Bush Visits State Department to Talk Iraq Policy

President Bush meets with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her staff to discuss the findings of the Iraq Study Group. The ISG report said that the Bush administration's approach to Iraq and the Middle East is not working and that the U.S. needs to change its policy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

There's been more criticism of the Iraq Study Group report, this time from the president of Iraq. Jalal Talabani says the report contains dangerous recommendations that would undermine his country's sovereignty. He was especially critical of the report's call to speed up the training of Iraq's security forces. Talabani says up to now training efforts have gone from, quote, failure to failure. He is the most senior Iraqi government officials to criticize the report.

INSKEEP: And that is one of several views that President Bush will have to consider. He'll be meeting with his advisers this week. And today, he is visiting another person who has been critical of some of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Iraq Study Group was fairly hard on Secretary Rice. It called for an immediate diplomatic offensive and urged the Bush administration to take a different approach to the Middle East. Former Secretary of State James Baker, has said, repeatedly, that the U.S. needs to try to revive the long dormant Arab-Israeli peace process, and should be trying, at least, to talk to Iraq's neighbors - Iran and Syria - something the Bush administration has been loath to do.

Mr. JAMES BAKER (Chairman, Iraq Study Group): For 40 years, we talked to the Soviet Union during a time when they were committed to wiping us off the face of the earth. So you talk to your enemies not just your friends.

KELEMEN: But when asked about this idea late Friday, Secretary Rice called it a facile comparison. Rice, who was a Soviet expert at the White House when Baker ran the State Department, said the U.S. didn't talk to the Soviet Union, it also talked to Soviet dissidents it had sanctioned, and, as she put it, a grand alliance of democracies to resist Soviet aggression - that is NATO.

Dr. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): So you see, when we talked to the Soviet Union, it was in the context of a broad policy that was aimed at really changing the behavior of the Soviet Union.

KELEMEN: In many ways, Rice speaks of the Middle East in Cold War terms, an ideological struggle between extremists and moderates. So, she says, she still thinks the U.S. needs to be pushing for democratic reform in the region and the secretary does not seem eager to engage Iran and Syria - countries she accuses of stoking violence in Iraq and supporting extremists throughout the Middle East.

She blames Syria for trying to destabilize Lebanon and says she'll talk to her Iranian counterpart only once Iran suspends controversial nuclear activities, which the U.S. believes are part of a secret weapons program.

Dr. RICE: As to Iran and Syria, let's remember that the issue here is behavior. It is: can you change the behavior of these states? If, in fact, they're looking for compensation to stop helping destabilize Iraq, that's another matter altogether - because one would have to ask what compensation are they looking for?

KELEMEN: Bush administration officials say they are dealing with a different Middle East than the one James Baker confronted when he organized the Madrid Conference in the wake of a Persian Gulf War to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Asked on FOX News Sunday, whether he's being naïve about what a new diplomatic push can accomplish, Baker held his ground.

Mr. BAKER: Back in 1991, a number of people said, hey, you'll never be able to change Syrian behavior and get them to come to the table to negotiate peace with Israel. And after 15 trips to Damascus, we were able to do that. So it's no answer to my way of thinking to say that because it's tough we don't do it.

KELEMEN: His co-author, Democrat Lee Hamilton, on CBS' Face the Nation, explains why the U.S. needs to delve into Arab-Israeli politics.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Co-Chair, Iraq Study Group): The reason you want to address -we didn't say solve, but address - the Arab-Israeli problem, is you must do that in order to appeal to the moderate Arabs who are our friends in the region and who can be very helpful in Iraq.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice has said she and President Bush have a, quote, “deep and strong commitment to the solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” and she says she thinks there isn't any opening to move the peace process forward, a track she clearly views as separate from Iraq.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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