible intelligence that North Koreans actually had a facility capable of making uranium based bombs.

"Yet, conservative hardliners bent on ending an 'Agreed Framework' nuclear deal with North Korea forged under president Bill Clinton's administration seized on the issue to force a confrontation, the book said.

"It added that then US assistant secretary of state James Kelly was given instructions not to negotiate on his October 2002 trip to Pyongyang but simply tell the North Koreans they had to abandon their uranium program before any progress was possible.

"He was also ordered not to observe normal diplomatic courtesies such as holding a reciprocal banquet for his North Korean hosts or making a toast at a meal they hosted for him upon his arrival."

Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler reviews the book, Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.

Kessler writes: "When North Korea admitted in June that it had produced enough plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear bombs, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley suggested that the admission resulted from steady U.S. diplomatic pressure since the beginning of the Bush administration nearly eight years ago. Meltdown, a tour de force of reporting by former CNN Beijing correspondent Mike Chinoy, demonstrates that the White House version of events is as misleading as the propaganda crafted in Pyongyang.

"Chinoy shows that American policy toward North Korea often became incoherent and self-defeating as administration insiders fought desperately to gain the upper hand in internal debates. The North Koreans took advantage of this disarray to build their stockpile of plutonium, believed to total 37 or 38 kilograms, and even to test a nuclear device underground.

"History may not judge kindly the Bush administration's ill-fated invasion of Iraq, but in Chinoy's telling, historians may be even more critical of the administration's handling of North Korea."

Legacy Watch

Jane Mayer writes in the New York Review of Books: "Seven years after al-Qaeda's attacks on America, as the Bush administration slips into history, it is clear that what began on September 11, 2001, as a battle for America's security became, and continues to be, a battle for the country's soul.

"In looking back, one of the most remarkable features of this struggle is that almost from the start, and at almost every turn along the way, the Bush administration was warned that whatever the short-term benefits of its extralegal approach to fighting terrorism, it would have tragically destructive long-term consequences both for the rule of law and America's interests in the world. . . .

"Instead of heeding this well-intentioned dissent, however, the Bush administration invoked the fear flowing from the attacks on September 11 to institute a policy of deliberate cruelty that would have been unthinkable on September 10. . . .

"When warned that these policies were unlawful and counterproductive, they ignored the experts and made decisions outside of ordinary bureaucratic channels, and often outside of the public's view. . . . Far from tempering these policies over time, they marginalized and penalized those who challenged their idées fixes."

As for Bush's claim that he deserves credit for having averted further terrorist attacks, Mayer writes: "In the absence of government transparency and independent analysis, the public has been asked to simply take the President's word on faith that inhumane treatment has been necessary to stop attacks and save lives.

"Increasingly, however, those with access to the inner workings of the Bush administration's counterterrorism program have begun to question those claims. . . .

"In 2006, a scientific advisory group to the US intelligence agencies produced an exhaustive report on interrogation called ' Educing Information,' which concluded that there was no scientific proof whatsoever that harsh techniques worked. In fact, several of the experts involved in the study described the infliction of physical and psychological cruelty as outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable.

"In confidential interviews, several of those with inside information about the NSA's controversial Terrorist Surveillance Program have expressed similar disenchantment. As one of these former officials says of the ultrasecret program so furiously defended by David Addington, chief of staff and former counsel to Vice President Cheney, 'It's produced nothing.'"

Alan Brinkley sums up Mayer's new book in a New York Times book review: "Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Dick Cheney in effect took command of the national security operations of the federal government. Quickly and instinctively, he began to act in response to two longstanding beliefs: that the great dangers facing the United States justified almost any response, whether or not legal; and that the presidency needed vastly to enhance its authority, which had been unjustifiably and dangerously weakened in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years. George Bush was an eager enabler, but not often an active architect, of the government's response to terror."

Truth Commission Watch

Mark Benjamin writes for Salon: "People who have given advice to the Obama campaign say they see little political advantage in the candidate discussing during a general election campaign how his administration might investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials for torture. . . . But behind the scenes, a slate of foreign policy and human rights experts with various degrees of connections to the Obama campaign, some of them likely to occupy positions of authority in an Obama administration, have begun to discuss that very issue, and in great detail. . . .

