President Bush and the Middle East

In a world where some problems appear intractable, insoluble, ever-festering, perhaps no problem seems larger or more threatening to world security than that of the Middle East.

Today, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem committed to wreaking destruction on one another. Both sides appear totally recalcitrant: negotiations seem out of the picture at the present moment, although many outside the embattled area hope for greater flexibility from both Israelis and Palestinians as the consequences of their mutual destructiveness become more and more clear. Sadly, the Israeli nation and the Palestinian nation-to-be are today ruled by leaders more obsessed by their narrow personal agendas than concerned for the future of their people.

The Palestinians have learned that suicide bombers can create havoc, havoc even more destructive psychologically than physically. Although five, or fifteen, or twenty-seven, may die when a bomb explodes in a bus or a pizzeria, the real power of suicide missions lies in its impact on the minds of the Israeli public, where millions not only sleep uneasily, but go about their daily business with a sense of outrage, horror, anger and fear.

The Israelis have responded to the upsurge in the politics of violence with their own politics of violence, matching the fear induced by Palestinian terrorists by inducing fear in every Palestinian community. No society can exist in anything like 'normalcy' if unpredictable eruptions of violence recur frequently over a long length of time. This threat, and its incumbent fear, has been behind every Israeli reaction to the terrorist bombings. This threat is why Israel, which has a long record as a healthy democracy with an elected leadership and a strong tradition of public disagreement and debate, has supported the militaristic responses of Ariel Sharon with so little demurral or dissent.

Likewise - so much of what is transpiring today in the Middle East reveals stunning symmetries between the Israelis and the Palestinians - no society can exist in anything like 'normalcy' if its infrastructure is ripped up, rooted out, destroyed, by tanks and military police. What has happened on the West Bank is that Israelis have decided to return ten blows for each blow they themselves suffer, to rip the fabric of Palestinian society more jaggedly than Israel's fabric has been rent, to fight the psychology of terror by dealing out terror in return.

Most of us outside that small patch of our globe know that neither strategy will work, that Israel cannot be terrorized into submission or suicide-bombed into non-existence, that the Palestinians cannot be terrorized into submission or bombed into giving up their claims for existence as a nation.

There is little of good faith in the leadership on either side. Again, symmetries abound. Ariel Sharon wants to preclude, not only today but into the foreseeable future and beyond, the emergence of a Palestinian state. He is, to mince no words, a bully and a boor. On the other side, Yasser Arafat wants, ultimately, to drive Israelis into the sea. He wants a world without Israel, as strongly as Sharon wants a world without Palestine. Arafat, to mince no words, is too cowardly to lead, too crafty to be honest. Neither he nor Sharon have any desire, any desire at all, to sit down at a table and discuss their differences with an eye to resolving those differences by meeting, somewhere or another, in the middle.

The sort of large, inclusive vision of human brotherhood that inspired Tagore and Gandhi and Mandela is entirely lacking in both Sharon and Arafat. Each would prefer to lead his people down the path of destruction rather than to explore the possibility that peace might result from compromise. And each, sadly, tragically, is driven by personal demons: they hate one another personally. Both are severely limited, for while Sharon cannot see any view but his own, Arafat refuses to hold with consistency to any view at all.

A willingness to accept the shortcomings of each side, and to recognize that there are just claims on each side, would seem a precondition to bringing the two sides together. (I have not dealt with these just claims because each side seems perfectly capable of recognizing and articulating the justice of its own claims: to existence, to live free from violence, to have an independent and secure homeland.) But neither party can see its own shortcomings, and neither is likely to meet at a bargaining table any time soon.

Into this destructive stalemate, reluctantly, the President of the United States has wandered, impelled by the press of events. George W. Bush would have preferred to stay far, far away from the tensions swirling about the West Bank. He has, as we say in the United States, other fish to fry. First on his list is catching the elusive Osama bin Laden, hidden somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan...or is it Pakistan..or is it Somalia? He feels a deep need to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. Also high on his agenda is insuring that Americans can continue to pump out huge clouds of petrochemical exhaust from their sport utility vehicles and their vans, unencumbered by a Kyoto Accord limiting production of greenhouse gases. He is likewise, apparently, committed to transforming America's large extant nuclear storehouse into twenty-first century weapons fit for use in 'limited' nuclear wars, a transformation that can only be accomplished if existent strategic arms treaties are abrogated.

