WHY WERE WE WORRIED about Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East? After all, for one crucial week, Powell ended up providing diplomatic cover for an ongoing Israeli military operation that has made significant strides against the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories. Powell kept the Europeans and Arabs and the American media bedazzled, or at least confused, while Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon carried out difficult operations against Nablus and Jenin and other hotbeds of radical terrorism, arresting hundreds of known terrorists and uncovering mountains of weaponry and suicide-bomb-making paraphernalia. When Powell left the region last week, Israeli forces remained entrenched in Ramallah and in Bethlehem, with significant forces poised on the outskirts of most other major Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Yasser Arafat remained under house arrest, with no prospects for release any time soon.
Yes, we understand that helping Israel fight its war was not exactly the point of Secretary Powell's trip. Nor, unfortunately, was this President Bush's intention when he ordered Israel to stop and withdraw two weeks ago, saying "enough is enough." But Sharon saved the Bush administration from itself by not listening. More specifically, he saved the president from his advisers, who over the past month have behaved as amateurs in this moment of high stakes diplomacy. We'd love to know which of the president's top foreign policy advisers assured him that Sharon would obey a command to withdraw, and thereby set up Bush for his weakest moment since September 11.
Now it appears the president is following his own instincts again. Once Powell had returned, Bush swung back behind Israel, declaring Sharon a "man of peace," and implicitly endorsed the continued confinement of Arafat and the continued military occupation of Ramallah and other Palestinian areas. While praising Sharon, the president returned to his condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, blaming the Arab states and Yasser Arafat for doing too little--actually, nothing--to stop it. After four weeks of moral and strategic confusion that threatened real damage to American interests, the president seems to have found his way out of the wilderness. He has rediscovered the Bush doctrine.
And not a moment too soon. A little over a week ago Saddam Hussein held a meeting with his top nuclear scientists. According to an Iraqi newspaper (meaning there was an official "leak"), Saddam told the bomb-makers to accelerate the pace of their work "with the goal of defending Iraq." While the president and his team have been ineffectually playing at peacemaking, Saddam has been moving ahead into a new era, a new age of horrors where terrorists don't commandeer jumbo jets and fly them into our skyscrapers. They plant nuclear bombs in our cities.
What have the president and his team been doing about this grave threat in the three months that have passed since Bush gave his historic "Axis of Evil" speech? So far as we can tell, not enough. There is not much sign of urgency in the planning for an invasion of Iraq, no organized effort to support the Iraqi opposition, no public diplomacy to speak of either at home or abroad, no pressure on our Arab "friends" to make their choice between supporting us and supporting the terrorists.
This past week, President Bush returned to his Axis of Evil rhetoric, and we were glad to hear it. But words aren't enough anymore. It's time to act. We need to begin right now taking practical and visible steps toward the removal of Saddam Hussein. It's surely time to order the Pentagon to prepare a battle plan that can be executed before the end of this year. Time to instruct the secretary of state that his top priority now is preparing allied support for action against Iraq. Time to begin the serious arming and training of the Iraqi opposition. Time to rid the Middle East of a vicious predator who is working full time to get a nuclear bomb.
The Arab world, many Europeans, and some Americans hoped that the Middle East peace process would absorb the Bush administration's energy, and delay or thwart any move against Iraq. Their coordinated effort to drag the administration into peace-processing, and away from war-preparing, worked for much of the past month. The administration shouldn't allow itself to get sidetracked again.
--Robert Kagan and William Kristol