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Bush officials largely absent at Davos

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the keynote address. French President Jacques Chirac spoke by video link. The leaders of Germany, Ukraine, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil all have prime speaking slots.
/ Source: The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the keynote address. French President Jacques Chirac spoke by video link. The leaders of Germany, Ukraine, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil all have prime speaking slots.

But the highest-ranking member of the Bush administration at the World Economic Forum is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, just one of many panelists.

The absence of a Republican heavy-hitter has frustrated some participants trying to get new insight into U.S. policy over the next four years. And it's made former President Bill Clinton the American star at the annual gabfest, along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Admittedly, the timing of this year's forum wasn't the best for the Bush administration. The five-day meeting of 2,500 top business executives, politicians and social leaders comes only a week after President Bush's inauguration.

Bush has a Cabinet with many new faces and he is preparing his State of the Union address. Forum officials had hoped Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would attend but she was just confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at Davos last year, attended Thursday's 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp but chose not to head to this ski resort afterward. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was also here last year, is stepping down.

Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans said he hopes top U.S. officials are staying away because they're settling into the new administration.

"I fear it's because they don't like what they're going to hear," said Evans, who now leads the International Crisis Group, a private, nonprofit organization that aims to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts.

"The truth of the matter is what they will hear is what they were hearing over the last few years — a deep concern about insensitive use of the power that America has, and which everybody wants to be used in a wholly constructive way but fears is going to continue to be used in a counterproductive way."

Chao said the Davos forum happened to come at time "when our government is very busy."

"It's always very special to have world leaders come to Davos and that's part of the attraction, but it doesn't mean that every single world leader has to come every single year," Chao said in an interview. "I hope that people are pleased that the secretary of labor is here representing the government."

Ten U.S. senators are also here including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona, both high-profile Republicans, as well as several congressmen.

President Bush's second term agenda is certainly a hot topic here. The United States is the subject of several panels, round-tables and dinners, one on economic challenges facing the country in the next 18 months, and others on U.S. political divisions, American foreign policy and whether the United States will still be "No. 1" in 2020.

Reflecting the concerns here, China's former ambassador to Paris, Wu Jianmin, who is now president of China Foreign Affairs University, was asked at a panel whether Beijing was worried about Bush's ideological inaugural address promoting freedom and democracy around the world.

"What worries us is not the ideology. What worries us is how the Bush administration is aiming to translate these statements into action," Wu said.

"People in Washington, D.C., start talking about war against Iran. If that happens, in the eyes of ... the Chinese, that would be a disaster," he said. "We Chinese, we advocate peaceful solutions for international disputes."

Many participants said they would have liked to hear from a senior U.S. official. Instead they heard from Bush's Democratic predecessor, who questioned the president's commitment to ending global poverty. Others at the World Economic Forum including Gates and Blair joined Clinton in urging rich countries to reach deeper into their pockets to end global poverty.

John Bryant, the founder and chairman of Los Angeles-based Operation HOPE, Inc., was one of two dozen black leaders who met with Bush in Washington earlier in the week.

"There is no excuse for us not mobilizing a large and prestigious group of leaders, and I mentioned to President Bush that the World Economic Forum would be honored to have him speak here next year and he was open to that," Bryant said in an interview.

"He asked me, `John, would they genuinely be receptive?' I said, `absolutely Mr. President.'"

Nelson Cunningham, managing partner of Kissinger McLarty Associates in Washington, went further, saying: "Bush has indicated that he wants to spend this year with a new diplomatic effort toward Europe. He's coming here next month. Let's see if he'll come back next year to Davos."