WASHINGTON -- It has been nearly six years since President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin memorably tooled around Bush's Texas ranch in a pickup truck and discussed missile defense.
That was shortly after Bush famously said he had glimpsed Putin's soul and felt that he and the Russian leader had a bond of trust. And it was before the Iraq War, which Putin opposed, and before Putin compared U.S. foreign policy to Nazi Germany's.
The missile defense system never materialized.
A few days ago, the two leaders had another go at it, meeting this time in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the Bush family compound, where they zoomed around in a speedboat with the elder President Bush. They also fished, played fetch with their dogs -- Putin brought along his Labrador -- and scooted around on Segway transporters.
There's no rule requiring that world leaders do guy things while ironing out issues -- nor any guarantee of outcome -- but it is a fact that men communicate best while engaged in nonthreatening activities, especially on neutral turf.
Out on the open range or at sea, the mind expands and the heart relents.
On the other hand, as America considers a woman president, perhaps good ol' boy conclaves create a false sense of bonding as men project imagined camaraderie over convivial pursuits. Bush's Texas truckin' diplomacy did not, in fact, do much good despite photos that showed him and Putin grinning like two Cheshires at a cheese factory.
Bush seemed to be having such a good time with Vlad riding shotgun that he may have missed the former KGB officer's subterranean animus toward the U.S.
If two men in a truck couldn't resolve differences, could three in a speedboat do better?
Speaking to reporters in Maine, Putin said, "The deck has been dealt, and we are here to play. And I would very much hope that we are playing one and the same game."
About their meeting, Bush said: "Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him. Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn't like everything I say. But we're able to say it in a way that shows mutual respect."
They seemed ready to cooperate, in other words, but they've seemed that way before. One possible difference this time is that the two men may have recognized a common and more urgent challenge than before. Nothing like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to force clarity and perspective.
We know that Bush and Putin spent one-on-one time together and that they discussed Iran. One hopes that when the two men peered into each others' eyes, they said something like:
"Look, buddy, I don't like you much and you don't like me, but Ahmadinejad is a problem. Let's sort this thing out."
Though Putin and Bush still disagree on some details of a European missile defense plan -- Putin opposes Bush's wish to install radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic -- the Russian leader offered a proposal that was more expansive than American officials had expected.
He offered to modernize a radar facility in Azerbaijan or to build a new facility in southern Russian to make American construction in Poland and the Czech Republic unnecessary. He also proposed taking steps to make the system a European anti-missile shield under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council.
Bush resisted mentioning Putin's soul this time, but described the visit as "very human," and Putin's plan "constructive and bold." Putin described his visit as "warm" and "homey," and said U.S. acceptance of his proposal would transform relations and build a "strategic partnership."
Meanwhile, as Bush and Putin were casting lures into the Atlantic, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad were bear-hugging in Iran, as the two leaders continued to cement their own strategic partnership. Other anti-U.S. Latin American neighbors are joining the group hug. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was in Iran recently, while Bolivian President Evo Morales is expected to visit Iran in the coming months.
Out in the elder Bush's speedboat, Putin caught the only fish of the day -- a 30-inch striped bass -- that he tossed back into the sea with a diplomatic flourish. "We caught one fish," said Putin, "but that was a team effort."
Let's hope Putin's undoubtedly well-chosen words referred to other fish as well, and that the team effort moves forward. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it may be time for the big dogs to eat.
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