O, To Be in Outer Mongolia!

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LAST OP: Bush shakes hands with a man dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing in Ulan Bator

President Bush sat on a white cushion in a red chair on Monday morning, next to both a shiny stone likeness of Genghis Khan, the conqueror who united the Mongols in the 13th century, and Mongolia's current leader, Enkhbayar Nambar. Bush was sitting in an elaborate version of a "ger," a heated hut made of layers of felt that is traditional housing in Mongolia, a bleak land of pasture and desert that is the least densely populated country on earth. It was the last day of an eight-day trip, the longest overseas journey of Bush's presidency. His hands were folded, and he was smiling but not saying anything. He could feel the homestretch. Air Force One would be airborne for the states in just a few short hours. The pose in the ger was one last thing he had to do for the cameras before stopping in to the White House to pardon the national Thanksgiving turkey, then heading to his ranch.

In a meeting with reporters the night before, the President had acknowledged that he was a tad tuckered out. Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers asked about Bush's meeting that morning with China's President Hu Jintao: "You seemed a little off your game, You seemed to hurry through your statement and there was a lack of enthusiasm." Bush parried: " Have you ever heard of jet lag?" When Herman responded, "Yes, sir," Bush concluded, "Well, good. That answers your question. ... I don't know what I sounded like during my discussion. As you know, I don't spend a lot of time analyzing myself, and obviously, you do."

The trip had mixed results. Bush delivered a powerful speech about the value of democracy in Asia, and encouraged Christians in China by worshipping with them and then making a televised appeal to the Chinese government to let up on them. But U.S. news coverage of the trip was dominated by increasing restiveness on the Hill over Iraq, a break with the traditional custom of deferring criticism while a U.S. President is on foreign soil. And as aides had predicted, the visit delivered little specifics, whether on Chinese currency valuation or strategy for North Korean nuclear talks. An international economic conference in Busan, South Korea, drew thousands of protesters, some of who had to be kept away with a fire hose. But following the pattern he set with a stop in Panama after a rocky South American trip last month, Bush finished with a country where he is overwhelmingly popular—as one wag noted, a little like a sorbet to cleanse the palate after a rough time on the road.

Mongolia, a little larger than Alaska, is landlocked between Russian and China, making it crucial territory for U.S. intelligence services. And it is a favored member of the coalition of the willing: Mongolia is supplying troops in Iraq in rotations of 160 soldiers, which according to the White House makes it the 14th largest contributor of troops to Iraq, and the third largest country per capita. So the Bush Administration has been heaping the government here with appreciation. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dropped by in October and was given a horse he named "Montana." Tens of thousands of cheering Mongolians lined the roads as Bush's motorcade sped into Ulan Bator, founded as a monastery town and still retaining the starkness from the years it was dominated by the Soviet Union.

"Like the ideology of communism, the ideology of Islamic radicalism is destined to fall because the will to power is no match for the universal desire to live in liberty," Bush said in remarks to members of parliament, Army officers and government functionaries. "Free people did not falter in the Cold War, and free people will not falter in the war on terror. ... If free nations remain united, no force of tyranny or terror will break us." The speech—at 12 minutes, unusually brief—was interrupted by applause 16 times. Afterward, he shook hands and posed for photos. Bush had donned a heavy coat and gloves for an outdoor arrival ceremony, and thousands of supporters who were being held blocks away could be seen leaping and squealing as he put his hand over his heart for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To show his love, the President—a peanut butter and jelly kind of guy—finished his visit by sportingly tasting fermented mare's milk, had a sip of tea and nibbled some cheese curd. Bush smiled through the final "cultural event" of his trip, sitting with First Lady Laura Bush and greeted by men clad as Mongol warriors in armor and helmets, hoisting colorful battle flags and armed with swords. Three older women in exquisite gowns performed the Mongolian tradition of "throat singing," which allows them to sing two parts at one time, with one melodious and one a whistling sound. Peter Baker of The Washington Post, the reporter who observed it on behalf of the rest of the press pack, said Bush "seemed genuinely amazed, smiling all the while and watching with his mouth slightly open." After an exhausting trip overshadowed by flak from Washington, the solitude of Crawford must be looking mighty good.