WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush was spending an Easter holiday at his Texas ranch last Saturday, with no intention of saying a word publicly about anything. Rising Israeli-Palestinian violence, however, impelled him to speak. That was unfortunate from the standpoint of presenting a coherent U.S. policy to the world, but it did show more clearly where President Bush really stands.
U.S. Foreign Service professionals were bewildered. Hours before, the Bush administration supported a United Nations Security Council resolution (adopted 14 to 0, with Syria abstaining) calling for Israel's military withdrawal from "Palestinian cities." President Bush, far from advocating Israeli forces to pull back, came close to fully condoning Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aggressive activity. What's more, almost off-hand, he widened the circle of potential American enemies by linking Iran and Syria to the crisis.
Bush's remarks seemed so far off from a rational U.S. strategy that they suggest no president should discuss delicate foreign policy issues without a script or, at least, careful briefing. The president appeared to be picking sides in a debate of vast importance mostly fought below the surface in an administration that is particularly loath to admit internal disagreement.
One point of view has been most articulately raised by a private citizen: Richard Perle, an intrepid anti-Communist Cold Warrior aide to Sen. Henry M. Jackson and, later, President Reagan. Perle has been out of office for 15 years but heads the Defense Department's part-time advisory board and has close associates in the Pentagon. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, he opposed Secretary of State Colin Powell's policy of building a global coalition to fight terrorism.
Apart from long urging removal of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Perle publicly advocated a quick air strike in the days following Sept. 11 to take out Syria's air force. The consequences would be the U.S. virtually standing alone with Israel as its only ally, an isolation desperately avoided by Powell. This has become a central issue of foreign policy since the escalation of violence by Palestinian suicide bombings and Israel's military assault on Palestinian strongholds.
Powell, working with U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, has tried to position the U.S. as condemning not only Palestinian suicide killers but Israeli militarism as well. The State Department policy is that Yasser Arafat, warts and all, is the only Palestinian available for peacemaking. That position encounters severe backstage opposition in both the Pentagon and the White House.
Influential officials agree with the Israeli hard-liners that Arafat, as a major part of the problem, has brought chaos wherever he has gone -- including Ramallah on the West Bank. They are sympathetic with the hardest line Israeli view that forms the basis for Sharon's tactics: the Oslo agreement setting up Arafat's Palestinian Authority was a mistake.
This is a dispute that George W. Bush has tried to avoid, attempting until now to decouple the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the global war against terrorism. But last Saturday, dressed casually in a sport shirt and speaking off the cuff, he did connect Palestinian suicide bombers with the global terrorist menace, just as the Sharon regime desired.
"The Iranians must step up and stop sponsoring terrorism," Bush added. "The Syrians must participate." Do you have evidence that these countries, he was asked, are involved in the anti-Israeli bombing? "No," he replied, "I do not have evidence."
The disconnect from how the country voted at the U.N. to what the president said a few hours later was described privately by a State Department official as "not an accident, not a small thing." As Israeli military force intensified, the president (who once called Sharon's conduct "not helpful") became less critical. Popular outrage against Israel and the U.S. has spread from the Arab world to Europe.
The deep concern among former senior foreign policy officials, Republicans and Democrats, is that Sharon's offensive -- however unintentionally -- can result in Yasser Arafat's death. Sharon's iron fist transformed Arafat from a fading force in Islam to a hero, and his death would make him a martyr. The scope of this disaster has not been visualized by the president, to judge from his Easter Saturday remarks.