President Bush came under new pressure yesterday at home and abroad to alter his policies in the Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed for a broader Arab-Israeli peace initiative to help stabilize Iraq, while the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee pledged to take a hard line on seeking early troop withdrawals.
Bush offered little indication that he is planning to adjust his approach, telling reporters gathered in the Oval Office that "the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground" in Iraq. The president also met for more than an hour with former secretary of state James A. Baker III, former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and other members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is looking to chart a new course in the war.
Asked about calls for dialogue with Iran and Syria to help curb violence in Iraq, Bush said there was no change in his position that Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment. "Our focus of this administration is to convince the Iranians to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions," Bush said after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "That focus is based upon our strong desire for there to be peace in the Middle East. And an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a destabilizing influence."
Bush and Olmert told reporters that they spoke at length about the problems posed by Iran. "There is no question that the Iranian threat is not just a threat for Israel but for the whole world," Olmert said.
The day's events underscored the rapidly evolving political landscape for the White House, which finds itself trying to balance the desire for change voiced by the electorate last Tuesday with the president's frequently stated conviction that the United States must remain engaged militarily in Iraq until the government there can maintain its own security.
The White House will also have to deal with a Congress controlled by Democrats, a difference highlighted by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) as he outlined the new agenda of the Armed Services Committee, which for the past four years has been largely deferential to Bush's conduct of the war. Levin said he plans to step up the committee's activities, reviewing the state of military readiness and conducting more oversight of such issues as the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries suspected of practicing torture.
Levin also served notice that he intends to take a strong line on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, telling reporters that he thinks a slim majority of the Senate may back his call for a "phased redeployment" of more than 140,000 U.S. troops.
"We had 40 senators who voted that way essentially six months ago, roughly, and there may be 50 or 51 senators that will vote that way now," Levin said at a news conference, referring to a bill that would call on the president to inform the Iraqi government that U.S. forces would begin leaving Iraq in four to six months.
In London, meanwhile, Blair suggested a desire for a more aggressive Western initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key to tamping down violence in the region, a recommendation that is also reportedly under consideration by the Iraq Study Group. Blair said that resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, stabilizing Lebanon and pressuring Iran to halt its support of militants are key to helping reduce bloodshed in Iraq.
"A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes," said Blair, Bush's closest international ally on Iraq.
Blair is scheduled to amplify his views today in a private videoconference with members of the Baker-Hamilton group, which will soon begin deliberating specific recommendations after months of interviews with senior policymakers in America, Iraq and elsewhere.
The White House was extremely guarded yesterday about the round of meetings the study group held with Bush and other members of his administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Vice President Cheney. Bush said he was not going to "prejudge" the group's report, which is expected in early December. He said that they had a "really good discussion" and that he was looking forward to "interesting ideas."
White House press secretary Tony Snow and other aides offered little elaboration, describing the session as a "general conversation about the situation there." Snow said it was not a time for "proposal shopping" by the study group.
Rice postponed a trip to Vietnam for an Asia-Pacific conference to instead hold informal talks about Iraq at the State Department and the White House, the State Department said. She spent about an hour with the Iraq Study Group and planned to leave today for Vietnam.
While the Baker-Hamilton group is looking at a range of issues, many lawmakers believe its significance may be more about politics than advancing new proposals. "By now the lack of a silver bullet is clear to everybody," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "I think the value of the Baker-Hamilton commission is it is bipartisan, and hopefully it will receive serious bipartisan study."
Levin said he has "some optimism" that the study group will come up with some viable alternatives to the Bush administration's current policy. He also emphasized that it may not be necessary for the Senate to bend to reach agreement with the White House. In addition to "most Democrats," he said, "I believe there are some Republicans who are interested in changing the dynamic in Iraq."
Levin emphasized repeatedly that he does not believe that the current approach to Iraq is sustainable. "We're getting deeper and deeper into a hole that we should stop digging, and that we should look for alternatives in order to promote the chances of success in Iraq," he said.
Like many U.S. officials, Levin expressed some frustration with the lack of political progress in Iraq in recent months. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," he said. "They, and they alone, are going to decide whether they're going to have a nation or whether they're going to have an all-out civil war."
Staff writers Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.