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“Oh Never Mind, Mr. President”

Asking the president the tough questions that commentators have been letting slide.

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  • Eric Alterman
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In addition to a presidential press conference, this past week offered up a couple high-profile television interviews with President Bush. Yet are we any closer to the truth about what has gone so horribly wrong with the war in Iraq and virtually every other aspect of policy, both foreign and domestic? To ask the question is to answer it.

It comes as no surprise that Bill O’Reilly’s interview with Bush on Fox News had more softballs than the Washington Mall on a spring afternoon. On North Korea, O’Reilly asked, “Why won’t the United States talk to North Korea one-on-one?” The president replied that “We tried that, and it didn’t work…There was an agreement made and they didn’t honor the agreement.”

Alas, O’Reilly was either unaware that Bush was referring to the 1994 Agreed Framework that the Clinton administration negotiated with the North Korean regime, or decided to let it go. As I pointed out last week, this was hardly a failure until it was abandoned by the Bush administration early in its tenure in favor of letting North Korea rebuild its capacity—and begin testing nuclear weapons.

The famed “culture warrior” also asked the president if water boarding constituted torture, which the president deftly transformed into a partisan issue. “What’s interesting about these votes that took place in the Congress,” the president said, “is the number of Democrats that opposed questioning people we’ve picked up on the battlefield. And I think that’s an issue that they’re going to have to explain to the American people.” What was O’Reilly’s tough follow-up?

Yeah, right.

And what exactly is the truth of the matter? Try as one might, it would be hard to find a Democratic member of Congress who is “opposed [to] questioning people we’ve picked up on the battlefield.” The actual issue is using a series of secret interrogation centers where interrogators are unconstrained by any law save those of their own making, to interrogate prisoners. O’Reilly let that one go too.

Finally, when it came to the increasing violence in Afghanistan and the record-setting poppy crops this year, the president essentially brushed it off, saying “No. I know, I know, I know, I know. But some provinces they actually made very good progress in, but not this one. And—in other words, one province really led the way in terms of poppy—increased poppy cultivation.”

The president blithely pinned the blame on one province, ignoring a United Nations report from September, which estimated that a staggering 407,724 acres of opium poppy were grown in Afghanistan in 2006. This represents a 59 percent increase over 2005, and a more than 100 percent increase since 2000. The Washington Post even ran a helpful map back in July 2005, which shows that the problem is much larger than just one province. Like almost every false assertion Bush made over the course of an interview that ran three nights, O’Reilly didn’t have a problem with that one either.

It’s a kind of “man-bites-dog” story when Fox rolls over and lets the president rub its tummy. Most Americans expect more from a network that does not advertise itself as being in the president’s pocket. Alas, that viewpoint is a bit dated as well. Journalists were ferocious about nailing the president for the slightest discrepancy in his various accounts when the subject was blowjobs, but when it comes to wars, torture, and the like, well, not so much.

Take a look at the much ballyhooed interview between ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and President Bush that aired on various shows throughout the week..

Stephanopoulos asked the president to name the most important quality that the next president will have to possess. Bush came up with two: “Determination and compassion.” These are interesting choices, coming as they did on the heals of a massive publicity campaign for Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction by David Kuo, Bush’s own former Special Assistant and Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

In the book, Kuo recounts an episode from Bush’s first term when the administration pursuit of “compassion” was being called into question. Kuo reports, “The president grew angry, and shouted ‘Have we done compassion or haven’t we? I wanna know.’”

Kuo writes that a short time after the president’s tantrum, his office received its “first and only call from the deputy chief of staff Josh Bolton’s office requesting an urgent ‘compassion meeting.’” Looking into whether or not the administration had “done compassion” brought out some sobering statistics: Kuo’s office found that the administration was spending about $20 million a year less on social service programs than the previous administration.

