Bush's sincerity is in dispute

Posture: The president's call for political and social reform by the Palestinian government leaves critics suspicious of his motives.

July 07, 2002|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE DEBATE about President Bush's latest posture on the Middle East boils down to a dispute over his sincerity.

At home and abroad, his supporters argue that his call for fundamental political and social reform offers Palestinians a defined path not only to statehood but more prosperous, stable and orderly lives. His critics believe Bush has established a set of conditions that he knows the Palestinians cannot meet as a pretext to indefinitely freeze negotiations toward independence. From that angle, the real goal isn't reform, but delay.

Adding to the suspicion is Bush's long-standing skepticism of nation-building. His plan for the Palestinians will require an international reconstruction effort as ambitious as Clinton administration interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo or Haiti that most conservatives, and Bush in the 2000 campaign, disdained.

Candidate Bush portrayed Clinton's forays into nation-building as a luxury that distracted from the real work of defending American interests abroad. It's a bit jarring to hear Bush now say that the best way to advance the American interest in a peaceful Middle East is to build a new Palestinian state.

Bush advisers note that his criticism as a candidate focused on the use of American military forces to provide security for nation-building, an idea not yet on the table in the Middle East.

But Clintonites like Eric Schwartz, a former senior White House adviser for peacekeeping, charge that the Bush team has neglected the civil side of nation-building, weakening American capacity to help other nations build government institutions.

"They are not as well-organized, and not as well-equipped and not as inclined to manage these sorts of issues," says Schwartz, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which provides financial support to nonprofit groups to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

The only way for Bush to quell these doubts is to produce a vigorous plan to implement the sweeping changes that he proposed in his speech. No one disputes the need. Every study of the Palestinian Authority has portrayed administrative and legal chaos. Overlap, confusion and corruption in the delivery of basic services are widespread; clear lines of authority are rare. Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care plan looks simple by comparison.

The result, which might be the point, is an absence of effective legislative or judicial checks on the authority of the executive branch headed by Yasser Arafat.

Only in May, with international pressure growing, did Arafat finally sign the Basic Law (in effect, the Palestinian constitution) that the legislature approved in 1997 to demarcate, at least on paper, the separation of powers between the three branches of government. But since Arafat at times has refused to enforce court decisions he opposes, and has consistently blocked the legislature's efforts to exercise its ostensible oversight and budgetary authority, it's not clear how much that paper is worth.

To his credit, Bush addressed all of these problems. He pledged American and international assistance to help the Palestinians write a new constitution, establish a truly independent judiciary, strengthen the legislature, consolidate and restructure its security forces, reform its finances and hold fair elections.

In other cases that required such a fundamental civic overhaul, such as Kosovo or East Timor, the United Nations has temporarily run the country as a trusteeship while trying to strengthen the local capacity and expertise, notes Schwartz.

Though probably the best answer, that's not politically feasible for the Palestinians, who aren't going to surrender the limited sovereignty they exercise. Which means that any progress toward the goals Bush established will demand strenuous intervention, led by the United States.

The problem won't be devising plans to create better Palestinian institutions; it will be creating a political environment that makes those plans viable.

There is no shortage of ideas. CIA Director George J. Tenet has been meeting with Palestinian officials to consolidate their security forces; World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn has presented Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, with proposals for cleaning up a Palestinian governmental finance system that might make Arthur Andersen blush. And the White House recognizes that the United States will have to pony up more dollars to implement Bush's vision.

More Palestinian terrorism would quickly test Bush's commitment. If he continues aid after more attacks, he'll face charges of rewarding violence; if he curtails it, he'll risk derailing the reform process he's presented as the long-term solution to violence. For now, Bush officials say the administration would stay the course so long as a reforming Palestinian government makes a good-faith effort to stop the terrorists. But that's much easier said before the bodies are bleeding on CNN.

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