The Bush and Blair show

The president has the reputation for straight talk, but it's his British ally who actually delivers it.

Published March 27, 2003 9:55PM (EST)

As if the recent Iraqi sandstorm weren't enough, those looking for signs of the pending apocalypse will note that lightning literally struck British Prime Minister Tony Blair's plane on his way to meet President George W. Bush to discuss plans for post-Saddam Iraq. Wednesday night, the left wing of the chartered British Airways Boeing 777 was struck at a height of approximately 10,000 feet as it came close to touching down at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

The next morning, slightly more than one week into Operation Iraqi Freedom, at Camp David, Md., Bush and Blair gave a joint press conference about the war. To the president's critics, such moments are rife with opportunities to belittle Bush's speaking skills. Blair's articulateness, vigorously honed through regular debates at the House of Commons (click here for his March 18 argument in favor of the war), has always been one of his strongest suits as a politician, whereas Bush -- despite his successful face-offs against Vice President Al Gore -- is not known as a particularly strong extemporaneous speaker.

Even those who support the current war -- perhaps most notably the ubiquitous New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman -- look at Bush next to Blair and find the president comparatively wanting, though for them it's a question of vision. "I wish he would turn over leadership on the whole Iraq crisis to [Blair]," Friedman wrote on March 16, praising Blair's "international vision" on the environment and the plight of the Palestinian refugees and his ability to "put the struggle for a better Iraq within a broader context of moral concerns."

But to those who tuned in for the Thursday morning press conference, there seemed to be another glaring discrepancy between the two men: forthrightness. This may be more a reflection of the way politicians need to speak in the U.S. because of the oversimplifying American media, or it may be because of the American political system and the short attention span of the American voter. But whatever the reason, there were obvious differences when the two men were called upon to address serious issues surrounding the war. Blair acknowledged them and discussed them; Bush ignored their validity altogether and obfuscated with misleading information.

Most glaringly, when asked about the opposition to this war by countries that normally can be counted on to support military action -- like the French, who sent 9,800 troops to the 1991 Gulf War -- Bush regurgitated the standard White House response on this issue: He pretended there is no opposition. "We've got a huge coalition," Bush said, trotting out the questionable list of "coalition of the willing" partners, going so far as to argue that "the coalition that we've assembled today is larger than the one assembled in 1991 in terms of the number of nations participating." But "they're not Western allies," the reporter stated. "We have plenty of Western allies," Bush said. "We can give you the list."

Thirty-two countries sent troops for the 1991 war; four have sent troops for this war. When Bush and Blair participated in a 7:40 a.m. conference call with the leaders of other countries who had sent troops, there were only two other voices on the call -- Prime Minister Howard of Australia and President Kwasniewski of Poland. "I think it's a little disingenuous to compare the number of countries willing to send soldiers into battle in 1991 with the number of countries who are willing to put their names on a list in 2003," a retired senior military officer who served in Operation Desert Storm told Salon. Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for Ronald Reagan, has referred to the coalition of the willing as "window-dressing."

Even with no requirements for participation on the coalition list, several of those countries have expressed issues with their inclusion on the list. "The Government is completely unaware of such statements being made, therefore wishes to disassociate itself from the report," Solomon Islands Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza said Wednesday. He had signed a letter in favor of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, not Iraq, he said, according to Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation. A spokeswoman for the Irish government told the Irish Times that Ireland was not supporting the war either privately or publicly, despite its inclusion on the State Department's list of countries secretly supporting the war. The Czech Republic is listed as a coalition member, though Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and President Vaclav Klaus have denied participation. Angola vanished from the White House list of coalition members for four days, only to reappear Tuesday night.

Of the 48 countries on the White House list, only nine have expelled their Iraqi diplomats, as the U.S. requested. And of those nine, Jordan has said that Iraq can send replacements at any time. "This is a vast coalition that believes in our cause," Bush said, "and I'm proud of their participation."

Blair, conversely, responded to the same question with what seemed like a soft slap at his ally's response. "There are countries that disagree with what we are doing," he said. "I mean, there's no point in hiding it; there's been a division."

