Dan Simpson: Bread-and-butter issues not on the G-8 plate

As Bush and Putin spar, war in the Middle East casts its shadow over summit

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The summit of the G-8 countries -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, with China, India, Brazil and other countries invited as observers -- was supposed to have as its agenda energy security, infectious diseases and education.

Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).

All of those subjects are of fundamental interest to the populations of the countries whose leaders met in St. Petersburg. "Energy security" for Americans means knowing that the price of gas is not going to be pushed up further by the soaring price of oil, like the record-high $78 a barrel. "Infectious diseases" means bird flu, still flying our direction, with the U.S. government no doubt as well prepared for it as it was for Hurricane Katrina. The name of the Department of Homeland Security becomes increasingly ironic by the day as that band of geniuses busies itself with such matters as suspending from work cafeteria ladies in federal buildings Downtown. "Education" is that collection of knowledge and skills that keeps our jobs from being outsourced to Bangalore.

Instead of focusing on these bread-and-butter yet deeply concerning issues, two others became the preoccupations of the three-day St. Petersburg affair. One was the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia, personified in President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, with the most visible raw point being the state of democracy in Russia and U.S. lecturing on the subject.

The second was new warfare in the Middle East, this time Israel's two-front war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which has resulted in serious casualties and damage, primarily in Lebanon but also in northern Israel and Gaza.

The United States signaled in advance with an early volley by Vice President Dick Cheney that it was going to give host president Putin a hard time about what it sees as the enfeebled state of democracy in Russia. Mr. Cheney, in a visit to Lithuania in May, criticized Mr. Putin's government for restricting people's rights and for using Russia's oil to try to bully its neighbors. Mr. Putin fired back by comparing Mr. Cheney's comments to the vice president's unfortunate shooting of a hunting companion in February.

Administration spokespersons continued to promise that Mr. Bush was going to take advantage of his summit-related meetings with Mr. Putin to rattle his cage on democracy in Russia. The irony was that the very flaws Mr. Bush sees in Mr. Putin -- increasing the arbitrary power of the presidency, disregard of the constitution, pushing the legislature to the margins, undercutting the power of the courts and seeking to weaken the media -- are precisely the points of criticism Mr. Bush hears about himself from his own opposition.

In any case, when Mr. Bush told the press after the presidents' one-on-one meeting that he had criticized Mr. Putin on the quality of Russian democracy, Mr. Putin zinged back that he hoped Mr. Bush didn't want to bring to Russia the kind of democracy the United States had brought to Iraq.

Completing the verbal rout of Mr. Bush at St. Petersburg, someone left a microphone turned on while he chatted at lunch Monday with other leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In what sounded like teen-speak, including an obscenity and an inaccurate suggestion that Syria, rather than Iran, is Hezbollah's principal international supporter, Mr. Bush made it clear that he was eager to see the summit end so he could go home.

The other issue that pushed itself to the top of the summit agenda was the new war in the Middle East, on top of the continuing hot war in Iraq that is now being waged not only between the anti-occupation insurgents and the Americans and the Iraqi government but also between sectarian groups among Iraqis.

The question in St. Petersburg is who is going to take charge of trying to bring to an end the fighting between the Israelis and Hezbollah, which is resulting in heavy damage in Lebanon and some in Israel as well. The only two world leaders to step forward so far are U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Blair, although French President Jacques Chirac is sending his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, to Lebanon to look at the situation.

All parties at St. Petersburg were clearly looking to the United States to take the lead, given its strong influence with Israel. Mr. Bush in his open-microphone remarks indicated that he would likely be sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region, but did not indicate when. In the meantime, casualties and damage levels are rising precipitously.

A number of big questions did not get dealt with at St. Petersburg, either because of the increasingly poisonous relationship between the United States and Russia or because of the pressing demands of other issues, such as the Middle Eastern wars.

One was membership in the G-8 for China, which now has the world's fourth-largest economy. That would make the group the G-9. Another, a source of considerable distress to Mr. Putin, was the fact that differences between the United States and Russia that are preventing Russia from joining the World Trade Organization were not resolved in advance of the summit, as they were expected to be.

As far as the agenda items energy, disease and education were concerned, it may be that something was accomplished at the technical level, which is to say, below the Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin level, but nothing dramatic seems to have emerged. As far as Mr. Bush the guest is concerned, Mr. Putin will probably be glad that the next time Russia hosts the G-8 -- or G-9 by then -- both he and Mr. Bush will be out of office.


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