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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Jan. 3, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, happy new year, and welcome to another White House Talk. There's so much to talk about, as usual!

The top of today's White House Briefing column had been percolating over my holiday break. My question: Where's the outrage about Bush's escalation plan?

The consensus among experts, political leaders and the electorate seems quite clear: That it's time to start getting out of Iraq. But the indications are that Bush is going to do precisely the opposite, and increase our commitment there.

How is this not a betrayal of the troops and an expression of contempt for the will of the people?

At the very least, it's incumbent upon the press to raise the very real possibility that Bush is putting more troops in harm's way at least in part because he just won't admit he made a mistake.

And in other news, today is turning out to be an interesting day: Watching Bush try to take the wind of out the Democratic Congress's sails. We'll have to see how that flies.


"The way forward": Dan:

A simple question that needs to be asked of the administration: what will keep the possible "surge" in troops from being long-term? To avoid making it long-term, won't the administration have to impose, gulp, timelines and benchmarks? Without them, isn't this really a simple escalation?

Dan Froomkin: Excellent question indeed. Thanks.


Chicago, Ill.: What practical steps can a narrow Democratic congressional majority take to deter a President seemingly intent on increasing troop levels in Iraq, and are there any signs that congressional Democrats are willing to take these steps?

Dan Froomkin: First of all, it's not just a partisan issue. Lots of Republicans are uncomfortable with, and some are actively opposed to, an escalation in Iraq.

But Constitutionally, Congress can't just overrule the Commander in Chief when it comes to how he's fighting a war. And it's unlikely that they'll defund him.

So I suspect the battle will be fought in the public sphere. There will be hearings, oversight, etc. What effect will that have? Will the public be roused? (It sure isn't now.) Who knows?


Napier, New Zealand: Hi Dan, hope you had a great break with you new kid. Do you think we are going to see the descriptor 'escalation' being used by the media instead of 'surge' to describe Bush's new plan for victory? Shades of Vietnam! And what exactly is victory?

Dan Froomkin: Hi, and thanks. Max turned 1 over the break, and he's a joy.

I'll be watching my colleague's choice of words with an eagle eye. I think it matters a lot how the media comes to refer to this. I'm not sure where "surge" first emerged, but I'm quite sure the White House prefers that enormously to "escalation."

It might indeed be a surge, but I think we should only call it a surge if he can say exactly when it will end. Otherwise, it's an escalation.

And I don't think he will say when it will end -- that would be a timetable.

I marvelled during the debate over "civil war" when some of my colleagues argued, essentially, that words aren't important.

But of course they are.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dan, there's nothing left but to hit the streets. To stand on every bit of pavement we have access to around the White House, holding candles and signs and saying with our presence, "No more."

Dan Froomkin: But that's not happening, is it? As far as the newspapers I read are concerned, there is literally no peace movement.


Tolland, Conn.: Hi Dan

Welcome back and happy new year. I am very curious about what the rank-and-file military thinks about the chances for a good outcome in Iraq. These are the guys (and gals) who really know the facts on the ground, certainly better than the politicians who fly into the Green Zone for a day and hold news conferences. I am afraid that if the troops don't think there is a reasonable chance of "winning", then they are put in an impossible position when the President tells the generals that he only wants to hear their plans to win, not to withdraw gracefully.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. As luck would have it, there is at least an indication of how they feel in this Military Times mail survey of active-duty personnel that I discuss in today's column.

Q: Regardless of whether you think the U.S. should have gone to war, how likely is the U.S. to succeed?

A: Very likely to succeed, 13%; Somewhat likely to succeed, 37%; Not very likely to succeed, 31%; Not at all likely to succeed, 10%.


San Diego, Calif.: In your column today you quote from Rich Lowry's blog post on Bush. Lowry writes of Bush's "fluidity in Spanish." My question is this: Has anyone ever heard Bush speak fluently in Spanish? I've heard the claim that Bush is bilingual many times, but I've not seen or heard any proof of it. You'd think that with the prevalence of YouTube these days, someone would have posted a clip of Bush reeling off a complete sentence or two in Spanish, if in fact he could.