"Prosecution of any officials, if it were to occur, would probably not occur during Obama's first term. Instead, we may well see a congressionally empowered commission that would seek testimony from witnesses in search of the truth about what occurred. . . .

"The commission would focus strictly on detention, torture and extraordinary rendition, or the practice of spiriting detainees to a third country for abusive interrogations. The panel would focus strictly on these abuses, leaving out any other allegedly illegal activities during the Bush administration, such as domestic spying.

"It would also try to confirm or debunk, once and for all, the claims of high-level Bush administration officials that the use of abusive interrogations worked and resulted in significant intelligence gains."

Economic Legacy Watch

Clive Crook writes for the Financial Times that there's very little the White House can do to save America's economy at this point. Which, he writes, is Bush's fault.

"It is worth remembering where the blame for this neutering of fiscal policy lies: squarely with the Bush administration. At the start of this decade, the budget stood in surplus to the tune of 2.4 per cent of GDP. On unchanged policy, this was expected to grow to a surplus of 4.5 per cent of GDP by 2008. This year's actual deficit of 3 per cent of GDP therefore represents a worsening of more than 7 per cent of GDP, or roughly $1,000bn. Almost all of this deterioration is due to policy: to tax cuts, spending increases, and their associated debt-service costs.

"That projected surplus was a priceless gift to the White House. It offered the Bush administration ample scope for outlays on homeland security and other unforeseen priorities, and moderate tax cuts as well, all within a budget balanced over the course of the business cycle. Instead, the administration knowingly opted for outrageous fiscal excess - adding insult to injury with its phoney tax-cut sunset provisions, designed for no other purpose than to disguise the long-term fiscal implications. Eight years on, this startling record of fiscal irresponsibility has all but taken fiscal policy off the table as an available response to the slowdown.

"The US economy had better have luck on its side. Luck is about all it has left."

Meanwhile, Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, writes in a USA Today letter to the editor: "The near-term deficits are temporary and manageable if we keep spending in check, address entitlements and keep in place pro-growth policies, such as tax relief. That is the president's plan."

Iraq Watch

Campbell Robertson and Suadad Al-Salhy write in the New York Times: "Iraqi political leaders met Sunday to try to reach a deal that would allow provincial elections to proceed, but they again failed to agree, further dimming prospects that the elections would be held this year. . . .

"President Bush called several Iraqi officials, including [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-] Maliki and Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of Parliament, urging them to come to an agreement, several lawmakers said.

"The pressure from the Americans irked some participants.

"'It's interfering in an inappropriate way with the Iraqis,' said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker. 'I don't know why they are so much in a hurry for this law. Anything done under pressure will not be workable.'"

Iran Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Analysts speculate about the danger of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran before the Bush administration departs office next January. But if you read the tea leaves carefully, the evidence is actually pointing in the opposite direction."

For instance, Ignatius describes "recent efforts to dissuade Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, traveled to Israel in early June; he was followed in late June by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both officials explained to their Israeli counterparts why the United States believes an attack isn't necessary now, because the Iranians can't yet build a nuclear weapon, and why an attack would damage U.S. national interests.

"McConnell and Mullen also informed the Israelis that the United States would oppose overflights of Iraqi airspace to attack Iran, an administration official said. The United States has reassured the Iraqi government that it would not approve Israeli overflights, after the Iraqis strongly protested any potential violation of their sovereignty."

Intel Watch

Steven Aftergood blogs about Bush's new executive order outlining new operating guidelines for the nation's intelligence community: "To criticize (or praise) the provisions of the new executive order is to presume its status as a controlling document and a definitive source on intelligence policy. But a more troubling question is how much the order actually matters.

"At a White House press briefing[Thursday], one unnamed reporter asked: 'What do you have to say to folks that say, essentially, it's nice that you have this stuff in the executive order, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything when a President gets it into his mind that he needs or wants to do something that some people would find outside of those bounds?'

"A 'senior administration official' replied: 'I think what we would say to that is that the executive order reaffirms the nation's longstanding commitment to protecting civil liberties. It maintains all of the protections that are in place to do so. It requires that all procedures have to be approved by the Attorney General.'

"But the question seems to be better than the answer, particularly since the Bush Administration's so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program may have violated the terms of this very executive order on intelligence activities."

