U.S. presidents who run into domestic difficulties often seek a haven in foreign affairs. President George W. Bush tried that over the weekend with a trip to Latin America, and ran into more trouble. Bush failed to win agreement from leaders of five South American countries, including Brazil, the region's largest economy, on his proposal for a hemisphere-wide free trade accord. Meanwhile, demonstrators smashed windows, burned a U.S. flag and threw rocks at police in the streets of Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the Summit of the Americas was taking place.
The trip ``revealed how unpopular President Bush and his foreign policy are in Latin America,'' said Arturo Valenzuela, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
The summit followed two of the most challenging months of Bush's presidency. In that span, the administration was widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush was forced to withdraw his nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a top administration official was indicted in the investigation in the leaking of a CIA agent's name, and the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq passed the 2,000 mark.
National polls released last week by the Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs, Zogby International, CBS News and the Washington Post/ABC News showed Bush's popularity and public trust plummeting to all-time lows -- 35 percent approval in the CBS poll, 37 percent in the AP/Ipsos survey and 39 percent in the Zogby and Post/ABC surveys. The president even gets low marks on the economy, as high gasoline prices and public insecurity about health care costs and pensions obscure comparatively good economic indicators, such as continued low inflation and unemployment.
Bush and his aides point to signs his fortune may be turning around: his replacement for Miers, Appellate Judge Samuel Alito, is getting broad support from Republicans and muted opposition from Democrats; the government rebounded from the Katrina disaster with its response to subsequent hurricanes; and the CIA leak investigation may be nearing an end.
Bush will have another chance to generate positive foreign- policy news when he leaves Nov. 14 for a nine-day journey to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in South Korea, bracketed by visits to Japan, China and Mongolia.
Bush aides say the Latin America trip hasn't been a total loss. Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the 34-nation summit was an ``untidy'' process and success isn't measured by an end-of- meeting declaration alone.
``We went from a summit which was supposed to bury FTAA to a summit in which all 34 countries actually talked in terms of enhanced trade,'' Hadley said, referring to Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal.
Still, after enduring three days of opposition to his hemisphere-wide free trade plan, Bush conceded yesterday that no progress will be made on a regional agreement before World Trade Organization negotiators meet next month in Hong Kong.
The ``real tragedy'' of the summit is ``how little was accomplished at the meeting and how badly the hemispheric agenda of democracy, markets and free trade has unraveled,'' said Peter Hakim, head of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, a policy analysis organization.
In Brazil's capital, Brasilia, Bush sought to show he is willing to work with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on concluding the WTO agreement and then moving ahead on the FTAA.
The Brazilian president, along with the leaders of Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay, rebuffed Bush's appeal to restart talks on a proposed regional agreement, saying the WTO talks needed to be concluded first.
``He's got to be convinced, just like the people of America must be convinced, that a trade arrangement in our hemisphere is good for jobs,'' Bush said after meeting with Lula.
Among the tangible results of the summit was a call for developed nations to scale back subsidies for farmers. Bush also took on his critics, chiefly Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, by laying out what he said was his vision for Latin America, using language similar to that he has used to describe his goals for Middle East democracy, reports Bloomberg. I.L.