President Bush convened an unusual palm-tree summit Saturday with leaders of eleven tiny Pacific island nations and pledged support and expanded assistance for the "Aquatic Continent" in the strategic basin.
Mixing diplomacy with politics in a welcomed escape from Washington, Bush announced after meeting with the leaders that the administration would join in the battle against driftnet fishing - of vital importance to the island nations - and planned to establish two new funds to boost private sector investment and natural resource development in the region. "Please know that it is only one evidence of the interest we will continue to have in you and your peoples," Bush told the leaders assembled for the meeting. Billed by the administration as an unprecedented gathering of the strategic Pacific Basin nations, but one with no set agenda, Bush opened the five-hour summit meeting telling the officials gathered, "This is a meeting in my view that is long overdue."It's a great opportunity for the president of the United States to hear from you," he said as the conference commenced.
Wedged into the middle of a four-day political swing out West, Bush welcomed the sunny reprieve after a week of being whipsawed by near-disastrous budget talks and watching his popularity plunge with less than two weeks until the Nov. 6 elections.
Turning eagerly to the foreign policy arena where he has acknowledged he is the most at ease, Bush greeted each of the representatives from 11 Pacific island nations with ceremonial fanfare. "I come here with no agenda," he told the leaders, "No closed book. I'm here to hear from you . . . exactly what's on all your minds."
Set at the University of Hawaii's East-West Center, complete with dozens of demonstrators protesting his Persian Gulf policy and continued destruction of chemical weapons in the area, Bush nonetheless was pleased to watch legislators back in Washington finally pass a budget resolution after eight long months of delay.
At a news conference midway through the conference, called to hail final completion of the budget pact, Bush declared the impasse behind him and brushed aside concerns the debacle of the past few weeks would haunt him or Republicans on Election Day. "We made the tough decisions, and now it's time to move on," he told reporters.
Bush also went to lengths to stress the importance of the Saturday session, which he called "historic" in terms of the dialogue with the Pacific allies. The minisummit meeting did not produce any blockbuster initiatives or generate too much controversy among the participants though the U.S. program to destroy deadly chemical weapons in the region was broached. In closing the meeting, Bush sought to assure the leaders that the United States would safeguard against their environmental concerns, pledging in particular that the destruction of chemical weapons at the nearby Johnston Atoll would be safe and there would "be no associated environmental damage."