President Bush's war on terror is close to being derailed, and his Middle East policy is starting to look like downtown Jenin.
What happened? Not long ago, President Bush, victorious in the Afghan war, seemed everywhere invincible. But this last month has left him looking almost impotent in the Middle East.
What happened was predicted here six months ago. When Phase I of the war on terror ends, I wrote, the president will face a tough choice: Follow the War Party and invade Iraq, which will shatter his Arab and allied coalition, or try to force a peace in the Palestinian conflict, which will shatter his domestic coalition.
President Bush decided to pursue both courses. He is now on the verge of shattering both coalitions. How did it happen?
Just weeks ago, Vice President Cheney was sent to the Mideast to line up Arab recruits for the march on Baghdad. But in every capital, he found zero Arab support for a U.S. invasion and angry Arab insistence that America get the Middle East "peace process" back on track. That is the message a chastened Cheney brought home.
Then events took charge. A Hamas suicide bomber carried out the Passover massacre, and Ariel Sharon decided to settle the hash of the man he believes to be the godfather of all anti-Jewish terror: Yasser Arafat.
When the president, in a rambling Easter weekend interview, said that his sympathy lay with Sharon, a firestorm swept the Arab world. The president was warned that his Arab allies, such as the king of Jordan, might be in mortal peril of violent overthrow.
So the president moved did a stunning about-face. Calling on Sharon to get his troops out of Palestinian cities, he sent Secretary Powell to the region to effect a ceasefire. But when the president moved off the Baghdad war track and onto the Oslo peace track, he scheduled a confrontation with Sharon and his U.S. allies. For Sharon rejects Oslo's land-for-peace formula as an Arab scheme to shrink Israel and enlarge the Arafat enclave for a final assault on the Jewish state.
Today, the president's Mideast policy collides with Sharon's on almost every point. The president demands a ceasefire, an end to Israeli incursions in the West Bank, negotiations now between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the dismantling of Israeli settlements and Israel's withdrawal to something like its 1967 borders.
How far apart are he and Sharon?
Colin Powell was quoted in Madrid as saying, "(Arafat) is the partner that Israel will have to deal with," even as Sharon was calling the Powell decision to meet Arafat "a tragic mistake." Sharon's envoy to the U.S. media, Benjamin Netanyahu, says: "The Oslo agreements are dead. Arafat killed them." Arafat should be deported. "You cannot uproot terror without uprooting (the Palestinian Authority)."
"I do not accept the word 'Palestinian state,'" Netanyahu told The Washington Times, which added, "(Netanyahu) would apportion an autonomous Palestinian area, overseen by Israel." This is the Bantustan solution no Palestinian leader could accept without meeting the fate of Anwar Sadat. Where, then, do we stand?
Sharon considers Arafat a terrorist and is resolved to smash his Palestinian Authority as a nest of terrorists. He has never shaken hands with Arafat and has no intention of negotiating with him, or of going back to the Oslo process, or of accepting the Barak Plan, let alone the Saudi Plan.
The ball is in the president's court. If Sharon refuses to pull out of the West Bank or negotiate with Arafat, how does the president compel him? And if he cannot bring Sharon around, what does he tell an Arab world, enraged by Israel's re-invasion of the West Bank and appalled at the killing and carnage?
By December 2001, President Bush had overthrown the Taliban, smashed Al Qaeda, stood at 90 percent approval, and had behind him a united country and international coalition. Today, he is under attack from his former media allies, Congress is rising in support of Sharon, his international coalition is history, Arafat refuses to renounce the suicide bombers, and the Arabs are celebrating Palestinian resistance.
Ronald Reagan was never in this situation, but Richard Nixon was. In November 1969, his presidency at break-point, Nixon went to the nation and asked the Silent Majority to stand behind his Vietnam policy, then under siege. President Bush may have to go the same route, or abandoned his Mideast policy.
But he has a huge reservoir of goodwill, and if he will tell America what must be done in the Middle East and the war on terror, he may yet prevail. But does the president know what he wants to do? Does he see how this Middle East war ends, or how this war on terror plays out? Has he thought it all through?