Bush Attends to Foreign Policy Issues

President Talks to Medvedev, Pushes Colombian Free-Trade Pact, Discusses Mideast

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; Page A03

President Bush sought to cope with foreign policy crises on multiple fronts yesterday, reaching out to the president-elect of Russia for the first time and seizing on military tensions in Latin America to renew his quest for congressional approval of a free-trade pact with Colombia.

After meeting with the King Abdullah II of Jordan yesterday at the White House, Bush also sought to maintain hope for his Middle East peace initiative, telling reporters he remains optimistic that an Israeli-Palestinian deal can be reached this year despite the outbreak of new violence in the Gaza Strip.

"This is a process that, you know, always has two steps forward and one step back. We just got to make sure that it's only one step back," Bush said in the Oval Office. Referring to his time left in office, he added: "Ten months is a long time. May seem short to you, but . . . there's plenty of time to get a deal done."

Earlier in the day, Bush telephoned Dmitry Medvedev after his victory in Sunday's presidential vote in Russia, which was widely seen in the West as having been stage-managed by outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House described a businesslike conversation yesterday that looked forward to constructive U.S.-Russia ties and raised no concerns about the conduct of the election.

"President Bush told Mr. Medvedev that he looks forward to working with him and that he hopes the two can establish a close working relationship that will help them deal with important world issues," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. "President Bush said that he had read with interest Mr. Medvedev's recent remarks on personal freedoms, independent media, rule of law and fighting corruption."

The transition in Russia and renewed violence in the Middle East are among several foreign policy challenges for the outgoing Bush administration. Israeli troops have moved en masse into Gaza in pursuit of Hamas militants who have been firing rockets into the Jewish state. More than 100 Palestinians were killed during the offensive, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to halt peace talks with Israel this week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region trying to get those talks back on track.

Meanwhile, tensions emerged in Latin America after Colombia raided neighboring Ecuador and killed a top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), considered by the U.S. and Colombian governments to be a terrorist group. The raid elicited angry statements from both Ecuador and Venezuela, which have massed troops on their borders with Colombia.

Bush made clear where his sympathies fall, both in telephoning Colombian President ┬┐lvaro Uribe and in brief public remarks in which he said he assured Uribe of his support for Colombia's anti-terrorism efforts. Bush said the Colombian leader told him that one of the best ways for the United States to show support is to approve a free-trade agreement, which many congressional Democrat intensely oppose.

"If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," Bush said. "President [Uribe] told me that the people across the region are watching to see what the United States will do."

The trade deal Bush negotiated has been criticized by labor groups, and Democrats are also pressing Colombia to take more action to curb the killing of trade unionists in that country. A Democratic aide said that despite Bush's pressure, the matter is unlikely to come up for a vote this year: "The two issues are separate -- the regional diplomatic and military crisis will not be solved by approving the Colombia free-trade agreement."

Bush's influence has been receding not only in Congress but also abroad, where oil-producing countries appear unlikely to increase production to bring down soaring gas prices, which Bush has been pressing for in recent months. Asked about this at his news conference with Abdullah, Bush had sharp words for OPEC.

"I think it's a mistake to have your biggest customer's economy slow down, or your biggest customers' economies slowing down as a result of high energy prices," Bush said. "Obviously, we've got a housing issue and some credit issues. But no question, the high price of gasoline has hurt economic growth here in the United States. And if I were a member of OPEC, I'd be concerned about high energy prices causing people to buy less energy over time."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company