Olympics Notwithstanding, Trip Won't Be All Fun and Games

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, August 4, 2008

Continuing the global barnstorming that has marked his final year in office, President Bush leaves today for a seven-day trip to Asia that has the potential for fireworks at every stop.

The prospect for controversy at the Olympics in Beijing, where Bush is to arrive Thursday, has already been well documented. But stops in Seoul and Bangkok -- aimed at celebrating ties with two of the United States' closest allies in Asia -- could also make Bush's ninth, and probably final, trip to the region something less than the triumphal tour the White House has been hoping for.

Korean protesters angry about the resumption of U.S. beef imports are girding to hit the streets when Bush arrives in Seoul on Tuesday night.

Before the trip, Bush did try to defuse one issue that could have had the effect of pouring gasoline on fire: He effectively undid a move by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a little-known bureaucratic entity, to disturb the status quo involving a small group of islands in the Sea of Japan, to which both South Korea and Japan lay claim.

According to the Nelson Report, which closely monitors U.S. policy in Asia, the agency decided to change its designation of the islands -- known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan -- from "Korean control" to "control is disputed," without input from the White House or the State Department. After furious South Koreans complained, the White House reversed the decision.

"I'm pleased to tell you that . . . whole issue has been restored [to] the way it was seven days ago," Bush told a South Korean journalist Wednesday.

After South Korea, Bush will go to Bangkok to celebrate the 175th anniversary of U.S. diplomatic relations with Thailand. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a close ally of the ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has barely survived street protests and a move to censure him in Parliament.

Political repression in neighboring Burma will be high on Bush's agenda in Bangkok. He will meet with dissidents at the U.S. Embassy while L aura Bush tours refugee facilities on the Thailand-Burma border. Yet the Thai government is seen by many in the region as a major enabler of Burmese military strongman Than Shwe.

Burma will be "a tricky one" for Bush in Thailand, said Mike Green, a former Asia adviser to Bush who briefed reporters last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Green and senior Bush administration officials see Asia as a relative bright spot for Bush's foreign policy legacy, with relations improved with each of the major regional powers: China, India, Japan and South Korea. "The U.S. standing in Asia is actually quite good," Green said.

It just may not be apparent for the next few days.

Off the Record, Yes, but Here's What I Said

In another case of pre-trip outreach to those concerned about repression in China, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met privately Wednesday with the heads of a number of the major human rights organizations. While Hadley asked participants to treat his comments as off the record, to encourage candor, some of those present volunteered their own ideas of what Bush should do in Beijing.

"My main message was that, much as the president would like the Olympics to be an apolitical sporting event, it won't be," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail message. "Chinese people will seize the opportunity through peaceful protest to advance their own freedom agenda, the Chinese government will crack down, and President Bush will look awful if he ignores the repression around him and simply applauds the athletes."

One More Maine Event

"Welcome Back, Mr. President!" read the sign strung in front of Bartley's Dockside Restaurant, near the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. "And thank you for your service!" the chalkboard added below.

President Bush arrived in coastal Maine on Thursday for what may be his last stay as commander in chief. Bush spends most vacations at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. Yet the Walker's Point family retreat -- a regular refuge for George H.W. Bush when he was president -- has also been a frequent destination for his son.

During his weekend stay, my colleague Dan Eggen reports, President Bush took some early-morning bike rides and attended a Saturday wedding for two White House staffers: Chris Ellis, son of the president's cousin, and Rachel Williams, assistant to presidential counselor Ed Gillespie.

Bush's visit also prompted a small protest Saturday, as several dozen demonstrators opposed to U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran marched along Ocean Avenue near the presidential retreat. They carried, among other things, a U.N. flag, peace signs and a placard reading "No More Bush Wars."

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