Loyal NB readers might recall that on the eve of President Bush's recent address on the new way forward in Iraq, I had the chance to participate in a conference call for bloggers with White House press secretary Tony Snow and Brett McGurk of the National Security Council.
With the State of the Union Address just a few hours away, Tony Snow - after a long day making the media rounds - organized a similar event in which your faithful NewsBuster again took part.
I had a chance to ask a question this time around, and chose to focus on recent events in Iraq. After referring to the headlines that have been made by the recent arrest of some 600 militiamen in Iraq, I noted a lesser-publicized report that the Iraqi army had arrested a senior aide to Moktada al-Sadr, Sheikh Abdul al-Hadi Darraji. He was arrested last Friday in a raid on a Baghdad mosque near Sadr City.
I asked Snow whether those events signal that we have in some way turned the corner in obtaining the willingness of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in going after Shia militias, and if so, how have we been able to achieve this?
Tony's answer was optimistic: "The proof is in the pudding, and the arrest you just mentioned is of enormous significance. What the president has said to the prime minister is that you have to make sure that the law applies equally to everybody. If you're going to go after Sunni insurgent groups, you're going to have to do the same thing to Shia militia - and that's what's happened. And I think it's been pretty clear that the prime minister has said to the militias 'you know what? you're on your own now. You really cannot operate outside the law.'"
Continued Snow: "You've seen a change in behavior in the public posture of Moktada al-Sadr both in terms of his instructions to militias and also his instructions to members of his own party to stop boycotting parliamentary sessions and to rejoin the Council of Representatives. So Prime Minister Maliki, I don't want to render final judgment, but these are certainly promising signals on the part of the government that they do take seriously the need that they dispense justice in an even-handed manner and also go after the bad guys in an even-handed manner."
Tony later added that since President Bush's announcement of the new way forward, facts on the ground in Iraq have been shifting in response to the demonstration of American determination. It appears that Kurdish Iraqi troops are being moved toward Baghdad to participate in the surge, and there is progress on the political/economic front with the impending announcement of the new hydrocarbon law that should spur foreign investment.
- On health care insurance: market forces need to be introduced to give providers market incentives to make consumers happy in the same way that, e.g., mp3 manufacturers must.
- On Iran: there are indications that "the bloom might be coming off the rose for Ahmadinejad" with his own people, creating interesting opportunities for progress.
- On lessening dependence on foreign oil: the emphasis again will be on market-based solutions: "coming up with an environmental benefit without throwing people out of work."
- On Social Security: the president will repeat his desire to have individual investment accounts. The power of competition has been demonstrated in the prescription drug benefit plan. It had originally been predicted that the monthly premium would be in the $37-40 range, but it has come down to $24 thanks to competition. Companies like Wal-Mart are offering very competitive plans.
- 100 million people will be net tax beneficiaries under the president's health insurance premium tax-deductibility proposal.
- On immigration: Tony expressed the hope that the conservative base will "give us credit and listen to what we're talking about." He stated that the administration has undertaken the most aggressive plan ever on enforcing borders, introduced a new system to identify and track legal and illegal immigrants, is cracking down on the hiring of illegals and has spent more in one year on border security than the toughest House proposal would have spent in five years. "Catch and release" has also been ended. The question is how to deal with "the difficult problem" of the 12 million illegals already here. Tony described the numerous requirements illegals would have to fulfill in order to earn amnesty. He acknowledged that the administration needs to do a better job of staying in touch with the conservative base, and expressed the belief that blogs could play an important role in that. He ended by asserting that the administration and conservatives, on immigration, "have pretty much the same goals."
- On No Child Left Behind: Tony emphasized that there is no desire to federalize education, but hold schools accountable. Snow said that conservatives should be pleased by the proposal to include a voucher element in the program that would let children from failing schools attend private-sector schools.
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