From Jon Alterman
The Bush administration has been mugged by reality. After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it, resorting to the sort of process-driven incremental diplomacy that previous administrations had pursued and that this administration had disdained. Five years ago, there was a sense that things couldn’t get any worse in the Middle East and we should push for change whatever the consequences. Now, there is a keen appreciation of how many ways things could actually get much worse, and how much better off we are working with people we know and with whom we share at least some interests.
President Bush is spending several days in Israel and the West Bank, where I expect him to preside over some sort of agreement, whether it’s principally economic (having to do with the movement of people and goods both within the West Bank and between the West Bank and other places) or whether it has to do more with settlements. There is going to be something that will stand as the Bush administration’s agreement on this trip.
But it seems to me that none of what he will achieve is anything like a game changer. He can merely suggest that things are in play, which is really what the parties most want. I’m very skeptical of broader progress on Palestinian-Israeli issues because it seems to me that neither the Israeli side nor the Palestinian side has any consensus on what it’s trying to achieve or how it plans on achieving it, what measure of diplomacy and violence will have to be used in the coming months and years. I understand all of the arguments that it’s leaders who forge consensus through their leadership and so on, but it seems to me that a lot more has to be in place before final-status negotiations begin for them to possibly be successful. There is certainly much to negotiate in the interim, but that’s not really a job for presidents. The fact is, whatever high-water mark President Bush tries to set on this trip, he will only draw attention to how much lower that mark is than when he took office in 2001.
I think it’s interesting that the president isn’t planning on going to Jordan, because the Jordanians have been such important U.S. partners in both Arab-Israeli peacemaking issues as well as Iraq issues. I suspect the king calculated that a trip would hurt more than it would help and this represents shrewd triangulation by the Jordanians rather than a snub by the Americans.
Overall, I expect President Bush to come in for a fair bit of criticism on this trip and to be on the receiving end of a fair number of lectures. Most leaders in the region with whom I’ve spoken seem to consider him both naïve and callous, and they’ll use the home-court advantage to sensitize him to their perceptions of reality.
To sum up, President Bush is no longer trying to transform the Middle East from afar; he’s trying to manage it in incremental ways by arm-twisting and jawboning leaders in intimate, private sessions. There will be small successes along the way, but all of the Middle East’s problems are far too immense, complex, and diverse to be solved on this trip. Analytically, I think the president is in the same place that he’s been for years, and he deeply believes that the Middle East will pose a continual threat to U.S. interests until it is more democratic. On this score, he differs with his father. But President Bush has also come to realize that the pursuit of vital U.S. interests requires a deeper sense of partnership than many allies have found in this administration.
Writing in Foreign Affairs eight years ago, former Bush Vulcan and current World Bank president Robert Zoellick wrote, “effective coalition leadership requires clear-eyed judgments about priorities, an appreciation of others’ interests, constant consultations among partners and a willingness to compromise on some points, but remain focused on core objectives.” That’s what we will see on this trip, and it is a return to Bush administration first principles—not Bush 43, but Bush 41.
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