by Joshua H. Liberatore
POTUS has long rankled his detractors in both parties for appearing to prize loyalty over competence in his staffing decisions. Discredited figures such as Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales – not to mention the egregious Mike “Brownie” Brown, former Administrator of FEMA, who bungled the Federal Hurricane Katrina relief program in 2005 – saw tenures that strained the bounds of common sense and even sound politics, as their policy choices and personal styles invited in turn criticism, scandal, and national embarrassment. Less noted, but equally salient, are POTUS’s cozy relationships with certain foreign leaders and governments who make strange bedfellows with his lofty rhetoric about “the blessings of liberty” and our national project to propagate democracy overseas as “the great alternative” to the “dark ideologies” of the loathsome Other. A brief recapitulation is most instructive.
With its actions in recent days Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world. Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century. Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations, or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation. (August 15, 2008)
After the spate of scoldings POTUS issued to Russia this summer for invading Georgia with overwhelming force, it may be easy to forget that early in his administration, POTUS piqued our national curiosity when he claimed to have looked into then President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and “saw his soul,” a phrase POTUS still gets asked about in interviews, most recently by Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, on December 18, 2008:
Mr. DeMuth: Let me ask you another one. You caught a lot of flak for saying that you’d looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and seen a friend.
The President: I looked in his eyes and saw his soul.
Mr. DeMuth: In his eyes and saw his soul.
The President: Right.
Those were the very same eyes in which John McCain later boasted, on national television, to have seen “three letters, ‘K,’ ‘G,’ and ‘B'” – but that’s a discussion for another day. For the record, POTUS always insisted the relationship with Putin and Russia was “complex” – an adjective he normally reserves for precious few nations, the most famous of which is China. Relationships are indeed complex, and so are souls, both visible and inscrutable. The problem is that the relationship with Russia often got so complex that POTUS got things all mixed up when he tried to explain it:
It now appears that an effort may be underway to depose Russia’s [Georgia’s] duly elected government. Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century. (August 11, 2008)
POTUS was wise to choose his words here carefully; after all, it’s unpleasant but ultimately acceptable, apparently, to invade sovereign states that are not ruled by democratically elected governments. But that’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?
Concerning an earlier crisis – the “elevated rhetoric” surrounding the U.S. effort to locate ballistic missile interceptors in the former Soviet satellites, Poland and the Czech Republic, to protect the Free World from an unnamed rogue regime, presumably Iran – POTUS ran into similar trouble:
I don’t think Vladimir Putin intends to attack Russia – I mean, Europe. So I’ll talk to him about it, but it’s – if he’s saying the missile defense system is a threat to us, our – the need, therefore, is to make clear there is not. (June 6, 2007)
Persuaded are you? During the course of that summer trip to Europe, however, POTUS managed to reassure both “Europe” and Putin at the G-8 sessions in Heiligendamm, Germany that he was not resuming a Cold War posture in this altruistic gesture. In fact, POTUS planned to continue the friendly dialogue later that summer at the Bush family compound in Maine:
I’ve also said it’s important for there to be a personal relationship between me and President Putin so that we can have frank discussions in a way that enables us to more likely deal with the problems we face. That’s why I’ll visit with him here, and that’s why I’m looking forward to welcoming him to my Dad’s house in Kennebunkport. It’s an opportunity to continue to have a serious dialogue with serious players in trying to keep the peace. (June 6, 2007)
As a Texan and a former oil man himself, POTUS understands that Russia – supplier of a full quarter of European natural gas and producer of nearly 10,000 daily barrels of oil – occasionally needs to flex her muscles when worldwide energy supplies and fuel prices require it, just to stay in the game. That Putin relinquished the presidency to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev last March but now reigns as the prime minister of a parliament actively working to extend presidential term limits is nothing to worry about. A soul – once observed – isn’t mutable, is it?
Obviously, we have big differences over Georgia. And I saw Vladimir at the Olympics right as the troops moved into Georgia. And I was – I expressed my concerns, and he expressed his. I would say that our relationship is still friendly, although I haven’t seen him much because there’s a new President. And I really haven’t had that much of a chance to get to know President Medvedev. (December 18, 2008)
But Putin is not the only controversial former President who earned POTUS’s friendship and praise over the years. Let’s take a look at some other “serious players” who are “trying to keep the peace.” We mustn’t forget that stolid old General Musharraf of Pakistan, who came to power via coup d’état in 1999 but was kind enough to let us use his airspace to bomb Afghanistan in October 2002 and share intelligence on Taliban and al-Qaida whereabouts. POTUS almost called that rapport complex too, before finding fresh words:
It’s a very – Pakistan is an important ally in this war against these extremists. As you mentioned, there are some in his country. And I’m convinced that he would like to rout them out. But it’s not easy territory in which to rout people out. We’ve had some successes inside Pakistan, thanks to his leadership. And in terms of the democracy issues, he’s going to have to deal with it. (June 6, 2007)
Fortunately for Pakistan, the aforementioned “democracy issues” are currently being worked out under different leadership, this one democratically elected, but POTUS remains hopeful and affable toward other dark corners in his circle of trusted friends:
And so it’s – we do push for democracy. We push in the context of the reality on the ground, as well. I mentioned Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a close ally in the war on terror. His Majesty has done – and his services have done the world a service, a good service by bringing people to justice. And he is also making some incremental reforms. He will go at a pace slower than some would like to see; nevertheless, he’s moving. And the question is, is there progress? (June 6, 2007)
Well, one certainly hopes that there has been progress since the bad old days when Saudi Arabia produced 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, hijackers. But like POTUS always reminds us, we must take the “long-term view of the ability of democracies to progress and, therefore, change.” Still, unless one scans the list of countries where capital punishment is still legal and practiced, it can be hard to discern just where POTUS finds such warm kinship and common values with this celebrated triad, but it’s possible that’s just the way complexity works in these uncertain times.