Dispatch From Camp David, Talking Past Each Other

It was scheduled as a cozy dinner, a chance for a more personal conversation between the two wartime leaders and a handful of their closest aides, before the next day's heavy lifting. So when George W. Bush and Tony Blair gathered inside Laurel Cabin at Camp David, just a week into their audacious war in Iraq, the small talk turned to one of the most irritating features of the battle so far. Not the guerrilla-style raids of the Iraqi militia or the blinding sandstorms, but the breathless dispatches from reporters embedded with the military about every little glitch along the road to Baghdad.

United under fire, Bush and Blair found it easier to gripe about their common enemies than to agree on the details of what comes next in Iraq. The way their aides tell it, the two leaders have developed an intimate relationship as they share the burdens of war. There was the secluded walk in the woods of the Catoctin Mountains, the sun-dappled ride in the golf carts, the stolen conversations about everything and nothing. They gird themselves with tales of Iraqi evil, and reinforce their convictions by patching in calls with their coalition partners, the Australian and Polish leaders. "Blair is a pillar of strength," said one senior White House aide. "One good pillar deserves another. The two are holding up a lot of weight."

But like many world-weary couples, the two often seem to talk past each other about the most contentious and unresolved issues confronting them. Blair had hoped to hash out the aftermath of war; Bush wanted to focus on the war itself. Blair was keen to discuss why many allies failed to climb onboard; Bush thinks his Coalition is big enough already.

Take the thorny question of the United Nations' role in Iraq once the shooting stops. Both London and Washington say the United Nations should "endorse" a new Iraqi government. But there is little agreement on what that means. Blair believes the United Nations should play a central role in shaping the new politics of Iraq. To underscore his point, he even jetted from Washington to New York to visit U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Yet Bush's aides envisage a far more minimalist role for the United Nations in rubber-stamping their reconstruction of Iraq. "There are undoubtedly important things that the United Nations will be able to do," said one senior U.S. official. "But this is not East Timor, this is not Kosovo, this is not Afghanistan. This is Iraq."

For his part, Blair wanted to study the road to war, and figure out what went wrong; Bush just wanted to move forward. "It was a chance to learn the lessons about what happened last time around," says one Blair aide, "and why countries like Turkey, Mexico, Chile and Canada weren't where the United States wanted them to be." That was not quite how the White House saw the session. One senior administration official suggested that Bush was not eager to talk about fence-mending. "At the appropriate time the president is willing to assess how we got to where we are," this official said. "Now is not the time."

For the moment, the United Nations is falling in line with Bush and Blair, at least by jump-starting humanitarian aid to Iraq under its Oil-for-Food Program. But when it comes to the tougher talks on how to shape a future Iraq, British and American officials say such conversations are "premature." Friends can stay friends by putting off the hard stuff, but only for so long.

Dispatch From Camp David, Talking Past Each Other | News