Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The Potemkin* President

Not quite. See the boldface and the * below.
A Texan Gets a Friendly Reception on the Steppes


ULAN BATOR, Mongolia, Nov. 21 - If you are an American president in need of just a few hours of temporary political asylum - no debate about Iraq, no Chinese leaders resisting the American agenda and plenty of adulation - here is an approach: Come to the endless steppes that Ghengis Khan made famous.

When Air Force One descended low over the barren but breathtaking landscape here, few Mongolians had ever seen anything like it. None of the previous American presidents had made the journey while in office.

And so Mongolians came into this tattered post-Soviet capital, past what will soon be a monument celebrating the spectacular victories eight centuries ago, when the Mongol empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to Baghdad, to hear George W. Bush tell them that today, "Mongolia and the United States are standing together as brothers in the cause of freedom." If it was gratifying for Mongolians to hear that message from the leader of a country that billboards here proclaimed a "third neighbor" - not Russia and not China - their reaction was probably even more gratifying for President Bush.

At home, there may be questions about the war in Iraq, but there are not many here. Mongolia recently sent its fifth rotation of troops to Iraq - it sends roughly 160 at a time.

There is something else that seemed to thrill Mr. Bush about Mongolia: presidential entertainment is vivid.

As his limousine raced across the steppe, a team of Mongolian warriors - carrying spears and shields and wearing the body armor that Ghengis Khan used to subdue territory that Mr. Bush is still grappling with 800 years later - suddenly appeared and galloped alongside.

Gone from Mr. Bush's face was the let's-get-on-with-it look he had at Gigkakuji, the famed temple he visited in Kyoto, Japan. He talked with the warriors and stepped around camels and yaks to make his way into a quite luxurious ger. Sitting by a wood-burning stove, he chatted with a family of herders. (The Mongolian government says the herders were the real thing, but they live 100 miles out of town, and were brought in to lend some authenticity to the small village erected for Mr. Bush's benefit.)

* Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich Potyomkin (1739-1791) was a Russian general-field marshal, statesman, and favorite of Catherine II the Great. He is primarily remembered for his efforts to colonize the sparsely populated wild steppes of Southern Ukraine. He was also a lover of Tsaritsa Catherine II ("Catherine the Great").

He also legendarily built fake villages on the courses of rivers Catherine was going to travel down so she would be fooled into thinking her realm was more prosperous than it really was. In actuality, all he did was have existing villages cleaned up a bit before she got to them. But the term "Potemkin Village" has persisted.
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