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White House Plays Hardball with Critics


President Bush has framed American involvement in the Middle East as both a war on terror and a mission to spread democracy. The president says, `These goals require winning battles and changing attitudes.' The administration insists it's doing both, despite rising violence in Iraq and international anger over allegations of human rights abuses. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The task for the US military remains a difficult one in Iraq, with a long-term American troop presence now an apparent certainty. But another extremely challenging task facing the Bush administration is the need to improve the image of the United States around the world, a task made more difficult by allegations of prisoner abuse that have put the Bush administration on the defensive. Top administration officials denounced a recent report from the group Amnesty International about alleged human rights abuses at the US military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Listen to the list of adjectives. President Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's absurd.

GONYEA: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Reprehensible.

GONYEA: General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

General RICHARD MYERS (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Irresponsible.

GONYEA: Press secretary Scott McClellan.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Ridiculous.

GONYEA: And this from Vice President Cheney.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Frankly, I was offended by it.

GONYEA: Further, while the White House and the Pentagon did acknowledge some abuse of prisoners in the wake of the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, President Bush, at the White House this week, argued that charges leveled by those who have been released from US custody are `overblown, even outright lies.'

Pres. BUSH: We've investigated every single complaint against the detainees. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of--and the allegations by people that were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble.

GONYEA: This response plays better at home, where most Americans resent strong denunciations of the US by a group such as Amnesty International. Outside the US, though, and in the Islamic world, there is an expectation that such charges require more than angry denials, especially given the photos from Abu Ghraib that continue to be widely circulated. Steven Kull runs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Mr. STEVEN KULL (Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland): The Bush administration has not taken an approach to apologize, to acknowledge their mistakes or weaknesses. That's just not a style of the Bush administration. And they obviously feel that that's important; that if they were to change that, that that would create some vulnerability politically.

GONYEA: But Kull says in the Muslim world people look at the example of Abu Ghraib and expect action beyond the trials of low-level military personnel.

Mr. KULL: That has not happened. There have been no high-level individuals that have in any way suffered from this.

GONYEA: The administration counters that all such charges are investigated; that it is an open, transparent process and that those responsible are being held accountable. Separately, the White House points to the discrediting of one story in Newsweek about the desecration of the Koran as a `blanket reputation' of all such stories, even as the charge continues to provoke anger in Islamic nations.

There is also often a disconnect between the US assessment of the situation in Iraq and the view of those in the region. This past weekend, with US soldiers suffering one of the costliest months of the conflict and with the number of civilian deaths mounting, Vice President Cheney offered CNN's Larry King his own optimistic sense of an Iraqi insurgency on its last legs.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Vice Pres. CHENEY: I think the level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

GONYEA: And while the administration continues to rely on this upbeat view of the war and of the US role in the region, it has also mounted a friendlier offensive. In recent months Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has traveled extensively in the Middle East, and just last month first lady Laura Bush took a goodwill tour of the region. The president has also nominated his longtime aide and adviser, Karen Hughes, to the job of undersecretary of State for public diplomacy with a special focus on Islamic nations. Hughes, however, though appointed earlier in the year, won't start until late summer for family reasons. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.