/ 21 November 2008

Bush hounded till bitter end

US President George W Bush may be a lame duck, but protesters and aspiring US rivals are still dogging him with a passion on his last scheduled foreign trip.

Two months before his eight-year presidency ends and with his approval rating hovering at all-time lows, Bush arrives in Peru’s capital Lima on Friday for an annual summit of 21 Pacific Rim leaders.

Latin America has historically been Washington’s backyard, but the leaders of China and Russia are taking advantage of the summit to travel around the region sealing pacts to boost business and influence.

China’s president, Hu Jintao, arrived two days before the summit in long-time US ally Peru, enjoying a hero’s welcome replete with a cannon salute and a horse-escorted procession.

Peru’s top labour union plans street protests to denounce Bush for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to blame him for the global financial crisis, the leading topic at the summit.

”We would like to offer a welcome to all of the leaders who come here – with the exception of Mr Bush,” said the union’s secretary-general, Mario Huaman.

Bush has retained his status as a premier hate figure in many quarters even as he prepares to hand the keys of the White House to president-elect Barack Obama, who has been wildly popular in much of the world.

Protesters in Lima braced for Bush’s arrival by dressing up in orange jumpsuits and demanding an end to the ”war on terror” internment camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even though Obama has already vowed to close it.

”The historical judgments on Bush will have to wait some years, but there is a palpable sense of relief that Bush is now virtually out of the chair,” said Alan Dupont, director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies.

Dupont said that Obama’s election has already improved the US image overseas, with surveys in Australia showing that recent negative views towards the US were linked to Bush.

But while Obama’s election alone has restored much US credibility, ”no incoming president in the past 50 years has had the raft of challenges on his desk”, Dupont said.

Analysts said that the visits to Latin America by Hu and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were a signal that Obama could not take the region for granted when he replaces Bush.

Medvedev’s tour to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba shows ”that the region is open to new relationships outside of the hemisphere and is getting noticed”, said an analysis by Council on Hemispheric Affairs research fellow, Alex Sanchez.

The White House insisted that Bush was serious about his final summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum and hoped for progress on fighting the financial crisis and ending North Korea’s nuclear programme.

”This is a serious meeting, it is not a farewell,” said Dan Price, the outgoing US president’s assistant for international economic affairs and his special guide, or ”sherpa”, at the two-day summit.

Charles Morrison, an Asia expert at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said Bush deserved credit at least for showing up at each Apec summit, unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton.

”But in general the administration has been focused on other areas of the world, such as the Middle East, so it often seems like its interest occurs only once a year,” Morrison said.

”Part of the reason is that Asia generally is an area that we consider to be doing quite well, so we don’t have to worry about it.”

Bush has no further foreign trips on his schedule and it remains to be seen if he will do something special to mark the occasion.

In Japan in July, after attending his last summit of the Group of Eight major economies which focused on global warming, Bush caused a stir by reportedly quipping at the end: ”Goodbye from the world’s largest polluter.” – AFP