San Diego Union Tribune

November 21, 2005

Bush has praise for Mongolia
President's visit is show of friendship for nation bordered by Russia, China

By George E. Condon Jr.

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – President Bush, moving from the largest country in the world to one of the least populated, made the last stop on his Asian tour today with a historic show of friendship for the fledgling democracy in Mongolia.

"I have come to tell you: As you build a free society in the heart of central Asia, the American people stand with you," he said in remarks prepared for delivery in Ulan Bator's Government House.

The president flew to the Mongolian capital from Beijing for a four-hour visit after concluding talks with Chinese officials on trade, regional security, human rights and big-power diplomacy.

The agenda facing Bush in Ulan Bator was much less extensive.

No one has seen Mongolia as a big power since Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan were conquering much of the known world in the 11th century. Today, still grappling with the freedom that came with the end of the Cold War, when the nation was part of the Soviet Union, Mongolia's leaders are primarily looking for a friend. And they wouldn't mind if that friend were the world's only superpower.

To that end, they have begun calling the United States their "third neighbor," hoping to expand a neighborhood historically dominated by Russia to the north and China to the south. And, to the great delight of the Bush White House, they have also sent 130 troops to Iraq. By itself, it is an insignificant number, but the White House insists it is impressive since it comes from such a sparsely populated country.

And Bush was here to thank them personally.

"I have come here to thank you for your contributions to freedom's cause and to tell you that the American people appreciate your courage and value your friendship," he said, calling Mongolians his "brothers" and declaring, "America is proud to be called your 'third neighbor.' "

For Mongolians, who are normally isolated by their desolate steppes, forbidding mountains and harsh winters, just the visit was enough to spark celebration.

"The last White House visitor was Vice President Henry Wallace in 1944," a senior White House official said.

In his prepared remarks, Bush dwelled on the Mongol contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq, linking the battle in Iraq to Mongolia's transition to democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"As commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, I thank these brave Mongolian soldiers, and all who have served on the frontlines of the war on terror," he said.

He recalled the public demands for democracy, suggesting Mongols can well understand the stakes in Iraq.

"You are an example of success for this region and the world. I know the transition to liberty has not always been easy and Americans admire your patience and determination," he said.

The contrast between yesterday in China and today in Ulan Bator could not have been starker – even setting aside the bone-chilling, 50-degree drop in temperature, with Mongolia sinking below zero shortly before the president arrived.

Strategically, demographically and geopolitically, China is the diplomatic big leagues. Mongolia is off-Broadway.

Beijing is a city with 15 million inhabitants; Mongolia is a country with 2.7 million. China's economy is an emerging powerhouse; Mongolia's economic glory faded when merchants forsook the Silk Road 700 years ago.

In Beijing, Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao took on issues that are causing friction in Sino-American relations, with Bush calling on Hu to provide more freedoms to his people and to get tough on the rampant piracy of U.S. intellectual property such as patents, movies and software.

Before leaving for Ulan Bator, Bush declared himself pleased by the Beijing talks, although senior U.S. officials could point to no breakthroughs on the most contentious issues. At best, they cited incremental progress.

On perhaps the most problematic issue – intellectual property rights – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed encouraged that Chinese officials were able to recount ongoing prosecutions of those who counterfeit American pharmaceuticals, movies and music.

"They understand the importance of this issue," she said. But, she added, "obviously, there is much, much more to do, and piracy remains a major concern with China."

In an unusually blunt assessment, a senior American official, who asked not to be named, contrasted Hu's willingness to talk about the issue now with his offerings when Bush and Hu met in New York in September. What Hu said to Bush in New York was "a whole lot of nothing."

Rice said the discussion here was "much more detailed, much more specific about steps that China might take."

She was cautious about declaring any progress on human rights, despite the president's high-profile push for more religious freedoms. "This is a long conversation and a long haul," she said. "It is not a system that is going to change overnight."

And U.S. officials admitted that China did not act on any of specific human rights matters that were on a list provided in advance by Washington.

In his own assessment, Bush told reporters he was pleased with what he called "a good, frank discussion" with Hu.

One reporter critiqued Bush's performance earlier in the day.

"Respectfully, sir – you know we're always respectful – in your statement this morning with President Hu, you seemed a little off your game, you seemed to hurry through your statement. There was a lack of enthusiasm. Was something bothering you?" he asked.

"Have you ever heard of jet lag?" Bush responded. "Well, good. That answers your question."

When the reporter asked for "a very quick follow-up," Bush cut him off by thanking the press corps and telling the reporter "No you may not," as he strode toward a set of double doors leading out of the room. The only problem was that they were locked.

"I was trying to escape," Bush quipped. "Obviously, it didn't work."

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