Bush's Middle Eastern Folly

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 17, 2007; 12:06 PM

President Bush's sudden devotion to the cause of peace in the Middle East is ringing more than a little hollow.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush launched a diplomatic effort yesterday to revive the long-moribund Middle East peace process, announcing aid to the Palestinian government and calling for an international conference this fall aimed at paving the way for the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. . . .

"The idea has come together only in recent days, and administration officials were scrambling to figure out details yesterday, such as where and when the conference would be held. More important, they acknowledged that they have no guarantees that any of the key players will attend. . . .

"Bush's latest foray into the thicket of Middle East politics leaves him trying to salvage some sort of legacy in the region as time runs short on his presidency. Success is predicated on the ability of three deeply weakened leaders to find a way to come together. As Bush's approval ratings remain mired among the lowest of the modern era, [Israeli President Ehud] Olmert's political position appears precarious following last year's war in Lebanon. And [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas has just lost much of his territory. . . .

"Bush originally planned to deliver a speech last month on the anniversary of his 2002 speech committing to setting terms for a Palestinian state by now, but the Hamas takeover of Gaza forced the White House to shelve the idea for weeks."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that the announcement "signals another pivotal shift for an administration that is desperately seeking some kind of foreign policy victory in the volatile Middle East that would draw attention away from the war in Iraq. For several years, the Bush administration has eschewed direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and has refused to press Israel to dismantle settlements or to sit down at the table with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state. . . .

"Several critics of Mr. Bush's Middle East policy said his speech on Monday should have been delivered two years ago, after Mr. Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and before Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006.

"Another criticism was made by Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. 'Dividing the region into extremists and moderates may sound nice, neat and tidy in a speech,' he said, 'but on the ground there is a huge gray area that the president apparently refuses to acknowledge.'"

Andrew Lee Butter writes for Time: "All this from an administration that was once wary of repeating the patterns of previous presidencies by devoting time and prestige to solving a conflict that refused to be solved.

"The difference now is that the Bush administration, with just 18 months left in office, is in dire need of some policy victories in the Middle East. In particular, it must show its Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia -- whose help Washington needs to stabilize Iraq -- that the U.S. is willing to put its weight behind the peace process. But in looking to score points in the Middle East, Bush is likely to be as disappointed as his predecessors. That's because the core of his strategy to bolster moderate Arab states and moderate Palestinians while shunning the region's radicals is a case of too little too late. The sad reality is that the moderates of the Arab world have little to offer Israel and less and less power to promote peace in the Middle East. . . .

"Just as Bush would exclude Hamas from Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, his call for a regional peace conference notably excludes countries that are hostile to Israel, especially Syria and Iran. A peace conference that doesn't involve enemies sitting down across from each other isn't much of a peace conference."

William Douglas and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, noted that Bush's speech came as the United States is on the defensive across the Middle East, with the war in Iraq going poorly and Iran showing increased confidence.

"'The administration realizes -- I hope it realizes -- that neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been a costly mistake,' said Riedel, who's at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

"Having pledged involvement in peacemaking before, 'The president is going to have a hard time convincing people this time he's for real,' Riedel said."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press that "the United States needs its few friends in the Middle East, and those friends want to see some resolution to the five-decade-old conflict at the heart of other Mideast divisions. Driven by rising anti-American sentiment among their publics, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have all urged Bush to do more.

"There is no express quid pro quo, of course, but part of the unspoken bargain is plain: Help us to prop up Iraq's weak U.S.-backed government, and we'll help you by trying to help the beleaguered Palestinians."

Cam Simpson writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush believes he finally may have a solid foundation upon which to try to build a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Developments on the ground suggest his optimism -- as laid out yesterday in a White House speech -- may prove fleeting. . . .

"To work, Mr. Bush's plan will require Mr. Abbas to rapidly accomplish extraordinary economic and political goals at a time when Fatah isn't only decimated in Gaza, but is fractured, weak and adrift in its West Bank stronghold."

