- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

President Bush yesterday said the Iraq elections already are inspiring reform throughout the broader region, but declined to claim vindication for signs of democratization in the Middle East.

“I just don’t worry about vindication,” Mr. Bush said in response to a question from The Washington Times at a White House press conference.

He joked that he didn’t have “time to sit around and wander, lonely, in the Oval Office, kind of asking different portraits: ‘How do you think my standing will be?’ ”

Mr. Bush faced intense skepticism in the run-up to the Iraq war and widespread criticism in the aftermath because of miscalculations about security. Through it all, he kept insisting the Iraq elections would have a ripple effect in the broader region by inspiring Democratic reform.

Some critics of the president now say he was right. In the weeks after the Jan. 30 elections, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed to multiparty elections, Lebanese protesters ousted their pro-Syria government and Damascus agreed to partially withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

But yesterday, Mr. Bush refused to rebuke his doubters.

“I fully understand that as long as I’m the president I will face criticism — it’s like part of the job,” he said. “Since it doesn’t bother me and I expect it, I don’t then seek vindication.”

Instead, the president credited the fledgling democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan with inspiring neighboring countries. He did not mention that those democracies were installed by the United States after American forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Iraq and the Taliban from Afghanistan.

“It’s important for people in that region to see what is possible in a free society,” he said. “I believe those examples will serve as examples for others over time.”

He cited several examples.

“I believe there will be a Palestinian state,” he said. “I believe we’ll be able to convince Syria to fully withdraw … from Lebanon, or else she’ll be isolated.”

Mr. Bush repeated his description of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in Lebanon. But he did not rule out the group running for office in a free election.

“Maybe some will run for office and say, ‘Vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America,’” he said. “I don’t know if that will be their platform or not — I don’t think so.”

The president cited yesterday’s meeting of Iraq’s transitional National Assembly as a “hopeful moment” in the spread of peace throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Bush, notoriously averse to public introspection, was reluctant to gauge his own role in setting democratization into motion.

“People are constantly evaluating … a president’s standing in history, based upon events that took place during the presidency, based upon things that happened after the presidency,” he said. “George Washington is now getting a second, or third, or fifth, or tenth look in history.”

He added: “In my case, hopefully, the march of freedom continues way after my presidency.”

To that end, Mr. Bush has nominated his longtime confidante, Karen Hughes, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Her job will be to rehabilitate the United States’ image in the Arab world.

“We had the image of wanting to fight Muslims — the United States stood squarely against a religion, as opposed to a society which welcomes all religions,” Mr. Bush said. “In fact, we’re fighting a handful of people relative to the Muslim population that wanted to — I used to say — hijack the religion.”

The president also counseled “patience” in the effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

“They must permanently abandon enrichment and reprocessing,” he said. “And now we’re waiting for an Iranian response.”

Mr. Bush and European leaders have offered economic incentives in exchange for cooperation, but Tehran appears unimpressed. If no deal is reached, the United States and Europe plan to take the matter to the United Nations.

“We go to the Security Council if they reject the offer — and I hope they don’t,” the president said. “I hope they realize the world is clear about making sure that they don’t end up with a nuclear weapon.”

Mr. Bush, who was criticized widely during his first term for holding press conferences infrequently, has made a point of holding them monthly since his re-election. He appeared relaxed and confident in yesterday’s 48-minute exchange in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, often kidding with reporters.

“Frankly, you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t occasionally lay out the gentle criticism,” he said at one point.

He laughed when New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller called Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the president’s pick to head the World Bank, the “chief architect of one of the most unpopular wars in our history.”

“That’s an interesting start,” Mr. Bush said sardonically. He then called Mr. Wolfowitz a “skilled diplomat.”

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