WASHINGTON – Delegates at this week's U.N. summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, South Africa, have so far done little to restrain their anger at the United States, and seem particularly vexed by President Bush's absence from the event.
Just a day into the 10-day summit, delegates were wearing their anger on their lapels -- sporting buttons that read, "What should we do with the United States?"
There is a substantive U.S. presence at the conference, of course. Secretary of State Colin Powell is heading up the American delegation, and is offering a substantial commitment from the United States to reduce poverty and improve the environment.
But that doesn't seem enough for some delegates who seemed more concerned with Bush's absence as a snub. Not that his appearance would have won over the critics, according to some analysts.
"[Bush] could've gained a few points by showing up, but [the administration] would have just lived up to the image they already have -- unless they were going to change the way they stand on the issues," said Carol Graham, an economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. "They've bungled a number of things, and on this set of issues they aren't very popular."
The Bush administration has made some unpopular decisions on global issues in the past year and a half, most notably on the Kyoto global warming treaty. The administration announced last year it would not sign the treaty because it believes it would cost developing countries disproportionately more than it would help the environment.
The United States instead wants to stress public-private development partnerships. Powell is bringing with him a $5 billion aid package that uses partnerships to set "results-oriented goals," rather than artificial time frames for achieving changes.
Bush supporters back his decision not to attend, and say they support his choice to skip an event where no one might be listening.
"They're hoping to beat on him like a Mexican piñata," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute. "That's why they want him there."
Taylor called the summit "political theater," no different from the U.N.-led conference on international racism last year that was marred by virulent anti-Israeli and U.S. demonstrations.
"There are positive things that we can do to improve the environment further, but they are not on the agenda in South Africa," Taylor said.
There were early signs the conference was already failing to live up to its billing as the largest U.N. gathering in history. By Monday, some 12,600 journalists and delegates from more than 100 countries had registered, thousands short of the 65,000 anticipated.
Officials opened the event by alluding to its missions other than protecting the environment, including finding solutions to rampant poverty and reducing by half the number of people who have no access to clean water, proper sanitation, electricity, and health care. But political squabbles were already under way.
At Monday's panels, verbal clashes broke out between Palestinian and Israeli delegates, indicating the world's war events weren't far from mind. And that's to be expected, said Taylor.
"You can either worry about global warming and what it's going to do to the planet when you are dead and gone or about Saddam Hussein and immediate threats," he said. "The president's considerations are driven largely by domestic concerns, and this conference has largely been pushed to the back pages of the newspaper."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.