Bush, Blair subdued by difficulties of war they launched


WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair looked less like cheerleaders for the latest milestone of democratic political progress in Iraq and more like world-weary leaders who had met their match.

Subdued and understated, the two politicians most responsible for beginning a war now highly unpopular with both their publics acknowledged sour notes during a news conference at the White House on Thursday night, possibly their last joint appearance. Bush displayed almost none of his trademark backslapping bonhomie. Blair looked dour even when reporting hopeful signs from his trip to Iraq this week.

Both men were euphoric in victory when their military juggernaut dethroned Saddam Hussein. The three years since then have been costly, and both leaders talked remorsefully about mistakes made.

“Not everything since liberation has turned out as the way we had expected or hoped,” Bush said. “We’ve learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods and have built on our successes.”

Bush admitted in hindsight he regrets rough and tumble rhetoric, such as saying he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” and taunting terrorists to “bring it on.” He also cited the shameful abuse of Iraqis at the hands of American captors at Abu Ghraib.

Blair pointed to the wholesale dismissal of Saddam loyalists who ran the top military and government posts and the shocking strength of the insurgents.

“Yesterday’s men is the phrase that occurred to me,” said Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat now at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

Bush is highly unpopular in Britain, and the late hour of the news conference meant most viewers there weren’t awake to see Blair with the American president. Blair himself has a precarious hold on office.

Both politicians know that success in Iraq, and a graceful exit, depend on factors that are almost entirely outside their control, Clarke said. They are stuck, and the best they can hope to do is stick it out.

The United States has about 133,000 troops in Iraq, Britain about 8,000. Britain has been the United States’ steadiest ally in the three-year-old war.

Joined at the hip in Iraq, Bush and Blair are also tied together by parallel political misfortune: Historically low poll numbers driven by dissatisfaction over Iraq, political mutinies among their own parties, staff shake-ups more cosmetic than substantive.

They have come a long way since the early days of Bush’s administration, in February 2001, when Bush was hard-pressed to identify much common ground with the Labor leader who had been so close to Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton.

“We both use Colgate toothpaste,” Bush managed then, with Blair at his side at a Camp David summit.

Bush’s approval ratings hover in the low 30s. Blair’s are even deeper in the basement, at about 26 percent. Both men are approaching lame duck status, as well.

Bush’s term expires at the end of 2008 but his political clout will likely diminish after this fall’s midterm congressional elections. Blair is under siege to quit long before his term runs out in 2009.

During a one-hour East Room session almost entirely focused on Iraq, Bush and Blair tried to do together what neither has done alone so far: Reassure skittish publics that the Iraq war is worth fighting and that the end is in sight. They waved off questions about when troops can come home now that Iraq has a permanent government.

“They didn’t try and promise things they couldn’t promise,” said Reginald Dale, a Europe scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who supports the war and said he found the session thoughtful and refreshing.