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President Takes Weakened Political Clout Abroad


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

There are more leaks from the Iraq Study Group's report, which is due on the president's desk next week. The Washington Post says the commission is to recommend withdrawing almost all U.S. combat units by early 2008, leaving some troops behind to train and advise.

And starting as early as next month, U.S. soldiers would be embedded with Iraqi security units to improve leadership and effectiveness. According to the Post, the early 2008 date is more a conditional goal linked to circumstances on the ground than from a timetable. Timetables have been repeatedly rejected by President Bush, who says they could further destabilize Iraq.

YDSTIE: The president is back in the U.S. after a trip to the Baltics for a meeting with NATO allies, and a quick visit to Jordan for a face-to-face meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This was the president's second whirlwind tour overseas since his party suffered big losses in last month's midterm elections, elections in which Iraq was a major issue.

Observers at home and abroad were watching closely to see whether the setback would affect Mr. Bush's stature and behavior on the world stage.

NPR White House correspondent, Don Gonyea, reports.

DON GONYEA: It was an usually busy month of foreign travel for the president. This week it was Estonia, Latvia and Jordan. A week earlier, he got home from visits to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia - a grueling travel challenge under the best of circumstances, but even more so coming immediately after the Republican's loss of the House and Senate.

In spite of that, the president was in many ways his usual self. In Singapore, he restated his commitment to more open trade between the U.S. and Asia. In Riga, Latvia, he celebrated the Baltic nation's young democracy 15 years after it broke free of Soviet dominance.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: By joining hands, the people of this region show their unity and their determination to live in freedom, and have made clear to the Soviet authority that the Baltic peoples would accept nothing less than complete independence.

GONYEA: But both of these overseas trips included signs of how things have now changed for the president. In Vietnam, the midterms came up during a closed-door meeting with heads of state from Pacific Rim nations.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in Hanoi that the president had reassured the other leaders that he is firm in his views and that U.S. foreign policy won't change. What Hadley described was an unusual moment to be sure, a president who has dominated these summits in the past stressing that he's still in charge.

This week's trip included an even stranger moment. While flying on Air Force One to Jordan, the president's aides got a call informing them that the Iraqi prime minister would not be attending a scheduled dinner meeting that evening with Mr. Bush and King Abdullah of Jordan. That in effect made what had been billed as a two-day summit a one-day event. The abrupt change came after The New York Times published a leaked White House memo in which the national security adviser raised doubts about Maliki's abilities, at one point wondering if he is, quote, “ignorant of what is going on.”

White House aides insisted that Maliki's cancellation was not a snub. But the controversy dominated the first day in Jordan. The next day, the president and prime minister did meet, and each downplayed the incident with the president praising Maliki.

President BUSH: He's the right guy for Iraq. And we're going to help him, and it's in our interest to help him.

GONYEA: And the president used the moment with Maliki to fire back at those who say he needs to begin bringing U.S. troops home.

President BUSH: I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as their government wants us there.

GONYEA: That felt like the old President Bush talking, even though changing circumstances gave the words a different ring. The last two American presidents who served two terms in office - Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan - each overcame big political troubles at home to score notable victories overseas in their final two years in office. Reducing the threat of nuclear war in one case, and ending a war in the Balkan's in the other.

Reagan and Clinton saw their stature increase in the world as well. President Bush could find a similar opportunity in the current chaos in Iraq, or in ending the nuclear threat from North Korea or Iran. But the key for Clinton and Reagan was rethinking their previous approaches, and for now the current president seems more focused on perseverance.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

YDSTIE: In his column at npr.org, NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving lays out the choices confronting President Bush in the homestretch of his presidency. In his column at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.