Mark Perry

Bitter Lemons, February 21, 2008

While it may be difficult to remember, George W. Bush was once considered a debater who could match wits with the likes of Al Gore and John Kerry. This judgment was the result, at least in part, of Bush’s uncanny ability to transform claims that he was stupid into support for America’s position in the world.

“It’s not important that I know the names of world leaders,” he said during his first campaign for the presidency. “It’s only important they know mine.” Bush supporters trumpeted this sleight-of-hand as proof of their candidate’s “muscular vision for America”. His detractors thought otherwise: not only did Bush not know the names of important world leaders, he didn’t think he needed to. So it was that Bush’s most recent UN speech was filled with helpful hints, placed in brackets (no less) by his aides–“sar-KO-zee” for the president of France and “moo-GAH-bee” for the leader of Zimbabwe. At Annapolis, Bush stumbled over the names of Mahmoud Abbas (a kind of fish, “a BASS”) and Ehud Olmert, which became “Oh Murt”.

Some of this is forgivable: George Bush is the first to note that he regularly mangles the language (“Syria Leone”) but there is a lurking suspicion that Bush’s fumbling masks a deeper sense of American entitlement. Told that the Egyptian government hoped he would visit Hosni Mubarak during his recent Middle East tour, the White House suggested to Mubarak’s aides that perhaps Egypt’s leader fly to Riyadh for the meeting–as that’s where Bush would be. That this suggestion might be insulting apparently never occurred to the Bush White House: we don’t go to other people, they come to us. Thankfully, the Bush team caught the gaffe (albeit, after it was made) and quickly scheduled Bush for a stopover to chat with the Egyptian leader. But the point was made: once you’ve decided that other people’s names aren’t important, you’re well on the way to deciding they’re not important.

None of this is lost on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain, who have staffed their campaign teams with foreign policy heavyweights who make Condi Rice, Steve Hadley, Elliott Abrams and David Welch look like rank amateurs–which is what they are. Clinton’s advisors include a large number of near-greats from her husband’s administration (Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and Wes Clark), while Obama’s list is peppered with experienced officials (former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Africa expert Susan Rice and former NSC chiefs Zbigniew Brzezinski and Tony Lake) and some surprises (former Clinton envoy Dennis Ross and Reagan Defense Department stalwart Noel Koch). John McCain’s administration-in-waiting, however, is by far the most interesting–and imposing: Richard Armitage, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell and Lawrence Eagleburger.

None of the candidates has said a word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would ruffle any feathers (“we’re not even going to talk about the issue during the campaign,” a senior campaign official told me) and all have expressed their uncompromising support for Israel, their unyielding condemnation of terror and their disdain for the irrational shortsightedness of Israel’s enemies. It is nearly axiomatic: no one ever lost any votes by criticizing Palestinians. Which is not to say that a few headliners have not caused concern either in Israel or among its most adamant American friends. For example: Clinton advisor Wes Clark has been widely derided for calling Israel’s war against Hizballah a “serious mistake” (no, really, it was a great idea), Zbigniew Brzezinski has been called “an Israel hater” (his friendship with Menachem Begin must have been a charade), while John McCain has been taken to task for once suggesting that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would require “concessions and sacrifices by both sides” (now there’s an idiotic concept).

These breathless rantings aside, it is clear that Clinton, Obama and McCain will break with the policies of George Bush. The reason has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with America’s disaster in Iraq. Bush’s claim that the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad is so thoroughly discredited that it has now been turned on its head: peace between Israelis and Palestinians is now quietly accepted by each of the candidates as a prerequisite for regional stability–and not the other way around.

There is, then, this emerging consensus: that while America will guard its friendship with Israel (which reached its apogee under George Bush), it will not do so by sacrificing its larger interests in the region. The commodity at stake here is not oil, but blood–and after Iraq we have none to spare. Such a consensus does not mean a reshaping of the American-Israeli strategic alliance (the removal of even a large number of settlers–who hate us anyway–would never put that in jeopardy), but rather a focused, serious, detailed, day-and-night effort by a senior mediator (with a presidential mandate) to resolve the conflict in as short a period of time as possible.

Of course, it might well be that President Clinton, President Obama or President McCain will decide that the search for peace is far too painful and the chance for failure too politically fatal to make the effort. But I wouldn’t count on it. For while we might glibly claim that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” it is also true that an increasing number of influential policymakers of both parties are convinced that an almost unbelievably miniscule portion of the world’s population (there are only 10 million Palestinians) can not only not be bought off by airy promises of a “contiguous, economically viable state”–but cannot be defeated. And that, even worse, while that small population of “PAL-ah-STIN-ians” might “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” they have effectively paralyzed America’s Middle East policy for 50 years.

Not bad.

Leave a Reply