Jewish World Review April 17, 2002 / 6 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Masterful indirection: An American tradition | Not since the Eisenhower Years has an administration managed to give so many conflicting indications of its foreign policy in so short a time. The punditry is confused, which is nothing new, but these days it knows it is, which is unusual. And all those elevated kibitzers are mighty unhappy about this country's not having a clear, unmistakable foreign policy they can attack.

Instead, one moment George W. Bush is blaming Yasser Arafat for unleashing this unholy war, the next he's telling Ariel Sharon to pull back. And whenever the Arabs grow restive or the Europeans start being Europeans, Colin Powell over at State is rolled out to make soothing sounds, or maybe sent to the Mideast to pose with the combatants. Whenever the diplomatic waters grow choppy, this administration sends Colin Powell out the way the Israelis do Shimon Peres.

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld at Defense remains focused on the war against terror and Saddam Hussein's part in it. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, is also heard from occasionally, just to remind the country that the administration does have a cogent voice, while Dick Cheney is just back from the Mideast, which he toured to no clear purpose. That famous fog of war ain't got nothin' on the fog of diplomacy.

Listening to the president Thursday amid his props -- the White House garden, the press corps, Colin Powell -- it was easy enough to picture how his speechwriters had put together W.'s positively Eisenhowerean performance. ("Lessee now, one part pro-Israel, one part pro-Arab, one part conciliation, one part CEO tough-talk, a smidgen of religiosity, a little visit to the Mideast, eye of newt .")

Meanwhile, the war is being decided in the back streets of Nablus the way wars are always decided -- in blood and fire and above all with will, while well-dressed gentlemen with clean fingernails draw up the papers. And the peace that should have been made two years ago, two decades ago, two score years ago, still waits.

Once the smoke of battle clears, maybe the negotiations can resume where they should never have been ended by Yasser Arafat's brilliant decision to walk away from Camp David and lead his people into another bloody morass.

In the meantime, the president of the United States must say something to the press and the world. He's been accused of being weak and uncertain. So he contrives to say nothing in particular in the fairest, most even-handed, lengthiest way. Or as Dwight Eisenhower told his worried press secretary, James Hagerty, when that aide cautioned him to watch every word when he went before the press: "Don't worry, Jim, I'll just confuse 'em." Much like this president.

It's an American tradition dating back at least to the first president. Washington kept two diametrically opposed temperaments in his Cabinet, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to keep his balance. And while Mr. Jefferson was being carried away by his support for the revolutionaries in France, and Mr. Hamilton was just as fervently in favor of crushing them, the old general nodded sagely, spoke cryptically, kept his own counsel and guided the country through the shoals.

While events swirled about him and the world, the first president of the fledgling republic seemed weak and uncertain, buffeted by contradictory opinions, but after the clouds and rhetoric parted, he looked masterful. It was clear he had kept his head and the peace.

All is flux now in the Middle East, and the diplomatic shockwaves keep pounding the White House. So do the usual rock-chunkers -- here and abroad. With allies like the Europeans, this administration needs no carping critics. But when the dust and, alas, the blood has settled in two or three weeks, or two or three months, or however long it takes the Israelis to restore what passes for peace in the Middle East, this president will look confused like a fox.

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