- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

PARIS — First lady Laura Bush ushered the United States back into the United Nations’ main cultural agency yesterday and urged the organization to work to make education accessible to all the world’s children as a weapon against terrorism.

Mrs. Bush also offered a firm defense of U.S. policies in Iraq, an issue that has divided the Bush administration from many of the countries represented at the meeting of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

On the second day of a five-day foreign trip, Mrs. Bush whirled through Paris, opening the crisp fall day at the Elysee Palace with a social call on President Jacques Chirac and ending it with an evening reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach. She leaves early today for Moscow to attend a book festival sponsored by Lyudmila Putin, wife of the Russian president.

Mr. Chirac joined Mrs. Bush at her limousine in the palace’s gravel courtyard and bent low to kiss her hand. He sent her off 40 minutes later, after discussions in his ornate palace office that aides said stuck mostly to pleasantries, by repeating the gentlemanly flourish.

With both aware of the tensions between the French and U.S. governments over the American-led war in Iraq, Mr. Chirac seemed determined to wear his most charming, welcoming face, a White House official said.

For instance, when Mr. Leach mentioned Iraq, Mr. Chirac said quickly, “Let bygones be bygones — we all agree we need to rebuild Iraq,” then quickly steered the conversation to Mrs. Bush’s travel plans and charity work, the official said.

Mrs. Bush likewise appeared eager to take on the role of emissary of good will between America and France, telling reporters traveling with her later that she of course agreed with Mr. Chirac’s Iraq comments.

“I fully expect the relationship between the United States and France will continue to be very strong,” she said. “Sure, we’ll have disagreements, but we’ll have disagreements with a lot of people but continue to have strong relationships.”

As for those kisses, Mrs. Bush just laughed. “I think that was French hospitality,” she said.

But though discussion of Iraq went no further with Mr. Chirac, it figured prominently in Mrs. Bush’s remarks at the UNESCO gathering.

“Surely we can agree that rebuilding [Iraq] … is in all of our best interests,” she said in her speech. “The presence of a peaceful, stable Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a powerful beacon for freedom, and example of hope, in that vital region.”

Later, Mrs. Bush also met briefly with Iraq’s minister of education, Alaudin Abdul-Saheb al-Alwan.

The first lady, a former teacher and librarian who is now UNESCO’s honorary ambassador for the U.N. Decade of Literacy, said educating “all the world’s sons and daughters” is the world’s most urgent priority. “Education can help children see beyond a world of hate and hopelessness,” she said.

President Bush announced a year ago that the United States would rejoin UNESCO, after absence since 1984 from a group said by the Reagan administration to have been corrupted by bad management and wasteful spending, and politicized against the West. The White House hopes America’s re-entry will help offset criticism that Mr. Bush’s foreign policies in Iraq and elsewhere have amounted to a go-it-alone world view in Washington.

Mrs. Bush brought the message that the United States is ready to partner with the world, not dictate to it.

“We have much to offer, and we have much to learn,” Mrs. Bush said, before attending a ceremony outside to see the U.S. flag hoisted alongside the others.

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