Bush's Georgian Betrayal

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 11, 2008; 3:46 PM

Back in 2005, speaking before a crowd of more than 150,000 exuberant Georgians cheering "Bushi! Bushi!", President Bush made a promise to the people of that former Soviet republic: "The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone. Americans respect your courageous choice for liberty. And as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you."

So where was Bush as Russia launched a major military attack against Georgia? Monkeying around with the U.S. women's volleyball players -- and otherwise amusing himself at the Beijing Olympics.

This is not to suggest that Bush should have sent in the Marines. But his impotence in the face of such a gravely destabilizing move highlights not only his personal loss of stature, but how deeply he has diminished American authority on the world stage generally and, particularly, in the eyes of Russia.

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "The White House stepped up its criticism of Russia for escalating the conflict in Georgia, with President Bush warning Monday that Russia's 'disproportionate response' is unacceptable and Vice President Cheney adding that the crisis threatens long-term relations between Moscow and Washington. . . .

"But U.S. options may be limited, given Washington's need for Russian help on a wide range of issues.

"Bush, interviewed Monday by NBC at the Olympics, called for a cease-fire and for both nations to return to positions they held before hostilities commenced on Friday."

Describing phone calls he placed on Friday, Bush said in the interview: "I said this violence is unacceptable -- I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I've said it to the President of the country, Dmitriy Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying that the status quo ante for all troops should be August 6th. And, look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia. . . .

"I was very firm with Vladimir Putin -- he and I have got a good relationship -- just like I was firm with the Russian President. And hopefully this will get resolved peacefully. There needs to be a international mediation there for the South Ossetia issue."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to express U.S. solidarity in the conflict with Russia and told him 'Russian aggression must not go unanswered,' the vice president's office said on Monday.

"'The vice president expressed the United States' solidarity with the Georgian people and their democratically elected government in the face of this threat to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity,' Cheney's office said in a statement.

"It said Cheney, in a phone call on Sunday, told Saakashvili that 'Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community.' . . .

"'The vice president praised President Saakashvili for his government's restraint, offers of cease-fire, and disengagement of Georgian forces from the zone of conflict in the South Ossetian region of the country,' the statement said."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Asked to explain Cheney's phrase 'must not go unanswered,' White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, 'It means it must not stand.' White House officials refused to indicate what recourse the United States might have if the attacks continue."

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "Georgia's retreat is translating into popular anger among Georgians against the United States and the European Union, and a widespread sentiment that this small, pro-Western country has been abandoned to face Russia alone. Georgian officials said that the West's credibility is on the line and that failure to stop the continuing attacks could embolden Russia to threaten other countries in the region."

Finn writes that Bush's and Cheney's statements "appeared to be having little impact on Russia."

Andrew E. Kramer and Ellen Barry write in the New York Times: "As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?

"Since the conflict began, Western leaders have worked frantically to broker a cease-fire. But for Georgians -- so boisterously pro-American that Tbilisi, the capital, has a George W. Bush Street -- diplomacy fell far short of what they expected. . . .

"In recent years, Mr. Bush has lavished praise on Georgia -- and the so-called Rose Revolution that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power -- as a model of democracy-building. The feeling was mutual: when Mr. Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005, the authorities estimated that 150,000 people showed up to see him. He famously climbed up on a platform and wiggled his hips to loud Georgian folk music."

Anne Barnard writes in the New York Times that Russian attacks "seemed to suggest that Russia's aims in the conflict had gone beyond securing the pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin. . . .

"President Bush has promoted Georgia as a bastion of democracy, helped strengthen its military and urged that NATO admit the country to membership. Georgia serves as a major conduit for oil flowing from Russia and Central Asia to the West.

"But Russia, emboldened by windfall profits from oil exports, is showing a resolve to reassert its dominance in a region it has always considered its 'near abroad.' . . .

"Russia escalated its assault on Sunday despite strong diplomatic warnings from Mr. Bush and European leaders, underscoring the limits of Western influence over Russia at a time when the rest of Europe depends heavily on Russia for natural gas and the United States needs Moscow's cooperation if it hopes to curtail what it believes is a nuclear weapons threat from Iran."

Jay Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Kremlin's expanding military push into Georgia is fueling concerns within Washington's national-security establishment of a broader challenge to U.S. power globally during President George W. Bush's waning months in office.

"From the Caucasus Mountains to the Middle East and South Asia, U.S. diplomats and strategists say historical U.S. adversaries, such as Moscow and Tehran, appear to be exploiting Washington's impending political transition, and the White House's fixation on Iraq, to pursue international actions that might otherwise spark a more robust response from Washington and its allies. . . .

