October 4, 2006


Today Helen Thomas asked Tony Snow about Bush dismissing the bloodshed in Iraq as just a "comma". His song and dance around the question is really telling and yet very typical.

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(Transcript below the fold)

Q What did our envoy mean when he said that a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, and what did the President mean the Iraqi war is only a comma?

MR. SNOW: Okay. Thank you for both of those. First, the position has always been that you can't have a nuclear Korean Peninsula. That has been the reason for the six-party talks.

As for the comma. This has been brewed around; Peter had a word or two to say about it today. The comma refers to the period of time between last year's election and today. We're talking about -- well, the President is making the point is, when you look at a history book, a 10-month period is a comma. Now, some people have tried to say, how dare the President refer to this as a comma; he's being glib about the deaths of Americans. That's outrageous, and the people who say that know it. What they're trying to is, willingly or not, wrench a statement out of context and try to use that as an opportunity to accuse a President who is deeply aware of the human cost of war of being calloused about those costs. It's just not true.

And I've talked to him about this a number of times. It was simply -- what he means is that in the grand sweep of history, 10 months is not an epic. Now, there is -- if there is a chasm in here it has to do with what the President said and the way it's been twisted by people who know what the context was.

Q The war is three-and-a-half years old.

MR. SNOW: I know, but notice that "comma" reference was simply referring to the time since -- what he really is referring to is the short lifetime so far of the government. Everybody trying to say, ah-ha, and trying to draw conclusions, is it working, isn't it working; do you have confidence in the Prime Minister, do you not? It's 10 months old. It's a government that is still in its infancy and trying to deal with a host of complex and very important issues. So when you take it in the broad sweep of history, and as we look back -- you and I probably -- well, you may, centuries from now, but I don't think I'm going to last as long as you will, Helen -- but the facts is --

Q Tough. (Laughter.)

MR. SNOW: Yes, probably. But if you look in the broad sweep of history, that will be seen as a comma. That small beginning of a new government -- that's what he's referring to. He's not talking about the war as a comma.

Q But isn't that 10-month period significant only because, in fact, the violence has been so terrible? I mean, the reason we're talking about that time period is the trauma that's going on in Iraq.

MR. SNOW: No, it's significant, Peter, because it is the dawning of a new government. And if you take a look, the violence is a factor. We've been saying for some time that we expected it to spike up, but also you have a number of things that are going on that are very important. You probably saw yesterday they demobilized a police unit in Iraq because of suspicion that they've been working with militias in committing acts of terror. That was one of the things that we have talked about, the importance of getting control of the police, having assertiveness on the part of a national government to make sure that you had all the institutions working toward the benefit of the people.

So there are a number of things that have been going on that you would expect at the beginning of a government. It's being tested, and furthermore, as the 90-10 document -- that is the Pentagon's quarterly paper -- noted back in May -- this was the one that Bob Woodward cites -- that the bulk of the violence right now, you have some sectarian violence and you also have a fair amount, although it's a small wedge of people, of al Qaeda and other terrorists who are trying to inflict maximum damage. That's to be expected.

But on the other hand, what you also see are concerted efforts to create a sense of national reconciliation so that especially those who are involved -- the so-called rejectionists, people who have so far rejected an invitation into government, will, in fact, decide that it's in their interest to be part of a political approach to putting together a unified and peaceful Iraq.

Q The President's statement was open to misinterpretation, let's say. Why did he use it a couple more times after he first did and people reacted --

MR. SNOW: Because he didn't think he had --

Q Why wouldn't he want to avoid any misunderstanding on something so obviously --

MR. SNOW: Maybe he didn't think that people were going to be -- were going to spend so much time trying to twist it out of context. But I'm pleased to have been able to place it in context.

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