While in many respects welcome, Bush's Middle East initiative is yet another indication of the box he finds himself in. Does he support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aggressive military response to those who killed hundreds of Israeli civilians over the past months? Or does the President throw a leash on Sharon in an effort to mollify Arabs who, Bush continues to hope, will back him in his coming campaign against Iraq's Saddam Hussein?
SLOW WITHDRAWAL. Bush is, of course, trying to do both. But it's hard to see a good outcome. For now, he's in an increasingly public squabble with Sharon. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are loudly and publicly insisting that the old general pull his troops out of the West Bank, but Sharon ignores them.
The President will get his way. In a few days, Powell will complete his leisurely journey to Jerusalem. Sharon will begin to slowly withdraw troops. And, within a day or so after that, another terrorist bomb will go off in another Israeli neighborhood. What will Bush do then?
Bush still believes -- as he repeated in his Apr. 4 Rose Garden address -- that terrorism is evil and should be stopped. He knows that the suicide bombers who have brought death to Israelis young and old have ties to the extremists who executed their own murderous suicide attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. Yet, Bush finds himself compelled to demand that Sharon go easy on these killers.
SPEAK FROM PRINCIPLE. The U.S. military has spent six months in Afghanistan destroying a terror network. Yet barely six days after Sharon sent the Israeli military to break up terror cells that were attacking his people, Bush demanded that he withdraw. "Enough is enough," the President said. Bush boasts that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been "a glorious series of victories." But he hammers Sharon's military retaliation against terrorism as "not helpful." The leader of the free world must speak from principle and offer a more compelling solution if it's different from Sharon's.
Bush readily acknowledges that Syria and Iran are bankrolling Palestinian terrorists, with the implicit -- and often explicit -- backing of other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Yet, he demands that Sharon put on the brakes for fear that his aggressive response to terrorism will offend the very nations that are supporting terrorists.
The President knows that in July, 2000, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat walked away from a peace agreement that would have given his people a state. And Bush is aware that since then, Arafat's organization has funded the bombings of Israeli discos and hotels.
A HAPLESS COP? It's no secret that when a ship loaded with 50 tons of Iranian weapons bound for Gaza was stopped by the Israelis, the vessel's skipper admitted that Arafat's own paymaster was financing the deal. And Bush knows that the same man is paying for the bombs Palestinian terrorists use to kill Israelis -- bombs filled with nails and screws dipped in rat poison. Israeli troops found the invoice in Arafat's Ramallah headquarters.
Yet, Bush continues to talk as if Arafat were merely some hapless policeman who's incapable to stopping crime on his beat. Arafat, Bush said in the Rose Garden, "has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorism."
Some powerful evidence suggests that in his heart, Bush believes none of this. In an interview with British television on the same day as the Rose Garden speech, the President was remarkably candid. Here was Bush on Palestinian terrorists: "There must be a world effort to stop the suicide and the killers. Those people kill for one reason: To stop the peace." And here's Bush on Arafat, "We thought a couple of months ago...we had an agreement. The next thing you know, he's ordered a shipment of arms from Iran."
FANTASY THEORY. What accounts for this bi-polar politics? Largely, it's because Bush has been convinced by the State Dept. that the Middle East is a sideshow, a distraction from his real goal, which is to take out Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
The theory: If only the U.S. could lower the Israeli-Palestinian flame by showing our good intentions toward Arabs, we could enlist the quiet backing of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan in our anti-Saddam initiative. Toppling Saddam and replacing him with a more moderate regime would be a blow to terrorism and advance stability in the region, the theory goes.
This is a fantasy. In Sudan on Apr. 8, hundreds of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators cheered: "Strike back, bin Laden." In Jordan, 4,000 Palestinians chanted: "Beloved bin Laden, strike Tel Aviv." Those in the Administration who believe that the world can be divided into evil terrorists and acceptable terrorists should listen more closely. Until the President lives up to his pledge to wipe out terrorism in all its forms, he faces an impossible task. Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online