BOGOR, Indonesia – President Bush said Monday he hasn't decided whether to send more troops to Iraq or begin bringing them home, saying he is awaiting the military's recommendations. He also shrugged off protests that greeted him in the world's most populous Muslim nation, calling it a sign of a healthy democracy.
"It's not the first time, by the way, where people have showed up and expressed their opinion about my policies," the president said. "But that's what happens when you make hard decisions."
Appearing with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose countrymen turned out by the thousands to show their displeasure with Bush's staunch support of Israel and the Iraq war, Bush added: "People protest — that's a good sign."
The Indonesian leader, a close ally in Bush's war on terror, called for other nations to do more to help find ways to ease the Iraq conflict. "The global community must be also responsible for solving the problems in Iraq," not just the United States, Yudhoyono said.
But despite the deep dislike of the war in Indonesia and other Muslim countries, Yudhoyono declined to directly criticize it or call for an immediate end to the U.S. presence in Iraq. He advocated only "a proper timetable" for "the disengagement of U.S. military forces and other coalition forces from Iraq."
Bush was asked about proposals by some members of Congress, including 2008 presidential hopeful John McCain, R-Ariz., to send more troops to help the roughly 140,000 already there stabilize the country and curb rising sectarian violence.
"I haven't made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won't until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military," the president replied.
Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is at work on a thorough review of options for Iraq, which figured heavily in the loss of control of Congress by Bush's Republican party earlier this month. As a result, many Democrats are calling for a phased withdrawal — something Bush has refused — and an independent bipartisan panel is compiling recommendations for the president, too.
Through sheets of sometimes heavy rain, Bush flew by helicopter from the capital of Jakarta to this lush hilltop suburb for talks with the Indonesian leader, discussions with education officials and moderate civic leaders, and a state dinner. Bush did nothing outside the confines of Bogor Palace, a graceful presidential retreat.
The six-hour trip to court Indonesian favor was the second stop here of Bush's presidency. Neither time has he spent the night, nor more than a few hours, the result of safety jitters in a place where anti-Bush emotions run hot.
Braced for local reaction to the visit, thousands of police and rifle-toting soldiers patrolled streets, jammed mobile phone signals and deployed water cannons.
Demonstrations by Islamic hard-liners, students, housewives and taxi drivers alike have been staged every day this month, including a march Sunday by nearly 13,000 through Jakarta, where Bush was denounced as a "war criminal" and "terrorist." Nearly 10,000 marched Monday — though far from the palace and out of Bush's sight — carrying posters showing victims of violence in Iraq.
Anti-Bush protesters tried to seal off American-owned restaurants in two Indonesian cities, witnesses said, and demonstrations were held in at least 10 cities.
Bush hoped with his visit to bolster Yudhoyono's anti-terror cooperation, celebrate the country's democratic advances and try to dent the anti-U.S. sentiment. He asked his critics to be comforted by his belief that all people want to be free.
"I believe the vast majority of people want to live in moderation and not have extremists kill innocent people," the president said. "And so, therefore, our policies are to promote that kind of form of government. It's not going to look like America."
Bush celebrated Indonesia's diversity, calling the country "an example of how democracy and modernization can present an alternative to extremism."
This vast Southeast Asian archipelago has about 190 million mostly moderate Muslims, the most of any country. With significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, it has a long tradition of secularism.
But Indonesia increasingly has grappled with extremists, suffering four major terrorist attacks since 2002. Yudhoyono has shared intelligence about the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah and overseen the arrest of hundreds of Islamic militants.
Indonesia also is taking steps toward greater freedoms. In 1999, a democratic government replaced a pro-U.S. military dictatorship that had seized power in the 1960s.
When Bush last visited in 2003, talks with then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri were focused primarily on terrorism.
This time, the president expanded the discussion to ways the United States can help improve education and health and attract investment. Bush also was eager to be seen soliciting Yudhoyono's advice about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear standoffs and other world affairs.
"The people of Indonesia should know that when their elected leader speaks, other leaders listen — as do I," the president told his host.
Yudhoyono, meanwhile, conducted an elaborate balancing act by welcoming Bush in such grand style.
He needs U.S. help combatting a bird flu outbreak that has killed 56 people — a third of the world's total — and in improving economic growth in his still poor country.
But Indonesia's first directly elected leader must avoid further angering Muslim parties and his political rivals who already accuse him of being subservient to the West.
Bush's visit came toward the conclusion of an eight-day journey that also included stops in Singapore and Vietnam. Immediately after dinner, he was departing for Hawaii.