WASHINGTON -- President Bush says the Cold War is over but his latest military move and the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin make me wonder.
Despite his reassuring words, Bush triggered a red-hot rhetorical exchange by pushing ahead with his plan to install an anti-missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, a region that Russia has long viewed as within its sphere of influence.
Putin, in an interview released by the Kremlin, gave this assessment of the U.S. plan:
"If part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States finds itself in Europe -- and according to our military experts, threatens us -- then we will have to take retaliatory steps."
Asked what those steps might be, Putin replied: "Of course, we have to have new targets in Europe."
Bush on Tuesday unloaded on Putin for backsliding on democratization in Russia.
Reforms that were once promised to empower Russians "have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush declared.
But on Wednesday Bush appeared eager to soften the rhetorical exchange on the eve of his scheduled meeting with Putin in Heiligendamm, Germany.
"Russia is not going to attack Europe," Bush told reporters. "Russia is not an enemy ... We're not at war with Russia."
Administration officials said Bush feels the missile shield is needed to defend against rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. But Putin questions why the anti-missile systems have to be installed in Eastern Europe. The Czechs are not too wild to have them on their soil, either, and some U.S. allies consider the missile project provocative.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been lecturing to world leaders such as Putin and Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Rice even slipped up recently and referred to the "Soviets" instead of the Russians.
Bush, invoking his own personal diplomacy, has invited Putin to spend a couple of days at the family summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, next month so that the two leaders can talk about tattered U.S.-Russian relations in a more relaxed setting.
In addition to scratching the U.S.-Russian relationship, the Bush administration has developed a new rift with the U.N. chief nuclear inspector over a possible military strike against Iran.
At a news conference in Madrid last Friday, Rice jumped on ElBaradei for warning in a BBC interview against what he called the "new crazies" in the Bush administration who say, "Let's go bomb Iran."
ElBaradei's comments came amid reports that Vice President Dick Cheney favored a military confrontation with Iraq as a way to shut down that country's nuclear enrichment program.
There are no crazies in the Bush administration, Rice said, in effect.
"The president of the United States has made it clear that we are on a diplomatic course," Rice said. "That policy is supported by all the members of the Cabinet -- and by the vice president of the United States."
Meanwhile, the U.S. is backing up its hostility toward Iran with old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy by massing of a number of warships in the Hormuz Straits, smack in Iran's backyard.
With his time in the White House running out, the president should be thinking of ways to pull out of Iraq instead of rekindling an old feud with Russia and threatening Iran.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007 Hearst Newspapers.