"'To some extent, regional actors are simply getting on with their own business,' said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the New York-based nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and former director for European affairs at the National Security Council. 'There's a sense that Washington is distracted, and its political capital is expended.'

"The limited ability of the Bush administration to protect Georgia is particularly alarming to many U.S. foreign-policy analysts, who say it marks the latest in a string of pro-Western governments or political movements that have come under attack in recent months, but which have received little more than rhetorical support from Washington in response."

Tom Hamburger and Erika Hayasaki write in the Los Angeles Times: "To Russia scholars like Michael McFaul of Stanford University, the use of such overwhelming force was a deliberate signal to Georgia, to other onetime Soviet republics and to the United States.

"'This is a signal to everyone that Russia is back -- and Russia is going to try and dominate this region of the world,' McFaul said."

The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "The Kremlin designed this war. Earlier this year, Russia tried to provoke Georgia by effectively annexing another of our separatist territories, Abkhazia. When we responded with restraint, Moscow brought the fight to South Ossetia.

"Ostensibly, this war is about an unresolved separatist conflict. Yet in reality, it is a war about the independence and the future of Georgia. And above all, it is a war over the kind of Europe our children will live in. Let us be frank: This conflict is about the future of freedom in Europe."

Zbigniew Brzezinski tells Nathan Gardels of Huffingtonpost.com: "The United States, particularly, shoulders the major burden of mobilizing an collective international response. This invasion of Georgia by Russia is a very sad commentary on eight years of self-delusion in the White House regarding Putin and his regime. Two memorable comments stand out. First, when Bush first met Putin and said he looked into his soul and could trust him. Second, not long ago, Condi Rice claimed that American relations with Russia have never been better in history!"

Bush and Putin

Bush's relationship with Putin has been the subject of intense speculation ever since that first meeting in 2001, when Bush reported favorably on Putin's soul. In particular, there's been some concern -- see, for instance, Jonathan S. Landay writing for McClatchy Newspapers in October 2007 -- that Putin reeled Bush in using techniques honed during his days with the KGB.

Indeed, when the two meet, it's pretty clear who comes off as in charge. For instance, in 2005, a reporter asked Putin whether Bush's chiding about his anti-Democratic actions would result in any policy changes. Putin replied: "Some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work. And I will pay due attention to them. . . . Some other ideas I will not comment on." With that, Putin winked at Bush, and Bush chuckled.

Iraqi Blowback

Yochi J. Dreazan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The crisis in the Caucasus spread to Iraq when Georgian troops began returning home to fight the Russians, leaving American commanders scrambling to figure out how to replace them.

"The U.S. began flying Georgian troops out of Iraq on American military aircraft Sunday, and U.S. officials expect to have all of the Georgians home by midweek 'so that they can support requirements there during the current security situation,' according to Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman. . . .

"[R]eplacing the Georgians will be difficult. The 2,000-strong Georgian contingent was the third-largest foreign force in Iraq, and Georgia, unlike most of the other coalition countries, allowed its forces to carry out dangerous missions near the Iraqi-Iranian border."

Bush at the Olympics

Paul Alexander writes for the Associated Press: "Most days, being the U.S. president means trying to extinguish one crisis after another.

"Then there are days like Saturday.

"Mountain biking on the Olympic course. Getting in a couple of hits with the women's beach volleyball team. Chuckling after being the target of a softball player's practical joke. Picking events and knowing he could get in, with a police escort ensuring traffic is no problem. . . .

"After an early wake-up call, the president headed straight to the Laoshan Olympic mountain-biking course, passing Tiananmen Square along the way. His wife, Laura, went on a tour of the Forbidden City. . . .

"In a green T-shirt and black shorts, the president biked more than an hour on the course on a warm, muggy, hazy day, accompanied by Secret Service agents and aides. He dabbed at his face with a towel as he left, then called the course 'really, really difficult.' . . .

"After slipping into dry clothes, the president headed for the beach volleyball at Chaoyang Park, getting sandy with defending gold medalist Misty May-Treanor on the practice courts during a half-hour stop.

"Bush posed for pictures with the U.S. players and staff. May-Treanor and her partner Kerri Walsh took a break in practice so Bush could try out a few bumps himself.

"The president needs some work on his passing, mis-hitting a pair off his knuckles. When May-Treanor passed the ball back to him, he acted like he was going to dive after it but decided to stay on his feet.

"Then May-Treanor turned her back to the president, offering her bikinied rear for one of the traditional slaps that volleyball players frequently give each other.

"'Mr. President, want to?' she asked, repeating an offer she made when Bush gave a pep talk to the U.S. athletes before Friday's opening ceremonies.

