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The Nation

Flavor, but Little Substance, to Bush-Putin Visit

November 17, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WACO, Texas — Wearing faded, frayed-at-the-cuff jeans, President Bush drove Vladimir V. Putin in a pickup to a scenic waterfall on his Crawford ranch. He fed him Texas barbecue (albeit haute cuisine) and brought in a country and western band to entertain the Russian president.

The down-home diplomacy signaled a change at the White House--from a time when summits were the fruition of months of staff work that led to formal agreements to days spent far from Washington in quiet moments meant to show off the heartland.

The banter between the two presidents suggests a new level of trust, as Bush and Putin work to flesh out the notion that each is a man with whom the other can do business. But such a high degree of personal diplomacy carries the risk, critics say, of creating a relationship that may not outlast the leaders who developed it.

For the 22 hours he spent in Texas, Putin received personal attention that put him in a class with Democrats in the Texas Legislature and political reporters--all people from whom Bush wanted something.

And Putin responded in kind. Consider the display of diplomacy--likened by one waggish network correspondent to a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin routine--by Bush and Putin at Crawford High School on Thursday.

As Bush invited questions from the students, Putin interjected: "No math questions."

Question: What do you think of Texas?

Putin: "We in Russia have known for a long time that Texas is the most important state in the United States."

Indeed, he said, Russians seemed to know more about Texas than about any other state, "except maybe for Alaska, which we sold to you."

Still, one day after Putin headed back to Russia, there was debate over whether informal summitry serves American interests--and just how much Putin gave up as he competed with Bush for the congeniality award.

The high school repartee notwithstanding, said a former diplomat with expertise in Eastern Europe, Bush "has got to realize he's dealing with a culture that doesn't put a premium on this stuff."

Besides, he said, "when you do personal diplomacy, you're running the risk that you may be cultivating a dictator."

The immediate result from the Crawford meeting, he said, was uncertainty over the future of the U.S. missile defense program and the disappearance from the U.S.-Russian agenda of human rights issues and Moscow's often brutal efforts to put down rebellion in Chechnya. Russia, he said, gained respectability in the West without yielding anything it values.

And in the long run, such personal diplomacy raises this question: Can a president, after declaring that he has looked into the soul of a foreign leader and found him a man of trust, walk away when national security issues demand distance?

For his part, Bush emphasized Thursday that the new U.S.-Russia relationship should outlast their presidencies.

However, Kenneth Adelman, a former Pentagon official with experience in arms control, warned that if a president tries personal diplomacy with adversaries, "they can take you to the cleaners."

But, he added, Russia is no longer in the category of enemy, and there is little risk if an American president invites his Russian counterpart into his home--figuratively or literally.

The personal approach comes naturally to Bush, said Dan Bartlett, his communications chief. During the presidential campaign, Bush said he would use it on friends and foes, domestic and foreign, to convince them that he was sincere and that his policies and diplomacy were correct.

"If you can develop a bond of trust and comfort with somebody during a time of calm, it will benefit you when something difficult happens," Bartlett said.

The Russian president said at the barbecue that he had never been invited to the home of a foreign leader.

"It is hugely symbolic to me and my country," he said, "that it's the home of the president of the United States."

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