Another choice cut from the Stephanopoulos interview featured the president telling Stephanopoulos that as far as Iraq goes, “we’ve never been stay the course…we’re constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly.” Just a day after this stunning falsehood, Think Progress catalogued just a few of the many instances over the past several years where the president has explicitly claimed that “stay the course” is precisely his strategy. To be fair, White House senior adviser Dan Bartlett made the exact same claim on CBS’ The Early Show, turning what might have been a slight presidential gaffe into a full-blown attempt at rewriting history. But just like Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Hannah Storm let the falsehood stand uncontested.

Stephanopoulos could also have pursued a truthful response from the president, rather than playing the role of a cog in the White House spin machine, when the president claimed that he defines success or failure in Iraq “as whether schools are being built, or hospitals are being opened. I define success or failure as whether we’re seeing a democracy grow in the heart of the Middle East.”

And is it? According to this metric, the project doesn’t look like a stunning success, although the president was again allowed to slide on windy rhetoric. According to Government Executive magazine, lax government management and shoddy contractor performance led to the failure of a $240 million contract with Parsons Delaware to build 150 health clinics in Iraq. According to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “little progress has been made on the contract since its award just over two years ago, despite expenditures of $186 million, about 77 percent of its full value.”

As of March 2006, “only six had been completed. Eight projects had been canceled, one was moved to another contract vehicle, 14 were under construction, and 121 were partially constructed but terminated by government managers due to management and funding problems.” And this is on top of the $8.8 billion in reconstruction funds reported “missing” from Iraq by the Special Inspector. As for democracy in the Middle East, leaving aside the Iraqi killing fields, the White House strategy is currently to strangle the democracy that elected Hamas in Palestine and float a pre-emptive attack on the democracy in Iran. But nevermind all that.

The Bush administration has misled this nation into a ruinous war, simultaneously shredding the Constitution, in large measure because reporters have failed on almost every occasion to ask the tough questions and insist that they be answered. When President Bush gets only polite, non-too detailed inquiries about how he’s gotten away with it, then, that, is indeed “The Way to Win.”

We’ve become so accustomed to this kind of pap, where politesse and deference are privileged over truth, that the very idea of a reporter attempting to elicit actual information from Bush, Cheney, or any member of the cabinet strikes us as shocking. If you want to see what happens when a real journalist handles the various dissimulations, denials, and dishonesty offered up as a matter of course by Bush officials, take a look at this prewar interview of Donald Rumsfeld by the BBC’s David Dimbleby. To read it and imagine how unlikely it would be for any U.S. journalist to undertake such a serious interrogation, demonstrates just how far our press corps has fallen from their charge.

As a kind of intellectual exercise, I have gone through the Stephanopolous interview and, without raising my own topics or addressing any issues other than the ones he raised, proposed what would have happened if Stephanopolous had, like Dimbleby above, been more concerned with truth than with decorum. Here are a few examples:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Every casualty.
BUSH: Yeah, absolutely, I read every casualty, and it breaks my heart, because behind every casualty is somebody with tears in their eyes. Behind every casualty are families that will be mourning the loss of life for a lifetime. I think the hardest part of the presidency is to meet with families who’ve lost a loved one.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve done it a lot.
BUSH: I have. And I will continue to do it. I owe it to the families. I am amazed by the strength of the families and the loved ones. These are people that by and large have told me that their loved one chose to be there and believed in the mission. But I grieve when I see—when I read about the loss of life.
Unasked Question #1: And yet Mr. President, you’ve not attended a single funeral for any of the soldiers who’ve died in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Why is that?

BUSH: George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we’d leave. And the leaders of al-Qaeda have made that very clear. Look, here’s how I view it. First of all, al-Qaeda is still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying to not only kill American troops, but they’re trying to foment sectarian violence. They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and it will cause government to withdraw.
Unasked Question #2: But Mr. President, your own CIA says al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq before the invasion. Now you say it is “still very active.” Are you willing to admit, as all 16 intelligence agencies concluded in the recent national intelligence estimate, that your invasion has strengthened al-Qaeda and increased the threat of terrorism to this country?