"Bush smilingly gave a flick with the back of his hand to the small of her back instead."

Sunday was a little more serious.

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Interspersing sports and diplomacy in ways that were almost dizzying at times, Mr. Bush concluded a series of meetings with President Hu Jintao of China and other senior leaders without any discernible rancor."

Here are Bush's brief remarks after attending a church service: "You know, it just goes to show that God is universal, and God is love, and no state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion.

Mark Magnier writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A few hours later, after meetings with President Hu Jintao, Bush came away with the impression that China was willing to give way on religion and that 'in the future there will be more room for religious believers,' Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters."

But "Bob Fu, head of China Aid Assn., said the fact that China wouldn't let Bush visit a church not sanctioned by the government shows how little religious freedom it is willing to tolerate. 'It sends a very chilling message,' he said. Fu met with Bush in the White House in late July."

Here's more from Bush's interview with unintimidated NBC sportscaster Bob Costas:

Costas: "As you attempt to press these points with them, do you find Hu Jintao not just warm toward you personally, but is he receptive? Do you sense any movement?"

Bush: "It's hard to tell. I mean, it's -- all I can tell you is, is that it is best to be in the position where a leader will listen to you. I went to church here, and I'm sure the cynics say, well, you know, it was just a state-sponsored church. On the other hand -- and that's true. On the other hand, it gave me a chance to say to the Chinese people, religion won't hurt you, you ought to welcome religious people. And it gave me a chance to say to the government, why don't you register the underground churches and give them a chance to flourish? And he listened politely. I can't read his mind, but I do know that every time I met with him I pressed the point."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Monday the Beijing Olympics exceeded his expectations, calling them a 'very uplifting experience' that he won't forget.

"'The whole thing is genuine,' Bush said in a short interview Monday with The Associated Press before returning to Washington at the end of his weeklong Asia trip. 'That's the good thing about the Olympics. It's been a lot of fun.'

"He also said his attendance, which has been criticized by human-rights activists as an endorsement of China's repression of free expression, was important.

"'It's good to send a signal to the Chinese people that we respect them, that this is about their country,' Bush said."

Bush 41 Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Former president George H.W. Bush doesn't give a lot of interviews these days, and for one simple reason: He doesn't want to have to start talking about his son, the president. 'Then somebody wants to psychoanalyze you, stretch you out on the couch . . . go into the differences that might exist,' he says dismissively, gesturing to the sofa in his hotel suite here, high above this bustling city.

"But near the end of a 25-minute interview Saturday, largely devoted to his long association with China, the former president relents a little. . . .

"'All I know is I am very proud of the relationships he has established with different leaders,' the senior Bush says of 'the president,' as he refers to the junior Bush. It's not only the Chinese leadership, he says. 'It's also [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. He gets criticized for that, but I think it's smart and wise and right that he has pleasant relationships with people and that they trust him.' . . .

"Perhaps mindful that Putin has been directing a new military campaign in Georgia, Bush goes on: 'It doesn't mean you approve of what Putin is doing or his denial of human rights in Russia. That's the thing that gets me about some of these critics. They think if you establish a personal relationship, that you're then signing off on everything that person does. And that's not right.'"

But perhaps Bush 41's own experience with the limits of personal relationships should have been a cautionary tale for his son.

As Abramowitz writes: "During his 14 months as the U.S. envoy to China in 1974 and 1975, as China was beginning to emerge from decades of isolation, Bush threw himself enthusiastically into a round of embassy receptions," even establishing a relationship with senior officials such as Deng Xiaoping. But the former president "came to be badly disappointed by the Chinese leader during the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. His critics said Bush was naive."

What W Got Right?

In Newseek's cover story this week, Fareed Zakaria writes about "What Bush Got Right." But talk about damning with faint praise.

"The foreign policies that aroused the greatest anger and opposition were mostly pursued in Bush's first term: the invasion of Iraq, the rejection of treaties, diplomacy and multilateralism. In the past few years, many of these policies have been modified, abandoned or reversed. This has happened without acknowledgment -- which is partly what drives critics crazy -- and it's often been done surreptitiously. It doesn't reflect a change of heart so much as an admission of failure; the old way simply wasn't working. But for whatever reasons and through whichever path, the foreign policies in place now are more sensible, moderate and mainstream. . . .

"Where Dick Cheney was once the poster child for the administration, today policy is being run by Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley and Hank Paulson -- all pragmatists. Change has not extended to all areas, and in many places it's been too little, too late. But that there has been a shift to the center in many crucial areas of foreign policy is simply undeniable."

