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Bush did-not-know strategy on ports puzzles some
Reuters
By Patricia Wilson - Analysis
February 23, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - What didn't the president know and when didn't he know it?

Faced with a rebellion in his own Republican party over an Arab company's planned takeover of operations at six U.S. ports, the White House says President George W. Bush was in the dark about it until last week.

While Bush adamantly defended the deal again on Thursday, the I-did-not-know strategy has puzzled some political analysts and communications experts.

"It's a disaster for him, I think," said Michael Hogan, professor of communication, arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University. "It's never a good thing for a president to say he doesn't know something."

Another analyst thought the strategy was an attempt to shift blame away from Bush. It might also give the president some leeway to compromise, perhaps by accepting a slight delay in the deal while Congress is fully briefed.

White House officials said Bush was trying to stay above the political fray and hoping to demonstrate he would treat the Middle East fairly.

It is a familiar approach for a president who prides himself on his management-school background. Bush responded to accusations of a botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina by arguing that no one could have anticipated that New Orleans' levees would fail. He also said, in response to accusations over intelligence failures before the September 11 attacks, that he had no idea U.S. enemies would use "airplanes to kill."

Bush did not hear personally from Vice President Dick Cheney until about 36 hours after Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner in Texas.

The White House was surprised by a bipartisan criticisms that the ports deal raised concerns of a terrorism risk. It acknowledged that it wrongly failed to explain to Congress the administration's approval of the sale of British-based company P&O that now manages terminal operations at the six ports to Dubai Ports World, a state-owned firm based in the United Arab Emirates.

Bush learned of the deal on February 16 from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, when the issue was in the beginning stages of "increased congressional interest and increased press interest," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The deal was approved a month earlier, on January 17.

There were no objections -- national security or otherwise -- during the review process that would have warranted its being brought to Bush's attention, McClellan said.

"Its really a strategy for shifting blame," said Dean Spiliotes, director of Research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "But it is dangerous because the average person doesn't necessarily know that this is not something the president is typically going to involve himself in."

"It's a risk because it makes him look like they sort of dropped the ball."

The ports furor added to the impression that a White House once considered politically sure-footed may have lost its touch.

"Why didn't a bulb go off in somebody's head that this could be a problem given the criticism of the administration on port security and the sensitivity of dealing with countries in the Middle East right now?" asked Spiliotes.

Treasury Secretary John Snow argued that the officials who investigated such transactions weren't "political people."

Hogan suggested the problem might be second-term malaise.

"It may have something to do with the fact that they don't worry about this stuff as much as they did in the first term," he said. "This administration is not handling its public face as effectively as it might."

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