Pootie-Poot Comes Home to Roost

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 15, 2008; 11:18 AM

At the end of the week, one thing is clear: President Bush is finally aware of the dark side of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the man whose soul he so famously declared as trustworthy, the man he affectionately nicknamed Pootie-Poot.

"Unfortunately, Russia has tended to view the expansion of freedom and democracy as a threat to its interests," Bush declared in an early-morning statement before flying off for a two-week Crawford vacation, postponed by one day due to Russia's invasion of Georgia.

"With its actions in recent days Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world," he said, with no acknowledgment of his prior gullibility.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," he said, with no apparent sign of irony.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is guiding U.S. relations with Russia in a decidedly confrontational direction, evoking memories of Cold War bitterness.

"It's a marked turnabout from the sense-of-his-soul epiphany the president had seven years ago when he declared that Vladimir Putin was a trustworthy partner on the global stage. With only five months left in the Bush presidency, there is little time to repair damage in relations, much less capitalize on a new approach to make progress together on hotspots like Iran or North Korea. . . .

"'The administration is a bit behind the curve on this. They didn't understand what was coming,' said Janusz Bugajski, director of a new European democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. . . .

"Putin is the only world leader who landed the Bush-reward trifecta: visits to the president's Texas ranch, the Camp David retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains and his parents' summer home in Maine. Bush even risked losing some of his democratic-reformer credentials by agreeing to attend Putin's lavish Red Square anniversary celebration in 2005 of Soviet victory in World War II.

"But there was a big problem underlying the basic strategy: Bush's assumption that a weak, debt-ridden, post-Soviet Russia would seek to become more Western, and thus would share U.S. strategic interests, Bugajski said. The president also was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Russia, meanwhile, was operating on a very different view. Becoming ever richer off energy revenues, it worked to take advantage of what it sees as a declining America, to split the U.S. from traditional allies such as France and Germany, and to reassert its global role."

Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Russia's military offensive into Georgia has jolted the Bush administration's relationship with Moscow, senior officials said Thursday, forcing a wholesale reassessment of American dealings with Russia and jeopardizing talks on everything from halting Iran's nuclear ambitions to reducing strategic arsenals to cooperation on missiles defenses.

"The conflict punctuated a stark turnabout in the administration's view of Vladimir V. Putin, the president turned prime minister whom President Bush has repeatedly described as a trustworthy friend. Now Mr. Bush's aides complain that Russian officials have been misleading or at least evasive about Russia's intentions in Georgia.

"Even as the conflict between Russia and Georgia appeared to ease on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the Russian attack had forced a fundamental rethinking of the administration's effort to forge 'an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with Russia.' . . .

"'My view is that the Russians -- and I would say principally Prime Minister Putin -- is interested in reasserting Russia's, not only Russia's great power or superpower status, but in reasserting Russia's traditional spheres of influence,' he said. 'My guess is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead.' . . .

"The unspoken new danger is that a cooling relationship could cost the administration any hope of working closely with Russia on some of its topmost priorities, like controlling nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism or resolving the problems of the Middle East."

Here's something else unspoken. As Myers and Shanker note: "Mr. Bush has not directly addressed his relationship with Mr. Putin or his successor, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, and his aides declined on Thursday to discuss his personal views."

And all the tough new language isn't translating into action -- in large part because there's not much Bush can actually do at this point.

Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor write for the Associated Press: "The United States warned sternly Thursday of a long-term rupture with Russia if Moscow does not quickly abide by its promise to withdraw its fighting forces from Georgia. In contrast to the tough talk, Condoleezza Rice rushed to the former Soviet republic with a new cease-fire plan offering concessions to Moscow. . . .

"Issuing urgent statements in Washington and abroad, President Bush and his foreign policy lieutenants sought to jawbone Russia into compliance while taking a U.S. military response off the table -- suggesting strict limits to how far he was willing to go in the waning days of a controversial presidency."

Here's Bush's brief statement after a visit to CIA headquarters yesterday afternoon. "I call for the territorial integrity of Georgia to be respected and the cease-fire agreement to be honored," he said.

