Beating Around the Bush 

Beating Around the Bush 

Beating Around the Bush 

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 24 2003 6:55 AM

Beating Around the Bush 

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox, and USA Today all lead with President Bush's speech at the U.N. in which he rebuffed calls for the quick transfer of power to Iraqis and did not offer to transfer significant power to the U.N. The Los Angeles Times leads with a banner headline on a federal appeals court's decision, as expected, to reverse the postponement of California's recall vote and put it back on track for October 7. Supporters of the delay, who had argued that the vote should be postponed until punch-card ballots are replaced in March, said they won't appeal this decision. The Washington Post's top non-local spot goes to the recall.

Having previewed Bush's speech a few days ago, the WP and NYT gloss over the words and instead focus on the reaction and speeches by other leaders, many of whom socked it to the U.S. Take Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who warned of an "attempt to discredit our organization" and said the U.N. "was conceived to do more than simply clear away the rubble of conflicts it was unable to prevent." The Post goes highest with the criticism, headlining above-the-fold: "BUSH IS CRITICIZED AT U.N. OVER IRAQ; Leaders Assail 'Unilateralism.' " 

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As the WP points out in a savage front-page news analysis—"A VAGUE PITCH LEAVES MOSTLY PUZZLEMENT"—Bush avoided discussing any details about the Security Council resolution that the U.S. is seeking. Trying to explain that reluctance, the Post says that "U.S. diplomats have discovered" that even if the U.S. shares power, not many countries will pitch in troops or money. Given that, the White House figured there's no reason to compromise and share power. The NYT mentions that South Korea, which the White House had been hoping would send scads of soldiers, is now saying it can't make a decision for another month.

Some analysts told the papers that world leaders were willing to negotiate, were hoping to get some signal of flexibility, and instead got the finger. As one analyst told the NYT, Bush's speech tried to convey the message that "the situation is not so desperate that he needs to make any concessions now."

As the papers mention, Bush's tough talk was also a play to his domestic base, many of whom are skeptical of the U.N.

Considering the president's not-an-inch stance, there are some curious headlines. The WSJ, "BUSH URGES U.N. TO HELP EFFORTS TO REBUILD IRAQ;" and USAT, "BUSH INVITES HELP IN IRAQ." Bush did technically ask for help, but by focusing so literally on the words, the papers miss the overall intended message, which happens to be just the opposite, "We don't need your stinkin' help—not that we were going to get it anyway." Or as Slate'sFred Kaplan puts it, "BUSH TO WORLD: DROP DEAD!"

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The WP notes that the White House also took other opportunities yesterday to show off its diplomatic skills: "Just before [French President Jacques] Chirac addressed the assembly, Bush and his top aides—Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte—left the hall."

The NYT's diplomatic correspondent Steven Weisman, writing a front-page diplomatic reaction piece, wins today's Understatement of the Day Award: "Despite good marks from many for his performance, Mr. Bush did not seem to have advanced his administration toward broadening support for a Security Council resolution to expand the United Nations role in Iraq." And, Steve: Good marks?

A NYT editorial, of course, excoriates Bush's speech, but it also sees a silver lining: "There is something closer to a consensus on the goals for Iraq's future. The international community, Mr. Bush and his allies all want to see the Iraqis become self-governing as soon as possible and to take over their own security operations. There also seems to be agreement that the United States should remain in command of military operations. This is a good starting point."

The WP's lead editorial is slightly less charitable: "A FAILED SPEECH." The paper explains, "Mr. Bush has not budged from his initial position, which offered some U.N. role in preparing a new constitution and organizing elections but refused to dilute the present monopoly of American power over the occupation administration, the reconstruction program or the contracts that have been awarded almost exclusively to U.S. firms. Not surprisingly, that formula doesn't appeal to any of the governments that have been discussing possible contributions for Iraq."

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Meanwhile, the WSJ is smitten: "Bush was properly generous and conciliatory."

Though the papers at most mention it in passing, Bush also continued to imply (though not explicitly state) that Saddam was linked to al-Qaida: "The regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror," said the president, who kicked off his talk by invoking 9/11 and suggesting that Iraq was part of the overall response to it. He made no distinction between AQ and the regional (Palestinian) terrorists that Saddam once supported. (The lesson: It's the law of diminishing accountability. If you keep repeating an exaggeration, the cost usually goes down. Most press will eventually consider it stale and move on.)

Finally, for you procrastinators out there: The NYT has a nice multimedia feature on the get-together, including audio clips from the various speeches and narration from the aforementioned Weisman. (It's just like Mystery Science Theatre 3000—only no robots.)

The NYT fronts a Gallup poll taken in Baghdad: Of nearly 1,200 Iraqis questioned, 67 percent said they think they'll be better off five years from now than they were during Saddam's rule. Just 8 percent guessed they'll eventually be worse off. Forty-seven percent of respondents also said they have a favorable view of Iraq administrator Paul Bremer. Chirac was behind him at 42 percent, while President Bush was at 29 percent.

The WP, LAT, and NYT all front word of the arrest for alleged spying on behalf of Syria by an Air Force translator in Guantanamo Bay. He's the second man arrested for suspected espionage at Gitmo, though officials say they don't know whether the two were connected. The defendant in this latest case, Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, was arrested back in July, but the arrest wasn't acknowledged by the military until, as the NYT mentions, CNN reported it yesterday. The NYT, which has the deepest coverage of the case, says that the Air Force has tried to keep the case proceedings behind closed doors, a decision that the Times says has "stirred an uproar inside Air Force legal circles."

The LAT covers the death of one of its own: Foreign correspondent Mark Fineman died of a heart attack yesterday in Baghdad. TP had frequently cited his good work.He was 51.