To burnish legacy, Bush goes abroad
The president is planning a heavy travel schedule in '08, to promote his foreign-policy successes.
WASHINGTON — George W. Bush, the globe-trotting president.
For the first seven years of the Bush presidency, such a description would not have fitted a chief executive who limited overseas travel and preferred to set the tone of his foreign policy by which world leaders he invited to his Texas ranch rather than by the foreign capitals he chose to visit.
But throughout his final year in office, all that could change. Mr. Bush's passport will get a lot of new stamps, and Air Force One will be busy crossing oceans as the homebody president shifts to a boots-on approach to making his mark on the world.
Bush will launch into this new global mode early in January, when he will make a seven-country, week-long tour of the Middle East. Aside from visiting Israel – for the first time as president – and the Palestinian territories, he'll make stops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
Then in February, Bush heads to sub-Saharan Africa, where he will highlight his administration's role in the global fight against AIDS and in focusing foreign assistance and development funds on the most efficient, corruption-fighting democracies. After two international summits – NATO in Bucharest, Romania, in April, and the Group of Eight economic summit in Japan in July – Bush will attend the Beijing Summer Olympics in August.
In some respects, Bush is following a typical pattern among recent presidents. Finding themselves increasingly irrelevant domestically as eyes turn to who might be the next White House occupant, presidents tend to turn to foreign policy – and foreign travel – to put the finishing touches on their legacies.
But Bush, as much the lame duck at home as any two-term president on his final lap, faces a pattern of dislike abroad, both of himself and of his foreign policy, as he undertakes a year of travel.
This president's uncustomary travel agenda "is partially about burnishing the legacy and trying to highlight some of the administration's accomplishments when it comes to foreign policy," says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at the School of Foreign Service and Government at Georgetown University in Washington. "But it's a particularly tall order for this president, in the sense that the Bush administration will be remembered, as much abroad as at home, more for mistakes and unpopular policies than for accomplishments in the foreign-policy arena."
America's image continues to lag around the world, as the war in Iraq has left many people with a bitter taste, and with the perception of a superpower bent on unilateral action.
Mr. Kupchan says he expects Bush to remain focused on his two main foreign policy aims of 2008: consolidation of recent gains in Iraq with an ebb in violence, and progress toward a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. A surprise visit to Iraq – especially if it extended beyond a drop-in on US troops to include a sit-down with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – could be used to press the urgency of moving early in 2008 on legislation promoting national reconciliation.
While the White House describes the visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories as a "follow-up" to the meeting Bush hosted in Annapolis, Md, in November to relaunch negotiations toward a two-state solution, few experts expect Bush to venture much beyond extolling efforts for peace.
It's one thing to envision a two-state solution, says Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, but it's quite another to pressure the leaders of the two sides for concrete steps and to delve into the intricacies of something like Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.
"I do not foresee George Bush going to that level of complexity," Mr. Cohen says. "It's more likely the trip is designed to gain the kudos of what he's already done, rather than to try to do something new."
But it is perhaps the sub-Saharan Africa trip that is the most anticipated by the president for the opportunity it offers both to highlight some of his less-publicized interests and to signal action he wants to see pursued no matter who is the next US president. Some White House officials say Bush is particularly proud of his administration's increases in AIDS funding and redirection of foreign assistance into millennium challenge grants that reward good governance.
"Africa is probably the one area where Bush has got less credit than he deserves," says Georgetown's Kupchan. "He has substantially increased American assistance to Africa" – for everything from AIDS programs and malaria eradication to education and agricultural development – "despite hailing from a party that historically has been highly hostile to foreign aid."
Bush's Africa trip will highlight as much as anything else how America's perception of foreign assistance has shifted under Bush – both in the wake of 9/11 and with the rise of the Evangelical Right within the Republican Party, he says.
"The turn within the president's party toward support for foreign aid is really a product of 9/11, and a realization of the link between failing states and terrorism," Kupchan says. "This sense that the collapse of state structures and political chaos could eventually threaten the US helped build support within the administration for a major increase in foreign aid – and that in turn segues nicely into support in the Evangelical community for helping the people of Africa."
Perhaps the most controversial trip of Bush's travel year will be the one he makes to the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August. No US president has ever attended the Olympics held in a non-US venue, and this "first" can be expected to generate increasing noise as summer approaches. Already, "Free Tibet" and "Save Darfur" activists are calling on Bush to rethink what they see would be a publicity coup for the Games-hosting Chinese government.
But for Bush, attending the Olympics as president is a once-dashed hope he probably figures he can afford to make come true in his last year in office. In the summer of 2004, in the heat of a reelection bid, word spread that Bush wanted to attend a surprise medal-level soccer match featuring the team of the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
The uproar at home was such that the plans were called off, but in 2008 Bush won't be faced with such political considerations.