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U.S.: With Blair, Bush Displays A New Humility On Iraq War

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and U.S. President George W. Bush at a joint press conference, May 25 (epa) Critics have portrayed U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as arrogant since they joined forces to invade Iraq in 2003 without the blessing of the United Nations. Further, they say Bush seems incapable or recognizing, let alone acknowledging, any mistakes he may have made as president. But during a news conference May 25 at the White House, both men somberly conceded errors in managing the war in Iraq.

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2006 -- "There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is 'Bring 'em on.' We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."

That was President Bush's dare to insurgents in July 2003 in the early days of the Iraqi insurrection. Since then, more than 2,400 Americans have been killed in the war, as have countless more Iraqis. And more than 130,000 U.S. and British forces in Iraq continue to struggle against an elusive enemy.

At yesterday's news conference, Bush conceded that this and similar confident statements may have been unwise and not, to use his word, "sophisticated." But Bush said the United States' biggest mistake was the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"The biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time. Unlike Iraq, however, under Saddam [Hussein], the people who committed those acts were brought to justice. They've been given a fair
trial, tried, and convicted."

Blair's Regrets

As for Blair, he regretted the handling of the so-called "de-Baathification" of Iraq: the wholesale sacking of all Iraqi government officials in an effort to root out those of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The program left Iraq with an administrative vacuum that has yet to be filled.

"We could've done de-Baathification in a more differentiated way than we did. The most difficult thing, however, has been the determination of people to move against the democratic process in Iraq in a way that, I think, indicates our opponents very clear view, from a very early stage, that they had to stop the democratic process working," he said.

Why, suddenly, this joint acknowledgement of fallibility?

Primarily, they want to re-connect with their constituents, according to Patrick Basham, the founding director of the Democracy Institute, a Washington think tank, and Bill Frenzel, a former member of the House of Representatives (Republican-Minnesota).

Low Polls On U.S. And U.K. Sides

Basham tells RFE/RL that while both Blair and Bush insist they pay no attention to public opinion surveys, both can hardly be unaware that their approval ratings are at record lows.

One recent poll found only 33 percent approve of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. And in Britain, Blair's Labor Party was a big loser in recent elections.

Basham says that by conceding mistakes, Blair and Bush are essentially showing Britons and Americans that they agree with them.

"It's about attempting to be somewhere closer than they were to where the mean of public opinion is right now, the center of public opinion,"Basham said. "And they were -- particularly Bush -- so far away from what the average person was now thinking about Iraq that they had to make some effort, or appear to make some effort, to acknowledge that they haven't exactly been perfect prognosticators on this."

Frenzel agrees. In fact, he told RFE/RL that he discerns a hint of hope, even promise: a foreseeable end to their countries' involvement in Iraq.

"My impression is they're trying to tell their constituencies that they understand that there is unhappiness and they are perhaps, in addition to acknowledging it, indicating that they're going to try to [end things] over there a little faster than might have been expected a month or so ago," he said.

Frenzel and Basham say acknowledging the mistakes also may be mant for a wider audience: trying to show the world in general hat they are not arrogant, and appearing more conciliatory to he Muslim world.

Basham says this is particularly likely given the concern about the growing U.S. role trying to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program, which some Western governments suspect is aimed at developing an atomic weapon.

Britain, France, and Germany -- known as the EU-3 -- initiated talks with Iran about ending the program, with the support of the United States. But the U.S. role has become dominant in recent months.

Bush says he intends to resolve the matter diplomatically, but has not ruled out the use of military force, if necessary. The EU-3 have consistently stressed diplomacy, downplaying the idea of the use of force.

Unsure Outcome

Bsham says both Blair and Bush want to show Iran, and the rest of the world, that they're not eager for war.

"The fact that the Iranian issue is so much at the forefront gave them an opportunity to say reasonable things about Iran, about the Iranian people and about the [Islamic] world more generally as part of their carrot-and-stick routine."

Frenzel agrees Blair and Bush are trying to influence world opinion, especially in the Islamic nations. But he isn't so sure the effort will have the desired effect.

"Leaders like Blair and Bush don't make statements on international issues of great importance, like this one, without contemplating the effect that it's going to have not only on their own constituencies but on interested groups abroad.," he said. "But it seems the general population there is so hardened against the American point of view [that] it would be difficult to predict any kind of success for that message."

In Frenzel's view, the leaders of countries like the United States and Britain are at a disadvantage because they're surrounded by aides who tell them they're never wrong. If Bush and Blair had taking this more humble approach three years ago, he says, both men might be enjoying greater public support than they do today.

After all, Frenzel says, the public is human and it expects its leaders to be human, too.