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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005

Beleaguered Bush receives warm reception from ally in Asia


Staff writer

KYOTO -- U.S. President George W. Bush doesn't get many warm welcomes when he leaves the White House these days.

With the war in Iraq going badly, national anger remaining over the response to Hurricane Katrina, the vice president's top aide under criminal indictment and members of Congress even from his own party challenging him on issues from Iraq to torture, Bush faces more and more opposition in Washington and the country at large.

Abroad, he can barely go anywhere without facing massive demonstrations. A recent trip to Argentina was labeled a disaster by the U.S. media, with nearly 40,000 demonstrators as well as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leaders dismissive of his free-trade proposal, and former soccer star Diego Maradona calling the president "human rubbish.'

What a relief it must have been, then, for Bush to arrive in Japan, where he met with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the ancient -- and quiet -- city of Kyoto on Wednesday. No loud protesters, and a friendly host whose political skills Bush openly admires. Koizumi, with the recent Lower House election seen as a validation of his reform proposals, is Bush's idea of a model democratic leader.

How different perceptions were back in 2001, when the two met for the first time. Even though the 2000 presidential election was so close it had to be decided by the Supreme Court, Bush appeared confident and in control.

Meanwhile, Koizumi, who had just become prime minister and vowed to doggedly pursue his economic reforms, appeared ill at ease. When Bush said he looked Koizumi in the eye and trusted him to carry out his promised reforms, Koizumi swallowed nervously.

After the meeting, the fate of the two leaders diverged. In Tokyo, middle-aged housewives swooned over Koizumi and his looks and it seemed for a brief moment he could do no wrong. Bush returned to a divided America, one that either loved him or hated him.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought the two men closer together, but it was Koizumi's unwavering support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in the face of domestic opposition, that forged their deep friendship.

The two leaders also share a hardline attitude toward North Korea, a reflection of the attitudes of many ordinary Americans and Japanese. Bush and his administration have gone out of their way to show sympathy toward the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea.

Before Bush's Asia trip, there was speculation he might serve as something of a mediator between Japan, South Korea and China on Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, an issue far more divisive for the Japanese public than Koizumi's economic reforms. But Bush avoided bringing up the subject, happy it seems with the attitude and words of the prime minister on Japan-China relations.

As the summit ended, the president faced five days in South Korea, where thousands of anti-U.S. base protesters were preparing to greet him, and China, which is irritated over his support for Taiwan. He then heads back to the U.S., where the latest polls show his overall job approval rating are at an all-time low of 37 percent.

Koizumi meanwhile finished the summit with one media poll showing an approval rating of his Cabinet of 61 percent, while the disapproval rating was only 30.4 percent. With his announced intention not to seek another term as prime minister when his current term expires next September, potential successors like Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe are now jockeying for position.

U.S. political machinations aside, Bush faces another three years as president of a country that seems to be turning against him in unprecedented ways, while Koizumi faces just 10 more months as prime minister of a country that, whatever doubts it has about his policies on Yasukuni or Iraq, supports his economic reforms and appreciates his leadership.



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