Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The national security steward treads carefully

During his Rose Garden press briefing today, President Bush sought to define the issues that would work best to the Republicans’ advantage in the ’06 congressional elections: “Security and the economy.”

No wonder the Republicans are in trouble this autumn.

On the economy, as I noted the other day, the GOP is being hammered in the polls. Despite the upbeat macroeconomic indicators, touted today by the president, most Americans seem to be unwilling to credit the GOP. In all likelihood, this grudging response (most significantly, among independent swing voters) can be traced to the sour national mood, and the current credibility problems that plague the party’s leader in the White House.

And on the security front…this where Bush had to tread very carefully, as he labored to deliver his key campaign message. We have heard the basic message many times before, of course: The Democrats allegedly want to raise the white flag in Iraq, because they don’t understand the stakes in Iraq, whereas Republicans do. And he wants to make sure that Americans recognize the stakes, which is why, today, at random moments over a span of 65 minutes, he kept saying it: “The stakes are high, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t be higher….I’m going to spend a lot of time explaining the stakes….I understand the stakes….The stakes are high….The stakes are really high.”

But the complications of factual reality don’t seem to lend themselves to repetitive talking points. For instance, how is Bush to deal with the fact that Republican senator like John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and somebody who surely agrees that the stakes are really high, just returned from Iraq and said publicly that the war is “drifting sideways?” - and warned that the White House may need to rethink its mission within the next 60 or 90 days?

Asked about this today, Bush said he had no problem with Warner, because “we’re constantly changing tactics to achieve a strategic goal…to help this young democracy succeed. If the plan isn’t working, we have to adjust, I completely agree.” But he didn’t address the full import of Warner's remarks. Last Friday, the senator warned that, unless the raging violence is curbed, “I wouldn’t take off the table any option"- which means that even an establishment hawk with close Pentagon ties is willing to consider the supposedly “Defeatocrat” option of pulling back some troops. That doesn’t sound like a sterling vote of confidence in Bush’s security stewardship.

Bush had to navigate some other tricky moments. There’s a report today that a new study by Iraqi and American health researchers has pegged the Iraqi civilian death toll in the war at roughly 600,000. Even considering the broad margin of error, that finding stands in stark contrast to the civilian estimate that Bush offered last winter: 30,000. Asked about this discrepancy, Bush replied, “I don’t consider it a credible report.” But when asked whether he still stood by his 30,000 figure, he moved the goalposts: “I stand by the figure that a lot of innocent people have lost their lives.”

He also had this to say: "I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate." But polls show that most Iraqis, far from "tolerating" the violence in their midst, actually want to be free...of the American military. A majority believes that if U.S. forces departed, the level of violence would drop. Two weeks ago, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which conducts surveys in Iraq, found that 71 percent of Iraqis questioned want the Iraqi government to ask foreign forces to leave within a year.

The North Korean situation has further complicated his campaign message. On May 23, 2003, he stated that "we will not tolerate” a nuclear North Korea, and now apparently we have a nuclear North Korea. Asked about this, he said “that statement still stands.” And he suggested that Bill Clinton (without mentioning Clinton’s name) messed up by trying to negotiate directly with North Korea starting in 1994; the Republican party followed that up today by circulating a photo of Clinton’s press secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, clinking glasses with Kim Jung Il. Indeed, some top conservative bloggers contend that the North Koreans have nuked the Democrats' prospects for taking over the House and Senate; as radio host Hugh Hewitt argues today, "It took 48 hours of loose nukes in the control of bad hair kooks to get the electorate refocused on the stakes in November's elections."

Clearly, the GOP has the potential to reassign part of the blame to the Clinton camp, because there’s no doubt that North Korea was not in full compliance with the pact (the Agreed Framework) that it negotiated with the Clinton regime, a pact that largely froze plutonium production. But it’s also true that the Bush White House tore up the Agreed Framework in 2002, and has done little ever since to confront this charter member of the “axis of evil,” except for sending a representative to six-party talks organized by the Chinese. One independent study, sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded that North Korea has produced enough plutonium to make between four and 13 nuclear bombs – all of it since the Clinton pact was scuttled in 2002.

Regarding those six-party talks, Bush said today that he still trusts in diplomacy: “I believe the commander in chief must (use) diplomatic measures before using the military” – which is a switch from what happened prior to the Iraq war, when the White House used the military to invade Iraq and root out weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, rather than trying to rally full support within the United Nations. (But he did say today that the decision to invade and oust Saddam Hussein was “the right decision,” an argument that is no longer accepted by a majority of Americans, as evidenced by the polls.)

At one point, referring to all the tomes about the Bush team that now crowd the bookstores, the president said, “Someone should add up all the pages.” No doubt there will be many more, if chaos in Iraq persists while Bush continues to insist (as he did today) that "we're on the move, we're taking action."