The President's Bizarre Trip
Paris, May 20, 2008 – The principal result of George W. Bush's journey to the Middle East last week was burial of his own Annapolis project: his promise to deliver a two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement before leaving office at the end of this year.
With no action or serious effort provided to obtain the compromises necessary to back this up, no one can now believe that anything will come of this promise within the next eight months.
The president's address to the Knesset had overtones of a Christian Zionist declaration of American-Israeli identity of interest and even national existence, overtly identifying the destiny of Israel with that of the United States, both of us described as states bearing divine commissions and missions, all of this with certain quasi-millenarian implications.
The Palestinians were all but entirely left out of it, as if nothing of interest had happened to them during the last sixty years. Later, on the weekend, when the president reached Sharm el-Sheikh, he mentioned that he was "absolutely committed" to this Palestinian statehood for which he has done nothing of consequence. Even poor Tony Blair – hapless director of the Roadmap effort – can get nothing except empty talk from Washington and Jerusalem.
The Annapolis conference now seems to have been a meeting held to humor Condoleezza Rice, who hoped to end her term as Secretary of State with something accomplished in the Middle East. There was never much chance that anything would come of it, and now she seems treated by the president with benevolent indifference.
Ehoud Olmert and the Israelis have dealt with her repeated trips with seemingly studied contempt. Immediately after each of her visits urging Israeli cooperation in implementing the Roadmap, by halting the expansion of the Israeli colonies inside Palestinian territories, the Israeli government has issued what can only have been calculated announcements of further building permits and construction projects. Reassurance to the settlements lobby and the expansionist right; but also a signal to Washington, and to the Palestinians.
There has been something bizarre in the president's recent behavior. While he was Israel there were outbreaks of unseemly and inappropriate jocularity, as if the significance of Masada, the tensions surrounding Israel's sixtieth anniversary, and the war and rumors of further war in the Middle East, were completely lost on him.
In Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, the president's statement about the Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas at his side, was breathtaking in its condescension. It breaks his heart, he said, "to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people really wasted," as if the United States had nothing to do with wasting that potential of all those lives.
"They're a good, smart capable people," Bush went on; "when given a chance [they] will build a thriving homeland." I do not see how Abbas held himself back from walking off the platform, preferably after punching Bush in the gut. But I suppose the Secret Service would have gunned him down on the spot.
Then the president told the Arab delegates to the World Economic Forum meeting that they should expand their economies, give equal opportunity to women, and embrace democracy. He warned them that unless they diversify their economies, the U.S. and other industrial countries will soon be using alternative fuels and they will be out of luck. That must have been good for a laugh. They must have thought he has gone mad. Certainly the Saudi Arabians were glad to see the last of him after his visit to King Abdullah's ranch near Riyadh, begging the king's grudging indulgence of the American voter's wish to spend less for his summer vacation driving.
Bush's behavior in Washington in recent weeks has also seemed strange, with erratic bursts of inappropriate good humor, and rictus grins. Is his doctor giving him something? I suggest this not in denigration but because it seems worrying. Certainly most people would be sunk in depression were they in his position, and he has seven months before his term is over.
Does he know things we do not know? There was a story in the Arab News (Jeddah) on Monday that the confused events and violence in Lebanon in recent days, further undermining the precarious ceasefire there, were the result of an American-Israeli coup against Hezbollah that never came off, cancelled by Washington at the last minute.
What was the meaning of the threat issued just after the Bush visit to Israel, that the Bush-Olmert warning to Iran will have tangible consequences?
I have never forgotten Bob Woodward's quoting Bush as having said, soon after 9/11, that he would willingly "spread chaos and death to every corner of the earth, if that were necessary to keep America safe."
I don't like the mood Bush seems to be in, and in the United States these days there is no one and nothing (short of joint general staff mutiny) to stop a president from doing whatever he wants. But perhaps I am imagining things.
© 2008 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.
The President's Bizarre Trip William Pfaff Paris, May 20, 2008 – The principal result of George W.
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