How Bush Can Cut the Mideast Knot

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The first two-column story on the Wall Street Journal's front page Tuesday found President Bush hedging his bets again, warning the paper that thanks to rising oil prices, "we're not out of the economic woods yet." And so the burgeoning Middle East war has not only interrupted Bush's war on terrorism, it's threatening to do the same to his economic recovery. And as Bush and Colin Powell, having finally decided to get involved, shout "now" at Ariel Sharon and get only "soon" in return, the White House is facing its other great fear — wading into the world's least solvable conflict only to get embarrassed by it.

Already, Bush's 74 percent approval rating in the new Journal/NBC News poll is down from 82 percent in January; his 68 percent for foreign policy is down from 81 percent at the start of the year. Still high? Sure — and two-thirds of Americans back his foray into the peace-making process. But those stratospheric post-Sept. 11 numbers were built and reinforced on what Bush does best: make clear-cut, right-thing-to-do promises of U.S. action and unblinkingly follow them through. And the Middle East has a way of turning promises — and U.S. presidents — to mush.

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So this president needs a way to return to the clear, focused leader we saw and loved last fall, and the best way to tackle the Mideast tangle may be, like Alexander and the Gordian Knot, to simply draw his sword. Pick a peace plan with a state for Palestinians and borders for Israel — the Saudis', Oslo, U.N. Resolution 242, they're all pretty much the same — and one clear message for both Arafat and Sharon: this is the best you're going to do. The negotiations are now over.

And then send in the troops. Be they U.S. or just U.S.-led, Bush can make history by building a buffer zone and enforcing the peace — with bullets — whether either side likes it or not.

Any questions?

What about the diplomacy of the war on terror? This could be the U.S. biggest Arab-world diplomatic success — ever. The man-in-the-street Muslim has one overriding beef with America — its longtime financial, military and diplomatic support of Israel. U.S. aid is why Israel is still armed well enough to take on all its Arab neighbors, why it rolls through the West Bank in tanks while Palestinians have to blow themselves up. Tell the Israelis to stand down or be cut off — and tell the Palestinians to do the same or get the Taliban treatment.

If the U.S. is worried about its image in the Muslim world — and it should be — Bush can make no better gesture to the would-be bin Ladens out there than to use American power in the Middle East quickly, decisively, in the name of innocent life — and finally, with an even hand.

What about the home front? Tell the American people just what he told Sharon and Arafat last week — that "enough is enough." A new Gallup survey has 80 percent saying all-out war in the region is "somewhat likely" in the next few years, and they'll punish Bush more if it happens while he wrings his hands. The man-in-the-street American supported ground troops in Afghanistan, and if Bush explains to them how Mideast stability not only makes the world a better place but could dry up anti-American sentiment across the world, they'll get it.

The U.S. will have to be there a very long time, and casualties may happen, but even the suicide bombers know something about which targets aren't profitable to their cause. Would we rather wait until the Palestinian suicide bombers, out of sheer desperation, finally show up in Times Square?

And oil prices? Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC aren't exactly eager to meet demand with supply just yet, but they're not talking about joining Iraq's embargo either. Wall Street and the economy seem able to tolerate a certain amount of Middle East uncertainty. They've had plenty of practice. But nobody wants a war that draws in the surrounding Arab nations and makes Saudi Arabia choose between domestic politics and international money. An unmistakable U.S. presence would send the message that the conflict will not be allowed to spread — and that business elsewhere can continue as usual.

Americans don't like George W. Bush as a nail-biting diplomat — but they like him as a fighter. They like him as a clear thinker, a heavy lifter, someone who tells it like it is and then tells how it's going to be. They like him in black and white, and now that he's waist-deep in the Middle East mess he might as well go all the way.