But as Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times, that comment "produced a derisive response from Moscow.

"'I think we can forget about talking about Georgia's territorial integrity,' said [Sergei] Lavrov, the foreign minister, according to the Interfax news agency. 'We do not want Georgia's breakup, but neither the South Ossetians nor the Abkhaz want to live in the same state with a man who sends his troops against them.'"

McClatchy calls this one for Russia.

Nancy A. Youssef, Tom Lasseter and Dave Montgomery write for McClatchy Newspapers: "American officials on Thursday ended speculation that the U.S. military might come to the rescue of Georgia's beleaguered government, confirming Russia's virtual takeover of the former Soviet republic and heralding Moscow's reemergence as the dominant power in eastern Europe. . . .

"'The empire strikes back,' said Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C."

The Polish Provocation

Bush's claim that the proposed European missile defense program is not directed at Russia was dubious to start with. But yesterday's decision to seal a deal with Poland by throwing in a fully-manned Patriot missile battery directly pointed at Russia makes it a pretty blatant act of provocation.

Thom Shanker and Nicholas Kulish write in the New York Times: "The United States and Poland reached a long-stalled deal on Thursday to place an American missile defense base on Polish territory, in the strongest reaction so far to Russia's military operation in Georgia. . . .

"The missile defense deal was announced by Polish officials and confirmed by the White House. Under it, Poland would host an American base with 10 interceptors designed to shoot down a limited number of ballistic missiles, in theory launched by a future adversary such as Iran. A tracking radar system would be based in the Czech Republic. The system is expected to be in place by 2012.

"In exchange for providing the base, Poland would get what the two sides called 'enhanced security cooperation,' notably a top-of-the-line Patriot air defense system that can shoot down shorter-range missiles or attacking fighters or bombers.

"A senior Pentagon official described an unusual part of this quid pro quo: an American Patriot battery would be moved from Germany to Poland, where it would be operated by a crew of about 100 American military personnel members. The expenses would be shared by both nations. American troops would join the Polish military, at least temporarily, at the front lines -- facing east toward Russia.

"Russia has long opposed the deal, saying the United States was violating post-cold-war agreements not to base its troops in former Soviet bloc states and devising a Trojan Horse system designed to counter Russia's nuclear arsenal, not an attack by Iran or another adversary. . . .

"Washington had balked at some of Poland's demands. . . .

"But in a sign of the widening repercussions of the conflict in Georgia, those concerns were cast aside, as the offensive by Russia's military across its borders was viewed around the world as a sign of Moscow's determination to reimpose its influence across the old Soviet bloc."

The Associated Press reports this morning: "An agreement that will allow the United States to install a missile defense battery in Poland exposes the ex-communist nation to an attack, a Russian general said Friday. . . .

"Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff told reporters Friday that the agreement exacerbates U.S.-Russian relations that are already tense because of fighting between Georgian and Russian forces. He said the deal 'cannot go unpunished.'

"And in the strongest threat Russia has issued in reaction to plans to put elements of a missile defense system in former Soviet satellite nations, the Interfax news agency quoted Nogovitsyn as saying Poland was risking attack.

"'Poland, by deploying (the system) is exposing itself to a strike -- 100 percent,' Interfax quoted Nogovitsyn as saying."

At yesterday's White House press briefing, spokeswoman Dana Perino said "the President is very pleased with this development."


Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush Wednesday promised that U.S. naval forces would deliver humanitarian aid to war-torn Georgia before his administration had received approval from Turkey, which controls naval access to the Black Sea, or the Pentagon had planned a seaborne operation, U.S. officials said Thursday.

"As of late Thursday, Ankara, a NATO ally, hadn't cleared any U.S. naval vessels to steam to Georgia through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the narrow straits that connect the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, the officials said. Under the 1936 Montreaux Convention, countries must notify Turkey before sending warships through the straits. . . .

"Pentagon officials told McClatchy that they were increasingly dubious that any U.S. Navy vessels would join the aid operation, in large part because the U.S.-based hospital ships likely to go, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, would take weeks to arrive.

