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Jewish World Review August 20, 2002 / 12 Elul, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Rumsfeld to the Rescue

The Pentagon chief is a bastion of common sense | In every administration, there ought to be at least one person who makes sense and isn't afraid to call things by their right names.

In the era of George Bush the younger, that person is clearly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Initially dismissed as a relic from the Gerald Ford administration (he served his first term as head of the Pentagon when he was 43 years old) and just another country-club Republican retread, in the last 19 months Rumsfeld has shown himself to be the most sensible talking head in Washington. He has also shown himself to be more than a political match for the man who was thought to be the real focus of foreign-policy power when Bush took office last year - Secretary of State Colin Powell.


Rumsfeld cemented his claim to the title of the most honest man in Washington last week when he stunned the foreign-policy establishment by telling a forum of Pentagon employees that any peace deal with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority leadership wouldn't work because they are "involved in terrorist activities."

Further deflating the administration's already theoretical offer of a Palestinian state, Rumsfeld cast doubt on the idea that it was a given that all of the West Bank must be handed over to these criminals.

"My feeling about the so-called occupied territories," Rumsfeld said, "are that there was a war, Israel urged neighboring countries not to get involved in it once it started, they all jumped in, and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in that conflict."

Rumsfeld's statements sent shock waves throughout European capitals, Arab sheikdoms and the editorial offices of most major newspapers. But despite the brouhaha that resulted, Rumsfeld didn't take any of it back.

Wow, a Cabinet secretary who knows history! Rumsfeld actually said "so-called occupied territories." Can it be that, contrary to the initial fears of most American friends of Israel, this Bush administration not only knows history but also actually understands it?

When asked whether the Palestinians would ever get a state, which the president said would happen if they reformed their government and got rid of the terrorists running it (starting with head honcho Arafat), Rumsfeld conceded "there will be some sort of an entity that will be established," But he said "it will take some Palestinian expatriates coming back into the region" to make it happen. The identity of those mythical reasonable Palestinians was left to his listeners' imagination.

Rumsfeld's little lecture on the facts of the 1967 war and the nature of Israel's Palestinian "peace partners" was more than just impromptu candor. It came just days before Powell was about to convene a meeting with some high-ranking aides of the Palestinian terrorist-in-chief in Washington, the highest level meeting between American and Palestinian leaders since Bush drew a line in the sand about Palestinian terror and corruption on June 24.

The Powell meeting, like many other recent initiatives on the part of the State Department, was something of an end run around the president's policies. And therein hangs the tale of the ongoing battle between Rumsfeld and Powell.

Each are always determined to be in the driver's seat of American diplomacy. On the key question of American policy in the Middle East, Powell has clearly been at odds with Rumsfeld. Powell's statements make it clear that he would have been comfortable in the Clinton administration when pressure on Israel to make drastic, even dangerous concessions to the Palestinians was the order of the day.

Rumsfeld understands that Clinton's initiatives were a disaster, and may have emboldened Arafat to think that a terror offensive would bring Israel to its knees while the United States continued pressuring it to give in on territory, including Jerusalem.

Powell's advantage in this fight is the fact that he, alone of all officials in the administration, cannot be fired. Powell's stature as a hero of the Persian Gulf war and the American dream incarnate makes him untouchable. As the first black to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the first black Secretary of State, he gives Bush's Cabinet a luster and a legitimacy no one else can provide. Were he forced out or to resign in a huff, it would be a devastating blow to Bush.

That said, who's winning the Cabinet war? The June 24 speech made it clear that the pro-Israel Department of Defense is calling the signals in the Bush huddle while Powell is relegated to being the lonesome end wandering around the field while the rest of the team follows a different plan.

And if you think Powell is in serious danger of total irrelevance today, imagine just how marginal he will be when Bush makes good on his pledge of "regime change" in Iraq and launches the war to finish Saddam Hussein.


While Bush wants to keep Powell in the fold, his instincts on the Israel-Arab conflict dovetail nicely with Rumsfeld's blunt appreciation for the truth. To the dismay of both America's Arab "allies" and our European "friends," Bush stuck to his guns on Arafat and treated him like the criminal he is.

The delicate leadup to an offensive against Iraq will require plenty of quick diplomatic and political footwork by the administration. As friends of Israel weigh in on the debate over Iraq in the coming months, it is important for them to remember that defeating Baghdad is in the common interests of both Israel and America. Support for this administration's anti-terror policies should be at the top of our political priority list.

Unfortunately, some friends of Israel in this country have been confused by the mixed signals that have been sent out by Powell's statements. It is possible that Powell's dead-end initiatives may serve some purpose in the Bush/Rumsfeld war strategy.

But some Jewish leaders who ought to know better still worry that Powell will continue to undermine Israel, and ultimately outmaneuver Rumsfeld. They fear this administration will somehow wind up being no different from Bush the Elder's or Clinton's, and sacrifice Israel to appease the Arabs.

Such unsophisticated analysis ought to be ignored. As Washington gives Israel room to hit back at Palestinian terrorists, this is not the time to start undermining or second-guessing the president.

No matter what mischief Colin Powell may undertake in his search for relevance, Rumsfeld is still the man who counts.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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