The Bush Doctrine, R.I.P.
The New York Times


April 13, 2002

As a statement of principle set forth by an American chief executive, the now defunct Bush Doctrine may have had a shelf life even shorter than Kenny Boy's Enron code of ethics. As a statement of presidential intent, it may land in the history books alongside such magisterial moments as Lyndon Johnson's 1964 pledge not to send American boys to Vietnam and Richard Nixon's 1968 promise to "bring us together."

It was in September that the president told Congress that "from this day forward any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." It was in November that he told the United Nations that "there is no such thing as a good terrorist." Now the president is being assailed even within his own political camp for not only refusing to label Yasir Arafat a terrorist but judging him good enough to be a potential partner in our desperate effort to tamp down the flames of the Middle East.

Yet the administration's double standard for Mr. Arafat is hardly the first, or only, breach of the Bush Doctrine.

As Tina Fey explained with only faint comic exaggeration on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend, the U.S. also does business of state with nations that both "fund all the terrorism in the world" (Saudi Arabia, where the royal family on Thursday joined in a telethon supporting Palestinian "martyrs") and are "100 percent with the terrorists except for one little guy in charge" (Pakistan). President Bush, who once spoke of rigid lines drawn between "good" men and "evildoers," has now been so overrun by fresh hellish events and situational geopolitical bargaining that his old formulations — "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" — have been rendered meaningless.

But even as he fudges his good/evil categorizations when it comes to Mr. Arafat and other players he suddenly may need in the Middle East, it's not clear that Mr. Bush knows that he can no longer look at the world as if it were Major League Baseball, with every team clearly delineated in its particular division. "Look, my job isn't to try to nuance," he told a British interviewer a week after the Passover massacre in Netanya. "My job is to tell people what I think. ... I think moral clarity is important."

Mr. Bush doesn't seem to realize that nuances are what his own administration is belatedly trying to master — and must — if Colin Powell is going to hasten a cease-fire in the Middle East. Mr. Bush doesn't seem to know that since the routing of the Taliban his moral clarity has atrophied into simplistic, often hypocritical sloganeering. He has let his infatuation with his own rectitude metastasize into hubris.

The result — the catastrophe of the administration's handling of the Middle East — is clear : 15 months of procrastination and conflict avoidance followed by a baffling barrage of mixed messages that have made Mr. Bush's use of the phrase "without delay" the most elastically parsed presidential words since his predecessor's definition of sex. It takes some kind of perverse genius to simultaneously earn the defiance of the Israelis, the Palestinians and our Arab "allies" alike and turn the United States into an impotent bystander.

The ensuing mess should be a wake-up call for Mr. Bush to examine his own failings and those of his administration rather than try (as he did a week ago) to shift the blame to Bill Clinton's failed Camp David summit talks (and then backpedal after being called on it). While the conventional wisdom has always had it that this president can be bailed out of foreign-policy jams by his seasoned brain trust, the competing axes of power in the left (State) and right (Defense) halves of that surrogate brain have instead sent him bouncing between conflicting policies like a yo-yo, sometimes within the same day.

Speaking to The Los Angeles Times this week about Mr. Bush's floundering, the Reagan administration policy honcho for the Mideast, Geoffrey Kemp, said: "A two-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."

The administration of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell is hardly ignorant. But arrogance is another matter. "We shouldn't think of American involvement for the sake of American involvement" is how Condoleezza Rice defined the administration's intention to butt out of the Middle East only a couple of weeks after her boss's inauguration, thereby codifying the early Bush decision not to send a negotiator to a last-ditch peace summit in Egypt. Since then, even as Sept. 11 came and went, we've been at best reluctantly and passingly engaged, culminating with our recall of the envoy Anthony Zinni in December, after which we sat idly by during three months of horror. Not until Dick Cheney returned from his humiliating tour of the Arab world in late March did he state the obvious : "There isn't anybody but us" to bring about a hiatus in the worst war the region has seen in 20 years.

Even then, the 180-degree reversal from the administration's previous inertia was not motivated by the bloody imperatives of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians but by their inconvenient disruption of Mr. Bush's plans to finish his father's job in Iraq. A cynic might go so far as to say that "Saddam Hussein is driving U.S. foreign policy" — which, as it happens , is what Benjamin Netanyahu did tell The New York Post on Tuesday.

The goal of stopping Saddam, worthy as it is, cannot be separated from the conflict of the Jews and the Palestinians and never could be. But even now Mr. Bush seems less than engaged in the Middle East. It took him a week after the Passover massacre to decide to send Colin Powell to the region. The president has yet to speak publicly about the spillover of the hostilities into Europe, where each day brings news of some of the ugliest anti-Semitic violence seen there since World War II. He continues to resist the idea that American peacekeepers will be needed to keep the Middle East (not to mention Afghanistan) from tumbling back into the chaos that could once again upend his plans to take on Saddam.

Peacekeepers, of course, are to Mr. Bush a synonym for nation-building, which he regards as a no-no. If there's a consistent pattern to the administration's arrogance, it's that when the president has an idée fixe of almost any sort on any subject — from the Bush Doctrine on down — it remains fixed in perpetuity, not open to question, even as a world as complex and fast-changing as ours calls out for rethinking.

Never mind that Sept. 11 was the most graphic demonstration imaginable that a missile shield may not be the most useful vessel for our ever more precious defense dollars; it's still full speed ahead. Nor has the bursting of the stock-market bubble dampened Mr. Bush's conviction that Americans should entrust their Social Security savings to his campaign contributors from Wall Street's investment houses. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, once pitched as a quick fix to the (fleeting) California energy crisis, is now being sold as an antidote to our Middle Eastern woes (because some 10 years from now it may reduce our oil imports by 4 or 5 percent). The Bush tax cut, conceived at a time of endless surpluses and peace, is still touted as the perfect economic plan even now that the surpluses are shot and we are at war. In this administration, one size idea, however slender or dubious, fits all.

To Mr. Bush, these immutable policies are no doubt all doctrines, principles, testaments to his moral clarity. In fact, many of them have more to do with ideology than morality. Only history can determine whether they will be any more lasting than the Bush doctrine on terrorism. Meanwhile, we should be grateful that the administration did abandon its stubborn 15-month disengagement from the Middle East to make an effort, however confused, hasty and perilous, to halt the bloodshed and (one imagines) lead the search for a political solution.

"This is a world with a lot of gray," said Chuck Hagel, the Republican from Nebraska, to The Washington Post late this week. "We can choose either to live in an abstract world or choose to engage in the real world. ... The reality of that has started to set in with this administration." We must hope that Senator Hagel is right. While it is far too late for an Arafat or a Sharon to change, it is not too late for a young president still in a young administration to get over himself. At this tragic juncture, the world depends on it, because, as his own vice president put it, there isn't anybody else to do the job.

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