That fact acknowledged, Blair reiterated that "there are an immense number of countries that do agree with us," including "many existing members of the European Union, and virtually all the new members of the European Union." Secondly, Blair offered a modicum of understanding as to "why people hesitate before committing to conflict and to war. War is a brutal and a bloody business." Regardless, he and Bush had come to the position where they felt it necessary to take "a stand against what I believe to be the dominant security threat of our time -- which is the combination of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unstable, repressive states and terrorist groups."

But "yes, there are divisions in the international community," Blair concluded. "There are many people on our side, there are those that oppose us." It seemed a complete contradiction of the president's spin.

Sunday-night viewers of C-SPAN 2 already know that Blair has a tendency to acknowledge his opponents' arguments even before they can make them. It's a disarming trait, because it depletes his rivals' ammunition before they can even fire a shot. It wasn't altogether surprising, therefore, when Blair -- after mentioning that some of the allies have committed themselves because Saddam Hussein commands a brutal regime -- noted that "that is not the reason for us initiating this action."

No, Blair freely admitted, the reason for the war was because Saddam had refused to disarm. "Of course," he said, "our aim is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and make our world more secure." But the campaign is being led "in the full knowledge that we are, indeed, going to bring a better future for the Iraqi people."

In his pronouncements, Bush seems to deny that the pending liberation of the Iraqi people is merely a byproduct of a campaign launched for national security reasons. It is not, after all, referred to as "Operation Disarm Iraq," which to a majority of Americans would no doubt suffice. At the Pentagon on Tuesday, announcing his request for funding for the war, Bush began his remarks by referring to this as "our battle to free Iraq and rid that country of weapons of mass destruction." It's as if the liberation were the primary goal -- as if there weren't countries in our coalition of the willing that are also ruled oppressively. Lately Bush has been painting the war as almost entirely a struggle for liberty and freedom. "The Iraqi people have got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed," he said Thursday. "We know the outcome: Iraq will be disarmed; the Iraqi regime will be ended; and the long-suffering Iraqi people will be free soon, the Iraqis will have the confidence of a free people."

For a self-regarded cowboy with down-home charm, this is not quite shooting straight. And this predilection is not going unnoticed by the public. The president continues to enjoy staggeringly high approval ratings -- 70 percent in general and 75 percent for taking military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power, according to a CBS News/New York Times survey released Wednesday. But that same poll indicates that the public does not feel that this president is being fully honest with them. Seventy-five percent don't think that the president has clearly explained how many soldiers may be killed in this war. Sixty-three percent do not feel that he's clearly explained how long the war will last. And 61 percent do not think that the president has clearly explained how much money the war is going to cost.

On Tuesday, as bad news about dead and captured U.S. soldiers started to affect public opinion, the White House and the Pentagon denied that they had ever painted a rosy scenario of the war's length and cost. These protests came despite clear comments to the contrary having been made by Vice President Dick Cheney and Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moreover, they came on the same day that the White House formally submitted its budget request for the war based on a projection of only 30 days of fighting.

Asked on Thursday how long the war would last, Bush said, "however long it takes to win" -- which would be a fine answer if the war hadn't been sold to the public with Vice President Cheney throwing out the notion that we might not even have to fight to topple Baghdad.

Responding to the same question, Blair answered with less bluster and more reasoned discourse. "There is no point in entering into a speculation of how long it takes except to say we have been, I think, just under a week into this conflict," he said. "Now, because of the way it's reported, you've got this constant 24-hours-a-day media, it may seem to people that it's a lot longer than just under a week. But actually, it's just under a week," in which, he said, "an enormous amount has already been achieved."

One reason it might take longer than some anticipated, Blair said, was because "the air campaign has targeted very, very specifically, as precisely as we possibly can, military command and control, the aspects of Saddam's regime, not the civilian population."

"When it's all done," he asserted. "we will achieve our objectives."

Said the president: "I have nothing more to add to that."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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