Measuring the success of American diplomacy these days seems to come down to a single question: Did Bush get him in the truck?
For George W. Bush so far, it's three for three. In the past several months, the leader of the Free World and the most powerful nation on Earth (two descriptive phrases that are not coincidental) has met minds with three key world leaders via a white Ford F250 pickup truck - Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, recently, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah.
Of the three, Putin seemed happiest amid the Bush bush. In photographs of the November 2001 visit, Putin was like a Labrador puppy in the shotgun seat of Bush's truck. You got the feeling the Russian leader had just discovered his inner frat boy. From KGB to SAE in a single afternoon, Bush-style.
Blair, who visited with his wife and daughter a few weeks ago, was more subdued, probably owing to the recent death of the Queen Mother. He never doffed his tie, reportedly out of respect for his nation's mourning period.
Abdullah, because of the vast cultural differences, was a greater diplomatic risk for Bush. No one expected Abdullah to trade his Ghutrah for a ten-gallon hat. Nevertheless, the royal ruler and Bush spent an hour in the truck that has become an unlikely icon of American diplomacy. Put a man next to George when he shifts into four-wheel drive, and the two cease to be president and ruler: They're just a coupla guys in an ol' white truck.
Bush isn't the first president to take the personal approach to foreign policy, but he may be the most successful. Why that is so bears examination and possibly some concession from cynics willing to blame Bush for everything from the 9-11 terrorist attacks to Arafat's face.
Bush Sr. similarly used his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, to discuss affairs with French President Francois Mitterrand.
Richard Nixon brought Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to his San Clemente home. Lyndon Johnson entertained German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard at his LBJ Ranch.
The shared philosophy may be as simple as George W. Bush has put it: Get personal first, he says, then get down to business.
Bush's own ranch diplomacy is the three-martini lunch without the booze. Or the hangover.
In all three instances - Putin, Blair and Abdullah - Bush's instincts have paid off. Putin and he forged a friendship that has helped in subsequent discussions of substance. He and Blair were able to further cement their alliance. Even with Abdullah, a tough negotiator without an apparent soft spot, Bush made progress. There weren't any joint statements, and much is left to unfold, but the meeting constituted forward motion.
An official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington described the visit thusly: "The biggest thing is that the two met and formed a personal relationship. When the crown prince picks up the phone, he knows the person who's giving him answers is a person he can trust."
Note the key words: personal relationship and trust. George Bush may make even his fans squirm when he faces a TelePrompTer, but nobody doubts his skills behind the wheel of a pickup truck. And while academics, policy wonks and others from less truck-friendly areas of the country (see blue voting blocs) may cringe at the thought of a Middle East peace settlement carved with a stick in the sand of a sun-baked Texas prairie, other Americans are feeling better already.
When it comes to this little bit of Washington "process," red states, Southerners and Texans get it. They know that a truck isn't just a truck, but a statement that says a number of critical things about the driver. For instance:
He likes dogs; doesn't mind getting his hands dirty; sweats; knows a few bird calls; prefers open spaces to urban settings; makes eye contact easily; eats what he kills; ain't a snob. Oh, yeah, he can probably shoot a gun, too, and - relax - has taught his children how to use the safety lock.
In other words, he's a man whom other men recognize, relate to and embrace psychologically. Seated side-by-side in a truck with a vista ahead and a dust cloud behind, such men just might be able to sidestep the trail droppings and reach an understanding.
At sundown (that would be "at the end of the day" for you city boys), it's harder to shoot a trusted friend in the back, which is not a bad place for diplomacy to begin.