Bush, in Asia, Vows To Keep U.S. in Iraq

President Bush is greeted by South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Pusan, South Korea.
President Bush is greeted by South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Pusan, South Korea. (Pool Photo By Luke Frazza Via Reuters)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005; 6:30 AM

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea, Nov. 19 -- Facing a backlash on Iraq both at home and abroad, President Bush declared Saturday that an early troop withdrawal would be "a recipe for disaster" and renewed his vow to stay in the war until "we have completed our mission."

Trading his suit coat for a bomber's jacket, Bush delivered his sharp retort to war opponents surrounded by cheering troops in camouflage uniforms at this U.S. military base south of Seoul. While ostensibly on an overseas trip focused on economics, Bush directed his attention to critics at home in remarks just hours after the House voted down a proposal to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

"In Washington, there are some who say that the sacrifice is too great and they urge us to set a date for withdrawal before we have completed our mission," he told several thousand service members in a drafty hangar at the headquarters of the 7th Air Force, the main U.S. Air Force unit in South Korea. "Those who are in the fight know better."

It was the second time on this week-long trip that Bush has used a speech at a U.S. military base to advance his case on Iraq. Adopting the judgment of a top U.S. general in Iraq who called a withdrawal schedule "a recipe for disaster," the president promised to follow the "sober judgment" of the military. "We will fight the terrorists in Iraq," Bush said. "We will stay in the fight until we have achieved . . . the victory our brave troops have fought for."

But the appearance followed an unexpected embarrassment in keeping together his international coalition in Iraq. Just hours after Bush hailed South Korea for contributing more troops to Iraq than any other ally except Britain, South Korean defense officials revealed plans Friday to withdraw one-third of their force. Aides traveling with the president sought explanations from their South Korean counterparts while politely playing down the development in public.

The Iraq debate has shadowed Bush throughout his four-nation trip, from the tough speech he gave at a refueling stop at an Alaska air base on the way over to the harsh denunciations of his critics that his staff has issued each day. On Friday, thousands of protesters, angry about the war and global trade policies, chanted "No Bush" in the streets of the South Korean port city of Pusan, throwing rocks at police, who responded with powerful water cannon blasts.

Bush was in Pusan for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The APEC summit wrapped up Saturday with agreements by 21 nations representing half the world economy to push forward on global trade talks and coordinate regional efforts to head off a possible avian flu pandemic.

Bush also conferred with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, discussing Iran's nuclear program and the Kremlin's latest efforts to curtail domestic opposition. Bush met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia on Saturday to discuss economic and security issues, including the Muslim nation's struggle with terrorism.

After stopping here to address troops, Bush departed South Korea on Saturday en route to Beijing, where he planned talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on trade, currency, human rights and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Bush began his trip in Japan and is to finish it Monday in Mongolia before returning to Washington.

White House officials recognized that none of the issues discussed on the trip was likely to produce major news that would knock Iraq off the front page, especially after fresh reports of violence in Baghdad and word that a prominent pro-military Democrat, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), had turned against the war. And so the president chose to confront the war debate rather than avoid it and commissioned advisers to map out a strategy to punch back.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president had no choice, because he has been so provoked by Democrats accusing him of manipulating prewar intelligence. "There is a bright red line there, and it's one the Democrats have crossed," Bartlett said. "It's not only fair game for the president to correct the record, it's his obligation." Bartlett claimed some success, saying Democrats back in Washington in the last few days seemed "a bit back on their heels." He added, "They have a hard time defending their own position."

As part of a new campaign-style effort, the Bush team issued an unusually harsh statement on White House stationery attacking Murtha for calling for troop withdrawals, likening him to liberal maverick filmmaker Michael Moore and accusing the lawmaker of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists." Angry Democrats accused Bush of crossing a bright red line of his own.

Even the president's overseas friends have provided no solace from the troubles in Iraq. As the Japanese consider pulling out some of their self-defense forces from Iraq next spring, Bush concluded it was not even worth trying to persuade Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to keep them in place even though he called the Japanese leader "one of my best friends in the international community."

The South Koreans pulled a more awkward surprise. President Roh Moo Hyun played gracious host to a convivial, doff-the-ties visit, wining and dining Bush and showing him the nation's oldest and most fabled Buddhist temple, where they rang a bell together. During all the time he spent with Bush, Roh mentioned nothing about troop withdrawals, according to U.S. officials.

But then the South Korean Defense Ministry revealed its plans to allies in parliament, saying it intended to pull out 1,000 of its 3,200 troops from Iraq. Even Roh and the Foreign Ministry seemed surprise. Contacted at his office, a Foreign Ministry official said he could not explain and was still trying to find Defense Ministry colleagues to figure out what was happening.

With stunned U.S. officials seeking explanations, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon quickly emerged to tell reporters that the government would request National Assembly approval by Dec. 31 to keep some South Korean troops in Iraq. But he would not say how many. "At this point," he said, "it is planned that we will keep them but the government is considering various plans regarding the size."

Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report from Pusan.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company