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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush's Mideast Policy Quandary

CRAWFORD, Texas -- Ever since he began pursuing the war on terrorism, U.S. President George W. Bush has rarely displayed the slightest ambivalence about his strategy and has managed to send messages of resolve to friends and enemies alike -- until recent weeks in which he has been forced into the maelstrom of the Middle East.

When Bush emerged Saturday afternoon he was again adjusting his tone as he struggled to influence events over which he has little leverage. This time he used his strongest language yet to support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and to condemn Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

While the message was firm, it followed a lengthy National Security Council meeting where Bush's advisers expressed misgivings that Sharon's strategy would be able to achieve its aim of isolating Arafat and destroying his power structure.

Bush's quandary is this: To retain a consistent and coherent stance against terrorism, he has little choice but to excoriate Arafat for failing to stop the suicide bombings. So on Saturday, Bush demanded that Arafat call for a halt in the suicide bombings in Arabic and use his security forces to crack down on the terrorists and their weaponry. Arafat has ignored those calls.

Under the logic of the Bush doctrine, that would compel Bush to treat the Palestinian leader the way he has treated al-Qaida and the Taliban, a point the Israelis are making daily. But in this case, as some Bush advisers acknowledge, that logic has run headlong into other priorities.

To build Arab support for any possible confrontation with Iraq, Bush knows he cannot alienate other Arab nations, whose anti-Israel declarations have grown in vehemence and urgency, along with their demands that Bush restrain the Sharon government.

Every few days the White House has been tinkering with the tone and balance of Bush's statements, never quite happy with what emerges.

"The president is facing a series of bad choices unlike any he's confronted since Sept. 11," one participant in the administration debate said. "There's a lot that is still undecided here, and perhaps that's why our messages have seemed, well, less than crisp."

That is a charitable way to put it. Only two and a half weeks ago, on March 13, Bush rebuked Sharon for Israel's military action in the West Bank, calling it "not helpful" in the effort to piece together a cease-fire and resume a peace process. There have been a lot of bombs and death and blood since, but it was notable that Bush reversed course Saturday by describing Sharon as a democratically elected leader who was legitimately "responding to the will of the people" for more security.

Bush's statement came after a meeting of the security council and, presumably, discussions with his father, the former president, who spent the weekend at his son's 640-hectare ranch. The former president's private counsel to his son, if there was any, is a subject none of his aides will discuss, and most insist that it also is a mystery to them.

It was during the national security meeting that Bush decided to reiterate his support for Sharon, even though, as one administration official noted later, "the president said nothing endorsing the prime minister's tactics."

Curiously, Bush also made no reference to the fact that earlier in the day the United States voted in favor of a United Nations resolution calling for Israel to pull its forces back, an act that would effectively end the critical element of Sharon's strategy: the isolation of Arafat in his now-devastated compound.

It was a striking omission, raising questions about whether Bush is in any hurry for the pressure on Arafat to be lifted.

Perhaps Bush's readjustments are so striking because he usually tends to be the most scripted of presidents. He likes to speak in certainties and contrasts, of "good and evil," of countries that are either "with us or against us."

Bush's statements of support for Arafat seemed to have echoes of the views heard in Cheney's camp and at the Pentagon. They have been most sympathetic to Sharon, arguing to give him as much latitude as possible.

Others note that Bush has a gut sense that Arafat, whom he has never met, is deeply untrustworthy. "He doesn't think Arafat has ever executed on his commitments," one official said, and in the world of George W. Bush, that is the paramount sin.

"If suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in New York, our focus would be entirely on stopping it, nothing else," a senior defense official said.

At the other end of the debate are the Middle East specialists, especially at the U.S. State Department, who share Bush's distrust of the Palestinian leader but doubt Sharon's strategy will lead to anything other than more backlash, more bombs and more tragedy.

Even if Sharon manages to capture or kill Palestinian terrorist leaders, they argue, the Israeli military action only sets back the broader goal of restarting peace talks. And the longer it goes on, they warn, the more that U.S. influence is diminished.