HAGERSTOWN - Exactly one week after launching the first strikes on Baghdad, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain arrived at Camp David last night to begin discussing the war in Iraq, the rift it has caused in U.S.-European relations and the rebuilding of the country after the war.
The two meet at a pivotal moment, having sent thousands of their troops and invested much political capital in a war that is opposed by much of the world and that has met fiercer-than-expected Iraqi resistance.
Both leaders enjoy support for the war from most citizens back home, even as polls show growing doubts in the United States and Britain about whether the war will be relatively brief and without significant casualties.
White House officials said the two dined together last night at the presidential retreat, just east of here in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. Bush and Blair were to renew talks this morning, before holding a lunchtime news conference.
Camp David holds a historic place in U.S.-British relations, having been the bucolic setting where President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill often met during World War II. Those talks amounted to some of the first war-planning meetings held at the retreat, which was established as "Shangri-La" by Roosevelt in 1942 and was renamed Camp David by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Officials say Bush and Blair will plan war strategy but also delve into discussions of how to reconstruct Iraq after the war. Blair and other European leaders want the United Nations to play a sizable role and to prevent the United States from occupying Iraq on its own. Bush has said he wants the United Nations to be involved but has not outlined how extensively.
The prime minister, before leaving London yesterday, said he also thought the United States and its allies must focus beyond Iraq, helping to build peace throughout the Middle East and the world.
A day before, Blair had said he would talk with Bush about "how we get America and Europe working again together as partners and not as rivals."
The military campaign was strenuously opposed by France, Germany and other traditional U.S. allies in Europe. After the war, Blair said, there must be "a discussion and, indeed, a reckoning about the relations between America and Europe."
Besides the United States and Britain, Australia is the only nation to send significant numbers of combat troops to Iraq. Bush invited Prime Minister John Howard of Australia to the two-day Camp David meeting with Blair, but the prime minister declined, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. A spokesman for Howard told the newspaper that it was "appropriate" for him to remain in Australia.
For Bush, the meeting also serves as a symbolic statement that he is not alone in waging war to remove Saddam Hussein from power, as critics have suggested. Blair has been Bush's closest ally, committing 45,000 British troops to join the roughly 250,000 American troops in the gulf region.
Bush said yesterday morning on a visit to Florida that 48 countries were part of the "coalition" supporting the United States in Iraq. Many of those nations, though, are small and providing only modest technical or logistical support.
"Our coalition is showing the same spirit," Bush told hundreds of cheering troops at the U.S. military's central command in Tampa. "That spirit and resolve that destroyed the al-Qaida terror camps, that routed the Taliban and freed the people of Afghanistan."
After days of staying mostly out of public view, the president is emerging this week in a string of appearances. With Americans having seen televised images of U.S. casualties and of U.S. forces confronting stiff Iraqi resistance amid punishing desert sandstorms, Bush sought yesterday to convince the nation that the war would end successfully.
However, there were indications that the president is struggling with the precise message he wants to send, hoping to sound optimistic while not encouraging expectations that the war will end soon and with relatively few casualties.
Early in the day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had said the president would tell troops in Tampa that the war was progressing "ahead of schedule." But a senior administration official said Bush dropped that phrase from his speech while aboard Air Force One on the way to Florida. "He was erring on the side of being conservative," the official said.
In the speech, Bush said, "The path we are taking is not easy, and it may be long. Yet we know our destination. We will stay on the path - mile by mile - all the way to Baghdad, and all the way to victory."
The president returned from Florida yesterday afternoon and left immediately for Camp David. He is to return to the White House late today.
Blair arrives in the United States in slightly better political shape than he was in a few weeks ago. At that time, some Britons said in polls that they viewed Blair as Bush's "poodle," and many officials in Blair's Labor Party expressed vociferous opposition to the war.
As of yesterday, a new poll in the London Daily Telegraph found 56 percent of Britons backing the war effort. Such support, common whenever a nation rallies behind its leader at the onset of war, could help Blair polish his image as an equal partner who has some influence over Bush.
In barely more than two years, the Bush-Blair relationship has moved from toothpaste to Tomahawk missiles.
Just after taking office, Bush faced doubts at home about whether he could forge a relationship with Blair as close as the one President Bill Clinton had with the British leader. Seeming determined to show they had much in common, Bush used a get-to-know-you session at Camp David to point out to reporters - and a bemused prime minister - that he and Blair use Colgate toothpaste.
Now, Bush and Blair, their relationship cemented, are meeting at the same spot to confer in far tenser times about a war that could determine their political fates as well as shape the future of Iraq and perhaps the entire Middle East region.
In the 1940s, Churchill came to Camp David often on weekends to meet with Roosevelt. The two leaders drank and smoked on a terrace at the retreat as they plotted a war that consumed the globe.
Churchill was also a fixture at the White House, where, on one memorable visit, he took a bath, wrapped himself in a towel and, in his bedroom, dictated notes to a secretary.
Historical accounts indicate Roosevelt was searching for the British leader and rolled into the guest bedroom in his wheelchair, catching Churchill after his towel had accidentally fallen.
Churchill capitalized on the moment. He reportedly told Roosevelt that a British leader "has nothing to hide from an American president."