Monday, July 02, 2007

Sometimes Dull is the Best Thing of All …

So nothing dramatic happened in Maine. The two presidents cruised around the coastline and ate lobster.

That was the point.

In recent months, on a variety of issues, from missile defense to Kosovo to Iran to democracy, the United States and the Russian Federation were locking themselves into opposing positions. Increasingly, it appeared that no common ground could be reached between the two sides and that the only possible outcomes were confrontation or for one side to engage in the humiliating ritual of backing down.

So, no compromises were reached. No solutions were found. But what both George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin needed was breathing room.

The theme of the Bush-Putin meeting was: we are still talking. No definitive conclusions have been reached. No options have been ruled out. Dialogue is ongoing. We have disagreements on a number of issues—and some of them are serious—but the relationship is too important to be left to spiral downward on autopilot.

In the course of the talks, Putin provided some new ideas on missile defense; on contentious issues like Iran he promised that there would be “further substantial intercourse” between the two countries.

More importantly, both presidents are still resisting the call increasingly heard from a variety of circles for engaging in a diplomatic version of the game of chicken. Dare the Russians to veto a resolution on Kosovo final status. Reject outright Putin’s proposal to build a missile defense system for Europe centered on the Gabala radar system in Azerbaijan.

Finally, the meeting is a clear reminder that there is nothing pre-ordained about a new chill in relations. If both Moscow and Washington want to make it a priority—and are willing to compromise down the line, solutions to the most contentious issues are possible. But the clock is running.

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