Bush steadfast on key policies despite poll loss

BUSH VISIT

ANALYSIS & REACTION

Unbowed US leader assures Asian allies he’s still committed to the region.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush delivered two clear messages in Singapore yesterday. The first was for his nervous Asian allies, as he maintained that the United States was still committed to the region.

The other – and perhaps more significant – was for the Democrats, who delivered a crushing blow to his Republican Party in the mid-term polls last week.

With anti-war sentiment and the winds of protectionism blowing in Congress, he sent a strong signal to his domestic opponents that his administration would reject any of these tendencies.

Forced into a weaker political position at home following the elections, he sought to use his place on the world stage to reassert his leadership credentials – and the tone of his presidency as it enters its final two years.

“We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to these opportunities,” he said in his speech at the National University of Singapore.

“These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism and America must reject them. We must maintain our presence in the Pacific.

“We must seize on our common opportunities. We must be willing to confront our common threats and we must help our partners build more hopeful societies in this vital part of the world.”

For the Republicans, free trade is a central plank of its ideology, but a Democrat-controlled Congress could veer towards protectionism.

Indeed, free-trade agreements being negotiated with South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia could land in choppy waters.

It could also mean that one of the first legislative casualties could be Mr Bush’s power to negotiate FTAs without congressional review. Known as the trade promotion authority, it was granted in 2002 and ends next July.

But he was clearly intent yesterday on demonstrating that he would not cave in to the challenge from the Democrats.

Even more so after Congress failed earlier in the week to pass legislation to normalise trade relations with Vietnam – an embarrassment for Mr Bush, who was hoping to cite it as a milestone in ties with the country when he attends the Apec Summit in Hanoi this weekend.

But while US domestic politics and the battle with the Democrats were hidden themes of the President’s speech, the more conspicuous goal was his attempt to shore up his international standing, after his humbling at the polls.

Trade liberalisation was one aspect of this, but there was also a nuclear North Korea and the scourge of terrorism in South-east Asia.

Mr Bush also faces the hard task of demonstrating leadership in the region at a time when American influence is waning as Chinese power grows.

Previously, Mr Bush had focused heavily on democracy and terrorism when talking to Asia, issues which did not always go down well with his audience.

But in his speech yesterday, with the backdrop of free trade talks at the Apec Summit and North Korea, he also took a more comprehensive and nuanced view of Asia.

He referred to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, saying the allies need to stand firm against a nuclear-armed North Korea.

And he stressed that Washington will hold the North “fully accountable” if it transfers nuclear technology to “hostile regimes or terrorist networks”.

By doing so, Mr Bush appeared to be applying pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime ahead of renewed six-party talks after its nuclear test last month.

His trip to Hanoi will also put him face-to-face with leaders of Russia, Japan, China and South Korea – the four other countries turning the screws on Pyongyang.

Overall, Dr Kurt Campbell, a former senior defence official in the Clinton administration, told The Straits Times: “Asian leaders will be looking to see whether Bush will be bowed and bloodied politically from his defeat.

“I think they will be pleasantly surprised to find him energetic and vigorous.

“One of the strengths of this president is his ability to demonstrate strength when others around him show weakness.”

In the twilight of his presidency, Mr Bush is clearly indicating that he does not intend to be a lame duck.

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