Monitoring Bush (the Putin edition)

A crucial test for the sincerity of George W. Bush’s pro-freedom and pro-democracy rhetoric comes when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday in Slovakia.

Bush has been loath to criticize the increasingly autocratic Putin since he suggested in 2001 that he found the Russian leader trustworthy after looking into his soul. As recently as last September’s debate with John Kerry, Bush referred to Putin twice in friendly terms as “Vladimir.”

The Washington Post reports:

Aides have carved out at least 2 1/2 hours in Bratislava on Thursday for the two to talk privately at length so the president would have enough time to get into a genuine exchange with his Russian counterpart about the rollback of democratic institutions and the elimination of political opposition. Some administration officials have been privately disappointed that the president has not been more forceful in the past, and worry that if he fails to take a tougher stance now, it will undermine the new Bush doctrine of putting freedom at the center of U.S. foreign relations.

“You couldn’t have a bigger test — it’s incredibly important,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a U.S.-funded group that promotes liberty around the world and recently downgraded Russia to “not free” in its regular survey for the first time since 1989. “People will be judging what he says publicly and saying, ‘Oh, we addressed this privately’; that’s not going to be enough.”

Administration officials said they grasp the stakes in Bratislava. “Everybody realizes this is the first meeting after the president’s inaugural address, that this will be a test, his first encounter with a leader that people have on their list” of world autocrats, said one senior official who insisted on anonymity because he is not an official administration spokesman. “Everyone is aware of that. They realize there will be extra attention because of the inaugural speech.”

And writing in the neocon Weekly Standard, James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul say some of the things the Left ought to be saying these days, but isn’t:

Words by themselves, it is true, are never enough. To make his commitment credible, Bush must now execute a strategy for achieving his noble end. Yet words do matter, especially when spoken by the president of the United States. When chosen carefully and reiterated consistently, a president’s words can be part of a strategy for promoting freedom. Autocrats around the world listen and get nervous. Democrats around the world listen and get inspired.

Words are especially meaningful when they are hard to say… Calling for freedom’s advance on Inauguration Day is one thing; saying the same to Putin a month later is another, and a much more difficult, thing.

In previous meetings, Putin and Bush seem not to have spent much time discussing liberty. Before the recent inauguration, this omission had a strategic justification, however flawed. Throughout Bush’s first term, “realists” on his team claimed that Russian-American relations were best served when we checked our values at the door. Our relations with Russia, so the argument went, were so important to our vital security interests that President Bush should avoid talking about freedom and democracy when meeting with his Kremlin counterpart and instead focus the dialogue on the global war on terror or nonproliferation.

This argument was shortsighted and flawed. In the long run–even in the medium run–coddling dictators backfires. Only a democratic Russia will be a reliable partner for either U.S. foreign policymakers or American businesses. Only a democratic Russia will be able to build a legitimate state capable of fighting terrorism on Russian soil and thereby contributing to the global war on terrorism. Only a democratic Russia will stop threatening young democracies nearby in Ukraine and Georgia.
If Bush goes to Bratislava and fails to reiterate the sentiments of his inaugural address in public appearances with Putin, then the critics were right and authoritarian leaders everywhere can sleep easy. If the president neglects to affirm his commitment to freedom with Putin at his side, Bush will be signaling that his words don’t count.
In a one-day meeting, Bush is not going to be able to persuade Putin to end the war in Chechnya, stop using the law arbitrarily for political purposes, reconsider the decision to appoint previously elected governors, or ease up on the harassment of civil society leaders. But Bush must begin to convey why he and other democratic leaders see Russia’s current political changes as cutting against the grain of democracy, a system of rule that reflects not only Western, but universal values.
Even if Putin does not listen to him at Bratislava or beyond, Bush can speak frankly about Russia’s democratic erosion, if only so as not to harm Russia’s democrats…

Words aren’t enough, but they do matter.