Today's Papers

Going Commando

The Washington Post , New York Times,and Los Angeles Times lead with President Bush’s declaration yesterday that the United States and its allies have been wrong in “excusing and accommodating” a lack of freedom in the Middle East. Delivering what the White House billed as a big-picture policy speech, Bush implored Saudi Arabia and Egypt—two crucial Middle East allies—to embrace democracy and described the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a linchpin in the “global democratic revolution.” USA Today and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with the economy—USAT, with word of looming job growth; the WSJ, with an increase in worker productivity and hints from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that a hike in interest rates could be on the horizon.

As everybody notes, Bush’s speech yesterday was clearly aimed at changing the perception of the Iraq occupation—describing it not as an ouster of a dictator, but in far broader historical terms. Instead of talking about weapons of mass destruction—a phrase that wasn’t mentioned once—Bush repeatedly invoked history, comparing modern-day Iraq with U.S. efforts to spread democracy in Asia and Europe after World War II and the “difficult battles of Korea and Vietnam.” Meanwhile, as the WP notices, Bush’s talk bared more than just a passing resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1982 speech that called for a “crusade for freedom” against the Soviet Union:

Just as Reagan spoke about the Soviet Union in 1982 as “a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones,” Bush spoke of the “failures of political and economic doctrines” in the Middle East. Just as Reagan in 1982 said, “It may not be easy to see, but I believe we live now at a turning point,” Bush said, “We’ve reached another great turning point—and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement.” Similarly, as Reagan said the spread of democracy was not “cultural imperialism” or “cultural condescension,” Bush assured listeners that “as we watch and encourage reforms in the region, we are mindful that modernization is not the same as westernization.”

Furthermore, as the NYT  reports, Bush’s speech was delivered before the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that was created as a direct result of Reagan’s 1982 speech. Not even Reagan pushed Reaganism this far, says a WP news analysis.

A senior administration official tells the WP that the speech’s purpose was to “elevate the president’s foreign policy to a moral cause and remind people why they’re fighting.” Also, the official says, it was aimed to take “the whole thing out of troop levels and border patrols.” Yet just before Bush spoke, the military announced the deaths of two more American soldiers in Iraq, and the Pentagon revealed that it would begin shuffling new contingents of soldiers into Iraq at the beginning of the year. According to the WP, the overall plan is actually aimed at reducing troops in the country from around 132,000 to 105,000 by next May—although, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the cutback clearly depends on whether or not the security situation improves.

Another reason for the pullout is the rapid expansion of the Iraqi security forces. Yet that fast start-up may not be all its cracked up to be. Guards there are being allowed to start work with little to no formal training on ethics or basic job skills, the WP reports. Of the 60,400 Iraqi policemen now on the job, only 3,500 to 4,000 have been put through a U.S.-run three-week course in ethics and investigative methods,according to U.S. officials. An additional 36,000 Iraqis hired to guard ministry buildings, power plants, oil pipelines, and other public facilities are at best receiving instruction lasting a few days. Furthermore, the new cops aren’t being vetted as well as they should be. “In a perfect world, you’d have a year’s vetting process before you included anybody,” Rumsfeld tells the paper. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a perfect world. So what we do is we vet them the best we can.”

On a related note, the NYT fronts word of a new covert commando force created to, as the president might say, smoke out Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and other outlaws. Task Force 121, described as one of the Pentagon’s “most highly classified and closely watched operations” ever, was created after two elite Special Operations teams deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan were recently disbanded. Though much of what the new group does is shrouded in secrecy, Pentagon officials say it was created to act more quickly and more flexibly on intelligence tips. How’s it going so far? Officials will say only that task force “has gotten close” to Saddam.

The papers follow up this morning on the New York Daily News’ scoop yesterday on details from Jessica Lynch’s soon-to-be-released biography, which reveals that she was sexually assaulted by her Iraqi captors. The NYT goes inside with details of an ABC News interview set to air Tuesday in which the former POW rails on the military for exaggerating accounts of her rescue and casting her in a patriotic fable. Asked if it bothered her, Lynch tells ABC: “Yeah, it does. It does that they used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff. Yeah, it’s wrong.” Both in the book and in the ABC interview, Lynch said she was embarrassed by how she was cast as a hero and that she cannot understand why her rescue was filmed.

Everybody fronts word that Democrat Howard Dean has apparently gotten the backing of two major labor unions. The Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO’s biggest member group, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees are set to endorse Dean next week. As the LAT notes, it’s a major blow to Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who had counted on broad labor support for his White House bid. “The institutional players in the Democratic Party think he can win, or they wouldn’t have done this,” a Democratic  strategist tells the LAT.