Into the Fray

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President George W. Bush has always done the Middle East his way.

When he became the first President to formally call for the creation of a Palestinian state, it was at least partly because he gagged on such conventional but tortured constructions as "a place for the Palestinian people to carry out their aspirations." When aides drafted a speech with such wording, the President challenged them, demanding, What does that mean? An aide explained that this was how the matter was generally formulated. Bush, a senior Administration official recalls, asked, "Well, do we think there's going to be a Palestinian state?" When his aides said yes, he continued, "Then why don't we say that there should be a Palestinian state?" With that, the groundbreaking words were delivered.

Bush's way is facing a stern test now that the crisis in Lebanon has dragged the Administration into the role of potential peacemaker. Before dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region, Bush initiated a series of phone calls from Air Force One and the Oval Office to leaders around the region. Making a virtue of necessity, the President's team says it sees the opportunity for a "leadership moment" — and, however counterintuitive, an unexpected new chance to make headway on Bush's grand goal of leaving the Middle East more democratic than he found it. Ahead of Rice, a State Department envoy and Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, spent four days in the region.

By sending Rice to the region, the White House is gambling that Arab governments fear the Hizballah militants more than they resent the Israelis. This may help the Secretary of State create what she envisions as an "umbrella" — the word coalition having been spoiled by Iraq — of Arab allies willing to condemn terrorism. Some specialists call the goal naive, feeling that it overestimates the willingness of Israel's Arab neighbors to risk being seen as taking Israel's side and that it discounts the fact that even if the U.S. could get these governments on board, their people would be unlikely to follow.

Yet Bush would dearly love to accomplish something, to neutralize anti-American forces in the Middle East and to redeem himself as a peacemaker. Without that, his foreign policy legacy lives and dies with Iraq, and it's looking ever more likely that the country won't be peaceful before he leaves office. Still, the Administration is ever optimistic. In an e-mail titled "Setting the Record Straight" late last week, the White House declared, "The President's foreign policy is succeeding."

Indeed, the West Wing is relatively upbeat after its annus horribilis. People close to Bush say chief of staff Josh Bolten and press secretary Tony Snow have given the place a desperately needed karmic injection. Bolten has pleased the President by giving him straight talk instead of cheerleading and has imposed a new accountability on the staff. Snow — with his bankerly suits, full tank of confidence and dash of celebrity — went on the breakfast shows last week to defend the pace and results of Bush's diplomacy, scoffing at the impatience of those who demanded "egg-timer diplomacy."

As for Bush himself, he is curtailing his traditional August working vacation at the ranch so that he can barnstorm before the midterm elections. Their outlook thus far seems so ominous for the G.O.P. that one Presidential adviser wants Bush to beef up his counsel's office for the tangle of investigations that a Democrat-controlled House might pursue.

With the Democrats determined to make a major issue of Bush's foreign policy competence, the President seems ready to leap at the chance to refresh the landscape and make his own history. He had deliberately diverged from the Middle East course set by his two predecessors when he hired an unabashedly pro-Israel staff. "I'm all for conferences," Bush said in a 2004 appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "just so long as the conferences produce something." George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker were seen as heroes by some Palestinians; Bill Clinton made the quest for Middle East peace a centerpiece of his legacy project. Bush aides say the times were different then and the vaunted progress under Clinton turned out to be what one called "a false stability."

Does George W. Bush have dreams of presiding over a grand Middle East peace deal at Camp David or some other photogenic spot, like the Red Sea summit of his first term? Aides say he is content for now to take steps toward transforming the region in less obvious but, they believe, more fundamental and lasting ways. So Bush today is in the precarious position of putting his hopes in a region that has yielded only heartbreak.

—With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo