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Published: Wednesday, 7/19/2006

G-8 agenda displaced by disturbing events

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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AS PRESIDENT Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin spar, war in the Middle East cast its shadow over the G-8 Summit.

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 - were supposed to have as its agenda energy security, containing infectious diseases, and education. All of those subjects are of fundamental interest to the people of the countries whose leaders met in St. Petersburg.

"Energy security" for Americans means this: Is the current price of gas, which is twice what it was this time last year, going up even further given the now record level price of oil at $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, with the Department of Homeland Security - a name that becomes increasingly ironic by the day.

"Education" is something that, if we don't get, all of our jobs are going to end up out sourced to Bangalore.

Instead of focusing on these basic bread-and-butter yet deeply concerning issues, all of which require cross-national attention, two others became the pre-occupations of the several-day St. Petersburg affair.

One was the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Russia, personified in President Bush and President 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.

The United States signalled in advance with an early volley by Vice President Richard B. Cheney that it was going to give host president Mr. 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, what Mr. Bush was going to accuse Mr. Putin of - 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 that Mr. Bush's own opposition cites as his flaws as American President.

In any case, during the press conference after their one-on-one meeting, the press asked Mr. Bush whether he had criticized Mr. Putin on the quality of Russian democracy. He said he had. Mr. Putin zinged back that he hoped Mr. Bush didn't have in mind bringing 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 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 and is now claiming very high casualty levels.

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 producing 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 demands of other issues, such as the Middle East wars.

One was membership in the G-8 for China, which now, as an economy, has surged to fourth place in size in the world. That would make the group the G-9. Another, a source of considerable distress to the host, 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, diseases, and education, were concerned, it may be that something was accomplished at the technical level, which is to say, below the level of Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin, but nothing dramatic seems to have emerged. As far as Mr. Bush as a guest is concerned, Mr. Putin will probably be glad that the next time it will be Russia's turn to host the G-8 or G-9, by that time, both of them will be out of office.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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