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Facing a tough re-election bid, it's understandable that President George Bush has campaigning on his mind these days. But his waffling on a decision whether to attend an international environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in mid-June is not only disappointing - it sets a poor example to a world that looks to Washington for leadership.

Japan and Europe are among the 130 nations planning to use the June summit to set global targets on such problems as emissions of atmospheric-warming gasses like carbon dioxide. Also to be discussed are foreign aid reforms that would direct more help to non-government organizations. Another touchy issue will be the need for rich nations to alter their consumption patterns.If the president is not at the conference, the United States might simply be left out of major environmental decisions. Worse, the absence could undermine the basic purposes of the gathering. Other nations are depending on America to be involved.

Bush points to his "important domestic operation" at home as a potential reason for not attending the conference.

The president scores high marks in his commitment to reduce strategic arms worldwide. The threat of nuclear war affects all living on this planet. But just as important as arms control are environmenal problems.

With pride, Bush calls himself the "environmental president." That's a politically correct view in the '90s. But his words ring hollow and smack of hypocrisy with his lack of commitment to changing the course of his administration at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The United States has the dubious distinction of leading the world in its carbon dioxide output. Bush's participation in summit discussions is crucial to the overall effectiveness of a world environment plan to contain such pollutants.

The president may fear political backlash from U.S. industry that is concerned about the cost of meeting deadlines for reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels.

Yet neither should he attend the conference merely to score political points at home. If Bush participates, but only in a negative sense - blocking global agreements on the environment - the whole gathering could end in a disappointing stalement.

Rather, Bush should help make the tough decisions. Campaign rhetoric alone is not adequate for dealing with a 130-nation conference concerned about the global environment and the needs of poor nations.