Bush makes sharp switch on Mideast

New hands-on approach has risks, but those of inaction deemed greater

April 05, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Since taking office, President Bush has kept the Middle East crisis at arm's length, reacting to bursts of violence with stern words but never fully engaging. Yesterday, he plunged into the thicket.

Speaking for nearly 20 minutes in the Rose Garden - with a focused anger he usually reserves for the Sept. 11 attacks and the war against al-Qaida - Bush made specific demands of Israel and the Palestinians. And he dispatched his secretary of state to the region with instructions to try to end the violence and begin laying the groundwork for a permanent peace plan.

Bush's actions marked a sharp break with his previous reluctance to assume a central role in the crisis. The White House had earlier said it would not send Colin L. Powell to the Middle East until a cease-fire had been secured.

The president's new hands-on approach carries political risks. He could be blamed if the two sides rebuff his pleas and the bloodshed rages on. And Bush, who has long said he would involve himself in international conflicts only where there is a clear exit strategy, is putting his prestige on the line in a place where exit strategies have eluded presidents for decades.

Bush "entered the White House wanting to stand back and disengage" from the Middle East, said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who was chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "That's normal. Most presidents come in wanting to disengage. But they can't hide from it. It comes at them."

The White House calculated that the risk of remaining above the fray was even greater. By standing aside, the United States might have been viewed as too isolationist, unwilling to exert its influence in a region where its allies have much at stake.

A variety of factors, say administration officials and others, compelled the president to act. For one thing, Bush became increasingly concerned over the past week that the spiraling violence could ignite radical anti-American elements in the region. Mass rioting against the United States and Israel has erupted in Egypt and elsewhere.

The White House is also concerned that such unrest could dash hopes for support from moderate Arab states for the war on terrorism and for a confrontation with Iraq. The price of crude oil - which every U.S. administration monitors closely - has been rising amid the violence, and stock prices have sagged.

In addition, the president has been under rising pressure from lawmakers and world leaders to act swiftly. Polls also show that Americans, who have seen daily photos and TV footage of dead civilians, want their president to apply more pressure on both sides.

"This was the time he felt to make a bold statement and come forward," said one senior administration official.

As recently as last week, the official said, "we had grounds for considerable optimism."

But after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed more than two dozen Israelis at a Seder on the first night of Passover, the official said, "we became very concerned. We examined it several times a day - constant, nonstop meetings, just about, with all of the president's security advisers, and came to the conclusion that the president had to act."

Bush's deepening involvement underscores the reality that all recent American presidents have been pulled into the Middle East maelstrom, eagerly or otherwise. But his move yesterday was especially striking given Bush's long-standing reluctance.

The president has long argued that the United States cannot set the timetable or define the moment when peace should be pursued. Yesterday, Bush pointedly defined now as the time to seek peace. He insisted that "the world finds itself at a critical moment" and that "this is a conflict that can widen or an opportunity we can seize."

In a sign of the priority he has assigned his task, Bush said seeking peace in the Middle East is comparable to seeking justice after the Sept. 11 attacks. In both cases, he said, all sides "must choose and must move decisively in word and deed against terrorist acts."

In the Middle East, Bush said, "America is committed to ending this conflict."

His words stood in contrast to the message he delivered as a presidential candidate in 2000. At the time, Bush chided President Bill Clinton, arguing that he had acted too hastily to immerse himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"A president who worries about his standing in the polls will try to impose an American solution," Bush said then. "In the Middle East, we can't have that. In order for there to be a real peace, both parties must agree to the terms. They must come to agreement amongst themselves."

As violence has escalated, Bush has been restrained over the past week and hesitant to offer clear-cut proposals.

Yesterday, he spoke forcefully, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank and issuing a blunt rebuke of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, saying Israel's military engagement was brought on by "his failure" to crack down on terrorists.

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