President Bush pressed Syria, Iran and North Korea yesterday to live up to international commitments and reverse policies destabilizing their regions, but emphasized that he will seek diplomatic rather than military solutions to the escalating conflicts.
Bush carefully avoided provocative language and stressed his desire to work with European and Asian allies to isolate or persuade the three maverick countries to alter course, distinguishing the current standoffs from the confrontation that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years ago.
Asked about North Korea, President Bush said: "Now is the time for us to work with friends and allies . . . to determine what we're jointly going to do."
(Jim Bourg -- Reuters)
_____From the White House_____
Transcript: President Bush
At a news conference, Bush pointedly declared Syria "out of step" with the rest of the Middle East and insisted that it end its support for terrorism and withdraw its troops from Lebanon after this week's assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. But Bush declined to specify any consequences if Damascus fails to comply. "The idea is to continue to work with the world to remind Syria it's not in their interest to be isolated," he said.
Likewise, Bush said he will use his trip to Europe next week to collaborate with allies to persuade Iran to abandon any effort to develop nuclear weapons. "Iran is different from Iraq -- very different," he said, adding, "there's more diplomacy, in my judgment, to be done." As for North Korea, he said, "again, it's not Iraq. It's a different situation." With Pyongyang's announcement that it possesses nuclear weapons, Bush said, "Now is the time for us to work with friends and allies . . . to determine what we're jointly going to do about it."
The cautious tone reflects how the outside world has thrust itself back onto Bush's agenda at a time when he would prefer to focus on his domestic platform, particularly Social Security. Bush has been crisscrossing the United States pitching his plan to allow younger workers to divert Social Security payroll taxes to personal investment accounts -- only to find his campaign-style swings drowned out by new eruptions overseas.
Bush effectively acknowledged that, after months of public stumping, he has not gained much traction on Social Security in Congress, where Democrats are coalescing against his plan and many Republicans remain deeply skeptical. In an unusually pessimistic assessment, he forecast the prospect of losing unless, by rallying the American public, he can convince lawmakers that Social Security needs a dramatic restructuring.
"I fully understand . . . that nothing will happen if the members of Congress don't believe there's a problem that needs to be solved, and so you'll see a lot of travel," he said. He reiterated twice more during the news conference the judgment that "this idea is going nowhere if the Congress does not believe there is a problem."
Bush also repeated a formulation he used earlier this week opening the door to raising the Social Security tax on higher-income workers as part of a package to bolster the system's long-term finances. The president said he will consider "any idea except running up the payroll tax rate." Under the current system, up to $90,000 of a worker's income is subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Bush's statement allowed for raising the cap so that more income would be subject to taxation without raising the rate itself.
A measure of the president's challenge was seen in the speed with which House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) rejected an increase in the cap. "My view of raising the payroll tax is it's raising a tax, something I would not opt to do myself," he said. "My personal feeling is that's an increase in taxes."
But foreign policy again dominated Bush's day. Three days after Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in a bombing attack in Beirut, Bush said he still did not know whether Syria was behind the killing, as many suspect. He called for a thorough investigation.
"I'm going to withhold judgment until we find out what the facts are," Bush said. "Hopefully, by the time I get overseas, we'll have a clearer understanding of who killed Mr. Hariri, and it will be an opportune time to talk with our friends to determine what to do about it."
But Bush, who will leave Sunday for a trip to Europe, noted that U.S.-Syrian ties are on rocky footing. "We've recalled our ambassador, which indicates that the relationship is not moving forward, that Syria is out of step with the progress being made in a greater Middle East, that democracy is on the move," he said. "And this is a country that isn't moving with the democratic movement."
Bush called on Syria to withdraw the 15,000 troops still occupying Beirut, prevent Iraqi insurgents from using Syrian territory as a base and stop supporting international terrorist organizations, a reference to Hezbollah. He called those demands "very reasonable requests," but he declined to discuss the sanctions under consideration by the administration. "I look forward to working with our European friends on my upcoming trip to talk about how we can work together to convince the Syrians to make rational decisions," he said.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said at a briefing later that Bush will work with European leaders next week "to send a clear message to Syria that the winds of change are blowing in the Middle East" and that Syria is "an outlier." He also said the Bush administration has raised concerns with Russia about fresh arms sales to Syria. The president will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia next Thursday.
Members of Congress ratcheted up the pressure on Bush to punish Syria. A letter written by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and signed by 10 other senators from both parties urged Bush "to take strong action against Syria," adding that Washington cannot "afford to let Syria off the hook."
Although European leaders have complained that the United States has not joined their efforts to negotiate an accord with Iran, Bush praised their efforts and offered rhetorical support. "The objective is to solve this issue diplomatically," he said. But he did vow to come to Israel's assistance if it is threatened by Iranian weapons. "If I was the leader of Israel and I listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs . . . that regarded my security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well," Bush said. "We will support Israel if there's a -- if their security is threatened."
On North Korea, Bush offered only a muted response to the assertion that it already has nuclear weapons. He reiterated his commitment to a joint declaration with China urging that the Korean peninsula remain free of nuclear arms.