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Archive for Friday, July 14, 2006

Bush instincts appear faulty on Putin

July 14, 2006

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It's been five years since President Bush looked into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and got "a sense of his soul," finding him to be "very straightforward and trustworthy." Putin, he added, is "deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Those comments, after their initial meeting in Slovenia, were pure George W. Bush. He is, after all, a man more instinctual than analytical in deciding how to deal with other world leaders and make key decisions on policy.

Indeed, Bush recently made a somewhat similar judgment about Iraq's latest leader. During last month's surprise visit to Baghdad, he told American troops he had come "to look Prime Minister (Nouri al-) Maliki in the eyes, to determine whether or not he is as dedicated to a free Iraq as you are. And I believe he is."

Bush undoubtedly intends such statements to encourage his counterparts to bond with him. But the way relations have developed between him and Putin - and their countries - illustrates the downside of basing policy on such instinctual judgments.

For while Putin may well be "deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country," Bush's initial judgment that his Russian counterpart is "very straightforward and trustworthy" seems open to substantial doubt as he prepares to host this weekend's economic summit in St. Petersburg.

Putin has proved to be an often troublesome partner for Bush's efforts to mobilize international support against Iraq and other potential global threats from Iran and North Korea and to spread democracy abroad.

At home, Putin's tenure has seen an erosion of liberties that raised the unpleasant specter of the "bad old days" under communism, plus efforts to reassert some of its former sway over independent neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia that were part of the old Soviet Union.

In recent weeks, the number of Russian radio stations that air the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Liberty has dropped sharply, apparently due to pressure from the Russian government on news media providing critical coverage of its activities.

Crackdowns also have taken place against other independent voices in Russian society such as human rights and youth groups.

To their credit, Bush and his administration have not avoided noting such developments.

In Lithuania last May, Vice President Dick Cheney charged that Russia had "unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people" and used its oil and gas as "tools of intimidation and blackmail."

Though Bush later made more conciliatory comments, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said that, in their talks before the summit sessions start Saturday, the American president will speak "frankly but privately with President Putin about recent trends that raise questions about Russia's commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions."

Bush also may have been signaling displeasure over Putin's activities in the former Soviet republics by using a meeting with Georgia's president to express support for its membership in NATO. Russia is cool to the idea.

All in all, this weekend's Group of Eight summit is somewhat awkward for the United States and its allies who invited Russia to join the annual meeting of leading industrial democracies in hopes of encouraging its development in that direction.

Since then, unfortunately, Russia has become somewhat less democratic. Its economic production, while expanding, still ranks well behind that of most of the other, smaller G-8 countries.

And on several key policy issues likely to dominate the story line coming out of the summit, such as the continuing violence in Iraq and the U.S.-led effort to curb Iranian and North Korean nuclear development, Putin remains at best a reluctant participant.

Such concerns probably won't be especially worrisome to the Russian president, who will bask in the symbolism of his country hosting the world's most prestigious annual meeting of international leaders for the first time.

But they should serve as yet another warning to Bush and future U.S. leaders to base future policy more on a hard-headed analysis of the facts, rather than on instincts and wishful thinking.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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