Southeast Asia

Six Countries, Six Days

Security Bush visit Bangkok
Thai special forces escort U.S. President George W. Bush's motorcade as he leaves Bangkok, Oct. 21, 2003 (Photo:  Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP-Getty Images).

As a tourist, George W. Bush is an atypical American. He does not fit the stereotype of the American innocent abroad: boisterous, friendly to a fault, someone who fills the tourist traps with his loud laughter, his easy familiarity, his unapologetic curiosity. As a traveling U.S. president, Bush is even more atypical. Where previous American presidents have sought to cultivate an image of curiosity in, if not outright identification with, the other country’s culture and historical experience—Richard Nixon drinking at Charles de Gaulle’s fountain of wisdom, John F. Kennedy declaring himself a Berliner—Bush’s approach is strictly business. Go in, shake hands, say what needs to be said, and then leave.

The extraordinary pace of [Oct. 18]’s eight-hour state visit [to the Philippines], however, was not dictated by Bush’s personal preferences alone. Security concerns set the schedule for his six-day, six-country swing through the Asia Pacific.

Welcome to what one official called “the trip from Al-Qaeda hell.” His journey to this part of the world, primarily to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, has been reported in the region’s press as primarily a security story: How many soldiers host governments have deployed, how much control had been ceded to the U.S. Secret Service, and so on. The sped-up schedule itself is proof that the most powerful man in the world is running scared: three hours in Indonesia, 15 hours in Singapore, eight hours in the Philippines.

We do not begrudge the right of the U.S. government to protect the American president the way it sees fit, especially given post-Sept. 11 concerns. But is it possible that, by going overboard, Bush’s security handlers are making a mistake? Consider the case of Indonesia. A Bush administration official tried to justify the three-hour photo opportunity with President Megawati Sukarnoputri, but got all tangled up in the visit’s contradictions. “We need to show her support. We’re just going to show her that support very quickly.” This is supposed to send terrorists packing? Ditto with the Philippines. The best thing Bush could have done to send the signal that terrorists won’t win the first world war of the 21st century was to take his time in Manila—perhaps jog on Roxas Boulevard, as his predecessor, Bill Clinton, did. Instead, by arriving in Manila with two F-15 combat aircraft tailing Air Force One—the fighters were so close their pilots’ faces could be clearly seen from onboard the presidential plane—Bush sent a signal that terrorists could understand. This is someone running scared.