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Published: Saturday, 11/18/2006

Bush's road trip

PRESIDENT Bush is on the road, which offers timely relief from his domestic worries and a chance to advance America's interests overseas. His itinerary, set before the Democratic takeover of Congress in the midterm elections, takes him to important international capitals where he can remind his hosts that his administration is still in charge.

For Mr. Bush, international affairs have largely defined his years in office ever since 9/11. With his domestic agenda threatened by a Democratic roadblock, it remains the one area where his influence will be most felt over the next two years.

He went out of his way to make his first stop, a brief luncheon meeting at the airport with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The usual way of flying to Asia, Mr. Bush's principal destination, is not via Moscow, but Mr. Bush wisely wanted to further cultivate his friendly relationship with Mr. Putin.

Russia, which supported the U.S. effort at the United Nations to impose sanctions on North Korea, is in a position to be helpful in dealing with Iran. The two leaders reportedly also discussed the situation in the Middle East and the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. Mr. Bush will see Mr. Putin again in Hanoi this weekend, where both will be among the leaders attending the 14th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

Mr. Bush's stops include Singapore, a small but muscular city-state that has long been friendly to the United States and commands an excellent strategic position on one of the world's most important straits, and he will visit neighboring Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Both tiny Singapore and giant Indonesia have had problems with al Qaeda members in their midst, although the terrorists' shadow has fallen much more on the Indonesian archipelago, which has also been wracked by sectarian violence. For a president seeking allies in the war on terror, these two countries are well worth visiting.

Mr. Bush's big chance to impress will come at the APEC meeting, which is significant not only for what it is but for where it is being held. He is following in the steps of President Bill Clinton, who also visited Vietnam near the end of his second term. That both presidents should journey to a country where Americans fought and died, unsuccessfully as it turned out, is another example of how the world has moved on.

Now the United States and much of Asia are worried about the rise of China, Vietnam's traditional rival and sometime enemy. Although Vietnam remains communist, it has a booming economy fed by liberal doses of free enterprise. Not only is it an important trade partner of the United States, but it is also potentially a strategic check on the Chinese.

Unfortunately, Congress is still living in the past. The House failed earlier this week to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, letting concerns about foreign competition trump the interests of U.S. businesses to fully take advantage of an economic opportunity. The bill is likely to be reintroduced after Thanksgiving and is expected to pass then, as it should.

Although Mr. Bush was denied this legislation by Congress at a timely juncture, it is hardly fatal to his mission. In listening to and being heard by world leaders, Mr. Bush has an opportunity to find a better path.



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