(Los Angeles Times) - Setting aside his stated reluctance to enter the presidential campaign, President Bush strongly criticized Sen. Barack Obama's expressed readiness to meet with foreign leaders cast as tyrants, warning that such discussions "can be extremely counterproductive" and "send the wrong signal."
He also challenged Democrats' skepticism about the North American Free Trade Agreement, and reminded Obama that al-Qaida has been seeking to establish a base in Iraq "for the past four years."
At the same time, he said at a White House news conference that he was not yet willing to join the political fray, but his comments suggested otherwise. He worked beyond the edges of the debate, challenging for the first time -- and across a broad spectrum of issues -- some of the central tenets of Obama's and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaigns and the direction in which the Democrats would take the nation.
In the lively 46-minute session, during which Bush cheerfully bantered with reporters, he delivered a forceful plea for congressional support of his plan to renew anti-terrorist eavesdropping legislation. He attacked congressional critics of his Iraq policy, and expressed curiosity -- as well as uncertainty -- about Dmitri A. Medvedev, the all-but-certain successor to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
But it was in his challenge to Obama's readiness to meet with the pariahs of American foreign policy that Bush plunged most directly into the presidential campaign.
The president said that "sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro" would lend the status of the American presidency to the new Cuban leader.
"He gains a lot from it by saying, `Look at me, I'm now recognized by the president of the United States,' " Bush said.
Bush's reluctance to speak publicly about the campaign serves a political purpose, given his low approval ratings and questions about whether his words can help or hurt Republican candidates.
However, with Obama and Clinton seeking to differentiate themselves from each other and from Bush on foreign policy, he may have helped make their point.
Bush has long objected to talking with adversaries -- notably from Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Asked why such talks, without preconditions, would be wrong, he said they would "give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity."
Obama, who has said that if elected he would be willing to meet U.S. enemies, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, told reporters after Bush spoke that the United States should not fear engaging its foes.
Campaigning in Texas, he said he would enter such a meeting only after "a lot of preparation and diplomatic spadework," and would tell Ahmedinejad that Iran's development of nuclear weapons, its funding for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its anti-Israel rhetoric were unacceptable. In exchange for changes in its behavior, he said, Iran could expect eventual consideration of its bid to join the World Trade Organization and loosening of U.N. sanctions.
The controversy takes on new timeliness with the ascendance of Raul Castro to the Cuban presidency, replacing his brother Fidel.
"I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time . . . to talk with Raul Castro," Bush said. "He's nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs."
Even as Bush put up a wall between himself and certain foreign leaders -- he singled out Kim Jong-Il of North Korea -- he said it was "important to establish personal relations with leaders even though you may not agree with them."
Bush is expected to hold a farewell meeting with Putin, with whom he acknowledged having had "diplomatic head-butts," while in eastern Europe for a NATO summit in April, roughly four weeks before Putin leaves the presidency.
Asked whether he thought Medvedev, as the Russian president's hand-picked successor, would turn into a Putin puppet, Bush said: "I wouldn't say that."
Trade policy increasingly has become a focal point in the Democratic presidential race, particularly in Ohio. Texas and Ohio are the two biggest prizes -- and possibly the deciding factors in the Democratic race -- in Tuesday's primaries.
Clinton has called for renegotiating elements of NAFTA, which her husband's administration pushed through Congress after it was largely negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration. Broadening her criticism of the current administration's trade policy, she said in Ohio Thursday that Bush had "turned a blind eye to all of the actions by China and others to dump steel into Ohio, hurting Ohio workers and the Ohio economy."
Defending the pact that in 1993 tore down barriers to U.S.-Canadian-Mexican trade, Bush said "the idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of trying to score political points is not good policy."
On other topics, Bush:
-- Criticized Obama's statement in a Democratic debate Tuesday that "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq," then the United States would have to act to protect itself. "Well, that's exactly what they've been trying to do for the past four years," he said.
-- Said if eavesdropping legislation did not protect telephone companies from lawsuits -- a central issue in whether to renew a measure aimed at listening in on potential terrorists' conversations --litigation "would give al-Qaida and others a road map as to how to avoid the surveillance." He said the telephone companies' help was needed, but without government protection they would be exposed to lawsuits by "class-action plaintiffs attorneys" sensing "a financial gravy train."