- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

It was, by any measure, a productive week for President Bush. He has started to repair ruptured relations in Europe, spurred the Middle East leaders to get tougher with terrorism, and put Israel and the Palestinians on a rocky “road map” that could lead to peace.

Much of what Mr. Bush accomplished last week stemmed in large part from the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the toppling of the most dangerous military regime in the Persian Gulf.

Regardless of what French, German and Russian leaders thought of Mr. Bush before he flew to Evian, France, for his meeting with the Group of Eight (G-8) major industrial nations plus Russia, he had schmoozed and begun to smooth relations with his chief adversaries on Iraq by the time he left for the Middle East.

Not that things are rosy with French President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Bush’s fiercest European foe on the war. But Mr. Chirac was eager to improve U.S.-French relations to help bolster his anemic economy and to get a slice of the Iraqi recovery business.

Thus, differences over Iraq were noticeably played down. The “Iraq situation was difficult, but it’s time to move on,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Chirac, according to a senior White House aide.

The media focus was on the war’s aftermath, with the G-8 leaders addressing some important issues:

cMr. Bush reassured them that the United States stood by a strong dollar, which has declined about 15 percent against the euro and has fallen against the yen, but he wants the markets to set the currencies’ values, not state intervention. A weaker dollar has made U.S. exports more competitive, while making European and Japanese exports here more expensive.

• They agreed to wrap up global trade liberalization negotiations by the end of next year and voiced renewed optimism that the global economic picture was improving. “I’m a lot more optimistic than I was,” said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

• A G-8 communique agreed that weapons of mass destruction were the “pre-eminent threat to international security.” It called for export controls, inspections and “if necessary, other means” to curb such weapons. That latter phrase was a code indicating that the United States would be allowed to stop and search ships carrying such weapons or the materials to make them.

Following the meeting, Mr. Bush flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he presided over an extraordinary declaration by several Arab leaders to fight terrorism and “the culture of extremism and violence in any form or shape, from whatever source or place, regardless of justifications or motives.”

It was certainly a stunning rebuttal to Mr. Bush’s critics here that the war in Iraq had distracted the United States from the war on terrorism. It is hard to see the Arab leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan contemplating such a pledge if Saddam Hussein was still sitting in Baghdad, waving his rifle to a bloodthirsty mob and threatening neighboring Arab states if they got too cozy with the United States.

Then Mr. Bush flew on to Aqaba, Jordan, where, in a high-stakes gamble for peace, he managed to bring together Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the creation of a Palestinian state and the elimination of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Would this opportunity for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel have occurred if Saddam’s feared government still existed? I doubt it.

Iraq’s military regime harbored and financed terrorist thugs and worked with al Qaeda. It promoted Arab hatred of Israel and encouraged suicide bombers. It was the black hole that poisoned and paralyzed the region through fear, terror and intimidation. Now that it’s gone, the peace process is breathing again, however tenuously.

Mr. Bush’s whirlwind tour was further proof, if any was needed, that foreign policy, homeland defense issues and the war on terrorism will dominate the political landscape for the rest of this year and most of next year.

That’s good for Mr. Bush and Republicans, bad for Democrats and their presidential candidates, because Democrats want the election to be about a weak economy.

Even on this issue, there are signs that the U.S. economy is recovering, albeit slowly. Before he left on his trip, Mr. Bush signed another tax-cut bill that, says Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, comes in time to help stimulate the economy. Paycheck withholding rates will fall across the board this month, productivity is up, consumer confidence is up, and the Wall Street bulls are driving up stock values.

No doubt the road ahead for Mr. Bush, in the Middle East and elsewhere, remains dangerous and unpredictable. Building a new Iraq is turning out to be fiendishly complicated. And many presidents have seen their efforts to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians end in failure.

Mr. Bush, on Air Force One, told reporters that he was “the master of low expectations,” but in the shaky agreement in Aqaba he felt he had “met expectations.” He had indeed.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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