Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Back in the USSR

"Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of what is arguably the greatest moment in sports history. On February 22, 1980, a long-shot U.S. team of Average Joes managed the impossible and defeated the heavily favored USSR superstars in the medal round of the 1980 Winter Games. Sportscaster Al Michaels immortalized that moment with the eternally famous ad-lib you see above, and the "Miracle On Ice" instantly became a watershed event of the Cold War era.

Even those who were too young to see the original game have undoubtedly been treated to replays on ESPN Classic or seen it reenacted in the 2004 Disney movie. A few days after that inspiring victory, when the Americans captured the gold medal, Michaels joyously pronounced "This impossible dream comes true!"

Call it the affliction of an IR wonk, but this inspiring triumph came to mind during President Bush's current Europe trip. Bush's upcoming summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin is on Thursday, but already the challenge appears daunting. This meeting will have to address a number of serious questions and will definitely not be as cozy as the 2001 meeting between the two leaders, when Bush famously said of his counterpart, "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." At that time, a personal friendship was forged that has led Bush to time and time again publicly defend Putin from his critics.

The honeymoon has worn off by now though. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del) recently asked "When are we going to get tough with Russia?" It's been getting harder and harder for Bush to avoid confrontation on this manner in light of Russia's numerous transgressions in recent months. Whether it was Putin's consolidation of power after the Beslan school tragedy, his obvious meddling in neighboring Ukraine's elections, his continued assault on free press in the country, or the state commandeering of the Yukos oil company, Vlad's actions have become untenable with Bush's democracy crusade.

Ever careful not to offend, Bush has thus far on his trip sought to keep rhetoric polite in advance of Thursday's meeting in Bratislava. Nonetheless, the Russian has already fired a preemptory shot rife with ominous language. "Naturally," he commented this week, "basic principles and institutions of democracy must be adapted to today's realities of Russian life, to our traditions and history." An ex-KGB apparatchik nostalgic for life back in the USSR? We can only sincerely hope that is not the case, despite what the record suggests.

Thursday's outcome will be a crucial test of the cordial relations between the two leaders. But don't expect that friendship to inhibit Bush; he is well aware of what is at stake and will act accordingly. On Monday, he commented that "The United States should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia." He will press Putin on that matter and Russia's relationship with its neighbors. Also on the table are the critical issues of Iran and Syria; despite U.S. concerns over Iran's budding nuclear program, Russia is committed to helping Iran build nuclear power plants. And just last week, the Kremlin announced the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, a terrorist state and U.S. enemy. This cannot sit well with Bush, and he'll be sure to let his autocratic "friend" know.

All eyes will be on this enormously influential encounter in Slovakia later this week. Relations between the U.S. and Russia can be characterized as "frosty" at best. Bush can expect to be hit about the war in Iraq and Putin's whining about foreign interference in Russia's backyard, but that should not get in the way of forging a commitment to a shared vision of democracy and security. Like twenty-five years ago, the chance for a "miracle" breakthrough presents itself. This time however, if Bush is successful, both the U.S. and Russia win.

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