Dan Froomkin: Bush's fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, has been the subject of heated speculation, and no clear consensus.

But in this particular case, I believe that Lowry was being cute, and was indicating that Bush had used the word "cojones."


Washington, D.C.: Until this weekend, I would not have thought it to be possible that one could make a brutal tyrant look sympathetic at his execution. However, no American can be anything but offended at the sight of Saddam's executioners jeering him while he prayed during his last moments. Religious hatred just isn't American. How did the Bush administration allow its puppet government in Iraq to botch Saddam's execution? Why didn't the federal district court issue a stay of execution to prevent the Iraq

Dan Froomkin: You got cut off there, somehow. And your question is a bit outside my bailiwick.

But I must admit that when I saw Bush make his Rose Garden statement this morning and then turn away without answering any of the shouted questions, I fantasized about being there myself and yelling: "Is this the way you wanted Saddam to die?"


Chicago, Ill.: Dan:

Happy New Year. Enjoy your column.

Isn't the lack of outrage, or public outcry over Iraq the result, in large part, of the "Sacrifice-Free" nature of this war?

No draft, no tax increases, no reduction or deferral in domestic consumption to shift resources to the war effort, not even any apparent up-front addition to the budget deficit or national debt, since all war funding has been done by special emergency appropriations (4 years of "emergency"), rather than the normal budgeting/appropriation process.

Dan Froomkin: I suspect you are right.

That's why I was particularly startled by Justin Webb's story for the BBC, in which he quotes a senior administration source as saying the central theme of Bush's big Iraq speech will be sacrifice.

After all, it was at his most recent press conference that Bush encouraged everyone to ... go shopping more.

So whose sacrifice will he be talking about? Will he suggest that he owes it to the dead to keep fighting? Will that fly? (In my December 14 column I wrote that it may not be a good move.)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan, why do you think so few media outlets published the Army Times poll showing very strong doubts about Bush's leadership in Iraq and skepticism about an escalation of the conflict in the next months? After all, it wasn't a very busy couple of weeks that other things crowded it out...

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. Good question. I certainly mentioned it this morning -- and also mentioned American Prospect blogger Greg Sargent's concerns about the lack of coverage.


McLean, Va.: Dan:

Did anyone else find it ironic that the President harped on Congress' use of earmarks, which he said "are not even slipped into legislation but are 'stuffed into committee reports' that are never passed or signed into law?" How does that jibe with his frequest use of signing statements?

Dan Froomkin: Good point. And there's an idea: Maybe Congress should offer to give up earmarks -- if Bush gives up signing statements!


Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Froomkin,

There are more reports today of torture at Guantanamo. As well, there was a report on NPR this morning on the severe sensory deprivation exercised by the government on "enemy combatant" (and American citizen) Jose Padilla, who has since been determined to be a very minor player. Will President Bush be addressing these issues at some point? Will condemnation be forthcoming? As long as the Administration gives implicit approval to these actions, they WILL continue to happen regardless of military or other policy. Could Democrats push the President to respond to these issues? Will they? Thanks for your comments.

Dan Froomkin: Dan Eggen's story in today's Post chronicles more abuse at Guantanamo. Deborah Sontag of the New York Times published a gripping story about Padilla's treatment last month.

Torture, writ large, was by my reckoning the single most undercovered story of 2006, in no small part to an acquiescent Congress.

President Bush has no desire to address such issues. "We don't torture," is pretty much the extent of what he has to say.

But you can expect Justice Department and Pentagon officials to be faced with some much more aggressive questions now that Democrats control Congress, can set the agenda for hearings, and can issue subpoenas.

There is some dispute as to how bold the Democrats intend to be overall. (See Jonathan Weisman's story today in The Post.) And the Bush White House is going to be trying to spin any kind of aggressive oversight as being "partisan," you can bet on that.

But just how this country became associated with torture is a story that must be told.


