President Bush stepped up praise of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf Saturday, hailing "positive steps" the general took by promising to lift emergency rule, resign as army chief and hold elections.
Indeed, Bush refused to pointedly criticize Musharraf at a joint news conference here with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, continuing the cautious and measured response he's embraced in the week since Musharraf imposed the crackdown.
Bush did, however, dodge a question whether Musharraf's moves, seen by many as an attempt to cling to power, constitute a dangerous distraction from the battle against al-Qaida insurgents.
Speaking after two days of meetings with Merkel, the president said he has confidence in the commitment of Pakistan's leadership to stick with the U.S. in the fight against global terrorism. "We share a common goal," Bush said.
Musharraf aligned himself with Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. soil, Bush noted, suggesting the Pakistani has given him no reason to doubt him since that decision. In fact, Bush added, several al-Qaida leaders have been brought to justice, "and that wouldn't have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word."
"I take a person for his word until otherwise," Bush said. "He made a clear decision to be with us and he's acted on that advice."
The remarks essentially were an endorsement of Musharraf.
The embattled Pakistani insists he had no choice but to move aggressively to prevent Islamic extremists from gaining control of his nuclear-armed country. But the crackdown has mostly targeted his political, judicial and media critics. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto spent Friday under house arrest, for instance.
The dangers of al-Qaida
Hours before Bush's news conference, Musharraf's government announced plans to lift the state of emergency within one month and hold parliamentary elections by Feb. 15, one month later than originally scheduled.
With U.S. officials not sure whether Musharraf will remain in power through the crisis, Bush took the step of citing Bhutto by name. He linked her with Musharraf as someone who understands the necessity of standing firm against extremist elements and expressed confidence that whoever leads Pakistan will feel the same way.
"He fully understands the dangers of al-Qaida," Bush said. "Benazir Bhutto fully understands the dangers of al-Qaida. By far the vast majority of people in Pakistan want to live in a free and peaceful society, and they understand the dangers of al-Qaida. ... I believe we will continue to have good collaboration with the leadership in Pakistan."
Merkel arrived Friday with her husband, Joachim Sauer, for an overnight visit at Bush's remote central Texas ranch. Their talks spanned the globe, from Afghanistan to Iran and from Russia to Kosovo to the United Nations.
Tehran's defiance of international demands that it halt its uranium enrichment program was a major topic of discussion. Russia and China - two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - are blocking the U.N. from moving toward a third set of harsher sanctions against Iran.
Both Bush and Merkel emphasized that diplomatic efforts with Iran have not yet been exhausted. Bush dismissed a question about when patience with Iran would run out.
"What the Iranian regime must understand is that we will continue to work together to solve this problem diplomatically, which means they will continue to be isolated," said Bush, who has recently warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War III.
Tehran says its uranium enrichment is for a civilian nuclear energy program, but the Western nations believe otherwise.
Merkel said all members of the Security Council must be engaged on the issue and said that if talks with Tehran "do not yield any results, further steps will have to be made."
"We need to think about further possible sanctions," she said through a translator, "and we do not only need to think about them but we need to talk and agree."
They also discussed climate change, on which the two leaders advocate different approaches.
Bush summed up his position - that emissions reductions should be voluntary and mostly dependent on technological breakthroughs - in folksy language. "It's hard to deal with the climate change issue if you're broke," he said.
Merkel made plain she'd like more aggressive action to combat global warming. "This is a very crucial time to really set the agenda for a post-Kyoto regime," she said, referring to impending global talks to find a new treaty to replace an expiring one governing emissions requirements.
The visit began with a welcome ride in the president's pickup truck and a dinner of beef tenderloin and cheese grits hosted by Bush and his wife, Laura. The president said the two leaders got up Saturday to talk while on a walking tour of the property.
"It was a glorious morning - the sun beginning to rise and the birds beginning to chirp - and we were able to have meaningful discussions on a lot of issues," he said. Those discussions continued in his home office and were wrapping up over a hamburger lunch.