At ebb tide

The Baltimore Sun

There was good news Down East yesterday.

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin got along well enough during an outdoorsy day at the Bush family retreat on the coast at Kennebunkport, Maine; this might help stop the drift into a new and pointless Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Mr. Putin caught a striped bass - perhaps the best fish American waters can offer - but then threw it back. And, oh yes, Mr. Putin expanded on his proposal for recasting the controversial American missile shield: Put it in Russia, he said, and we won't take offense.

This comment was not only unexpected but perhaps a bit unwelcome, from Mr. Bush's perspective, at a meeting that was supposed to be about lobster and saltwater spray and, amid all the New England charm, maybe a little American jawboning on Iran. But we think it's a positive development, not because a missile defense system based in the Russian Federation is a good idea, but because it opens the door to a lot more talking and bargaining involving Russia and NATO and Western Europe and the United States. And that means delay - and maybe if the world is lucky, the whole unworkable scheme will just go away for a long while.

Mr. Bush wants to put missile shield installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Mr. Putin sees as a threat - or at least an affront - to Russia. He said this spring that Russia might re-target some of its missiles at Europe. The idea that a defense system controlled by the U.S. is somehow more acceptable to Moscow if it is in Russia itself would seem a little skewed, except that of course in that case it would not be entirely (or even mostly) a U.S. operation. For now, it doesn't matter. What the U.S. should do is stop spending so much money moving forward on a flawed defense system ($10 billion a year) and take a long breather until the technology catches up with the idea, or common sense prevails, whichever comes first.

Russia is flush with oil money and entering an election season; Mr. Putin can't help but notice that American power and influence in the world are waning, and he has been assiduously reasserting Russia's place on the global stage. He hasn't shown a great deal of talent at it, and the harsh rhetoric of this past spring hurt Russia more than it helped. Now he has moderated that approach. Mr. Bush, to his credit, has responded in kind. As his own troubled presidency winds down, he may finally be concluding that "losing" Russia would have far worse consequences than losing a missile site in Poland. We hope so.

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