"'The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank,' said a senior administration official."

My question: Why didn't he talk to anyone who knew what they were doing beforehand?

Opinion Watch

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column: "Only someone with a tenuous grasp on reality and a poor knowledge of history and the world could have looked into the flinty eyes of a onetime colonel in the Soviet KGB and 'found him very straightforward and trustworthy.'

"That was newly elected President George W. Bush's pronouncement in June 2001, on his first meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

"This week President Bush got another look into the eyes and soul of Putin, as did the rest of the world, as Putin sent Russian T-72 tanks and Su-25 fighter-bombers roaring into the independent neighboring state of Georgia."

Galloway concludes: "If there's any silver lining to these dark clouds, it might be that Bush and Cheney will be so preoccupied grumbling at Bush's buddy Vladimir and issuing empty threats that they won't have time to issue other threats or take some irrational action against the Iranians."

Paul J. Saunders writes in The Washington Post that Bush is being played by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: "Throughout history, weak nations with powerful neighbors have energetically sought strong allies. . . .

"Saakashvili has embraced this tried-and-true strategy with gusto, sending a substantial share of the country's small army to Iraq (from which its troops were understandably recalled in recent days) and parroting Bush administration talking points on international issues -- especially on promoting democracy -- more than almost any other leader worldwide. . . .

"Saakashvili's recent statements demonstrate how well he has learned to push America's buttons, probably with the help of his government's lobbyists in Washington. In several interviews and articles, including an op-ed in yesterday's Post, he has compared the recent Russian attack on Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. . . .

"But the situation inside Georgia belies Saakashvili's rhetorical commitment to freedom. Most glaring was his handling of opposition protests last fall. The State Department's 2007 Human Rights Report, released just a few months ago, found 'serious problems' with Georgia's human rights record and notes 'excessive use of force to disperse demonstrations'; 'impunity of police officers'; and declining respect for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and political participation."

And from the right, Andrew C. McCarthy writes for the National Review: "It was a relief to see President Bush take some meaningful action in response to Russia's aggression against Georgia on Wednesday -- something beyond looking sternly into Vladimir Putin's soul between beach volleyball serves in Beijing. Thursday's announcement that U.S. missile batteries will be installed in Poland is also welcome. More telling, though, is the step the president hasn't taken: a necessary step, but one tantamount to a concession that the administration's Iran policy has been a farce.

"The president must withdraw the U.S.-Russia civil-nuclear cooperation agreement, submitted in all its naïveté to an appropriately hostile Congress back in May. . . .

"For here is the problem: Putin, for whom 'strategic partner' is just a side-line from his full-time gig as Capo di Tutti Commie, has all the while been arming and protecting our most determined enemies."

Stonewall Watch

I wrote in my August 8 column, Foot-Dragging to the Finish, about the White House's continued refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas -- despite a federal judge's ruling against its claim that presidential aides are immune from oversight.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy sent a furious letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding yesterday.

"Having obstructed our proceedings for more than a year, and having unsuccessfully resisted the House's action in court, it certainly seems that your intention is simply to run out the clock. It is clear to me that this administration has no interest in complying with its lawful duty or showing respect to the rulings of Congress or the courts.

"Despite mounting evidence of significant involvement by White House officials, the White House has still not produced a single document, a list of the materials withheld or the factual basis for any specific claim of executive privilege. When I wrote to the President a year ago following the suggestion of [Republican] Senator [Arlen] Specter to ask the President to sit down with us and work out an accommodation, my offer was flatly rejected. Despite the conclusion of your August 7 letter, which stated that you 'remain available' to explore 'ways to reach an accommodation,' you have made no proposals and taken no steps toward compliance with the Senate Judiciary Committee's subpoenas or with the court's order. Such hollow words are no substitute for action, especially given this administration's unwillingness to engage in good faith accommodations in the past, the interposed months of delay, and your legal position having been repudiated by the court."