And Zakaria concludes: "All this is not meant as a defense of George W. Bush. The administration made monumental errors in its first few years, ones that have cost the United States enormously. The shift in impressions about America's intentions across important sections of the globe, the sense in much of the Islamic world that America is anti-Muslim, the vast and counterproductive apparatus of homeland security -- visa restrictions, arrests and interrogations -- are lasting legacies of the Bush administration. Its dysfunction and incompetence have left a trail of misery in countries like Iraq and Lebanon, which have been destabilized for decades. The embrace of torture and other extralegal methods has violated America's noblest traditions and provided little in return.

"And then there is the administration's record outside of foreign policy. Bush 43 has surely been the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history, taking surpluses that equaled 2.5 percent of GDP and turning them into deficits that are 3 percent. This is a $4 trillion hit on the country's balance sheet. On the central issue of energy policy -- the greatest economic challenge and opportunity of our times -- Bush has been utterly obstructionist, recycling the self-serving arguments of industry lobbyists. On the whole, Bush's record remains one of failure and missed opportunities."

Iraq Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed on most elements of a framework under which U.S. combat troops would withdraw from Iraqi cities sometime next year, but dates have not yet been settled and Iraqi political approval of the draft accord remains uncertain, according to Bush administration officials.

"'What makes this complicated is that, until the whole package is done, it's not done,' one official said, adding, 'Yes, we have things on the table that we've agreed to,' but they await high-level Iraq agreement that may be weeks away, if not longer. . . .

"Over the past several days, U.S. officials have grown increasingly anxious as Iraqis from various political factions have told reporters that ironclad agreements have been reached to pull troops from population centers, including Baghdad, as early as June. . . .

"The Bush administration has opposed such a timetable but has bowed to Iraqi demands for target dates. Officials on both sides said dates will be couched in language that allows the withdrawal to speed up or slow down, depending on conditions on the ground."

Suskind Watch

Ron Suskind -- whose book I wrote about so much last week-- will be Live Online Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET.

Clive Crook writes in a Financial Times opinion column: "The response in the US to startling new allegations that the White House directed the forgery of evidence to support its case for the war in Iraq has been surprisingly muted so far. The charges may be false, of course, but if they are seriously examined and turn out to be true, this is - or ought to be - a Watergate-sized scandal. . . .

"Washington goes to sleep in August. Congress is out of town. Time is running down on this administration, and the focus of political attention is on Barack Obama and John McCain. Most Americans divide into two camps: those who believe that the Bush White House cannot speak without lying, and who thus regard this new charge as no surprise; and those who are contemptuous of the administration's critics and stopped listening way back. Yes, but still: an order not merely to spin evidence, or suppress evidence, but to manufacture it . . . ?

"Despite the distractions of the presidential campaigns and the pressures of being on vacation, Congress ought to look into it urgently, with witnesses on oath."

Hamdan Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Last week was hardly the first time that we have found ourselves scratching our heads in anguished confusion about what, exactly, President Bush is trying to achieve by trashing the Constitution at Guantánamo Bay. But the sentencing of Osama bin Laden's driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, to five and a half years in prison is a good moment to stop and reflect.

"For years, Mr. Bush and his supporters have been telling the world that it is necessary to hold prisoners without charges, to abuse them in ways most civilized nations consider torture, and to deny them basic human rights because of the serious threat they pose to America. . . .

"Mr. Hamdan, however, is hardly a high value target. The comedian Stephen Colbert captured the absurdity of the proceedings perfectly on Thursday night when he called the trial 'the most historic session of traffic court ever.' . . .

"Mr. Bush is operating according to a logic that says the right way to win against Al Qaeda is to invade Iraq, which had no connection to Al Qaeda. And the right way to dismantle Mr. bin Laden's terrorism network is to express unconcern about chasing him down while relentlessly pursuing his driver."

Bush's Philosophy?

The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University recently convened more than 200 people to develop questions for the presidential candidates aimed at understanding their leadership capabilities.

Former White House chief of staff Andrew S. Card shared his evidently Bush-influenced views about what it takes to be a great leader: "They have to demonstrate the courage to be lonely, the courage to understand that they may be making a decision that no one will understand, no one will like, and few will respect."

Movie Watch

Paul Bedard of U.S. News reports on a new Synovate poll that asked which movie title best sums up the Bush administration? The winner: "Get Smart."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on the great hunter's big trophy, Rob Rogers on the wheel man, and Jim Morin on Bush's idea of a fair trial; Adam Zyglis on Bush in reverse; Tom Stiglich on the Bush baton; Sean Leahy on Bush's glass house; Jeff Danziger on Bush's blissful ignorance and Ann Telnaes.

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