Ned Temko / The Observer – 2008-06-15 01:01:29
LONDON (June 15 2008) — George Bush flies into London today with a warning for Gordon Brown not to announce a timetable for a British pull-out from Iraq, and expressing deep scepticism about the Prime Minister’s high-profile strategy for bringing down world oil prices.
The stern message to the Prime Minister was delivered during an exclusive interview with The Observer, and contrasted with praise for Tony Blair whom Bush is scheduled to meet for breakfast tomorrow ahead of talks in Downing Street. Bush said Blair had never been his ‘poodle’, but a leader who shared his view that the world is in an ‘ideological struggle’ and that ‘ultimately freedom has to defeat the ideology of hate’.
The President’s comments on Brown’s Iraq troop plans followed a report last week that a final British pull-out could be announced by the end of the year.
The President revealed that he had already had ‘discussions’ with Brown on the troops issue and was ‘appreciative’ that Brown was in frequent touch with the Americans about ‘what he and his military are thinking’. But while he said both allies obviously wanted to bring their troops home, this could only be ‘based upon success’.
On the reported possibility of a formal timetable for major reductions, Bush was unequivocal: ‘Our answer is: there should be no definitive timetable.’
He pointedly noted that Brown had retreated last year on the scale of an earlier planned pullout – and that Britain still had 4,200 soldiers in Iraq rather than the projected 3,500. ‘I am confident that he, like me, will listen to our commanders to make sure that the sacrifices that have gone forward won’t be unravelled by draw-downs that may not be warranted at this point in time. I look forward to discussing it with him.’
The President made clear that, while he did not want to ‘second-guess’ how other leaders handled their ‘internal business’, he would not be following Brown’s lead in calling a voter who opposed the war and apologising ‘for what happened to the people of Iraq’.
Bush said he felt personal ‘pain’ over the casualties in Iraq – whether of allied troops or innocent civilians. But it was important to put the fact that ‘some of the Iraqi people have suffered’ in a broader context. He said American and British troops were not ‘intentionally killing innocent people’, that large numbers had been deliberately killed by Saddam in the years before the war, and that Iraqis were now living under an elected government in a ‘free society’.
The President also reacted coolly to Brown’s suggestion of a series of international conferences – beginning with a Saudi-hosted meeting of producer and consumer nations on Sunday – to tackle rising world oil prices.
Bush called it an ‘interesting idea’, but warned against expectations of any major short-term improvement and made it clear he had no plans to go. ‘I’m going to go home and take a look at what it all means and I’ll decide who’s going to attend on our behalf,’ Bush said.
He had already been urging King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to increase production. But he said: ‘There’s no magic wand. It took us a while to get to where we are. It’s going to take us a while to get out of it. And the truth of the matter is that there’s either got to be more supply or less demand. And demand doesn’t decline overnight’ – particularly with ‘big consumers of hydrocarbons’ such as China ‘subsidising their populations’.
Bush’s comments during the wide-ranging interview, at the US ambassador’s residence in Rome, underlined a shift from the administration’s primary ‘special relationship’ with Britain in favour of a wider range of European partnerships including Germany, Italy and France – all of which recently elected broadly pro-American leaders.
He delivered a major policy address during his final presidential trip to Europe not in Britain, but France – which he called America’s ‘first friend’. He cited a quartet of European leaders – ‘Berlusconi and Brown and Merkel and Sarkozy’ – in signalling a more ‘powerful and purposeful Europe’ in closer international alliance with the US.
During the 40-minute interview Bush said Iran’s nuclear programme was the single greatest international threat. His goal was to win European backing for tougher economic sanctions and head off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
He welcomed ‘discussions’ on climate change, and said he would use next month’s G8 summit to press other leaders to deliver on a pledge to match billions of dollars in US aid to fight HIV-Aids and malaria.
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