Leitura para o fim-de-semana: Bush e Putin, tão amigos que eles foram

O jornalista Peter Baker foi o chefe da delegação em Moscovo do The Washington Post. Agora é o principal correspondente na Casa Branca do The New York Times. O seu novo livro chama-se Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House e estes excertos, publicados na revista Foreign Policy contam como George W. Bush olhou Putin nos olhos e viu a sua alma – e como uma amizade surpreendente acabou por gelar.

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The Seduction of George W. Bush

How the president of good and evil bromanced Vladimir Putin. And how a warm friendship turned to ice.

BY PETER BAKER

In the summer of 2006, President George W. Bush was relaxing at Camp David with the visiting prime minister of Denmark when the conversation turned to Vladimir Putin. It had been five years since Bush memorably peered into the Russian leader’s soul. But now hope had been replaced by exasperation.

Bush regaled his guest with stories of aggravating private dealings with Putin that underscored their growing rift. Bush was astonished that Putin had tried to influence him by offering to hire a close friend of the president’s and he found Putin’s understanding of the world disconnected from reality. “He’s not well informed,” Bush groused. “It’s like arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong.”

Putin was on his mind because Russia was about to host the annual summit of the G-8 powers for the first time and Bush feared that the session would be dominated by questions about why an undemocratic nation was hosting a gathering of democratic nations. Bush had been trying to get Putin to relax his authoritarian rule to no avail. “I think Putin is not a democrat anymore,” Bush lamented a few weeks later to another visitor, the prime minister of Slovenia. “He’s a tsar. I think we’ve lost him.”

Whether Bush or anyone else ever actually “had” Putin in the first place is debatable at best. But the story of Bush’s eight-year pas de deux with the master of the Kremlin, reconstructed through interviews with key players and secret notes and memos, offers lessons for President Obama as he struggles to define his own approach to Putin and shape the future of the two nuclear powers. The last few months have become another dramatic juncture in the volatile Russian-American relationship, with Moscow defying Washington by offering shelter to national security leaker Edward Snowden, Obama becoming the first president to cancel a Russian-American meeting in more than 50 years and then, suddenly, improbably, the Kremlin throwing the American leader a lifeline when his confrontation with Syria took a wrong turn.

Looked at in the context of time, Obama’s own dashed aspirations to build a new partnership with Moscow seem to echo his predecessor’s experience. Bush thought he could forge more meaningful ties with Russia in his early years, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and for a time seemed to make significant headway with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to become frustrated as the two countries diverged, eventually coming into overt diplomatic conflict during the Georgia war of 2008. Obama likewise came into office intent on pushing the “reset” button and similarly saw early progress with a nuclear arms treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, only to find his efforts increasingly thwarted by the same Putinist revanchism. Whether the recent Russian-American collaboration to disarm Syria’s chemical stocks will turn out to be a more enduring foundation for change remains to be seen.

If Obama were to look back at his predecessor’s experience, though, he might recognize how easy it is to misjudge Moscow’s intentions by superimposing American ideas of what Russian interests should be rather than understanding how Putin and his circle of KGB veterans and zero-sum-gamers actually see those interests. Again and again, Bush and Obama have assessed Russia through an American prism and come away disappointed that the view from the Kremlin looks different than they thought it ought to.

* * *

Bush came to office wary of Putin — “one cold dude,” he called him privately — but he was interested in forging a working relationship if only because at the time he saw the real threat to the United States elsewhere. When he met with Russia scholars before his first encounter with Putin in 2001, Michael McFaul, then a Stanford University professor and later Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, told him that keeping Russia “inside our tent” was the best course.

Bush agreed. “You’re absolutely right,” he said, “because someday we’re all going to be dealing with the Chinese.”

So when he sat down with Putin in a 16th-century castle in Slovenia in June of that year, he was predisposed to find a partner in the former KGB man even before his counterpart told him about saving his Orthodox cross from a dacha fire, a story appealing to Bush’s faith. Bush’s later public comment noting that he had gotten a “sense of his soul” disturbed many inside his own team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stiffened even as he said it, worried that the answer might be too effusive — but she said nothing. Back in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff were even more bothered. “A lot of us were kind of rolling our eyes about that,” Eric Edelman, then the vice president’s deputy national security adviser, recalled later. Every time Cheney saw Putin, he privately told people, “I think KGB, KGB, KGB.”

Bush nonetheless stepped up his courtship, inviting Putin to his ranch outside Crawford, Texas, and later to Camp David. Putin liked to brag that he was the first foreign leader to reach out to Bush after the World Trade Towers fell and that he had overruled his own hardliners to allow American troops into former Soviet-controlled Central Asia as a jumping off point for Afghanistan.

Even when Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty over Russian objections, the two tamped down the dispute and agreed on significant reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals. Cheney resisted codifying those cuts in a treaty, but Bush decided to sign one anyway, because Putin insisted. “Putin is at huge risk,” Bush told aides, “and he needs to fight off his troglodytes.”

Then as later, Bush would attribute Putin’s demands or paranoia to those around him, essentially exonerating the Russian president himself. During a trade dispute when Russia cut off imports of American chicken drumsticks (known colloquially within Russia as “Bush legs”), Putin in a private conversation with Bush asserted that Americans deliberately sent bad poultry to Russia.

“I know you have separate plants for chickens for America and chickens for Russia,” Putin told Bush.

Bush was astonished. “Vladimir, you’re wrong.”

“My people have told me this is true,” Putin insisted.

If Bush was willing to blame that misinformation on Putin’s advisers, he could hardly have missed the fact that it was the Russian president who fought him publicly and powerfully on the Iraq War, joining his counterparts in Paris and Berlin. Even then, Bush was forbearing, intent on preventing a broader rupture in the relationship. Rice at the time privately summed up the policy this way: “Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.”

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