Bush Can Jog, But He Can’t Hide

During the Passover/Easter period, you couldn’t say how George Bush was spending his time. Maybe, as all hell was breaking loose in the Middle East, he was praying-he likes us to think he spends a lot of quality time with the Lord, on his knees with his hands clasped-or he could as easily have been hunkering down and trying to stay out of harm’s way, as he did on Sept. 11.

If he was praying, what was he praying for? A Republican Senate next November? Maybe he was asking the Lord God of Hosts to make being President fun again, like it was the first few weeks. Or maybe he was asking to be made into a teensy-weensy, itty-bitty little fella nobody can see. If so, his prayers have been answered on that last one. Every day, this guy loses a couple of more inches. Some grow in office; others shrink.

As per usual when the pressure’s on, Mr. Bush was not to be seen. George tends to be absent under fire-not a clutch hitter, more of a choker-upper. As the Arab-Israeli butchery grew worse by the hour, the President sank out of sight. Without a plan, without a policy and without a program, the President was invisible on his ranch, leaving whatever talking there was to be done to his enigmatic spokespeople. Repeatedly, the world heard that the President of the United States hoped that the combatants would stop “the violence.” Nothing else.

In these awful days, George W. Bush has become the American Yasir Arafat, an empty, repetitive, shifty public personality who talks out of both sides of his mouth, with little or nothing to say from either of ‘em. Oh, he’s still Israel’s man: maybe not quite as much as he was on Tuesday, but more than he was on Thursday, though by Sunday, who knows, he might be back in staunch-ally mode again, or conversely he might have a few encouraging words for the Arab side. He’s as purposeful as a wind-up toy boat with a bent rudder doing circular putt-putts in the bathtub.

You temporize with history at your peril; it’s playing peekaboo with fate. Either the man is procrastinating because he hopes the storm will hold off until the fall elections, or he has no idea what to do, confronted as he is with the mounting likelihood of a catastrophe in the Middle East. Everybody feels it in the gut: Something worse, something horrible is out there trembling, getting ready to happen. This is not the moment for ordinary political tricks and wiles. You do not stand with one thumb in your mouth and the other up your rear end as the cyclone approaches.

From the moment the Twin Towers were destroyed, Mr. Bush and his people have gotten it wrong. They began by insisting there was no connection between 50 years of America’s arming and financing of Israel and the terrorists’ motives. That the terrorists have other motivations besides our Middle East policy may very well be so, but to insist that the terror networks and the politics of the Unholy Land are unconnected was either duplicitous or moronic, or both. Then the suicide bombers were being called “terrorists” in Washington and therefore anathema, and Mr. Bush ordered that any and every sort of Palestinian-connected organization be put on the terror list, their funds blocked and their people put under surveillance.

So terror and Palestine are connected after all-but not in a way that will cause America to act or do anything to put a halt to the killing. Just get on with the peace process, boys: the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan, the Oslo accords, the Wye River agreements, the Camp David handshakes and the 201 stillborn United Nations Security Council resolutions. Don’t think about the Unholy Land mess; we’ve got to effect “regime change” in Baghdad. Send the old Veep, with his permanently cocked head and his team of attending physicians and electronic-implant engineers, to stumble from place to place in the Middle East while the diplomatic press speculates about whether or not he’ll meet with Mr. Arafat-as if it mattered. Colin Powell went over there with neither a carrot nor a stick, and so his mission was laughable from the start. And for an obligato, there’s Donald Rumsfeld doing smartass vaudeville at his daily press briefings.

But give Yasir Bush his due: His diplomacy has pushed Saudi Arabia in the direction of joint action with Iraq. No mean accomplishment there. And if that weren’t enough, he’s now got those two congenitally implacable enemies, Iraq and Iran, moving toward a rapprochement-something most people would have said was impossible a month ago. With the population of every Arab state in the region growing apoplectic, talk grows of a politically dictated cutback in Persian Gulf oil production. Such an agreement would entail a painful loss of income to the countries putting on the supply squeeze, but a relatively small cutback-say between 6 and 10 percent-would send summer gasoline prices in the United States racing above the $2-a-gallon mark, and Mr. Bush can see what would happen to his approval ratings and the fall elections. Then he’ll know that cunctation is not always the best or the safest policy.

If there is an oil cutback, or if the godawful but unknown event should occur, or if a chunk of the American voting public should conclude that the President is as faithlessly feckless as Mr. Arafat, Mr. Bush may find the election returns-even in those famous red states of his-won’t be what he was conniving for. But the hell with him; what about us? We can only hope that the Supreme Being that Mr. Bush assures us he’s on a first-name basis with will stick a finger into the nubilous matter inside the man’s skull and boom at him: “Do something!”

Do something for America, not for one or another ethnic or religious interest group. Skip who’s right and who’s wrong-which nobody knows and nobody can agree on-and get us past this dangerous hour.

The world’s only superpower has got to use its super power. George Bush must gather up the NATO allies and impose a peace on the Israelis and the Palestinians. Not an agreement or a settlement, but a plain and simple end to the killing, an absolute cessation of hostilities of any kind. That can only be done by ordering the Israelis out of the Palestinian territories and back onto their own turf, while a significant force of as many as 100,000 troops composed of American, NATO and other elements from nations like Japan move in and take control of the borders, to prevent either party from getting at the other. No Israeli tanks, no Palestinian suicide bombers. Enough already.

The Israeli settlers will, of course, be marooned on the wrong side of the border, where the allied forces will prevent them from receiving harm or giving it. Any or all of them will be allowed to leave the settlements and be escorted safely into Israel, but once they’re gone they may not come back. Both sides should eventually find this arrangement so irksome and inconvenient that they may ultimately drag themselves into a room to work out a deal.

This action violates all the rules and precepts. There is no exit strategy, only a hope the two sides find the arrangement so galling that they’ll finally work something out. The operation is open-ended, tedious and expensive. It will require the use of many thousands of American troops for a long period of time, but the alternatives are too damaging to the national interests of the United States to allow the fighting to continue.

Maybe the Bush policy-which is no policy-will work, but no thinking person can believe it. Every week, matters get more threatening; each day is more perilous then the one before. Physically injecting ourselves into Israel/Palestine may not end the danger of terrorist acts on our shores, but you may be sure that letting this go on makes more terror here a certainty. The probability is that, in spite of knowing that they will lose yet one more war with Israel, the Arab nations will find themselves fighting it anyhow.

War is a chancy business. Something might temporarily go amiss with Israeli fortunes, thus inducing them, in a moment of panic, to pull the atomic trigger. If the violence spreads, there are so many possibilities, and every one of them is bad-bad for the Israelis, bad for the Arabs and bad for the Americans. George, for Christ’s sake, don’t just sit there. Do something.