Crawford, Tex.: Happy New Year Dan, Hope you and your family enjoyed your holidays. I have recently become a fan of Keith Olbermann, and his nightly commentaries. Last night resonated with me as Mr. Olbermann spoke of Mr. Bush's call for sacrifice, and noted that HUMAN SACRIFICE is the toll of the Bush/Cheney Iraq civil war for oil and contracts. I would like to hear more talk of human sacrifice by both our troops and the Iraqi people, make this civil war more real for the common folks that might not read The Washington Post/NYT or Washington Post online. PS, I have been a fan of yours for sometime, look forward to another great year in 2007, May God Bless Us EVERYONE.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Crawford? Really?

The phrase "human sacrifice" makes me think more of Aztec temples than anything else, but I get your point.

I first noted back in October how Olbermann was becoming the Howard Beale of the anti-Bush era: He's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.

It's fascinating to see how his mainstream-media chanelling of the otherwise largely muffled -- but considerable -- anti-Bush sentiment in this country has led to higher ratings, visibility, etc.


Detroit, Mich.: Dan,

A thought about President Bush's nonverbal communication. Watching him during the Gerald Ford service, he strikes me as being so ill at ease with himself. He seems to have such a "put on" macho image that just doesn't ring true. I've noticed it during several other occasions, but he doesn't seem to show much of a humane side even in the most poignant of moments: a moving funeral. Even his father seems much more in touch with who he is. Does the press corps as a whole experience this regularly?

Dan Froomkin: That sort of thing is so subjective, I'll leave it to the pros.

But did you see the piece I linked to a while back by

Sarah Kaufman about Paul Taylor, the choreographer? Taylor gave a Bush character a starring (and very negative) role in one of his dances.

"Taylor said he was inspired to create a dance focusing on President Bush after watching him move.

"'The first time I saw Bush walking, on television, I did not trust the man,' he said. 'His walk is a lie."


Glen Ridge, N.J.: Last night on NBC News, Jim Miklaszewski reported: "Interestingly enough, one administration official admitted to us today that this surge option is more of a political decision than a military one because the American people have run out of patience and President Bush is running out of time to achieve some kind of success in Iraq."

In light of that report, couldn't Congress reasonably & actively reject Bush's efforts to escalate the war?

Dan Froomkin: The liberal Think Progress blog has video of that report.

Was that administration official in question part of the decision-making process -- or just an opinionated outsider? If the former, I think this is pretty jaw-dropping. I think the press should pursue that question vigorously -- and maybe next time, it won't be a throwaway line at the end of a news report.

But on the other hand, it's not secret that Bush's great election-era defense of his position on troops -- that he is just doing what the generals say -- is no longer operative.


Washington DC: Mr. Froomkin,

Why don't you ever post comments critical of what you say? Please make this an honest discussion. This country became associated with torture because journalists like you take the actions of a few and promote them as government policy. That is how. Individuals do things that we don¿t condone¿but that doesn't mean the government condones torture. That is why those we find that do it¿are prosecuted and punished.

I read the article this morning. Sleep depravation, loud noises, mind games aren¿t torture. Ask Jon McCain¿who was really tortured¿what it means.

It¿s sad what the post is doing

And who started the policy of rendition? Transferring suspects to other countries for interrogation¿.Bill Clinton! You only started reporting about it when a Republican was in the white house. SAD AND DISHONEST SIR.

Dan Froomkin: I don't dodge criticism, I welcome it.

Do you think wrapping a prisoner's head in duct tape is torture? I do. Maybe you don't. I've certainly talked to some people who don't consider water-boarding torture either.

But let's have an open discussion about what is torture and what isn't, rather than just taking it on faith that "we don't torture."

As for your suggestion that these are just the actions of a few, I think the record shows that it was much more than that.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Regarding the missing outrage, I have one theory. I am a war opponent; I thought it was a bad idea from day one. I've been waiting for a change in course since the days of "stay the course." But, in the end, the president is commander in chief. After finally dumping Rumsfeld and announcing a pending course change, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. I am not optimistic that the course change will have the desired affect, but will at least wait for it to be announced before expressing outrage.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. The dumping of Rumsfeld really doesn't jibe with what we're hearing (which is, as Rumsfeld would have been pleased to see, "full speed ahead".) So I'm still not sure what to make of it. And it's possible we're all just getting bad information, and that a significant reversal, along the lines of dumping Rumsfeld, is in the works. But I doubt it. Check back with me next week.


