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Crises cast doubt on Bush's strategy

He's emphasized personal relationships with leaders such as Putin and Musharraf.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2008

Better times: President Bush cultivated ties with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seen here together in Slovenia in 2001.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/FILE

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President Bush has long prided himself on his close personal relationships with foreign leaders. But over the last several weeks some of those relationships appear to have gone disastrously awry.

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At their first meeting in 2001, Bush famously said of Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin that he'd looked into his eyes and found him "trustworthy." Now prime minister, Mr. Putin defends Russia's invasion of Georgia, which has sent US-Russian relations to their lowest point in years.

Mr. Bush has long been a staunch supporter of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf has now resigned, and the US faces the tough task of trying to persuade Pakistan's elected leaders to focus on the strengthening Taliban insurgency.

All recent US presidents have forged bonds with fellow heads of state. The question is, did the Bush administration depend too much on personal interaction and miss the broader geopolitical forces at work in Russia and Pakistan? Some critics charge that is exactly what happened.

"I found it striking that Bush has talked about [looking into Musharraf's eyes]. It's the same metaphor he used with Putin," says Rand Beers, who was a top national security adviser to the Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry in 2004.

A great deal of US policy toward Russia flowed out of Bush's initial encounter with Putin, according to Mr. Beers, now president of the National Security Network, a foreign-policy research group based in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, Bush cultivated a close relationship with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been a staunch US ally in Iraq.

In fact, it was personality-driven geopolitics that blinded the Bush administration to President Saakashvili's recklessness, says Beers. A Georgian incursion into the breakaway province of South Ossetia may have been a provocation Russia was waiting for.

Both the situation in Georgia and Pakistan's domestic political crisis will probably be problems that land in the next president's lap. On Aug. 19, NATO allies warned Russia that future cooperation with Moscow now depends on the withdrawal of troops from Georgia.

"There can be no more business as usual under present circumstances," said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels.