The Bush administration, expecting a quick and favorable vote on a U.N. resolution on Iraq, turned Monday toward winning support at a summit of world leaders for a broader effort to promote democracy in the Middle East at large.
President Bush is hoping his greater Middle East initiative will be a key accomplishment at this year’s Group of Eight summit, which brings together leaders of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia.
The White House appeared undaunted by the protests its original proposal provoked in the Arab world or the fact that some major Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco turned down Bush’s request to attend this year’s summit.
Employing tough language, U.S. officials said a swelling population of undereducated and underemployed young people in the Middle East had to have hope for a better future if the world was to avoid rising extremism.
“The idea that we were somehow buying stability by turning a blind eye to the absence of freedom has been exposed, and exposed in the form of extremism,” Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters at a media center in Savannah, some 80 miles north of the summit site.
Bush, the host for this year’s gathering, was the first leader to arrive, flying straight from ceremonies Sunday in France commemorating the D-Day landing.
The president was staying at one of the multimillion-dollar vacation “cottages” to be used by the world leaders on this tiny barrier island famed for its white sandy beaches and giant live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
A security force of more than 10,000 local, state and federal officials protected the island and the media center in Savannah, vastly outnumbering the protesters who showed up for a few sparsely attended demonstrations on Monday.
Bush spent Monday in summit preparations conferring with aides. He also took time to ride his mountain bike along the beach and go on a brief fishing expedition.
The White House also announced that Bush will hold one-on-one discussions Wednesday with Iraq’s new interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer.
Before Tuesday night’s beginning of formal talks, U.S. officials were trying to clear roadblocks to what they hope will be announcements not only on the Middle East but also on the fight against global poverty and disease.
The G-8 will meet over lunch Wednesday with the leaders of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen and the new president of Iraq to discuss Bush’s broader Middle East plan.
A leaked draft of the proposal in February caused an uproar in Arab nations that perceived it as arrogant America meddling in Arab affairs.
Rice tried to minimize the absence of such key Mideast countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the discussions.
Another senior administration official, who briefed hundreds of journalists but only under condition that his name not be used, said the Bush administration has decided the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be used as an excuse by Arab countries to delay democratic reforms.
In response to complaints from European countries, the G-8 document will stress the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The final document, to be released Wednesday, will press governments to step up efforts at promoting democracy and human rights and encourage greater participation by non-governmental groups, according to the U.S. official.
Mideast governments are not G-8 members, but they had ample time to weigh in on the document because several drafts leaked, the official said.
It was unclear whether a U.S. proposal to garner international support for a program to train 100,000 new teachers in the Middle East through 2009 to combat high illiteracy rates would survive in the final document because of objections among G-8 members over how much it would cost them.
Bush has invited the leaders of six African countries — Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda — for discussions Thursday, and the summit is expected to announce programs to combat famine in the Horn of Africa and provide more support in eradicating polio in poor nations and in searching for new vaccines to combat AIDS.