Too Little Too Late?
      by Gene Lyons

         Reality abruptly caught up with President Junior last week, as he
found himself compelled to address the chaotic and terrible events in the
Middle East. Facing perhaps the most volatile international emergency since
the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Bush did a reasonably good job of it.
After fifteen months of his pretending the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy
would magically resolve itself if he ignored it, Bush's April 4 speech did
two big things: it defined the conflict in more realistic and even-handed
terms than the administration had previously permitted itself, and it put
the prestige of the U.S. president back behind peace-making efforts for
the first time since Bill Clinton left office.

      Thankfully, Bush abandoned the simplistic action/adventure movie
dialogue in which he'd framed U.S. foreign policy since September 11.
Thankfully too, after one last callow attempt to blame his predecessor
during a fumble-mouthed interview on British TV, Bush's handlers sent
him out to specifically deny that "somehow I am blaming the Clinton
administration for what's going on in the Middle East right now.
I appreciate what President Clinton tried to do. He tried to bring peace
to the Middle East. I'm going to try to bring peace to the Middle East."

      As some warned, it turned out that government by slogan had limited
uses. ""Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," Bush warned
last September 20th. Uncomfortably reminiscent of Lenin's revolutionary
dictum "he who is not with us is against us," as Dan Balzand and Dana
Milbank of the Washington Post recently pointed out,  Bush's rhetoric
proved too simplistic to deal with the actual world.

        Palestine, for example, isn't a nation in any real sense of the word.
Must its people, therefore, submit to be governed as Israeli hardliners
see fit, with fortified Jewish "settlements" on expropriated Arab land all
over the West Bank and Gaza, with road-blocks and military checkpoints
making it all but impossible for citizens to avoid daily contact with an
occupying army? Well, it's clear that they won't submit. Once inflamed,
as countless uprisings and wars of national liberation dating back to
Ireland's in 1916 have shown, the passions of romantic nationalism
are all but impossible to quell short of outright barbarism. Add religion
to the mix and the dangers rise exponentially.

      Along with his condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombers and Yasser
Arafat's duplicity, that's why Bush's statement that "Israeli settlement activity
in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through
withdrawal to secure and recognizable boundaries" was so important to any
hope of an eventual settlement. Inflammatory as it will seem to many readers,
to millions of Palestinians (and their Arab brethren), Arafat's compound in
Ramallah has become the symbolic equivalent of the Alamo to Texans.
His wished for "martyrdom" is no more inexplicable to them than that of
Patrick Henry. To deny that symbol's power to inspire future generations
of terrorists would be sheer folly.

      Hatred too has a terrible momentum, and so too has the intoxication
of violence. Howard Kurtz's "Media Notes" column in the Washington Post
last Monday reprinted a remarkable dispatch from Israel's left-leaning
Ha'aretz newspaper detailing shocking atrocities apparently committed by
Israeli soldiers and shown on Arab and other international TV stations, in
much the way ghastly scenes of carnage caused by Palestinian bombers have
led an aroused and fearful Israeli populace to support prime minister Ariel
Sharon's punitive expedition. Veteran observers have never sounded so
despondent about what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls
the region's "volcanic rage."

      Amid a host of others, two big questions remain: First, will Bush hold firm
in his commitment to a negotiated peace?  He's already coming under strong
pressure from the militantly pro-Israeli right wing of his own party who cheered
his simplistic "axis of evil" rhetoric and are eager to go stampeding into Iraq the
day after tomorrow. Second, will anybody involved in the region's escalating
orgy of hatred pay him any mind?  With the Palestinians clearly making political
gains despite their despicable tactics, Arafat's acting reasonable for the moment.
(What choice has he got?) But there are disquieting signs that Sharon may defy
Bush's call to withdraw.

      If so, it's not hard to imagine a series of accidents in the Middle East
analogous to the succession of blunders that started World War I, with events
careening out of control, governments toppling, and propaganda-maddened mobs
clamoring for enemy blood. It's fruitless to argue which atrocity provoked which
reprisal; the Israelis and the Palestinans simply cannot live together without an
outside power to negotiate the terms and enforce the peace. Catastrophe cannot
be avoided without an active U.S. role.Now that President Bush has yielded to
history and accepted political responsibility, the time has come to once again say
a prayer for Secretary of State Colin Powell.
 

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