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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Yer-a-peein' Vacation

As our Action-Figure-In-Chief traipses around Europe "mending fences" (which is Texan for "telling them how stupid they are while simultaneously hitting them up for money and help"), it becomes more and more apparent that our moment in the sun is passing. It was pleasantly surprising to see Jacques Chirac shake hands and signify the official getting-over-it period (though Chirac looked like someone was holding a turd under his nose, not that you could blame him).

But it's pretty clear that the post-argument makeup sex is not about to happen any time soon. Thanks to years of debt-financed economic growth, we are basically treading water, rather than gaining actual economic ground. The dollar continues its precipitous slide against the euro, leaving the Euros more and more in the proverbial catbird seat. (Demographically, their position cannot last indefinitely, but they are at least getting themselves in a decent position to counter East Asian economic ascendance, where we are not.)

So Bush's response to this long-developing scenario is to insist that freedom is still on the march, and shame on the Euros for being unwilling to help sacrifice lives and treasure to help Sistani and Chalabi and Allawi and the rest of the gang to transform Iraq into a less-thuggish authoritarian society. This while he and his handlers keep one eye on the emergency exit, and plot their timeline of departure, the diplomatic version of "let's get the fuck out of here".

In the midst of all this, as some sort of action against Iran looks more and more imminent, we get Parsdent Cooter, itchy stub fingering that nucular trigger like it's Salma Hayek's love button. In one breath Bush asserted both that we were emphatically not planning to take action against Iran, and that all options were still and always on the table. Well, duh. That a national leader should never say never is so obvious, it shouldn't even require mentioning. But it apparently does, and consistently has, for Bush, whose diplomatic arsenal evidently consists of "stick" and "bigger stick with nails".

Perhaps the most telling part of this sojourn takes place in Germany. There had been a Q&A "town hall" meeting planned, to give Bush a chance to address German citizens directly, but when Bush's people realized that this would be a real town hall, and not one of those pre-scripted bullshit ones Bush has used to pimp his nonsense on the campaign trail for years, they squashed the whole deal.

The much-touted American-style "town hall" meeting the White House has been planning with "normal Germans" of everyday walks of life will be missing during his visit to the Rhine River hamlet of Mainz this afternoon. A few weeks ago, the Bush administration had declared that the chat -- which could have brought together tradesmen, butchers, bank employees, students and all other types to discuss trans-Atlantic relations -- would be the cornerstone of President George W. Bush's brief trip to Germany.

State Department diplomats said the meeting would help the president get in touch with the people who he most needs to convince of his policies. Bush's invasion of Iraq and his diplomatic handling of the nuclear dispute with Iran has drawn widespread concern and criticism among the German public. And during a press conference two weeks ago, Bush said Washington is still terribly misunderstood in Europe. All the more reason, it would seem, for him to be pleased about talking to people here.

But on Wednesday, that town hall meeting will be nowhere on the agenda -- it's been cancelled. Neither the White House nor the German Foreign Ministry has offered any official explanation, but Foreign Ministry sources say the town hall meeting has been nixed for scheduling reasons -- a typical development for a visit like this with many ideas but very little time. That, at least, is the diplomats' line. Behind the scenes, there appears to be another explanation: the White House got cold feet. Bush's strategists felt an uncontrolled encounter with the German public would be too unpredictable.


At the beginning of the article, Der Spiegel seems to think that the town hall was to have been the "cornerstone" of Bush's European trip. Maybe that's just German pride, but one has to figure, on a continent whose citizenry is even more hostile to US government policy than the leaders, Bush would have to address some segment of the European populace directly at some point. This was his opportunity, and he shied away from it. Kudos to the Germans for holding their ground and insisting on an honest debate, but what exactly is Bush so afraid of?

This is all he's been doing for three years plus now -- is he so monumentally unprepared that he is unable to discuss these issues extemporaneously? This is one of the real mysteries of this administration to me -- right or wrong, if you believe steadfastly in what you're doing, you should quite easily be able and (more importantly) willing to debate the facts of the case. This ongoing system of canned discussion has got to stop -- it an irretrievably nasty emblem of Bush's intransigence to seeing all sides of the situation. The rest of the world is long tired of us telling them that their opinions don't matter for shit, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us.

