April 05, 2002
Bush's split personality

Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic writes about the limits of America to influence events in the Mideast. One of the reasons for this is the fact that our current policy is contradictory.

But the principal reason the Bush administration can't intervene effectively in the crisis is that it can't make up its mind. Actually, it has two of them. And that's not likely to change. One, the "even-handed" approach, resides primarily at the State Department and is exemplified by Powell, Policy Planning Director Richard Haass, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and his deputy David Satterfield, Ambassador to Israel David Kurtzer, and others. The other consists of the White House--where Cheney, his staff, and increasingly the president himself tout a line barely distinguishable from Sharon's--and the Pentagon, where officials like Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz have in the past taken an even harder line.

Every time the administration wades into the conflict, this schizophrenia becomes more apparent. Just two weeks ago, for example, the Bush team was characterizing Israeli military operations as "not helpful" and professing sympathy for Arafat. Last week, however, the White House lent its support to Sharon's much more ambitious offensive into the West Bank. But State Department officials claim that Powell's words on the day the offensive was launched, which seemed to endorse Israel's strategy, weren't his own: Rather they bore the hallmarks of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their staffs, who weighed in on the substance of Powell's statement at the White House. In January the same factions split over the significance of the Iranian arms shipment to Arafat: Foggy Bottom publicly downplayed it, while Cheney and Rumsfeld proposed severing ties with the Palestinian leader. The two camps also repeatedly clashed over whether to dispatch Zinni to the region and over the content of Powell's November speech endorsing a Palestinian state.

Back in 2000, back when we were all happily ignorant of foreign policy because none of what happened out there in the non-American world actually affected any of us, Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate George W. Bush dismissed concerns over his lack of knowledge about such things. He would, he assured us, be surrounded by lots of smart people whose job it is to know about foreign countries and stuff like that. They would guide him, so it didn't really matter if Bush doesn't know the name of some obscure Prime Minister off the top of his head, as some smartass reporter demonstrated.

This led Thomas Friedman to wonder what would happen if Bush's advisors ever disagreed with each other. What would he do then? Perhaps now we're finding out, and if so it ain't pretty.

In fairness, several folks, such as Steven den Beste and Craig Biggerstaff have characterized Team Bush's latest muddle as a strategic ploy to buy time. We'll see. And I also see that Matt Yglesias has weighed in on this as well, with a similar thesis as Kaplan.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 05, 2002 to Show Business for Ugly People