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Bush's Next Step? Who Knows?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 29, 2007; 12:26 PM

When it comes to achieving peace in the Middle East, President Bush seems to have no idea what to do next.

As Bush himself said in a Rose Garden appearance yesterday, one day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas publicly agreed to start peace talks: "No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond."

It might have been a good time for the president to make some suggestions about how to go forward, put some ideas on the table, and maybe even twist some arms. But instead, all we heard from Bush were a few more vague promises. Here is the text of his statement, all one minute and 23 seconds of it.

Standing beside Olmert and Abbas, who came to the White House for what White House Press Secretary had earlier described as an "after party" (see yesterday's column), Bush said: "One thing I've assured both gentlemen is that the United States will be actively engaged in the process, that we will use our power to help you, as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side by side in peace with Israel."

But what does that mean? Will Bush personally engage, as many Middle East experts consider necessary for any chance of success? Or will he just sit back and hope for the best?

CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday tried to get the president to explain his plans, but to no avail. Here's the video.

Blitzer: "What are you personally, personally going to do to make sure that this really works, that there is a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, hopefully by the end of next year?"

Bush: "First of all, any deal that gets done has to be agreed on by the parties. In other words, America can't impose our vision on the two parties. If that happens, then there is not going to be a deal that'll last. So my -- "

Blitzer: "But as you know, Mr. President -- "

Bush: "My job is to facilitate the negotiations that were agreed upon yesterday. Yesterday was a hopeful beginning. But as I said in the statement here in the Rose Garden with Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas by my side, it was a hopeful beginning, but -- and it was important -- but not nearly as important as the days that are to come.

"And so our job is to facilitate those discussions, is to make sure they -- that they stay on track, that they are a focused effort. But we can't dictate the results."

Blitzer: "But a lot of times, as you know, studying these negotiations, they need help from the president of the United States to bridge those gaps, especially on some of the most sensitive issues which they are about to discuss: Jerusalem, settlements, borders."

Bush: "Sure. I'm going to absolutely help. And --

Blitzer: "But that's what I'm trying to understand. What will you do?"

Bush: "It depends on the circumstances, Wolf. One of the first things I did was get the negotiations started in the first place. And I'll make sure, as will the secretary of state, that when they're stuck, we will help 'em get unstuck. But I can't -- "

Blitzer: "Well, are you ready to go to the region? Because it has been seven years, you haven't gone to Israel or the Palestinian territories --"

Bush: "Wolf, Wolf, one -- first of all, the president doesn't have -- going to a region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations. It is working with the principals, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, that's how you get things done. Now, if I have to call them together, I will. But it's -- this idea that somehow you are supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic. What is realistic is to get the frame of mind of the leaders right and then head 'em off.

"But this notion about how America can impose their vision just simply isn't going to work. It has got be a Palestinian vision, an Israeli vision where they find common ground. And our job is to help 'em find common ground. And I'm going to spend a lot of time doing it."

Similarly, in the prepared text of a speech at Johns Hopkins University, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley was much clearer about what Bush wouldn't do than about what he would do: "The President will not force a resolution of differences nor impose a peace plan with his name on it," Hadley said. "What the President will do is use his relationships with the parties to help them build the confidence necessary to make hard choices for peace."

Hoping for a Miracle?

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush, whose legacy seems destined to be defined by the Iraq war, now wants to make history by brokering the Middle East peace deal that eluded so many of his predecessors.

"But Bush's effort, launched this week at Annapolis, Maryland, to forge a treaty between Israelis and Palestinians by the end of 2008 faces long odds, not least because of doubts about his commitment. . . .

"'This is an administration that has for seven years essentially ignored this issue,' said David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 'Of course it's possible he could get lucky.'

"'If he manages to pull a rabbit out of a hat, it will be one of the great surprises of American diplomacy.'"

Rice Only Pushing So Much

The Middle East peace push is widely seen as the pet project of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But, with Vice President Cheney just waiting for a chance to trip her up, and with Bush not entirely on board (especially when it comes to leaning on Israel), she only has so much room to maneuver.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that "the Rice approach to Middle East diplomacy is far more restrained than that of her predecessors, and it consists of pushing Israel -- as well as her boss, President Bush -- only so far, while putting off the big, hard fights until the end. . . .