And then there's the fact that in the Middle East, Bush's backing may hurt more than it helps. Simpson writes: "Some Palestinian analysts said Mr. Abbas or any other Palestinian leader getting a warm embrace from the Bush administration will be further frozen out by Palestinians because the White House is deeply unpopular and distrusted in the West Bank and Gaza. . . .

"Walid Ladedweh, a pollster and researcher for the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said the vast majority of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza believe a power-sharing arrangement between the factions, which has been opposed by the Bush administration, is the only answer.

"Anything that is seen as driving the factions further apart is destined to fail, Mr. Ladedweh said was the majority view."

Jim Lobe writes for the Inter Press Service, an alternative news service: "'It's not only too little too late, it's actually a little more dangerous than that,' said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. . . .

"'The hallmarks of this administration's policy have been neglect when they could do something, then letting ideology trump reality when they do do something, and then being ineffective as a result,' Zogby said. 'This has all the earmarks of that.'"

Augustus Richard Norton and Sara Roy write in a Christian Science Monitor opinion piece: "The Bush administration's approach to the divided Palestinian territories is inviting disaster. By favoring the 'good' Fatah over the 'evil' Hamas, it is letting a dysfunctional ideology trump a good opportunity to bring progress to the Palestinians -- and to the larger quest for peace with Israel. There can be no peace process with a Palestinian government that excludes Hamas. . . .

"How did the US end up in its current predicament? In January 2006, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza cast their ballots. Voting for the first time in 10 years, and resentful of corruption and arrogance in the Palestinian Authority, they decided for Hamas, described by many in the West as a terrorist group. Blindsided by its legitimate victory, the Bush administration faced a stark dilemma. If it accepted the result, a group that has launched terrorist attacks against Israel would be permitted to enjoy power. However, since the US had strongly backed the elections, rejecting the outcome would be hypocritical.

"Seasoned diplomats urged a middle path: Work with Hamas and foster a pragmatic dialogue with Israel. But the US rejected this. Instead, it campaigned to isolate and financially undermine the Hamas government, while working secretly to overthrow it.

"That policy prompted derision of US claims to foster democracy in the Arab world. And it upheld the radical Islamists' claim that democracy is a sham."

Not Exactly Building Consensus

From yesterday's briefing with Press Secretary Tony Snow:

"Q Who drew up this plan? Was it Israelis and Saudis and our -- or State Department worked with them --

"MR. SNOW: Who drew up this plan?

"Q Yes.

"MR. SNOW: Well, typically something like this -- you're talking about what the President will be describing today? We worked it out within the administration. That involves the NSC, it involves the Department of State, but it is not something that has been vetted or run by other governments.

"Q Why not?

"MR. SNOW: Because they --

"Q And how about with Congress?

"MR. SNOW: Members of Congress will get some notification, they will have a chance to see it."

Exit Strategies

If U.S. troops left Iraq soon, would al Qaeda take over? That's certainly the impression Bush is trying to convey. Just last week at his press conference, Bush insisted: "To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda."

But is there any reason to believe that to be true?

Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "In making the case for a continued U.S. troop presence, President Bush has offered far more dire forecasts, arguing that al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- would take over Iraq after a 'precipitous withdrawal' of U.S. forces. Al-Qaeda, he said recently, would 'be able to recruit better and raise more money from which to launch their objectives' of attacking the U.S. homeland. War opponents in Congress counter that Bush's talk about al-Qaeda is overblown fear-mongering and that nothing could be worse than the present situation."

DeYoung and Ricks write that the U.S. military "has been quietly exploring scenarios of a reduced troop presence, performing role-playing exercises and studying historical parallels." One likely scenario: "Iraq would effectively become three separate nations."

And would those Iraqi insurgents then "follow us home"?

U.S. intelligence analysts who have examined al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq have determined "that the local branch takes its inspiration but not its orders from bin Laden. Its enemies -- the overwhelming majority of whom are Iraqis -- reside in Baghdad and Shiite-majority areas of Iraq, not in Saudi Arabia or the United States," DeYoung and Ricks write.

