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'A Moment of Opportunity'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 31, 2006; 1:42 PM

President Bush's "moment of opportunity" in the Middle East is increasingly looking like an opportunity for disaster.

Bush's official position is that some blood-spilling in the Middle East is worth it in pursuit of the region's positive transformation.

Even in the wake of an Israeli airstrike Sunday that killed 57 civilians in the Southern Lebanese town of Qana, every terse presidential acknowledgment of the human toll is accompanied by soaring rhetoric about freedom and democracy and lasting stability.

In the best of circumstances, Bush would be running the risk of being considered callous. But in the current circumstances, he runs the risk of being considered both callous and delusional.

By almost no stretch of the imagination is the current conflict strengthening Bush's hand or advancing democracy. Rather, it appears to be emboldening Bush's enemies.

It's increasingly accepted wisdom in Washington that what's going on in the Middle East right now is a "proxy war" between the U.S. and Iran. But even through that lens, the U.S. appears to be losing.

And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, heading back to the U.S. after another round of what some journalists are credulously calling "shuttle diplomacy," appears to be "negotiating" primarily with Israel -- her own proxy.

You don't get much more Washington Establishment than Richard N. Haass, who was Bush's first-term State Department policy planning director and now leads the Council on Foreign Relations. And he apparently finds Bush's position laughable. Literally.

Peter Baker writes in the Washington Post that Haass "laughed at the president's public optimism. 'An opportunity?' Haass said with an incredulous tone. 'Lord, spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?' "

In Their Own Words

The White House position appears to be to refuse to even contemplate ideas that, elsewhere, are widely considered obvious: That regardless of who started it, Israeli strikes are taking a vastly more terrible toll on Lebanese civilians than Hezbollah is taking on Israelis; that Israel's actions are turning the region ever more resolutely against the United States and its goals; that the war is undermining Lebanon's fragile democracy; that the death of 37 children in an air strike is more than just a "qualifier" -- it is a bloodbath that shocks the conscience of the world; and that there is more urgency to stop the killing than there is to pursue a dubious and so far disproved theory of regional rebirth.

Here is Bush this morning in Miami: "The current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the Middle East."

Here is Bush yesterday afternoon , responding to the Qana bombing: "The current situation in the Middle East is a reminder that all of us must work together to achieve a sustainable peace. America mourns the loss of innocent life. It's a tragic occasion when innocent people are killed, and so our sympathies go out to those who lost their lives today, and lost their lives throughout this crisis. . . .

"The United States is resolved to work with members of the United Nations Security Council to develop a resolution that will enable the region to have a sustainable peace, a peace that lasts, a peace that will enable mothers and fathers to raise their children in a hopeful world."

Here is White House spokesman Tony Snow in a quick briefing yesterday after the bombing:

"Q Well, does this attack hasten the development of diplomacy?

" MR. SNOW: No, because the diplomacy -- a lot of the things we're talking about, in terms of diplomacy, were underway before this -- I promise you -- so that there is still -- we have always thought that there was urgency in trying to get to the position where you can have sustainable peace precisely because innocent people, both in Lebanon and in Israel, have been affected by this and have been held hostage by the aggression of Hezbollah and we continue to urge restraint on the part of the Israelis.

"Obviously, you just have to have the qualifier today about the civilian deaths in Lebanon, it's something that is -- something for which everybody feels compassion."

The Coverage

Baker writes in The Post: "The Israeli bombs that slammed into the Lebanese village of Qana yesterday did more than kill three dozen children and a score of adults. They struck at the core of U.S. foreign policy in the region and illustrated in heart-breaking images the enormous risks for Washington in the current Middle East crisis.

"With each new scene of carnage in southern Lebanon, outrage in the Arab world and Europe has intensified against Israel and its prime sponsor, raising the prospect of a backlash resulting in a new Middle East quagmire for the United States, according to regional specialists, diplomats and former U.S. officials. . . .

"Outside the White House, the mood among many foreign policy veterans in Washington is strikingly pessimistic," Baker writes.

Nevertheless, even when granted anonymity, senior administration officials apparently have their own view of things. As one official tells Baker: "Some of the overheated rhetoric about how the United States can't work with anybody, we've lost our leadership in the world, is just completely ridiculous, and this crisis proves it. . . . We are really indispensable to solving this crisis, and you're not going to solve this problem merely by passing another resolution."

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post that Rice "denied that the United States bore any responsibility for not demanding an immediate cease-fire when most European and Arab allies did so several days ago. The administration, she said, was working harder than any other party to stop the violence. 'We are making real progress on a political framework and believe the parties are coming together on this aspect,' she told reporters. 'We are already doing really what is at the human limitation to try to get to an end of this conflict.' "

Newsweek's Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland find at least two officials with doubts. They write: "Bush officials, who earlier had been confident the Iranian-backed militia could be crippled quickly by Israel's military, were 'freaked out' by Hizbullah's resilience, says one senior U.S. official who didn't want to be named expressing skepticism about policy. 'It is a very, very dangerous situation,' said another, who requested anonymity for the same reason. 'The more Hizbullah resists, and the more Israel hits back at them, the more open-ended this is.' "

About That Proxy War

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times, quoting a U.S. official who says that in Lebanon, the United States and Iran "are conducting a proxy war. . . . It is in our interest to see Hezbollah defeated."

Writes McManus: "Just as the White House hoped its 2003 invasion of Iraq would transform the entire Middle East, Bush and his aides openly voice hopes that an Israeli victory in Lebanon can change the political balance in a much wider area, striking a major blow against Iran and the terrorist groups it has sponsored."

Of course it's an odd proxy war where you have to "negotiate" with your own proxy.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Taken aback by the carnage from the Israeli bombing of Qana, Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrung the first significant concession from Israel late on Sunday in its nearly three-week-old war against the Hezbollah militia: an immediate 48-hour suspension of aerial strikes."

Friday's Press Conference

Bush seemed oddly detached at Friday's brief press conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair, and some of his responses were curious at best. Journalists covering the event made the two leaders' announcement of support for an international peacekeeping force sound more momentous than it was -- and made Bush sound more lucid than he was. (Here's coverage from The Washington Post and the New York Times .)

By contrast, you have got to read Bush's bewildering reply to NBC reporter David Gregory, who asked: "[W]hat has happened to America's clout in this region that you've committed yourself to transform?"

Bush: "David, it's an interesting period because instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability.

"For a while, American foreign policy was just, let's hope everything is calm, kind of managed calm. But beneath the surface brewed a lot of resentment and anger that was manifested in its -- on September the 11th. And so we've taken a foreign policy that says, on the one hand, we will protect ourselves from further attack in the short-run by being aggressive and chasing down the killers and bringing them to justice -- and make no mistake, they're still out there, and they would like to harm our respective peoples because of what we stand for -- in the long-term, to defeat this ideology, and they're bound by an ideology. You defeat it with a more hopeful ideology called freedom.

"And, look, I fully understand some people don't believe it's possible for freedom and democracy to overcome this ideology of hatred. I understand that. I just happen to believe it is possible, and I believe it will happen. And so what you're seeing is a clash of governing styles, for example. The notion of democracy beginning to emerge scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them, and so they respond. They've always been violent.

"I hear this amazing kind of editorial thought that says, all of a sudden Hezbollah has become violent because we're promoting democracy. They have been violent for a long period of time. Or Hamas. One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles.

"And so what the world is seeing is a desire by this country and our allies to defeat the ideology of hate with an ideology that has worked and that brings hope. And one of the challenges, of course, is to convince people that Muslims would like to be free, that there's other people other than people in Britain and America that would like to be free in the world. There's this kind of almost -- kind of weird kind of elitism, that says, well, maybe certain people in certain parts of the world shouldn't be free; maybe it's best just to let them sit in these tyrannical societies. And our foreign policy rejects that concept. We don't accept it.

"And so we're working. And this is -- as I said the other day, when these attacks took place, I said this should be a moment of clarity for people to see the stakes in the 21st century. I mean, there's an unprovoked attack on a democracy. Why? I happen to believe, because progress is being made toward democracies. And I believe that -- I also believe that Iran would like to exert additional influence in the region. A theocracy would like to spread its influence using surrogates.

"And so I'm as determined as ever to continue fostering a foreign policy based upon liberty. And I think it's going to work, unless we lose our nerve and quit. And this government isn't going to quit.

"Q I asked you about the loss of American influence in the region.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, David, we went to the G8 and worked with our allies and got a remarkable statement on what took place. We're working to get a United Nations resolution on Iran. We're working to have a Palestinian state. But the reason why -- you asked the question -- is because terrorists are trying to stop that progress. And we'll ultimately prevail, because they have -- their ideology is so dark and so dismal that when people really think about it, it will be rejected. They just got a different tool to use than we do: They kill innocent lives to achieve objectives. That's what they do. And they're good. They get on the TV screens and they get people to ask questions about, well, this, that or the other. I mean, they're able to kind of say to people, don't come and bother us because we will kill you.

"And my attitude is, is that now is the time to be firm. And we've got a great weapon on our side, and that is freedom, and liberty. And it's got -- those two concepts have got the capacity to defeat ideologies of hate."

Deconstructing that response could be the work of a week's worth of columns.

But first and foremost, as a journalist I was astounded at Bush's suggestion that by asking the question he did, Gregory was serving the goals of the terrorists.

Is Bush saying that if we ask questions like that one, the terrorists win? It was a good question, getting right at the central issue of Bush's apparently failing approach to the region, and it deserved a response.

Bush of course did not directly answer the question. In fact, throughout the press conference, Bush responded to specific questions with rambling theoretical discourses that seemed very detached from the situation at hand.

The plight of Lebanese civilians came up repeatedly, prompting Blair to point out that "look, anybody with any human feeling for what is going on there wants this to stop as quickly as possible."

But you didn't get a strong sense of Bush's human feelings when he was asked this question:

"Q Mr. President, you spoke of having a plan to rebuild houses in Lebanon. Wouldn't the people of Lebanon rather know when you're going to tell the Israelis to stop destroying houses?"

