The Magazine

The Detour

Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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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.

But if we didn't buy anything, we paid quite a bit. Not since September 11 has the Bush administration so enveloped itself in a fog of moral confusion. Whatever happened to the president's clear formulation that anyone who harbors a terrorist or helps a terrorist will be treated as a terrorist? That is one of the core principles of the Bush Doctrine. Yet on one day Secretary of State Colin Powell was officially designating one of Yasser Arafat's organizations a terrorist entity, and the next day the administration was trying to help Arafat get on a plane to Beirut. It's time for plain speaking and plain thinking.

We're heartened that Powell, at his Friday press conference, seemed to reject the idea that Israel and the Palestinians are somehow equally to blame for the violence. The secretary of state may now recognize that the detour towards appeasing Arab intransigence was a mistake. Arafat, after all, is a sponsor of terrorism. He harbors terrorists in territories he controls. He oversees the payment and supply of terrorists. Does the Bush Doctrine apply to Yasser Arafat or not?

And what of the president's powerful declaration, in his "Axis of Evil" speech, that he intended to help those in the Muslim world struggling for freedom against tyranny? The last two weeks have been a love-fest between administration officials and Middle Eastern tyrants. We understand that the State Department believes we need to win over the Saudis in order to be able to carry out a military mission in Iraq. But at the end of the day, the Saudis will support the United States in Iraq not because they like us, and not because we promise them a Palestinian state, but only because we leave them no choice. Only because we make it clear, as Bush has done in his simple but profound way, that in the war on terrorism they can either be with us or against us.

We trust the damage done in the past two weeks can be repaired and that the administration can find its way back to the straight route President Bush had charted. As this magazine went to press, it appeared that the Bush team was correcting course. Powell's statement Friday, after weeks of morally neutral denunciations of the "cycle of violence," came down firmly and unequivocally on the side of Israel, as Israeli forces began a campaign to break the Arafat-sponsored terror network. We hope Israel succeeds. And we hope the Bush administration provides full support for Israel's war on terrorism. Whether we like it or not, their war is now indisputably our war.

Meanwhile, we are more convinced than ever that the success of the war on terrorism rests entirely in the president's hands. President Lincoln once remarked, in the midst of the Civil War, that he had "never professed to be a military man or to know how campaigns should be conducted," but that circumstances had forced him to play an active role in the prosecution of the Civil War nevertheless--at least until he found a general who could win the war for him. In truth, no one in America understood the meaning of the Civil War, and what would be necessary to win it, better than Lincoln. Today, we strongly suspect that no one understands the war on terrorism, and how to win it, better than George W. Bush. Let's hope that from now on, he trusts his own understanding.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol