Bush begins weeklong tour of Asia

November 16, 2006|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SINGAPORE -- Wary Asian leaders will be parsing President Bush's words and body language for his administration's post-election intentions this week as he begins a seven-day regional tour to court the business of booming Asian economies and confront security challenges from Southeast Asia to North Korea.

As part of a trip centered around an economic summit of Pacific Rim nations in Vietnam this weekend, the president's address today at the National University of Singapore will mark Bush's first appearance on a world stage since elections denied his party control of Congress for the remaining two years of his presidency, with his own popularity near an all-time low.

World leaders will be watching for any shift in the president's approach to foreign affairs in the wake of the election defeat, analysts say.

While Bush has promoted the spread of democracy, with a goal of eliminating tyranny worldwide that he voiced in his re-election inaugural ceremony nearly three years ago, critics of American policy in Iraq and the Middle East have interpreted U.S. motives as a policy of unrestrained intervention in other nations' affairs. Yet in its approach to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the Bush administration faces criticism for not engaging more directly in nation-to-nation negotiations.

The president's audience here will "welcome a frank presentation about where the U.S. stands now - and I emphasize the word `now,'" said Donald K. Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Institute at Stanford University. "The midterm elections are raising the question in Asia, and throughout the world, as to what can be expected from this administration for the next two years."

The elections could serve as "a reality check" on the president's "evangelical approach to democracy," Emmerson suggests. "The president should recognize that, for various reasons - not the least of them Iraq - America's soft power has been dramatically squandered, not just in the Islamic world, but more broadly than that. ... The audience at the National University of Singapore is going to want to know what his response is."

The president met yesterday with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin during an airport stopover outside Moscow and was scheduled to arrive in Singapore early today.

Bush's speech in Singapore is expected to offer a cooperative message. He is to highlight the importance of an Asian-Pacific region that accounts for two-thirds of all U.S. foreign trade. At the same time, Bush cannot travel here without acknowledging the threat that North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose in the northern reaches of this region or the threat from terrorist cells in Southeast Asia.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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