Trapped By His Own Instincts

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There are seven ages in a man's life, the poet says, and you can see at least three of them already in George W. Bush's presidency. First came his strange, complicated birth, his narrow escape from a Florida swamp, a President uncertain from the start. Next came the innocent clarity of September and the burst of national unity. The attacks and their aftermath seemed to end all the confusion about who was in charge and showed us what Bush was capable of after all: strength, leadership, even vision.

But he is now in a third age, more challenging than the previous two, where nothing is simple, and many of the tools that served Bush so well after 9/11 not only don't help him anymore but actually may be doing him harm. Four weeks after Bush leaped into the Middle East crisis by dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, it is clear that the President has come back to where he started, unable or unwilling to end the bickering among his top advisers and struggling to implement a plan because he cannot craft one in the first place.

Bush is stuck, and that has many people in Washington once again wondering whether he is up to the task of managing a complex foreign policy crisis and worrying about how long he can hold his team together. At about the same time that Bush's closest aide, counselor Karen Hughes, announced she would be packing up and heading back to Texas, longtime confidants of Powell began to whisper that the retired four-star general is tired of being undercut by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the hard-liners who work for them.

Powell isn't likely to leave soon — he hates the idea of quitting even more than the thought of losing — but there is no doubt that his patience has been severely tested in recent days. The prospect of Bush moving ahead without the moderating influence of a Hughes, much less a Powell, has some Republicans worried. "Bush has got to get a handle on this," says a GOP veteran. "To quote Bush himself, 'Enough is enough.'"

Already the diplomatic initiative in the region has passed from Washington to, of all places, the normally unwakable Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Crown Prince Abdullah gave Cheney "an earload full" at a private dinner in Houston on Wednesday — urging the Veep to abandon the Administration's pro-Israel tilt. And when Abdullah met with the President in Crawford, Texas, on Thursday, there were even signs that the old Bush charm had lost its purchase. Accounts of the 5-hr. meeting vary dramatically. According to two sources, Abdullah surprised Bush with three handouts — a photo album and two videocassettes — each containing powerful images of the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli troops. The two men looked through the book and watched the videos, the sources said. Abdullah wanted Bush to see what people in Arab countries were waking up to every day in local newspaper and television reports — and then contemplate the anger those images generated and the pressure that placed on Arab leaders.

Abdullah proposed that he and Bush join forces on an eight-point peace plan designed to shake Israelis and Palestinians out of their death clinch. Bush balked at the scope and speed of the Saudi proposal, but Abdullah's mission had some impact. On Friday, after a week of making pro-Israeli sounds, Bush expressed new frustration with Jerusalem's slow withdrawal from the West Bank. "It's time to end this," he said.

White House officials insist that the apparent oscillation in the President's Middle East policy is one of bad phrasemaking and worse luck. Ever since Powell returned from his nine-day mission to the region, Bush has been unable, as an adviser puts it, "to get back to the speech," the elegant Rose Garden statement he made on April 4. In that address Bush for the first time lined up all the carrots and sticks to wheedle and whack both Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table. The idea was simple, maybe too simple: if Bush demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdraw from the West Bank and that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat call off the terrorists, the two sides could get down to business. But when neither man complied, Bush seemed to give up after a week. When the GOP's right wing unleashed a tide of e-mails and telephone calls in support of Israel, Bush appeared to revert to his instinctive support of the country. And that is pretty much where things stand — back where they started.

But there are other instincts at work that hamper Bush's role as an honest broker in the region. Each was found, forged and hailed in the aftermath of September. But none is helpful now:

"I'm a Plainspoken Fellow"

Bush recently told a British journalist, "My job isn't to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think." Bush's gift for plain talk and simple formulations may someday earn him a place in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. His words after 9/11 were just what the nation and the world needed to hear: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." About bin Laden, he vowed, "We'll get him — dead or alive."

Those were powerful charms, but now is the time for subtler stuff. Bush is dealing with, literally, ancient history, where key words are taboo, some names are forbidden, and there are layers upon layers of deep tribal symbolism. Every time he speaks, Bush has to be mindful of the need to preach hope to Israelis and Palestinians, cajole moderate Arabs, warn rogue states, reassure European allies and point a finger at would-be terrorists. It's a huge piece of multitasking for a man who is best at doing one thing at a time.

