No Respect for APEC

Having spent a not-so-small fortune on unprecedented security here, Australia's Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation conference is still struggling for respect.

First, the meeting is overshadowed in the news by President Bush's unscheduled stop in Iraq.

Now, the president botched the name of the host organization. Twice.

"Thank you for being such a fine host for the OPEC summit. I appreciate -- APEC summit," President Bush said Thursday, to titters over his erroneous reference to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. "He invited me to the OPEC summit next year -- the APEC summit."

It is a slight not lost on Sydney-siders, as the locals call themselves, who have largely heeded government calls to leave the city, with such inducements as cheap holiday travel deals and a hastily arranged three-day holiday.

It is an event that was meant to raise Australia's international profile. The headliners among the 21 world leaders attending the conference include Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Hu Jintao. But the meeting's ambitions remain modest. The most high-profile achievement so far is an Australian-backed effort, supported by President Bush, for a non-binding, largely aspirational agreement to combat climate change.

Australians spent $500 million on security measures for the privilege of acting as host. With a 3-mile fence around Sydney's historic opera house and central business district and the streets and waterways lined with 5,000 security troops, locals have dubbed this city of 4 million "Fortress Sydney."

Many shopkeepers have found the summit has hurt rather than helped business. Tables at the city's usually crowded nightspots are there for the taking, as the cast of Disney's "High School Musical" discovered earlier this week over dinner at scenic Cafe Sydney.

"Tell your president he has turned Sydney into Baghdad," a taxi driver told an ABC reporter.

Although thousands have protested the meeting -- ranging from members of China's persecuted Falun Gong to a group that greeted the president with a demonstration titled "Stop Bush 2007" -- all have been peaceful to date.

Nevertheless, security is so tight that when reporters were given the chance to ask Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard just four questions earlier this week, an Australian reporter used the coveted opportunity to chastise the president over the security measures, saying, "the people of Sydney don't see their city looking all that free at the moment."

That prompted President Bush to utter a rare apology.

"You feel inconvenienced, obviously," Bush said. "But to the extent I've caused this, I apologize. Look, I don't want to come to a community and say, you know, what a pain it is to have the American president. Unfortunately, however, this is what the authorities thought was necessary to protect people. And you live in a free society. People feel like they want to protest. Fine, they can. And unfortunately, evidently, some people may want to try to be violent in their protests. But I apologize to the Australian people if I've caused this inconvenience."

On Thursday a television comedy troupe added insult to invective. Members were arrested after leading a caravan led by a black sedan festooned with Canadian flags, complete with faux security guards jogging alongside, to the president's hotel, disgorging a bearded Osama bin Laden look-alike. He and his colleagues were promptly handcuffed and booked.