Cowboy Dubya Bungles Again
   by Gene Lyons

         Be it recorded that as the West Bank erupted in chaos over Easter weekend,
the Leader of the Free World played with his dogs. According to aides, President
Bush also went jogging and worked around his ranch. That would be the symbolic
Crawford, Texas spread Bush acquired in 1999, after a life previously notable for its
indifference to the rusticarts. Maybe it's rude to say so, but Cowboy Dubya don't ride.

        A more significant question is whether this smug, intellectually indolent president
can govern. Alas, the signs aren't favorable. As late as Saturday morning, aides stuck
to the script. Come what may in the Middle East, they insisted, Bush remained calm
and focused. "This is not a president who worries about, listens to, or sweats criticism
all that much," a White House official told the Washington Post. "He has confidence
he will be judged on the results, not the process." Like a Clint Eastwood character,
"Bush had no interest in talking for talking's sake."

        The killing for killing's sake nevertheless goes on, an escalating blood feud between
enemies consumed by hatred, and justified by atrocity in a sickening cycle of retribution and
revenge. Apologists for slaughter make fine distinctions between Palestinian suicide bombers
and Israeli tank commanders who bulldoze civilian homes and kill children with land mines.

        At the extremes, each side justifies itself in absolute terms: Israeli hardliners insist their
very survival as a nation is at stake, and that Arab zealots mean to erase Israel from the map.
Palestinian "freedom fighters" fear that the ultimate purpose of Israeli settlements  in the West
Bank is the "ethnic cleansing" of Arabs from their land. Israelis condemn Yasser Arafat as a
bloody-handed terrorist; Palestinians regard Ariel Sharon as a brutal war criminal. Each has
ample evidence to make its case.

        Even to summarize the situation so even-handedly is seen as an immoral provocation by
partisans. So about a month ago White House spokesman Ari Fleischer named the real villain:
Bill Clinton. Referring  to the former president's historic efforts to broker a peace deal in 2000,
Fleischer allowed that "you can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get
nothing, more violence resulted; that as a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where
they were willing to go, that it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it
turned into violence."

        Translation: Peace talks cause war. Fleischer's remarks were so impolitic that the White
House repudiated them immediately. Yet there's little doubt that this kind of sandbox manicheanism
(Clinton bad, Bush good) has driven administration policy from the start. Because Clinton actively
intervened to broker and to guarantee peace-the only way it's ever going to happen-Bush took
a walk, leaving a leadership vacuum to be filled (or not filled, in the weak and calculating Arafat's
case) by fanatics.

        Many conservatives are appalled. "The supreme irony is that the greatest power the world
has ever known has proven incapable of  managing a regional crisis," Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan
administration Mideast affairs specialist at the National Security Council told the Los Angeles Times.
"A 2-year-old could have seen this crisis coming And the idea that it could be brushed under the
carpet as the administration focused on either Afghanistan or Iraq reflects either appalling
arrogance or ignorance."

        Where Bush is concerned, of course, it's likely arrogance AND ignorance. However just and
necessary, smiting Al Qaeda won't suffice as a foreign policy. Obscured by rhetoric questioning the
patriotism of anybody who dared mention how Islamic outrage over Israeli treatment of Palestinians
helps sustain terrorist organizations, Bush's inaction encouraged both Arafat and Sharon to use
September 11 cynically to advance their own schemes.

        Thus the incoherent events of last weekend, with the U.S. voting to support a unanimous
United Nations resolution calling for Israeli withdrawl from Ramallah, but with Bush himself defending
Sharon's actions and laughably urging the surrounded Arafat to take decisive action against terrorism.
Whatever the Palestinian leader's responsibility for the current catastrophe, his inability to control
events couldn't be plainer. Two weeks ago, Bush was scolding Sharon. His feckless words have
no weight whatsoever.

        Meanwhile, the much bruited-about Arab summit in Beirut has blown up in Dick Cheney's face:
Within days of the vice-president's Middle Eastern trip, intended to clear the way for U.S. action
against Iraq, governments in the region have all but embraced Saddam Hussein. All this while the
deep thinkers on the Bush team, according to Nicholas Lemann's brilliant reporting in The New
Yorker, have busied themselves drafting ever-more-grandiose "'future of the world' documents"
proposing, if necessary, the use of nuclear weapons to expand something they call  "the zone of
democracy" from Kabul to Jerusalem: Dynastic daydreams for the man who inherited the presidency.

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