It’s the kind of story that I think a lot of journalists and commentators really salivate over: beleaguered President George W. Bush’s final farewell tour of Europe, a grueling schedule of five countries in six days, a papal visit, debates on Iran, economy, oil, and environment, and a painful reckoning of soft power lost. I mean, how often does a reporter get permission from the editor to describe a foreign leader as a “lame duck” who is “hobbling somewhat pathetically out of the limelight” and even having sunk to such irrelevance that he “is not even popular in the role of the enemy anymore.” However it is the “indifference” with which Bush is being met in Europe that represents a sad misunderstanding of these recent events in continental geopolitics – something that John Vinocur picks up on very nicely in his column earlier today. And naturally, with this trip occurring more or less in the footsteps of Dmitry Medvedev’s first European tour as President and a few visits from Vladimir Putin, who was still treated like the real power, the comparative legacies of the United States and Russia are obviously going to be on people’s minds.
First we would be remiss if we did not recognize that President Bush has so far achieved some important agreements with the group of six to threaten more Iran sanctions during this trip (not that I think sanctions are effective). During his Slovenia speech at the U.S.-E.U. Summit, Bush presumably spoke of behalf of the group, remarking “A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians. We’re going to continue to isolate you, we’ll continue to work on sanctions, we’ll find new sanctions if need be—if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world, which is to give up your enrichment program.“But apart from the tough talk on Iran, others noted that Bush came to town “speaking the language of a dove.” In a long interview with the Times of London, the correspondent noted that “These days Mr Bush’s language is much less jarring, more conciliatory than it once was. His humour is self-deprecating. (…) Of course, he defends his decision to invade Iraq five years ago. But the swagger, the rejection of criticism as invalid is gone, and he acknowledges that the diplomacy should have been handled better.“However it might be too little and too late to change the tune – Europe appears not to be paying any attention. And that is a sad thing – especially considering the importance of many of the subjects Bush raised during his speech: Speaking alongside Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Bush said “I thank you for your support in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s amazing how these countries have gone from tyrannical situations to hopeful, young democracies. And I believe it’s in our mutual interest to work hard to help these democracies survive for the sake of peace, and for the sake of human rights and human dignity.“Yet to me, it is a measurement of America’s declining power that many cynical observers will hear Bush talk about tyranny and human rights, and will likely categorically dismiss what he says while chalking it up to the hypocrisy of a man overseeing the current Guantanamo Bay miscarriage of justice. I think it’s sad that so many people are irrationally being cornered into the strange position of actually cheering against the freedom of Iraqi and Afghan people, simply because they may be resentful of the abuses of George Bush.Also, isn’t it a normal and healthy thing among democracies for their leaders to eventually lose influence? Call me old fashioned, but I think that regular and peaceful transfer of power through competitive elections and participation is an end, rather than a mean.Not that Putin nor Medvedev are greeted with such scrutiny when they come to Europe and discuss human rights and rule of law. John Vinocur comments:
How ironic: A Europe always repeating that it wants an America, 3,000 miles distant, that would take less of a grip on its affairs is getting exactly that.And at the same time, after having made Bush its target of choice for two terms, European public opinion says next to nothing about Putin’s Russia looming over the continent – threatening its neighbors as missile targets, warning don’t expand NATO or don’t give Kosovo its independence, and saying no to a charter that would bind fairness, competition, and reliability into Gazprom’s domination of European energy needs. (…)Which returns things to the old paradigm of the Putin-Bush relationship. It means that on Iran, energy supply, and painting America as the world’s culprit – over the weekend Dmitri Medvedev, seemingly Putin’s echo, called U.S. “economic egotism” the main cause of the global financial crisis – Russia does pretty much as it pleases and the United States pretty much keeps its mouth shut about it. (…)It is in this Russia that Putin flourishes, his place and prestige intact. Bush, who never called him out for all to see, is now in long-goodbye mode, the problem of his friend’s resurgent country disturbingly ignored.Looking at Putin with prudence and respect, and Bush now with indifference more than rage, Europe listens to one and just nods politely at the other.
I think that Vinocur really nails it here, and that furthermore this European indifference to Bush and fawning over Putin (while dismissing any potential future influence of Medvedev) underscores one of the central misunderstandings about Russia – that Putin is actually powerful.From many Kremlin sources that I am in contact with, we hear that there is no such internal deference to Putin, but rather organizational chaos that he has been handcuffed to sit on top of. Rather than a brilliant, dynamic leader who has transformed the state (of Time Magazine fame), there is a quieter story that comes from inside the bureaucracy – that yes, Putin remains an arbiter in some high level disputes, but that no, he has nearly no control over the conflicts, misconduct, and anarchy that simmers recklessly and dangerously below him. You’ll recall that not long ago we heard that Russia’s government now absorbs nearly one-third of the annual state budget in corruption, yet Europe is so willing to call this good management.We have seen completely needless high-level political murders occur both within and outside of Russia in the Putin era, severely damaging the country’s reputation, and zero ability on behalf of the government to solve them. Rampant theft and personal enrichment by certain powerful members of the bureaucracy have flourished, while organizational chaos in Russia deepens. Although it may be different in London, Paris, and Berlin, Putin likely dreams of receiving such respect from those who have the burden of working within that disorderly, Machiavellian house.All this amounts to respect and deference for a helpless despot, making Bush’s current parade of failures during this farewell tour of Europe somewhat more bittersweet.