The president's troublesome tongue

April 22, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Will somebody please tell George W. Bush to SHUT UP?

His latest declaration that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a "man of peace" is both absurd and destructive to the determined efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell to bring about effective negotiations for an end to the violence in the Middle East.

Mr. Sharon's long record of pushing the envelope against the Palestinians with new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and his current attacks on Palestinian towns and refugee camps have made him a pariah in Arab eyes everywhere. For President Bush to offer such a characterization of Mr. Sharon only reinforces the Arab view that he is in the Israeli leader's pocket at a time successful diplomacy requires more even-handedness.

This is not to say that the ghastly suicide bombings against Israeli citizens have not warranted forceful Israeli response or that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should not be condemned by the United States for inadequate efforts to stop them.

But Mr. Bush's ludicrous attempt to paint Mr. Sharon as complying with his earlier demand that the Israeli military action stop immediately is a weak cover for Mr. Sharon having, in effect, thumbed his nose at that demand.

Even as Israeli forces were pulling out of several Palestinian towns and refugee camps, they were moving into others, and Mr. Sharon was emphatically stating the search-and-destroy campaign against Palestinian terrorists would continue until the job was finished.

Mr. Bush's observation that Mr. Sharon "gave me a timetable and he's met the timetable" for withdrawal does not square with the president's tough-talking "enough is enough" call for a prompt end to the bloodletting on both sides. Indeed, as a practical matter, Mr. Bush is buying into the Israeli position that it will stop only when Mr. Sharon can say mission accomplished.

The president's remarks put him back in the position he occupied earlier as a Sharon ally in the crisis, hardly the ideal posture from which Mr. Powell can be most effective in bringing about a cease-fire and fruitful negotiations.

Mr. Bush's tongue is, in fact, Mr. Powell's worst nightmare. First the president held it so long, declining personal involvement in any peace-making role, that he seemed indifferent to the Middle East mayhem. He preferred to rail against his "axis of evil," seeking support - futilely - even in the Arab world for military action against Iraq's suspected development of "weapons of mass destruction" as an extension of the war on terrorism.

Then, when the president finally and tardily yielded to world criticism and publicly scolded Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, telling them he "expected" them to show "leadership" when he wasn't showing much himself in the Middle East, he sent Mr. Powell on a mission impossible.

The secretary of state, a man who, unlike Mr. Bush, thinks before he speaks, wisely tried to keep expectations low, stating as he finally embarked on his peace-making assignment that the odds were strongly against his returning with a cease-fire in place. While Mr. Bush was trying verbally to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of Mr. Powell's failed mission, the secretary himself settled for saying he was "pleased that the Israeli government is now continuing withdrawal" and expressed "hope it will be accelerated" and brought "to an end as quickly as possible."

Mr. Bush's anointing of Mr. Sharon as a "man of peace" is not the first time his tongue has raised questions about his political judgment. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, his gun-slinging cowboy rhetoric was understandable and generally in tune with the justifiable outrage of an aroused American public.

But at a time when the American president should be responsibly engaged in trying to make a contribution to a thorny and complicated crisis in the Middle East, he does not help that cause by so conspicuously seeming to take sides or by claiming diplomatic success where there has been little or none.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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