- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2001

President Bush today begins the first major summit of his presidency, stepping onto the world stage with dozens of foreign leaders whose first impression of the new American president has been shaped by the China standoff.
The White House seemed relieved to have secured the release of 24 Americans before Mr. Bushs three-day trip to Quebec for the Summit of the Americas. If the standoff had continued, it likely would have cast a shadow over the presidents first multinational summit and rekindled questions, first raised during the presidential campaign, about his foreign policy credentials.
"It probably reinforces what all of us who know him have said all along, which is that he is someone who is very much in control, that he is very capable of doing things in a low-key and effective fashion, that hes not someone who believes that there has to be a lot of emotion around an issue in order to be working the issue effectively," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told The Washington Times.
But some Democrats still have doubts about Mr. Bushs diplomatic competence.
"This is his first summit with his peers, and in life you get one chance to make a good first impression," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "Itll be interesting to see which George Bush shows up.
"Will it be the compassionate conservative George Bush? The compassionate George Bush? Or the conservative George Bush?
"The opportunity that Bush has in front of all of his peers around the world is to try for the first time to put the whole package together," she concluded. "Now whether he can do that is another matter."
Miss Marsh warned that Mr. Bush should not "try to go in as the strong, tough-talking president who I think came out of the box too hard on China to begin with."
That would only serve to reinforce the impression reportedly held by the summits host, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, about Mr. Bushs cowboy demeanor and ignorance about Canada, she said.
The Toronto Star reported earlier this month that Mr. Chretien remarked during a closed-door meeting with his political caucus that Mr. Bush didnt know the location of Prince Edward Island, where farmers grow potatoes that are the subject of a trade dispute between Canada and the U.S. The prime minister also said Mr. Bush did not know the size of the Alberta tar sands, according to the paper.
Mr. Chretien later denied making the remarks and emphasized his deep respect for Mr. Bush. But the contretemps resurrected criticisms about Mr. Bushs foreign policy experience.
White House officials believe Mr. Bushs success at negotiating the release of 24 Americans who were held hostage in China for 12 days will help dispel that notion.
"I think the president was pleased that the matter was resolved, regardless of what next meeting he happened to have, whether it was an international meeting in Quebec, or whether it was a domestic meeting," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told The Times.
"The president was pleased that he was able, through diplomacy, to bring the matter of our servicemen and women held against their will to an end," he added. "As for the meeting in Quebec, the president is looking forward to going there. This will be the largest multilateral meeting of his young presidency."
Mr. Fleischer pointed out that in the first three months of the administration, Mr. Bush has met with seven presidents of countries in Latin America.
"The president said during the campaign that he wanted to have a foreign policy that begins with our friends and our neighbors, and thats exactly what he is doing as he prepares to head up to Quebec," he said.
The Bush administration has long maintained that the Clinton administration neglected diplomatic relationships in the Western hemisphere.
"One major difference is that today the United States has a president who is very focused on this hemisphere," Miss Rice said in a speech earlier this month. "This hemisphere is not an afterthought to President Bush."
Still, Mr. Bush has spent much of the past several weeks focused on the other hemisphere, thanks to the hostage standoff.
"The president, I think, was never distracted," Miss Rice said yesterday. "He was able to keep this within bounds, to continue to work the full agenda on foreign policy. I might just note that the day before the crew was released, he spent two hours with the king of Jordan, talking about very important problems."
The only other foreign trip Mr. Bush has taken was a one-day jaunt to Mexico, where he met with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Although this is his first trip to Canada as president, Mr. Bush has already met with Mr. Chretien at the White House.
But for most of the 34 heads of state and heads of government at this weekends summit, it will be their first chance to size up the new American president in person.
"Those leaders who have met him, like President Fox and Prime Minister Chretien, would not be surprised by his quiet and careful handling of this matter, which ultimately succeeded so well," Miss Rice said.

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