Softer face of Bush diplomacy

Laura Bush arrived in Cairo Monday after being heckled by protesters in Israel.

Laura Bush, who kept a relatively low profile during her husband's first term, stepped boldly into the thicket of Middle Eastern politics this week.

Following a trail blazed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady is taking a leading role in US efforts to win back the goodwill in the Middle East lost over the war in Iraq and the attendant torture scandals.

Monday, her five-day tour took her to Egypt, where she taped an episode of the US-funded Egyptian version of Sesame Street. Her costar for the day was Suzannne Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's wife, with whom she talked about the importance of reading. Mrs. Bush also visited an all-girl elementary school.

These stops are more familiar territory for the former Texas librarian. But Bush's visits to Jordan and Israel were more contentious - and indicative of the difficulties faced by any US official trying to address women's rights and democracy in the region.

In Jerusalem Sunday, the ancient city that has come to symbolize the tumult of the modern Middle East, the first lady visited the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, holy sights to Jews and Muslims, respectively, in an effort to send a message of peace and reconciliation.

But her visit was overshadowed by protesters who heckled the first lady. Bush said Monday that she was not surprised by the controversy and protests. "I think the protests were very expected. If you didn't expect them, you didn't know what it would be like when you got here ... Everyone knows how the tensions are and, believe me, I was very, very welcomed by most people."

So far, her visit to Egypt has been low key. She won't make any public appearances that will provide avenues for protesters. In addition to her Sesame Street appearance, she is having lunch with Mrs. Mubarak and other Egyptian women leaders, touring the pyramids, and visiting Egypt's showcase library in Alexandria.

Analysts say the Bush administrations is hoping that some of Mrs. Bush's popularity at home will extend overseas, where her husband has little popular support. In the US, the president's job- approval rating is below 50 percent, while recent polls have showed 80 percent of Americans view Mrs. Bush favorably.

"Part of this is just that she's so much more popular than the president at home. What's not to like about Laura Bush,'' asks Barbara Burrell, an associate professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, who's written a book looking at the role of Hillary Clinton as first lady.

Ms. Burrell sees Laura Bush as finding her own place as a first lady overseas, somewhere between Pat Nixon, who only ventured out of the US a few times on her husband's behalf, and Hillary Clinton, who traveled widely for her husband.

Historically, she says, first ladies have had "somewhat of a positive impact" while abroad, and expects very little downside from her visit, barring an unlikely gaffe. Mrs. Roosevelt was the first first lady to make her own trips overseas. She visited American troops fighting World War II in the Pacific and in Europe.

"What's interesting is that [Laura Bush] keeps speaking about women's rights, about the importance of this issue,'' says Ms. Burrell. "The attention we're paying to her visit is positive overall, compared with stories about abuses or ongoing problems in Iraq. It's getting the news a little bit away from that."

Bush's visit to Egypt comes amid this country's widest ranging crackdown on political opponents in at least a decade. Officials for the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but semitolerated opposition group, say 3,000 of their members have been arrested in recent weeks. On Sunday, police arrested Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Ezzat for helping to organize antigovernment protests, making him the most senior member of the group to be arrested since the mid-1990s.

While in Jerusalem, right-wing Israeli protesters demanded the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst serving a life sentence for treason for passing secrets to Israel.

A small group of Muslim protesters also had to be pushed away from Bush at the Dome of the Rock, with one heckler shouting, according to the Associated Press, "How dare you come in here?"

At a speech at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Bush said, "Now we're seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East.... Brave men and women are writing a new chapter in the story of self- government. They're going to the polls in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the Palestinian Territories."

That statement prompted Amr Moussa, the Egyptian secretary general of the Arab League, to chide Bush, drawing cheers from Arab delegates. "There will be no spring or autumn or winter," he says, until the Palestinian problem is solved. "We want our friends in the US to know that there is unanimity on this issue in the region."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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