Pundit Central

Middle East Hail Mary

Issue 1 is the failure of Friday’s missile-defense test. Issue 2 is upcoming Middle East peace negotiations at Camp David.

Most pundits and politicians–like Bob Novak (CNN’s Capital Gang) and Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. (ABC’s This Week); Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. (CBS’s Face the Nation); and Joseph Biden, D-Del. (FTN)–think President Clinton should leave the decision on missile defense to the next president. On the politics of the issue, some talking heads, like Steve Roberts (CNN’s Late Edition), think Clinton’s support for missile defense thus far is political; the failure of Friday’s test will provide a welcome opportunity to punt on the decision. Others, like Mara Liasson ( Fox News Sunday) and Juan Williams (FNS), believe the Clinton administration wanted to make a decision in order to clear the table for international arms-control agreements. On the substance of the issue, many pundits argue that missile defense could not defeat a terrorist’s suitcase bomb and that traditional nuclear deterrence works well enough anyway. To counter the first argument, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., (FNS) notes that our anti-terrorism budget is much greater than the projected cost of missile defense, and there’s no reason not to have both. Bill Kristol (CG) counters the second argument by proposing a situation in which traditional deterrence wouldn’t work: A regime in its death throes, such as Iraq near the end of the Gulf War, might launch a missile at the United States in a final, suicidal gesture; fear of such an act might prevent us from conquering rogue states.

Pundits are skeptical that Clinton’s final attempt at mediation in Middle East peace will work. (FNS’s Brit Hume calls the Camp David negotiations “the longest of long shots.”) But many note that Clinton has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, however, risk losing power if they concede too much. What do they have to gain? Juan Williams argues that with the death of Syria’s Hafez Assad, Arafat can emerge as the Middle East’s dominant Arab leader if he makes a deal, while Cokie Roberts (TW) says that this week may be Arafat’s best chance to make peace before he dies. Barak, others note, may help silence his domestic enemies if he produces a deal that avoids violence. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (TW) and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (FTN) warn that if an agreement is not signed by Sept. 13–when Arafat has pledged to declare Palestinian statehood–violence will erupt. George Stephanopoulos (TW) predicts that Barak and Arafat will strike an “interim-status” deal, in which they settle West Bank land issues but put off the division of Jerusalem. Looking at the larger picture, David Brooks (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) says that whatever the outcome of this week’s negotiations, Middle East politics are simply not as important to American Jews as they once were, because the post-1967 fear of Isreali annihilation has abated.

Thinking Out Loud

TONY SNOW (FNS): The vice president says he doesn’t remember being there [at a fund-raiser]. Do you believe him?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, the biggest problem I have with that story–you’ll notice how I don’t want to give you a yes-or-no answer to that, I don’t want to create that headline for tomorrow. … Let’s say I was a little bit surprised at [Gore’s claim].

Last Word

“Is he still alive?”–Mexican President-Elect Vicente Fox Quesada (TW), asked about the closed-border rhetoric of Pat Buchanan.