Wednesday, March 13, 2002

WHICH SIDE ARE WE ON? I have no doubt that he spoke from the heart when, at this afternoon's press conference George Bush said that a halt to bloodshed in the Middle East depends on a willingness to "create conditions for peace" and that Israel's actions of late have been "counterproductive."

To the amazement of no one, the press corps -- ever fearful of allowing thoughtful challenge to be perceived as liberal bias -- failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: When will America's forces end its own "counterproductive" assault on Afghan civilians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

But even if some brave soul had lobbed that hardball, I doubt that Bush would have understood the parallel. Indeed, by risking an unscripted encounter with the media, Bush has made his fitness for high office questionable again, revealing that undercurrent of intellectual shallowness that we've been trying, very hard, to ignore for the past six months.

For all his weak protestations to the contrary, Bush now invites serious speculation that he shares his father's callous indifference to Israel. "The Jews aren't going to vote for us, anyway," James Baker famously advised Bush 41. Let them take a few Scud hits if they want us to keep writing those foreign aid checks.

When we're ready to take on Saddam again, might Bush 43 tell Ariel Sharon to be prepared to take a few chemical weapon hits? Does Colin Powell whisper in his boss's ear that there are no Jewish Republicans to speak of, and no Israeli oilfields to lose?

Having failed to take this opportunity to make a distinction between civilian casualties of deliberate Palestinian terrorism and those tragically caught in Israeli pre-emptive strikes or defensive actions, can Bush even say whose side we're on now?

These are now fair and reasonable questions.

Certainly, matters of political expediency require no intellectual consistency. Caving on steel tariffs runs contrary to every conservative principle of free markets -- but here, Bush is playing a game of semantics that he can probably win. The average citizen does not understand that tariffs are the equivalent of tax increases, and won't hold it against him. He'll get heat from the conservative punditry, yes -- but Bush didn't get into office by portraying himself as conservative. He got into office by conveying that he could see into people's hearts and recognize their innate goodness. Tariffs, shmariffs. The votes of four key industrial states are worth far more than mere principles.

But caving on the preservation of democracy in the Middle East? What could he be thinking?

Therein lies the problem. Bush isn't thinking. He's feeling. Regarding the loss of "innocent life" in the Middle East, Bush wears his heart on his sleeve. "It breaks my heart," he lamented. Of that I have no doubt. He should share that with Laura, privately. But it was utterly thoughtless to say so before the entire world. It only served to makes him appear weak and easily manipulated.

Imagine what Arafat is thinking this evening: "So the American President Bush singles out Israel's intransigence as the stumbling block for Middle East peace, and he has no stomach for civilian casualties? Excellent! Then our strategy is working! We'll just keep producing more civilian casualties, and more and more, until that big-hearted American President can take no more, and finally prevails upon Israel to accede to the Right of Return."

And then, truly, the terrorists will have won.

There's only one way to describe what Bush did today: Caving on terrorism. Amazing. I can't imagine how Ari Fleischer -- or, for that matter, Bush-lovers like Andrew Sullivan or Peggy Noonan -- will spin this one.

UPDATE I: This page has been severely critical of Andrew Sullivan from time to time, but let's give the man credit where it's due: On this issue he is absolutely right. No spin. No agenda. Just insight:
The best interpretation is that Bush is being tactical. In order to deal with Iraq, we need to say these things to keep the Arab world (however duplicitously) part of the coalition. Once we have dealt with Iraq, we can let the Israelis deal more firmly with Arafat, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

But I don’t buy it. What we need to be saying now more than ever is that terrorism will not be tolerated – anywhere, by anyone. There’s a whiff of James Baker about all this wobbling.
[emphasis mine -ed.] If I were an Israeli fighting for my country, I’d be truly afraid of what lies ahead.
To which I can only add, if his anti-Israel stance was a political bluff, then I could take Dubya's watch and his car any day of the week. Jerry Seinfeld has a more convincing poker face.

UPDATE II: Jim Treacher illustrates a different beef with Bush's press conference remarks here, and adds: "I guess if we can't hunt Bin Laden down, we'll try to get him with our withering indifference."


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