After nearly two weeks consumed by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush turned his attention back to the rest of the world Tuesday and confronted again the vexing challenges of an intractable war in Iraq, disputes with Iran and North Korea, and fitful relations with the United Nations.
Bush played host to Iraq's first democratically selected president at the White House in the morning and persuaded him to abandon talk of imminent U.S. troop pullouts. Bush then flew to New York in the afternoon to attend a division-plagued U.N. summit and to solicit Chinese help in pressuring Pyongyang and Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons ambitions.
The full day of diplomacy marked the first time that Bush has resumed a normal schedule since clearing his calendar after the devastation wrought by Katrina along the Gulf Coast. Among other events, Bush canceled a pomp-filled visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao last week to concentrate on getting relief to storm-ravaged areas. But Bush began to make it up to Hu by meeting with him here Tuesday evening, one of the first sit-down sessions with another world leader since the crisis.
The rest of the week is jammed with other foreign policy events, including meetings Wednesday with the prime ministers of Britain and Israel, a U.N. gathering of 170 world leaders and a White House summit Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But aides insisted Bush would keep his attention on the afflicted region, scheduling a fourth trip there for Thursday capped by a prime-time national address.
In perhaps the most sensitive meeting of the day, Bush spent an hour with Hu. Bush gave him a list of human rights cases that the United States is concerned about, a list that a senior U.S. official said is topped by the longtime imprisonment of a researcher for the New York Times on accusations of disclosing state secrets.
During a public appearance, Hu promised "to step up" efforts on North Korea "so that we can facilitate fresh progress" in multilateral talks scheduled to resume in Beijing. During their private session, the U.S. side said Hu was supportive of efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions as well, but offered no support for Bush's bid to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
Bush's meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani came a day after he departed from White House talking points and broached the prospect of large-scale withdrawal of U.S. forces from his country. In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, Talabani said "at least from 40,000 to 50,000 American troops can be [withdrawn] by the end of this year."
After meeting with Bush on Tuesday morning, Talabani joined the president in the East Room to deliver a different message. "We will set no timetable for withdrawal, Mr. President," Talabani said at a joint media availability. "A timetable will help the terrorists, will encourage them [to think] that they could defeat a superpower of the world and the Iraqi people."
Still, Talabani added that he hoped enough Iraqi security forces would be trained by the end of 2006 to take " responsibility from many American troops with complete agreement with Americans."
A longtime Kurdish leader who resisted Saddam Hussein's rule, Talabani effusively thanked Bush for liberating Iraqis from the "worst kind of dictatorship" and praised him as "a visionary, great statesman." Smiling broadly, Talabani said, "We will never forget what you have done for our people."
Bush, in turn, praised the new constitution drafted by Iraqi negotiators as "an historic milestone" that protects fundamental rights and makes all Iraqis equal before the law. In private, though, aides said Bush used the opportunity to urge Talabani to be flexible in considering changes to the constitution, which was written by Shiite and Kurdish leaders but rejected by leaders of the Sunni minority.
The president also delivered a sharp warning to Syria for not doing more to stop foreign fighters from crossing its border with Iraq to fight U.S. forces. "The Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously," Bush said, adding that he plans to speak with allies about pressuring Damascus.
Bush similarly said he would bring up Iran with Hu and Putin in hopes of forging a consensus approach to blocking any nuclear weapons development by the theocratic state. Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be in New York for his first U.S. visit since winning election, has insisted that his country wants to develop only civilian nuclear power.
"Some of us are wondering why they need civilian nuclear power, anyway," Bush said. "They're awash with hydrocarbons. Nevertheless, it's a right of a government to want to have a civilian nuclear program."
That comment caused a stir because the U.S. government has adamantly rejected North Korea's aspirations for civilian nuclear power. Aides later insisted Bush was not trying to signal a policy change toward Pyongyang. "I can guarantee you that's not what he intended to indicate," said National Security Council spokesman Frederick L. Jones II.
Arriving in New York later in the day, Bush met with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in preparation for Wednesday's summit. Negotiators agreed on a plan to restructure the United Nations and follow up pledges to combat world poverty.
During his subsequent joint appearance with Hu, the Chinese leader acknowledged "some frictions" as trade grows and promised that Beijing will "take effective measures" to address trade imbalances and "step up its efforts to protect intellectual properties." Hu urged the United States to oppose "so-called Taiwan independence."
Bush, who will visit China in November, emphasized the strength of the relationship. "I will bring up human rights," the president said. "But most importantly, I view this visit as an opportunity to continue a dialogue in dealing with a very important relationship for the United States and the world."