Secret Law Watch

Speaking of executive orders, Aftergood also blogs: "The President would no longer be able to secretly modify or revoke a published executive order if a new bill introduced in the Senate yesterday becomes law.

" The bill, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, responds to a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that was revealed last year by Senator Whitehouse on the Senate floor. According to that unreleased opinion, 'There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new Executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous Executive order. Rather than violate an Executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it.'

"What this means is that any published executive order may or may not actually be in effect. It may or may not correspond to the legal framework that governs the executive branch. The public has no way of knowing."

Justice Watch

Miami Herald opinion column Leonard Pitts marvels at one question in particular that Monica Goodling, an aide to then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked job seekers at the Department of Justice: "'What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?"

Pitts writes: "Is it me, or doesn't she sound less like a job interviewer than like an adolescent girl splayed out on her bed, giggling with her girlfriend about some hottie actor they both adore? . . .

"This administration prizes ideological purity above ability. As a result, it has driven the presidency off a cliff, the country following close behind. These are not people who came to government to govern. No, these are true believers who came to government to institutionalize true belief, to make it permanent as a stain."

Bush and Rush

Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh is celebrating 20 years in broadcasting. Here's the transcript of a congratulatory phone call from Bush, his father and brother:

Bush: "Well, I'm just calling along with President 41 and the former governor of Florida. We're fixing to have lunch here, and I said, 'Listen, we ought to call our pal and let him know that we care' for you. So this is as much as anything, a nice verbal letter to a guy we really care for."

After some small talk, they got right to the defamation.

Limbaugh: "You know, Mr. President, it's amazing. In 2004 during your campaign, Senator Kerry was constantly criticizing you for not 'jawboning' with the Saudis enough to bring the price of oil down. Now, four years later, they're doing everything they can to keep the price from coming down. They apparently want it to remain high."

Bush: "Well, they may want to, but the American people want to see some relief."

Boos for Bush

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write in the Washington Examiner: "Jay-Z got plenty of applause and wild cheers Friday as he closed the Africa Rising Music and Fashion Festival at the Kennedy Center. But perhaps none was louder than when the show turned political. The crowd helped him boo President Bush as a giant picture of Bush flashed across the screen."

J. Freedom du Lac writes in The Washington Post that Jay-Z had been performing "'Minority Report,' an indictment of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. The song concluded with an expletive about President Bush and an implicit endorsement of Barack Obama, whose visage flashed on a giant video screen at the back of the stage, much to the delight of the crowd, which filled the 2,518-seat room."

Pool Follies

Ken Herman shoots a video illustrating the banality of Air Force One pool duty. Is it any wonder fewer news organizations want to participate?

Wedding Watch

In Maine on Saturday, Bush attended the wedding of two White House staffers.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The groom, Chris Ellis, is the son of the president's cousin and worked on coordinating logistics for the president's frequent travels. The bride, Rachel Williams, is White House counselor Ed Gillespie's assistant.

"They met on the job. . . .

"A large white tent with multiple peaks has been set up on the rocky coastline overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the family compound at Walker's Point."

Knoller's Numbers

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "CBS Radio's Mark Knoller, who has covered the White House full time since 1992, is known as the keeper of the best unofficial records about presidential comings and goings. . . .

"Added together, says Knoller, a bearded and booming presence around the White House, the Bush numbers tell a story.

"'They tell what's important to him. They offer insight into his work ethic and personal habits,' he said."

So what numbers do you need to know? "Bush has spent well over a year at his ranch near Crawford, well over a year at Camp David, and has attended 95 sports-related events."

Countdown Watch

Johanna Neuman and James Gerstenzang blog for the Los Angeles Times about all the "little reminders that some folks are eager for the end of the Bush administration."

Among them: "For those of us who are math-challenged, Is It Over Yet? provides a numerical calculation of how much of the administration has passed."

As of today, it's 94.18 percent over.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: "Welcome to 'The Tonight Show.' . . . What a crowd! You sound like Dick Cheney looking at Exxon's profits."

Cartoon Watch

Jim Morin on Bush's legacy; Tom Toles on Bush's mortgaged White House; Lee Judge and Daryl Cagle on Bush's deficits; Mike Luckovich on Bush's drilling plan; Ben Sargent on Rove's new role; John Sherffius on comparative human rights; Steve Sack and Nick Anderson on Justice Department hiring.

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