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Back at the memorable joint press conference that President Bush gave with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Brdo Castle, Slovenia on June 16, 2001, Bush uttered these immortal words in response to a question about his impressions of Putin:
“I will answer the question. I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue.”
Somehow, there’s something less than inspiring about the idea of the ne’er-do-well son of a former American spymaster “looking into the soul” of the world’s most famous former KGB agent. It seemed bizarre. But it has turned out to be very revealing–of Bush. And for the Russian it must have been curiously flattering. “Soul,” or in Russian dusha, is something that every Russian mužik since Dostoevsky knows that he possesses in contradistinction to all those shallow Westerners–and Americans foremost among the soulless.
For six years, however, this strange relationship has had its little peaks and valleys without anything really dramatic occurring, and that we must reckon a blessing. The era of good feelings that Strobe Talbot engineered for the Clinton Administration was clearly coming to an end as Clinton left office, but it was unclear exactly what was coming. As team Bush arrived on the scene, Rumsfeld and Cheney had strong nostalgia for reviving the Cold War and portraying Russia as “the enemy”–and indeed each had uttered an endless stream of aspersions at the Russians through the first Clinton term. But at length they realized that their dream of a coda to the Cold War was simply too at odds with reality. Russia under Putin was focused on getting her internal house in order: checking the rise of the oligarchs, getting a handle on the revenue stream (in the end, Putin was to discover the happy overlap of these two objectives), establishing the rule of law. Indeed, what Putin promised was “diktatur zakonov,” which is to say a dictatorship of laws. Over time it has gradually become much more dictatorship and much less laws.
In any event, however, Putin set clear objectives for his tenure as Russia’s president, and even the most malevolent biographer will have difficulty acknowledging that he has accomplished them. These two presidents, side by side, make for an amazing comparison. One ruthlessly efficient, sharp-sighted, cold-hearted, focused on restoring order and domestic peace to his country and strengthening the apparatus of the state. He inherited a nation brimming with the promise of freedom, and did much to put that spirit back in the box. But he brought order to the treasury. And he established the indubitable dominance of the Kremlin over the “subjects of the Federation” which previously had driven a strong centrifugal force in Russia’s body politic. Putin aimed to clean-up the house of Russia so as to lay the foundations for its re-emergence on the international stage as a great power. He saw, brilliantly, the utility of energy policy as the essential foreign policy lever by which this could be achieved. Putin will be seen in the future as a cold fish, but also as a leader who did much to restore Russia to a position of prominence in the world. (And yes, it’s far too early to speak in the past tense, though I am increasingly convinced of his intention to recede from the public stage in favor of a successor–and that would at any event do more than anything else to burnish his reputation).
Shall we compare Putin’s accomplishments with Bush’s? That might be painful to rehearse. But as Putin oversaw the rehabilitation of Russia, so Bush has conducted a six-year demolition derby for America. He inherited a paramount power in the world, enjoying unchallenged prestige and power. And after six years, he has brought American approval in the world to its historical nadir. His experiments in the Middle East have been catastrophic failures, leading to the likely rise of a new regional hegemon: Iran. The American military is a shambles, and his own former commander in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, now speaks openly of “defeat.” And America’s old claim of moral superiority, what has come of that? Bush has proudly embraced the values and techniques of the institutions with which Putin is associated–and indeed, it seems that he has approved a number of techniques which are coarser, cruder still than anything the NKVD or KGB used. America’s “soul” has been dragged into the gutter. Internally, Bush has challenged the Constitution and assumed a rule as dictatorship–like Putin, in the end he finds the law to be a nuisance. Bush’s soul, it turns out, is remarkably like Putin’s. The difference between them is simple: competence. Putin is unquestionably competent. And the hallmark of team Bush is their gross incompetence in virtually everything they touch.
So now the world braces for an important meeting between Putin and Bush, and this morning Bush, who is now in Prague, responded to a question about how he would deal with growing tensions with Russia and particularly with Russian concerns about the planned American missile system:
Bush dismissed those concerns. He said he will make his case directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit. ”My message will be Vladimir–I call him Vladimir–that you shouldn’t fear a missile defense system,” Bush said. ”As a matter of fact, why don’t you cooperate with us on a missile defense system. Why don’t you participate with the United States.”
Well, of course, we know from several sources that Bush’s nickname for Putin is “Pooty-Poot.” And we can have no doubt that Pooty-Poot will be impressed with this overture. We’re cruising towards another Cold War, and Bush, instead of demonstrating intelligence and concern, appears utterly clueless. This is going to be dangerous. We’ve arrived at the point at which the James Bakers and Brent Scowcrofts are indispensable–but they’ve been banished from a court in which the jester sits as king.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”