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President Putin's Eyes

Does U.S. President Bush's love-at-first-sight for Russia's Vladimir Putin undermine the dangers of a strictly visual culture?

September 23, 2002

Does U.S. President Bush's love-at-first-sight for Russia's Vladimir Putin undermine the dangers of a strictly visual culture?

Gloria Swanson, the diva of the silent movie era, was famous for her eyes. Both beautiful and expressive, they defined her to many millions of her fans. After all, this was a time when moviegoers had no soundtrack to rely on in order to fully understand the character of screen stars.

As a matter of fact, when George W. Bush became U.S. President in 2001, he found himself in a position that was similar to those of movie audiences before the advent of the "talkies." He had been abroad only once, met few foreigners — and knew little about their cultures.

Not surprisingly, when trying to take the measure of Russia's Vladimir Putin at their first face-to-face meeting, he had to fall back upon the basics of human interaction — eye-to-eye contact.

Mr. Bush liked what he saw. He said, "I looked the man in the eye and I was able to get a sense of his soul." His statement about Mr. Putin vaguely echoed another famous assessment of a Russian head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev, delivered by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In 1985, the year he became Soviet leader, the "Iron Lady" met Gorby in London — and described him as a man she could do business with.

Since that first meeting between Messrs. Bush and Putin, a personal friendship has begun to develop. It has since deepened at subsequent summits and meetings at Mr. Bush's ranch at Crawford, Texas, in Washington, Moscow — and elsewhere.

In the early days, Mr. Bush's advisors were quite appalled at his utterings about Mr. Putin. Some even voiced their misgivings. But the U.S. public didn't mind this visual approach to judging foreign leaders.

This is hardly surprising. Americans live in a very visually-oriented culture. True, they may not be the only nation to elect a former movie actor as their president. For a time, the Philippines was ruled by soap opera star Joseph Estrada, who got impeached after a couple of years in office.

Still, it is telling that Ronald Reagan — who looked so great on camera — remains one of the most popular presidents in modern U.S. history.

After all, most Americans see their own leaders in brief snippets on such "in-depth" television programs as CNN Headline News. Even regular evening news broadcasts present mostly pictures — and hardly any substance or commentary for the viewers.

The problem with eye-to-eye contact is that it can be easily misleading. This is particularly true in the case of Mr. Putin. After all, he is a former KGB operative and a professional spy. No doubt his training had included a few tips on various ways to mask — or feign — sincerity.

More recently, in fact, Mr. Bush probably has come to regret his initial reliance on his eyesight. In fact, like silent movie audiences, he may be deceived by his new impressions of his favorite “star.”

Mr. Putin's Russia seems to be determined to rebuild its ties with precisely those governments around the world that Mr. Bush termed "the axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union Address.

Indeed, Mr. Putin not only met with Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea. He promised to strengthen commercial ties with his country, one of the world's most repressive and isolated regimes. Russia has equally dubious plans to help Iran build and operate a nuclear reactor.

A recent treaty with Iraq also pledged to sharply increase the flow of commerce between the two countries — even though Saddam Hussein's Iraq remains under a U.S.-backed United Nations embargo.

True, Russia has toughened its stance on Iraq. But it has done so only because it wants the United States to remain silent so it can put its own pressure on the neighboring republic of Georgia as a quid pro quo.

Russia has accused Georgia of allowing Chechen rebels to use its territory, finding sanctuary across the common border. Moscow wants the Georgian military to police the mountainous, rugged border better — or threatens to do so for Georgia if it refuses.

In fact, the war in the separatist-minded Russian ethnic republic of Chechnya — the true cause of tensions with Georgia — endures despite long-standing U.S. opposition.

The deal that Mr. Putin envisions is simple: You, President Bush, deal with your Iraq. And I'll have room to handle the Chechens.

It is hard to imagine that all those policy moves were foreseen by Mr. Bush back when he first stared into Mr. Putin's eyes.

Focusing too much on the visuals and neglecting the substance can thus prove to be dangerous. Gloria Swanson's movie career presents a cautionary tale in this regard. One of her last roles, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, was in a talkie, Sunset Boulevard, made in 1950.

In the movie, she played a parody of herself — an aged star from the silent movie era living in total seclusion in her posh Hollywood mansion. Her only contact with the outside world is a butler, her lifelong admirer. And he is the same man who writes her fake fan letters — to assure her that her fame lives on.