Crises Reveal Limits of Bush's Personal Diplomacy on World Stage

President Bush has devoted considerable time and effort to forging a bond with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. They met last year in Kennebunkport, Maine.
President Bush has devoted considerable time and effort to forging a bond with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. They met last year in Kennebunkport, Maine. (Pool Photo By Matthew Cavanaugh Via Bloomberg News)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

He glimpsed inside Vladimir Putin's soul and found something to his liking. He has also showed off his Texas ranch to Saudi King Abdullah, talked economics with Chinese President Hu Jintao and visited Graceland with then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

More than many of his predecessors, President Bush has invested heavily in trying to forge a strong bond with key foreign leaders. But as his term winds down, new crises in Georgia and Pakistan are underscoring the limits of Bush's personal diplomacy, as the president is receiving criticism for overpersonalizing relations with Putin, the Russian prime minister, and with Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as Pakistan's president last week.

Many Russia experts say Bush did not understand the true intentions and character of the Russian leader. "He misjudged Putin," said Stanford University professor Michael A. McFaul, who has been advising Sen. Barack Obama's campaign on Russia policy. From an early date, McFaul said, Putin has had a "very obvious grand strategy for rolling back democracy," but "when new evidence came in to suggest that his initial assessment of Putin was wrong, [Bush] tended to dismiss it."

A different example has emerged in Iraq, where Bush has spent enormous amounts of time with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, especially via videoconferences, trying to build him up into a true democratic leader, despite some Bush aides' belief that the attempt was a waste of time. The effort might be bearing fruit, to the point that Maliki's growing self-confidence is complicating Bush's efforts to secure a final deal over the future of U.S. military presence in Iraq.

"Maliki is proving to be a more significant leader than most people around Bush thought he could be," said Dennis Ross, a State Department official in the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations who advises the Obama campaign. "Last year everyone I talked to in the administration thought that Maliki had to go. Bush didn't seem to buy off on what everyone else was saying."

White House aides say Bush has been aggressive but realistic in his dealings with world leaders. "While there are often policy issues that don't exactly go the way we want them to, the situation on the other hand could be much worse if the president did not have a decent working relationship with some of these leaders," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.

Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger disagrees with the common perception that Bush mishandled Putin, saying the president was shrewd early on to give the Russian leader respect and try to draw his cooperation on a range of issues. But the two sides had deep differences on issues such as the U.S. desire to place a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and to expand NATO to Russia's borders.

"There is something that personal relations can add, but there are fundamental national interests that can't be escaped," Kissinger said in an interview. "I promise you, if you ask the Russians, they will give you a long litany of things where they think they have cooperated with us and we haven't given much in return."

Bush is hardly the first president who has sought to deploy his personal political skills to try to bond with foreign leaders and then endure criticism for substituting his personal rapport with them for a hard-headed analysis serving the national interest.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was deemed by adversaries to have been taken in by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, just as Bush's father was criticized for misreading Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. Bill Clinton came to believe he was double-crossed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Clinton's unsuccessful drive for a peace deal in the Middle East.

Such episodes notwithstanding, current and former aides said Bush appears to greatly enjoy his contact with foreign counterparts and devotes considerable attention to thinking about how best to connect with them. Perhaps the most successful, from his perspective, was the tie he forged with Tony Blair, who as Britain's prime minister delivered strong backing for the war in Iraq -- to his political detriment. Blair resigned last year.

With Hu, Bush tried early on to move this seemingly colorless Communist Party functionary off his talking points, asking him at one meeting what his biggest challenge was as China's leader, administration officials said. They said the president found Hu's answer sobering: creating 25 million jobs a year. The exchange gave Bush a more sympathetic view of Hu and helped strengthen their relationship, officials said.

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