The Prez and the Press

I caught most of President Bush’s now famous (or infamous) press conference of the 21st on TV, and watched as he managed to parry and feint admirably with an obviously overwhelmingly hostile collection of media folks. Though the activity lasted nearly an hour, with a number of subjects discussed, the recently sold Knight-Ridder newspaper in my city, the ultra-liberal Lexington Herald-Leader fashioned its big-bold headline the next morning thusly: Bush: U.S. in Iraq past ’09, emphasizing an almost off-the-cuff remark the president made about the complete recall of U.S. troops from Iraq being the business of another president of each country.

The amazing thing about this headline was that it didn’t feature columnist Helen Thomas’s opening remark in which she accused Bush of “wanting to go to war” and demanding to know why. It was a smart-aleck, grandstanding performance, but the president was gracious in his response. Thomas had not been called upon for a question for three years, apparently, so that might have had something to do with her testiness and the president’s ease. One can only wonder what the lady thought the prez might have had in mind as the result of 9/11…perhaps a tea party with Osama to discuss the naughtiness of wrecking airplanes. For accusing the president of wantonness in wanting to cause American bloodshed, she should be banned from further conferences. Hers was an unconscionable show of both disrespect and stupidity.

The most amusing thing about the conference was that the president managed to gently make the point that Americans see the Iraqi War in terms of how the media report it, and that this means that the preponderance of opinion contributing to low president-oriented poll-numbers (though he pays no attention to them) is negative. This has set off a firestorm in the media. The subject was taken up on 21 March on the Lehrer News Hour, the PBS public-information program. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization that studies the news and entertainment media, and also a professor of journalism at George Mason University, said, “certainly the network coverage -- shows that there's two to one or three to one negative tilt in coverage of Bush's foreign policy, coverage of Iraq; so the coverage is negative and critical.” Though crudely done, Thomas provided the perfect example of what Lichter meant.

The paper’s allusion to the matter of troops in Iraq for a while yet, as if that’s something that simply could not be expected or tolerated, was so laughable as to upstage anything Jay Leno might caricature. The fact is that a total of 195,172 American GIs (as of 30 June 2005 and not counting any at all in Iraq) are present throughout the world in 29 countries. They entered South Korea in 1950, for instance, and as of 30 June 2005 there were 32,744 American GIs still there. They entered Japan in 1945, and some 35,300 or so are still there. Amazingly, there are only 69,400 or so in Germany – yep, been there since 1945. Sixty-one years and counting does seem a bit long for U.S. troops on foreign soil, especially with no end in sight, but to the local paper the notion that GIs might be in Iraq for a time beyond the current three years may seem too wild to consider. GIs are not occupiers in those countries…they are in them at the expressed invitation of those countries, as is the case regarding the desire of the Iraqi government newly in place. Indeed, after World War II, some 300,000 GIs populated Germany for more than 40 years, until the Soviet Union disintegrated, thus losing status as a threat to the entire free world. Even Italy and Britain have large contingents of GIs in-country – some 12,250 and 11,100, respectively.

What are those troops doing in South Korea or Japan? Obviously, they serve a military purpose – helping defeat any enemy that would arise. Actually, they exist more as cannon fodder in their present numbers. North Korea has a military consisting of 1.1 million troops on active duty, with a whopping 4.7 million in reserve capacity. South Korea’s active outfit is hardly more than half the North’s, though its reserves number 4.5 million. Japan, however, is comparatively unprotected militarily, numbering only 240,000 on active duty, with a paltry 44,000 in reserve. North Korea has already expressed its belligerence, threatening to have (or already having – who knows) atomic weaponry, and has fired missiles across Japan. The problem for Kim Jong Il, the little bloodthirsty tyrant/madman who rules North Korea, is that a move on either South Korea or Japan would be a move on U.S. forces as well, since American GIs would come under attack. They form the deterrent that stabilizes the region, since even the little Asian-Napoleon has more sense than to invite certain U.S. retaliation if he made a move, at least assuming someone like Bush is president. What a Clinton-type (either one) or a Kerry-type might do is anyone’s guess.

On NBC’s Meet the Press of 19 March, Pennsylvania Congressman Murtha proclaimed to moderator Tim Russert that Bush should fire all the folks responsible for the war effort and that defense Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. In the press conference, Bush made it abundantly clear that no such things would happen. I believe Rumsfeld has mentioned before that he has offered his resignation, but that it was not accepted, and Bush went out of his way to express confidence in his secretary, not for just his conduct of the war but also for his management of the retooling of the military for the kind of operations now necessary in a world in which terrorism is the main battering ram for subduing populations.

Predictably, the question of the terrorist surveillance program (wiretapping stuff on only foreign-originated calls to suspected terrorists in this country) was brought up, ostensibly the reason for Wisconsin Senator Feingold’s recent censure motion that went nowhere and embarrassed his party. The president rather adroitly handled the matter by reminding everyone that nobody in the Democrat Party had stood up and called for getting rid of it. He didn’t mention that Feingold might have been grandstanding in an effort to jumpstart a move for the presidency in 2008, but he indicated that demurring democrats ought to take their message to the people about getting rid of the program and even gave this as a quote they could use: “Vote for me. I promise we’re not going to have a terrorist surveillance program.”

The prez had the good grace to admit that mistakes are sometimes made, pointing out the surplus of trailers in Arkansas and that time was lost in figuring a way to get at the terrorist problem in Iraq; however, the conference was a tour de force for Bush at a time when he needs to talk straight to the “mainstream” media folks whose numero-uno agenda-item involves hurting the administration as much as possible in a time of mortal conflict.