WASHINGTON President Bush will attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing, the White House said Thursday. The announcement quashed any talk of a presidential boycott over China's violent crackdown after anti-government riots and protests in Tibet.
The White House had been reluctant to confirm Bush's plans for the opening event, although there was no doubt he would attend the Olympic Games. While other world leaders have talked of boycotting the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies, Bush's aides have signaled for weeks he was unlikely to do so.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush will travel in August to South Korea, Thailand and China and will attend the opening ceremonies of the games with first lady Laura Bush. The specific dates of travel were not released.
The president helped break ground in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday for a new military medical center to replace Walter Reed Army Medical Center, whose reputation was soiled by allegations of shoddy care for war veterans.
Bush didn't talk about the institution's problems, instead lauding the work of the military medical staff. The new Walter Reed National Medical Center will merge the duties of the existing Army facility in Washington, which came under harsh criticism last year, with the operations of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
"You soothe the pain and fear of patients, you console families who keep constant vigil over their loved ones, you share the joy of a neurology patient's first recovered words and an amputee's first steps," Bush said at the groundbreaking ceremony.
"When required, you can show tough love, but you also like to remind patients that laughter is the best medicine," Bush said. "And we look forward to the day when the joy of recovery echoes through the halls of a new medical facility that will be built here."
When construction is completed in 2011, the 6.7 million-square-feet facility will have 345 beds. It will merge the resources of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and make it easier for medical professionals from all three services to collaborate and treat patients.
The image of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which had already been listed for closure in 2005, was tainted by news of squalid conditions and inadequate outpatient care. The disclosures stunned the public, outraged Capitol Hill and forced three high-level Pentagon officials to step down.
Bush's trip is built around the Olympics, which the White House long has said Bush plans to attend as a celebration of sports.
Bush also will be dealing with the tense matters of U.S. beef imports in South Korea and the six-country effort to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
Any Olympic protest by the United States would have deeply offended a proud Beijing leadership that hopes the games will show China's emergence as a new world power. It also would run the risk of hindering a host of international efforts the Bush administration needs China's help to solve, including efforts to confront Myanmar's military junta and nuclear efforts in North Korea and Iran.
The president and first lady Laura Bush will begin their trip in South Korea, the site of violent protests over the import of U.S. beef. Anti-government protests about the matter have raged for weeks and turned central Seoul into a riot zone.
Perino said Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak would discuss a proposed free-trade agreement along with security matters.
Bush then will travel to Thailand to celebrate its long-standing relationship with the United States and confer with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, Perino said.
In China, Bush will meet with President Hu Jintao. A key focus will be the six-country effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability. Then the president and the first lady will attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, Perino said.
Critics of China have said if Bush were to avoid the opening ceremony, it would send a powerful signal of international anger over China's violent response to demonstrations in Tibet in March.
Bush himself has said he does not view the Olympics as a political event. "I view it as a sporting event," he said earlier this year.
In April, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said it would be a "cop-out" for countries to skip the opening ceremonies to protest China's crackdown in Tibet. China says 22 people died in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, while foreign Tibet supporters say many times that number were killed.
Significant talks between Chinese officials and envoys of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, are taking place this week.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said this week he would attend the opening ceremonies if the latest talks made progress. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not attend the opening ceremonies.