Friendship, His Way
Bush Sets the Terms in Forming Relationships With World Leaders
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page A01
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked President Bill Clinton three years ago for guidance on dealing with a successor, Clinton offered some succinct advice: "Be his friend."
"Friendship" may seem like a strange word for world leaders, who are responsible for representing the interests of their nations when they meet at events such as this week's Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga. But personal bonds can help smooth out rough patches when national interests conflict -- or sometimes cause a blind spot when a cold assessment is required.
Clinton forged links with leaders who had similar outsized appetites and personalities, and he generally did not let disputes over policy interfere with those personal relationships. In President Bush's case, the relationships are very much on his terms, said former and current officials, as well as officials overseas.
Bush bonds with leaders who see the world as he does, who in his view "get" the war on terrorism, who talk simply and straightforwardly and do not break any private commitments and understandings, officials said. Leaders who are willing to accept his point of view may be able to modify it somewhat, or gain something in return, but those looking for real negotiations or give-and-take are liable to come away disappointed, officials and diplomats say.
According to one former White House official, Bush appears to have a simple test for evaluating his fellow leaders: Good people or bad people? Do they have a vision for their countries or not?
"Whenever he talked about leaders, these were the categories he used," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said a CIA official who regularly attended the president's daily intelligence briefings first pointed out to him Bush's use of these terms, which was then confirmed by his own experience as a senior policymaker in the White House.
Beginning with the G-8 summit this week, Bush will socialize and negotiate with key leaders at a series of high-profile summits this month. The stakes are high for the president, who is seeking to win international approval for the U.S. plan to grant some political authority to an interim Iraqi government that will lead the war-torn nation until elections next year.
Bush has had mixed relations with the world leaders who will gather this week. Among them will be two, Blair and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who have given much thought to understanding Bush's personality and his approach to the issues. Both have assiduously courted him because they believe their nations' interests are enhanced by a close relationship with the American president.
Blair immediately figured out how important missile defense was to Bush at the start of his presidency -- and leveraged that to forge a common position on a range of issues. Koizumi backed Bush to the hilt on Iraq, even taking the unprecedented pledge of sending Japanese troops there. Koizumi's loyalty helped ensure Bush's acceptance of his trips to North Korea.
On the other hand, Bush has never really clicked with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. After a G-8 summit in Canada two years ago, a former U.S. official recalled, Bush told his aides in the White House situation room that Chirac just didn't "get" the war on terrorism. By contrast, he lavished praise in the same meeting on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- who will also attend this summit -- for understanding the terrorism threat.
Meanwhile, Schroeder's decision to oppose the war in Iraq to ensure his reelection -- after Bush believed he had promised to support it -- made it difficult for the president to trust Schroeder again.
Over the weekend, the continuing testiness between Bush and Chirac was on full display during a joint news conference in Paris. Chirac insisted he was never convinced there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- and told Bush that before the war -- and also scolded Bush for comparing the Iraq war to World War II.
But the common struggles and stresses of leadership these leaders face sometimes helps bridge the gap. When the space shuttle Columbia blew up two months before the Iraq war started -- and the United States and France were at diplomatic loggerheads -- Chirac immediately called Bush and spoke emotionally about the tragedies that heads of state sometimes had to face. Before hanging up, Chirac told Bush he was praying with him over the accident, a French official said.
Bush puts a lot of stock in his gut-level assessments of his fellow leaders. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin treasures a cross given by his mother -- and had it blessed in Israel -- convinced Bush he could deal with the former KGB operative. As a result, Bush declared after their first meeting that Putin was "very straightforward and trustworthy" and he was able to "get a sense of his soul."
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