Backdropped by the Slovenian Alps and a sparkling blue sky, Presi dent Bush first looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes six years ago and grasped "a sense of his soul."
The warmth of the two leaders' first encounter on the elegant grounds of Slovenia's Brdo Castle, once a hangout for Yugoslav royalty, was more than just unexpected. It became the capstone for a maiden presidential voyage to Europe that Bush badly needed to dispel doubts about his mastery of foreign issues, but that hadn't gone as well as hoped.
During that June 2001 trip, the president's jargon-laden joviality rubbed starched-shirt "old" Europeans the wrong way. The well-briefed Bush stayed admirably on message - but his message was one Europeans didn't want to hear.
Bush's rejection, on the eve of that trip, of the Kyoto global warming treaty, and his tenacious pursuit of missile defenses at the expense of decades-old arms-control accords, had turned European public opinion against him.
Even in pro-U.S. Slovenia, Bush's earlier verbal miscues - mistaking Slovenia for Slovakia, for instance - made him the butt of jokes.
Yet in an unexpected switch on the trip's last stop, Bush and Putin were all smiles in an encounter that altered the tone of U.S.-Russian relations. At an outdoor news conference full of bonhomie and jokes, Bush repeatedly went off script, even as Putin performed a carefully rehearsed shtick that hinted at Russia's interest in trading for NATO membership.
The two men's instant rapport, wrapped around similar views of family and patriotism, and a kind of earthy pragmatism on issues that divided them, clearly took aides by surprise. Bush's comment about sensing Putin's soul didn't even make it into the first news transcript given to reporters traveling with the president.
The truth was, no one plotting the outlines of Bush's trip could have foreseen such a development. What Bush carried in his foreign-policy satchel to that June 16, 2001, meeting seemed guaranteed to stick in the Russian president's craw. Missile defenses required abrogating bedrock arms treaties, while cementing new alliances with the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe meant expanding NATO almost to Russia's borders.
Yet both Putin and Bush were pragmatists. Putin hoped to barter for economic advantages, while Bush didn't just see into Putin's soul, but to new avenues for dialogue.
In the end, Washington got its way: The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was scrapped, and NATO expanded close to Russia's edge.
This was before 9/11 and before Iraq created a new geostrategic landscape in which radical Islam is again on the move and Russia, under Putin, is retreating to old ways of exerting political control through centralized power and nationalism.
Now, as Bush again pays an extended visit to the continent, European leaders seem far more attuned to his goals and tone. Poland and the Czech Republic, both now under NATO's umbrella, shrug off Russian threats tied to U.S. plans to station 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a sensitive radar array in the Czech Republic.
Putin's warning that he will aim Russian missiles at those bases seems to cast Russia again as bear, rather than as bear cub.
Yet what's striking is how little Bush's priorities have changed despite 9/11 and the passage of six years: He's still pushing missile defenses, resisting Europeans on global warming and pressing Russia to accept more U.S. military inroads close to its terrain.
Those priorities, however, seem more skewed than ever: Seeding untested missile defenses in Europe is more likely to exacerbate than ameliorate nuclear threats from Iran and does nothing to shorten the Iraq war.
And, just as with six years ago, European and Russian weaknesses let America set the agenda - no matter how out of balance that agenda may be.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan firstname.lastname@example.org
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