His response was essentially that, although he cares deeply about the loss of life on both sides, the Lebanese should be grateful that they are being bombed. A cease-fire "won't solve the problem. And it's certainly not going to help the Lebanese citizens have a life that is normal and peaceful."

Asked what his message was to the governments of Iran and Syria, Bush sounded unprepared. "My message is, give up your nuclear weapon and your nuclear weapon ambitions. That's my message to Syria -- I mean, to Iran. And my message to Syria is, become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace."

Last I heard, neither Iran nor Syria had a nuclear weapon. And Blair's answer, not surprisingly, was a little more complex.

Return to Cowboy Diplomacy

Robin Wright wrote in Sunday's Post: "The controversial U.S. position -- which has pitted Washington against most European and Arab allies that pressed unsuccessfully for an immediate cease-fire -- also reflects a shift back to the Bush administration's first-term strategy, foreign policy specialists said. With Rice at the helm of foreign policy, the second Bush term had been characterized by a more realistic and collegial approach to foreign policy, a shift from the hard-charging go-it-alone push epitomized by the Iraq war during the first term.

"But now, analysts said, the administration is effectively back endorsing all-out force again, in defiance of allies, as part of its policy of trying to rid the Middle East of militants and radicals, or the 'drain the swamp' policy."

But Not All Indians Are the Same

Lisa Byer writes in Time that Hezbollah, reasonably speaking, has nothing to do with the U.S. efforts against terrorism.

"Bush two weeks ago likened Hizballah militants to the terrorists who last summer bombed London subways. That implies that Hizballah has the same mind-set and agenda as the global jihadis of al-Qaeda and its imitator groups, but they are not the same. Hizballah's military mission is principally to defend Lebanon from Israeli intrusion and secondarily to destroy the Jewish state. . . .

"An additional downside to tossing all terrorists under one heading is that if you treat them the same, address them as one, you may encourage them to see themselves that way. . . .

"Five years into [the war on terror], a lot of Americans are understandably perplexed about just what it is. 'Peace will come only by defeating the terrorist ideology of hatred and fear,' the President said recently about the Lebanon crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is no one ideology among terrorists. And terrorism isn't even an ideology. It's a tactic. The President would be better off leveling with the American people. The U.S. has interests in the Middle East, such as protecting Israel. Some of them are subtle and require explaining, like resisting Iran's efforts to expand its influence. And many of them have nothing to do with global terrorism."

Bush in Miami

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "With crucial midterm congressional elections just three months away, President Bush tried Sunday to return to his domestic agenda even while the latest eruption in the Middle East continued to dominate his administration's attention. . . .

"The president's visit here to the home state of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, suggested the depth of White House concern over his political standing as Republicans head into the campaign with a leader whose approval ratings remain stuck in the 30s. . . .

"With his brother at his side, the president will focus his Miami trip on a series of issues of regional and national concern: hurricane preparedness a year after Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast; the economy at a time when growth appears to be slowing; and port security after the Republican revolt over plans to allow an Arab company to take over management of several U.S. ports."

Bush last night met with people the White House described as "community leaders" -- but wouldn't identify them. Why would that be a secret?

Detainee Watch

Anne Plummer Flaherty writes for the Associated Press: "U.S. citizens suspected of terror ties might be detained indefinitely and barred from access to civilian courts under legislation proposed by the Bush administration, say legal experts reviewing an early version of the bill. . . .

"Legal experts said Friday that such language is dangerously broad and could authorize the military to detain indefinitely U.S. citizens who had only tenuous ties to terror networks like al Qaeda.

" 'That's the big question . . . the definition of who can be detained,' said Martin Lederman, a law professor at Georgetown University who posted a copy of the bill to a Web blog ."

Karl Rove Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove said Saturday that journalists often criticize political professionals because they want to draw attention away from the 'corrosive role' their own coverage plays in politics and government."

Cheney Watch

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "An effort by Dick Cheney to prod Alaska lawmakers to approve a controversial $20 billion natural-gas pipeline project has misfired amid charges from some legislators that the veep was seeking to benefit major energy-company interests."

Legacy Watch

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "President Bush is expanding plans to remain active in his last two years in office, scrapping what aides call the Clinton model of pushing an agenda of small initiatives to instead pursue elements of his original but stalled agenda. . . . The list of topics on his agenda includes immigration and Social Security reform. . . . 'This is not a legacy-driven thing,' said another insider. 'We have our legacy. It's 9/11. This is an eventful presidency and it will continue to be one.' "

Martinez, Menendez

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), at the White House this spring for a meeting with other senators to discuss immigration with President Bush, was surprised when Bush approached him as the meeting broke up and observed: 'Senator Martinez, you've been very quiet.'

"'That's Martinez,' Menendez said, pointing to Mel Martinez -- Florida's junior senator and Bush's former secretary of housing and urban development.

" 'I'm Menendez.'

"Bush turned bright red, we're told."

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