"Mr. Bush's speech, while calling for a Palestinian state and promising that he would do whatever he could to help things along, was notable in that he explicitly took on only one of the core issues, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and, on that issue, sided with Israel.

"Negotiations are about compromise, and some foreign policy specialists say Ms. Rice should have pressed Mr. Bush to back the Palestinians on something in return. For instance, Mr. Bush could have followed up his comments referring to Israel 'as a homeland for the Jewish people' with language about territorial compensation, or land swaps, for some of the large Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank that Israel would like to keep. He did not.

"Mr. Bush could have said Jerusalem would serve as the capital of two states. He did not.

"He could have said there would be compensation and resettlement for the Palestinian refugees. He did not do that either.

"Middle East specialists are saying that if Ms. Rice is to succeed in actually brokering a peace deal, she will have to get Mr. Bush to push Israel to agree to all of that and much more in the give and take of the haggling to come."

A Russian Gambit?

Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "Russia and the United States are tentatively planning a second Middle East peace conference, in Moscow in early 2008, with major parties hoping to begin a comprehensive peace effort that would include direct talks between Israel and Syria, according to U.S., Russian, Arab and European officials.

"Syria's delegate to this week's talks in Annapolis said yesterday that Damascus wants a Moscow gathering in order to begin negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights, a border region seized by Israel during the 1967 war. 'It is our hope that we can revive the Syrian track in Moscow,' Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad said in an interview before departing Washington.

"Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated that he hopes at some point to resume talks with Syria but cautioned that the time is not yet ripe. He said Syria must change its behavior, notably its support for Lebanon's Shiite militia Hezbollah."

And it's not at all clear Bush is in on the plan.

Here he is on CNN yesterday:

Blitzer: "But do you think there's an opportunity, now, for the Israelis and the Syrians to negotiate a deal over the Golan Heights?"

Bush: "That's going to be up to Israel and Syria."

Blitzer: "Well, what do you think?"

Bush: "I think what they ought to do is focus on a Palestinian state, Wolf. That's what we're focusing on."

Middle East Reaction

Scott Wilson and Ellen Knickmeyer write in The Washington Post: "In cafes and blogs in the Arab world, the Annapolis conference prompted little more than wisecracks. . . .

"While newspapers in Israel and the Palestinian territories carried extensive coverage of the Annapolis conference -- some hopeful, much of it doubtful -- there were few indications on the ground that what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called a 'historic' moment in the six-decade conflict had taken place. . . .

"'The event in Annapolis was a nonevent,' said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. 'There was nothing there -- three speeches and that's it. For people here, the reaction is simple. We'll believe it when we see it.'

Jeffrey Fleishman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "This week's Middle East conference in Annapolis, Md., has highlighted Arab unease over the ability and will of a weak U.S. president to deliver peace. At the same time, it has stoked fears that Israel has scored a public relations coup while refusing to concede on such core issues as Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem. . . .

"Arab leaders worry that if Abbas is perceived to have gained little from Annapolis, it will strengthen Iranian-backed militant groups, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. One of the main reasons Sunni Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia agreed to participate in the summit was to counter Iran's political involvement across the region, including its alliance with Syria and influence in Iraq."

Ken Ellingwood writes in the Los Angeles Times from Israel: "Though some observers found hope for a new start, ordinary people and commentators on both sides for the most part treated the outcome of the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Md., with the world-weary air of those who have heard this before. . . .

"[P]eople were reminded anew how many blown deadlines already litter this troubled landscape. The U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the 'road map,' unveiled in 2003, envisioned a Palestinian state by 2005, for example. . . .

"Skeptics point to a variety of reasons why it is doubtful peace talks will go far, even though polls show majorities on both sides favor a negotiated solution to the conflict. Olmert is unpopular and his standing shaky because of corruption allegations and uncertainty over how he will be judged by an official inquiry probing the government's performance during last year's war in Lebanon. Abbas is on even less stable ground, with the radical Hamas movement in sole control of the Gaza Strip and his rule limited to the West Bank."

As for Yesterday

Steven Lee Myers and Steven Erlanger write in the New York Times: "The three leaders, with their aides, also met for 20 minutes informally in the Oval Office and then appeared in the Rose Garden as Mr. Bush offered a short statement that seemed strikingly subdued after the emotional appeals of Annapolis. . . .

"Neither Mr. Olmert nor Mr. Abbas spoke at the White House.