Wilmington, N.C.: "Bush's fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, has been the subject of heated speculation, and no clear consensus. "

That's true. Isn't that weird? Why should that be? It just doesn't make any sense.

Dan Froomkin: It is weird, isn't it.

I wrote what I thought was the authoritative piece on Bush not being fluent back in May, based in part on then-press secretary Scott McClellan's assertion: "He's not that good with his Spanish."

But then (and I can't find the link! sorry!) I saw a video of Bush, I think when he was governor, doing what seemed like a passable interview in Spanish. (Anyone have that?)

(I'm not talking about his recitation of a speech in Spanish, I know he can do that.)


Seattle, Wash.: Since Bush has decided that his success will lie in future history. How do you feel his record will stand up to the historians?

Dan Froomkin: Well, last month the Washington Post's Outlook section asked five historians how Bush ranks among his peers. I'm quite sure Outlook tried hard to make its panel as balanced as possible. But it didn't look good for Bush.

Eric Foner wrote that Bush is the worst president ever.

Douglas Brinkley wrote that "after six years in power and barring a couple of miracles, it's safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder."

Michael Lind wrote: "It's unfair to claim that George W. Bush is the worst president of all time. He's merely the fifth worst."

Vincent J. Cannato was Bush's one defender -- and the best he could do was say it's too soon to say for sure.


Lack of outrage: Hi Dan-

So glad you are back. Hope you enjoyed the time off though.

The comments about the lack of outrage strike a chord with me. I have opposed the war since before we went in. Everything I thought could happen, has happened. And I'm not military expert. But anyway, the lack of outrage I think is steeped in a deep apathy by Americans-caused by the lack of sacrifice. The war does not affect us, therefore I can opposed it but don't need to act on it. Most people who are out doing things (for or against the war) have been impacted in some way by it. We are a very self-invovled society. My two cents.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Dan,

I was struck by this comment in your post today in the section related to the Dreazen, Jaffe piece in the WSJ ¿White House aides say they believe he would be inclined to leave the extra troops there until improvement is evident.¿ Following that logic the trops could be there forever if things don¿t improve. Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I was struck by that, too.


Bastrop, Tex.: Mr. Froomkin:

You and Keith Olbermann keep me going.I, too, wonder where the outrage is. As someone mentioned earlier, without the country's being asked to sacrifice in any way, the outrage is tamped down. For now - but this escalation without justification other than Bush's ego may just bring it out into the open.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I don't expect many of my colleagues in the MSM to suddenly get outraged -- outrage is oddly frowned upon in newsrooms these days. Not a good career move, generally speaking. But I do expect them to at least raise the possibility that Bush's ego is the primary motivator here, and ask appropriately tough questions in that vein.


Asheville, N.C.: Bush has said, once more, that his opponents or critics merely make "political" statements--implying that he does not, that politics is not what he does too, and that he has an exclusive concern and right to speak on our nation's behalf. Does he get away with that? It's rarely contradicted in print, yet his assertiveness is way out of line on it. Even the Constitution says this, Article One, establishing Congress, being what it's mainly of.

Dan Froomkin: It will be interesting to see if the press simply regurgitates Bush's ostensible call for an end to partisanship -- or puts it in context. Indeed, what does he mean by "partisan"?


Washington, D.C.: The proposed surge (read, "escalation") doesn't produce outrage because, as much as everyone may agree that the current plan isn't working, there is little consensus on what we should do instead. Or more accurately, even those who back withdrawal recognize that that has some nasty, awful downsides. The situation in Iraq is so dire that there is simply no good solution.

The upshot is that anything that even -appears- different than the status quo will gain some support simply because it's, well, different. (Again I emphasize "appears to be different", for as one poster has already noted, what would a surge get us that we can't do already?) And because advocates of withdrawal understand that that plan will result in miserable suffering as well, they are loathe to argue vociferously in its favor.

The surge produces no outrage because -all- the options are horrible, and the surge is no more manifestly horrible than any others.

Dan Froomkin: An interesting argument -- but doesn't it make a difference how many American troops die? You make it sound so bloodless. But it's very bloody indeed.


Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to go. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing.


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