Backstage at the Crisis

The forward suite aboard Air Force One is a hushed and dimly lit space, a private sanctuary where the president can sleep, exercise and lead the free world from 30,000 feet. At the start of an eight-hour flight en route to Germany and a world summit in Russia, President Bush is deep inside his own head as he paces up and down the long hallway that leads from his study to his conference room. While Washington was sleeping the night be-fore, yet another corner of the Middle East had erupted into violence, after Hizbullah launched a deadly ambush on an Israeli patrol. The summit, which was supposed to focus on Iran's nukes and Russia's democracy, had just been hijacked by the war on terror.

Onboard, Bush is demanding constant updates from his national-security adviser Steve Hadley, who is holed up in a staff cabin, speed-dialing officials around the world to get a better read on the situation. "Let's find out more of what's going on about the Israeli plan," Bush tells Hadley. The president reminds his staff that this time last year, when he was in Scotland for another G8 summit of world leaders, suicide bomb-ers struck the London subway. It becomes a grim joke: another G8, another crisis. Bush's day has barely begun and the region he has tried so hard to reshape and rebuild is on the verge of all-out war.

After five years of terrorism and bloodshed, crisis has become a way of life for George W. Bush. Back home, he usually has the luxury of managing events in private, with his aides close at hand and world leaders a phone call away. This time it's just the opposite: Bush must respond to the violence in the full glare of a global summit, where the leaders like to take each other's measure in front of the cameras. Over the next several days, Bush huddles with presidents and prime ministers, showing how far he has traveled since 9/11--and also how little he has changed. Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region's struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism. He still believes that when it comes to war and terror, leaders need to decide whose side they are on.

But after Iraq, many of those leaders find it hard to rush to Bush's side, and he has struggled to win them back. Over the past three years, since the invasion, his options have narrowed; circumstances have taught him to speak the language of diplomacy more fluently. Yet he still trusts his gut to tell him what's right, and he still expects others to follow his lead. For Bush, diplomacy is not the art of a negotiated compromise. It's a smoother way to get where he wants to go--especially when all the other options are off the table, as they are in Iran and North Korea. As the crisis worsened last week, several allies wished Bush would talk less about the United Nations and more about sending in his own envoy--less process, more peacemaking. Yet Bush's goal isn't to broker a ceasefire; it's to disarm Hizbullah and roll back the ambitions of its patrons.

As the crisis unfolded, NEWSWEEK gained rare access to the president and his senior aides, spending hours behind the security curtain that surrounds Bush in the air and on the ground. Between meetings with world leaders, Bush agreed to four freewheeling interviews and hundreds of candid photographs. He showed his ease with diplomacy on his terms--in short one-on-one meetings that he could control. But he also showed his impatience with the formal statecraft of summits and group sessions, where his voice was just one among many. In the interviews, he was unusually relaxed, revealing a president by turns playful and pensive, stubborn and accommodating, as he grappled with the biggest foreign crisis of his second term.

Friday, July 14: A Call From On High
In the two days since he left the White House, Bush has wooed the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel and enjoyed feasting on wild boar. His aides, meanwhile, were busy with the crisis: gathering intel, shuttling across the region and strategizing about the way ahead. On the ground, the Israelis have destroyed Beirut's airport runways and flattened Hizbullah's headquarters in the city; in return, Hizbullah has fired rockets at Haifa, Israel's third largest city, and struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast.

Now it's time for Bush to intervene. Again aboard Air Force One, en route from Germany to the G8 summit in Russia, Bush sits in his long, wood-paneled conference room with Hadley and Secretary of State Condi Rice. His two advisers have been gaming out possible twists and turns in the crisis, calling intelligence and military officials to get a jump on the enemy's next move. One question arises early on. Should Bush call Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert? After all, he is a close ally and friend. But in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East, direct talks could easily backfire. If Bush does call Olmert, the press will want to know what they discussed. Bush doesn't want to look as if he has approved or disapproved bombing targets.

For now, his focus is to win the support of friendly Arab leaders. With his secure phone in front of him, Bush rehearses what he needs to say to King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon. Bush tells the leaders he's trying to calm the situation, by warning Israel not to topple the young government in Beirut. He lays out what he sees as the risks: that Iran is trying to control the region, that Israel might collapse the Beirut government and that Syria might take back Lebanon. Yet his main goal is to win their agreement that the villain is Hizbullah. They all need to apply pressure on Syrian President Bashir Assad, who supports the extremist group. "The real culprit in this case," he tells them, "is the militant wing of Hamas and Hizbullah."