"The Israeli prime minister later met with journalists and voiced reservations even as he said he was committed to trying to reach an agreement by the end of 2008. He conditioned any deal on the Palestinians' fulfillment of the terms of the 'road map,' an agreement from 2003 that linked negotiations to steps from both sides and that both sides have complained was broken from the start. . . .

"One of the provisions of the agreement reached Tuesday made the United States the arbiter of the commitments under the 2003 road map. Mr. Bush promised in 2003 that he would 'ride herd' on the participants to ensure that the agreements were kept -- only to see the Palestinian territories descend again into violence and Israeli settlement growth continue."

The Joyous President

Bush found time yesterday for another of his sit-downs with supportive conservative commentators.

Fred Barnes writes for the Weekly Standard: "President Bush says the presidency is still 'a joyous experience' for him. 'People ask if I would do it again. I would.' And one reason for his upbeat mood in talking to a dozen journalists Wednesday is progress in Iraq, including revenue sharing by the central government with the provinces. Another is the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, though Bush cautioned that the creation of a Palestinian state won't come any time soon. . . .

"Bush said he's 'feeling upbeat about life these days' as he nears the end of his seventh year in the White House. His optimistic mood is bound to irritate his critics, including those in the media. He spoke with great emphasis about the Middle East, but insisted on talking about some subjects off-the-record."

Bush appears to have spent most of the time restating familiar talking points. (Yes, he even told the Koizumi story again, see below.) But here's one intriguing comment: "Bush, interviewed the day after the Middle East summit in Annapolis on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, said there's no possibility that a new Palestinian state created on the West Bank would turn into a Hamas-run terrorist state as Gaza has," Barnes writes.

"'The state won't exist until there's a structure in place to prevent that from happening,' he said. "

What kind of structure would that be? Hamas, after all, won the Palestinian parliamentary elections last year.

Rich Lowry and Kate O'Beirne blog for the National Review: "Bush acknowledges that enemies of peace will seek to derail the process by killing people and that we can't impose our vision on the parties. They need to want it themselves. But he is utterly convinced that enemies can become allies, citing his favorite example of his warm relationship with former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi after his father fought the Japanese in World War II."

And then it was time for Bush's book report: "He shared that he's currently reading A Confederacy of Dunces, and recently finished Jay Winik's new book, The Great Upheaval. He has Joseph Ellis's latest book on the Founders (Karl Rove gave it to him). He called Clarence Thomas's memoir 'a sweet book, and book of courage.'"

Contrary to what its title might lead some to believe, A Confederacy of Dunces is not a White House novel. Library Journal describes it as being about a "loud, lying, hypocritical, self-deceiving, self-centered blowhard who masturbates to memories of a dog and pretends to profundity when he is only full of beans."

That Iraq Agreement

Earlier this week, with little fanfare, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced plans to negotiate a long-term agreement between the two countries that would take effect shortly before Bush leaves office. (See my Tuesday column.)

The pact is finally getting some of the attention it deserves. Particularly galling to some was the assertion by White House "war czar" Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute that only the Iraqi parliament, not the U.S. Congress, would needs to formally approve the final agreement.

Yale professor Bruce Ackerman writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "American presidents do have unilateral authority to make foreign agreements on minor matters. But the Constitution requires congressional approval before the nation can commit itself to the sweeping political, economic and military relationship contemplated by the 'declaration of principles' signed by Bush and Maliki to kick off the negotiations.

"U.S. legislative approval can come in two forms: Either two-thirds of the Senate can vote for a treaty under Article II of the Constitution, or a simple majority of both houses can authorize the agreement under Article I. But there is no constitutional provision or precedent authorizing this new form of Bush unilateralism. . . .

"The Bush-Maliki declaration not only promises the Iraqi government economic and political support, it contemplates American 'security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression.' If such guarantees don't require congressional consent, the constitutional separation of powers is at an end.

"And the administration's approach here could tie the hands of the victor of the 2008 presidential election. If a Democrat wins and seeks a new course in Iraq, he or she would be obliged to break an international commitment."

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the linchpin of Bush's legacy, it appears, is to make his Iraq policy a permanent fixture of American statecraft. . . .

"What Bush will almost surely be pushing for is permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, enshrined in a pact he can sign a few months before he leaves office. And here, as they used to say, is the beauty part: As far as Bush is concerned, he doesn't have to seek congressional ratification for such an enduring commitment of American force, treasure and lives. . . .

