WASHINGTON - President Bush met at the White House yesterday with Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko, showcasing his support for democracy in the ex-Soviet state even as Yushchenko breaks with Bush by beginning to withdraw his troops from Iraq.
In solidifying ties with Yushchenko, Bush faces a potential conflict between his top foreign policy goals - promoting democracy around the world and stabilizing Iraq to bring U.S. troops home.
In an appearance after their Oval Office meeting, Bush said he understood Yushchenko's decision to pull troops from Iraq - one of the Ukrainian leader's promises last year during a tumultuous campaign - but thinks U.S. soldiers must remain to train Iraqi security forces.
Yushchenko is "fulfilling a campaign pledge - I understand that," Bush told reporters in the East Room, praising Ukrainian troop contributions thus far in Iraq.
Bush tied the task of U.S. forces in Iraq to the theme he said was at the root of Yushchenko's recent rise to power in Ukraine: the spread of democracy. At the same time, he made clear that he has a very different view than the Ukrainian leader about committing troops to an extended stay in Iraq.
"The fundamental question is, is it worth it? And the answer is, absolutely it's worth it for a free Iraq to emerge," Bush said. Staying in Iraq "is worth it to make sure that democracy exists."
Yushchenko, who is to address a joint session of Congress tomorrow, gave no indication that he would reconsider his plan for withdrawing 1,650 soldiers from Iraq. He said he considers Iraq "a zone of Ukrainian interest" and that it is now up to Ukraine's "diplomats, businesspeople and politicians" to finish what peacekeepers started.
Push for democracy
For Bush, who has made promoting democracy a dominant principle of his second-term foreign policy, the meeting was a welcome chance to share the stage with a leader who in many ways embodies that goal. A popular uprising in December, known as the "Orange Revolution," helped carry Yushchenko, a Western-style reformer, to victory over Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was favored by Russian leaders.
If other countries follow Ukraine's lead, Bush seemed to suggest, they too might reap the benefits that come from U.S. support, including aid dollars, international trading opportunities and security cooperation.
The two leaders agreed on a joint statement that proclaimed "a new era of strategic partnership between our nations," in which Bush backed Ukraine's entry into the World Trade Organization and the nation's "NATO aspirations."
But the statement sidestepped the disagreement over troops in Iraq, instead pledging in vague terms "to assist the Iraqi people to secure liberty, peace and prosperity," and on economic development.
Ukraine is not the first U.S. ally to pull its troops out of Iraq in deference to a public outcry against an extended stay there; Spain, Poland and Italy are among those that have begun or completed withdrawals.
In telling Yushchenko that he has "a strong friend" in the United States, Bush signaled that he has abandoned the with-us-or-against us mentality on Iraq that characterized his first term. But some analysts said there are pitfalls in Bush's new emphasis on spreading democracy, a theme he began emphasizing strongly in his inaugural address when he said that wherever people "stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
"What I think we should be concerned with is that we have to have a clear idea, when we support democracy, who may come to power if and when these revolutions take place - whether these forces are democratic, whether they are pro-American," said Ariel Cohen, an Eastern Europe specialist at the Heritage Foundation. In promoting democracy, he added, the United States should make sure that the regimes it supports are not "radical Islamist or totalitarian."
Such questions may weigh heavily on U.S. policy in other nations where Bush hopes to see democracy flourish, including Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, both of which were topics of discussion in yesterday's meetings.
Bush told reporters that he welcomes Syria's announcement over the weekend that it would withdraw from Lebanon, but he cautioned that he expects a full pullout, including troops and security forces. He said Lebanese elections scheduled for next month must go forward on schedule.