I have heard a whisper, a muffled, confused, hesitant, distant, unsure sort of a whisper, but a whisper nonetheless, that the President may yet cancel at the last minute.
As The Australian revealed on Monday, Bush’s senior advisers unanimously opposed his coming to Sydney. That information is not a whisper. That information is solid.
Now, there is much less solid information that the President may still decide at the last minute to stay in Washington, DC. It could be that the final decision is not yet made. Certainly, if you’re going to cancel this late, it’s better for your host if you cancel at the very last minute because it means no one else will cancel as a result. It also looks more like a genuine last-minute emergency than a decision the meeting is just not that important.
A Bush cancellation would be a grievous blow to his friend John Howard, to APEC and to US standing in Asia.
Howard may be one of the only world leaders at APEC who will truly miss not having President Bush at the big table.
Well, China's Prime Minister Hu might want Bush there. But only so he can pull the US president aside and have a bit of a talk to him about the $1.3 trillion worth of American debt China now holds. Debt that is rapidly losing value by the day.
A no-show by Bush will make a big difference to the traffic delays that are expected to lock up many Sydney streets right through next week. Not every APEC leader will be cruising Sydney with twenty police car escorts and FA-18s protecting the motorcade's airspace. Some will be jumping into limos with a few security guards and not much else as far as security goes.
But don't think a no-show by President Bush will make a lick of difference to the stunningly overblown levels of ultra-security now enveloping Sydney.
Prime Minister Howard has kept up his daily mantra that Sydney will be swamped by cops and soldiers and secret service, divided by five kilometres of 'steel wall' fencing and Sydneysiders subjected to random demands for photo ID and body searches all because of supposed "violent protesters", who haven't yet protested.
Howard actually said yesterday that all the ultra-security had nothing to do with Bush's presence at APEC. The peels of laughter must have stretched from the Central Sydney police barracks all the way down to ASIO offices in Canberra.
If Bush does blow off APEC, the stars of the show will be Russia's President Putin and China's Prime Minister Hu, and considering their vast and aggressive opposition to the US missile defence shield that Howard is backing, and preparing to pour billions of dollars into, not having Bush by or on his side will make APEC all that more tense for Howard as he takes his final strut in the international spotlight.
The curious thing is, however, not being seen with the widely reviled President Bush, and instead being seen to be focusing on regional and local issues, may actually help Howard's standing in the coming election. It will also mean that the Iraq War will be far less of a focus for the media coverage.
Is Greg Sheridan just speculating, and passing on the low-level rumours he's hearing? Or has he already been told that Bush has informed Howard he's out and Sheridan is doing his duty by helping now to lessen the impact of the Monday or Tuesday announcement when Bush just might make it official?
Bush's bailing on APEC will throw the media focus of the talks squarely back where they belong, on Asia and the Pacific.
And the Bush no-show may serve as something of a metaphor for the near future of Australia as we settle into our place in a rapidly changing world order.
The United States slides towards recession and a post-Iraq War hangover amidst growing international hostility, staggering towards isolationism.
Australia, wealthy, confident and peaceful, ready to move into the 21st century with a new government then looks East instead.