Bush says conversation with Putin must continueWASHINGTON: President George W. Bush defended his continued engagement with the Russian government Wednesday, saying that it would be "a mistake" to boycott the Group of 8 summit meeting this summer in St. Petersburg to protest its steps away from democracy.
"My strategy with Vladimir Putin is to be in a position where I can talk frankly to him," Bush said at the Freedom House institute, answering a question after the last in his recent series of speeches defending the Iraq war.
He said that when he asked Russian human rights advocates whether he should engage with or "publicly scold" Putin, they urged him "to be in a position to be able to express our concerns." There have been a few calls for Bush to boycott the economic summit meeting because of Putin's moves toward more authoritarian rule.
Recently, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said the administration should consider a boycott, depending on a review of reports that Russia had given Iraq prewar intelligence.
"I haven't given up on Russia," Bush said. "I still think Russia understands that it's in her interest to be West, to work with the West."
Bush drew a laugh when he added, "I'm pretty confident it's in the country's interest that I be in a position where I'm able to walk into the room with the president of Russia and him not throw me out." Bush then laid down some markers for the visit next month of President Hu Jintao of China.
"I will continue to remind him ours is a complex relationship and that we would hope that he would not fear a free society, just like it doesn't appear that he's fearing a free market," Bush said.
He said he would make it clear to Hu that "we expect that country to treat us fairly" on issues of trade and intellectual property rights.
On Iraq, Bush insisted again that U.S.- led forces had made progress, but he appeared to concede that a corner had not yet been turned.
"I wish I could tell you the violence in Iraq is waning and that all the tough days in this struggle are behind us," he said. "They're not." Bush attributed much of the current sectarian violence in Iraq not to the U.S. presence but to the legacy of Saddam Hussein.
Saddam, he said, had pursued a "deliberate strategy of maintaining control by dividing the Iraqi people," particularly along ethnic or sectarian lines, and "pitting them one against the other."
In the pre-Saddam era, he said, sectarian intermarriage was common, and Shiites and Sunnis often worshiped together in small towns. But brutal repression, notably of Kurds and Shiites by the minority Sunnis, had left enduring scars.
While the U.S.-led forces have struggled to bring stability, the president argued, the reason was not the coalition presence but rather that "the terrorists and former regime elements are exploiting the wounds inflicted under Saddam's tyranny."