Laura Bush assumes U.N. role

Monday, September 29, 2003

PARIS -- When first lady Laura Bush presides over America's re-entry into the United Nations' main cultural organization here, she will be playing a role that melds her personal passions with the White House's goal of fostering better global relations.

Observers agree she is the perfect choice to represent the Bush administration at the ceremonies being held today at the headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

President Bush announced a year ago, before the U.N. General Assembly, that the United States would rejoin UNESCO after 19 years away from a group once considered corrupt and anti-Western.

Formed in 1945 to promote international exchanges, UNESCO helps modernize education systems, establish standards on bioethics and preserve cultural and natural treasures. Recently, UNESCO has helped reopen schools and establish newspapers in post-Taliban Afghanistan and worked in postwar Iraq to recover looted artifacts.

Patrick Fagan, a longtime critic of U.N. operations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the re-entry of the United States into UNESCO has roots in Bush's effort -- ultimately unsuccessful -- to woo U.N. support on Iraq.

While acknowledging UNESCO has made great strides during the United States' absence, Fagan regards Bush's decision with "huge trepidation" and is looking for "constant vigilance" from the White House.

But he sees Mrs. Bush as an ideal spokeswoman. She has credibility, Fagan said, because of her long involvement in education and her strong support for policies he believes are sorely needed at UNESCO to encourage marriage, sexual abstinence and values education.

Steve Dimoff, head of the Washington office for the pro-U.N. United Nations Association of the United States of America, is delighted with Mrs. Bush's involvement -- for slightly different reasons. He believes it bodes well for UNESCO's success.

"Mrs. Bush is going with more of a personal interest and a commitment than I've seen in many years," he said.

That begins, he noted, with the largely symbolic -- but still important -- matter of the big delegation of administration heavyweights Mrs. Bush brought along to Paris. They include Education Secretary Rod Paige, Librarian of Congress James Billington, California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, and the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Mrs. Bush arrived Sunday night in what she called "one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world." She already signed on in February to be UNESCO's honorary ambassador for the U.N. Decade of Literacy, an effort that aims to help 860 million adults and 113 million children.

Today she'll watch as the U.S. flag is hoisted alongside those of other member states.

For her keynote address to the UNESCO meeting, Mrs. Bush has a message that U.S. membership will be good for all. The United States can contribute a wealth of expertise to UNESCO, possibly offsetting accusations of unilateralism in other areas of Bush foreign policy, she said.

"I'm excited about rejoining UNESCO, because the goals of UNESCO are certainly goals and values and issues that I've worked on my whole life," she said.

On a whirlwind day in France's capital before jetting off to Moscow, Mrs. Bush has also scheduled a relations-mending social visit with French President Jacques Chirac and a celebratory reception at U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach's home.

All the while, she'll have occasion to show off new frocks to the French public.

"I actually do have some new clothes," she told reporters traveling with her. "That's kind of embarrassing, but that will be fun."

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