As the conflict in Georgia unfolded over the past week and a half, the Bush administration has found itself battling a familiar charge — that its response to a major crisis was slow and uncertain.
The president’s hesitance to roundly and immediately condemn Russia’s Aug. 8 invasion stood in contrast to the response of the two major presidential candidates. Some observers said Mr. Bush was unassertive when he needed to be bold.
White House aides have dismissed criticisms publicly and privately, arguing that Mr. Bush and his top national security officials have been dealing with events from the start and that a president must speak carefully during international crises until reports can be verified. They noted that the president sharpened his words last week as the invasion continued.
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Now Mr. Bush faces decisions on how to punish the Kremlin in concert with European allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to Brussels for a meeting Tuesday with representatives from NATO and the European Union.
Proposed responses include removing Russia from the Group of Eight coalition, blocking it from World Trade Organization membership, boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and suspending or dissolving a NATO-Russia council.
Although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has talked about “consequences” for the Kremlin, he said the administration does not want to be hasty.
“There is no need to rush into everything. … I think we need to work with our allies and other countries around the world, but I think there needs to be a strong, unified response to Russia,” Mr. Gates said Sunday on CNN.
The administration will be assessed in the coming weeks on how it achieves a common approach to Russia’s aggression and the strength of any reaction. But opinions of the White House’s initial reaction to the Georgia war have been negative in some quarters that usually support the president.
In the days immediately after the invasion, Mr. Bush lagged both major-party presidential contenders in citing Russia as the aggressor.
Even as the president emboldened his language against the Kremlin, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama already were calling for specific consequences against Russia. Mr. McCain was four days ahead of the president in explaining to the American people why war in the Caucasus matters.
“My sense is that initially there was a lot of silence [from the White House], and then there was a lot of talk,” said Sarah E. Mendelson, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There’s this sense — it may be incorrect — that it’s not until midweek, after the cease-fire occurred, that you begin to see President Bush and Secretary Rice making speeches,” Miss Mendelson said.
The president first denounced Russia’s actions on Aug. 11 in an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas during the Beijing Olympics. For the first time, he described Russia’s invasion of Georgia as a “disproportionate” response to hostilities in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.
John R. Bolton, who was Mr. Bush’s acting ambassador to the United Nations, said the president should have responded much sooner.
“The lack of clear initial response showed we were taken by surprise. The fact that he didn’t really make a strong comment until Monday demonstrated to the Russians that they didn’t have any reason to fear any sustained political opposition,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview. “Valuable time was lost.”
Mr. McCain denounced Russia on Aug. 8, the day of the invasion, for having “crossed an internationally recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia” and said Moscow “should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.”
By Aug. 9, Mr. McCain had said “the situation is dire,” rejecting Russia’s case that it was merely responding to Georgian aggression against the pro-Russian residents of South Ossetia and was citing NATO’s rejection of Georgia’s membership aspirations earlier this year as a signal to Moscow that it had a “green light.”
Mr. Obama on Aug. 8 issued a cautious statement that called on both sides to cease fighting, but by Aug. 9, he had taken Mr. McCain’s hard line against Russia, saying, “I condemn Russia’s aggressive actions,” which he characterized as a “clear and continued violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Mr. Bush’s only public words to this point were a 215-word statement that went no further in blaming the Kremlin than to call for “an end to the Russian bombings.”
The White House argued at the end of last week that Mr. Bush was using different “levers” on Russia.
Miss Rice issued a statement on Aug. 9 calling on Russia “to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles, respect Georgia’s territorial integrity, and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil.”
The White House placed more weight on the fact that Mr. Bush spoke twice with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Aug. 8.
On the morning of Aug. 8, while Mr. Bush was in Beijing preparing to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, he was informed “of the first two SS-21 Russian missile launchers into Georgian territory,” said Jim Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Bosh immediately spoke with Mr. Putin, who was gathered with other world leaders in the Great Hall of the People for a midday banquet. That night, Mr. Bush pulled Mr. Putin aside in the stands of the Olympics stadium to speak about the events in Georgia. Pictures of both interactions showed the two leaders in intense conversation.
“I said this violence is unacceptable,” Mr. Bush later told Mr. Costas in his interview. “I was very firm with Vladimir Putin.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a president has to use more caution because his words carry more weight than a U.S. senator’s or future president’s.
“You have to assess the situation and determine how far to go. You are setting U.S. policy, not just making a statement,” the official said.
Picture of contrasts
Mr. Bolton blamed Mr. Bush’s caution on the president’s “overly benign impression of Putin.” The contrasting assessments of Mr. Putin, a former top Soviet spy, by Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain have been mentioned often.
Mr. Bush in 2001 said he had looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and got “a sense of his soul,” deeming him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” Mr. McCain said in 2007 that “When I looked at Putin’s eyes, I saw 3 letters: K, G and a B.”
Doubts about the administration’s response surfaced Wednesday in a Wall Street Journal editorial that said the White House had been “missing in action, to put it mildly.”
“President Bush finally condemned Russia’s actions on Monday after a weekend of Olympics tourism in Beijing while Georgia burned,” the Journal said.
The White House responded with a fact sheet listing statements made by top officials and phone calls between the administration and Russian and Georgian officials.
The next day, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer hammered the president for staying in Beijing for four days and raised the specter of the administration’s most famous failure.
“Bush needs to make up for his mini-Katrina moment when he lingered in Beijing yukking it up with our beach volleyball team while Putin flew to North Ossetia to direct the invasion of a neighboring country,” Mr. Krauthammer wrote.
Mr. Bolton published a scathing editorial, published in the London Telegraph Saturday, in which he said “the United States fiddled while Georgia burned.”
He said Mr. Bush’s rhetoric on Russia had been “right on target,” but “the problem is that we need concrete actions, which we haven’t seen yet.”