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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

The Bush `vision thing': Like father, like son

We waited. Maybe the son had the “vision thing” his father lacked. Maybe George W. Bush's first official foray into Middle East peacemaking last spring had been an eye-opener, an insightful though painful diplomatic failure. Maybe two and a half months later the world would finally see the force of U.S. leadership on a conflict more complex and profoundly tragic than any in modern history.

Yeah, right. The son doesn't have the “vision thing” any more than his father did. Considering he only felt moved to address the wretched war in the Middle East in April, after allowing the region to careen into chaos for months, perhaps an enlightened, equitable, go-for-broke effort of specifics and timetables was asking a bit much. The man relies on the brainpower of his able advisers to steer him through such sticky wickets, but when they are not of one mind, the commander in chief has to wing it.

You've got to sympathize with Colin Powell. How does he find the motivation to report for work each day? One of the few moderating voices in the administration, the respected Secretary of State was thrown into the lion's den of the Middle East after the President's last, big speech on the region with little to offer the enemy but a handshake and a smile. He carried no abiding mandate from Washington, no firm platform from which to negotiate baby steps. To both Israelis and Palestinians he was Washington's weakest link, dispatched without a shred of diplomatic clout.

Yet the Powell punt bought the Bush administration time to craft an election-year policy to clarify U.S. intentions. Not surprisingly, Mr. Bush's speech last week was skewed heavily in favor of Israel. But the fact that it could have been written by Ariel Sharon himself was stunning. It spoke volumes about Mr. Bush's simplistic world view, where shades of gray do not exist.

The Palestinians are terrorists. The Israelis are defenders of the Promised Land. Chairman Arafat must go. Mr. Sharon is free to re-occupy the West Bank and whatever Palestinian-controlled land he deems necessary for security purposes. Forget the previously ignored Washington demands for Israeli pullback of forces. The President will take his cue from the prime minister. If Israel insists on widening its military offensive, punishing and paralyzing the Palestinian world, well, Israel knows best.

The Palestinian people, on the other hand, don't know good leaders from bad and need to be told the difference by Israel's No. 1 ally and chief financial benefactor. While it is true that Yasser Arafat is no gem and indeed may be the primary impediment to achieving real peace, it should be up to the Palestinians to retain or replace the aging leader. What if planned elections in January show majority support for the relatively temperate voice of Mr. Arafat over more extreme factions? What then? Is a Hamas candidate preferable to the devil we know?

Palestinian Authority officials reacted to the unconditional Bush demand that Palestinians get rid of their chosen leader with a pointed suggestion that the American people do the same with their president. Food for thought, especially when the leader of the free world seems hopelessly adrift in the fundamental fatalism of his core constituency. The unquestioned zealotry of Mr. Sharon and other military hard-liners is unsettling to many at the State Department, but the White House is calling the shots, Secretary Powell.

The Bush bet of Palestinian acquiescence in exchange for a possible provisional state with possible statehood in three years - perhaps in time for the U.S. presidential election - is remarkable. Exactly what incentive do demoralized Palestinians have to embrace his demands to democratize their institutions, dump their leader, and dismantle terrorism? Exactly how freely can they accomplish any of Mr. Bush's preconditions to a peace accord with Israel when the Jewish state is in military control of 99 percent of the West Bank? Exactly what hope did the President offer Palestinians on long-disputed issues like borders, contiguity, and Jerusalem? Exactly nothing.

To painstakingly craft the sensitive framework for an honest-to-God breakthrough between Arabs and Israelis requires an intense commitment to see proposals through to policy. George W. Bush prefers a less time-consuming approach to the Middle East quagmire. He'd rather impress the world with his “vision thing,” drawing one-way directions to “peace, hope, and life” in the troubled region, and wait for the problem to solve itself. We who waited for a comprehensive follow-up to April waited in vain.



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