President Bush planned to talk to reporters Wednesday about domestic issues. Instead, he spent the news conference mostly on foreign affairs (right), including his blunt assessment that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to “World War III.”
“I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing” the Iranians from gaining the means to make nuclear weapons, he said.
Bush, who delivered a sanguine assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after taking office, presented a different view of his Kremlin counterpart Wednesday.
“He was wily. He wouldn’t tip his hand,” Bush said of his most recent encounter with Putin.
The president was referring to Putin’s refusal during their meeting in September in Australia to reveal the contenders to succeed Putin. The Russian president’s second term ends next spring.
Bush’s comments reflected the cooling that has marked U.S.-Russian relations.
The two countries have diverged over U.S. concerns about the Kremlin’s commitment to democracy and over foreign-policy differences, notably toward Iran.
Suggesting he was not optimistic about Russia’s political course, Bush said: “In terms of whether or not it’s possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority, that’s hard to do.”
But he said he and Putin, who visited Tehran, Iran’s capital, this week, continue to agree that “it’s not in the world’s interest for Iran to have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon.”
“We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel,” Bush said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In Tehran on Tuesday, Putin defended Iran’s right to develop a civilian nuclear-power program, a statement that contrasted with the Bush administration’s expectation that he would take a harder line toward Ahmadinejad’s uranium-enrichment ambitions.
For the second consecutive news conference, Bush was adamant in his refusal to discuss what has been reported as an Israeli air attack on a site in Syria in early September.
The president appeared in the White House briefing room a day before a House vote to override his veto of a children’s health-insurance bill. He again defended his veto of a bill to expand spending on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by $35 billion over five years, calling it too big a step toward government-run health care.
He said he has appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, budget director Jim Nussle and economics policy adviser Al Hubbard to negotiate a compromise with the Democratic-led Congress. The president is willing to go above his initial offer of a $5 billion increase.
He also criticized Congress because it has yet to pass bills that would fund the government next year. He demanded that lawmakers get moving on legislation dealing with education, intelligence gathering, trade, housing assistance and veterans’ health care.
His reprimand of Congress drew a scathing response from Democrats. “I appreciate that the man who has managed Iraq so well is going to give us a lecture about management,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. “The man who gave us Katrina is going to tell us how to manage?”
On other topics:
• Bush downplayed recent comments by retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former coalition commander in Iraq, who blamed “incompetent” leadership for problems in Iraq. Bush said, “The situation on the ground has changed quite dramatically since he left Iraq.”
• He declined to define torture, saying “that’s defined in U.S. law, and we don’t torture.”