Bush And Blair Agree On 'New Approach'

President Bush, right, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair take part in a joint press availability, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. CBS

President Bush gave a chilly response to the Iraq Study Group's proposals for reshaping his policy Thursday, objecting to talks with Iran and Syria, refusing to endorse a major troop withdrawal and vowing no retreat from embattled U.S. goals in the Mideast.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an unflagging ally in the unpopular war, stood with Mr. Bush and wholeheartedly supported his determination to fight to victory in Iraq and spread democracy across the Middle East.

"The vision is absolutely correct," Blair said at a news conference where the two leaders agreed, nevertheless, on a need for new approaches in Iraq.

"I thought we would succeed quicker than we did," Mr. Bush said. "And I am disappointed by the pace of success." When a reporter suggested that the president was denying even to himself how bad things are, he tartly replied, "It's bad in Iraq. That help?"

President Bush has ruled out talks with Iran unless it steps away from a suspected nuclear weapons program. And Mr. Bush said Syria should "stop allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq. Don't provide safe haven for terrorist groups."

But in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, Blair said that he thought engaging Iran and Syria was a possibility.

"I think that provided Iran and Syria come in order to help, I think people would want them as part of this group," Blair told Couric.

"I think have got to divide these two things up," he continued. "I think in respect to the nuclear weapons issue, as Baker-Hamilton says, I think it's important that is dealt with within the Security Council mechanism."

The president and prime minister met a day after a bipartisan commission warned that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating" and recommended fundamentally different U.S. policies. Its key recommendations call for direct engagement with Iran and Syria as part of a new diplomatic initiative and a pullback of all American combat brigades by early 2008, barring unexpected developments.

While calling the report constructive, Bush and Blair took an unapologetic, almost defiant tone about their decisions and their resolve to keep up the struggle against extremists. The two leaders did not appear to agree with the commission's conclusion that America's ability to shape outcomes was diminishing and time was running out.

"We're going to succeed," the president said. "I believe we'll prevail."

Mr. Bush is now awaiting two in-house reviews that he hopes will let him craft his own plan — rather than seeming to simply adopt the Baker proposals wholesale, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod.

"I don't think they expect us to accept every recommendation," Mr. Bush said at the news conference.

Testifying earlier in the day on Capitol Hill, study group co-chair and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III did not appear to agree.

"I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad and say, 'I like this but I don't like that,'" he said. "This is a comprehensive strategy."

Blair defined the challenge as "a struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand and terrorism and sectarianism on the other. And it's a noble mission, and it's the right mission."

The leaders of the Iraq Study Group — Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. — defended the panel's recommendations during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took issue with the commission's call for phasing out the U.S. combat role over the next 15 months and focusing instead on training and advising the Iraqi army. He rejected the idea that the Army and Marines cannot spare more combat forces for Iraq duty.

"There's only one thing worse than an over-stressed Army and Marine Corps, and that's a defeated Army and Marine Corps," said McCain, a Vietnam veteran and a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful. "I believe this is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner or later in Iraq."

Under intense pressure to take a new direction, Bush is expected to make a major speech about Iraq before Christmas. He said his decisions will be based on the recommendations of separate studies from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council as well as the Baker-Hamilton group.

The administration agreed with the commission's call for a new round of Middle East diplomacy to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the Middle East early next year, the State Department said. "I would expect in the days, weeks, months and years ahead that you are going to see her devote a tremendous amount of energy" to the Mideast, spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Blair said he would go to the Middle East next week, too, and Mr. Bush endorsed his mission.

Battered in the polls, President Bush and Blair have paid a heavy price for the war. The Democratic takeover of Congress was attributed in large measure to voters' unhappiness with Bush and his Iraq policy. But the two leaders said it was essential to support moderates and reformers across the Middle East and to back the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a time of increasing sectarian violence.

Mr. Bush was lukewarm about the commission's call for withdrawal of all combat brigades by 2008 as the role of U.S. troops shifts from combat to training Iraqi soldiers and police.

"I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible," the president said. He said any troop plans have to be "flexible and realistic" and depend on conditions on the ground. He said he would be guided by the recommendations of military commanders "based upon whether or not we're achieving our stated objective."

Mr. Bush was unwavering about Iraq. "We will stand firm again in this first war of the 21st century. We will defeat the extremists and the radicals. We will help a young democracy prevail in Iraq."
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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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