President George W. Bush has always done the Middle East his way. When he became the first President to formally call for the creation of a Palestinian state, it was at least partly because he gagged on such conventional but tortured constructions as "a place for the Palestinian people to carry out their aspirations." When aides drafted a speech with such wording, the President challenged them, demanding, What does that mean? An aide explained that this was how the matter was generally formulated. Bush, a senior Administration official recalls, asked, "Well, do we think there's going to be a Palestinian state?" When his aides said yes, he continued, "Then why don't we say that there should be a Palestinian state?" With that, the groundbreaking words were delivered.
Bush's way is facing a stern test now that the crisis in Lebanon has dragged the Administration into the role of potential peacemaker.
Before dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region, Bush initiated a series of phone calls from Air Force One and the Oval Office to leaders around the region. Making a virtue of necessity, the President's team says it sees the opportunity for a "leadership moment"--and, however counterintuitive, an unexpected new chance to make headway on Bush's grand goal of leaving the Middle East more democratic than he found it. Ahead of Rice, a State Department envoy and Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, spent four days in the region.
By sending Rice to the region, the White House is gambling that Arab governments fear the Hizballah militants more than they resent the Israelis. This may help the Secretary of State create what she envisions as an "umbrella"--the word coalition having been spoiled by Iraq--of Arab allies willing to condemn terrorism. Some specialists call the goal naive, feeling that it overestimates the willingness of Israel's Arab neighbors to risk being seen as taking Israel's side and that it discounts the fact that even if the U.S. could get these governments on board, their people would be unlikely to follow.
Yet Bush would dearly love to accomplish something, to neutralize anti-American forces in the Middle East and to redeem himself as a peacemaker. Without that, his foreign policy legacy lives and dies with Iraq, and it's looking ever more likely that the country won't be peaceful before he leaves office. Still, the Administration is ever optimistic. In an e-mail titled "Setting the Record Straight" late last week, the White House declared, "The President's foreign policy is succeeding."
Indeed, the West Wing is relatively upbeat after its annus horribilis. People close to Bush say chief of staff Josh Bolten and press secretary Tony Snow have given the place a desperately needed karmic injection. Bolten has pleased the President by giving him straight talk instead of cheerleading and has imposed a new accountability on the staff. Snow--with his bankerly suits, full tank of confidence and dash of celebrity--went on the breakfast shows last week to defend the pace and results of Bush's diplomacy, scoffing at the impatience of those who demanded "egg-timer diplomacy."