Bush's Big Nyet

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; 11:21 AM

This is what it's come to. On Monday, President Bush issued a statement very sternly calling on Russian leaders not to recognize the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.

Within hours, the Russians went ahead and did it anyway.

So on Tuesday, out came another statement, in which Bush very sternly told the Russian leaders they shouldn't have.

What explains Bush's manifest lack of leverage? Russia, fat on oil profits, is clearly intent on reasserting its sphere of influence, and an act of provocation by Georgia gave them just the excuse they were looking for. But there's something almost personal about the way Russia is flouting Bush's warnings. Is it because of all those times Bush poked the bear? Or is it because our military is otherwise occupied? Is it because Bush has squandered America's moral authority? Or is just because he's a lame duck? Maybe it's on account of Bush's demeaning nickname for Vladimir Putin. Take your pick.

Philip P. Pan and Jonathan Finer write in The Washington Post that the Russian decision "amounted to a bold reassertion of Russian power in a region that Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence and a pointed challenge to President Bush, who had warned the Kremlin not to recognize the territories the day before.

"In a written statement, Bush urged Russia to 'reconsider this irresponsible decision,' which he said violated U.N. resolutions as well as the French-brokered cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting between Russia and Georgia. 'Russia's action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations,' he said."

Alex Rodriguez writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The Kremlin's decision Tuesday to recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway enclaves deepens what has become the West's worst crisis with Moscow since the end of the Cold War--a crisis that has revealed its lack of leverage over a confident, aggressive Russia."

Paul Richter and Sergei L. Loiko write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration and its European allies, stung by Russia's formal recognition of two separatist Georgian enclaves, faced new pressure Tuesday to strike back diplomatically and politically against the Kremlin's widening move to assert its power in the Caucasus.

"U.S. officials, who have shunned a military response, did not publicly specify available options. But privately, they cited the possibility of excluding Russia from a number of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization. They also could try to pressure Moscow through economic measures that pinch the wallets or limit the mobility of Russia's wealthy elite and middle class, including restrictions on travel to the West. . . .

"Charles Kupchan, who was a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration, said the Russian policy is a miscalculation because it 'strengthens those in both the United States and Europe who believe it's time for the West to take some serious steps to respond to Russian behavior.'"

Meanwhile, Niko Mchedlishvili writes for Reuters: "A U.S. Coast Guard ship carrying aid for victims of Georgia's brief war with Russia arrived on the country's Black Sea coast on Wednesday, but backed down from docking in a Russian-patrolled port.

"The cutter Dallas had been due in Poti, where Russian troops are manning checkpoints since pushing into Georgia proper this month after a war over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Instead, it docked 80 km (50 miles) south in Batumi.

"The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi originally said the Dallas would be joined in Poti by a U.S. warship, the USS McFaul, which docked in Batumi on Sunday. But the embassy said late on Tuesday that the plan had changed. It did not say why.

"'This decision was taken at the highest level of the Pentagon,' a U.S. embassy spokeswoman told Reuters."

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "Adding to the tension, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened an unspecified military response if the United States follows through with a missile-defense system near Russia's borders in Poland and the Czech Republic. . . .

"Medvedev said his country may respond to a U.S. missile shield in Europe. 'We have to react somehow, to react, of course, in a military way,' Medvedev was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency.

"Stephen Larrabee, a specialist on European security with the RAND Corp., a think tank, noted the escalating war of words.

"'We're having sort of an action-reaction spiral,' Larrabee said. 'Things are deteriorating quite quickly. Where it will end up is very hard to say at this point.'"

Here's White House spokesman Tony Fratto taking questions in Crawford yesterday:

Q. "The President yesterday called specifically for Russia's leadership not to recognize the independence of these regions, and swiftly just the opposite happened. So does the President have no influence left with Russia's direction?"

Fratto: "Russia is making, I would say, a number of irrational decisions. And this is not about the United States and Russia; this is about Europe and the international community and Russia, and the choices Russia is making that affect its place in the world. . . . "

Q. "U.S. entreaties for Russia not to recognize the breakaway regions or face unspecified consequences didn't really seem to work. When will the U.S. start to outline what some of those consequences will be?"

Fratto: "I think there's time for that. . . . "

Q. "Tony, the President we know puts great store in his personal relationships with foreign leaders, and yet today's action by the Kremlin came a day after he personally appealed for Russia not to do what it exactly went ahead and did. So does he view the Kremlin as thumbing its nose at his appeal?"

Fratto: "I think the Kremlin can speak for itself on what their intentions were. . . . "

Q. "Tony, is there any thought being given to somebody going to Moscow and talking directly with Russian leaders?"

Fratto: "I don't have any plans for that at this time that I'm aware of."

Q. "And why wouldn't somebody be doing that?"

Fratto: "That would be a decision for the President and his senior advisors to make, and I just -- I have nothing on that right now."

The Lame Duck Factor

Richard Cowan writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush's waning influence on the world stage is encouraging Russia's show of military force in neighboring Georgia and move to recognize two rebel regions there as independent states.

"With less than five months left in the White House, Bush is entering the 'lame duck' period of his presidency facing new foreign policy challenges from both Russia and North Korea as he continues to struggle with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"'The fact that it's a period of transition in the U.S. certainly makes it easier for the Russians to act provocatively,' said Jeff Mankoff, adjunct fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. . . .

"'There was this narrow calculation of the American political calendar' by Russia, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.

"Aron's scenario goes like this: with his influence sapped by the Iraq war, Bush 'will not be able to muster much of a response' to Russia's actions in the final months of his presidency."

Also contributing to the problem, of course, is that "[s]everal foreign affairs experts agree the Bush administration failed to give Russia enough attention almost from day one, and then gave contradictory signals."

Jonathan Manthorpe writes in the Vancouver Sun: "The rest of the world . . . has to ride the fallout from George W. Bush's evident yearning to be ploughing the back forty in Crawford rather than shuffling papers in the Oval Office."

The Personal Touch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "He glimpsed inside Vladimir Putin's soul and found something to his liking. He has also showed off his Texas ranch to Saudi King Abdullah, talked economics with Chinese President Hu Jintao and visited Graceland with then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

"More than many of his predecessors, President Bush has invested heavily in trying to forge a strong bond with key foreign leaders. But as his term winds down, new crises in Georgia and Pakistan are underscoring the limits of Bush's personal diplomacy, as the president is receiving criticism for overpersonalizing relations with Putin, the Russian prime minister, and with Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as Pakistan's president last week.

"Many Russia experts say Bush did not understand the true intentions and character of the Russian leader. 'He misjudged Putin,' said Stanford University professor Michael A. McFaul, who has been advising Sen. Barack Obama's campaign on Russia policy. From an early date, McFaul said, Putin has had a 'very obvious grand strategy for rolling back democracy,' but 'when new evidence came in to suggest that his initial assessment of Putin was wrong, [Bush] tended to dismiss it.' . . .

"Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bush is more naive about personal relations with other leaders than past U.S. presidents. . . .

"'The others were far more realistic,' Gelb said. 'This Bush thinks when he calls Putin, they are soul mates, and when he expresses a desire for Putin to do something, he will do it.' . . .

"White House aides say Bush has been aggressive but realistic in his dealings with world leaders. 'While there are often policy issues that don't exactly go the way we want them to, the situation on the other hand could be much worse if the president did not have a decent working relationship with some of these leaders,' said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council."

The Cheney Touch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "This is where things stand nearly three weeks after Russia invaded Georgia and radically upended ties with the West: Russian troops still occupy key areas, including the port of Poti; Moscow has recognized the independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions; Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is still talking tough even though his army is routed and his country shattered.

"And if that isn't unnerving enough, President Bush has decided to dispatch Vice President Dick Cheney, that master of diplomacy, to the region.

"We do not know what Mr. Cheney will say when he visits Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Italy next week. The last thing the world needs now is him inciting more resentments and anxieties. . . .

"Ties between Russia and the West are now the worst in a generation. It will take toughness and subtlety to ensure they do not lock into a permanent confrontation -- not more bluster from anyone."

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "What was a top national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney doing in Georgia shortly before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's troops engaged in what became a disastrous fight with South Ossetian rebels -- and then Russian troops?

"Not, according to the vice president's office, what you might think -- if your thinking takes you into the realm of Cheney giving his blessing to the Georgian's military operation. . . .

"Joseph R. Wood, Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs, was in Georgia shortly before the war began.

"But, the vice president's office says, he was there as part of a team setting up the vice president's just-announced visit to Georgia. (It is common for the White House to send security, policy, communications and press aides to each site the president and vice president will visit ahead of the trip, to begin making arrangements and planning the agenda.)"

The Clock is Ticking

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge yesterday refused to delay his order requiring former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to testify in Congress, another legal setback for the Bush administration's attempts to limit cooperation with Democratic lawmakers.

"U.S. District Judge John D. Bates rejected the administration's argument that Miers should not be required to cooperate with Congress while the government appeals an earlier ruling he issued.

"In the previous decision, Bates rejected the administration's assertions that Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten were protected by executive privilege and could not be forced to testify or provide documents to Congress about the controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. The judge said that the government's position was excessively broad and that senior aides must be more specific about the information they say is protected.

"The new ruling will make it more difficult for Miers to avoid testifying by running out the clock on the 110th Congress, which ends in early January. Without a stay, she could be compelled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee as early as next month."

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Bates, who was appointed by President Bush, said a delay would not be in the public interest.

"If a delay is granted, he said, 'There is a very strong possibility that the committee will be unable to complete its investigation before Congress expires. That may leave important public concerns regarding the nation's federal criminal justice system unaddressed.'"

Yesterday's ruling, like Bates's previous one, was blistering about the administration's positions.

Consider, for instance, this passage: "Without any supporting judicial precedent whatsoever -- and, indeed, in the face of Supreme Court case law that effectively forecloses the basis for the assertion of absolute immunity here -- it is difficult to see how the Executive can demonstrate that it has a substantial likelihood of success on appeal, or even that a serious legal question is presented. The Executive's argument boils down to a claim that a stay is appropriate because the underlying issue is important. But that is beside the point and does not demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits. Simply calling an issue important -- primarily because it involves the relationship of the political branches -- does not transform the Executive's weak arguments into a likelihood of success or a substantial appellate issue."

Convention Watch

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "A two-headed creature is stalking the Democratic convention, getting kicked and pummeled at every turn. 'Bush-McCain' is not a political ticket, but a hyphenated target that Democrats have invented from necessity."

Babington quotes Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel: "'George Bush has put the middle class in a hole,' he said, 'and John McCain has a plan to keep digging that hole with George Bush's shovel.' Noting that Bush inherited a budget surplus that turned into a deficit, he said: 'Mr. President, we will be forever in your debt. . . . You would think the one thing President Bush was good at was inheriting things.'

"Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told the convention crowd that McCain 'calls himself a maverick, but he votes with George Bush 90 percent of the time. That's not a maverick, that's a sidekick.'

"Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland used a baseball analogy about job losses. Bush 'came into office on third base, and then he stole second,' he said. 'And John McCain cheered him every step of the way.' . . .

"The night's most important speaker, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered one of the sharpest jabs. 'It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities,' she said. 'Because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart.'"

Afghanistan Watch

Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "United Nations officials in Afghanistan said Tuesday that there was 'convincing evidence' at least 90 civilians -- two-thirds of them children -- were killed in a U.S.-led airstrike last week that caused the Afghan government to call for a review of U.S. and NATO military operations in the country. . . .

"U.S. forces in Afghanistan have increased their reliance on air power since last year, causing a corresponding increase in civilian deaths. . . .

"Afghan officials and independent investigators say more than 165 civilians have been killed in four airstrikes in the past two months. The deaths have angered Afghans, who are pressuring Karzai to seek greater control over foreign troops even as resurgent Taliban fighters increase their attacks on the international presence in Afghanistan."

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, the authors of a new Institute of Peace report on civilian casualties pose the question: Are we bombing our way to disaster in Afghanistan?

Carlotta Gall writes in the New York Times: "The failure of the American-backed Afghan government to protect Kandahar has rippled across the rest of the country and complicated the task of NATO forces, which have suffered more deaths here this year than at any time since the 2001 invasion."

Iraq Watch

Reuters reports: "The United States asked Iraq for permission to maintain a troop presence there to 2015, but U.S. and Iraqi negotiators agreed to limit their authorization to 2011, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said.

"'It was a U.S. proposal for the date which is 2015, and an Iraqi one which is 2010, then we agreed to make it 2011. Iraq has the right, if necessary, to extend the presence of these troops,' Talabani said in an interview with al-Hurra television, a transcript of which was posted on his party's website on Wednesday."

North Korea Watch

P. Parameswaran writes for AFP: "The United States accused North Korea Tuesday of violating a six-nation nuclear accord and retained it on a terror blacklist, after the hardline communist state defiantly suspended disabling its atomic plants.

"Washington said North Korea would stay on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list until it agreed to a protocol that could verify a nuclear program declared by Pyongyang in June ahead of dismantlement of its atomic arsenal."

Suskind Watch

Mark Danner reviews Ron Suskind's new book, "The Way of the World," in the New York Times: "In a crowded, highly talented field, Mr. Suskind bids fair to claim the crown as the most perceptive, incisive, dogged chronicler of the inner workings of the Bush administration."

Crawford Watch

Rosalind S. Helderman writes in The Washington Post: "Wednesday marks the final day of Bush's last Crawford summer vacation, a prospect that has left longtime residents marveling at the changes that have come to their dusty, 700-person town about 20 miles west of Waco -- and wondering what comes next."

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Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert talks to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan: "You've admitted that you were misled, and therefore you misled the press. . . . First of all, well done! And second, isn't it just as possible now . . . that you are being misled about having been misled? . . . Isn't there a slim chance that you are actually trustworthy?"

Cartoon Watch

Daniel Wasserman on the prisoner of W.

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