Just a short while ago, the President and his Republican cohorts were loudly critical of Mr. Bush's predecessor, critical almost to the point of abuse in their ridicule of Mr. Clinton's impassioned attempts to broker a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. President Bush has been very clear about the need for the United States to stay at a distance, uninvolved; he counted American non-involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters a major achievement for his administration.

But an escalating cycle of terror and military response in the Middle East has forced the American President out of the comfortable confines of the West Wing of the White House. Not that he himself went anywhere, except on vacation to his ranch in Texas. Nor that he ever acknowledged that the American withdrawal from diplomacy and statesmanship the Middle East, a withdrawal he had designed and championed, helped create the current climate of violence.

Still, events called, and he had no choice but to respond. His response was preceded by an eleven-nation journey to the Middle East by the Vice President, Dick Cheney, for the purpose of garnering support for an American-sponsored incursion into Iraq. As tensions mounted in the region, such states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria insisted that the violence on the West Bank was more important than whatever Saddam Hussein was doing in Damascus. Mr. Cheney's trip was a failure.

Thus, only belatedly did it become painfully clear to Mr. Bush that there are obligations which befall superpowers, and that the most pressing of these current obligations is in the Middle East. Only the United States - not the EEU, not the Arab Summit which considered Prince Abdullah's peace proposal, not the United Nations despite the tireless work of Kofi Annan - can insist that the combatants come to the bargaining table. It will not be easy for the United States to broker a peace or even a cease-fire, but at the current moment only the U.S. can press both sides towards a cessation of hostilities and a resolution to tensions.

But although Mr. Bush now understands the United States has a role to play, he doesn't know, truly, how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian situation. As a friend said to me in a recent conversation, "George Bush is just clueless."

It is not that Mr. Bush equivocates: he vacillates, and vacillates mightily. After insisting Mr., Sharon stop the military incursion in the West Bank immediately, the President reversed himself by saying that stopping in a week or two would be sufficient, thereby allowing the entire Israeli occupation to continue and expand. President Bush said the United States would never negotiate with terrorists, then said it would talk with Mr. Arafat, then said it would not talk until Arafat renounced terrorism. Then he sent Secretary of State Powell meet with Arafat without the renunciation in hand.

To be sure, Mr. Bush is caught in the midst of opposing forces, forces ideological, economic, and political.

Ideologically, Mr. Bush is committed to American non-intervention (save when terrorism against the United States, or threats to American economic hegemony, are at stake). Yet Mr. Bush is also committed to rooting out terror everywhere, and there is no question that there is terror in the Middle East. More, the escalating violence in the Middle East makes American intervention, even if only on a diplomatic front, necessary.

Mr. Bush's own personal history, much of his wealth, most of his friends' wealth, is connected to oil. He is an oilman-become-President, a chief executive widely accused of favoring oil interests at every turn. Saudi Arabia, of course, is the guarantor of world oil prices - their rises, their drops, their stability - so its view of the Palestinian situation carries large weight. But Mr. Bush, as every American president has been, is committed to democracy and supporting democracies, and Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. Nor is Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan. Of all the countries in the Middle East, only Israel is a democracy.

When economics and politics come into conflict in most of the world - the United States assuredly is no exception - economics wins. Hence Mr. Bush lurches toward the Palestinian side from time to time.

But there is another politics, the politics of getting elected and re-elected. Mr. Bush's base is strongly, and one cannot emphasize enough how strongly it is, pro-Israel. Surprisingly, it is not the influence of Jews that matter most, here. American Jews, though relatively small in number, have higher voting participation rates than most other blocs, and are more likely to be swing voters - moving from one party or candidate to another - than many other groups.

But George Bush won the Republican presidential primaries over John McCain for one reason, and one reason only: He garnered the support of the conservative right-wing of the American electorate.

He won the Presidential election over Al Gore, if that election ultimately decided by a court's actions can be said to have been 'won', because the conservative right wing supported him with its significant vote-banks all over the country.

The American right-wing is religiously conservative, anti-modernist in life style, and imbued with a world-view which sees the globe as a struggle between polar opposites: capitalism versus communism, free world versus non-free world (whatever that latter term means), Christians versus atheists and nonbelievers.

