Five years ago, President Bush, looked Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin in the eyes and pronounced him a worthy soul. Mr. Putin, having looked into Mr. Bush’s eyes, clearly saw the lights on, but no one home. In the years that have passed, Mr. Putin has made the most of his new-best-friend’s disengagement.
In the early days of the new U.S. – Russia relationship, Mr. Putin was appropriately cordial. After all, Mr. Bush’s all-encompassing “war on terror” gave the former KGB officer the green light to mop up separatist rebels in Chechnya and other Central Asian republics. Needing every possible “ally” in a world where ever-fewer countries were willing to back America’s exceptionalist agenda, the State Department turned a blind eye to Mr. Putin’s blunting of Russia’s fledgling democratic institutions.
But lately the romance seems to have soured. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who so crave the consolidation of their own executive power at the expense of constitutional principles, have been increasingly vocal about similar counter-democratic developments in Russia. Likewise, Russia’s oil wealth, coupled with repeated U.S. foreign policy disasters, has given Mr. Putin a cock-sure smugness which flusters Ms. Rice and the boys.
Yesterday, Mr. Putin delivered one of the all-time great smack-downs to what passes for foreign policy in the Bush administration. According to the New York Times:
Mr. Bush said he had told Mr. Putin during a private dinner here Friday night about “my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq — where there is a free press and free religion — and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope Russia would do the same thing.”
Mr. Putin, standing bolt upright in a dark blue suit, responded dryly, “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.”