From the April 8, 2002 issue: George W. Bush should trust his own instincts above the advice of his colleagues.
ON THE EVIDENCE of the past couple of weeks, there's one person above all on the Bush foreign policy team whom we can trust to wage the war on terrorism effectively--without debilitating self-delusions, without crippling moral confusion, without self-defeating serpentine maneuvering, but rather with clarity, determination, and unwavering commitment to a few basic principles. The good news is that this person is George W. Bush. The bad news is that the president occasionally defers to his colleagues when he should trust his own judgment.
We're going to go out on a limb and assert that the unfortunate detour in America's war on terrorism of the past two weeks--a detour that began with Vice President Cheney's ill-fated trip to the Middle East and ended, we hope, with last week's Arab League summit farce--was not President Bush's idea. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that the president was never entirely comfortable with the way his lieutenants handled their little foray into Middle East diplomacy. For instance, we don't believe that Bush, left to his own devices, would have chosen to make the United States the protector and deliverer of Yasser Arafat at the same time that terrorists sponsored by Arafat were massacring innocent Israeli civilians. Bush had shunned Arafat throughout his presidency, and it's common knowledge that the president pretty much washed his hands of the Palestinian leader after Arafat lied to him in early January about the huge shipment of arms from Iran aboard the Palestinian freighter Karine A. At a press conference last week, Bush revealed his discomfort with his administration's sudden quasi-embrace of Arafat, saying, "I, frankly, have been disappointed in his performance." When asked why he had changed his policy toward Arafat, Bush said it was Dick Cheney's idea: "I've always been one that trusts the judgment of people I send on a mission. . . . And I trust the vice president's judgment. He's a man of enormous experience who's got a good feel for things."
Be that as it may, the past two weeks have been amateur hour in American diplomacy. The patently cynical effort to curry favor with the Saudi royal family, and thus theoretically buy a few months of relative quiet in the Middle East, went the way of all patently cynical efforts. It backfired. Violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has increased; U.S. influence in the region is diminished; and overall, Arab hostility to both Israel and the United States is higher than it was before Cheney's trip.
The press and foreign policy establishment wants, of course, to absolve the newly peace-processing administration of responsibility for this bad state of affairs, just as they absolved the Clinton administration after the breakdown of Mideast peace talks in July 2000. An American administration always gets praised for "giving peace a chance," no matter how inept the execution or how cynical the motive, or indeed no matter whether the American effort actually helps or harms the chances for peace.
But make no mistake: The Bush administration's ham-handed diplomacy of the past two weeks has done harm, with no compensating good. By first raising and then dashing Arab expectations that the United States would force Sharon to let Arafat go to Beirut, the administration pulled off a rare feat. It managed to convince Palestinian militias that their terror was paying off, and that at the very least the United States would turn a blind eye to terrorist acts in the distant hope of "getting into Tenet" and then "into Mitchell." At the same time, the Arab dictators also concluded that, however much the United States might want to pressure Israel in order to curry favor with them, America finally did not have either the will or the power to force Sharon to let Arafat go. So the terrorists were emboldened, on the one hand, and the United States was held in contempt, on the other. Not bad for two weeks' work.
And for what? So the Bush administration could orchestrate the Arab League's acceptance of the Saudi peace initiative? That Saudi proposal is, and always was, a dead letter, notwithstanding its orgasmic reception by the New York Times and CNN. Now the Arab League has endorsed it. So what? Given the current level of violence in Israel, we doubt whether anyone will even remember the Saudi plan in two weeks. All the Bush administration's clever maneuvering did not buy even a few days of quiet and Arab goodwill, much less a few months.