The calls go well; the Arab leaders agree with the president. Listening on their own handsets, Hadley gives Bush the thumbs up and Rice grins.

Bush may deplore the loss of life, but he also sees the crisis as an extraordinary opportunity. "I view this as the forces of instability probing weakness. I think they're testing resolve in many ways," he tells NEWSWEEK moments after the phone calls. He is leaning back in his leather chair, wearing his Air Force One jacket, emblazoned with the presidential seal. Bush thinks the violence speaks more effectively than he does; he knows that the world is wary when he talks about force. "Sometimes, in order to get others to act with us," he says, "there has to be conditions on the ground that make the case better than I can make it." It hasn't always turned out that way: in Iraq, conditions on the ground have long conspired against Bush and driven allies away.

The serious work of the summit starts tomorrow. But first, there's some social time: dinner with the Putins. The relationship with Putin has run hot and cold, trending lately toward Siberia. Bush knows he'll need Putin's support over the next few days and wants to make sure they're on good terms. "I guess one of the things I've learned from my family, both Father and Mother--in many ways, it's interesting, it's from Mother--is the ability to get people to relax, to try to put people at ease," he says. Sometimes that means Bush crosses into a leader's personal space, as he does when he surprises Merkel with a shoulder rub in Russia. For Vladimir Putin, a massage is unlikely to do the trick. His stress comes from intense media scrutiny. "He's got the whole world coming to look at him," Bush says.

Dressed in a shiny brown suit, Vladimir welcomes George and Laura by showing off his antique Russian car. Bush turns on the charm and asks Putin about his children. "Always good getting a dad to talk about his daughters," Bush says later. The couples appear on a balcony for a photo op holding drinks. Bush sips water. "Go find some Rus-sian vodka and relax," he shouts to the press below.

Saturday, July 15: The Bear Hug
The next day, at Bush's base on the grounds of the Konstantinovsky Palace, the mood is much more tense. The cold war may be ancient history, but Secret Service agents believe the president and his aides are under surveillance at all times. They have ordered White House staffers to hand in their BlackBerrys and cell phones so Russian spies can't track their conversations. Russian security refuses to allow a sweep for bugs at "the cottage"--a McMansion-style villa complete with a pool and weight room. Hovering above the ground nearby is a white communications balloon that Bush's aides believe is recording everything they say outdoors. The only totally secure place is the president's armored, soundproofed limo, which the White House has airlifted to Russia. Whenever Bush's advisers want to strategize about Putin, they're forced to sit in the car, parked in the driveway. Inside one of the cottage's rooms, the Secret Service has set up a black tent, where aides can handle classified documents out of sight of any cameras buried in the walls or furniture. Bush is especially guarded as he waits outside for Putin to pick him up for the short trip to the villa where they will hold their talks. As host of the summit, the Russian leader has decided to ferry Bush around in a golf cart, which Putin insists on piloting himself. NEWSWEEK asks whether Putin maintains his dour KGB face in private, or whether he is more relaxed behind closed doors. Bush looks up at the spy balloon and states clearly, "That's your phrase, not mine."

Putin arrives in his white electric cart. Bush climbs in and calls Rice and Hadley over to join them. Rice has been making cell-phone calls to the Middle East all morning and is distracted. She doesn't even glance at her driver as she steps into the cart. But when he turns around and smiles at her, she realizes the chauffeur is the Russian president. "Oh," she says as Putin leans over to embrace her. "Good morning, Mr. President!"

Bush has a full day ahead with Putin, but first his aides have a long list of subjects to cover with him. In a prebriefing session they try to cram him with talking points on a vast array of issues. Bush, who hates to get bogged down in the weeds, has heard enough. "How long do you want this list to be?" he snaps. At least he doesn't need to make small talk; last night's dinner has dispensed with that. "It makes it easier to sit down and get right to the subject," Bush says. "You don't have to break ice and establish rapport."

At the top of the agenda is the Mideast crisis. Bush knows that Russia has a special relationship with Syria and Iran, and he urges Putin to intervene. "Any time a nation is attacked by terrorism, they have the right to protect themselves," Bush says to Putin, using terms that the Russian president understands well from his own conflict with Chechen rebels. "It will be very useful to remind Syria they have an obligation to rein in these people, and Iran as well."

