By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Despite setbacks on North Korea and Iraq, President Bush vowed yesterday to stick with his policies on both crises, praising Chinese condemnation of North Korea's apparent nuclear test and citing progress in helping the fledgling Iraqi government stand on its own.
Even as he rejected calls to hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference that diplomacy is beginning to unite the world against North Korea's nuclear efforts. He called it hopeful that China is helping North Korea "understand it's not just the United States speaking to them," and he reassured South Korea and Japan that the United States "reserves all options" to protect its allies in the region against threats from the communist state.
At the same time, Bush addressed the recent doubts expressed by senior Republicans, including Sen. John W. Warner (Va.) and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, about the current U.S. course in Iraq -- which he described as more flexible than critics suggest.
"We're constantly changing tactics to achieve a strategic goal," the president said, adding that "stay the course" is only a partial description of his strategy in Iraq. "My attitude is, 'Don't do what you're doing if it's not working; change,' " said Bush, who met yesterday with the senior U.S. commander in Iraq to review the progress of the war. " 'Stay the course' also means don't leave before the job is done."
The hour-long news conference gave Bush an opportunity to try to regain some control over a dangerous political environment for Republicans just four weeks before midterm elections, in which the GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate face a stiff challenge from Democrats. Until recently, Bush seemed to be having some success in shoring up GOP lawmakers with an effort to make terrorism and the improving economy the centerpieces of the fall campaigns.
But that strategy has been thrown seriously awry by new revelations about the administration's troubled conduct of the Iraq war, and by a burgeoning scandal surrounding the House leadership's handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against Florida Republican Mark Foley, who has resigned. Meanwhile, this week's apparent underground nuclear test by North Korea exposed the White House to new questions about the success of its efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction from the world's most dangerous governments.
Bush received only one question about the Foley episode, which he used to restate his support for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Hastert's handling of the matter. He expressed confidence that Republicans will keep control of both chambers despite the Foley scandal, saying that the public supports the GOP on what he termed the two big issues of the campaign -- security and the economy. And he took pointed shots at Democratic leaders for not supporting his tax cuts -- criticism that they said misrepresented their interest in cutting taxes for the middle class.
The White House also announced yesterday that the federal budget deficit dropped to $248 billion, a four-year low, which it attributed to tax cuts and other "pro-growth" economic policies. Democrats derided that explanation and said Bush's boast ignored the considerable debt that the federal government has acquired since he was inaugurated in 2001.
Most of the news conference, however, was devoted to North Korea and Iraq, and Bush enthusiastically defended his basic strategy in both crises, offering lengthy answers to most questions with a mixture of feistiness and contemplation.
Answering a question about the North Korean nuclear test, Bush explained his reluctance to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang by saying that the Clinton administration tried such an approach and it did not work. He said that North Korea violated a 1994 agreement in which Pyongyang promised to shut down its nuclear reactor and keep spent nuclear fuel under international supervision, and that the U.S. government promised certain benefits such as providing oil for energy production. Bush's account left out the U.S. government's own role in scuttling that agreement.
"I learned a lesson from that, and decided that the best way to convince Kim Jong Il to change his mind on a nuclear weapons program is to have others send the same message," Bush said at the news conference. He said Pyongyang's defiance of international demands that it give up its nuclear program is a reflection on the North Korean leader, not on any failure by his administration.
"The inability to convince people to move forward speaks volumes about them," Bush said. "It ought to say to all the world that we're dealing with people that, maybe, don't want peace, which in my judgment . . . requires an international response."
The refusal to engage with Pyongyang directly has been condemned by lawmakers in both parties and by diplomats, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who urged the United States yesterday to sit down with North Korea.
"From North Korea to Iraq, the American people have seen clearly what it means to 'stay the course' with the president's failed national security policies," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said yesterday. "The president's policies are not making the American people safer. Staying the course won't change that. It's time for a new direction."
On Iraq, Bush was asked about the recent comments of Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who returned from a trip to Iraq last week warning that Iraq is drifting "sideways." Warner said major changes should be considered within a few months if the situation there does not improve.
Bush said he agrees with Warner "completely" that "if the plan isn't working, adjust." But he said the overall strategy in Iraq is sound, even as day-to-day tactics might change. Bush said the upsurge in attacks and casualties is happening because U.S. forces are more aggressively confronting the enemy in Baghdad and elsewhere. "We're on the move," he said. "We're taking action."
Bush said he does not find credible a new report in the Lancet, a British medical journal, which estimates that 655,000 more Iraqis have died since coalition forces arrived than would have died without the invasion. In a comment in the journal, the editors said the study was reviewed by four outside experts, all of whom recommended publication, with one noting the "powerful strength" of the research method. The findings, however, have a large margin of error. The low-end estimate of excess deaths (both civilian and military) is 393,000, while the high-end estimate is 943,000.
Bush disputed the study's numbers but did not supply his own. "I do know," he said, "that a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me, and it grieves me."
Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.