Furthermore: "In a report released yesterday, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that al-Qaeda is 'only one part' of a spectrum of Sunni extremist groups and is far from the largest or most active. Military officials have said in background briefings that al-Qaeda is responsible for about 15 percent of the attacks, Cordesman said, although the group is 'highly effective' and probably does 'the most damage in pushing Iraq towards civil war.' But its activities 'must be kept in careful perspective, and it does not dominate the Sunni insurgency,' he said."

Not Backing Down

Major Garrett and Trish Turner report for Fox News: "President Bush shocked Capitol Hill staffers and Republican leaders Monday when he crashed a meeting at the White House to deliver a blunt message that he wasn't backing down on Iraq and Republicans need to understand that. . . .

"Bush was described as folksy, adamant and mildly profane as he interrupted the meeting between senior White House communications staffers Tony Snow and Ed Gillespie and GOP leaders. His message: the policy on Iraq isn't changing. He is not backing down and no one on Capitol Hill should be confused into thinking he is letting up."

Speaking of Profane

CNN reports: "A Republican senator says he warned top White House aide Karl Rove that President Bush quickly needs to craft a workable plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in order to salvage his legacy. . . .

"Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, told CNN that he warned Rove last week that 'The president is a young man and should think about his legacy.'

"He should know history will not be kind unless he can come up with a plan that protects the troops and stabilizes the region,' Voinovich said he told Karl Rove, whom Bush dubbed 'the architect' of his 2004 re-election.

"Voinovich added that other Republicans are close to speaking out against the President's current strategy.

"'I won't mention anyone's name. But I have every reason to believe that the fur is going to start to fly, perhaps sooner than what they may have wanted.'

"In private, Voinovich is more blunt, using a profanity to describe the White House's handling of Iraq by charging the administration 'f--ed up' the war."

Even More Troops?

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The U.S. military is weighing new directions for Iraq, including an even bigger troop buildup if President Bush thinks his 'surge' strategy needs a further boost, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday.

"Marine Gen. Peter Pace revealed that he and the chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force are developing their own assessment of the situation in Iraq, to be presented to Bush in September. That will be separate from the highly anticipated report to Congress that month by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander for Iraq.

"The Joint Chiefs are considering a range of actions, including another troop buildup, Pace said without making any predictions. He called it prudent planning to enable the services to be ready for Bush's decision."

Like Vietnam, Only Different

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "In the coming months, some 34 years after the Vietnam War shuddered to a halt, Congress will again attempt to do something unprecedented: stopping a war before a president is ready. Scholars agree that Congress has the power to force a shift in the conduct of the Iraq war, but the path will be difficult in the face of uncompromising opposition from President Bush. . . .

"There is ample historical precedent for Congress imposing limits on what presidents can do with US troops in the midst of a war, specialists say. But in all previous such cases, Congress was working with a president who was willing to sign its bills into law, usually as a negotiated compromise. . . .

"In those prior cases, presidents had years of governing ahead of them -- or at least believed that they did. But Bush's presidency will soon be over and Vice President Dick Cheney is not running to replace him. . . .

"'No one in that White House is destined for an accountability moment,' said Harvard law professor David Barron. 'Under normal circumstances a president would have incentives to bring [a war] to a close -- consistent with the wishes of the legislature, but somehow still on his own terms. But there doesn't seem to be any interest in doing that.'"

Savage also raises "the possibility that Congress could pass some kind of war restriction over Bush's veto -- only to see Bush defy the law anyway.

"Prompted in part by Cheney, the Bush administration has championed an aggressive view of executive power under which Congress cannot restrict the commander in chief's options, short of cutting off funds for the troops. This constitutional interpretation, which is disputed by many legal scholars, has surfaced repeatedly in recent months."

Kristol Redux

Arianna Huffington calls William Kristol's weekend opinion piece in The Washington Post "the single most deceptive piece of the entire war."

