Humbled, Bush, Blair Say Iraq Goals Still Relevant

President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair meet in the Oval Office

President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair meet in the Oval Office, Dec. 7, 2006. Despite the violence ravaging Iraq, and the growing discontent from the public in the U.K. and America, both leaders insist their policy goals for Iraq remain relevant. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

To put Thursday's meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in some perspective, it's worth remembering their meeting of April 8, 2003.

The two leaders, both buoyant and sounding confident, held a war summit in Belfast. Baghdad was besieged and falling. Saddam Hussein's statue would be pulled to the ground in two days. The president and the prime minister seemed vindicated in their predictions for victory.

To the prime minister, the Iraqi people seemed grateful.

"It's not that they're welcoming us because they're welcoming foreign troops," Blair said then. "They're welcoming the fact of their liberation."

Mr. Bush noted that Iraqis, particularly in the south, had heard talk of freedom in the past, only to be disappointed.

"They were skeptical, they were cynical, they were doubtful," the president said. "Now, they believe, they're beginning to understand we're real and true. And it's happening elsewhere. Freedom is spreading south to north."

Three and a half years later, their confidence — and their political fortunes — have been shaken by intervening events. Iraq is ravaged by sectarian violence, perhaps headed for civil war. And British and American citizens have shown they are running short on patience.

Shaken by the Past Few Years

In Britain, there is talk of pulling many troops out of Iraq sometime in 2007, perhaps as early as the spring. In the United States, a bipartisan panel, the Iraq Study Group, has criticized the president's war policy and called for a conditional withdrawal of American combat forces by 2008. The panel also urged Mr. Bush to engage Iran and Syria diplomatically.

On Thursday, Mr. Bush and Blair met at the White House, then addressed reporters. Blair was quieter than in previous White House visits. He acknowledged the need for a new course in Iraq, and said the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (chaired by Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton) had been helpful.

But Blair insisted the broad policy goals that he and Mr. Bush share for Iraq and the Middle East remain relevant.

"The only way we resolve it is by having the right vision, and then the practical measures to achieve it," Blair said. "Now, I think the vision is absolutely correct. What we've got to do now — and this is exactly why the president was talking about the way forward — is that we've got to get the right way forward. This is where Baker-Hamilton helped — in order that we have the practical policy that bolsters and gives effect to the vision. Because the vision is the right vision."

Acknowledging the Chaos

The president was at times testy. A British journalist suggested Mr. Bush may be "still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq." The reporter told the president that some might "question your sincerity about changing course."

Mr. Bush abruptly cut him off: "It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?"

The reporter pressed on: "Why did it take others to say it, before you've been willing to acknowledge for the world..."

"In all due respect, I've been saying it a lot," the president said. "I understand how tough it is. And I've been telling the American people how tough it is. And they know how tough it is."

As for the Iraq Study Group's recommendation for reducing U.S. forces, Mr. Bush said he wants American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. He did not bring up the panel's call for U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq in 2008. But Mr. Bush said he was heartened that the Iraq Study Group made clear troop withdraws must be conditional, based on the situation on the ground.

"I thought that made a lot of sense," the president said.

Still Reluctant to Engage Syria and Iran

But he flatly rejected the panel's call for the United States to quickly engage Iran and Syria. The president said Iran must verifiably stop enriching uranium, and Syria must stop de-stabilizing the new government in neighboring Lebanon.

Until then, the president said, no talks with either: "These countries have now got the choice to make. If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy — just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not to conflict."

The president said he read the Iraq Study Group's report, but he added, "I don't think Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton expect us to accept every recommendation."

Then again, as Mr. Bush spoke, Baker was on Capitol Hill telling lawmakers his group's report should not be treated like a "fruit salad" where the president and others say, "I like this, but I don't like that."

"This is a comprehensive strategy," Baker said, "designed to deal with this problem we're facing in Iraq, but also designed to deal with other problems that we face in the region, and to restore America's standing and credibility in that part of the world."

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