Mukasey Watch

The Miami Herald editorial board writes: "When former federal judge Michael Mukasey became attorney general, the hope was that he would act swiftly and energetically to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales. His record so far has been disappointing. Mr. Mukasey has been more independent and more scrupulous than the discredited figure he replaced, but the real test is whether he is will hold those who acted wrongly accountable for their actions. This week he sent a strong signal that he is not up to the task."

Fundraiser in Chief

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's popularity has tanked, but boy can he still bring in the cash. . . .

"In all, Bush has personally raised more than $968 million for the Republican Party, GOP candidates and his own re-election campaign and inauguration during his two terms in office. And he's not finished.

"He's now lost a big part of the national spotlight to presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama, but he remains a formidable force on the fundraising circuit, mostly at private affairs closed to the media. His total so far this year is roughly $70 million. . . .

"Out of political expedience, McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, is generally keeping his distance -- at least physically -- from an unpopular incumbent who's burdened with war, soaring fuel prices and a sputtering economy."

Helen Thomas Watch

Steve Gorman writes for Reuters: "As a tireless questioner of authority and a consummate Washington insider, pioneering White House correspondent Helen Thomas has covered nine U.S. presidents over a span of nearly a half century.

"Next week on cable network HBO, Thomas, 88, makes a rare appearance as an interview subject in a documentary produced and directed by filmmaker Rory Kennedy, whose uncle 'Jack' was the first Oval Office occupant Thomas followed as a reporter.

"The 38-minute profile, ' Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House,' features the journalist reflecting on her life, career, and devotion to the ideal that democracy thrives best when a vigilant press holds leaders accountable.

"'I think that presidents deserve to be questioned, maybe irreverently, most of the time, (to) bring 'em down a size,' the plain-spoken Thomas says of the particular role of the White House press corps."

Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: "The film takes square aim at Helen Thomas' latest battles with President George W. Bush, opening with a press conference in which Thomas asked Bush why he wanted to go to war. . . .

"Kennedy admits part of the film's effort is to show how Thomas's direct questioning and tireless investigation is being lost in today's White House press, particularly in the run up to the Iraq War.

"'Has the media been asking the hard questions?' Kennedy says. 'I do share her analysis of what happened in the lead-up to the war, the press did not do their job adequately. The press has changed over the past 30 years. Helen has remained true to her craft, despite the shift.'"

And Ken Bazinet blogs for the New York Daily News that Thomas, who has been hospitalized since May for an infection, was back home yesterday and planning to return to work soon.

Bush's Cheerleading

Al Neuharth write in a USA Today opinion piece: "President Bush made a very popular move with his cheerleading at the Olympics in Beijing this past week. . . .

"Sadly, a little-noted blemish for Bush in Beijing is the fact that only four athletes from Iraq are among the 10,708 competing. In 2004, Iraq was represented by 25 athletes.

"The war without end in Iraq that Bush so mistakenly started not only has taken tens of thousands of military and civilian lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars, but it also has disrupted the development of athletes and other young people there.

"As Bush basks in the afterglow of the smartest international move of his presidency in Beijing, he has just five months to try to do something about his dumbest adventure in Iraq. If he could clear up that mess, the whole world would cheer."

Joel Stein writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece: "There are many things George W. Bush should do after his presidency, most of which involve apologizing. But that's not the man's strength. So if he really wants to, as he said, 'give some speeches to replenish the old coffers,' I suggest he stick to what he does best: motivational speaking.

"I've never seen anyone throw pompoms at disaster as well as Bush. Other leaders -- Churchill, FDR, Reagan, JFK, Bruce Springsteen -- expressed how citizens would rise to the challenge of difficult times and either save the world or leave town in a muscle car with a woman. Bush skips all those steps and proclaims that despite all signs to the contrary, everything is awesome right now. Iraq is going great; recovering from 9/11 just required some shopping."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Bush's big talk, Lee Judge on Bush's irony deficit, and Adam Zyglis on the "meddle"-ists; Rex Babin on endangered species; Rob Rogers on the real lip-syncing scandal; Joel Pett on synchronized dives; and Paul Fell on the Bush precedent.

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