- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

WASHINGTON President Bush has refused, except on a few occasions, to talk about the 2008 presidential race, but today he unloaded his most forceful criticism to date of Barack Obama for his promise to meet unconditionally with leaders who are hostile to the U.S.

Mr. Bush, in his first White House press conference of 2008, described in detail why he thinks the idea of meeting personally with leaders of rogue nations such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba is a bad idea.

Mr. Bush has refused to talk directly with these leaders, and today said that new Cuban leader Raul Castro, who has taken over for his ailing brother Fidel, is only an extension of his brother and is a tyrant.

It’s a theory that all you got to do is embrace and these tyrants act. That’s not how they act. That’s not what causes them to respond, Mr. Bush said.

While Mr. Bush criticized Mr. Obamas foreign policy stance, he avoided making it personal. He did not mention the senators name during his defense of his own position.

But the presidents defense was a strong attack on Mr. Obamas approach, which the Illinois Democrat says is needed to repair damage done by Mr. Bushs unilateralism.

Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him, Mr. Bush said. He gains a lot from it by saying, Look at me, I’m now recognized by the president of the United States.

Mr. Obama has said the U.S. must rediscover the power of diplomacy.

It is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that’s where diplomacy makes the biggest difference, Mr. Obama said during a debate last week in Austin, TX, with his Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

This position is one of the starkest differences between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, of New York, who is currently fighting to stay in the party primary.

In a speech this week at George Washington University, Mrs. Clinton said she would not meet with hostile leaders without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators.

We simply cannot legitimize rogue regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions, Mrs. Clinton said. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy.

Mr. Obama has allowed that there is a need for preparation that might take some time before such meetings, and that human rights would be at the top of his agenda.

But, in the Austin debate, he said that damage done by the Bush administration requires that the president take a more active role in diplomacy than might have been true 20 or 30 years ago.

If we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time, Mr. Obama said. I think that it’s important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step.

The crowd inside the University of Texas auditorium applauded and cheered.

But Mr. Bush said today that the decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive.

It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies. It can send confusion about our foreign policy. It discourages reformers inside their own country, the president said.

Mr. Bush did, however, make an exception of sorts for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s important to establish a personal relations with leaders even though you may not agree with them, Mr. Bush said, before catching himself and clarifying his statement.

Certain leaders. Now, I’m not going to have a personal relationship with [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il. And our relationships are such that that’s impossible. But U.S.-Russian relations are important, Mr. Bush said.

Despite these comments, Mr. Bush expressed uncertainty about whether or not Mr. Putin will hand over full control of the Russian government after presidential elections there this Sunday.

Prior to his comments today, Mr. Bush had firmly resisted commenting on the presidential race, except for one slip of the tongue where he said he thought Mrs. Clinton would beat Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bush ignored a question today about whether he still held that opinion.

But he did say that Mr. Obama had better stay focused on his campaign with Senator Clinton, neither of whom has secured their party’s nomination yet.

Mr. Bush also continued to say that Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has not yet secured the GOP nomination, despite the fact that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been mathematically eliminated from contention. My party’s nomination hasn’t been decided yet either, Mr. Bush said. The president, who has been animated at many of these sessions in recent months, appeared to be in particularly high spirits. He was received as a hero by adulatory crowds of thousands in Africa last week, and is enjoying a run of successes at home and abroad over the last few months. Mr. Bush seemed to take pleasure in taking a dig that Democrats have used against him on Iraq, where his surge of troops has reaped irrefutable results, and turning it back on them. Congressional leaders are still sounding the same old call for withdrawal. I guess you could say that when it comes to pushing for withdrawal, their strategy is to stay the course, he said with a wry grin.

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