Bush In Asia: No Place Like Home

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U.S. Presidents on a trip to the Far East usually find an excuse to dawdle a day or two in Hawaii. George W. Bush’s trip to Asia this week was supposed to be no exception; the President’s wife lobbied hard for a stay, and aides noted that the opportunity to visit new governor Linda Lingle, the first Republican to hold that office in the Aloha State’s history, made a longer visit the way to go. Bush at first agreed to spend one night in paradise. In the end, though, he nixed the idea of an overnight in Hawaii. Instead, he'll fly overnight from Canberra, Australia and then fly overnight again to get home, a day ahead of schedule.

It's no surprise that a President who famously travelled with his own pillow during the 2000 campaign is eager to do a brutal double red-eye flight to keep this trip as tight as possible. He'll visit most countries for less than a day — eight hours in the Philippines, 20 hours in Australia, just three in Bali, site of last year's terrorist bombing that took 202 Australian, Indonesian and American lives. Even National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice dubbed his visit to 15-hour visit to Japan, "a layover." Although the trip is being billed by his staff as a dual purpose visit — he’ll reaffirm alliances in the war on terror and promote the American economy — it's going to be a tough sell on both fronts and a president who is disinclined to travel in the best of circumstances is even more eager to get home.

Asia is proving a difficult front in the war on terror. It's true that Japan recently pledged $1.5 billion to help fund Iraqi reconstruction as part of what could be a $5 billion effort. And the Philippines and Indonesia have vowed to take on Islamic extremist groups in their midst. (Over a thousand U.S. forces are assisting the Philippine effort root out Abu Sayef rebels in the southern part of the country.) Beyond that, Asia is no more eager to start donating money to Iraqi reconstruction than the rest of the world.

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On the economic front, Bush is hoping to use the Asian trip, and its centerpiece, the annual meeting of the 21-member Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, to help whittle away at the $433 billion annual U.S. trade deficit. Much of that gap is with Asia, especially China. But U.S. efforts narrow that imbalance have been feeble. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have urged Beijing to stop intervening in the value of its currency, the Yuan and allow it to go higher in value. The hope is that if the Yuan is stronger, China will buy more American products — they'd become cheaper — and the cost of Chinese products in the U.S. will rise, pushing American consumers toward American-made goods. But the Chinese have shown no interest in seeing the Yuan rise, and while the U.S. trade deficit is always a big topic at these conferences, it continues to grow.

Still, the trip will have its upside, especially for the two female heads of state that Bush will visit with. Bush's address to the Philippine Congress, the first by a U.S. president since 1960, is expected to boost the reelection chances of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when she goes before the voters next year. Likewise, his stop in Bali — which Bush aides say he made over the objections of the Secret Service — will probably help the political fortunes of President Megawati Sukarnoputri who also goes before voters next year. Bush will meet with moderate Muslim leaders while in Indonesia in an effort to show that the administration has no quarrel with Islam, only with terrorism. The trip is certainly a boost to Thailand, which is hosting the APEC summit. Thousands of journalists, business and government officials will descend on the Thai capital, Bangkok. In preparation, the city has taken extraordinary security precautions, including putting an army of 20,000 troops into the streets and cracking down on the city's infamous prostitution trade.

For all that, the APEC summit is unlikely to produce much in the way of results. The conference tends to be even more lacking in substance than most meetings of this kind. In fact, the best known thing about the summit maybe the annual group photo in which the 21 leaders don the native dress of the host country. Bush aides say this year's shirt won't be too hideous and that the cut will be good. (At the Indonesian APEC meeting in 1996, President Clinton’s was a tad tight.) Bush, though, is not exactly psyched for such moments. At the 2001 APEC meeting in Shanghai, the President was loathe to get out of his limousine until aides assured him that the other leaders were, in fact, decked out in that year's APEC shirt, a satin jacket featuring Chinese-style cotton buttons and round flower patterns with peonies surrounding the four letters of APEC, and a white silk shirt. Short of the Supreme Court giving Florida's electoral votes to Al Gore, Can you imagine anything more painful for the man from Crawford? Little wonder he's eager to get home.