The political art of place


Subtext: U.S. presidents have frequently left Washington to conduct foreign affairs in more informal settings, seeking closer ties to other heads of state.

April 25, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WACO, Texas - President Bush is welcoming the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to his ranch today. It is not so the Saudi leader can sample the Texas weather.

Like many presidents before him, Bush has calculated that one of the best ways to smooth relations with another foreign leader is to escape the formal trappings of Washington and bring the leader to some casual place out of town to chat.

The normally warm U.S.-Saudi relationship has fallen to its tensest point in some time, and Crown Prince Abdullah, who will arrive at Bush's 1,600-acre ranch this morning, brings with him an angry message from moderate Arab leaders: If they are to remain American allies, Bush must exert more pressure on Israel to pull out of the West Bank.

The outcome of the meeting between Bush and Abdullah will certainly hinge on their substantive discussions. But finding just the right setting for a high-level meeting between leaders can also be crucial.

"This is a symbolic gesture to the Arab world," says Joe Lockhart, who was a press secretary under President Bill Clinton and frequently attended meetings between Clinton and other heads of state. Choosing the location for such meetings, Lockhart says, is a calculated process.

"Very smart senior government officials spend lots of time thinking about what it means and where you should do it," Lockhart says. Bush's ranch invitation to Abdullah "shows a certain commitment, as opposed to just a formal meeting in the Oval Office, with everyone sitting stiffly."

Two goals in mind

Most modern presidents have chosen to hold some important conversations with other heads of state far from the White House. In most cases, they did so with two goals: to signal to another leader that their relationship is a valued one, and to create a setting away from the pressure-cooker that is Washington that might allow the leaders to forge a personal rapport.

President Ronald Reagan, who was initially reluctant to meet with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, conferred with the Soviet leader for the first time at a mansion on Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1985. With Cold War relations between the two countries still edgy, Reagan decided to guide Gorbachev into a quiet lakeside cottage, where a fire was burning and there were no advisers to distract the two men.

Michael K. Deaver, who was Reagan's primary image-maker, recalls that Reagan and Gorbachev formed a bond that helped them nudge their countries slowly toward a friendship. The informal conversation, Deaver says, would never have taken place in a stiffer, more choreographed White House meeting.

"Reagan never forgot that," Deaver says. "He learned about Gorbachev, and that was the beginning of a relationship that changed the world."

Like Bush, Reagan enjoyed bringing leaders to his own ranch, including Gorbachev and his close friend Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain.

"When Reagan had them there, he was showing it was a special relationship," Deaver says. "It is a flattering gesture by a president to say I want you to see my special place."

Message for Arabs

Bush is bringing Abdullah to his Crawford ranch, a half-hour from Waco, at a time when many Arab leaders are doubting the president's commitment to working with them. Observers say that bringing the crown prince to Texas is Bush's way of showing that even as he assails Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he warmly welcomes the views of other Arab leaders.

Bush is determined today, aides say, to rebuild trust in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

"And it is a lot more personal when you bring someone to your home," says a senior official in the Bush administration. "You have fewer people around. It is a relaxed atmosphere. You have more time to spend together in a less structured way."

When away from Washington, Bush often seems in a lighter mood and more determined to banter with and charm other leaders.

Jokes with Putin

In Crawford in November, he joked with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia about how, if Bush decided to invite Putin back to the ranch sometime during the brutal Texas summer, perhaps Putin would return the favor by welcoming Bush to Siberia in the dead of winter.

Aides boast about Bush's ability to form close bonds with other leaders, especially in informal settings. At the November meeting with Putin, they note, the leaders held several rounds of talks, having shed their jackets and ties, and Bush offered Putin Texas barbecue and country music.

The bond Bush and Putin formed, aides say - thanks in large part to their Texas visit - has helped them navigate areas of disagreement, such as over Putin's initial resistance to a U.S. missile defense system.

"The two men were able to meet personally and get a sense of one another," the Bush aide says. "That's helped them move this relationship and fundamentally change it in ways that otherwise would have taken years to do."

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