The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal world-wide news box (online), and Los Angeles Times all lead with Secretary of State Powell's peace pilgrimage to Israel, which as the LAT says, "failed to make much headway." USA Today's lead, citing unnamed Iranian and U.S. diplomats, says that the two countries are holding high-level talks in Geneva on a range of issues, including the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations. Iran and the U.S. have chatted before, but those were mostly mid-level meetings; according to USAT these new talks have been OK'd by Iran's ruling clerics.
The Post gives the most dramatic, and clear, headline on the visit, "POWELL HITS STANDSTILL ON MIDEAST PEACE PLAN." (The NYT by contrast, goes limp, "POWELL CONSULTS WITH 2 PREMIERS ON MIDEAST PEACE.") That standstill, one can eventually surmise from the papers, is largely attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, who has continued to insist that the Palestinians take a number of steps—halting all attacks, giving up their right of return—before he will begin negotiations. The Journal says that later this month Sharon intends to present President Bush with a list of 15 objections to the plan. According to an unnamed Israeli official quoted in the WP, Powell did not "in any way" push Sharon to accept the plan. As the NYT emphasizes, there is one potential sign of progress: Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas might meet soon. Israel also announced that it's going to let about 25,000 Palestinians from the West Bank back into Israel to work. Citing security concerns, it also sealed the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Abbas announced that while he has reservations to the "road-map" peace plan, he's signed on to it as is. He also said he's trying to convince militant groups to declare a cease-fire, rather than immediately confronting them militarily. The WP quotes one unnamed State Department source as saying that behind-the-scenes Abbas promised to get tough. "There is already a firm commitment to go all the way" to disarm the groups, the official said.
Some of the papers are gun shy in their description of Powell's trip. Here is, to the best of TP's ability, the one (run-on) sentence upshot of the visit: The Palestinian prime minister signed onto the peace plan, Sharon didn't, and Powell didn't push him on it. Yet most of the papers, in what feels like a misguided nod to balance, downplay that and avoid clearly telling readers who was more of a roadblock. Take the WP's subhead, "Israelis, Palestinians Balk at Secretary's Requests." The one exception is USAT, which says on the frontpage, "POWELL VISITS ISRAEL,Sharon cool to 'roadmap' for peace."
USAT says that Powell confirmed the talks with Iran, though he said that diplomatic relations were "not on the table now." The paper also says that despite the talks, the administration is still divided on whether it should try to warm things up with Iran.
A front-page piece in the Post says that Syria, freaked out by the presence of thousands of GIs near its border, is starting to introduce reforms in the country, including dropping military uniforms as required elementary school attire. By the way, USAT says that the Iranian clerics' approval of talks with the Great Satan can also be attributed to American troops hanging nearby.
The NYT, playing catch-up on yesterday's reports in the LAT and WP, off-leads President Bush's decision to overhaul the team of administrators in charge of Iraq. On Sunday, looters set fire to Baghdad's central phone exchange, apparently to create a distraction while they liberated some cars elsewhere. The Times quotes officials who argue that some of those being sacked are just scapegoats. The Journal adds to that impression, saying that some officials worry that the change in guard might actually slow down stabilization efforts. (Actually, the Journal calls them "reconstruction efforts," which given the current state of things seems like a euphemism, or at least incomplete.) The Journal also describes a "growing gap between upbeat public assessments by U.S. officials and the grim reality on the ground."
In a WP piece that lands in the Style section, the paper details how violent crime—rape, kidnappings, murder, etc.—is running rampant in Baghdad. And American troops are getting frustrated about it. "I'm sorry," one officer recalls telling residents. "I'm sorry we don't have enough soldiers to help you."
Yesterday's Post had an extraordinary report from Barton Gellman saying that the U.S. is winding down its large-scale hunt for banned Iraqi weapons and will soon send many of the hunters home. It seems like an important piece, and particularly credible since it relies on named sources. But none of the papers follow up on it, even to shoot it down. Why? Are they just not interested in sloppy seconds? Do they no longer have reporters on the WMD beat?
Actually, the NYT's Judith Miller, who has her own private embedding deal with a WMD search-team, does have a dispatch today. Ignoring Gellman's report, she says that her team has come across a relatively large source of radiation. It's not a hot lead, though: Apparently, the radiation is coming from a long-abandoned site that was used by Iraqis a decade ago to expose troops to simulated nuclear battlefield conditions. Unlike Miller's previous reports, she does ID one of the men in the unit. His name is "Drew."
In an admirable gesture of integrity and openness, the NYT's William Safire comments on the issues raised by the fraudulent work of the NYT's Jayson Blair. Unfortunately, confronted with the prospect of hitting his own paper, Safire gets wobbly. For instance, at first he says, "Apparently this 27-year-old was given too many second chances by editors eager for this ambitious black journalist to succeed." Safire's suggestion seems clear. But later he writes: "A newspaper is free to come down on the side of giving black journalists a break if its owners and editors so choose." So, which is it?
The Post's "Style Invitational" had another fine week. The contest asked readers to take a line anywhere from last Sunday's WP and make it the answer to a question they submit. One response, which (in one of this morning's great injustices) didn't win:
A: It's a blasphemy wrapped in an atrocity.
Q: Have you tried our new kosher cheesesteak on Wonder Bread?