Bringing together some of the most powerful people on the planet sounds like the makings of something great. Doing that in the summertime light of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the sun sets at 11 p.m., must be ideal: the heads of state at the G-8 can stay up late playing cards, hashing out the world’s problems, talking philosophy. They might make strides on trade and energy, as everyone hoped. The possibilities: amazing. Today, the New York Times‘s editorial board put it all in perspective: “There could hardly have been a better moment for the annual meeting of the Group of 8 to prove its worth. Instead, it showed how pointless and embarrassing these gatherings have become.”
In the last few years, it seems, big things tend to happen when the G-8 Summit is taking place. The thing is, they aren’t usually happening where the G-8 Summit is taking place. Granted, one of the things that occurs, with varying degrees of success, is a protest. Organizers have pretty much neutralized that by keeping demonstrators far away from the meeting and the media, with the exception of the summer of 2001, in Genoa, Italy, when the Italian police responded forcefully to people protesting corporate globalization, resulting in riots, damage, and the death of one protester. But consider last year, when Britain hosted the summit at Gleneagles, Scotland. Blair had hoped to get a unified statement on the need to combat global warming, among other issues, and Londoners were celebrating their designation as host of the 2012 Olympics, announced on July 6. But then, on July 7, during the summit, 52 people were killed on London’s subway and train system by coordinated attacks by suicide bombers.
This year, G-8 season is dominated by the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah (based in Lebanon–the distinction made here about who is fighting whom is a careful one). Somehow, the conflict remained on simmer for much of the World Cup, when the world wouldn’t have been watching, and then exploded about a week ago, when the world would. And to hear most commentators describe the international response, one gathers that the G-8 fiddled while Beirut burned.
The question of how quickly to respond to a given situation is one that has dogged the Bush administration since September 11, 2001. Critics have been vocal about how the White House is slow to take action or make public statements in disasters or conflicts not of its own making: September 11th, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina. While some point out that first responders are trained to walk rather than run to an emergency so as to better assess the situation, those seven minutes Bush spent in kindergarten are painful to behold. (And in addition to criticisms of Bush’s slow diplomacy, some are criticizing how slowly Americans are being evacuated out of Lebanon. Those evacuees had also been asked to reimburse the government up to $200 for their passage to Cyprus, a fee the State Department eventually reversed course on.)
“So why the wait?” asks Fred Kaplan, who writes the War Stories column at Slate, about Bush’s slow Middle Eastern diplomacy. The potential for escalation is great, and anticipated: the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force noted that if Hezbollah did not return the two soldiers it abducted, “we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” Kaplan posits some answers to his own question:
There are two possible reasons, neither mutually exclusive. First, Bush may not yet have decided what to do, and there’s no point sending Rice—who would clearly be speaking with the president’s authority—if she has no position to offer. Second, Bush may be in no hurry to put this fire out; he may want the Israeli government to gain more leverage, to twist Hezbollah’s arm tighter, before pressuring them both to the negotiating table.
Kaplan, like other observers, points out that Bush’s options are limited because he has cut off diplomatic ties with Syria and Iran, who might be able to tell Hezbollah to stop what it’s doing. That’s why he needs Kofi Annan and the U.N. to step in, part of what Bush’s lunchtime chat with Tony Blair was about, when Bush famously used the word “shit” to describe Hezbollah’s actions. (This came after the Bush’s decision on making closing remarks: “Just gonna make it up. I’m not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.” After asking Chinese president Hu how long his flight home would be: “Eight hours? Me too. Russia’s a big country and you’re a big country.” And after thanking Prime Minister Blair for his birthday present: “Thanks for the sweater. Awfully thoughtful of you. I know you picked it out yourself.” Blair’s response: “Oh, absolutely.”)
And that may be how we remember St. Petersburg 2006: as a blooper reel of diplomatic outtakes and hijinks, if we remember it at all. The BBC transcript of their conversation, for example, begins with Bush greeting Blair: “Yo, Blair.” The transcript also drily notes Bush’s table manners:
Blair: Because I think this is all part of the same thing…
Bush: (with mouth full of bread) Yeah
Here’s some video (note at the end, Blair looks at the microphone while Bush is talking and says, “Is this…?” and then cuts the sound.)
And, in a favorite exchange, Putin has a witty retort to Bush’s Russia criticism. The crowd eats it up.