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Perhaps because it seemed so normal, there was something reassuring after 9/11 about the way Bush saw political opportunity in the disaster and established himself, once and for all, as the legitimate President. That was good for the country and good for Bush; rarely have we more desperately needed a leader who himself believed he was up to the job.
But it's also true that Bush's oscillating policy is a by-product of his deep-seated political instincts. Every foreign policy official who will speak even guardedly about the current situation says the President has one eye locked on the 2004 election. Bush isn't courting Jewish votes with his tilt toward Israel; he is courting Christian conservatives in his party's base who are deeply pro-Jerusalem (see box). Many Republicans who are willing to accept Bush's rightward tilt on domestic matters are growing increasingly impatient with its influence on foreign policy.
Solving the Middle East puzzle will take skills quite different from the instinctive judgments Bush prizes. He would need to take on Sharon and Arafat directly, sketch a plan for battling with his right flank and override Cheney and Rumsfeld in favor of Powell. None of that seems possible anytime soon. But American public opinion is unlikely to let him run in place forever. The dangers to the region are too great. And Bush still wants to take on Iraq, which might be enough to persuade him to get involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks himself. "The only person capable of doing this is the President," says Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. "You cannot delegate this problem."
The President may recognize this in time. But that is a story for a future age of George W. Bush.
--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, John F. Dickerson/Crawford, J.F.O. McAllister/London and Scott MacLeod/Cairo