On the heels of his upbeat mid-summer progress report on Iraq, President Bush delivered an equally fanciful account of his administration's efforts to achieve a "two-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the speech the president had been expected to give a few weeks ago on the fifth anniversary of his "two-state vision" speech. And because it bore no relation to reality, it was the speech I feared he would give.
In his selective recounting of the events that have transpired since 2002, Bush ignored the damage done by his administration's neglect and described the current situation through his ideological prism, rather than the reality that exists on the ground.
Bush was right to praise Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Salim Fayyad, but wrong to ignore the deep division now plaguing Palestinian society (and not just between the West Bank and Gaza, but also within them).
Bush was also right (though woefully late) in stating that it is time to show Palestinians a way forward to peace. But he was wrong to place the heaviest burdens for progress on the already overburdened Palestinians, while ignoring or dramatically downplaying the Israelis' responsibilities.
And it was good that Bush pledged support for Palestinian moderate leaders, promised U.S. financial assistance and spoke of a peace conference to be convened some time in the fall. But upon examination, there is much less to these statements than meets the eye. The public embrace by a very unpopular and weakened U.S. president can do more damage than good in a deeply divided Palestinian society -- especially if not reinforced by concrete actions.
In this context, it is worth noting that the aid pledged by the president is mostly "old" money that had already been promised but not yet delivered. And the announcement of an international peace conference is, at best, premature and even potentially dangerous since it raises expectations which at this point the Bush administration cannot deliver. This is the problem with "hype:" it may seem promising, but it evaporates when you examine it closely.
In the end, this Bush speech might be dismissed as "too little too late" - but it is likely more problematic than that.
In too many areas of the "broader Middle East," from which the president contended that contributors to regional peace will come, the Bush administration's foreign policy has a patterned course. In many instances they failed to act when U.S. leadership might have made a difference. When they did act, they all-too frequently allowed ideology to trump reality, making bad situations worse.
Their ideology of choice, of course, has been neo-conservatism with its radical and simplistic Manichean world-view, and its fetishistic fixation on a narrow definition of democracy that does not take into account the history or social dynamics at work in the society that is to be "democratized."
Being radical ideologues and not practiced diplomats, instead of working to solve problems, they have hastened to "sharpen contradictions;" insisting that "good" never compromise with "evil." The refusal of complex reality to cooperate with their ideology has not shaken their beliefs. To the contrary, successive failures have only stiffened their resolve.
And so here we are, six years into the "war on terror," with no successes to speak of, and no victory in sight.
Trapped in the middle of the messy situations created by this conflict between fantasy and reality are the people in the many countries impacted by our policies and their "moderate" leaders we have sought to support.
The administration's failures in Afghanistan have left the Karzai government isolated in Kabul. Their miscalculations in Iraq have left the Maliki government, which we once celebrated, able to exert its authority in fewer and fewer places. And now, the administration, applying the same disastrous logic in Lebanon and Palestine, are putting the Siniora and Abbas governments also at risk of being painted into corners. All of this is so deeply troubling precisely because, especially in Lebanon and Palestine, the leaders in question are in fact good men who deserve so much better.
If Bush had wanted to make headway toward the goal of a two-state solution, he would have had to address the consequences of his seven year legacy of neglect. The path of progress is now far steeper than Bush will acknowledge and will require more than he is willing to deliver. Saying that the speech was "too little too late" does not mean that nothing can be done. Rather, it necessitates genuine U.S. leadership and determination to undo the damage done. This, I fear, will not be forthcoming.