A chaotic farewell to arms: Here he goes again, rushing around the world, telling it to the marines and fluffing his lines - but for President Bush, this is the last time

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The Independent Online
HE WAS doing the things he liked best - dashing around the globe, holding summits (with three different leaders in four days), signing 'peace in our time' treaties with the old evil empire and being one of the boys, especially when he and the boys were dressed in camouflage.

Even by George Bush's standards, his four-day package to Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Russia and France set an awesome pace that the younger Bill Clinton would have difficulty matching, even if he wanted to. The closest example of this sort of high-pressure travelling was set 27 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson met the boys in Vietnam between a war conference of US allies in Manila and 'summits' with leaders in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Thailand.

Just as Mr Bush's electoral defeat in November marked the end of the pre-Second World War generation's leadership of the United States, so too, one suspects, his new year dash from the sultry heat of the Indian Ocean to the minus 16C of a Moscow freeze will bring to an end - at least for the time being - the great presidential whistle-stop tour. This one, arranged with such haste to massage the President's ego before he leaves the Oval Office on 20 January, was upset by problems in Moscow, where he signs the Start 2 nuclear arms reduction treaty with Boris Yeltsin today, then heads for Paris to meet Francois Mitterrand.

There was an element of mayhem from the start, when Air Force One landed in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, on New Year's Eve. President Bush, we were told, had come to say thank you to King Fahd for his help in the war against Iraq. White House aides and secret servicemen emerged in camouflage fatigues as if from a chorus line of that well-known production, Desert Storm. When Marlin Fitzwater stepped out in battledress, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, commented: 'Finally a matching hat.'

Mr Bush was the only man in a lounge suit. He was into his fatigues as soon as the aircraft took off again 40 minutes later for the flight south to Mogadishu. And he stayed in them for two days. In Mogadishu he seemed genuinely happy, clambering from helicopters, surrounded by anxious troops, visiting orphanages and feeding centres for famine victims, or riding down the streets of Baidoa, 150 miles inland from the Somali capital, in an armoured personnel carrier.

Most Somalis, on the other hand, will probably remember his visit with puzzlement, marked as it was by waves of helicopters flying over the capital. Every time the President ventured from the aircraft carrier Tripoli, a fleet of gunships patrolled the skies. Mr Bush, in turn, looked puzzled when he was given a bow and arrows at an orphanage in Baidoa.

But he was really in Mogadishu for the Americans. 'One of the great joys of being president has been working with the US military,' he said as he bade farewell on Friday before heading for Russia. The invasion of Panama and the war against Iraq were the highlights of his presidency, as he saw it, far removed from the complexities of domestic politics, and an effective counter to his reputation as a 'wimp'. Somalia fitted the pattern nicely.

'Desert Storm showed our country once again that we have the finest fighting forces in the entire world,' he said in his Desert Storm uniform at the US Embassy compound before 1,000 troops. To roars and cheers, the President spoke in that wonderfully knotted syntax that has become his own: 'Ought to be very proud of this significantly new role and the pictures of you all caring for others come around the country,' he said.

There is growing frustration among the marines about their mission in Somalia and about their commanders' failure to let them more forcibly disarm gunmen who still control large areas of the capital. It was no surprise, then, that Mr Bush received the loudest cheers of the visit for his departure statement at Mogadishu airport. 'I expect everyone is wondering how long . . .' he said, but his next words were drowned by cheers: 'and I wish I knew the answer to that.' That is a question Mr Bush has the luxury of never having to answer. It will be left to his successor, Bill Clinton.

After an eight-hour flight to Moscow, Mr Bush left the aircraft without his hat. It was not a breach of protocol, but his forgetfulness did violate the most basic rule of survival in a Russian winter - always cover your head. It also forced his host, President Yeltsin, to do what no Russian would ever normally do: stand hatless on one of the coldest days of winter. Out of courtesy, he had discarded his own fur hat.

Such are the hazards of hosting a peripatetic George Bush. If all had gone according to plan, though, hats would never have been an issue. Their summit meeting was meant to have been held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The venue offered rich historical resonance: it was on the Black Sea, in the Crimean resort of Yalta, that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in 1945 to fix the new world order of their day. The main event of Mr Bush's meeting with Mr Yeltsin is the signing of the landmark Start 2 nuclear arms treaty, so a return to the Black Sea seemed a fitting way to mark the new world order of the post-Cold War era.

But if Mr Bush is America's keenest traveller, he is also its most unlucky when it comes to weather. His 1989 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta is best remembered for a fierce storm. They met aboard a Soviet ship bobbing up and down in the harbour, leaving American and Soviet officials seasick.

Just as arrangements for the meeting in Sochi were being finalised on Thursday, it began to snow. A freak storm closed Sochi aiport for much of the day. Mr Bush might still have been able to fly in on Air Force One, but the arrival of journalists was less sure. For a man hoping to cap his career with a triumphant diplomatic swansong, it was not an appealing prospect. He risked sacrificing one of the the main purposes of his trip - publicity.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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