War Stories

Blurred Vision

Bush’s blundering brand of “diplomacy.’

Much outrage has been vented over President George W. Bush’s May 15 address to the Knesset, where he likened negotiating with Iran or Hamas to appeasing Nazi Germany. His remarks were mendacious in many ways, not only as a dishonest attack on Barack Obama.

But the controversy has distracted attention from another passage in the speech, which highlights a more serious matter—the scandalous inadequacy of this president’s foreign policy, the glaring gap between his rhetoric and his behavior, the startling inattention to diplomatic strategy and tactics.

Bush, of course, was speaking on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary, and toward the end of his speech, he laid out a vision of the Middle East as it might exist 60 years in the future:

Israel will be celebrating the 120th anniversary as one of the world’s great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people. The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved—a democratic state that is governed by law, and respects human rights, and rejects terror. From Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies. … Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations. … Al-Qaida and Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists’ vision and the injustice of their cause.

“This is a bold vision,” Bush continued, somewhat immodestly. And indeed it is. One can imagine the president or his speechwriters admiring their handiwork as a Holy Land adaptation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But King was also a man of action; he had a plan for how to get to his mountaintop. What is Bush’s plan? What needs to happen as a precondition for progress? What action is he taking now, what steps does he pledge or propose for the next few months or years to get the caravan rolling in the right direction?

On these matters, he has said little and done less. “Some will say it can never be achieved,” he said of his vision. But, he added, 60 years ago, few could imagine a free and peaceful Europe or a friendly, democratic Japan. Yet those transformations took place. “And a future of transformation is possible in the Middle East,” he said, “so long as a new generation of leaders has the courage to defeat the enemies of freedom, to make the hard choices necessary for peace, and stand firm on the solid rock of universal values.”

This only begs further questions. Which “enemies of freedom” is he talking about? (All of them?) Who will “defeat” them, and how? What “hard choices,” and whose? He appears to absolve the Israelis of the need to make any. In recent weeks, he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said they would still like to hammer out an Israeli-Palestinian accord before they leave office. But in the Knesset, he suggested such a peace might not fall into place for another 60 years, long after everyone in the room has passed on. No deadline pressure here.

If he wanted to be truly bold, he might have proposed the accomplishment of his vision by Israel’s 70th anniversary, a mere (and foreseeable) decade hence, as John F. Kennedy did with the moon walk. That, too, would have been over the top, but at least it would have been seen as a call for action to be taken now by the living. But President Bush chose not to be so daring even in his rhetoric.

This tendency—his failure to devise tangible goals or carve out a path to meet them—was on display again Friday in Riyadh, where Bush had flown to celebrate the 75th anniversary of formal relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Bush met privately with King Abdullah to plead for expanded oil production and thus lower gas prices. The king brusquely turned him down, just as he turned down a similar request from Bush last January.

Later in the day, the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, twisted the knife a few notches further by saying, at a press conference, that his government had already increased production by 20 percent—then added that this move was in response to requests from some 50 customers all over the world, not just from Bush. (In other words, he went out of his way to avoid giving even the impression of doing the United States a favor.)

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, took another poke at Bush. “The president showed great concern for the impact on the American economy,” the prince told the press corps. “We of course sympathize with that.” Period. The end.

So humiliating—and after the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, had alerted reporters on Air Force One that the president would be asking for just such a favor. “Clearly, the price of gas is too high for Americans, and it is causing a hardship for families with low income,” Perino said. “We do count on the OPEC countries to keep adequate supplies out there, so the president will talk with the king about that.”

What is going on? It’s bizarre that Bush should expect the Saudis to sacrifice their economic interests for the sake of doing him a favor. It is no less odd that Bush, through Perino, would publicly announce his plea in advance, thus setting himself up for humiliation. Finally, on a point that goes beyond political blundering to national policy, it is damningly revealing for Perino to say that we “count on the OPEC countries” to maintain adequate oil supplies. Maybe, in the name of sovereignty and for the sake of our vital interests, Bush should be taking the initiative, doing something on his own to bring oil prices down—for instance, devising a national energy policy that offers incentives, or sets mandates, to reduce demand.

We see a pattern. In the Knesset, Bush wove a vision of a transformed Middle East without any notion of how to get there. Similarly, if less grandly, in Saudi Arabia, Bush asked the king for a break on oil prices, without any notion of why his wish should be granted or of what favors to grant the king in exchange.

In both countries, Bush displayed no feel for diplomacy, no concept of what it entails, no sense of how to harness power into influence or assets into leverage. He thus not only comes away with nothing but leaves the world with the impression that we have even less power and leverage than we do.