A change in scenery seemed to lift President Bush as he soaked up compliments from foreign leaders who appeared nonplussed by his political troubles back home.
Bush came into an annual gathering of Pacific Rim powers trailed by the whiff of defeat from stunning Republican losses in the Nov. 7. elections.
For the balance of Bush’s term, through January 2009, he will face a Democratic-controlled Congress expected to undertake intensive investigations of foreign policy decisions including the conduct of the Iraq war. The new Congress may also be skeptical of new Bush endeavors overseas.
Some of Bush’s Asian counterparts already were worried the United States did not pay enough attention to their region. Now, they wonder whether the president will be too wounded politically to be a deft or forceful partner in negotiations with North Korea and Iran.
China’s nervous neighbors also are watching to see how Bush balances a deepening economic relationship with concerns over Beijing’s business practices and military ambitions.
Friends in Asia
Even before the election defeat, Bush was hobbled by flagging support at home for the Iraq war. It was a chief reason for GOP losses on Election Day, with voters punishing Republicans for Bush’s management of the conflict. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted after the election indicated that Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped to just 31 percent — the lowest level ever.
Never popular outside the U.S, the war frequently is seen as an example of American arrogance or misguided adventurism. Bush often is viewed with disdain — sometimes by citizens in U.S. allies — though kinder notices have come from much of Asia.
Whatever his headaches, Bush on Saturday seemed to enjoy the company of fellow presidents and prime ministers.
If Japanese and South Korean leaders are fretting that Bush will be preoccupied by domestic reversals, they were too polite to mention it. If they were relieved at Bush’s postelection sacking of the brusque Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, they kept it to themselves.
Sidestepping the election
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mitsuo Sakaba said Bush’s domestic political woes did not come up during his summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
“There was no such kind of discussion,” Sakaba said.
Sakaba replied a curt, “No concern,” when asked if Japan was worried that the elections would weaken Bush on the international front or undermine governments closely aligned with his administration.
“Asian friends will be watching ... President Bush and his team in terms of his body language, his statements, to see whether he will be weakened or committed going forward with a broad and purposeful agenda in Asia as a whole,” said Kurt Campbell, a former Asia specialist at the Pentagon. He spoke at a preview session for the APEC conference that was organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Bush cleared out of Washington barely a week after an election he had gamely insisted, right up until the end, that Republicans would win.
Lifted up by allies
At his first stop, in Singapore on Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave Bush an attaboy.
“Singapore is very happy that America has a stake in the region, and is growing the stake in the region,” Lee said. As a leader of a moderate and multiethnic U.S. ally, Lee has advised Bush on how to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world.
Bush followed that visit with the hearty support from Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday.
Howard pledged that Australia would not abandon Iraq. A staunch Bush ally, Howard sent 2,000 Australian troops to the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Australia now maintains around 1,300 troops in and around Iraq.
“The idea of the coalition leaving in circumstances where the Iraqi people would not seem to be able to look after themselves and to enjoy the democracy they want would be a catastrophic defeat for our cause,” the prime minister said at the APEC gathering.
Side by side with Howard, Bush sounded like the tough-talking, stay-the-course leader of old. At least for a moment, Bush abandoned his grasping election-season pledges of flexibility and re-evaluation in Iraq.
“We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said.