Presidents Bush and Putin at the White House in 2005
Presidents Bush and Putin became good friends at the beginning of their terms and it looks like both of them are trying to save this friendship despite many negative trends in U.S. -- Russian relations. The recent Moscow trip of the two key figures in the Bush cabinet, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and State Secretary Condoleezza Rice did little to soften Russia's tough stance on further NATO expansion and elements of the NMD systems in Eastern Europe. Therefore, Bush decided unexpectedly as the last resort to make another try by going to meet his pal Vlad in Sochi. The meeting between the two leaders will take place April 6 as Bush is wrapping up a trip to Ukraine, Croatia and the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.
This looks like a desperate attempt by Bush to do something about his legacy. Given his remarkably low popularity ratings hovering around 30 percent, the appalling situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, and pretty dubious image of the United States in the world, a radiant picture of Bush's legacy is hardly plausible. So it is extremely important for him to show a thing or two to climb at least a few points higher, to move away from the rock-bottom rating among all U.S. presidents where he is solidly stuck at present.
The Presidents fishing near the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine
Obviously, Moscow with its growing clout in world politics is just the place to tackle these matters, the more so that certain United States' key allies take Russia's position into account. Germany, France, and some other U.S. allies are sending a clear signal that any talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO is premature. Add to this NATO's failure to take the Afghanistan situation in hand and the growing contradictions among the alliance members over what part they are to play in that country, and you will easily see that Washington, and George Bush himself, are in for difficult times.
The Washington Post, which usually represents U.S. Democratic Party interests, decided, for reasons better known to itself, to "help" Republican Bush -- by suggesting a way of improving his legacy a bit. It turns out that Bush's best bet would be to secure Ukraine's admission to NATO.
It would seem that the incumbent president will hardly be able to accomplish this feat, but this is by the by. A closer look at the Bush legacy will show that its chief constituent was the idea of spreading democracy worldwide. Whatever one may think of the theory as such, Bush, being a deeply religious man, genuinely believes that democracy can be an answer to all, or at least most of the world's problems. Now, should Bush press for Ukraine's accession to NATO at any cost, this will reduce to naught what is arguably his only pivotal concept. What sort of triumph of democracy can that be if the majority of Ukrainians are dead set against it?
In any event, Bush is right, Russia is the country that can help him in his predicament, and not as an act of charity at all. By throwing Bush a lifebelt, Russia will also tackle some of its own military-strategic problems, and signally improve its relations with the United States and NATO, simultaneously bettering its image in the West.
I am talking here about Russia's constructive help to America and NATO in Afghanistan. Naturally, this is not about a direct involvement of the Russian army, but about making available the nearby military bases, transit transport routes, aircraft, helicopter and truck leasing, and general logistics. Russia can also persuade Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to be helpful to NATO as well. Clearly, there should also be a broad exchange of intelligence data and close cooperation between security services, including departments dealing with the traffic of narcotics.
Bush is going to Sochi with one set of issues but it is pretty doubtful that he will get what he wants. However, he and Putin can finish their presidential terms on a very positive note if they strike a deal on Afghanistan. Progress in this country is badly needed for US, Europe and the whole civilized world. Russia's help to U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan is a win -- win situation.