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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered readers' questions, took their comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at 1 p.m. ET.

White House Still Loves Maliki (washingtonpost.com, Aug. 21)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Watch chat! Today's column, which should be out shortly, leads with a discussion of President Bush's risky embrace of the Vietnam analogy for Iraq. At his speech this morning to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush argued that our withdrawal from Vietnam led to disaster there and emboldened our enemies around the globe.

But Vietnam is so (appropriately) identified with quagmire that it's hard to see that this argument is going to win him a lot of points. That's because the obvious lesson of Vietnam is not that leaving a quagmire leads to disaster, but that staying only makes things worse. (And oh yes: That we shouldn't get into them in the first place.)

So much to talk about. Let's start.


Boonsboro, Md.: Okay, I grant that leaving Iraq now would be devastating. My question: Would it be any more devastating than staying?

Dan Froomkin: That is the seminal question. Thanks for asking it. We should ask it over and over again.


Anonymous: Hey Dan: How about this happy-talk offensive? How are they getting away with it? Is it because no one is really in town just now? Am I missing something? The government in Iraq is still a complete mess ... the surge working was premised on the government there getting it together ... Levin and Warner, just back, don't think its happening ... yet everyone is willing to give it all another Friedman? What has changed? Also, shouldn't we really be asking our presidential candidates -- especially the GOPers: "If you had a trillion to spend on fighting terrorism, how would you spend it?" What we have now can't be what any serious person would call a good trillion-dollar investment.

washingtonpost.com: Senator Calls for Maliki's Ouster (Post, Aug. 21)

Dan Froomkin: I was quite astonished by the tone of the Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut story in today's Post, suggesting that Democrats are suddenly on the defensive because of all the progress in Iraq.

I suspect the public isn't quite as susceptible to being spun as the media sometimes is. My sense is that opposition to the war is widespread, based on the deep awareness that things over there are a disaster -- and that a few "good spin" days by the White House aren't going to change that.


Leesburg, Va.: There's been a huge number of comments to today's article on the administration's manual on event organization and handling protesters. Personally, I agree with most of the commenters that the weeding out or blocking of any form of protest is despicable and certainly helps explain the president's bubble. To be fair though, do you know if this is solely an invention of the current administration, or have previous presidents had these kinds of rules? Or is it maybe a matter of degree -- other presidents had staffs that kept dissent down, but this administration is the first to put it in writing and be so aggressive about it? One other point -- aren't the president's appearances public events, paid for by public funds? If so, how can his staff bar any member of the public from something the public has paid for? Sounds like segregation to me, but segregation by opinion rather than skin color.

Dan Froomkin: I haven't had a chance yet to look through the reader comments on Peter Baker's story this morning on the White House Advance Manual.

I have written about a zillion columns about the Bush Bubble, which I think is one of the most significant and defining and unprecedented aspects of the Bush presidency. (I think all presidential candidates from this point forward should be asked how they intend to avoid embubblement and should pledge to routinely appear before all Americans, not just their supporters.)

As for putting this in historical context, University of Texas professor Jeffrey Tulis wrote back in 2005: "Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours in the pursuit of a national domestic policy campaign may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations."


Silver Spring, Md.: Okay, Ari Fleischer and friends are starting up a new ad campaign to re-sell us the war. Everybody knows that the one they originally sold us turned out to be a quite different product than the promised "Mission Accomplished" version. Will it work?

washingtonpost.com: Democrats Refocus Message on Iraq After Military Gains (Post, Aug. 22)

Dan Froomkin: Isn't that something? Ari Fleischer is back! Politico's Mike Allen has more about the group.

See my answer above: I don't think the public is so easily spun at this point.


Boston: With Rove gone is Cheney now in charge? Didn't take him long to classify Iran's Revolutionary Guards (125,000 people!) as terrorists. Should we be afraid?

washingtonpost.com: Iran Trains Militiamen Inside Iraq, U.S. Says (Post, Aug. 20)

Dan Froomkin: What a great question. I've long wondered about the relationship between Bush's two closest advisers. Did they get along? Did they rub each other the wrong way? Were they in any way counterbalancing each other? Certainly, Rove's departure doesn't leave Cheney any weaker. And signs continue to suggest that the vice president is pushing hard for a violent confrontation with Iran.

Washington Note blogger Steve Clemons writes: "George Bush has all his options open on Iran right now -- and there is a vigorous, heated battle around the Oval Office to seduce the President's soul on this.

"It's time that those who have been passive on the prospect of a U.S.-Iran War wake up and get to work. The neocons are working vigorously and have someone smack dab in the middle of the decision-making machinery angling for war as well.

"The advocates of a saner approach are also part of the President's team -- but it's clear that the momentum that they had in knocking back Cheney and his minions has stalled."


Arlington: Can I recap this discussion before it begins? Froomkin is ticked and believes the the Bush administration is the anti-Christ. Seriously ... your message hasn't ever changed.

Dan Froomkin: But there's always new material!


Dan Froomkin: And my column is out! The Analogy Quagmire. (Thank my editor Michael Newman for the headline.)

Go read it and come right back.


Los Gatos, Calif.: Hello Dan -- I read your blog with interest almost every day and appreciate it. How can the White House keep spewing this garbage about Iraq being like Korea, and Iraq withdrawal causing the same problems as Vietnam, etc.? Every time I ask myself "Do they think we are that stupid?" they issue another statement that shows how stupid they think we are. Do they really believe this stuff, or is it just an effort to cloud the issue so they won't have to answer difficult questions?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. It does seem like only yesterday that Bush's South Korean analogy came and went. (Actually, it was late May.)

As I noted in my last discussion and probably don't note enough in my column, a lot of what the White House is doing makes perfect sense if you believe that their primary goal now (with Iraq, with the various investigations, etc.) is to kick the can down the road and make it to January '09.


San Francisco: We all know what Karl Rove's accomplished in American politics, but what are the accomplishments of his replacement, Ed Gillespie?

Dan Froomkin: Here's a mini-profile of Gillespie, from Michael Fletcher of The Post. For better or worse, you can see the first signs of Gillespie in today's speech, which he clearly hopes will have a big impact.


Arlington, Va.: People who claim to know via the friend of a friend who has a friend who works in the White House says that the place has virtually shut down for anything except matters dealing with Iraq and is leaving the domestic agencies to fend for themselves. I doubt that this is that true, but do you have a sense of how the White House is functioning on domestic policy?

Dan Froomkin: Rove's departure widely was seen as the coffin-door slamming on Bush's domestic agenda.


Bronx, N.Y.: Re: CIA report: Is this payback for Tenet's book? Also, how embarrassing would it be for the administration to hold him "accountable" considering the was awarded a Medal of Freedom?

washingtonpost.com: CIA Finds Holes in Pre-9/11 Work (Post, Aug. 22)

Dan Froomkin: I went back and looked at the timeline, and Tenet actually got the Medal of Freedom something like a year before the report was initially written. But still, it's got to be embarrassing for the administration. As for whether this was payback -- this wasn't the CIA's choice. Congress mandated the release.


Rochester, Minn.: While reading the Boston comment, I think that because GQ magazine has rated Secretary of State Condi Rice as the most powerful person in Washington, it should be very clear who has the ear of the President. Cheney has been sidelined a bit by the State Department, and I wonder what you think about that? Is there time to burnish the Bush Legacy with Condi at the wheel?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think you should take that list remotely seriously. As for Condi's role, it's a mystery. So far, she's been relatively unscathed -- but that doesn't mean she can boss Cheney around. See Saul Friedman's post on the NiemanWatchdog Blog about how the press's love affair with her may be coming to an end.


Alpharetta, Ga.: What power does the administration really have to constrain the states' implementation of SCHIP? The power of the purse resides with Congress, so they can't actually cut off funds, can they?

washingtonpost.com: New Bush Policies Limit Reach of Child Insurance Plan (Post, Aug. 21)

Dan Froomkin: There's funding and there's rules. Both have to be in sync. This could get ugly.


Juneau, Alaska: Hi Dan -- I bet you get lots of questions on Peter Bakers piece, but really didn't we always know that this was the M.O. at the president's appearances? You have focused recently on Bush's support for Maliki, and after he expressed his "frustration" he is now back supporting his "friend." Doesn't the White House have very little in the way of options on the issue of who leads Iraq? I just can't imagine what lever could be pulled, if they even wanted to. To be quaint, we have to dance with the girl we brung, right?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think there was anything surprising in the Advance Manual, but it's still sort of breathtaking anyway. And yes, I don't think Bush has much choice -- unless he wants to install a strongman, which always has been an outside possibility.


Springfield, Va.: If called upon to say something positive about the president, what would you say?

Dan Froomkin: He is in really, really great shape.


Leipzig, Germany: Hello Dan! Is there an new thinking going on in the White House about American indebtedness and the mortgage crisis, or are they leaving the issue behaviorally/politically as well as technically to Treasury and the Fed?

Dan Froomkin: I have not seen any signs of new thinking. Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times today: "The credit crisis that has hit home mortgages and shaken worldwide financial markets is turning into a political albatross for President Bush and Republican presidential contenders, piling atop an unpopular war in Iraq and eroding traditional GOP claims of being good stewards of the economy.

"And it may be having a more far-reaching effect as well: giving Democrats a powerful argument for passing new financial regulations that the administration desperately wants to avoid."


