'A peculiar performance'
What the US press made of George Bush's news conference last night, in which he spoke about the current situation in Iraq
Wednesday April 14, 2004
Commentators from the big American newspapers find a president on a mission to "stay the course" but look in vain for detailed plans about Iraq or admissions of mistakes from George Bush's news conference last night.
Washington Post - Dan Balz
Bush steadfastly refused to admit mistakes and passed up opportunities to explain what it will take to achieve his goal of a free and stable Iraq.
... The president's objective was less to lay out new details of the path forward, suggest any change in direction or acknowledge any rethinking of his decisions in the face of recent setbacks. Instead, it was to restate his determination to stay the course and to argue anew that the war in Iraq will make America more secure.
But for Americans looking for an insight into what the president has learned from an occupation of Iraq that has been far bloodier and more difficult than the administration had suggested, or from the government's failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush had less to offer.
... The most he would concede last night was that it had been "a tough week" in Iraq, an understatement given the loss of US life, the kidnapping of civilians, the resistance from both Sunni and Shiite extremists ... Last night, he offered a picture of where he hopes Iraq will be eventually, but whether he can lead the way remains an open question.
Washington Post - Tom Shales
One reporter ... asked Bush if what we had here was a failure to communicate ... [with] the American people? "Gosh, I don't know," Bush said in what seemed an unguarded, honest moment.
[His opening 17-minute statement] was a peculiar performance; Bush would look down, read a sentence, look up, look around, pause slightly, then look down and read another sentence. He might as well have been reading letters off an eye chart.
... Most of the questions seemed to go unanswered ... [some were met with] an almost religious fervour. Isn't the mixing of earthly political concerns with religious beliefs one of the things that thwarts and frustrates the United States and its allies in the Middle East?
... Fox had already scuttled a telecast of its gigantically popular "American Idol" to make room for the president ... anyone tuning in and expecting to see an American idol saw an American president instead - one who didn't exactly seem confused but who at times appeared to be teetering on the very brink of confusion.
And yet people responding to polls today will probably give Bush points for just showing up. By having so few televised news conferences, he's made the ones he does have into big events. By expressing tremendous confidence in his own judgment and actions, even to the point of not being able to recall a single mistake, it's likely Bush made Americans feel a renewed confidence as well.
New York Times - David E Sanger
Facing a moment of political peril unlike any in the more than one thousand days of his presidency, George Bush made the case for staying the course in Iraq with the language and zeal of a missionary and combined it with a stark warning that failure would embolden America's enemies around the world.
... [it was] largely an hour-long justification for holding fast in Iraq, no matter how the casualties mount, no matter how chaotic the process of forming a new government.
... [the language about America's moral mission] seemed drawn from the era of Teddy Roosevelt, whose speeches he keeps on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas. He described an America chosen by God to spread freedom. He never used the word "crusade," which touched off a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world when he uttered it soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But he described one.
The people behind those attacks are linked to the Sunnis and Shiites raising arms against Americans in Iraq, he said, because they serve "the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid, and murders children on buses in Jerusalem, and blows up a nightclub in Bali, and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew". He was referring to Daniel Pearl, the reporter for The Wall Street Journal abducted and killed in Pakistan.
Beyond the rallying call, however, Mr. Bush offered little in the way of new strategy, perhaps because he believes none is called for, perhaps because to offer it would be to acknowledge that the course he followed in Iraq over the past year did not end up with the April 2004 he once envisioned.
New York Times - leader
He failed to address either of the questions uppermost in Americans' minds: how to move Iraq from its current chaos, and what he has learned from the 9/11 investigations.
... [he was] grave and impressive while reading his opening remarks ... but his responses to questions were distressingly rambling and unfocused.
There was still no clear description of exactly who will accept the sovereignty of Iraq from the coalition on June 30 ... the repetition of the phrase "stay the course", did not seem to indicate any fresh or clear thinking about Iraq, despite the many disturbing events of recent weeks.
The United States has experienced so many crises since Mr Bush took office that it sometimes feels as if the nation has embarked on one very long and painful learning curve in which every accepted truism becomes a doubt, every expectation a question mark. Only Mr Bush somehow seems to have avoided any doubt, any change.
Philadelphia Inquirer - Dick Polman
You can bet that President Bush would have preferred to be driving his pickup down at the Texas ranch.
But it's questionable how many American minds were changed.
He revived the theory that [Saddam] Hussein and al-Qaida were in business together, and cited it to justify the Iraq invasion, although this theory has been repeatedly debunked by a host of hard-liners in the counter-terrorism field.
... [He] dismissed any parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, and said that such talk undermines troop morale (which is noteworthy, because Vietnam hawks used to complain that any criticism of that war would undermine troop morale).
... As evidenced by the latest polls, support for the Iraqi war has sharply declined, not because people judge the mission to be wrong, but because it appears the Bush administration may lack a blueprint for victory.
[The media] spared him some of the toughest questions, such as whether it was premature, on May 1, 2003, to fly onto an aircraft carrier adorned with a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished", given the fact that most of the slain soldiers have lost their lives since that day.
Chicago Tribune - Michael Tackett
The president who spoke repeatedly about being on a war footing hardly seemed sure-footed, even on questions that could scarcely be seen as overly aggressive.
... The president can find overall support for the war in Iraq and his efforts in the war on terrorism. The more nuanced issue is whether Americans in effect are expressing support more [for] the nation than [for] the president.
... Bush was asked whether pursuing the war in Iraq would be worth it even if voters were to throw him out of office in the fall. "I don't plan on losing my job," the president said. On Tuesday night, the president who likes to keep control made it plain that whether he keeps his job may well rest on events that he cannot.