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

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    Better times: President Bush cultivated ties with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seen here together in Slovenia in 2001.
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    Backing the wrong horse? President Bush has been a longtime supporter of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, seen here together at the White House in 2006. Mr. Musharraf resigned Monday amid a parliamentary push for impeachment.
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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.

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.

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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.

Georgia remains on track to join NATO despite Russian opposition, vowed US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"A new line in Europe where Russia somehow asserts that there are those who cannot opt for a transatlantic future is unacceptable," said Secretary Rice at a news conference.

Meanwhile, members of Pakistan's ruling coalition met Aug. 19 to try to hammer out an agreement on a successor for Musharraf, who resigned under the threat of impeachment.

Meanwhile, militant violence flared around the country, underscoring the challenges faced by the post-Musharraf government. A suicide bomber detonated explosives outside a hospital in the Bajur region, killing 27 and wounding 35.

In the case of Musharraf, the US has backed away in its support in recent months, easing the transition to the elected civilian government. But that is a move that the administration should have taken in 2007, when Musharraf sacked about 60 judges, says Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Lots of administrations have tended to personalize their relationships with whoever is in charge [in Pakistan]," says Ms. Schaffer. "This administration has been at the high end in that regard."

Since the Eisenhower era, US chief executives have tended to support Pakistan's Army in its back-and-forth struggle for power with elected leaders, notes Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. The country's nascent democracy, to the US, too often seemed weak or corrupt.

But in the current case, Musharraf may have outlived his usefulness to the US. Although he was long hailed as an ally in the war on terror, in the end it was not clear whether he could push the nation's security forces to move against the Taliban.

In any case, any short-term gains against the Taliban should have been balanced against the long-term damage to Pakistani stability inflicted by Musharraf's clinging to power, says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at Brookings.

"We might not have been as good as we could have been at setting priorities," says Mr. O'Hanlon.

In Georgia, US actions have been driven not by personal interaction between leaders but by the bipartisan US decision at the end of the cold war to push for an expanded NATO, says O'Hanlon.

That's what led Bush to lobby hard for Georgia's inclusion in the Western alliance, he says. "Every next step seemed logical," says O'Hanlon.

Now the US may be in the position of neither being able to offer or deny NATO membership to Georgia. One extreme would cross a red line of Russia's. The other might represent an unacceptable geopolitical retreat.

"I would not force this issue if I was the US government," says O'Hanlon.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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