Jewish World Review April 12, 2002 /Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Bush's vacillations | Now that President Bush has at long last decided that "enough is enough" and he can no longer treat the Middle East cauldron as a pesky sideshow, it would be helpful to know just how he sees himself as a player on the foreign-policy stage.

As the Republican presidential nominee in 2000, he repeatedly talked of disengaging the United States from playing cop in various disputes around the globe, and particularly from aspirations of nation-building.

Once he was elected, the Europeans expressed concerns that after an interventionist in President Bill Clinton, albeit often reluctantly, they had in President Bush a go-it-aloner. He seemed to many of them bent on veering from the Cold War tradition of multilateralism that had held together the West, and the NATO countries especially, ever since the end of World War II.

Then came Sept. 11 and Bush's aggressive embrace of collective action against the perpetrators, the al-Qaida terrorist organization and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that gave it a home. He told the world community it was time to choose sides in the war on terrorism, and anybody who "isn't with us is against us." Overnight, the unilateralist became a multilateralist.

With early success in dispersing if not liquidating al-Qaida and driving the Taliban from power, Bush was obliged, in the resultant vacuum, to take at least a partial hand in nation-building, in the effort to put an interim regime in Kabul.

Then came the escalation of that war to a self-imposed mission to go after his self-styled "axis of evil" engaged in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction - not only Saddam Hussein in Iraq but also Iran and North Korea.

It was an imperfect linkage, if it was his intent to conjure up the same sort of world peril posed by the World War II Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, which really did constitute a working alliance of evil. Bush's axis members, from what is known, have operated independent of each other in their doomsday researches.

The problem for Bush the new multilateralist was that the wide amalgam of nations he effectively stitched together to fight the al-Qaida terrorist peril was not nearly so ready to buy into that escalation, or to accept that imperfect linkage. Partners in the war on terrorism had varying assessments of their own about Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and about how the threat from each needed to be confronted.

It was not long before signals were coming from the White House and some Pentagon quarters that Bush was ready to put on his unilateralist hat again by applying military force against Iraq alone if necessary, or only with his new best international friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, the seemingly unending conflagration between Israel and the Arab world in the Middle East was getting progressively worse, escalating to the current Palestinian suicide bombings and, finally, the brutal Israeli military crackdown. On this stage, Bush played the noninterventionist, for too long refusing to intercede personally in any meaningful way, while the region was going up in smoke.

When he did finally decide to speak out, he first sided conspicuously with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That was fine with Sharon, but many other partners in that war, while deploring the Palestinian suicide bombings and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's empty rationales on them, did not share that view.

Now Bush has finally begun to lean hard on both sides of the conflict to desist from the blood-letting, dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. But the president is finding out that while he may be the leader of the world's only superpower, it is not enough to deliver a stern schoolmaster's admonition to Sharon and Arafat not to dare "ignore" him.

Bush may yet rise to the occasion and bring a semblance of order out of the current chaos by putting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations back on track. But the mixed foreign-policy signals he has been sending to date don't inspire a lot of confidence that he knows where he's going on this front.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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