For Bush, presidency becomes more complicated

Clarity of fighting terror missing with other issues

April 27, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CRAWFORD, Texas - For more than six months, the world in the eyes of President Bush appeared to be, above all, a place of good and evil. Day after day, he spoke out fervently about whether people were with or against the United States in its fight against terrorism.

But now, the international stage is seeming more complicated for the president. He has been forced to plunge into the Middle East crisis, where any U.S. president must tiptoe and where taking sides can be perilous. In an election year, Bush also has delved back into domestic policy squabbles, where decisions are made only after weighing the political risks.

Bush's aides concede that he is far more comfortable when he can speak with moral clarity - when he sees a clear right and wrong. With the war on terror receding from the headlines in recent weeks, analysts say Bush has sounded edgier and less confident as he grapples with issues requiring more subtle shades of gray.

"Nuance is not his thing," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who worked for two Republican presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon.

"Bush is in for a little rough sledding," Hess said. "It will work out for him, but this is a new game. There are a lot of balls in the air now, and you have to be able to catch them. That's what good presidents do."

As recently as a month ago, Bush was campaigning for the war on terrorism nearly every day. He would often recycle the same lines in speeches in Washington and around the nation about the need to root out terrorists. In every setting, Bush appeared supremely confident, and audiences cheered wildly, feeding his enthusiasm.

South Carolina speech

"This enemy of ours hates what we stand for," he told a crowd last month in South Carolina. "They are ruthless murderers, and they must not have understood America when they attacked us."

Using an oft-repeated line that always drew laughs, Bush added: "They thought we were weak. They thought we were so self-absorbed in our materialism that all we'd probably do is just sue 'em. Man, were they wrong!"

After initially resisting direct involvement, Bush has had to navigate the murkier waters of the Middle East conflict in recent weeks. In the meantime, he has given fewer speeches on terrorism and instead has been forced to articulate a Middle East policy, which often must be tweaked in subtle ways in the midst of explosive events.

The president is noticeably less self-assured in speaking about the Middle East and has been given to uttering ambiguous and, critics say, contradictory statements about the U.S. stance toward Israeli military incursions in the West Bank.

Aides say he has been determined to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the same conviction he used in assailing Osama bin Laden. But in the Middle East, where the United States is expected to play the role of mediator and to guide two warring sides toward a peace agreement, it is all but impossible for Bush to openly define a clear enemy.

More delicate approach

When he emerged from a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his ranch here Thursday, the president could not go on, as he has in past months, about "murderers" who hate America.

In more delicate remarks, he expressed his view that "the Palestinian Authority must do more to stop terror." And that "Israel must finish its withdrawal." And that "we need Arab states to condemn terror, to stop incitement of violence, and, as part of a long-term peace, to accept Israel as a nation and a neighbor."

At his ranch yesterday, Bush seemed to acknowledge some concern about speaking with precision about the Middle East.

"It is important that we speak with clarity," he said. "I will continue to do so."

Aides to the president concede that he performs best when tackling clear-cut issues on which he can make his position unambiguous.

"There are different challenges now," one senior administration official said. "He likes to define issues in the clearest terms as possible, and the situation in the Middle East for any president calls for flexibility. You have to adjust to the change in circumstances."

The senior official dismissed criticism that Bush's discomfort with causes that defy labeling as good or evil was proving a liability. The official noted that the president's overall approval ratings, though having slipped slightly in recent weeks, remain above 75 percent.

"This president has shown strong leadership capabilities and the ability to prioritize," the official said. "In the opinion of the American public, despite a barrage of critical press coverage, his numbers have remained unchanged."

Bush allies concerned

Still, even some Bush allies have grown alarmed by his posture recently and say that at times he has seemed a weaker leader, struggling to sound commanding when facing topics that are subject to debate.

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