Subtlety is neither his style nor his strength. If Bush were a Clinton, he might recall his April 4 speech from memory and give it over and over again, remolding and refining it as each day and week required. But he lacks Clinton's ability to recall long texts. If Bush were more like his dad, he could do that telegraphic thing his father liked to do, sending signals to foreign leaders by embedding key phrases and words in otherwise unremarkable statements and speeches. But the son lacks his father's diplomatic code book and probably wouldn't use one if he had it. Indeed, when asked to explain his current position, Bush has taken to referring reporters to the April 4 speech, like a hypertext link to a website on Middle Eastern affairs. As he recently said, "The role of the President, as far as I'm concerned, is to stand up and tell the truth."

"I've Always Been One That Trusts the Judgment of People I Send on a Mission"

Bush was praised widely after 9/11 for delegating the conduct and tempo of the war in Afghanistan to his military advisers and then getting out of the way. The Bush team as if by magic seemed to coalesce in September after months of intramural bickering: Cheney became a behind-the-scenes adviser, Powell finally took over as chief diplomat, and Rumsfeld stopped skirmishing with his generals and led them over the top into battle.

But delegating to your team is a great thing when your team agrees on the plan; when your advisers disagree, it's a recipe for inaction. When the ensemble of October and November gave way by February to the old disagreements, Bush had to choose or lose. Rumsfeld, Cheney and the hard-liners rumbled for a quick action against Iraq, while Powell and the diplomats at State tried tapping the brakes. When the Middle East exploded in March, the hard-liners wanted to give Sharon a free pass to root out terror in the West Bank, and Bush seemed to go along. Powell pushed for a more even-handed policy — and prevailed only when the violence spun out of control.

Bush has tacked back and forth between the Powell and Cheney camps for weeks, giving in to Powell in public but sending out Pentagon hard-liner Paul Wolfowitz to rally pro-Israel supporters on the Mall in Washington. When Powell's nine-day mission was a fizzle, the hard-liners climbed back into the front seat. When Cheney was host at a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu — the former Israeli Prime Minister who hopes to succeed Sharon by outflanking him on the right — on the same day that Powell was in Jerusalem trying to get Sharon to knuckle under, the Secretary's team could barely control its fury.

It's hard to tell if Bush doesn't know how to sort out this internal catfight or just doesn't want to. Sometimes, the only advisers Bush hears are the ones who already agree. That's partly because the National Security Council, the little agency in the White House for settling such policy differences, is weaker than it has been since the latter part of the Reagan Administration. Run by Condoleezza Rice, the nsc struggled along until recently with an Afghan expert in charge of the Middle East. A Rice critic says that when the pro-Israel players in the Pentagon and Cheney's office, who enjoy plenty of access to the West Wing, make proposals to Bush, "there is nobody in the White House who says no."

"This Is Now the Focus of My Administration"

Perhaps because it seemed so normal, there was something reassuring after 9/11 about the way Bush saw political opportunity in the disaster and established himself, once and for all, as the legitimate President. That was good for the country and good for Bush; rarely have we more desperately needed a leader who himself believed he was up to the job.

But it's also true that Bush's oscillating policy is a by-product of his deep-seated political instincts. Every foreign policy official who will speak even guardedly about the current situation says the President has one eye locked on the 2004 election. Bush isn't courting Jewish votes with his tilt toward Israel; he is courting Christian conservatives in his party's base who are deeply pro-Jerusalem (see box). Many Republicans who are willing to accept Bush's rightward tilt on domestic matters are growing increasingly impatient with its influence on foreign policy.

Solving the Middle East puzzle will take skills quite different from the instinctive judgments Bush prizes. He would need to take on Sharon and Arafat directly, sketch a plan for battling with his right flank and override Cheney and Rumsfeld in favor of Powell. None of that seems possible anytime soon. But American public opinion is unlikely to let him run in place forever. The dangers to the region are too great. And Bush still wants to take on Iraq, which might be enough to persuade him to get involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks himself. "The only person capable of doing this is the President," says Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. "You cannot delegate this problem."

The President may recognize this in time. But that is a story for a future age of George W. Bush. — With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, John F. Dickerson/Crawford, J.F.O. McAllister/London and Scott MacLeod/Cairo