Far away, but not out of range
In Asia, the president gets no respite from Iraq issues
PUSAN, SOUTH KOREA--It was designed as a grand tour of Asia to highlight President Bush's international stature. It turned out to be a four-nation odyssey of frustration, with the president dogged by the growing criticism of the war in Iraq.
Normally, presidents find a measure of escape from domestic tribulations on foreign visits. But neither miles nor polite protocol distanced Bush from political fallout over Iraq, including a surprise call for U.S. troop withdrawal by Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a longtime advocate of the military and past supporter of the war. Bush aides professed bafflement at Murtha's change of heart, but there has been plenty of evidence of late that public and congressional support is slipping away--a trend reinforced by a rise of quasi-isolationism. A new Pew poll finds that 42 percent of Americans now say the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own," up significantly from 30 percent in 2002.
There were rumbles of discontent all along Bush's route through Japan, South Korea, China, and Mongolia, and in some cases the president strayed off message himself. At a press conference with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Bush agreed with Vice President Cheney's comment that it was "reprehensible" for critics to accuse Bush of having misled the country into war. This made big headlines, diverting attention from Bush's agenda promoting trade, economic development, regional cooperation, fighting avian flu, and waging the war on terrorism.
Bush's foreign counterparts, aware of his troubles at home, showed some attitude, too. Roh remained more conciliatory in dealing with the belligerent regime of North Korea than Bush favors. And the Bush team was thrown off balance when word leaked out that South Korea is planning to withdraw one third of its 3,000 troops from Iraq next year. Japan's Junichiro Koizumi stayed noncommittal about keeping Japanese troops in Iraq beyond their initial deployment period, which expires next month.
Bush got into a dust-up with China when he urged Beijing's leaders to follow the example of Taiwan (which Beijing claims as part of the Chinese nation), Japan, and South Korea in allowing more religious and political freedom. But much of the president's swagger was gone. White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley signaled as much when he briefed reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Asia. "These are relationships among equal sovereigns," Hadley said, referring to Bush's attitude toward his counterparts. Downplaying expectations, Hadley added: "This is not a trip where the president has to come with a 'deliverable' or initiative."
This proved to be an understatement. "Foreign heads of state are as sensitive to the gyrations of presidential job ratings as are people in the U.S.," Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker told U.S. News . "As his vulnerability has been used as an opportunity for moderates to desert him on the budget and Democrats to lash out, the foreign leaders will also measure him against his job rating and be more aggressive or resentful, as the case requires."
Privately, the president told aides he was happy to go on the offensive against his critics in order to "set the record straight." But he longed for the Asia trip to end so he could repair to his Texas ranch this week and really escape from his troubles.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.