Bush and Blair defend warWASHINGTON President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, two leaders badly weakened by the continuing violence in Iraq, acknowledged major misjudgments in the execution of the Iraq war on Thursday night even while insisting that the election of a constitutional government in Baghdad justified their decision to go to war three years ago.
Speaking in subdued, almost chastened, tones at a joint news conference in the East Room, the two leaders steadfastly refused to talk about a schedule for pulling troops out of Iraq - a pressure both men are feeling intently. They stuck to a common formulation that they would pull troops out only as properly trained Iraqi troops progressively took control over more and more territory in the country.
But in an unusual admission of a personal mistake, Bush said he regretted challenging insurgents in Iraq to "bring it on" in 2003, and said the same about his statement that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Those two statements quickly came to reinforce his image around the world as a cowboy commander in chief. "Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people," Bush said. "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."
He went on to say that the American military's biggest mistake was the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, where photographs of detainees showed them in degrading and abusive conditions. "We've been paying for that for a long period of time," Bush said, his voice heavy with regret.
Blair, whose approval levels have sunk even lower than Bush's, said he particularly regretted the broad decision to strip most members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party of their positions in government and civic life in 2003, leaving most institutions in Iraq shorn of expertise and leadership.
The news conference, in the formal setting of the East Room, was notable for the contrite tone of both leaders. Mr. Bush acknowledged "a sense of consternation" among the American people, driven by the steady drumbeat of American casualties.
The meeting came at a low moment in Mr. Bush's presidency and Blair's prime ministership, at a time when the decisions that they made to invade Iraq and that they have defended ever since have proved a political albatross for both.
Just as they joined in the drive to war in 2003, the two leaders on Thursday evening seemed joined by a common interest in arguing that things had finally turned around in Iraq. Blair, who was in Iraq earlier this week, ventured the closest to a prediction about a timetable for disengagement, saying that he thought it was possible that Iraq's new prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was accurate in his prediction that Iraqi forces could control security in all of the country's provinces within 18 months.
But Bush quickly fell back to his familiar insistence that he would not begin a drawdown until his commanders said it was possible, and he noted that troops were recently called up from Kuwait to help stabilize Baghdad. He said that in the end he would insist on victory over both insurgents and terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, and he dismissed as "press speculation" reports of tentative Pentagon plans to bring American troop levels to about 100,000 by the end of this year. "A loss in Iraq would make this world an incredibly dangerous place," Bush said.
Bush said he and Blair had spent "a great deal of time" discussing their next challenge: how to put together the right mix of penalties and incentives to force Iran to suspend the production of uranium and give up a program that both men had said clearly pointed to a desire to build a nuclear bomb.
Bush bristled at a question about whether he had "ignored back-channel overtures" from the Iranians over possible talks about their nuclear program, which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes. Bush said that "the Iranians walked away from the table" in discussions with three European nations, and that a recent letter sent to him by Iran's president "didn't address the issue of whether or not they're going to continue to press for a nuclear weapon." Some in the State Department and even some of Bush's outside foreign policy advisers have argued that Bush missed a diplomatic opening by deciding not to respond to the letter, though others say it is still not too late.
But the overwhelming sense from the news conference was of two battered leaders who, once confident in their judgments on Iraq, now understood that misjudgments had not only affected their approval ratings, but perhaps their legacies. The British news magazine The Economist pictured the two on a recent cover under the headline "Axis of Feeble." And while both men sidestepped questions about how their approval ratings were linked to Iraq, at one point Bush seemed to try to buck up his most loyal ally, who is expected to leave office soon and may be in the midst of his last official visit to Washington, by telling a British reporter, "Don't count him out."
Outside the White House gates, a smattering of protesters gathered, blowing whistles and chanting, "Troops out now."
Bush called the terrorists in Iraq "totalitarians" and "Islamic fascists," a phrase he has used periodically to give the current struggle a tinge of the last great American-British alliance, during World War II. But he acknowledged that the war in Iraq had taken a significant toll in public opinion. "I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country,." Bush said.
Blair tried to focus on the current moment, saying that he had heard the complaint that "you went in with this Western concept of democracy, and you didn't understand that their whole culture was different." With a weak smile, he suggested to Bush that those who voted in Iraq had amounted to "a higher turnout, I have to say - I'm afraid to say I think - than either your election or mine."
Bush did not budge from his long-stated position that conditions in Iraq and the ability of Iraqi security forces to assume greater responsibilities would dictate whether the United States reduced the 133,000 American forces there. He said that he would rely on the recommendations of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, but that Iraq did not yet have a defense minister to discuss troop cuts. "We'll keep the force level there necessary to win," Bush said. Blair acknowledged that some of the 260,000 Iraqi security forces, especially the police, suffered from corruption and the influence of militias. But he said a new Iraqi government would be better suited than allied officials to cope with these problems.
For those who trace Bush's own reluctance to acknowledge errors in Iraq, his statements on Thursday night seemed to mark a crossing of a major threshold. In an interview with The New York Times in August 2004, Bush said that his biggest mistake in Iraq had been underestimating the speed of initial victory over Hussein's forces, which allowed Iraqi troops to melt back into the cities and towns. When pressed, he said he could think of no other errors, something he repeated during news conferences.
Over the winter, as public support for the war eroded, he acknowledged other mistakes - failing to plan sufficiently for the occupation and rebuilding of the country, or to execute the plans that had been made. But he described these as tactical mistakes that had been fixed.
His answer on Thursday evening, though, harked back to the two statements - "bring them on" and "dead or alive" - that his wife, Laura, had been particularly critical about. While he had apologized before for the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, his statement on Thursday was his starkest admission to date of the damage that the episode did to the image of the United States around the world.
But Bush emphasized that American soldiers had been punished for the abuses. "Unlike Iraq, however, under Saddam, the people who committed those acts were brought to justice," he said. Bush's critics have noted that the prosecutions have focused on low-level soldiers and have not held senior officers accountable.
Blair, while saying that the coalition had misjudged the de-Baathification process, added: "It's easy to go back over mistakes that we may have made. But the biggest reason why Iraq has been difficult is the determination of our opponents to defeat us. And I don't think we should be surprised at that."