By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008
KUWAIT CITY, Jan. 11 -- President Bush launched a new round of personal diplomacy with Persian Gulf nations Friday aimed at persuading Arab countries to support U.S. efforts to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace, contain Iran and stabilize Iraq.
Bush arrived here for meetings Friday night with Emir Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, ruler of this tiny nation rescued by the United States and its allies after the 1990 invasion by Iraq. Bush will also visit Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates; officials say a major subject for conversation on the tour is how to cope with the rising regional influence of Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
In appearances this week, Bush and his advisers said they would also be pressing Arab governments to support the nascent peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Aboard Air Force One on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the Arab countries took a "big step" in coming to the Annapolis, Md., peace conference that launched the new round of peace talks. Kuwait was one of two Arab countries that did not attend; Iraq was the other.
"Some of this will happen over time," she said. "You know, there isn't going to be a blinding flash in any of this -- not on this trip, not on the next trip. But this is a process that's moving forward."
The president also will be getting an update Saturday from the top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. White House officials said they expect Bush to discuss developments since his announcement a year ago that he was sending additional troops to Iraq, as well as the challenges ahead.
Before flying to Kuwait, Bush ended an intensive two days of diplomacy devoted to jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by engaging in some traditional sightseeing. Bush has been criticized in the past for speeding through some of his foreign visits, traveling to India, for instance, without going to the Taj Mahal. Bush said he plans to return to Israel for its 60th anniversary celebrations in May.
Bush began his day in Jerusalem with an emotional visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, where he laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance and rekindled an eternal flame. The president donned a yarmulke and teared up during the tour, according to Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, who accompanied the president and talked about the visit with reporters afterward.
Shalev also told reporters that during the tour Bush weighed in on the historical debate over whether the Allies should have bombed the German concentration camps. During World War II, American officials denied requests to bomb the camps, citing several reasons, including the assertions that the bombings would be ineffective and drain military resources. Holocaust survivors have pressed previous U.S. presidents about the issue.
During the tour Friday, Bush looked at aerial photographs the Allied forces had taken of Auschwitz and called over Rice, a former political science professor at Stanford University, to talk about it. "We should have bombed it," Shalev quoted Bush as saying.
Rice played down the conversation when asked about it Friday by the reporters aboard Air Force One. "We were talking about the often-discussed 'Could the United States have done more by bombing the train tracks?' " Rice said. "And so we were just talking about the various explanations that had been given about why that might not have been done. That was all. It wasn't a major discussion."
Other White House officials said they had no more details on the reported conversation.
Before departing Israel in the afternoon, Bush visited the Galilee, the site of several Christian holy sites, including the ruins at Capernaum, where Jesus is believed to have performed miracles, and the Church of Beatitudes, said to be the location of the Sermon on the Mount.
"An amazing experience," Bush said when asked what it was like to be walking in the footsteps of Jesus.