Their talks run late, leaving little time to prep for the big show: the obligatory news conference to feed reporters their sound bites. Before leaving for the giant media tent, where the world's press is waiting, Bush and Putin huddle with their aides in different corners of the same cottage. Bush's staffers warn him of likely questions and suggest possible answers. They hand him two cards of bullet points; ignoring the script, as he usually does, he turns one over and scribbles his own notes on the back. Within minutes the two presidents are standing in a cramped hallway, awaiting their cue. Bush sees Putin clutching some notes, and leans over. "Are you sure you want to say that?" he quips. Putin looks up and glares, then gets the joke. Bush straightens his red tie and pats Putin on the back. "Have fun," he says as they walk into the cloud of camera flashes.

Bush doesn't know that Putin has been readying a joke of his own. When asked a predictable question about the state of Russia's democracy, Putin pounces: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly." There are guffaws from the Russian media and gasps from American reporters. Struggling to hear the translation, Bush joins in the laughter before catching himself. "Just wait," he snaps back, and his smile fades.

Outside, both men return to happier banter, even as reporters dissect the tensions of the press conference. "He's good at quips. I think it was pretty clever," Bush says later. He waves off the media's analysis that his meetings with Putin are strained. "It makes me wonder if people have their articles written before they arrive," he says.

Bush thinks Putin's motives are all about Russian pride. "Here's the key now," he says. "Russia wants to be an equal partner. That's what this meeting is all about." It's clear that Putin, just like Bush, enjoys sitting at the head of the table. Over lunch afterward, he cracks another joke at someone's expense. "Our challenge over the next two days," he says, "is to stop Jacques Chirac from complaining about the food."

The other world leaders arrive that evening, and the official summit begins with a lavish feast. The dinner is something out of a Fellini epic, staged at the magnificent Peterhof Palace, built by Peter the Great. The scene is a uniquely Russian mix of historical grandeur, political power and touristy kitsch. The Russians offer a seven-course meal including caviar and beef stroganoff (maybe Chirac has a point), served by waiters wearing powdered wigs. Outside, a bear dressed in a green tutu with pink polka dots performs tricks. Inside, Chancellor Merkel starts to tell the story of a rare wild bear that was recently shot and killed in Germany. This prompts Japan's Junichiro Koizumi to reel off every bearlike word in his English vocabulary. "Teddy bear," he says for no apparent reason. "We must bear criticism. Unbearable." The leaders all start giggling.

Later, Putin opens up a serious exchange about Russia's democracy. Bush asks him how judges are picked and whether they are independent. "The old Soviet system was not very independent," he tells Bush. "We've got work to do on the judiciary."

Sunday, July 16: When Leaders Talk
On the sidelines of the summit, out of view of the cameras, there's a hyperactive mood as the Mideast crisis escalates. Rockets and shells are flying in both directions across the Lebanese border. Over breakfast, the national-security advisers to Bush, France's Jacques Chirac and Brit-ain's Tony Blair set to work on a summit statement to chart a way out of the crisis. "We might have to wait half a day to set up a phone call between Chirac and the president back home," says chief of staff Josh Bolten. "But here there's much more immediacy and spontaneity. And in the midst of a crisis, that can be advantageous." In the days ahead, Bush's aides would cling to the statement as a roadmap to peace; their critics would say it did nothing to end the violence quickly.

Before the first summit session of the day, Bush sits down to talk with Blair and then Chirac. They quickly agree on how to proceed against Hizbullah, while keeping the pressure on Syria and Iran. "Chirac was very strong in recognizing that Hiz-bullah and Syria and Iran are part of the Shia arc in the Middle East," Bush says later. (Some Sunni Arab leaders are also concerned about the emergence of a "Shia crescent," but mostly because of the rise of Shia power in Iraq.)

Bush may find summits an easier place to do business in private, but they also provide more chances to trip up in public. During the summit, the president speaks to the press three or four times a day and he often varies his language as he ad-libs--a dangerous habit during a Middle East crisis where every word is endlessly parsed. After avoiding hands-on management of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the past six years, Bush may also feel unfamiliar with the nuances. On his first outing, Bush forgot to mention both Syria and Iran as the backers of Hizbullah--even though the White House cited both countries in a written statement. Two days later, standing alongside Putin in Russia, Bush failed to mention Iran, and neglected to warn Israel to avoid toppling the Lebanese government. Reporters quizzed Bush's aides about what looked like a rapid shift in policy.

