George Bush yesterday rejected key recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, revealing important differences with Tony Blair, who embraced the proposals put forward by the US bipartisan commission.
Those differences became clear after the two leaders met at the White House.
President Bush flatly contradicted the ISG’s proposal that Iran and Syria be included in regional talks aimed at ending Iraq’s worsening civil war. He restated the White House position that talks with Tehran were conditional on the Iranians stopping uranium enrichment, while contacts with Damascus would depend on an end to Syrian destabilisation of Lebanon and a cessation of arms and money flows over the border to Iraqi insurgents.
“We’ve made that position very clear. And the truth of the matter is that these countries have now got the choice to make,” the president said.
“If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it’s easy. Just make some decisions that’ll lead to peace, not to conflict.”
Mr Blair, by contrast, welcomed the regional peace initiative put forward by the ISG, saying only that the basis for those discussions should be acceptance of UN resolutions on Iraq.
A Downing Street spokesman confirmed the British position of demanding a halt to uranium enrichment while continuing to talk to Iran on other issues. “In terms of our position, we continue to have diplomatic relations with Iran and have always done so,” the spokesman said.
The difference in tone between the two leaders was also evident when they talked more generally about the report, which also called for a withdrawal of combat troops by early 2008, a switch in the use of US troops to an advisory role, in tandem with a comprehensive Middle East peace conference.
Mr Blair enthusiastically embraced the ISG’s regional approach and the link it made between resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing peace to Iraq. “There is a kind of whole vision about how we need to proceed that links what happens inside Iraq with what happens outside Iraq. And the report put this very simply and very clearly,” he said. “I think the report is practical, it’s clear, and it offers also the way of bringing people together.”
President Bush praised the commission, headed by the retired politicians James Baker and Lee Hamilton, for its bipartisan approach, but appeared to put more emphasis on a separate assessment of the situation in Iraq expected in the next few days from the joint chiefs of staff.
“Baker-Hamilton is a really important part of our considerations,” the president said. “But we want to make sure the military gets their point of view in. After all, a lot of what we’re doing is a military operation.”
The military report is not expected to propose substantial troop withdrawals and may even advocate a brief surge in the US military presence in Iraq. President Bush yesterday made it clear he was more likely to listen to that kind of advice. He said: “Our commanders will be making recommendations based upon whether or not we’re achieving our stated objective.”
He added that another political assessment was being readied by the state department and that after he had absorbed all the reports he would make a major policy speech announcing a new strategic direction.
Mr Bush has been under rising pressure since last week when the incoming defence secretary, Robert Gates, contradicted his assertion that the US was winning the war. Pressed by journalists, the president yesterday admitted “it’s bad in Iraq”, adding: “I do know that we have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed. I do understand that process is not as rapid as I had hoped.” But his rhetoric otherwise remained defiantly unchanged, and he continued to talk of eventual “victory”.
The ISG members appeared before the Senate yesterday in an attempt to increase pressure on the president to accept the group’s proposals.
Mr Baker, a close adviser and friend of the president’s father, said that the ISG report “is probably the only bipartisan report [the president is] going to get and it’s extremely important that we approach this issue in a bipartisan way”.
“If the Congress could come together behind supporting – let’s say, utopianly – all of the recommendations in this report, that would do a lot toward moving things downtown,” he added, referring to the White House at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mr Baker also flatly contradicted the president’s claim that the ISG authors did not expect him to accept every recommendation. “I hope we don’t treat this like a fruit salad, saying, ‘I like this, but I don’t like that,'” he said. “It’s a comprehensive strategy designed to deal with the problems in Iraq, but also to deal with other problems in the region. These are interdependent recommendations.”
In his remarks yesterday, the president did appear to give some hints on future military strategy, suggesting that the initial emphasis would be on a final effort to contain the sectarian violence centred in Baghdad, which may allow US troops then to concentrate on al-Qaida groups, which would be more palatable to US public opinion.
“We’ll continue after al-Qaida. Al-Qaida will not have safe haven in Iraq. And that’s important for the American people to know. We got special operators. We’ve got, you know, better intelligence,” he said.
“The strategy now is how to make sure that we’ve got the security situation in place such that the Iraqi government’s capable of dealing with the sectarian violence, as well as the political and economic strategies as well.”