- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

1:30 p.m.

SINGAPORE — From across the world, President Bush took on antiwar and anti-free-trade Democrats who won control of Congress, saying today that any drift toward isolationism would hinder America’s security and economic vitality.

“We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to its opportunities,” he said in a speech at the National University of Singapore. “These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and America must reject them.”

Asserting that the spread of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists is “the greatest danger in our world today,” Mr. Bush moved the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the top of the agenda for most of the meetings on his eight-day Asian trip. He urged allies to stand firm against a nuclear-armed North Korea — which he called “the most immediate threat of proliferation” in the region — and enforce U.N. sanctions against the country for test-firing a long-range missile.

“The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action,” Mr. Bush said. “It is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated.”

With China’s influence on the rise and his own stature weakened at home by last week’s defeat of his Republican Party in midterm elections, Mr. Bush also sought to ease any doubt about the United States’ long-term commitment to the region.

He reassured nervous Asian allies that the United States will remain a reliable partner in liberalizing trade; confronting the spread of dangerous weapons; and fighting terrorism, poverty and disease.

“We must maintain our presence in the Pacific,” he said. “We must seize on our common opportunities. We must be willing to confront our common threats, and we must help our partners build more hopeful societies in this vital part of the world.”

The president’s challenge to Democrats was clear but indirect. It came days after the House failed to pass legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, a surprising setback before Mr. Bush’s trip that was seen as a troubling sign for the future of his free-trade agenda once Democrats assume power.

Mr. Bush chose this East-West crossroads with a turbulent past but booming present as the stage for the major speech of the trip. A tightly controlled city-state with a significant Muslim population but moderate values, Singapore is considered one of Washington’s best friends in the region, a stalwart help in anti-terror efforts and an active trade partner.

“America’s presence in the Far East is very important for our own country,” Mr. Bush said after a meeting earlier in the day with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He also had paid a courtesy call on acting President J.Y. Pillay and lauded Singapore’s success at integrating its many ethnicities and religions by visiting its Asian Civilizations Museum.

Mr. Lee, who often has advised Mr. Bush on how to improve the U.S. image, particularly in the Muslim world, seemed pleased with the president’s focus. “Singapore is very happy that America has a stake in the region,” he said.

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