By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/11/2005 2:16:02 PM ET 2005-05-11T18:16:02

Boy, it's been a long time since Yalta made news -- a half century or so. And yet if George W. Bush's trip to Europe is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the incendiary speech about Yalta he gave in Riga, Latvia, accusing FDR and Churchill of having agreed at the Crimean summit in 1945 to abandon Eastern Europe to Soviet communism.

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Anybody who was surprised at Bush's audacity doesn't understand his presidency -- how it sees the world, who it cares about (or doesn't care about), how it operates diplomatically and politically.

I recently spent some time at the White House visiting with Mike Gerson, the president's speechwriter. In his self-deprecating, elliptical fashion, Gerson told me he was working on a draft for the Europe trip. He was spending a lot of time on it. The president obviously thought it was important. Gerson didn't say that his boss was going to throw a Molotov cocktail at the entire tradition of Big Power, post-war diplomacy. I should have expected it.

There were plenty of reasons in the view of Bushworld to talk of Yalta. Here are some:

1. PUTIN PRE-SPIN. Vladimir Putin is no longer the benign "Pooty-Poo" of yore. He now looks like what he really is: a former KGB man methodically reassembling the shards of the shattered Soviet State into a new regime of centralized power. Bush needed to confront him in some way; Putin's power grab doesn't sit well with two elements of Bush's base: old anti-communists and young corporate/investors. Both groups wanted Putin lectured to. Better to do that BEFORE arriving in Moscow - and before the photo-op of driving the Volga with Vladi. 

2. COALITION OF THE SORT-OF-WILLING. The Baltic countries, and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, are partners in the Greater Middle East war-and-reconstruction effort. Without them in the roster, the anti-Saddam coalition would have been an embarrassingly short one. All three Baltic countries have troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. To inspire them, and indirectly urge them to stay the course, the president attempted to draw a straight line from Joseph Stalin to Saddam Hussein. The message: Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill gave in to a mustachioed terrorist and you lost your freedom. We can't make the same mistake now.

3. I'M NOT DAD. President Bush goes out of his way to underscore the point that his world view is 180 degrees different from that of his father. Here, in a speech about Yalta on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, was another chance to do so. Bush One's operational credo pretty much was: "Play it as it lays." In World War II he had flown dangerous bombing missions for the Navy. He'd seen enough of war, and when it was over he had no use for the anti-Soviet bellicosity of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Neither, for that matter, did Bush One's father, Sen. Prescott Bush, who opposed McCarthy. In Riga, the grandson called Yalta a sellout. 

4. BETTER TO ARGUE OVER OLD DEALS THAN CURRENT ONES. Bush (and Karl Rove) operate by escalating every policy debate into a matter of first principles and history. Bush thinks in black and white. His critique of Yalta, which critics regard as the product of simplistic ignorance, is no doubt his honestly-held view. But such sweeping  pronouncements have a tactical purpose, too. They allow Bush and Rove to fight on their opponents' turf and avoid discussion of petty details of the present day. If you were Bush, which topic would you rather discuss: The Big Idea of global freedom or the messy, immediate  facts on the ground in Iraq?

5. PERIPHERAL URBAN ETHNICS. The communist subjugation of Eastern Europe remains a matter of deep, abiding emotion among older American voters with roots in those countries. It's been GOP strategy for years to appeal to those voters - a strategy that dates to, but wasn't rendered invalid by, the xenophobic hysteria of the McCarthy era. Catholics said a prayer for the rebirth of the church in mother Russia, and, by extension, the other countries of the East under communist rule. In the 1960s, GOP strategists began targeting these voters. Legendary GOP strategist Arthur Finkelstein named them "peripheral urban ethnics" -- not only because they lived at the end of the New York subway lines, but because they were "peripheral" in the ethnic sense. They are Catholics, but not the more familiar and more numerous Irish and Italians. No, they are the Hungarians, Poles, Lithuanians and so on. Rove still has his eye on those voters.

6. MAYBE BUSH IS RIGHT. Bush called Yalta "unjust," and compared it to the Western appeasement of Hitler before the war. That seems harsh, to say the least. But revisionist historians -- freed of the taint of seeming to support McCarthy -- increasingly wonder aloud whether Churchill and Roosevelt could have driven a harder bargain with Stalin, But you could wonder the same thing about the president with regard to, say, North Korea. North Korea's neighbors now live under the threat of nuclear attack -- and the world faces the possibility of Kim Jong Il slipping a loose nuke into the hands of Islamist terrorists. Where's the justice in that?  And where is the urgent, tough, confrontational western leader who can end that threat? If he isn't the Liberator of Iraq, then who is he?

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