Bush, the Born-Again Peacemaker

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas clasp hands during the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007

Condoleezza Rice summoned a small group of reporters to her State Department conference room last Wednesday to explain why President Bush, seven years after his election, is convening Middle Eastern leaders in Annapolis Tuesday for a final attempt at the creation of a Palestinian state and a declaration of peace between it and Israel. "At this point," she said, "the dangers of inaction are much greater than the dangers of acting."

Most observers, however, believe that action carries great risks as well. If the diplomatic efforts fail, the current moderate Palestinian leaders could fall to terrorist groups like Hamas. "If the peace process yields dividends that result in improvement in the daily lives of the Palestinian people, then moderation will be vindicated," says George Salem, an occasional Republican liaison to the Palestinian leadership. "But if it doesn't, then the extremists will attempt to once again take control. The stakes are quite high."

Salem has embraced the diplomatic gambit despite the risk, however, and so have the Palestinians and Israelis themselves. Even the Saudis and Syrians are coming to Tuesday's summit. So it is odd to see an alliance of neo-cons and left-wingers unite in opposition to Bush's efforts. Writers for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard have bemoaned negotiations with "old men like Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Abbas]." Their counterparts on the left say Bush is making a cynical and rash gamble on a peace he doesn't have the stomach to push through.

It is not only on thorny Middle Eastern issues that Bush is drawing criticism from both the left and right. On his talks with North Korea and a slew of bilateral trade deals, right- and left-wingers alike mock the President's perceived diplomatic incompetence and argue against his efforts. But it is the prospect of Bush's diplomatic progress that is fueling their opposition — and that should be a sign of hope for centrists.

The right has cause to fear Bush's global diplomatic push. Bush's stated goal for the Mideast talks that begin Tuesday is the creation of a Palestinian state, something the neo-cons quietly oppose. They also believe any concession to dictators like North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il rewards bad behavior and have attacked all efforts at talks with autocrats. Meanwhile, the mercantilists in the party oppose those parts of Bush's free trade agenda that threaten their businesses.

On all these fronts, however, Bush is making progress against those far-right interests. Bill Clinton's Palestinian negotiator, Rob Malley, argues that Bush stands a better chance than Clinton of creating a Palestinian state because he is starting nine months earlier, has full Arab buy-in and is one of the few people who could actually pressure Israel to make tough concessions if he chose to. On North Korea, Bush approved talks led by a top Clinton negotiator, Chris Hill, who promptly delivered a deal to dismantle the country's nuclear reactors. And through quiet discussions with the Democratic Congress, Bush has breathed life into Latin American trade deals most thought were dead after Democrats took over Congress in 2006.

If the far right is worried about this progress, however, the far left is confused by it. They have scorned Bush's diplomatic forays as crass legacy-hunting, and are at a loss when he follows through. What they fear most is the chance that Bush could turn out to be capable of the kind of centrist diplomacy for which his father was known.

Bush has repeatedly bucked the unilateralists in recent months, not just on North Korea, but also on Iran and Iraq. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution says that despite his image as an immovable hardliner on Iran, Bush has cleared the way for Rice to offer multiple concessions to Tehran to lure them into negotiations. Bush's embrace of diplomacy with those he once dubbed "terrorists" in Iraq has not only yielded results, but indicates a foreign policy realism of the kind that the Office of the Vice President has steadfastly opposed.

No one thinks Bush will go down as a visionary statesman. Many of the challenges he is taking on have eluded more talented diplomats than he or his Secretary of State. Bush's presidency will still be judged in history on what happens in Iraq, and the diplomatic effort there remains moribund. Iran has been able to rebuff Bush's offers because the U.S. diplomatic position is so weak, thanks to his tragic adventure in Iraq. And that weakness is a problem for Bush worldwide: U.S. diplomatic capital is at the lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.

But the North Korea talks show that Bush's centrist approach can produce results even on the toughest issues. Low expectations, his legacy-driven need to offset the Iraq fiasco, and sheer luck could help. The far right and left may find the possibility of moderate foreign policy successes by Bush troubling. But it should be easy for centrists to agree with Rice that diplomatic action is preferable to inaction.