President George W. Bush is oft-criticized nowadays for lacking savvy, but the embattled executive displayed shrewd judgment in selecting Kennebunkport for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The world’s eyes would have trained on whatever rugged promontory, secluded mountainside retreat, or dusty cattle ranch chosen as the place to meet with Putin, who personally requested this audience with President Bush. Site location, given the state of Russian-United States relations, then became critical.
As a destination, Kennebunkport had the right mix of gravitas, seclusion and recreation for a meeting between two controversial and powerful world leaders, whose recent frosty dialogue from their corners of the world need the warmth provided from a short Maine vacation in July.
Many observers, prior to Putin’s arrival this past weekend, kept re-raising the stakes for the meeting in Kennebunkport, tossing everything from the proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe, sanctions against Iran, the state of Russian democracy and rebuilding of Kosovo into the political pot.
Some policy wonks boldly called for the meeting to result in a new study committee on America-Russian relations, and others derided the choice of Kennebunkport as “ridiculous,” under the rationale Putin, as a world leader, was undeserving of the honor of being the first dignitary invited by President Bush to his family’s home.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security advisor, said the rare meeting locale shouldn’t veil our poor relations with Russia, and described the choice of Maine as “personal theatrics,” according to Bloomberg News.
Except choosing the rarefied air of Kennebunkport proves what Brzezinski and others tried to emphasize: strained relations with Russia required a significant foreign policy effort, to signify American emphasis on rebuilding lost trust.
As the first invitee to Kennebunkport during this administration, the importance of Putin’s visit was instantly escalated. As the home of a former president, who is quite well-versed and experienced in foreign relations himself, Walker’s Point had the intrinsic gravity to match the meeting’s raised profile.
In making this rare offer to Putin, President Bush expressed his desire to restore progressive relations, and symbolized the importance those relations have for the future security and prosperity of both countries.
“Kennebunkport…will not resolve all disputes, but establishing a commitment to diplomacy is important,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, on June 21. “Kennebunkport provides an opportunity for the two presidents to…lead our countries toward a stronger partnership.”
In the end, that’s all Kennebunkport was: an opportunity, the best foot forward by the American president to restore relations with his Russian counterpart. All of the issues Bush and Putin need to address, and resolve, are beyond the scope of a single summertime weekend getaway in Maine, after all.
But they must start somewhere. Kennebunkport was a smart choice.