Published January 13, 2015
The war in Iraq competed for President Bush's attention at an Asia-Pacific summit on Saturday, forcing him to talk about Usama bin Laden alongside global warming and deforestation.
After four days of diplomacy with Pacific Rim leaders, Bush was heading home for a face-off with Congress over whether sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq has helped stabilize the nation.
Bush arrived at the summit early, then left a day before it was over to hurry back to Washington. Next week is a vital one for Bush and the course of the war, which will define his legacy.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testify to Congress; the nation marks the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks; and Bush hands lawmakers his latest progress report on the war. That report comes at a critical juncture, with Congress just back from its summer vacation, and the administration seeking fresh funding for an unpopular war.
At the summit, the president pushed the leaders to revive stalled global trade talks and cooperate on climate change. Yet the issue of Iraq punctuated his sit-downs with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leader of the world's most populous Muslim nation.
After his meeting with Abe, Bush countered bin Laden's latest video message, in which he mocks the democratic system of government in the United States and lambastes the Bush administration for initiating the war in Iraq.
Without mentioning the wanted terrorist by name, Bush noted how bin Laden spoke of Iraq.
"If Al Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq it's because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out and to develop a safe haven. And the reason they want a safe haven is to launch attacks against America, or any other ally," Bush said. "And therefore, it's important that we show resolve and determination, to protect ourselves, to deny Al Qaeda safe haven, and to support young democracies, which will be a major defeat to their ambitions."
Abe and the summit host, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, are facing challenges from opposition leaders critical of their decisions to stand with Bush in the war. Bush, Abe and Howard had breakfast in a glassed-in room on the 31st floor of a hotel overlooking Sydney's harbor. It was not a good morning for a bird's eye view of the city. Rain droplets spotted the windows and foggy conditions fuzzed up the view.
After breakfast, Bush met with Abe -- whose Liberal Democratic Party, a strong backer of the U.S., was battered at the polls during recent elections.
Democratic Party leader Ichiro Owaza, who orchestrated the election win over Abe's party, is threatening to cancel the deployment of Japanese air units in Iraq. Owaza also wants to block legislation that lets Japanese tanker ships in the Indian Ocean refuel coalition forces serving in Afghanistan.
"The role that Japan plays in this fight is a vital role, and it's a necessary role. Japan provides a vital service not only to the United States, but to other countries as a refueler of our ships," Bush said, boosting Abe for his constituents back home.
Yudhoyono also has political worries back home. The retired general is seen as a close ally in Washington's war on terror, rounding up hundreds of Al Qaeda-linked militants since attacks on Bali island killed 202 people. But Yudhoyono has had to play a delicate balancing act to avoid angering Muslims at home, where popular sentiment against Americans is growing.
"I thank you very much for your strength in this struggle against extremism," Bush told the Indonesian leader. "You understand firsthand what it means to deal with radicalism, and you've done it in a very constructive way."
Then Bush praised Yudhoyono's leadership on climate change and his plan to stop deforestation.
"You're one of the leaders in the world when it comes to these practical applications of environmental quality and environmental progress, and the United States wants to help," Bush said, adding that the United States was working on a $20 million initiative to help him prevent deforestation. "It's a good use of our taxpayers' money."
Later in the day, the leaders gathered for the APEC group photo where the leaders don the same, sometimes oddball, shirts. This year, the official outfit was a traditional Australian riding coat, typically used for herding sheep and horse riding. When the photographer asked the leaders to wave to the camera, all the leaders waved with their right hand, expect for Bush, who used his left.
A dozen blocks away -- on the other side of a 10-foot metal fence fortified by concrete barriers -- was a more raucous gathering. Thousands protested outside Sydney's Town Hall against issues from the Iraq war to poverty to global warming.