Washington The fallout from President Bush's crash-and-burn approval ratings does not stop at the water's edge. Foreign leaders - in particular, Russia's Vladimir Putin - oppose U.S. goals and policies abroad more directly and forcefully as Bush's support and his time left in office fade away together.
A speech by Vice President Cheney criticizing Putin's record on democracy caught the headlines recently. But the real news of U.S.-Russian relations is the reversal of fortunes that has made Putin the confident, overbearing leader and Bush the transitional figure who heads a divided nation.
The spirit of hubris that was so palpable in the early Bush years has migrated from the White House to Putin's Kremlin, Hugo Chavez's Miraflores presidential palace and other oil- and gas-rich precincts. The petrocrats ride high on undreamed-of revenues while Bush manages an increasingly defensive foreign-policy agenda and unwieldy budget and trade deficits. That was the unspoken subtext of Cheney's "hold on there, Vladimir" speech in Vilnius on May 4.
This reversal may turn out to be temporary. But even as a flash in the pan, it is a costly factor for U.S. prestige and power abroad. And not only the U.S.: Lame-duck leaders in London, Paris and Tokyo struggle to keep their nations on the march, while divided coalitions are more-or-less in power in Berlin and Rome. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chavez and others know that the only time to kick their foes is when they are down.
The comfort that Putin feels in reviving the Sinatra Doctrine at the Kremlin - doing it his way - came home to me on three fronts recently. The first was hearing Dmitri Trenin, a clear-eyed Russian scholar based in Moscow, describe to a Washington seminar the Kremlin's satisfaction at how well the war in Chechnya is going, at least from the Russian point of view. The conflict has essentially been Chechenized, according to Trenin and to diplomats in Moscow, with Russian forces standing down as local forces stand up.
But the diplomats also report that removing Chechnya from the East-West chessboard of big power politics seems to be intensifying, rather than moderating, Putin's aggressive determination to make sure Russia is no longer treated "like part of the furniture" in foreign policy terms.
The second and most significant example of the new assertiveness came when U.S., European and Russian negotiators met in New York two weeks ago to discuss stopping Iran's drive to enrich uranium. In a previously undisclosed move, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that Iran be allowed to conduct an experimental research and development program of enrichment if Tehran gives up its plan for full-scale development of nuclear reactors.
This was one big step backward. Russia had previously agreed with U.S. and European insistence that Iran be allowed no access to any type of enrichment, a key step to possessing a nuclear weapon. The Russian plan "would put us on a slippery slope. It is a red line we do not accept being crossed," said one U.S. official.
Russia's control over natural gas supplies to Europe - even though much of that gas originates in former Soviet republics in Central Asia and then passes through Russian pipelines - has also emboldened Putin in his determination to keep Ukraine and Georgia from moving rapidly along the path to NATO membership. Political turmoil in Ukraine has given the Kremlin new relief on that third political front.
Cheney's speech marked a growing concern within the administration about Putin's unhelpfulness in foreign affairs rather than an attempt to roll back Putin's power at home. After all, as Trenin noted, the Russian president's 72 percent approval rating is more than double Bush's favorable standing in U.S. polls.
The Group of Eight summit that Putin will host in St. Petersburg in July is now only weeks away. Time grows short to reach an understanding on political disputes that could spoil Putin's moment on the world stage. That, I think, was Cheney's essential message - a last effort to caution the Russian against overplaying his hand.
That is good advice at any time from anyone. But it is particularly credible coming from the Bush-Cheney White House, which five years ago was not sure it had to take Russia, a country with a gross domestic product equal to that of Denmark, into account in big power politics. Who should know better that hubristic failure is still failure, writ large?