Failing at home, President Bush traveled to the Middle East in an effort to secure success and respect in the last year of his presidency. During his recent seven nation tour of the region, he promoted the themes around which he hoped to build his legacy.
Overall, there were some interesting rhetorical highlights, but not much else. In fact, the rhetoric was so detached from the region's current realities (many of which are due to Bush's own blunders and neglect) as to render the effort surreal.
Nowhere was all of this more in evidence than on the first leg of the visit, which was designed, in the president's words, to "nudge forward" the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
If you listened with one ear (hearing only one-half of what the president said), and closed your eyes (ignoring the context) you might have been impressed.
Bush, for example, spoke of 'ending the occupation;" spoke forcefully of the need to remove "illegal outposts" and expressed some frustration that they had not already been removed; noted his willingness to use pressure or, in his words, "to be a pain" when it was required; implied, though somewhat obliquely, that Israel's behavior had inhibited the ability to the Palestinian authority to govern; noted the urgency of improving the Palestinian economy; and reaffirmed the importance of providing Palestinians with the vision of a state, which he elaborately defined, as needing to be "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent."
On hearing all this, you might have been tempted to say, "Not bad." But what would pull you back are factors that cannot be ignored - even though they were by the president.
First and foremost is the fact that conditions on the ground in both Israel and the Palestinian lands have moved well beyond the place where words, however well-intentioned, and "visions" are enough to transform the distressing realities. For example, in advance of the president's visit, Israel slapped a comprehensive closure on Gaza and the West Bank, intensifying widespread hardship on the captive population. That, however, did not stop the cycle of violence, which has increasingly taken its toll on Gaza.
After seven years of neglect, conditions have radically changed. Extremism has come to define the politics on both sides; and leaders, no matter how committed to peace they may be, are too weak to move negotiations forward. The Palestinian are deeply divided, with Hamas in control of Gaza, and President Abbas only nominally in control of the still-Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel's Prime Minister Olmert sits atop a fractious coalition, and is challenged by hard-line settlers who, after being subsidized and supported for decades, he now dares not challenge.
To some extent, the President acknowledged these disturbing trends in the way he dumbed down his goals. Where at one point, he had spoken about the creation of a Palestinian state by 2009, now he appears to settle for an agreement as to what two states would look like by the end of his term. Yet, even here, the president's words run up against conditions on the ground.
On the one hand, Bush made clear that he would not accept "Swiss cheese" as the outline of a Palestinian state. In the next breath, however, he accepts what he calls "current realities" (meaning Israel's extensive settlement construction in the West Bank and "greater Jerusalem") and the need to accommodate those realities in any settlement. What else could be the result, but "Swiss cheese?" And when Bush says, "America cannot dictate the terms of what a state will look like," but then accepts the so-called "realities" and remains passive in the face of massive Israeli construction in and around Jerusalem, what else has he done but define what that state will look like?
And even on the issue of the removal of illegal outposts and checkpoints, the president's rhetoric flies up against realities. When asked about the removal of checkpoints, the president affirmed the burden they create for Palestinians, but at the same time noted the sense of security they create for Israel. The simple fact ignored by the president is that, if there were no settlements (all of which are illegal), and if the separation wall that Israel has constructed were on its own border (not zig-zagging in and out of Palestinian land in order to protect settlements), Israel might have a sense of security and Palestinians would not be burdened with checkpoints. But the high-flying rhetoric ignores all of these realities as well.
Ignoring reality comes with a cost: failure.
This president, "idealist" that he is, appears to believe that words, vision and his will alone are enough to transform reality. As has become all too clear, they are not.
On the trip, Bush repeated over and again that this moment was "an historic opportunity," and that he believed that this or that would occur because it was "possible" or "necessary." But, in the end, after the rhetorical flourishes, Bush left, fighting between Israelis and Palestinians intensified, and not much else changed.
After seven years of neglect, only a strong and consistent hand can alter the region's downward slide. If President Bush were truly concerned with his legacy, he would make up for lost time by putting forward a detailed, balanced and comprehensive plan and, equitably using carrots and sticks, sell it to the Israelis and Palestinians. This, and not words, might make a difference.