NEW YORK – Tying together their two great passions, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush linked reading and democracy at a White House Conference on Global Literacy, being hosted in New York City on Monday.
"The simple act of teaching a child to read or an adult to read has the capacity to transform nations and yield the peace we all want," Bush said as the first lady called on governments to embrace literacy programs to help improve lives. "You can't realize the blessings of liberty if you can't read a ballot."
The Bushes were in New York City for a three-day trip that includes one-on-one talks between the president and six foreign leaders and a speech to the U.N. General Assembly that will focus on the Bush administration's outlook for the Middle East.
Like Mrs. Bush, the president made the case that supporting effective literacy programs is a key to improving the economic prosperity of nations and its people.
"You can't have prosperity unless people can read. It's just as simple as that," Bush said. "To be a productive worker you have to be able to read the manual."
Bush attended his wife's event and later began the discussions that coincided with the kick-off of the world body's annual meetings.
Among those meeting with Bush are the presidents of Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. Not on the schedule for talks is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country ignored an Aug. 31 U.N. deadline to end its uranium enrichment program.
The United States wants the U.N. to issue sanctions as a result of Iran's defiance, but is facing resistance from Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who are less likely to seek penalties on the Islamic regime.
U.S. officials had hoped to have a resolution to apply sanctions on the government by this week's meeting. Administration officials say they don't expect Bush to deliver a breakthrough with other leaders absent, but suggest sanctions should come soon.
Ahmadinejad has been seeking support for his country's nuclear program, which he says is intended for "peaceful purposes." In an interview published in Time magazine, the Iranian leader dismisses the U.N.'s demand for an end to the program, and he delivers a direct message to the United States.
"The U.S. government should not interfere in our affairs. They should live their own lives," he is quoted as saying, adding high praise for the American people. "The people of the United States are also seeking peace, love, friendship and justice," the article reads.
When Bush speaks to the General Assembly on Tuesday, he will deliver a tough message to the international community about Iran's nuclear pursuits. He is expected to tell world leaders that they are obligated to make sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.
But aside from his resolve about Iran's leadership, the U.S. president will express his respect for the people of Iran.
"We respect their history; we respect their traditions; we respect the right for people to worship freely, we would hope that people would be able to express themselves in the public square; and that our intention is to make the world safer," Bush said at a White House press conference on Friday.
In his U.N. address, Bush will repeat that the only intention the United States has for the Middle East is to help create a safer world. To that end, he is speaking privately with leaders about their role in defending civilization and liberty, and working to defeat terrorists and extremists.
Ahmadinejad will follow Bush in his remarks to the United Nations. Bush's aides said lower-level officials also will not make any contacts with the Iranians, but meetings are scheduled with French President Jacques Chirac, whose country is a permanent member of the United Nations and is working with the United States to deter Iran from its nuclear goals.
As part of his administration's efforts to spread democracy, Bush will meet with other leaders who are moving their nations toward that end. He is meeting Monday with leaders from Malaysia, a democracy with a moderate Islamic government; El Salvador and Honduras, two Central American nations that have moved from military dictatorships to democracies; and the emerging African democracy of Tanzania, where the U.S. embassy was bombed in 1998.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bush is set to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to discuss Iraq's progress toward democracy. Violence continues to take a high toll on the population of Iraq's capital Baghdad, where nearly 200 people have been killed in attacks or tortured and dumped in rivers since Wednesday. The sectarian fighting has spawned talks among Iraqi politicians over whether to transform Iraq into a federate state.
Bush said last week that he was disappointed the number of U.S. troops in Iraq was climbing rather than falling. He said hopes for troop withdrawals were dashed by the spike in violence in Baghdad.
While the war in Iraq continues to claim American soldiers' lives, it is also taking a toll at home. The president, whose favorability ratings are rising over his performance in fighting the War on Terror, has been trying to turn the election-year debate away from Iraq and toward that broader fight, including introducing legislation that has sparked debate on Capitol Hill about how to treat terrorism suspects.
Before he heads back to Washington on Wednesday, Bush plans to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is struggling to get the terror group Hamas, current leader of the Palestinian Authority, to soften its anti-Israel ideology. Until Hamas renounces violence, agrees to recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements, it has been denied aid by the United States and other nations.
Hamas caved in to pressure last week and announced it would form a coalition government with Abbas' Fatah Party, which has an active military faction opposed to Israel, but whose political leadership has appeared more moderate.
Palestinian officials said Abbas will appeal to Bush to support a coalition that doesn't fully meet international demands for a changed stance on Israel. They said he would warn that failure to work out a unity government could lead to a Palestinian civil war.
Bush aides said he would discuss ways for the global community to help the Palestinians, Iraq and Lebanon.
With the global community in such disarray over issues like Iran, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president plans to spend much of the next seven weeks convincing Americans that Republicans are better equipped to deal with the international challenges.
Worried that the GOP could lose its majority in Congress in the November elections, the president is helping to shore up financial support for the party, headlining a fundraiser Monday night for the Republican National Committee at the Manhattan home of billionaire financier Henry Kravis.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.