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Soul Man

There is nothing that is more incomprehensible in contemporary American life than impersonality. Everything is now psychologized, sentimentalized, dramatized, and publicized; and reduced to feeling and the sharing of feeling, to personal testimonies and personal relationships and personal journeys. The detached exercise of reason, which requires for its effectiveness a containment of emotion, is regarded as a kind of alienation. In moist America, chilly is cruel. Last week, when the president of the United States met the president of Russia for the first time, we learned that the moistness of America extends also to its practice of diplomacy.

Here is some of what George W. Bush had to say about Vladimir Putin after 100 minutes of translated conversation at a castle in Brdo: "He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values.... I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.... The president is a history major and so am I.... Can I trust him? And I can...." The president sees into the human heart.

Gush, gush, gush: Bush has mistaken big power summits for daytime television. To be sure, he was doing what he was instructed to do. The president's mission on his trip to Europe was to reassure a skeptical universe about his ability to represent himself, not to mention the interests of the United States, on the world stage. How to accomplish this? Well, Bush has only a single proven strength: personality. To do well he gets personal, on the campaign trail and everywhere else. When everything fails, he repairs to his likability. And so he turned it on in Slovenia, and the president of Russia seemed to like him quite a lot. Before long Putin will appear in Crawford, Texas, where he will be presented with his very own pair of Luccheses, and he will like them a lot, too.

We have been here before, and very recently. The president's father made a fetish out of his fond regard of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and for a while was misled by it; and if there was anything that clouded the American perception of Russia during the Clinton years, it was the fervent personal relationship between the president of the United States and the president of Russia. During the final farcical years of Boris Yeltsin's rule, Bill Clinton and Strobe Talbott simplified our Russia policy into the dogmatic and treacly support of one man, whose increasing inability to govern they chose to witness passively, as if there were no alternatives in Russian politics. Meanwhile Russian democracy was turning into Russian kleptocracy, and the consequent instability prepared the ground for the popular election of a polite autocrat such as Vladimir Putin.

Then there is the matter of Bush's competence as a judge of human souls. For it is not at all obvious that Putin is likable. He is not exactly Jeffersonian. He is the slaughterer of Grozny. He is the man who presided over the takeover of his country's only independent television station, and sells weapons to Iran, and entertains the possibility of historic alliances between Russia and China. Putin, trustworthy? He was trained to be untrustworthy. In his temperament and in his policies, Bush's new buddy is the perfect incarnation of the KGB, where he worked for decades. (In a press conference after his meeting with Bush, Putin bragged about his KGB service, and compared himself to the president's father, who "was not working in a laundry, he was working at the CIA.") In his time as president of Russia, Putin has demonstrated mainly a streak of brutality and a knack for survival. There is Putin's "soul.

Most importantly, what do the emotional satisfactions of summits have to do with strategic realities? Surely the calculation of American interests, and the protection of those interests, do not require feats of intuition or bonding. They require feats of intelligence; and an intelligent review of America's interests in its dealings with Russia reveals that a chilly relationship may be the truest relationship. For there are deep differences between the two countries. They do not disagree merely about ballistic missile defense, though Bush seems to care mainly about this disagreement. The expansion of NATO, human rights, nuclear proliferation, the Western presence in the Balkans, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: those are only a few of the issues that W.'s country and Vlad's country do not see similarly. What is the point, exactly, of pretending to the American public, and to the Russian public, that displays of affection at the highest level, or even genuine affection at the highest level, will elide or erase those disagreements? Bush, of all people, should understand the advantage of keeping expectations low.

Surtout pas de zele: that was Talleyrand's credo as a diplomat. But Brdo last week was zele city. So enjoy the good feelings. As any history major knows, they will not last long.