Presidency’s twilight begins in Annapolis

By Lee Feder

Aaahh, the twilight of a presidency. There is nothing like the fading months of a second-term executive to bring out the do-gooder in a leader. The big news out of Washington over the last couple weeks has been President Bush’s push for peace in the Middle East – a highly desirable goal from both humanitarian and realpolitik perspectives. Sadly, the impetus for the current round of negotiations stems from neither virtue nor altruism, but rather from Bush’s own egocentric desire to craft his legacy as a leader who brought peace to the world.

Despite my personal prejudices, President Bush is hardly the first to be this blatantly self-motivated. The much beloved (and now respected and revered) President Clinton pathetically engaged in the same indulgence, pushing harder than ever for Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to reach a peace agreement before Clinton I left office. Unfortunately for the world, the agreement did not happen. Since then, Bush has taken a relatively hard-line position with respect to the Palestinians, effectively stalling the peace process and placing it on the back burner of diplomatic priorities. For President Bush now, as for Clinton before him, the holy grail of historical and political salvation has never looked more desirable to a leader hoping to leave an honorable legacy.

Unlike Clinton, though, Bush’s plan for Middle East peace does not call for presidential meddling. Clinton took a hands-on approach, talking directly with Arafat and Barak, to pound out concessions from them while using his personal charm to convince both sides that such an agreement could succeed. Traditionally, the president has played a personal role in significant peace negotiations, and Clinton’s strategy merely reflected that.

For better or for worse, Bush is trying an alternative course of action. He has delegated the principal responsibility of peace negotiations to former National Security Advisor and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While this strategy could pay dividends by forcing increased bilateral dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the lack of a powerful third party moderator could let the talks degenerate or stall. In either case, Bush’s desire to remain largely disengaged from the talks manifests both his confidence in Ms. Rice as well as his simple wish to realize a solution. That will give his administration a positive mark to offset the demerits of 9/11, Katrina and Iraq.

Unlike Clinton, this end-of-term involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his first true confrontation with the situation. While Clinton, one of the White House’s great egomaniacs, engaged the two sides early on his presidency (with some success), Bush’s prior involvement has principally consisted of rhetoric. Such an approach is perfectly acceptable; nowhere does the Presidential Oath of Office read “And thou shalt attempt to secure peace in the Middle East.” However, I hope Bush realizes that the consequences of these negotiations affect real Palestinians and real Israelis.

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Despite the obvious self-aggrandizing motivation behind the Bush administration’s current peace push, Americans, along with everyone in the world, should support the talks. Peace in the Middle East is one of those awful game theory dilemmas where humanity benefits by a solution yet loses from the status quo, but no single group feels sufficiently compelled to initiate action. Peace in the Middle East entirely reshapes the global oil-policy dynamic, which is becoming increasingly important with every belch from a smokestack and each prod of the gas pedal. Ms. Rice is a smart enough woman to see this and how oil-barren Israel can be a key to changing the oil politics of the region.

After years of tip-toeing around the issue, the Bush administration has begun to realize that even the United States cannot merely impose its will around the world. The talks in Annapolis and the subsequent sketch of a plan represent the wise revelation that the United States needs to change its attitude toward international relations. In these fading months of the train wreck of an almost-decade called the Bush presidency, the world needs to unite behind the American leader and support his only crusade that will benefit everyone.