Sunday, February 27, 2005

# Posted 3:45 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT BRATISLAVA? As I mentioned yesterday, America's top journalists are having a hard time figuring out what the Bush-Putin press conference was really all about. One interpretation of the event I didn't mention was that of the WaPo editorial board, which lambasted President Bush for knuckling under to a liar and a thug like Putin.

In general, I am quite sympathetic to anyone who insists that Putin is a liar and a thug and that America should start getting tough with Moscow. Moreover, I have had harsh words in the past for both the WaPo and for our president when they seemed to go soft on the Russian president. In fact, given my unrepentant criticism in the past of both Bush and the WaPo, I think have the credibility this time around to say that Bush did a superb job at Bratislava and that the WaPo's good intentions have resulted in some very poor analysis. The WaPo observes that,
Lauding the Russian ruler as a man who means what he says, Mr. Bush declared that "the most important statement . . . was the president's statement when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia."

The problem, as Mr. Bush should know, is that nearly the opposite is true. The record shows that Mr. Putin has reversed Russia's progress toward democracy in almost every respect while consistently distorting that record.
No quesiton that Putin is an unrepentant liar and an emerging dictator. But I think the Post misunderstands what President Bush was trying to achieve. This was his first meeting with Putin after an inaugural address that committed the United States to an unmitigated policy of global democracy promotion. Thus, W. wasn't going to demand an abject (and highly public)surrender from the Russian thug. Rather, he wanted to feel him out and make clear on a very personal level that he, Bush, cares a lot about democracy promotion. From where I stand, the crucial statement from Bush was this:
I think the most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the President's [i.e. Putin's] statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they're not turning back. To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference. And I can tell you what it's like dealing with the man over the last four years: When he tells you something, he means it.
By itself, that last sentence is absurd. When Putin's tells something to you and I, he is probably lying through his teeth. But Putin is smart enough to know that he can't constantly lie to Bush and get away with it. He can lie to the Russian public and to the American public without consequences. But every gangster knows better than to f*** with the godfather.

Like Reagan, Bush has a very personal diplomatic style. Again like Reagan, Bush pretty much speaks his mind, both on the record and off. Thus, when Bush says that Putin made a serious commitment to democracy at a private meeting with the President of the United States of America, that is exactly what Bush means. He has put Putin on the record and expects him to live up to his word, the same way that Bush lives up to his.

Now put this promise in the context of Bush's response to the following question:
Mr. President, four years ago when you first met with President Putin, at a time some in the world were questioning his commitment to democracy, you reassured a lot of those critics by saying that you had looked into his soul and saw a man that you found trustworthy. You've just listed some concerns here today. I'm wondering if you could unequivocally and without reservation repeat that statement today?
That's a great question. It forces Bush to confront the question of whether Putin lied to him before in a personal and private context. Here's Bush's answer:
One thing I -- gave me comfort in making the statement I made in Slovenia [in 2001] was that Vladimir said, when I agree with you, I'll agree with -- I'll tell you, and when I disagree with you, I'll tell you. In other words, we'll have a very frank and candid and open relationship. And that's the way it's been. There was no doubt in my mind what his position was on Iraq. He didn't kind of hedge, he didn't try to cloud up the issue. He made it abundantly clear to me that he didn't agree with my decision.
Naturally, I don't know exactly what happened in Slovenia in 2001. Although Bush is notorious for not admitting mistakes, I think his answer betrays a certain degree of embarrassment about his previous praise for the Russian president.

Yet Bush says that Putin has always been frank about what's on his mind. Forgive the speculation, but I suspect that Putin was evasive in 2001 about just how committed to democracy he was. At the time, Bush wasn't thinking much about democracy promotion, so he didn't push Putin to clarify his statements. In retrospect, I think Bush regrets not having pushed the envelope a little more. But he recognizes that Putin didn't lie.

So now, in 2005, rather than give Putin a public thrashing, Bush is trying to secure a much clearer commitment from the Russian. Thus, Bush is now making a considerable effort to spell out exactly what democracy entails. W. said that:
We talked about democracy. Democracies always reflect a country's customs and culture, and I know that. But democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition.
Bush repeated that set of conditions a second time, and he got Putin to concede that
We are not going to make up -- to invent any kind of special Russian democracy; we are going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world. But, of course, all the modern institutions of democracy -- the principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions
You might say the glass is half full. Putin's hedges are not exactly what I want to hear. Yet whereas Third World dictators have a long history of insisting that their dictatorship is actually a new form of democracy, Putin has abandoned this pledge and acknowledged that democracy has a universal essence. What matters isn't whether Putin really believes this. What matters is that he told it to the President of the United States, who will be very angry if Putin goes back on his word.

For the reasons given above, I think Bush did a superb job at Bratislava. Now comes the hard part. For the first time, however, I am confident that Bush really understands what is at stake in Moscow.
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