Bush administration officials say President Bush will not attend the global summit on poverty and the environment that opens later this month in Johannesburg, but he will send Secretary of State Colin Powell to head the U.S. delegation in South Africa.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development opening August 26 in Johannesburg is being billed as the largest U.N. summit ever and will draw leaders and top officials from more than 100 countries along with an estimated 50,000 participants.
Administration officials say Mr. Bush will not attend, in part because he plans a major trip to Africa early next year.
But they say he will send a high-level U.S. delegation headed by Secretary Powell, who will address the conference during its second week of sessions.
Mr. Powell is expected also to visit at least two other African countries on a trip spanning five days, though details of his itinerary have not been announced.
The president's decision not to attend the summit has been widely anticipated, and has drawn criticism from environmentalists.
But U.S. conservatives have been urging the president not to attend, contending that as the leader of the world's biggest economy he would be a convenient target of political attack from anti-Western delegations and globalization opponents.
About 30 conservative groups sent the president a letter earlier this month urging him to decline the invitation to Johannesburg.
Among the signatories was Fred Smith Jr., president of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, who told VOA a U.N. theme conference is not the way to deal with the complex problems of development and the environment.
"Environment is a serious issue, as is economic development," he said. "And yet in economic development, we've painfully learned that centralized political approaches aren't very effective. They aren't very useful in making the world's economy work better in making people less poor. The same thing is true with environmental issues, but that lesson, unfortunately, is not yet learned."
Environmentalists say Mr. Bush's absence represents further back-pedaling on environmental policy after the U.S. decision last year to reject the Kyoto accord on global warming. Stephen Mills, international program director of the Sierra Club, says the White House decision is unfortunate.
"This is the largest environmental conference ever held. And unfortunately, we believe that it will be seen as another attempt by President Bush to withdraw from global cooperation," he said. "Americans want to be part of a country that acts as a responsible neighbor. They know we need to cooperate with other nations to protect the environment if we expect them to cooperate with us."
More than 40 Democrats in the House of Representatives sent Mr. Bush a letter saying they were "deeply concerned" by the prospect he will not attend, saying his absence will "reinforce the perception" that the United States has become "selective" in its multi-lateral activities and participation in global agreements.