Bush defining himself in war against terrorism
Los Angeles Times
What kind of war president is George W. Bush turning out to be?
The test of combat hasn't come yet. But a rough picture is beginning to emerge from the accounts of aides and others who have met with Bush during the past two weeks: the president as chief executive officer delegating some roles to more-experienced advisers but keeping others to himself.
In military planning, Bush has set the basic course but left much of the detailed work to a powerful — and sometimes divided — war Cabinet. In diplomacy, he has hit the phones with the zeal his father showed in the Gulf War, talking with more than two dozen foreign leaders.
As chief salesman for his newly declared war on terrorism, Bush has spoken in public almost every day since Sept. 11, sometimes even eloquently — a switch for a man who long preferred one-on-one politicking to speechmaking.
And in domestic policy, Bush is about to turn attention to the slumping economy and education reform for the first time since the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon — mindful of charges that his father ignored domestic concerns. Still, the war will come first.
"This is now the focus of my administration," Bush has said, both publicly and privately.
Indeed, the unsought challenge of terrorism has given the president, whose domestic political agenda and popularity were eroding before Sept. 11, a new and clearer purpose.
Aides describe decision-making that is settling into an intense but regular routine: the National Security Council (NSC), which used to meet perhaps twice a month, now meets twice a day.
Bush's daily schedule has been remade to reflect the new reality. He still arrives in the Oval Office at 7 a.m. and gets his customary intelligence briefing from CIA Director George Tenet at 8. But now he also has a daily FBI briefing at 8:30 on the investigation into the terrorist networks that authored the attack.
After that comes a regular 9 a.m. "communications meeting" with political advisers Karen Hughes and Karl Rove.
Later in the day come meetings of a new "domestic consequences group," on the war's effect on the home front, and other events.
But the main decision-making event is a 9:30 meeting of the full NSC: Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, backed up by a roomful of aides.
The same group, minus the president, meets again every evening to review the day's action and plan for the next 24 hours.
Bush has used the morning NSC meetings to hear his Cabinet hash out the debates on basic policy questions, one aide said — a kind of crash course in counterterrorism options, and a departure from the way he handled most earlier foreign-policy decisions.
Normally, the Cabinet works through an issue at length, briefs the president on areas of agreement and offers him a few clear choices on issues where individuals disagree.
But this time, aides say, Bush has been more deeply engaged.
"From the very beginning," said one official, "the president decided he wanted to chair the NSC meetings ... because I think he didn't want a process where options were coming up to him, where we had said A thinks this, B thinks this, the consensus positions would be this."
In the earliest phases a key debate raged — between Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz — over whether to focus on al Qaeda, the terrorist network associated with Isamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, or go after many terrorist groups at once, officials said.
Wolfowitz and others wanted Bush to define the enemy broadly, as all international terrorists and their state sponsors. Powell, warning that allied countries wouldn't sign up for a fight against open-ended adversaries, argued for a focus on the most dangerous terrorists, beginning with al Qaeda and its backers.
Bush's decision last week to lay out his goals in a speech to Congress forced the two sides to reach an agreement: If only for practical reasons — you can't fight everyone at once — the United States will focus on al Qaeda and the countries that support it first, and consider other targets later.
Aides refused to describe Bush's role in that discussion in detail, but it appears he played a key part at least in one sense: He never signed on to the hawks' more ambitious proposals.
That caution was reminiscent of Bush's first foreign-policy crisis, China's capture of a U.S. surveillance plane in April, when some aides reportedly called for a tough line, only to see the president opt — after an initial angry statement — for patient diplomacy instead.
Bush especially was engaged in drafting the statements that defined the core of the U.S. response to the terrorist attack, several aides said. The president doesn't write his own speeches — few recent presidents have — but he jots phrases on paper with a black felt-tip pen and tries them out on others.
In perhaps his most important piece of speech writing, Bush rejected the first draft of the statement he would make in the Oval Office on the evening of Sept. 11.
The first draft from Rice and Powell was softer — "kind of flowery ... foreign-policy-speak," an aide said.
By the time the president spoke, though, it had been translated into Bush-speak: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
Over the past two weeks, the NSC meetings have shifted from designing a policy to carrying it out, aides said.
But one thing hasn't happened yet: a full-dress briefing for Bush on military options in the "tank," the joint chiefs of staff's top-secret conference room in the Pentagon. That might be a sign that combat is not yet imminent.
So might be Bush's tentative steps this week to turn some attention to issues beyond terrorism: the economy, education reform, faith-based initiatives and a free-trade agreement with Jordan.
In his radio address Saturday, Bush assured listeners that he was not forgetting to work on ways to revive the sputtering economy.
Aides have said Bush was deeply scarred by seeing his father's popularity plunge from its high point — after his victory in the Gulf War in 1991 — to well below 50 percent in only a year. The lesson, they said, was that voters appreciate foreign-policy success but insist on economic success.