What We Learned at the APEC Conference

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6:50 PM, Monday, East Coast
7:50 AM, Tuesday, Bangkok

If it's Tuesday, it must be Singapore. We're heading out later today for the sixth leg of our 26,000 mile journey. Sunday was an absurdly blinding three countries in one day — woke up in Japan at 3 AM, then to Manila for eight hours of showing the flag and then to Thailand, the centerpiece of the trip, and the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. I understand the rush but did Bush really need to spend more time in Fresno and Riverside, CA than he did in Japan and the Philippines? Did he really need the extra campaign cash? (Granted he did some other events in CA, but cash was big reason for the California stop.)

Back to APEC. These kinds of conferences have a certain set-drama quality about them and this one was no exception. A few points:

  • Kick the can down the road. The biggest economic deal for President George W. Bush was to get China to bend on its currency, the Yuan. China wouldn't budge — why should it, given how much of the U.S. debt it is financing? The answer: form a U.S.-Chinese panel to study the issue. Don't count on much to happen, despite a few rhetorical signs of flexibility from the Chinese.

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  • Hype the small. Work begins on a U.S.-Thai free trade agreement! Joint statement on terror to be issued! All good things but getting the Thai agreement won't be easy in a nation with a more protectionist Congress and a wary textile industry. Joint statements are swell and the edging of APEC from an economic group to more of a security group is intriguing but in the end it can't matter that much.

  • Shoot down the story. Yesterday, the New York Times had a story hyping a new fund to be set up to handle some Iraqi aid. The story had been kicking around for awhile but front page placement in the Times changes things. The administration spent much of the day dialing back its suggestion that there'd been a huge reversal.

  • Hint at it. Hint again. Say it. Yesterday, there were multiple leaks that Bush would take a whack at Malaysia's retiring Prime Minister for his ludicrous statements about Jews this week. Then Bush did it "privately." Then they leaked it again. More proof that administrations like leaks when it suits them.

  • Great visuals. It'd be hard to top last night's procession. Last night was the Royal Barge Procession on Bangkok's main river. The prosaic name doesn't do justice to the event. TV probably doesn't either. Flower decorated candles were sent by the thousands down the river, other lights were sent aloft by balloons like magical fireflies. Elaborate Thai boats, rowed by brightly costumed Thai oarsman, went past the leaders. The fireworks befit a city that treated the APEC summit like it had won the Olympics. (The host country rotates each year.)

    And Bush? Weirdly, albeit predictably, energetic I hear. He keeps telling people to work out and on the plane one night playfully teased some staffers sleeping. With the toughest legs of the trip still ahead — Bali, Australia and home in two red eye flights — even Dubya might be showing a little fatigue by the end.