By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008
President Bush has tried, with varying degrees of success, to avoid playing the role of "pundit in chief" on daily campaign developments. But yesterday he weighed in on some of the foreign policy issues that have cropped up recently on the trail, criticizing the Democratic presidential contenders for their positions on Iraq and trade and, in the case of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), for his willingness to meet with U.S. adversaries.
In a wide-ranging news conference at the White House, his first in two months, Bush appeared especially animated in shooting down the proposition that a president should meet with the leaders of Cuba and Iran without preconditions, an idea that has been an element of Obama's foreign policy agenda and that has led to sparring with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
"Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Ra¿l Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him," Bush said, referring to the new Cuban president. "He gains a lot from it by saying, 'Look at me, I'm now recognized by the president of the United States.' "
Bush said a decision to meet with some foreign leaders could be counterproductive. "It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies. It can send confusion about our foreign policy. It discourages reformers inside their own country. And, in my judgment, it would be a mistake" with Iran and Cuba, he said.
Bush generally steered clear of attacking Obama and Clinton by name -- though he did say that "Senator Obama better stay focused on his campaign." But his critique resembled that by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been trying to sow doubts in recent days about Obama's fitness to be commander in chief.
The president echoed McCain when asked about Obama's recent statement that, while he intends to withdraw troops from Iraq, he would consider sending them back if al-Qaeda forms a base inside the country.
"It's an interesting comment," Bush replied. "If al-Qaeda is securing a al-Qaeda base? Yeah, well, that's exactly what they've been trying to do for the past four years."
The president also criticized statements by Obama and Clinton that they would try to reopen elements of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"The idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of . . . trying to score political points is not good policy," Bush said. "It's not good policy on the merits, and it's not good policy to -- as a message to send to . . . people who have in good faith signed a treaty and worked with us on a treaty."
Clinton responded to Bush's comments yesterday at a news conference by repeating her pledge to "fix" NAFTA by toughening labor and environmental standards. She said she found Bush's comments "highly ironic, since President Bush has turned a blind eye to all of the actions by China and others who dump steel into Ohio, hurting Ohio workers and the Ohio economy."
Aides to Obama, who took the brunt of Bush's broadsides, reacted sharply to the president's comments, saying he had been notably ineffective during his term in his goals of bringing democracy to Cuba and halting Iran's nuclear program -- goals that they said Obama shares.
"It's not as though [Obama] is going to sit down for a rum and Coke with Ra¿l Castro and say 'Cheers,' " said Susan Rice, one of Obama's senior foreign policy advisers. "Why the United States fears to negotiate or views direct discussions as a reward rather than as an instrument to change behavior is a mystery to anyone who studies diplomacy. It is a patently failed approach, as the U.S. has demonstrated over the last eight years."
During his news conference, Bush appeared to draw a contrast between talking to the leaders of Cuba and Iran and having discussions with Russia and China, two countries whose repressive policies at home have drawn criticism from human rights activists and U.S. lawmakers.
Asked about the likely new president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, Bush said he hopes his successor has a relationship "with whoever's running foreign policy in Russia."
"It's in the country's interest," Bush added. "That doesn't mean we have to agree all the time."
Similarly, Bush said he is looking forward to going to the Olympics in Beijing this summer despite concerns about human rights in China. "I'm looking forward to seeing the athletic competition," he said. "But that will not preclude me from meeting with the Chinese president, expressing my deep concerns about a variety of issues, just like I do every time I meet with the president."
He was very sharp, however, in his denunciation of the new Cuban president, who took the place of Fidel Castro on Sunday. Bush made it very clear that he believes meeting with him would be a waste of time. "I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time . . . to talk with Ra¿l Castro," he said. "He's nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which is to ruin an island and imprison people because of their beliefs."
Bush's comments were another indication that he does not intend to relax U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba anytime soon. That position has pleased many of his Cuban American supporters in Florida and elsewhere, but disappointed lawmakers and others who think the U.S. drive over 50 years to isolate Cuba has run its course.
Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described Bush's statement on Cuba yesterday as "classic dug-in Bush embracing a failed policy no matter what."