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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A President's Foreign Policy ABCs

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush left for Europe early Wednesday to be greeted by demonstrators who believe him a bully and allies in the campaign against terrorism who are increasingly unhappy about everything from steel tariffs to his determination to use any means to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But his senior aides describe a different man, who has learned important lessons about diplomacy in 16 months and whose early missteps provided the lessons that made possible the arms agreement with Russia that will be the centerpiece of his trip.

"You need time for an administration to grow," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview in his office Monday, where he was far more candid than most administration officials in describing how Bush's approach to the world has evolved in the in the past year.

"I think as a result of 9/11 particularly, he sees the value of coalitions and friends," Powell said. "He saw the value of having people on his side."

Powell described his boss as a "quick learner" who has mastered his briefing books and is now more likely than he was a year ago to rely on his own instincts. "He had never been involved in this level of international interaction or diplomatic activity," Powell said.

The result is a man who in Moscow will sound significantly different from the George W. Bush who as a candidate declared that "the verdict is still out" on Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin. Back then, Bush talked of a "corrupt and favored elite" in Russia, and said relations would depend on whether Putin kept "bombing innocent women and children" in Chechnya.

Russian troops are still fighting separatist guerrillas in Chechnya, but Bush was unlikely to dwell on that as he landed in Russia for the first time Thursday. Already he has hailed Putin as a warrior against terrorism, a visionary and a friend. By Tuesday, the two men plan to bury the arms race and make Russia a junior partner with NATO.

Powell cited the vivid lesson that came in the ferocity of the European reaction to the president's decision to reject the Kyoto protocol on global warming. "Kyoto -- this is not talking out of school -- was not handled as well as it should have been," he said. "And when the blowback came, I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions."

These days, Bush dials around the world constantly to explain himself, yet his decisions to impose taxes of up to 30 percent on imported steel and the "unsigning" of the treaty creating the international criminal court still leave his fellow leaders wondering which Bush they will be meeting this week: the man with a wry smile who talks of his new appreciation of diplomatic nuance, or the Bush who vows to forge ahead alone if he has to.

Powell said the approach that led to the successful negotiations with Russia over reducing nuclear arsenals was shaped months before Sept. 11. It was the result, he said, of melding lessons learned from successes -- like the negotiations with China that won the release of the crew of a U.S. spy plane -- as well as missteps, like Bush's declaration that the Kyoto protocol was "dead."

Powell and national security chief Condoleezza Rice both said that the China talks and the Kyoto fiasco taught Bush some lessons on how to accomplish the abandonment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia: Signal your moves, give the other side a lot of time to think about it and coordinate the response.

Over a period of months, they made it clear to Putin that the president would jettison the treaty if it could not be fixed and made the final decision after the two leaders met at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in November. Putin, recognizing he had few cards to play, expressed his objections to Powell, smiled at him "and then began talking about the relationship beyond the ABM," Powell said.

That led to the hurried negotiations on the treaty to be signed Friday, codifying each president's commitment to possess no more than 2,200 operational warheads by 2012. It was a lopsided negotiation, during which Putin, who cannot afford a larger nuclear force, won only one major victory: a formal treaty that binds further presidents.

For Bush, this trip is mostly about demonstrating the strength of his personal relationship with Putin, quite a stretch for a president who, during the campaign, criticized then U.S. President Bill Clinton for investing too much in his relationship with Boris Yeltsin and not enough on Russian reform.

But Bush contends this is a fundamentally different Russia, one that has ended its constant internal debate on whether to join the West. U.S. officials say that Putin has changed far more than Bush has in the past two years.

"What we knew about him wasn't very encouraging," Rice recalled of her own characterizations of Putin during the campaign. "I think now what we know about him is encouraging."

Bush, she said, was determined now to make good on the promise he made to Putin when they first met in Slovenia a year ago. He told him, "'Let's not be Brezhnev and Nixon; let's be Bush and Putin."'