Austin, Texas: After listening to some of the President's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I'm wondering if our next strategy will be to have representatives from Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and the other East Asian countries cited by the president to travel the Islamic world to explain how wonderful the aftermath of war with the U.S. can be. I'm quite sure we have the talent to translate Kanji, so Moslems throughout the region can read how benevolent our occupations were.

Dan Froomkin: Ooh, that's cynical.


Alexandria, Va.: An organization that has Ari Fleischer as a spokesman and only registered its Web site two months ago is spending $15 million on an ad campaign in support of the Iraq escalation. Who is funding them, and why am I asking this question instead of the media?

Dan Froomkin: See the Mike Allen story cited above. And I wonder if this is Karl Rove's future, too -- sitting on top of some massive GOP treasure chest, spitting out Democrat-trashing ads.


Bastrop, Texas: Dan, you coined a great new word today -- "embubblement." I love it!

Dan Froomkin: Ah, I wish I could take credit. I stole it from the extraordinary talented Harry Shearer. (Although he was using it to describe the mainstream press.)


Wilmington, N.C.: Dan, love your work. Do you think that the reason that the administration could never and would never talk openly and candidly about why we're in Iraq -- as surely they have not -- is because the reason is very, very unseemly? Which is to say: it's really not about terrorism at all, but about China, or even India? That the U.S. needs to increase our strategic foothold in the part of the world with the oil, in anticipation of a future conflict for resources with these looming Asian giants? And that 9/11 didn't "change everything" -- but it changed the important thing, which was the American public's willingness to give the administration the benefit of the doubt for some geopolitical muscling for the first time, really, since Vietnam?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And that that's certainly an interesting theory. But I would say that the India nuclear deal is way more clearly about China than Iraq is.

If there is a "secret" reason, I suspect it has more to do with the neoconservative need to display American power -- just for the sake of displaying American power. (And in that case, what a terrible irony that we find ourselves now in a quagmire.)


Baltimore: Hi Dan. In today's column you quote Bush's speech extensively, but don't comment further on this part:

"In an interview with a Pakistani paper after the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden declared that 'the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. They must do the same today.' "

This seems to be along the lines of "dissent is treason," saying that any American protesting the war in Iraq is doing exactly what Bin Laden asked us to. I know this has been suggested before, but is he ratcheting it up a bit?

Dan Froomkin: He's definitely ratcheting it up a bit.


Clinton, Md.: Well, if we need a strongman to rule Iraq, there always is Chalabi.

Dan Froomkin: That was a certain vice president's original plan, as I recall (until someone put this "democracy" stuff into Bush's head).


Rochester, Minn.: Froomkin, you have been drinking the Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton Kool-Aid when it comes to the international efforts of Secretary Rice. Sorry, but she gets credit for sending Nick Burns and Chris Hill on diplomatic trips to handle the hot spots. Her voice is on the phone to Pakistan recently. She also used Shuttle Diplomacy in trips to Japan, South Korea, Russia and China to use economic and diplomatic tools to put pressure on North Korea. You need to read Glenn Kessler's reports during the past two years to have a more clear picture. No need to post this, it is not a question. But the Bush-bashing seems to be the sport in your newsroom.

Dan Froomkin: This AP story by Matthew Lee would support your argument. He writes: "Senior career diplomats are retaking control of key elements of U.S. foreign policy and have begun to assert significant influence as the Bush administration enters its waning months eager to salvage a legacy marred by the Iraq war.

"Since assuming the helm at the State Department in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has installed veteran foreign service officers with more than 200 years of collective diplomatic experience in seven critical posts from the Middle East to South Asia and the Far East."

Me, I'm mostly focused on Iraq and Iran -- and at this point, I'm seeing more Cheney than Condi. But I feel like I'll know much more about this after I read Kessler's upcoming book, The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Dan -- thanks for your great writing and for taking my question. So Maliki is mad because somebody (Levin) finally has the guts to call him incompetent. How is his "we don't need you" message going to mesh with the White House's push that we need to stay because the surge is working? He keeps taunting us to just leave already, which is what the American people want. Doesn't that put the administration in an awkward spot, to say the least?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. This just in: Everyone having anything to do with Iraq is in an awkward spot.


New York: Thanks for your columns and chats. The Japan analogy makes no sense -- the planning process for the occupation were underway for at least a few years before the end of the war, there were no major religious or ethnic divisions; the population was, on the whole, glad the fighting was over (though perhaps not thrilled with the result) and the A bomb left no doubt as to who was the victor. Plus, MacArthur let true democracy flower there, at least in the beginning. I cannot imagine how Bush possibly can compare post-war Japan with Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: The transcript of today's speech is now available.

"I recognize that history cannot predict the future with absolute certainty," Bush said. "I understand that. But history does remind us that there are lessons applicable to our time. And we can learn something from history."

I just suspect that a lot of the lessons are not what he thinks they are.


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