Two events forced US President George W. Bush's decision to sit under a tree on Wednesday, finally acting as the essential mediator between the fierce hawk who leads Israel and the new, untested and struggling prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.
The first was Bush's quick victory in Iraq, which established new respect -- along with new resentments -- for him in a region that recognizes power and must now deal with him as the leader of an occupying force in the very heart of the Middle East. The second was the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as an alternative to Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader, which met Bush's stated condition for American intervention, or, perhaps, called his bluff.
The question now, which followed Bush at every stop on the sidelines of the president's three-day race through the Mideast, is whether he is truly capable of the kind of personal follow-through that he has vowed in every public appearance this week. Around the world, he bears a reputation as a man far more eager to destroy threats to America from al-Qaeda to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime -- than to construct new nations from the ruins of conflict. He now has three major construction projects on his plate: rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, and acting as midwife to the new state of Palestine he envisions in his peace plan, known as the road map.
Bush has repeatedly made clear his view that ridding the Mideast of "the dictator in Iraq" opened the way for the rest of his agenda. Iraq, he said, would become a model of democracy in a Muslim nation. And he told reporters today in a rare gathering in the conference room of Air Force One, "we can be stewards of accountability" in the Middle East. "We can say to somebody, `You said you'd do this, you haven't done it, you say you want to do this, and what do you need to get it done?'"
Managing all that to say nothing of a weak economy at home, a looming re-election campaign and the specter of new confrontations with Iran and North Korea -- would be a huge agenda for any president. It is especially big for a man who came to power sounding dismissive of nation-building and of president Bill Clinton's day-to-day, paragraph-by-paragraph style of Mideast diplomacy.
Now, Bush has committed a chunk of his reputation to achieving the goals he and regional leaders set for themselves today. He faces the risk of the same kind of frustrations and violent setbacks here that bedeviled Clinton and many presidents before.
Bush promises a far different style. He said today that he was delegating Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to act as his personal representatives, who will cajole, entice and, when necessary, issue the kinds of vague threats that can motivate both sides.
But in the end, the power to make nations break their own internal deadlocks may prove impossible to delegate. Past peace efforts have shown that the real bargaining does not start until the president enters the room.
Bush is a man who likes big visions, and one reason he is now deeply engaged is that he has what one aide calls "a map in his mind" of a new Middle East. It is one with an American-friendly government of Iraq at its center, surrounded by states where young Arabs debate lawmaking, not bombmaking.
But those who know the president well say he is usually disinclined to sweat over the details. As governor of Texas and as president, he has prided himself on delegating, not micromanaging.
That has been his style in Afghanistan, and many American allies complain that Bush lost interest in the country once a new crisis in Iraq came along. Money and attention have not been as forthcoming for Afghanistan as Bush promised 18 months ago, and in Iraq an early plan for creating an Iraqi transitional authority has been shelved because of unanticipated obstacles.
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, he may need to act more like he did as owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, where his partners remember him as a man who immersed himself in the pros and cons of trading players. On this trip alone, Bush had to twist the arm of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to get him to commit in public to "immediately begin to remove unauthorized outposts" in the West Bank.
But he could not get a public commitment from Sharon to freeze the growth of other settlements, as required by the peace plan. The prime minister, of course, helped create many of those settlements as Likud minister in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, when Bush was a junior at Yale.
In Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, on Tuesday, Bush had to push hard to win a strong Arab commitment to cut off financing to terrorist groups, and even then could not get them to speed up the recognition of Israel or acknowledge its right to exist as "a vibrant Jewish state," the words Bush used today. In coming weeks, he must press Sharon to make good on his commitment to begin dismantling unauthorized outposts.
Those steps are likely to present the first real test of both men's sincerity, determination and political strength. And it will be the first test of Bush's commitment, repeated on Air Force One on Wednesday, to "ride herd" on the players here, including the Palestinians, who must begin to disarm militant groups.
There are risks in all of this for Bush, but they are hard to quantify. Shadowing him on the trip here -- visible on the margins of events, usually staying out of sight -- was Bush's political impresario, Karl Rove. Political aides say that the consensus within the Bush camp is that the American public likes to see presidents as peacemakers.
"He needs to show he is trying," one political adviser to the White House said recently.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
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