Jun 19, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Excerpted from The New York Times: SAN JOSÉ DEL CABO, Mexico — President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, finally had their face-to-face meeting on Monday, as Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Putin to work with him to ease President Bashar al-Assad of Syria out of power, a move increasingly viewed by the West as the only way to end the bloodshed that has been under way there for more than a year.
But after two full hours together, Mr. Putin was still balking, appearing afterward with Mr. Obama before reporters in a grim tableau that seemed to bespeak the frustration on both sides. During the few minutes that it took their handlers to usher reporters out of the room after their prepared remarks, the two leaders remained seated, side by side, staring straight ahead, with none of the interaction or small talk that leaders usually engage in before the cameras. “We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,” Mr. Obama said.
During the meeting, American officials said, Mr. Putin spent considerable time pointing to what the Russians view as failed examples of political transition in Egypt and Libya as well as their concern that the West does not have a credible plan for what would happen to Syria’s various battling factions and ethnic groups if Mr. Assad stepped down from power.
Mr. Obama made a long and detailed effort to reassure Mr. Putin that the United States does not want to come between Russia and Syria, a strategic ally that Russia views as its last real bastion of influence in the region, the officials said. The Americans acknowledged that Russian officials have not really believed them when they have made these assurances in the past; Monday’s meeting, they said, provided Mr. Obama the chance to try to make this case personally to Mr. Putin.
“We have found many common points on this issue,” Mr. Putin allowed in his own remarks after the meeting, adding that the two countries would continue discussions.
Mr. Obama described the meeting — rescheduled for this gathering of Group of 20 leaders after Mr. Putin canceled his trip to an economic summit meeting Mr. Obama held at Camp David last month — as “candid, thoughtful and thorough.”
But American officials did not try hard to paint the meeting between the men as full of bonhomie and good cheer. “I thought the chemistry was very businesslike, cordial,” Michael McFaul, the United States ambassador to Russia, told reporters in an effort to push back against any negative impressions the body language between the two presidents might have suggested. “There was nothing extraordinary” about Mr. Putin’s dour demeanor, Mr. McFaul said. “That’s the way he looks, that’s the way he acts.”
Now that Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin have gotten this first meeting out of the way and listened to each other’s explanation for why Mr. Assad should, or should not, be pushed aside in Syria, United States officials say they hope they will be able to move forward.
“I think there was agreement that there needs to be a political process, that it cannot be just a cease-fire,” said Benjamin Rhodes, the director for strategic communications with the National Security Council. “Obviously the United States believes that political process needs to include Bashar al-Assad stepping down from power.”
Also on the agenda for Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin was the effort by the United States and Russia, along with Europe and China, to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Even as they were meeting on the outskirts of a world economic summit gathering here in Mexico, tough talks on Iran’s nuclear program were under way in Moscow. Mr. Obama said he and Mr. Putin had “emphasized our shared approach” and agreed that there was still time for diplomacy to work.
Mr. Obama’s attempt to reset relations with Russia had begun with Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, who only two and a half months ago said that “these were perhaps the best three years of relations between Russia and the United States over the last decade.”
But this first meeting between these outsize personalities as leaders of their respective countries could not have come at a more fraught time. Russia and the United States are clashing over a series of difficult issues: the American deployment of a missile defense system that Mr. Putin considers a threat; pending legislation in Congress that blocks visas and freezes assets of Russian officials linked to human rights abuses; and statements from the State Department about the protests that greeted Mr. Putin’s inauguration that left the Russian leader fuming.
But the biggest irritant of all right now is Syria, a longtime ally whose leader Russia has continued to defend in the face of condemnation from the West over Mr. Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters who support democracy. Russia has opposed Western intervention and, by some accounts, continues to arm Mr. Assad’s forces. On Saturday, the United Nations suspended its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence. The move was widely viewed as an attempt to press Russia to intervene to assure that the observers are not targeted by Syrian forces or their sympathizers.
The renewed tensions come as the United States is heavily dependent on Russian cooperation for its military operations in Afghanistan. With Pakistan cutting off supply lines to Afghanistan, the so-called northern distribution network through Russia is the primary reinforcement route for America’s war on the Taliban.
That all of this is happening in the middle of an election campaign is not lost on the White House, especially given the recent assertion by Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, that Russia is America’s biggest strategic threat. The comments were widely ridiculed in foreign policy circles but nonetheless felt in Moscow.
The Obama administration dismissed Mr. Romney’s remarks as election-year posturing, but given that they came just as Mr. Putin has been doing some muscle-flexing of his own, it has put Mr. Obama in a difficult position as he tries to persuade Mr. Putin of America’s good intentions — or, at least, its lack of ill intentions — toward Russia.