- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

President Bush yesterday unloaded his most forceful criticism yet of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama for his promise to meet unconditionally with leaders hostile to the United States.

Mr. Bush, who usually doesn’t comment on the 2008 race, has refused to talk directly with leaders of nations such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba, saying it’s an ineffective tool that can lend credibility to their governments.

“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. Obama’s foreign-policy stance, he avoided making it personal during yesterday’s White House press conference — his first of 2008. He did not mention the Illinois senator’s name during his defense of his own position.

But the president’s defense was a strong attack on Mr. Obama’s approach, which the Illinois senator says is needed to repair “damage” done by Mr. Bush’s 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. Bush sees Raul Castro, who took power of Cuba after his brother Fidel Castro stepped down last week, as an “extension” of his brother.

In response to Mr. Bush’s criticism, Mr. Obama reiterated that “it is important for the next president to go above and beyond the call” when it comes to diplomacy with unfriendly leaders.

Speaking to reporters yesterday onboard his campaign airplane, Mr. Obama also took the president to task for his unawareness — displayed during Mr. Bush’s press conference — that gas prices are predicted to reach $4 a gallon soon.

“Let me suggest that as president of the United States I will know if we’ve got backbreaking prices at the pump, and that I intend to try to do something about it,” Mr. Obama said. “This is the kind of attention to the economy that we need from the next president, and George Bush hasn’t provided it.”

As for Mr. Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders hostile to the United States, it has offered a stark difference between him and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is fighting to stay in the party primary.

In a speech this week at George Washington University, Mrs. Clinton said she would not meet with such 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.

Mr. Obama has acknowledged 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 yesterday that “the decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive.”

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

“It’s important to establish personal relations with leaders even though you may not agree with them,” said Mr. Bush, who then clarified 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 Mr. Putin will hand over full control of the Russian government after presidential elections there on Sunday.

Prior to his comments yesterday, Mr. Bush had resisted commenting on the presidential race, except for once when he said Mrs. Clinton would beat Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bush ignored a question yesterday 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 said that Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has not yet secured his party’s nomination, despite the fact that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been mathematically eliminated from contention.

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