They tucked into chunks of smoked beef tenderloin, traded compliments, and took a rambling walk under the gray central Texas skies with a Scottie frolicking at their heels while the birds chirruped and a storm brewed over the 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.
It was down-home Texas hospitality at its best, and if the routine by now runs like clockwork, the results never fail to hit the mark.
The morning after his arrival at President Bush's Crawford ranch last weekend, the often dour Australian Prime Minister John Howard was all smiles at a bucolically picture-perfect press briefing. Paying tribute to Bush's leadership style, the Australian "man of steel" called it resolute and clear under "great obstructionism."
Distinguished guest and famous host then swapped souvenirs — a pair of monogrammed cowboy boots bearing a map of Australia for Howard and a classic Down Under whip and rancher hat for Bush.
But if the public proceedings on the ranch seem to err toward the light, the implications of a ranch invitation are not.
"For a foreign leader, a visit to Crawford has become the ultimate honor — the place to be seen," says George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABCNEWS' This Week and former adviser to President Clinton. "For Bush, it's an invaluable part of his diplomatic toolbox."
Extended only to a handful of world leaders so far, an invitation to the ranch has served a variety of purposes through the ups and downs of the Bush presidency.
"Offering a visit to the ranch can help start a new relationship [like] the visit of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin [in November 2001], smooth a rocky relationship [like the April 2002] visit of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or reward a friend who went out on a limb," says Stephanopoulos.
In recent days, a ranch stopover is increasingly being viewed as Bush's diplomatic "thank you" to statesmen such as Howard and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar for overcoming widespread domestic opposition to support Washington's war in Iraq.
Texas Charm — at a Price?
But back in Australia, defense experts and policy pundits watched the hearty display of bonhomie at the Prairie Chapel Ranch with trepidation. Texas hospitality, the experts warned, could be served up with side order of some serious arm-twisting and a heavy tab.
Put simply, although Washington is grateful for Australia's 2,000-odd troop contribution to coalition combat forces, the United States also wants to see Australia pitch in with peacekeeping in postwar Iraq.
With significant peacekeeping obligations in the Asia-Pacific region — including East Timor — Australia has, however, resolutely resisted the pressure.
Just days before the ranch visit, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed optimism that Canberra would participate in peacekeeping in Iraq during an interview with an Australian daily.
"It's certainly our hope that, as we plan for stability operations in Iraq, that Australia will be part of that," she told The Daily Telegraph. "I'm sure it will be, I don't know at what level."
Matters Convivial and Contentious
As it turned out, Australia's potential peacekeeping role in Iraq did not come up in talks between the two heads of state, Australian officials — speaking on condition of anonymity — told reporters in Crawford.
The issues discussed at a chummy press briefing on Saturday proved to be far more bilaterally convivial, including a promise from Bush for a speedy conclusion to negotiations for a free-trade agreement between the two countries.
But that, experts say, need not necessarily mean the contentious peacekeeping issue was stripped off the radar in the latest round of ranch diplomacy.
"I think they also have parallel and follow-up meetings between preliminaries and staff," says Princeton Lyman of the Washington-based Aspen Institute and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria. "It may not come up in a one-on-one, but with Condoleezza Rice and others down there, there's no question there will be detailed follow-up meetings."
War, Peace and Dangerous In-Betweens
Deep in the heart of Texas, inevitably buoyed up by a hearty (if haute) barbecue, a select few world leaders over the past several years have engaged in a brand of personal diplomacy — call it barbecue diplomacy — that has the capacity to shape the forces of history.
In a world divided by often conflicting interests, ideologies and geopolitical goals, personal chemistries between statesmen — or the lack thereof — can sometimes make the difference between peace, war and dangerous impasses.
And sometimes, a physical and mental distance from the crush of national capitals, ringing telephones, prying journalists and demanding staffs have pressed arch enemies to acts of supreme statesmanship.
It was in the idyllic Catoctin Mountains of Maryland that President Jimmy Carter got Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to sign the landmark Camp David accord with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978.
More than a decade later, the tranquility of the Nordic countryside — coupled with the quiet diplomacy of Norwegian officials — paved the way for the Oslo accords and the subsequent historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, 1993.
Personal Chemistry or Ideological Affinity?
But there is also a danger, some experts say, in investing too much import on personal relations between world leaders.
"Personal relations cannot always overcome serious differences," says Lyman. "It does not substitute for work on real problems and there is a danger in elevating expectations to the level where, if the work does not get done, there are disappointments."
