President Bush departed Wednesday for a NATO summit in Rome after shelving plans for a Far East trip later this month. Rejecting criticism of his foreign travels, he said working for peace is "a very important part" of his job.

At a news conference at dawn before he left the White House, Bush also said he will push for "free and fair access to the markets of Europe" for American farmers at a meeting with European leaders Saturday at The Hague, Netherlands.He said Americans had "learned the awful price of isolationism" in the 1920s, which led to the Great Depression.

Bush has been under fire from Democrats at home for his frequent foreign trips. He returned last week from Madrid, where he opened the Middle East peace conference. But he denied there was any panic in his surprise decision to postpone plans for a 10-day trip to Asia and Australia.

Bush said it now appears Congress still will be in session in late November, and he did not want to take a chance on being out of the country during the lawmakers' year-end crunch, "where a lot of crazy things can happen."

"I'm going to be meeting with the NATO leaders in Rome to talk about the challenges of security in the post-Cold War world and the opportunity for partnership with former adversaries," Bush said.

"I view this as a very important part of the responsiblilities of the president working for peace around the world," he said.

"We'll be talking about our growing cooperation in helping the democratic transformations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the ways of expanding free and fair trade all around the world."