Better Late Than Never

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BROOKS KRAFT/GAMM FOR TIME

Off to Israel: Powell

Consider the situation in the White House Situation Room last Thursday morning: Israeli troops and armor had invaded almost every city in the West Bank and surrounded about 200 Palestinian fighters barricaded inside Bethlehem's sacred Church of the Nativity. Anti-American demonstrations in Cairo, Beirut, Amman and other Middle Eastern capitals were making it impossible for Washington's Arab allies to stay on the fence. Egypt cut some ties with Israel and warned the White House that the rest could be in jeopardy. Oil prices spiked to $28 a barrel, and the stock market plunged. Anti-Semites vandalized synagogues in France and Belgium. American embassies cabled Washington that they might be the next targets. And White House officials were poring over satellite pictures from the region: Syria was moving its troops in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in anticipation of Israeli strikes across the border. The situation, a senior White House official concedes, was "getting out of control."

Talk about grabbing George W. Bush's attention: the President finally saw that he had gone down the wrong road, and he pulled a quick U-turn. When he stepped up to the Rose Garden podium Thursday morning, Bush ended more than a year of stubborn disengagement from the Middle East peace process, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush's speech was tough and elegant. "The storms of violence cannot go on," he said. "Enough is enough."

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The meetings that produced the speech were even more extraordinary. For several days, the most powerful people in the Administration had served as speechwriters. Bush, Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet had all called or crowded into the Situation Room and worked on the speech line by line--a measure of how troubled and critical this moment really was. The team added a great deal of moral embroidery and made sure that the speech demanded something from everyone. In the Rose Garden, Bush reached out to Yasser Arafat, endorsing Palestinian statehood and giving the leader another chance to stop the terrorists and make peace--but making it clear this chance would be his last. Bush pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull his troops and tanks from the West Bank cities and insisted that Israel begin treating the Palestinians with "compassion." Bush called on moderate Arab countries to stop wringing their hands and start helping the Palestinians build their new nation--but also warned Iraq, Iran and Syria not to undo the deal by supporting terror. During the speechwriting sessions, Administration sources told TIME, the dependably hard-line Rumsfeld had pushed most fiercely to include tough language aimed at any nation that might try to "fish in troubled waters," as one aide put it. And these sources noticed during the several days of drafting that Cheney was particularly active, more willing than before to wager American prestige in a game with so many risks--and keen to sharpen language that warned rogue nations to stay out of the fight.

This is how a crucial policy is reborn in the Bush White House. In a single day, George W. Bush moved from keeping his distance from a region in flames to all but staking his presidency on its peace and security. He also went a long way toward diluting the simple moral code embedded in the recently hatched Bush Doctrine--the doctrine that divides the world neatly into two camps, one good and one evil. Since last September, Bush has said over and over that the nations of the world have a choice: "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists." But by taking a chance for peace that depends on Arafat, the President is acknowledging that the moral absolutism that has worked so well in the war against terror doesn't apply to every feud. The inside story of how Bush decided to wade waist-deep into the Middle East quicksand is the story of a President who is learning that there are few simple choices in foreign policy. So it is with Arafat. "He is a liar and completely untrustworthy," says an Administration official, "but for the moment, he is the man."

Powell Wins the Round
For the past 11 or so presidents, it has been a truism that American leaders ignore the Middle East at their peril. So why did Bush think he could get away with paying so little attention to the place? As with so many questions about the Middle East, there is an answer to fit every neighborhood. Many Democrats and Republicans believe that Bush checked out of the story early in his presidency in part because he came to Washington with a reflexive desire to do the opposite of whatever his predecessor did. It is true that Bill Clinton had his hands deep in the Middle East mess from his first year in office until the final days of his presidency in a way that the Bush team found inappropriate and even dangerous, given that a taste for high-stakes summitry, in its view, led to dashed hopes and renewed violence. "It wasn't all that long ago where a summit was called and nothing happened," Bush told a television interviewer Friday in a not-so-veiled criticism of Clinton, "and as a result we had significant intifadeh in the area."

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