Kristol participated in a washingtonpost.com Q&A yesterday and defended himself, sort of:

"Greenbelt, Md.: You have been wrong about every important prediction you have made about the outcome of this war and this presidency -- why should anyone pay attention to you now?

"William Kristol: Feel free not to!"

Bush's Universe

David Brooks writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "I spent the first four days of last week interviewing senators about Iraq. The mood ranged from despondency to despair. Then on Friday I went to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to hear President Bush answer questions on the same subject. It was like entering a different universe."

Bush, Brooks writes, "seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.

"All this will be taken as evidence by many that Bush is delusional. He's living in a cocoon. He doesn't see or can't face how badly the war is going and how awfully he has performed."

Brooks writes that Bush's "self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: 'It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist.'

"Second, Bush remains energized by the power of the presidency. Some presidents complain about the limits of the office. But Bush, despite all the setbacks, retains a capacious view of the job and its possibilities."

About That August Vacation

Fury continues to mount in Washington over the Iraqi parliament's plan to take the month of August off. Such a vacation would be a PR calamity for the Bush administration, one that Vice President Cheney tried to avert in May when he traveled to Iraq and urged members not to take a summer recess.

As I wrote in my May 10 column, several House Republican moderates turned on the president in a highly unusual White House meeting, warning Bush that his credibility was shot and that Republican defections were in the offing.

Here is video of Tim Russert describing the meeting to Brian Williams on NBC: "One congressman said, 'How can our daughters and sons spill their blood while the Iraqi parliament goes on vacation?' The president responded, 'The vice president is over there to tell them: "Do not go on vacation." ' "

Apparently, not everyone does what Cheney tells them to do.

At Friday's press briefing, Snow tried to make excuses for the parliament. "You know, it's 130 degrees in Baghdad in August," he said. That led ABC News's Martha Raddatz to point out that "it's 130 degrees for the U.S. military also on the ground."

But White House Watch reader Dan Flowers e-mailed me with a meteorological "fact check": " Weather Underground says the highest temperature last August was 118 F, and mean high temp was 112F. Not cool by any means, but not 130 F."

Missile Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush pushed forward yesterday with plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe in defiance of Russian objections, just days after Moscow announced that it will pull out of a major arms control treaty in what was widely seen as a retaliatory move.

"Bush met with Polish President Lech Kaczynski at the White House to confer about the missile defense project, which would station 10 interceptor missiles on Polish soil and build a sophisticated radar station in the Czech Republic. Kaczynski vowed to move ahead with the system despite Russian threats to target missiles at Poland, but he asked Bush for security help."

Children's Health Watch

As Robert Pear wrote recently in the New York Times, the White House has announced that Bush "would veto a bipartisan plan to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, drafted over the last six months by senior members of the Senate Finance Committee.

"The vow puts Mr. Bush at odds with the Democratic majority in Congress, with a substantial number of Republican lawmakers and with many governors of both parties, who want to expand the popular program to cover some of the nation's eight million uninsured children."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "In the decade since its enactment, the State Children's Health Insurance Program has helped provide insurance coverage for millions of children whose families have modest incomes but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Now the Bush administration is picking an unnecessary, and unnecessarily ideological, argument over the program's reauthorization."

Scooter Libby Watch

Bob Egelko writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's rationale for sparing Lewis 'Scooter'' Libby from prison -- that his 2 1/2-year sentence was more severe than the former vice presidential aide deserved for lying to a grand jury -- is at odds with his support of new legislation that, by the administration's description, would make such sentences mandatory."

Backdrop Watch

Bush will be talking about health care tomorrow at Man and Machine Inc., a Landover, Md., company that manufactures liquid-proof keyboards. Then on Thursday it's off to Tennessee to talk about the budget at the Nashville Bun Company.

Cartoon Watch

Bob Gorrell on Bush's legacy; Ann Telnaes on Bush's real plan for the Middle East; Mike Luckovich on the Iraqi parliament.

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