The Oval: Shake, Rattle and Roll

He came, he wiggled his hips, he conquered. For many people back home (and around the world), the pictures of George W. Bush trying to dance in Tbilisi, Georgia, looked ridiculous. But to many, many Georgians (and there were throngs of them welcoming Bush), they were an impossible dream come true: an American president, the most powerful man in the world, enjoying their hospitality and their history.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was positively giddy with the reaction of his people to Bush's arrival: mile after mile of schoolchildren holding welcome signs, and an enormous crowd of more than 150,000 in the capital's Freedom Square. "This is not North Korea here; you cannot tell people to go out if they don't feel like it," Saakashvili told reporters. But he was also elated at Bush's enjoyment of a night on the Old Town--from their meal at a restaurant to the whirling-dervish dancers that enticed the American president. Even the next day, Bush was still moved by the night before. "I learned firsthand what it means to be fed by a Georgian," he told reporters. "I'm really full. And the food was great. I should have eaten my meal first, and then danced."

Why does anyone care about the president's partying? Because it's the best, most effective exercise of something the Bush administration all but forgot in its first term: soft power. Cultural events matter deeply to the host nations as a mark of respect for who they are. The sight of an American president enjoying Georgian life was a visible boost to the spirits of a deeply troubled country, still struggling with breakaway provinces and decades of a depressed economy.

It's not just the Georgians who care. Inside the White House, there is a heated debate about whether Bush should attend more cultural events on his foreign trips. Some senior aides believe they are losing out to rival leaders who spend more time overseas, generating more favorable coverage with a few visits to museums and monuments than Bush gets with set-piece speeches and roundtable talks. Bush's aides are still lamenting their 20-hour trip to Australia, which won poor reviews compared to the country's next big visitor: Chinese President Hu Jintao. Hu spent three days in Australia, talking to business and political leaders, as well as touring its Olympic sites, earning vastly more goodwill.

Opposing those aides--and winning the debate for now--are the Secret Service, local security and the president himself. As a result of the security concerns, Bush's arrival shuts down whole cities for days around the time of his visit. Downtowns are emptied of people, roads are manned with troops, and police hide in bushes close to his hotel. It's not the best way to show you care about the local culture. For his part, Bush dislikes the negative impact his visits can have on his hosts. Sometimes, it's not even effective--after all, the multiple security sweeps in Tbilisi failed to discover an unexploded grenade near the president's stage.

The sad fact is that Bush can also seem disinterested by the local culture. His rushed tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2003--one of the world's most extraordinary art collections--underscored that impression. It's not just the president who is disinterested. In Riga, Latvia, the First Lady was trailed by several cameras and a dozen Latvian reporters as she toured a nearby Holocaust memorial and the city's museum of the Soviet occupation. Only two American reporters followed Laura Bush, suggesting another reason why the president dodges such visits: few people care back home.

For now, the president's cultural moments are confined to what looks silly. Outside Moscow, Bush joined Russian President Vladimir Putin at his dacha for private meetings and dinner. Stepping outside, Putin and Bush just happened to come across a vintage white Volga car, which Putin invited Bush to drive. Putin leaned over to show Bush the controls, and the two men stuttered off on a tour of the grounds. A few minutes later, they were back waving through the car windows. "I'm having so much fun, we're going for another lap," Bush said. It was a far more convincing display of their friendship than any number of speeches and press conferences.

The History Lesson

Even where Bush plunged into nonpolitical issues, his trip to Riga, Moscow and Tbilisi was troubled. At the heart of Bush's problems was a historical debate about the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries after the war. After all, Bush was traveling to Moscow to join Putin's celebration of the 60th anniversary of Hitler's defeat.

Yet the debate about the war was exceptionally limited. By narrowing the historical focus on the Baltics, the White House missed an enormous opportunity to revisit the war period. This is what Bush said in Riga in his major speech before arriving in Moscow (he delivered no speeches in Russia itself): "The Baltic states had no role in starting World War II. The battle came here because of a secret pact between dictators. And when the war came, many in this region showed their courage."

That may be fine rhetoric, but it limited the debate unnecessarily. Bush spoke of the courage of those in the Baltics during the war. But he made no mention of how many other Baltic citizens were enthusiastic members of Hitler's SS--an oversight which did nothing to help those countries come to terms with the past. In effect, Bush confined himself to a discussion of the Hitler-Stalin pact that carved up Europe, including the Baltic states, before the war. By extension, the White House also plunged into the old debate about the rights and wrongs of the Yalta agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

While the discussions about Stalin's tyranny are important, it misses the point. Bush sidestepped a huge chance to engage in a broader discussion about the war itself. They say that history is written by the victors, but even those on the right side of the war against Nazism can be self-critical two generations later. Bush could have talked about why the West leveled German and Japanese cities, then worked so hard to rebuild them. He could have talked about the West's refusal to accept Jewish refugees, then its support for the Jewish state. And he could have pressed Russia on its own war record: on the Red Army's raping and looting across Europe, or even the long imprisonment of German slave laborers in the Soviet Union after the war's end.

Such questions are emotional and hard to raise. But triumph doesn't absolve the victors from self-reflection. In fact, such historical debate helps to teach basic values for the future. At one point, en route to Moscow, Bush's aides decided the history lesson had gone far enough. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters: "I think we've now been through this history. Everybody has had a chance to talk about the history ... I think the president made a very good case that while we need to acknowledge the painful history, it's now time, also, to honor the memories of those who sacrificed by moving on and building strong, free democracies."

Yet some of the best lessons about building democracies lie in that awkward history. Bush was most compelling when talking about the need to protect minorities in Europe--a lesson he delivered by discussing America's struggle with slavery and segregation. But why stop there? A discussion about Russian brutality to German civilians would be a far easier way to talk about human-rights abuses in Chechnya than another lecture. Then there's the continuing debate about cultural items--or what the Russians consider war booty. Russia has yet to fully account for--never mind return--the artwork that was looted from the Nazis, much of it originally from victims of the Holocaust.

Such questions might just have stopped Putin from casting the war as a fight against "a monstrous ideology that made it possible to enslave and exterminate entire peoples." The Allies fought Nazi Germany for many reasons, but genocide was not one of them. And, as it happened, slavery was very much part of the monstrous ideology that was Stalinist communism.

President Bush missed a historic opportunity--complete with a parade of elderly war veterans--to engage in that debate, even as he set about demonstrating to Moscow the virtues and values of freedom and democracy. It's unlikely he, or any other president, will get that chance again.