"The president who waged a preemptive war now wants to lock in place a preemptive occupation. Only this time, instead of preempting a foreign nation, he is seeking to preempt Congress and his successor. It's the logical conclusion for his misshapen and miserable presidency, and I doubt the American people -- if they have any say in the matter -- will stand for it."

Valerie Plame Watch

Paul Mulshine blogs for the Newark Star-Ledger: "Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan recently handed the Democrats all the ammunition they would need to begin an inquiry that could lead to the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney and perhaps even President Bush."

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, McClellan wrote that Bush and Cheney, among others "were involved" in his passing along of false information about Rove and Cheney aide Scooter Libby's involvement in the leak of Plame's identity.

Writes Mulshine: "McClellan's remarks give the Democrats the perfect opportunity to haul him before a committee to finally get answers to some of the questions left hanging ever since special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald closed up shop.

"So why aren't the Democrats doing so?

"'To stand up for that, one would need a spine,' says Larry Johnson. Johnson is a former CIA agent who has been taking the lead in defending Plame, his classmate in CIA training back in 1985, against the attacks by the White House."

Mark Fitzgerald writes for Editor and Publisher: "Norman Pearlstine, who was editor in chief of Time Inc. when Time magazine writer Matt Cooper faced jail time in the Valerie Plame case, told a Medill School of Journalism audience Tuesday evening that he doesn't think White House advisor Karl Rove really deserved his status as a 'confidential source' of Cooper's.

"'Outing Valerie Plame, exposing a valuable (CIA) agent for no particular reason, didn't, in my mind, merit protecting confidentiality,' Pearlstine said."

Rove Caught in a Lie

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek with more about Karl Rove's startling rewrite of history: "In an hourlong interview with Charlie Rose that aired Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, the former presidential strategist (and now an occasional Newsweek commentator) claimed that 'one of the untold stories about the war' is that the White House never wanted the Congress to vote on the resolution authorizing the president to wage war in Iraq before the 2002 midterm elections. . . .

"Rove's comments seem to fly in the face of a barrage of White House speeches and pronouncements pushing for a quick vote on the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002 to deal with what Bush called a threat of 'unique urgency.' The White House launched its campaign for an Iraq war resolution by calling congressional leaders to a meeting with the president on Sept. 4. At the meeting, just two months before the midterm elections, Bush first told them of his intention to press for an Iraq war resolution before they adjourned. Two weeks later, the White House sent its sweeping draft war resolution to Capitol Hill, and began pushing aggressively for a vote right away, before members went home to campaign. 'I appreciate the fact that the leadership recognizes we've got to move before the elections,' Bush said at a White House ceremony on Sept. 19. All of this was no accident: at an earlier Sept. 3 strategy meeting of top White House advisers, then White House chief of staff Andrew Card 'said the game plan was to ask Congress to vote on a formal resolution authorizing military force in Iraq before the midterm elections,' wrote journalist Bob Woodward in 'Plan of Attack,' a book about the run-up to the Iraq War that benefited from direct access to key participants.

"In another account, laid out in 'Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War' (co-written by Isikoff), a top White House aide at the time said the president's advisers specifically wanted to use the pressure of the upcoming election to force skeptical Democrats to back the president--or face being portrayed by Bush as soft on national security. The campaign calendar was driving the timing of the vote on Iraq, said the former aide, who asked not to be identified talking about internal strategy sessions. 'The election was the anvil and the president was the hammer,' the aide said. . . .

"Even one of Rove's former White House colleagues seemed puzzled by his remarks on the Iraq War vote. 'This is the first time I've ever heard Karl say that,' said former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett."

OK, Maybe I Would Like To Be Invited After All

The menu for the White House holiday receptions is just out.

Art Watch

Larry McShane writes in the New York Daily News: "Half a dozen doctored 'mug shots' of President Bush and other administration officials are decking a hall of the New York Public Library's main Fifth Ave. branch, drawing grins and gripes. . . .

"The exhibit, 'Line Up,' is the work of artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese. Each Bush administration member clutches a clapboard, as in a standard mug shot, with the date of his 'arrest' - a day when each made 'incriminating' statements regarding the Iraq war.

"The installation includes audio clips of the administration members - complete with the sound of a flashbulb popping and a prison door slamming."

The images are also available in a postcard book.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's costume change; David Horsey on the chance of peace in the Middle East.

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