And the right wing is determinedly pro-Israel. It is not that the right wing likes, as a whole, Jews; in fact, conservatives are more liable to be anti-Semitic than other political groups in America. But Israel, the country, is the site of the Holy Land of the Christians. Christ was born there, preached there, and died there. Israel is, for the right wing, the custodian of the Holy Land. If Israel falls, the infidels will take over the Holy Land. Such is the Republican right wing's vision of current world affairs.

Economic forces would prefer to see Saudi Arabia mollified, so that oil flows freely and reliably, and therefore economic interests push the President toward greater support for the Palestinians in their desire for a homeland. What is good for oil and oil interests is good for America. But, at the same time, domestic political forces push the President to support Israel. The corporate interests provide the money for Bush to run for re-election, and want to hold on to the good will of the Saudis and the Yemenis and other oil-producing nations in the region, but those economic powers are not as vehement as the political interests that want to keep the holy land free from the influence of the 'infidel.' (Do holy wars never cease?)

Mr. Bush, despite talking tough at times when justifying the American war on the Taliban, appears to have neither the vision nor the courage to deal with the complexity, these competing interests, of the Middle East.

There is a growing realization, in America, that Mr. Bush has serious limitations when it comes to foreign policy. A nationwide poll done April 5-7 pegged his popularity rating at 70 percent, down thirteen points since the beginning of the year. It found that in the previous two weeks, his approval rating on handling the Middle East fell by five points. The poll was taken in the days immediately preceding Secretary of State Powell's inconclusive and even humiliating trip to the Middle East. There is no question Mr. Bush's poll numbers would be significantly lowers today.

Mr. Powell's trip has been, so far, the centerpiece of the Bush administration's attempt to deal with the crisis in the Middle East. It was, on more levels than most realize, a fiasco.

The diplomatic endeavor, on which Mr. Powell was initially reluctant to embark, began badly. On April 8, Moroccan King Mohammed VI 'welcomed' Powell with harsh criticism of his week-long delay in arriving in Israel. Three days later, Mr. Sharon flatly rejected President Bush's call for an Israeli military withdrawal from the occupied territories. In the following week, both Syria and Lebanon declined Mr. Powell's strong advice to stop supporting Hezbollah in its bombardment of Israel's northern border. Nor were Mr. Powell's two meetings with Chairman Arafat productive of any movement on the part of the Palestinian Authority. As a bookend to his 'welcome' in Morocco, when the Secretary of State concluded his trip with a stop in Egypt to discuss affairs with President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader claimed he was too busy to meet with Mr. Powell.

Thus was American power and influence snubbed at every turn, by every participant and interested party. Mr. Powell returned to the United States with nothing accomplished, and much lost American prestige.

Why did he go?

The kindly answer is that Secretary of State Powell is the wisest and most practical person in the Bush administration, and that he, more than anyone else, knew that the situation requires that America play a central role in defusing tensions and bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table. From this perspective, the President's vacillations, his lack of clarity in the pronouncements he made as Powell's trip unfolded, undermined the Secretary of State's mission which, compounded by the intransigence of the Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, ultimately unraveled into failure.

The unkind answer, increasingly making the rounds in the corridors of power in Washington and on the editorial pages of several major newspapers, is that Mr. Powell was 'set up' by savage internecine warfare. In this account Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom want to move soon and powerfully on Iraq, have been in part thwarted by Mr. Powell's careful, cautious view of an Iraqi incursion. Mr. Powell's mission, in this view, was 'payback time." Forced to solve an insoluble situation, his authority would be undermined, his reputation sullied, he himself humiliated. And the major domestic impediment to moving on Iraq, the State Department, would henceforward speak with a less potent voice in the internal administration debate on Iraq, burdened now with the somewhat dimmed luster of the enormously popular Secretary of State.

Whichever view one holds - that the President undermined the Powell mission through his bumbling and uncertainty, or that forces in the administration (perhaps even including Mr. Bush himself) set up Mr. Powell for failure - the results are clear.

The violence and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians continues. No negotiations are in sight. America's diplomatic prestige has been tarnished. And Mr. Bush still has no clear idea of what he is doing, or where he is going, or what the world's most powerful nation should do about violence in the Middle East.

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