The Bush roller coaster

Posted: Jun 28, 2002 12:00 AM
Dear President Bush: You had us worried there for a while. In the wake of your inspiring and brilliant speech this week, one feels a little sheepish to have doubted you. Yet your trumpet on the Middle East had been, let's face it, a little uncertain during the past few months. Back in April, when Israel was belatedly taking military action against the terrorists who have spattered Israel's pizza parlors, bat mitzvah parties, and supermarkets with blood and gore, you sternly called upon Prime Minister Sharon to pull out. (Though you would have scorned anyone who called upon the United States to pull out of Afghanistan at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.) And in your April 4 Rose Garden address -- in the midst of the daily horror of homicide bombings -- you reiterated your "vision" of a Palestinian state and called upon Israel to end the "occupation." Hosting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at the Crawford Ranch -- an honor bestowed on only a select few -- did nothing to allay fears that you might be "going wobbly." And then there was your cagey comment in Europe about not having invasion plans for Iraq "on your desk." It appears now that you meant this literally, and that you were also stressing that other forms of pressure would be brought to bear first. But still, for months you had laid the groundwork for a policy of "pre-emption" -- to backtrack would have been disastrous. And to send ambiguous signals about your intentions wasn't exactly Texas. Finally, the vaunted discipline of the Bush administration seems to have sagged a bit in the past couple of weeks. The State Department was leaking promiscuously -- suggesting that you were about to endorse an "interim Palestinian state" and thereby reward terror. No one at the White House torpedoed those stories. It is a huge relief to learn that they were wrong. With the State Department, the Europeans, Kofi Annan and the Arabs all clamoring for you to betray your principles (America's principles, really) and carve out an exemption in the war on terror for Arafatism, it was bracing to see you elegantly sidestep them all. Your speech about the Israel/Palestinian conflict expressed perfectly what most Americans feel. You sympathize with the Palestinian people but have had it with Arafat. You'd like to help the Palestinians obtain a state, but not if it is to serve as just a new terror capital in the Middle East. In order to win a state, the Palestinians must freely choose ordered liberty, an independent judiciary and a free economy. They must eschew terrorism and more -- they must join the war against it. As others have said, the United States is now in the business of overthrowing terrorist states, not creating new ones. Some will say these goals are unobtainable. Perhaps they are. But the skeptics may yet be surprised. Ronald Reagan attained greatness by standing for freedom and democracy. Many critics thought him giddy for declaring, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" -- until the wall came down. By promoting the rule of law and free institutions for "Palestine," you are outlining the only true path to peace for the region. For just as Reagan argued time and again that we would have no need for arms control if the Soviet bloc were to become free, so the Israelis and we will have no need to oppose a Palestinian state if it is peaceful and democratic. And if other states in the region, perhaps seeing the success of a new Palestine and a new Iraq, move toward democracy and freedom as well, you will have played a crucial role in creating a new Middle East and much safer world. It's true that we don't really know what the Palestinian people will choose. There has never been a free and fair election there. It is possible that 12 years of Arafatism have corrupted them. There are worrying signs that this is the case -- for example, the majority of Palestinians who have said they approve of homicide bombings. But within the past few weeks, 1,000 Palestinian intellectuals and activists have signed a newspaper ad denouncing homicide bombings. Israel's counterattacks have brought some back to reality. You are offering them real hope. We will see if they have the political maturity to embrace it.