Ask Google ™ about Vladimir Putin. The search engine looks at the web for about half a second and returns 150,000 points of reference. Pretty impressive.

Ask George W. Bush about Vladimir Putin. The president looks in his eyes for about an hour and a half and “gets a sense of his soul.” Pretty darned impressive.

Cheap shot? Sure, but the president had it coming. Critics of American foreign policy toward Russia don’t agree on much, but they are unanimous in knocking the reliance placed over the past ten years on summitry and personal relationships.

The United States–continental, heterogeneous, turbulent and creative–should be a model for the kind of “normal country” most Russians long to build. But America tied itself to Boris Yeltsin, and American prestige declined in Russian eyes as Boris Yeltsin’s performance and popularity disintegrated. Russians today broadly see the United States as complicit in the ill-conceived and deeply corrupt economic policies of the Yeltsin years. That has cost the United States the moral high ground in its relationship with Russia.

When Mr. Bush called Mr. Putin “trustworthy” and “straightforward,” a “patriot” and a “good family man” and “a remarkable leader,” many Russians as well as Americans got that sinking here-we-go-again feeling.

This writer does not eagerly offer advice, but Mr. President, don’t take a walk in those woods. Don’t worry about Mr. Putin’s soul. Concern yourself with his policies. That will be challenge enough.