This article in the International Herald Tribune essentially underscores Der Spiegel's take on the Mainz visit.

But there was something about the very physical setting that suggested how different and less automatically warm German-American relations remain, despite Bush's strenuous effort to improve them. Most conspicuously was the almost total lack of any contact between ordinary Germans and an American president visiting what could almost have been a stage setting, a German town with buildings but no people, a depopulated place, its shops and restaurants closed, and only police in green uniforms visible on the streets....Bush was so sealed off from Germans other than Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the two German journalists able to ask questions at a joint press conference that even a town meeting-type encounter with Mainz residents was scrubbed, out of the worry that the mood would be hostile. A meeting with a group of carefully screened Young Leaders was put in its place.


This sort of intellectual cowardice is inexcuseable in a politician of any party. Either you believe enough in what you're doing to be able to argue your case, or you're too much of a pussy to face the people who are critical of your actions. Either you're a leader and thinker, or you're a wuss. Which is it, Mr. Bush?

Then we have the pièce de resistance, the face-to-face with Putin. Already one of Putin's ministers had made some rather peremptory remarks about each country's putative commitments to true democratic principles.

Mr Bush, with European Union backing, has pledged to raise concerns about the Kremlin’s moves to roll back democracy when he meets Mr Putin in a castle in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava.

But Sergei Prikhodko, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Putin, indicated that the former KGB colonel was in no mood to be lectured. “For Russia, relations with the United States have been and will be truly strategic,” he said. “In such a responsible approach . . . there is no place for nervous Nellies who are eager to bring some objective difficulties, imperfections or sometimes disagreements to the forefront.”

His remarks reinforced Mr Putin’s statement a day earlier that Russia would pursue its own model of democracy based on its history and traditions — and that the summit should focus on security issues.

Mr Prikhodko laid out a summit agenda which pointedly excluded many of the issues highlighted by Mr Bush on his fence-mending tour of Europe.

Under mounting pressure at home and overseas, the US President said this week that he would call on Mr Putin to renew Russia’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Western governments are particularly concerned about the Kremlin’s abolition of elections for regional governors, its interference in Ukraine’s election last year and the break-up of the Yukos oil giant.

But Mr Putin is expected to retaliate by raising his own concerns over issues such as the US-led war in Iraq, the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and even the American electoral system.

Yuri Ushakov, the Russian Ambassador to the US, told The New York Times: “We are aware of our shortcomings on the domestic front and the challenges we still face in overcoming the multitude of complex problems we inherited from the recent and not so recent past.”

But he said that Mr Putin would bring up “our own concerns about the situation in the US and certain troubling aspects of Washington’s policies.”


Iran is another issue on the table between Bush and Putin. The primary customer for Iran's nascent nulear-energy production will be Russia; indeed, the Russians provided some assistance in building several of the plants. They (and China, for that matter) may not just stand idly by this time. At any rate, there was a snippet of a live conference this morning, in which Bush emphasized how well things were going between he and "Vladimir Putin", which is apparently now pronounced "Vladmer Poot'n". Really, you get the impression Bush would call Putin "Bill Pooty-Poot" on camera, if only someone were to explain to him that the name "Vladimir" has an English counterpart.

This profound lack of public respect is enormously embarrassing, and not a little bit off-putting. Whether Putin accepts nicknames behind closed doors and away from cameras is one thing; this incessant "me n' Pooty-Poot [or "Jacques", or "Gerhard"]" comes across less as the palsy-walsy way Bush intends it, and more as sheer diplomatic ignorance. These are people who fight over the shape of the conference table; they do not appreciate worldwide televised conferences being larded with obsequious backslapping.

At any rate, brilliant performance, Mister President. I can feel our international regard growing by the second, throbbing as if infused with diplomatic Levitra.

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