By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007 5:14 PM
President Bush today called on the Iranian people to reject their hard-line government, saying they "can do better" and need not be isolated by a leadership that destabilizes its neighbors and pursues a suspected nuclear weapons program.
In a White House news conference before leaving for vacation, Bush also had cautionary words for U.S. allies in the region: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He said Maliki, who is visiting Tehran, should realize that Iran is playing a "very troubling" role and that he would need to "have a heart to heart" talk with the Iraqi leader if he believed the Iranians were being constructive. Bush said he expects the embattled Musharraf to take "swift action" against Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders if there is "actionable intelligence" on their whereabouts in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas, and he called on the Pakistani general to hold a "free and fair election."
On U.S. domestic issues, Bush dismissed the idea of raising the federal gasoline tax to generate funds for repairing the nation's bridges in the wake of the collapse last week of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. Instead, he said Congress should do a better job of setting priorities.
Asked about a proposal by members of the House Transportation Committee to raise the 18.3-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax by 5 cents to help replace similar structurally deficient bridges, Bush said, "My suggestion would be that they revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place."
Each committee member "gets to set his or her own priority first, and then whatever is left over is spent through a funding formula," he said. "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. So before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let's make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes."
Standing behind a new, larger podium installed especially for him in the White House briefing room, Bush also touted the strength of the economy's "fundamentals" and said U.S. financial markets have sufficient liquidity to permit corrections.
"My belief is that people will make rational decisions based upon facts, and the fundamentals of our economy are strong," Bush said in response to a question about the current market volatility. He said the government must show "enormous empathy" to people who lose their homes because they are unable to borrow money the way they used to, and he said financial institutions need flexibility to help them refinance. But he ruled out direct federal grants to homeowners.
Responding to Bush's remarks, congressional Democrats said it was the president who needs to adjust his priorities, and they disputed his assertions about the economy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, "It is laughable that a man who has turned record surpluses into record deficits would lecture anyone about proper investments for our nation. . . . President Bush may think he has his priorities straight, but unfortunately they align with his special-interest friends and not those of the American people."
Reid added, "Whether it is privatizing Social Security, giving massive tax breaks to oil companies while consumers pay more at the pump or letting Osama bin Laden roam free while we keep our troops mired in an open-ended Iraqi civil war, America has had just about enough of President Bush's misguided priorities."
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) contested Bush's claim that his policies had turned an inherited recession into a robust economy. He said the Clinton administration created 22.7 million jobs, compared to 5.6 million so far under Bush. He noted that 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost since Bush took office and that 5.4 million more Americans live in poverty.
"President Bush turned the $236 billion budget surplus he inherited into deficits of over $1.7 trillion, all totaled, during his time in office. He has an emergency spending proposal pending in Congress right now for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for another $145 billion -- all of it borrowed, none of it paid for," the North Dakota Democrat said in a statement.
"Now he wants to cut taxes for the biggest and wealthiest corporations," he said, referring to Bush's statement yesterday that he is considering a new plan to reduce corporate income tax rates.
Asked at today's news conference about reports from Tehran that Maliki, the visiting Iraqi prime minister, expressed appreciation for Iran's "positive and constructive" role, Bush said he wanted first to get a readout from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Maliki, making his second visit to Tehran since he took office in May 2006, paid tribute to the father of Iran's Islamic revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and held talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top officials, Iranian news agencies reported.
"Look, generally the way these things work is you try to be cordial to the person you're with, and so you don't want the picture to be kind of, you know, duking it out," Bush said.
"Now, if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart to heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive."
He said he believes that Maliki "in his heart of hearts" feels the same way. "Now, maybe he's hopeful, in trying to get them to be constructive, by laying out a positive picture. You're asking me to speculate."
Americans "ought to be very concerned about Iran," Bush said. "They're a destabilizing influence. They are a government that has -- its declared policy is very troubling, obviously, when they announce -- when Ahmadinejad has announced that the destruction of Israel is part of his foreign policy. That's something, obviously, we cannot live with. They have expressed their desire to be able to enrich uranium, which we believe is a step toward having a nuclear weapons program."
Bush added, "My message to the Iranian people is, 'You can do better than this current government. You don't have to be isolated. You don't have to be in a position where you can't realize your full economic potential.' And the United States of America will continue to work with our friends and allies in the Security Council and elsewhere to put you in a position to deny you your rightful place in the world -- not because of our intention; because of your government's intention."
Bush was also asked about the prospect that Musharraf, under mounting pressure from opponents, could declare a state of emergency in Pakistan, possibly undermining the battle against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in areas bordering Afghanistan. Bush said he has seen no evidence of such a declaration and expressed confidence that Musharraf is committed to fighting a common enemy.
"I have made it clear to him that I expect there to be full cooperation in sharing intelligence, and I believe we have good intelligence sharing," he said. "I have indicated to him that the American people would expect there to be swift action taken if there's actionable intelligence on high-value targets inside his country."
Bush said Americans must recognize that Pakistan "is a sovereign nation." As for Pakistan's domestic scene, his focus "is that he [Musharraf] have a free and fair election," Bush said. "And that's what we have been talking to him about. I'm hopeful they will."