A new White House F-word: "Flexible"

The United States will talk with Syria and Iran about Iraq, but Tony Snow insists there's nothing new about that.

Published March 1, 2007 2:50PM (EST)

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that engaging Iran or Syria on the subject of Iraq would be tantamount to subjecting the United States to an "extortion" demand.

The White House deserves credit for changing course -- U.S. representatives are now preparing to participate in a regional conference on Iraq alongside representatives from Iran and Syria -- but White House officials just can't bear the thought that they might look like they're changing course.

How hard will they argue that their newfound willingness -- read: need -- to engage is nothing new at all? This hard:

Reporter: Why are you so defensive about going the diplomatic route?

Tony Snow: We're not. As a matter of fact, we've been going the diplomatic route all along. We're not being defensive. What we're trying to do is clarify, because it's important that people understand that this administration is serious when it comes to the Iranians about a precondition for bilateral negotiations and also for diplomatic relations, which is they can't be working toward a nuclear weapon ...

Reporter: Tony, is [the president] anxious to dissuade anybody from interpreting this as some change in policy?

Snow: Yes, because I think a lot of the press accounts yesterday just got it wrong, and I think it's important to get it right.

Reporter: What is wrong with saying -- well, why are you hesitant to embrace this sort of school of thought here that the administration has heard what the Baker-Hamilton group suggested, they've heard the calls from the Hill, as Secretary Rice talked about yesterday, and you're open to engaging on all fronts in a way that is, you're embracing something that you were pushing away before? What's wrong with that?

Snow: We were so good that we pre-heard it. As a matter of fact, we pre-heard it as early as 2002 if you want to take it that route, Jim.

Reporter: I'm not sure I follow.

Snow: Well, what you're saying is -- this is not a response to the Baker-Hamilton Commission, although it does comport with one of the recommendations.

Reporter: [So why did] Secretary Rice bring that up on the Hill yesterday, then?

Snow: Because what she was doing is -- everybody uses Baker-Hamilton as a talking point. She said, here, here is something Baker-Hamilton recommended that's --

Reporter: Well what's wrong with saying, yes, we're flexible, we're going to try it on all these different fronts, as opposed to going out of your way to knock down any impression that perhaps you're flexible diplomatically?

Snow: No, we're not -- that's -- here's part of the problem we're having, is that you are applying labels that don't really seem to apply to the situation. We -- "flexible diplomatically"? I mean, what exactly do you mean, "flexible diplomatically"? ...

Reporter: One more follow on this. Could it be that you're concerned -- if you are seen as embarking on a new policy, is the concern that the old policy was wrong?

Snow: No, the concern is you guys are getting it wrong and I don't know how to get you to get it through your heads that it's not new. I mean, it's not new. What's going on here is something that has a long-seated precedence. There are multilateral forums where, if the Iranians are there, we're not going to walk out. The Iraqis -- we have always said if they invite us to this regional forum, we will be there. They invited us; we're going to be there ...

Reporter: You're not saying we didn't put a stamp of approval on this with the Iraqis --

Snow: Of course, we did. We're very happy that this is going on.

Reporter: We pushed it, didn't we?

Snow: We have encouraged it.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Iran Iraq War Middle East Syria War Room