Sunday, December 03, 2006


By William Fisher

The New York Times Sunday ran a series of articles by prominent historians who endeavored to answer the question, “Is Bush Our Worst President?” In the interest of balance, there was a “yes” piece, a “no” piece, and a “we don’t know yet” piece.

Fair enough.

But what struck me about these articles is how little attention they devoted to Bush’s second biggest mistake.

His first big mistake, as we all now know, was turning his attention and our resources away from Afghanistan, the country that harbored those who attacked us on 9/11. We’ll be paying a high price for that mistake for decades to come.

His second biggest mistake was the place to which he then turned his attention and our resources -- Iraq, a country that posed no imminent threat to our national security or that of its neighbors. And he did so on the basis of false, exaggerated, and hyped “intelligence.”

That was his second biggest mistake not simply because the Iraq adventure has turned out to be, as Tom Ricks would say, a fiasco.

Another significant reason is that it totally ignored what is indisputably the most serious and intractable problem in the Middle East: The Israeli-Palestinian issue – the 900-pound gorilla in the room.

For the past six years, this administration has been A.W.O.L on this hair-trigger issue. It is one whose solution cannot be advanced by occasional visits to the White House by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, or Abu Mazen. It cannot be advanced by sporadic visits to the area by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. It cannot be advanced by pronouncements from the White House about the wisdom of a two-state solution. It cannot be advanced by hailing Mr. Sharon’ s Gaza initiative, which has effectively turned that strip of land into a prison. It cannot be advanced by the President’s endorsement of yet more West Bank settlements and redrawing the UN boundaries because of “changing reality on the ground.”

Nor can it be advanced by refusing to talk to Hamas because that bunch won the support of many Palestinian voters in the kind of fair election the President keeps pressing nations to hold. The President needs to ask why the Palestinian people voted for Hamas.

Whatever their reasons, the sorry result of U.S. post-election policy is to legitimize yet more suffering for the people who live in the Palestinian territories, thus turning up the volume of the anti-Americanism that already permeates the region.

So dire is this 50-year-old problem that it cried out for a long-term, sustained, on-the-ground diplomatic effort on the part of the Bush Administration. It required the presence, and the skills and patience, of a Dennis Ross or a Richard Holbrooke.

Now, alas, it may be too late. Our virtually total neglect of the problem, our lopsided support of Israel’s protracted incursion into Lebanon, and our unconscionable delay in pushing the UN for a cease-fire, may have robbed us of whatever credibility we once had as an “honest broker.”

Still, President Bush keeps referring to “the road map,” as if he and his people had expended any energy whatever in trying to lay the predicate for its implementation. There is no roadmap. It’s dead.

No one ever thought it would be easy – maybe not even possible – to persuade Hamas to abandon its refusal to recognize Israel’s existence or to give up on driving its people into the sea. And no one ever thought it would be easy to persuade the Israelis to make real concessions.

But lots of people said similar things when Jimmy Carter set out to establish a peace treaty between Israel and its archenemy, Egypt. That treaty is still in force, as is the one between Israel and Jordan.

Every president over the past thirty years has tried to find ways to resolve the myriad of issues that make up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every president, that is, except George W. Bush. His predecessors weren’t famously successful, but at least they tried.

They tried because they understood that the road to Baghdad ran through Jerusalem, not vice-versa.

There is no single issue that energizes the nations and people of the Middle East in the way that the Israel-Palestine cancer does. It is true that many Arab nations in the neighborhood don’t really care if this issue is ever settled, because the longer it festers the easier it is for them to do nothing save using it as a pretext for their anti-American propaganda. Israel always makes a handy agenda item for meetings of the Arab League. But we should by now be used to The Arab League shooting itself in the foot.

Just as the President, now out of all good options, will likely find himself reluctantly having to negotiate with Iran and Syria over Iraq, he will similarly find himself forced to talk with Hamas. That will require tough, sustained, carrot-and-stick diplomacy of a kind that has been sadly absent during the past six years. We can enlist a few credible allies, including the EU and the UN, but the principal responsibility can’t be outsourced. The U.S. still has more leverage over Israel than any other country.

Talking to Hamas won’t be easy or pleasant. But Mr. Bush wasn’t elected to take on the easy or pleasant.

And there is nothing that would offer more promise for a peaceful Middle East than for President Bush to at least be seen to be trying in a really serious way to do something meaningful in his last two years in office.

He may be a lame duck, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a paraplegic.