BUSH: Well, listen, we’ve never been stay the course, George. We have been—we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we’re constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly.
Unasked Question #3: Mr. President, you say “We’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ but in fact, you have repeatedly used those exact words to describe the policy on many, many occasions.* Which President Bush would you have us believe: the one who frequently uses the phrase or the one who denies it?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you name a Democrat who wants to wave the white flag of surrender?
BUSH: I can name a Democrat who said there ought to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq, whether or not we’ve achieved a victory or not. And I…
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that surrender?
BUSH: Yes, it is, if you pull the troops out before the job is done. Absolutely, George. And if we were to—and if we were to leave before the job is done, in my judgment, the, you know, al-Qaeda would find a safe haven from which to attack. This is exactly what they said.
Unasked question #4: Well, sir, many. Many of your own generals seem to be saying just that—at least the ones whose pensions are safe.Are your own generals guilty of calling “surrender” as well? More than 100 service members, including those on active duty and members of the reserves have sent “appeals for redress” to members of Congress asking for the “prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq.” Are they calling for “surrender” as well? How many American soldiers? And finally you must know that a majority of Americans are also in favor of a pullout from Iraq with or without what you call a “victory.” Are a majority of Americans in favor of “surrender” as well, sir?

BUSH: Domestically, I believe the issue is: who best to keep this economy growing. And I believe Democrats will raise taxes.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Dow, almost at 12,000 today.
BUSH: Yes.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Given the fact that you think the economy is doing so well, and the economy has been growing, how do you explain why, in almost every poll, two-thirds of Americans think we’re going in the wrong direction?
Unasked question #5: Given the fact that according to the right-wing Heritage Foundation total federal spending for programs controlled by annual appropriates grew by 39 percent during the first three years of your presidency and that, in fact, sir, you enjoy the dubious distinction of presiding over the largest negative budget swing in American history, from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000 to a deficit of $412 billion or 3.6 percent of the GDP, why, sir, should it surprise anyone that the economy appears to be “doing well”—at least for the extremely wealthy who, according to CBO numbers, have received the lion’s portion of both your tax cuts and increased profits.

BUSH: My priorities are giving the tools necessary — to our professionals — necessary to protect this homeland. My priorities would be to support these troops.
Unasked Question # 6: And yet, sir, the 9/11 Commission gave your administration failing or near-failing grades on almost everything related to homeland security, and as we know, soldiers are buying their own body armor in Iraq and are forced to dodge roadside bombs in unprotected vehicles. Certainly your administration pays tribute both to the troops and to protecting the homeland, but when it comes to actually taking care of business, you have repeatedly been judged wanting by those in a position to best know. What, exactly, do you plan to do in the future to rectify the situation?

BUSH: I’m reading History of the English-Speaking Peoples from 1990 on—1900 on. It’s a great book
Unasked Question #7: Who wrote it?

* See, for instance:

  • BUSH: We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq. [8/4/05]
  • SNOW: The second thing you do is you stay the course. [7/10/06]
  • SNOW: But on the other hand, you also cannot be a President in a wartime and not realize that you’ve got to stay the course. [8/17/06]
  • BUSH: We will stay the course. [8/30/06]
  • BUSH: We will stay the course until the job is done, Steve. And the temptation is to try to get the President or somebody to put a timetable on the definition of getting the job done. We’re just going to stay the course. [12/15/03]
  • BUSH: And my message today to those in Iraq is: We’ll stay the course. [4/13/04] SNOW: People are going to want more of it, and that’s why the President is determined to stay the course. April. [8/16/06]
  • BUSH: And that’s why we’re going to stay the course in Iraq. And that’s why when we say something in Iraq, we’re going to do it. [4/16/04]
  • BUSH: And so we’ve got tough action in Iraq. But we will stay the course. [4/5/04]

From Think Progress

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters on Monday September 18. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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