Now, as he prepares for yet another press session, this time with Blair, his aides remind him of the complete wording. Bush is annoyed by his errors and frustrated that he must repeat the whole thing: the entire explanation runs to 190 words. "It was a reminder to him that you have to make a full case," says Bush's counselor Dan Bartlett. "You can't just give one assessment. You have to touch all the bases."

If the press questions are painful, Bush finds the lengthy summit sessions almost unbearable. The negotiations were concluded long ago, and all that's left is a procession of windy statements--which some of the other leaders endure better than Bush. After one working lunch that runs late, the president returns to his cottage and staggers through the door as if he's exhausted. It's only halfway through the first full day of the summit. For someone who usually spends no more than one night in a foreign country, the four-day trip to Russia seems like an eternity.

Bush has left the lunch to meet with Hu Jintao, but the Chinese president is late. Since China isn't an official member of the G8, the Russians won't allow him to arrive by car. It's a snub that forces him to take an unreliable, smoke-belching hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland that separates the palace from St. Petersburg. Several boats have broken down in the last few days.

As a result, the president of the United States is left cooling his heels outside his cottage. He passes the time by chatting with a Chinese security agent, quizzing him about his English. "You been practicing?" he asks. A moment later, the agent's cell phone rings. The young man has a split second to choose: does he turn his back on a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with the president of the United States, or just let it go into voice mail? The agent snaps open his phone, and walks away. "Cell-phone violation!" Bush calls out. His staffers chuckle nervously: chirping phones are one of Bush's biggest peeves. "The guy didn't know the rules," says Bush. "Give him a break, will you?"

That afternoon the leaders are promised they will see the final text of their statement on the Middle East, which calls on Hiz-bullah to end its rocket attacks and then urges Israel to end its military strikes. But the document fails to arrive at the promised hour of 4, and it's still not there at 5 o'clock. Bush has had it. "I'm going home," he says to the room full of presidents and prime ministers. "I'm going to get a shower. I'm just about meeting'd out." Some of the leaders suggest they should all work out their differences together. But Bush can no longer keep up appearances. "I thought that was a lousy idea and so did others," Bush says later. "It would lose focus and everybody would then have an opinion."

Blair steps in to calm things down. "Let me see if I can work it out," he assures Bush, and he disappears into a side room with Putin. Condi Rice and Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, join them. As it turns out, one final bit of haggling stands between Bush and his shower: a reference to both the terrorists and "those" who support them. Bush had hoped for a mention of Iran and Syria, but didn't want to block the agreement. The president is exasperated by all the hours of dickering over the obvious. "Everyone knows who is supporting Hizbullah," he says later.

Monday, July 17: Homeward Bound
The atmosphere turns chilly on the last day in Russia, and not just because the weather grows cold and wet. At their final lunch, the leaders sit down with outsiders, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Bush is frustrated that Annan wants an Israeli ceasefire before Hizbullah has returned the abducted soldiers and stopped firing rockets--as the G8 leaders have just agreed. "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbullah to stop doing this shit, and it's over," Bush tells Blair. His comments should have stayed private; instead, they are piped to journalists outside. The same thing had happened to Rice in Moscow a month before, when she and Lavrov got into a testy exchange. "Every time we go to Russia we get an open mike," Rice says.

Bush rushes to the airport as soon as the lunch is over, ditching the traditional news conference that every other leader holds. us president avoids media after g8 summit, reads the headline on Russia's official summit Web site.

Showered and rested, Bush sits in his conference room on Air Force One, clearly glad to be heading home. A large bowl of popcorn sits in front of him, and he proceeds to demolish it by the fistful, stopping only to sip some Diet Coke. Bush is in a philosophical mood, pleased with the summit and his handling of the crisis. There has been some progress on trade, solid agreement on North Korea and Iran, and a strong statement on the Middle East.

But as the crisis in Lebanon deepens, Bush's allies and critics question the depth of his commitment to diplomacy. Is he really embracing the United Nations or using the slow diplomatic process to buy more time for Israeli forces to destroy Hizbullah? Will the support he has rallied among moderate Arab states survive another week of Israeli airstrikes? In his own mind, he's simply doing what much of the world has long urged him to do: build a coalition. "What you're seeing is a foreign policy that works with friends and allies to solve problems," he tells NEWSWEEK. "It takes a while for a problem to occur and it takes a while to solve a problem." It took a while for Bush to learn that language. He has a little while longer to put it to work.

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