More than a year after Putin's high-profile Crawford visit, when the former spy chief was seen enjoying a peppered tenderloin while a band struck up the strains of Cotton Eyed Joe, the impasse over the ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) treaty has not been resolved.
Just weeks after Putin and Bush put up displays of congeniality at the Crawford High School that wags likened to a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin routine, the United States announced its withdrawal from the ABM treaty and its intention to build its own missile defense system despite strong objections from Moscow.
Washington also continues to support the eastward expansion of NATO into Russia's back yard.
And in the Bush administration's latest litmus test of friendship, support for the war in Iraq, Russia proved to be not much of a friend in deed, with Moscow providing key support for France's pledge to veto a second U.N. Security Council resolution earlier this year.
But not everyone believes the barbecue bonhomie between Bush and Putin before the onset of the Iraq diplomatic crisis serves no purpose today.
"It's interesting that this administration has not taken that hard a line on the Russians as the French," says Lyman. "There was disappointment, there was a lot of phone calling, but you didn't see that antagonistic tone you see coming out of this administration toward France and even Germany."
In the Diplomatic Doghouse
If an invitation to the Prairie Chapel Ranch is a badge of Bush's personal inclusion into a select circle, the denial of an invitation is meant to serve as an equally personal exclusion.
As Washington's anti-French rhetoric reached a particularly acrimonious pitch this year, Bush was characteristically blunt about the chances of French President Jacques Chirac making it to Crawford.
"I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon," said Bush in a television interview last month.
Chirac is not the only statesman being left out in the cold these days. As the U.S. president heaped lavish praise on Howard for his war support, Canada was placed in the doghouse of Washington's favors, with Bush canceling his trip this week to meet war opponent Prime Minister Jean Chretien in Ottawa.
"I think the style of this administration is more of a 'you're either with us or against us' approach," says Lyman. "This administration also has a general philosophy of courting the major powers that matter, the countries of international stature such as Russia and China."
While Chinese President Jiang Zemin was a distinguished guest at Crawford last October, Lyman notes that Mexican President Vicente Fox, a one-time frequent ranch visitor who shared an extraordinarily close relationship with Bush in the early days of his presidency, has been left out in the cold in recent months.
Access to Presidential Retreats
Presidential retreats have featured fairly frequently in recent U.S. history, although their access to visiting diplomats and the press has depended on the personal style of the incumbent president.
While President Reagan had the Rancho de Cielo in California — where Britain's Queen Elizabeth once visited — Paul Bedard, a veteran White House correspondent and columnist for U.S. News, says Reagan "valued his privacy much more" than several other U.S. presidents.
But while President Richard Nixon was known for pacing the beach near his San Clemente estate in his bathing suit, and President John Kennedy would retire with his family and New England circle to Hyannisport, Bush's opening up of the ranch, says Bedard, is in keeping with his personal style.
"This president, I think, is more of a showoff, he personally likes to be there, he needs people there, he feels it's a chance to get to know more than what can be got at a White House meeting — and it works," says Bedard. "It's like a frat party."
But there's a clear distinction between the way Bush uses Camp David and his ranch in Texas, says Bedard. While the president spends several working weekends at Camp David, and several visiting heads of state have also visited the resort in the course of their U.S. trips, his visits to the ranch are less frequent.
"I think the Crawford ranch is more exclusive than Camp David," says Bedard. "Camp David is owned by the government, it's still a government property. Crawford is like he's inviting you to his home. It's more than just an official visit, it's like a declaration that these guys are friends."
A Matter of Style
But sometimes, the personal and cultural styles of heads of state can be embarrassingly ill-matched. Reporters recount a walk around the ranch that Putin and Bush made in the pouring rain with their wives while the first ladies struggled along in their high-heel shoes.
During the queen's 1983 visit to Reagan's California ranch, a horse-riding expedition had to be put off when rain turned the ranch into a mud pile, forcing the British monarch to stay indoors and dine on a Mexican meal of refried beans she clearly did not relish.
And back in the Cold War days, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev famously dragged then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on a boar hunting expedition that repelled the animal-loving former Harvard professor.
But that disastrous hunting trip did not stop history from taking its course. Kissinger and his boss, President Nixon, did nevertheless succeed in effecting a détente with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
In an age when the international community is no longer split into two ideologically opposed camps, the potential to form and strengthen alliances through personal rapport appears to have increased.
"The trend seems to be less U.S. dependency on using existing institutions than developing ad hoc coalitions for key issues," says Lyman. "I think we're going to see a lot of coalitions on X, Y and Z problems rather than the U.S. being beholden to existing institutions."