From the Ranch: Bush on the Middle East, Iraq, Cuba

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From his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush talks to reporters about the issues of the day. He supports the proposed U.N. resolution calling for cessation of hostilities in southern Lebanon, he does not believe that Iraq is sliding into civil war, and he urges Cuban exiles not to mix in as the country faces Castro's illness.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In the Middle East today, Hezbollah fighters launched more rockets into Israel and Israel continued to bomb targets inside Lebanon. There were talks today at the U.N., but a vote on a resolution to end the fighting was put off after Arab nations objected.

President Bush has been keeping track of the diplomacy and the fighting from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He emerged today to address reporters inside a helicopter hangar near his ranch. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at his side, the president pressed for a U.N. resolution that would halt the fighting but would not require Israel to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon. At least not yet.

NORRIS: NPR's David Greene is with the president in Texas and joins us now. David, the president says he supports this resolution that calls for a cessation in violence. It appears that his position is evolving.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Well, certainly there's been a change in emphasis. The president used to say that he was against an immediate cease-fire, and now he says he favors this resolution to end the hostilities. But once you consider the details, there's not a huge change, mostly because the resolution he's talking about still gives Israel the right to defend herself, and the president today said Israel is basically free to keep forces in southern Lebanon until a second resolution is passed and until an international force goes in.

The president was actually asked, why not stop the violence now? Why not get Israel out of southern Lebanon? I think we have some tape here of the president. Let's give a listen.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Whatever happens in the U.N., we must not create a vacuum into which Hezbollah and its sponsors are able to move more weapons. Sometimes the world likes to take the easy route in order to solve a problem. Our view is it's time to address root causes of problems.

GREENE: So the president is saying Israel should remain, for now. Of course, what Lebanese officials are working hard to change, they want the U.N. to demand an Israeli withdrawal immediately, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was with the president, said she's listening to their concerns, and of course this resolution is far from done yet.

NORRIS: Now did the president or Condoleezza Rice have anything to say today about talking to other parties involved in the region, specifically Syria?

GREENE: Well, the president was asked very bluntly about Syria, and he said actually, the U.S. is talking to Syria, though not at a very high level. He said that we have a consulate in Damascus and that Syria knows the U.S. position.

But he really shifted the onus to Syria and also to Iran, saying Syria's response so far hasn't been very positive. Iran, if they would follow the demands of the world in terms of their nuclear program, would be welcome at the table. So no warm invitation to come to the table by the president for Syria or Iran.

NORRIS: And I understand the president also had some comments today on the situation in Iraq. What did he have to say?

GREENE: He did. He took questions from almost every news outlet down here at the ranch. I actually asked him about Iraq and whether he agrees with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Blair said a few months ago that he really miscalculated in terms of how quickly democracy would rise after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

And the president said he doesn't agree with that. He actually thinks there's been remarkable political progress in the country, and even with all the sectarian violence we're seeing in Baghdad right now, he dismissed the idea that Iraq is falling into civil war. Here's a little tape of the president again.

President BUSH: You know, I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that. The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box.

GREENE: So pretty clear he disagrees with some members of the U.S. military who say that Iraq might be heading into civil war.

NORRIS: And David, the president also finally spoke in public about the situation in Cuba.

GREENE: He did. It was the first time we heard from him in the flesh. He had released a message a number of days ago. He said he doesn't know any more than average Americans do about the condition of Fidel Castro and when he may come back to power, if at all, but he sent a message saying that he wants the Cuban people to be able to decide their own future and the future of their government.

He also sent a pretty blunt message to the exile community in the United States. He said that they should hold off. They should let the people in Cuba decide the future of their government and then later Cuban Americans can take an interest in what's happening, can redress issues of property confiscation. So it was a message - Fidel Castro's future is unknown, but to the exile community, don't interfere yet.

NORRIS: Thanks, David.

GREENE: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's David Greene with President Bush in Texas.

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