President Bush said today the United States needs a "new approach" in Iraq and raised the prospect of regional talks that would include Iran and Syria, adhering to two key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group's report.
"I believe we need a new approach," said Bush, with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side. However, Bush added, "Congress isn't going to accept every recommendation in the report, and neither will the administration."
Later in the day, Prime Minister Blair told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview that the need to succeed in Iraq is urgent.
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"I think to be absolutely blunt about this," said Blair, "we have to make sure this works and I don't think, at the moment, this is a kind of hypothesizing if it doesn't work." Referring to the Iraq study group, he added, "It's got to be made to work, because the consequence, as they said, is strategic failure."
Asked how long the coalition has, he added, "We are in a situation where we need to act urgently, in my view."
President Bush, speaking a day after the bipartisan group recommended a series of changes in U.S. policy in Iraq, endorsed the need for change. But he also diminished the report's significance by noting that the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council were all preparing similar reports, though only the Iraq Study Group's report is bipartisan.
Bush made no major new policy announcements, but he appeared to move closer to the report's recommendations and to Blair's. Blair has long supported talking to rival nations in the region to stabilize Iraq and tying the Iraq conflict to the broader rift between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Iraq Study Group's 142-page report declared U.S. policy in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating." The panel, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, recommended increasing efforts at diplomacy, training of Iraqi troops and drawing down as many American combat troops as possible in early 2008.
Among the report's 79 recommendations was the suggestion to include Iran and Syria in regional talks aimed at curbing the violent sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq.
The president, who has previously ruled out talks with the two nations, called an international summit an "interesting idea." He said the United States has made it clear that it might change a policy that states Iran must suspend its nuclear enrichment program if it wants to engage with the United States.
However, he added, "if people are not committed, if Syria and Iran is not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up."
The president also appeared to link U.S. policy in Iraq to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.
"Prime Minister Blair and I understand that we have a responsibility to lead and to support moderates and reformers who work for change across the broader Middle East," Bush told reporters.
"We also recognize that meeting this responsibility requires action," Bush added. "It will take concerted efforts to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East."
That statement, coming ahead of Blair's Middle East visit, also seemed to bring Bush closer to Blair and the Baker-Hamilton group. The study group recommended that the Bush administration tie the Iraqi struggle to a larger effort to resolve the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian territories. The president noted that Islamic extremists had embroiled not only Iraq but Lebanon, Israel and Afghanistan as well.
For Blair, the meeting held fewer perils than for Bush. Following midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate largely on the strength of the American public's growing opposition to the Iraq War, the president is under intense pressure to change course.
Blair had already committed to withdrawing British troops next year and had previously agreed to some of the key suggestions later made by the Iraq Study Group, a point Blair seized on after his meeting with Bush.
Blair declared that "it is important that we do everything we can in the wider Middle East to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians."
Bush declined to endorse the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendation to pull out combat troops not needed for force protection, training or special operations missions by March 2008. But noting that the report said doing so would depend on conditions on the ground, he left the door open.
"I thought that made a lot of sense," Bush said. I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible. I think that's an important goal."
Blair was critical of a suggestion by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to increase troop levels.
"The problem is this. If, when you surge the American forces, the Iraqi capability isn't there to come in behind it, then your respite is only temporary," Blair said.
Blair said in the interview that he opposes any definite withdrawal date.
"I think we've got a plan to succeed," he said, "and I think that if we start saying to the people that we're fighting in Iraq that we're ready to get out, irrespective of the success of the mission, I think that would be very serious for us."
But the elements for success in Iraq exist, Blair said.
"I'm convinced the elements are there, yes. And what I'm also convinced of is that the tough challenge is doing it, making it happen. Identifying what needs to happen is -- I don't say it's easy, but I think it is relatively straightforward. Getting it done requires immense focus and attention."