BEIJING – After fiercely defending his Iraq policy across Asia, President Bush abruptly toned down his attack on war critics Sunday and said there was nothing unpatriotic about opposing his strategy.
"People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," Bush said, three days after agreeing with Vice President Dick Cheney that the critics were "reprehensible."
The president also praised Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as "a fine man" and a strong supporter of the military despite the congressman's call for troop withdrawal as soon as possible.
Bush brought up the growing Iraq debate when he met reporters after inconclusive talks with President Hu Jintao about friction in U.S.-China relations. Bush ran into stiff resistance from the Chinese to his call for expanding religious freedom and human rights.
He also reported no breakthroughs toward reducing China's massive trade surplus, overhauling its currency system or protecting intellectual property rights.
The president took satisfaction simply in the fact that Hu mentioned human rights when the two leaders made joint statements to the press. "Those who watch China closely would say that maybe a decade ago, a leader wouldn't have uttered those comments," Bush said. "He talked about democracy."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained that "we've certainly not seen the progress that we would expect" on a months-old U.S. request for action by China on specific human rights cases. Bush said the U.S. had presented a list of "dissidents that we believe are unfairly imprisoned."
China was the most anticipated stop on Bush's weeklong visit, which has included Japan and South Korea.
Bush flies home on Monday after a four-hour stop in Mongolia, the first ever by an American president. The brief visit is a reward for Mongolia's pursuit of democracy and support for the U.S. fight against terrorism.
The president packed a lot into his Beijing visit.
In a country where the practice of religion is harshly restricted, Bush worshipped at a church and complimented the preacher on her sermon. He went mountain bike-riding with six young athletes vying for spots on China's Olympic team. "How do you say, `Take it easy on the old man,"' Bush joked.
When a reporter suggested Bush had seemed unenthusiastic in his joint appearance with Hu, the president responded, "Have you ever heard of jet lag?"
Thousands of miles from home, Bush and other White House officials have not let a day go by without a tough counterattack against Democratic critics of the president's Iraq policies. But the president replaced the no-holds-barred approach with a softer tone Sunday.
"I heard somebody say, `Well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position.' I totally reject that thought," Bush said.
"This is not an issue of who's patriotic and who's not patriotic," he said. "It's an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq."
The Iraq war has undercut Americans' confidence in Bush's credibility and his response to terrorism and has helped drop his approval rating to the lowest point of his presidency. Nearly 2,100 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003.
Bush came to the defense of Murtha, the hawkish congressman who has been denounced by Republicans for advocating withdrawal. Bush's own spokesman had compared the combat-decorated Vietnam veteran to war critic-movie producer Michael Moore and suggested Murtha was counseling surrender to terrorists.
On Sunday, Bush called Murtha a "fine man and a good man."
"I know the decision to call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way," the president said. "I disagree with his position."
Murtha told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday he hoped the administration would take his proposal seriously and the president would "get a few of us to the White House and talk to us about this very difficult problem which the whole nation wants to solve with a bipartisan manner."