Sunday, March 04, 2007

Flip-Flopper-In-Chief Flip-Flops again
Bush Shows New Willingness to Reverse Course
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer

He was against it before he was for it.

The same president who mocked the idea of talking with Iran and Syria as recently as two weeks ago is now sending emissaries to a regional conference to talk with Iran and Syria.

For President Bush, last week's decision was the latest of several reversals on issues on which he once refused to budge. Since Democrats captured Congress, Bush has fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, authorized direct talks with North Korea, sent more troops to Iraq, agreed to discuss the contours of a Palestinian state in Middle East peace negotiations, and even proposed a tax increase for millions of Americans -- all ideas he rejected earlier.

"It's not really surprising to me that they're beginning to change," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose report in December recommended opening talks with Iran and Syria. "The realities of the situation are becoming more apparent to them. . . . Presidents begin to focus very much on their legacy, and he recognizes that insufficient progress has been made on some of these international issues."

Some of Bush's shifts are being welcomed by Democrats and some Republicans, although often with the caveat that, in their view, he has not gone far enough. "Any administration, including this one, has to face reality that changes over time," said former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), an ally of the president's father. "They should. Circumstances change. I'd hate to see an administration that was so rigid that it didn't react to that."

But it can be a bitter pill for a politician who got to the nation's highest office by stressing his unwavering fidelity to core principles and painting his opponents -- first Al Gore, then John F. Kerry -- as flip-floppers who changed their minds depending on the political currents. Now, suddenly, it is George W. Bush -- the stubborn, resolute, "never give in" leader -- who finds himself explaining how he can reject a position one moment and embrace it the next.

All politicians flip-flop at times, of course, though few characterize it that way. Governance sometimes requires it and, if skillfully presented, it can be seen as thoughtfulness or growth in office. As Gore and Kerry showed, though, it can be a political killer if it becomes central to one's image. That's why Republican Mitt Romney is struggling to explain his changing positions on abortion and gay rights, while Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton refuses to apologize for her 2002 vote for the Iraq war despite pressure from liberal activists.

In Bush's case, he sometimes acknowledges a shift and attributes it to evolving conditions, such as his decision to increase the number of troops in Iraq after years of insisting he had sent enough to do the job. In other instances, though, the White House denies any change of position at all, offering nuanced arguments for why the latest move is consistent with past statements.

Bush's new health-care plan, for example, would raise taxes on 30 million Americans. The White House says this is not a real tax increase, because the proceeds would finance tax cuts for 100 million other Americans and the overall plan would be revenue-neutral.

Likewise, after the announcement that U.S. envoys will attend an Iraqi-sponsored conference of its neighbors, White House spokesman Tony Snow complained that the move was being portrayed as a policy switch. At a briefing, he read a list of multinational meetings attended by U.S. and Iranian diplomats in the past and chastised reporters for mischaracterizing the situation.

"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," Snow said. "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 same list of past meetings, though, has been cited repeatedly by critics in recent months in asking why Bush has refused to talk with Iran and Syria lately. Until last week, the president had said he would not talk with either until Tehran suspended its uranium enrichment, Damascus stopped interfering in Lebanon, and both dropped support for terrorist groups.

He made his attitude abundantly clear at a news conference last month when he mocked those calling for him to negotiate. "This is a world in which people say, 'Meet! Sit down and meet!' " Bush said in a sarcastic tone. "And my answer is: If it yields results, that's what I'm interested in." Just two weeks later, he agreed to sit down and meet in the context of a conference of Iraq's neighbors and major powers -- even though none of his previous conditions has been met.

Conservatives expressed exasperation. "I have never seen an administration with such an enormous gulf between the president's public statements and its actions," said Michael A. Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Presidential statements should reflect policy. They don't seem to in this administration."

Ledeen said Bush should not talk with Iran, given the charges that it is arming Iraqi militants: "They're killing our kids. They're in open warfare against us. So we're going to sit around a conference table with them to talk about the security of Iraq, which they have no interest in?"

Other Bush allies say that the president flip-flopped on North Korea's nuclear program. Whereas he used to reject one-on-one talks with Pyongyang, insisting that negotiations take place in a six-nation forum, he reversed himself and authorized direct talks in Berlin in January, which ultimately led to a breakthrough agreement.

John R. Bolton, Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, said the Berlin meeting "was clearly a shift" that yielded a deal rewarding North Korea for bad behavior.

Bolton was further disturbed by reports last week about administration officials backing off assertions about North Korea's uranium enrichment. "There's a risk that the administration looks weak through the media spin," Bolton said, "and if the president doesn't like the media spin, he should correct it immediately."

Bush has strategically changed positions in the past when it suited him, perhaps most notably when he embraced the creation of a Department of Homeland Security after initially opposing it. But he has cultivated an image of a leader who rarely veers from course -- to the point of irritating many who wish he would, particularly on Iraq.

That could immunize him now to an extent from charges of flip-flopping. "It actually may be greeted warmly, and you may see his poll numbers tick up," said Scott Reed, who ran Republican Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

More important to Bush, Reed added, is burnishing the record before his term expires: "They're really playing for the history books now."