CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush is looking at world hot spots from Baghdad to Pyongyang, without leaving Texas. Keeping up an annual tradition, Bush was meeting with his defense and foreign policy teams on Thursday at his ranch, where he is spending August.
Vice President Dick Cheney and top-rung advisers, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will come casual for serious talks about issues ranging from ongoing violence in Iraq and standoffs with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs to anti-American sentiment abroad, especially in the Middle East.
The unhurried pace of this one-stoplight town stands in sharp contrast to events across the globe: Suicide bombings in Iraq. On-again, off-again negotiations with the reclusive North Korea. Iran's decision to restart sensitive nuclear work in defiance of European-led negotiations. The pullout next week of some 9,000 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Bush's update on defense and foreign policy issues comes at a time when his approval ratings are hovering below 50 percent. An AP-Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 1-3 showed Bush's overall job approval was at 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. That's about where his approval rating has been all summer, but slightly lower than it was when the year began. His approval on his handling of Iraq stood at 38 percent.
Iraq, where the death toll of U.S. troops has topped 1,840, is likely to take a center stage.
The administration is hoping that progress on the political front will help deflate violence and allow the United States and its partners to begin withdrawing troops next year.
Rumsfeld said success in drafting a new Iraqi constitution is critical toward persuading the majority of Iraqis that the "new Iraq is worth fighting for." But a deadlock has arisen over the drafting of the charter, which is supposed to be completed by Monday.
Cindy Sheehan, a California mother of a fallen soldier, is holding a roadside protest to bring the troops home.
So far, Rumsfeld has not publicly voiced his thoughts on when U.S. forces may be able to come home in large numbers - a decision that hinges on the level of violence and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces, which now number 178,000.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee that is identifying areas to revert to Iraqi control will submit its final report by the end of September. That is the first step toward what Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq, has said could lead to a "fairly substantial" reduction in the 138,000-strong U.S. force by the spring and summer of next year.
Casey has not disclosed numbers, but Pentagon officials have mentioned a reduction figure of 20,000 to 30,000 troops. That would still leave about 100,000 Americans in Iraq well into next year.
But first the Pentagon will likely have to increase the number of U.S. troops above the current 138,000 to improve security for a planned October referendum and a December election, when a burst of insurgent violence is expected, Rumsfeld spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said this week.
Last January, when Iraq had its first elections, troop levels were raised as high as 160,000, mainly by overlapping some units arriving in Iraq to begin a one-year tour with those who were ending their yearlong tours. Di Rita said that this time commanders could also ask for volunteers to serve extended tours or send some U.S.-based troops to Iraq to augment the force during the fall election period.
The White House says Rumsfeld will brief the president on the Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated top-to-bottom review of defense strategy and plans. The review, begun earlier this year, will be completed around January, in time for the February budget submission.