U.S. First Lady on Fence-Mending Mission

Laura Bush (search) ushered the United States back into the U.N.'s main cultural agency Monday and urged the organization to work to make education accessible to all the world's children as a weapon against terrorism.

Mrs. Bush also offered a firm defense of U.S. policies in Iraq, an issue that has divided the Bush administration from many of the countries represented at the meeting of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (search).

On the second day of a five-day foreign trip, Mrs. Bush whirled through Paris, opening the crisp fall day at the Elysee Palace (search) with a social call on President Jacques Chirac (search) and ending it with an evening reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach. She leaves early Tuesday for Moscow to attend a book festival sponsored by Lyudmila Putin, wife of the Russian president.

Chirac, accompanied by greeters in white tie, red waistcoats and tails, joined Mrs. Bush at her limousine in the gravel palace courtyard and bent low to kiss her hand. He sent her off 40 minutes later, after discussions in his ornate palace office that aides said stuck mostly to pleasantries, by repeating the gentlemanly flourish.

With both aware of the tensions between the French and U.S. governments over the American-led war in Iraq, Chirac seemed determined to wear his most charming, welcoming face, a White House official said.

For instance, when Leach mentioned Iraq, Chirac said quickly, "Let bygones be bygones -- we all agree we need to rebuild Iraq," then quickly steered the conversation to Mrs. Bush's travel plans and charity work, the official said.

Mrs. Bush likewise appeared eager to take on the role of emissary of good will between America and France, telling reporters traveling with her later that she of course agreed with Chirac's Iraq comments.

"I fully expect the relationship between the United States and France will continue to be very strong," she said. "Sure, we'll have disagreements, but we'll have disagreements with a lot of people but continue to have strong relationships."

As for those kisses, Mrs. Bush just laughed. "I think that was French hospitality," she said.

But though discussion of Iraq went no further with Chirac, it figured prominently in Mrs. Bush's remarks at the UNESCO gathering.

"Surely we can agree that rebuilding (Iraq) ... is in all of our best interests," she said in a speech that received only intermittent, polite applause. "The presence of a peaceful, stable Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a powerful beacon for freedom -- and example of hope -- in that vital region."

After her speech, Mrs. Bush also met briefly with Iraq's minister of education, Alaudin Abdul-Saheb al-Alwan.

Seeking to spread some good news about U.S. activities in Iraq and around the world, she announced the U.S. government plans to reopen by next fall the American School in Kabul (search), Afghanistan, a country where 1.5 million children lack buildings or teachers to go to school, and talked of U.S. military efforts in Iraq to refurbish 1,600 schools and reopen more than 80 percent of primary and secondary institutions. She also touted Bush administration plans to spend $15 billion on combating AIDS in poor countries over the next five years.

The main focus of her address was education and its role in fighting "an ideology of hate and violence" that Mrs. Bush said has bred terror attacks in America and around the globe.

"UNESCO ... can now help achieve peace by spreading the values that will help defeat terror and lead to a better and safer world," Mrs. Bush said.

The former teacher and librarian, who now is UNESCO's honorary ambassador for the U.N. Decade of Literacy (search), said educating "all the world's sons and daughters" is the world's most urgent priority. She noted that more than 100 million children, mostly girls, have no access to school.

"Education can help children see beyond a world of hate and hopelessness," she said.

President Bush announced a year ago that the United States would rejoin UNESCO after an absence since 1984 from a group said by the Reagan administration to have been corrupted by bad management, wasteful spending and politicized against the West. The White House hopes America's re-entry will help offset criticism that Bush's foreign policies in Iraq and elsewhere have amounted to a go-it-alone world view in Washington.

Mrs. Bush brought the message that the United States is ready to partner with the world -- not dictate to it.

"We have much to offer, and we have much to learn," Mrs. Bush said, before attending a ceremony outside to see the U.S. flag hoisted alongside the others, the Eiffel Tower looming just behind.

Later, she remarked, twice, about how emotional the appearance at UNESCO had been.

"I actually was very moved at the end, when I worked the rope line and everybody said, `Welcome back,"' she said.