Bush-Blair summit defends Iraq war
President George W Bush and outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted at a farewell summit on Thursday they have no regrets about their wartime alliance in Iraq despite damage to their standing at home and abroad.
Shoulder to shoulder at the White House for the last time before Blair steps down on June 27, the two leaders heaped praise on each other and defended themselves against critics of a war that is increasingly unpopular in both countries.
"There are a lot of blowhards in the political process," Bush told a news conference. "Tony Blair is actually someone who follows through on his convictions."
Blair returned the compliment, describing Bush as "a strong leader at a time when the world needs strong leadership."
But Blair's final visit to Washington as prime minister underscored the political price he has paid for embracing Bush and enlisting in the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, for which critics at home derided him as "Bush's poodle."
Blair will leave office in mid-term, under pressure from within his own Labour Party to step aside before the next general election expected in 2009.
Bush at one point admonished British reporters for "trying to do a tap dance on his political grave."
But when asked whether he thought he was partly to blame for Blair's early departure from power, Bush seemed to equivocate. "Could be," he said at first with a smile.
However, he then quickly added, "I don't know."
Blair said he made the decision to close ranks with Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and would do it all over again, even knowing what he knows now.
"I do not regret that view. I am proud of the relationship we have had," Blair said.
Blair, more popular in the United States than at home, was welcomed with open arms at the White House, where he spent the night in the same room where Winston Churchill slept during wartime visits decades ago.
Their talks touched on ways to narrow US-European differences on global warming before next month's G8 summit in Germany, advance stalled world trade talks and keep pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
But the overarching issue was the Iraq war, which forged the Bush-Blair friendship and which analysts believe will be decisive in deciding their legacies.
The two participated in a video teleconference with US and British commanders and diplomats in Baghdad, said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
Bush administration officials hoped Blair's visit would provide moral support to help fend off opposition-led Congress demanding timetables for a US withdrawal.
And Bush was also apparently looking for further assurances that Blair's successor, finance minister Gordon Brown, will not lessen Britain's resolve in Iraq.
"I believe that we will remain a staunch and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere," Blair said.
Brown has accepted that mistakes were made in Iraq but has ruled out an immediate pullout.
Bush said he would miss Blair but had met Brown and considered him a "good fellow."
Brown is considered unlikely to form the kind of close personal bond Blair has with Bush. The two have seemed an odd couple -- Bush the rich Texas Republican with strong conservative views and Blair the head of a center-left party with socialist origins.
At their first US summit in February 2001, Bush, asked by reporters what the two men had in common, noted with a smile that they used the same brand of toothpaste.
But Blair was quick to join the war on terrorism that Bush declared after the September 11 attacks, and he later stood by the US leader when many other European leaders distanced themselves from the Iraq war or openly criticized it.