Bush wraps up Asian trip

Aug. 11, 2008, 11:17 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) President Bush, increasingly distracted by the Russian-Georgian fighting, took in one final golden Olympic moment Monday then ended what was likely his last trip to Asia before he leaves the White House.

It appeared that Bush was Michael Phelps' lucky charm as he went to the Water Cube for the second straight day to watch the American swimmer's pursuit of Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals. The president witnessed a stunning comeback as the 400-meter freestyle U.S. relay team rallied to win, giving Phelps his second gold and second world record here.

But Moscow's military offensive in the former Soviet republic of Georgia was always looming in the background. In an interview with NBC Sports, Bush criticized the violence, calling it unacceptable and Russia's response disproportionate.

The United States is waging an all-out campaign to get Russia to halt its retaliation against Georgia for trying to take control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

"I've expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn the bombing outside of South Ossetia," Bush said. He said he did so directly to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin before the opening ceremonies Friday - Putin left China the next day - and by phone to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

"I was very firm with Vladimir Putin," Bush said. "Hopefully this will get resolved peacefully."

Vice President Dick Cheney told Georgia's pro-American president that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States," Cheney's office reported Sunday.

"The vice president expressed the United States' solidarity with the Georgian people and their democratically elected government in the face of this threat to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Cheney press secretary Lee Ann McBride said.

Asked to explain Cheney's phrase "must not go unanswered," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand." White House officials refused to indicate what recourse the United States might have if the attacks continue.

While Georgia said its troops have retreated from South Ossetia and are honoring a cease-fire, Russia disputed the claim, and U.S. officials said Moscow was only expanding its blitz into new areas. A Russian official said more than 2,000 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday; the figure could not be confirmed independently.

The U.S. military began flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq after Georgia recalled the soldiers following the outbreak of fighting with Russia. The decision was a timely payback for the former Soviet republic, which was the third-largest contributor of coalition forces in Iraq after the U.S. and Britain.

Putin criticized the U.S. airlift on Monday, saying the effort would further hamper Russia's effort to resolve the conflict.

The risk of the conflict setting off a wider war increased when Russian-supported separatists in another breakaway region of Georgia, Abkhazia, launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control.

Still, the Olympics went on, and Bush took advantage of his final hours in Beijing, going to the Water Cube to watch the swimming. He sat in the VIP area with wife Laura on one side, daughter Barbara on the other. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife were sitting in front of them, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was right behind.

When photographers swung by to snap a few pictures, the president picked up a small U.S. flag and waved it proudly.

The former co-owner of the Texas Rangers was clearly in his element as he took in a practice game between the U.S. and Chinese men's baseball teams. He posed for a photo with both teams - the Americans in blue jerseys, the Chinese in red - before telling them: "Good luck. Play hard. Play hard."

The president threw out the first pitch three times, appearing to miss the strike zone each time. His family and staff applauded when he went to the stands.

In an interview with The Associated Press just before leaving Beijing, Bush said the Olympics exceeded his expectations, calling them a "very uplifting experience" that he won't forget.

"The whole thing is genuine," Bush said. "That's the good thing about the Olympics."

He also said his attendance, which has been criticized by human-rights activists as endorsement of China's repression of free expression, was important.

"It's good to send a signal to the Chinese people that we respect them, that this is about their country," Bush said.

Bush used the visit to press President Hu Jintao over China's jailing of political and religious activists. In the NBC interview, he was asked if the message is getting through.

"It's hard to tell," Bush replied. "He listened politely. I can't read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him I pressed the point."


Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Mark S. Smith contributed to this report.