Big power politics gets personal

It was an unusual image in the history of Moscow-Washington ties, even given that Khrushchev thing with his shoe.

There was George W. Bush, in faded jeans, driving his white Ford pickup, with ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin riding shotgun. Wives and translator sat in the back, rounding out the James Dean tableau.

It was the start of Mr. Putin's visit to the president's 1,600-acre Texas ranch and another installment in the two world leaders' trying to get to know each other.

Over 24 hours, the two men ate beef tenderloin and catfish and tapped their feet to a country swing band.

"Usually you only invite a good friend to your home, and that is clearly the case here," Mr. Bush said. Putin responded that it was the first time he had ever visited the home of a world leader, calling it "hugely symbolic" that it was the US president's.

In the history of US-Russia relations, personal chemistry has sometimes made the difference between crisis and

confidence. Bush and Putin, in just a few meetings, are establishing a genuine personal relationship.

Yet analysts note that, fundamentally, it is the national interests of each country, and not personal ties, that drive leaders together or split them apart - particularly when it comes to former superpower adversaries.

Further, they warn, Bush needs to be mindful not to get too starry-eyed over his new partner. That was the mistake of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who so badly wanted to support the budding democracy of "my friend Boris" that, critics say, he threw good money into a corrupt system and was too soft on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"Personal relationships are completely ephemeral, depending on much more basic agreements and conflicts between nations," says presidential historian James MacGregor Burns. "This will last only as long as the interests of the two nations coincide."

Its no coincidence that personal ties between the Kremlin and the White House were at their frostiest when the two nations were locked in a war so cold that both sides suffered freezer burn. When President Eisenhower invited Nikita Khrushchev to Camp David in 1959, the Soviet leader was insulted he was not going to the White House, and ordered the KGB to investigate this mysterious "camp." The next year, he delivered his famous shoe-banging speech at the UN, and in 1962, delivered the Cuban missile crisis to John Kennedy - who he mistook for a mere boy easily intimidated.

But a fundamental shift in Soviet ideology and strong mutual interests brought Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan together - in spite of the US president's gaffes in private meetings with the leader. At their first Washington summit in 1987 - the first US-Soviet summit in 14 years - both leaders wanted an arms-control deal, and both needed a political victory to shore up sagging support at home. Mr. Gorbachev's historic reforms made it easier for Mr. Reagan to cozy up to him, even if his initial efforts were less than impressive.

In fact, at a private meeting of the leaders and their teams in the White House, Reagan interrupted his guest's serious presentation with an ill-humored joke about Communism. Gorbachev turned red, then went on to issues about which Reagan had little knowledge. Afterward, Reagan's secretary of State told him bluntly that the meeting was "a disaster."

But the common interests of the two nations were too strong to be held back by blundering, and, after Reagan's aides perfected the scripted summit, the two displayed a winning synergy ever after - at least publicly.

Experts say just such tectonic forces, unleashed Sept. 11, are at work this time, pushing Putin and Bush inexorably together. On the one hand, the US president needs Russian cooperation for the war on terrorism - a war that is of no small interest to Russia. On the other, Putin, sensing an opportunity, has pushed for US economic assistance and a greater role in NATO, making progress on both fronts during this trip. "The events of Sept. 11 have just given a tremendous new impetus to where this relationship is going," says a senior administration official.

But no amount of Texas charm - or mesquite beef and cornbread - seemed to alter Putin's opposition on a US missile defense. White House officials say that, perhaps in the end, this will be one of those issues in which personal chemistry does play a role, however slight.

Surprisingly, the two men have much in common, say observers. Neither has a long political history, and both are newcomers on the world stage. Close in age and even in appearance, they are disciplined and direct in their communication. Neither is a gifted orator, though Putin is making rapid strides in English, a senior administration official says.

"These two are very modest, structured, disciplined men. I think that makes it easier for them to have that relationship," says Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

They also share a dry sense of humor. When the president showed Putin around the Oval Office, he explained the landscape paintings - all scenes of Texas. "Where are the Texas people?" Putin asked with a big smile. "I'm a Texas person," Bush said.

At a question-and-answer session with high school students in Crawford, Putin said he would respond to any query - except about math. Bush quickly added, "fuzzy math."

They seem to be the exact opposite of Clinton-Yeltsin, two gregarious men with big appetites who fought their way from the political hinterlands to the center of power. As that relationship proved, it is possible for a close friendship to have a decisive impact on policy, says Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of State under Clinton.

"There were a number of points when the personal ties between the two presidents made not just a substantial difference, but a breakthrough," he says. He cites NATO enlargement and military action in the Balkans as two areas where Clinton was able to avoid a diplomatic blow-up because of his relationship with Yeltsin - with whom he met as often as all previous presidents and their Soviet counterparts combined.

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