Journalist Victor Gold told this story: When Gerald Ford was President, some of his aides became concerned with his dull and inept speaking style, and asked Hollywood comic Don Penny-whose credits included writing for the TV show F Troop -to give Mr. Ford some coaching. Why we would want the most powerful man in the free world to sound like a character in a farcical western is a question for another time. Mr. Penny came in, put the President through his paces, then finally said: “Mr. President, these are words. They mean something.”
The story came to mind as President George W. Bush has been formulating his policy on Israel and Palestine. We are fighting a war on terrorism, which we want the world to take sides in. When other countries fight their own wars on terrorism, however, they must tailor them to our agendas.
One possible reason for Mr. Bush’s backing and filling is that we are planning the big push on Iraq, and we want to guarantee as much good will or at least quiescence in the Arab world as possible. If reining in Israel will buy this, so be it. This goal is understandable, but also unrealistic-and unnecessary. Yes, it would be fine to lead a grand coalition: “Is it not passing brave to be a king, / And ride in triumph through Persepolis?” But the Arab nations will simply not be in our corner this time, as they were during the Gulf War. Why do we need them, except for staging areas? They certainly can’t help us with the fighting. Better to rely on ships, airplanes and Turkey.
Another possible rationale for Mr. Bush’s behavior might be prudence. Even if all our enemies are morally equivalent, we do not fight them all in the same way. There is or has been an Al Qaeda apparatus in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and the Philippines; logistical support may well have come from both Iraq and Iran. When this phase of the terror war is over, we will look back and see that we did not treat each of these countries the same. Israel behaves in the same way: Yasir Arafat has been a terrorist all his adult life, yet Israel has dealt with him differently, according to calculations of its interest. Yet if Mr. Bush has some prudential case why Israel should pull in its horns, he has not made it.
Thinking about President Bush, we sail along with a clear chart and a fair breeze, until he violates our expectations. We are then confronted with what look like two Bushes. One is scatterbrained, even contemptible; the other is focused and firm. The two Bushes are in fact both George W., at different points in a characteristic process of making up his mind. The pole-vaulter looks different when he’s sprinting, sliding his back over the bar and curled like a spider in the foam, but it’s all one jump.
For years we knew one W., the bumbler, ever falling through the rotten boards in the floors of his sentences. This Bush did not disappear with 9/11. Some of his utterances in the earliest hours after the attacks were intensely depressing to hear. He began finding his voice when he went to Ground Zero and spoke, with the fireman at his side, from the downtown Golgotha. With clarity came force, and soon enough he was reminding some of us of Churchill.
But at the same time, he had to fight the war. It’s hard to remember now, with the Taliban and its Al Qaeda handlers reduced to guerrilla raids, but through early and mid-October of last year, we appeared to be letting off gaudy explosions in the Afghan sky without accomplishing much else. Did the military stalemate reflect a political debate: Should the Northern Alliance take Kabul before we had found some acceptable Pashtun to take charge? Or was it a military pause, dictated by the necessity of finding the range? In any event, we let fly, and the terrorist regime folded like an accordion.
Some Presidents are shape-shifters, ever juggling conflicting advisers with the confidence born of narcissism, or psychopathy, that they will pick the right option for the right moment, often at the last minute. Richard Nixon did this with his speechwriters; Franklin Roosevelt did it with everybody. Mr. Bush follows a managerial model, coupled with extreme economy of means. When he doesn’t have to think, he doesn’t. In the 24/7 age, Presidents cannot be silent, but when Mr. Bush feels he must talk needlessly, he talks nonsense, which is the next best thing. All things being equal, he will follow the schedule, then go to bed. But when a problem appears-and his wisdom, if he has it, consists in knowing that they will appear-he will listen to opinions, take his time to decide, then act.
So here, on top of an attack on American soil and the mass murder of our citizens, is another problem: Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s response. Mr. Bush would like not to have this problem, so he tells the two sides to cool it. They do whatever they do; Colin Powell makes his report. But Mr. Bush is listening and weighing, and he will come to a judgment of the actors. I hope it will not be favorable to Yasir Arafat.
Why does this problem compel our attention? The Middle East is filled with religions and ethnicities who do not have nation states. The Kurds are scattered over Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, but no one cares about them except William Safire. Iraq is a filing cabinet of unhappy minorities jostled together. Syria is a nation of an unrepresented majority, since the Assads, father and son, belonged to a small heretical Muslim sect that has always been obnoxious to the orthodox.
Nobody votes in the Arab world in any meaningful way (there are elections in Turkey and Iran, but they are not Arab countries). Why is the Palestinians’ lack of self-determination felt to be oppressive? Most of that feeling, surely, is contrast. Israel has elections, and a lively-not to say pernicious-party system. But democracies always look bad when they become occupying powers. This is why America gave up Cuba and the Philippines, and made Alaska and Hawaii states. Puerto Rico would be an anomaly, if more than a noisy minority wanted independence. If Israel were ruled by the army, or by the Sharon dynasty, we would not care that its subject peoples were also subjects.
But all that is theory, which the terrorists hope to sponge away in blood. Meanwhile, Bush thinks.