President Bush's unconditional war on terror has sprouted a split personality over Israel - Colin Powell is off to negotiate with Yassar Arafat, a terrorist - in an attempt to appease the administration's critics. It won't work. Bryant Gumbel has oh-so-helpfully explained it this way: "This administration's foreign policy in regards to the Mideast has been called everything from 'amateurish and inept' to 'inconsistent and superficial.'" Headlines have warned that Bush's Mideast policy is a blur.
One of the media's most annoying tendencies is to pretend that all this is happening in a vacuum, as if they haven't been pounding and prodding for the inconsistency that's now emerged.
Early in April, after bushels of criticism from the press for being too passive, President Bush tried to announce a new policy that would soothe his detractors. He would send Powell to the Mideast, which trip "possibly" would include a meeting with Arafat, which meant this meeting will take place, which means the U.S. will be negotiating with a terrorist. But Bush also stressed that the Palestinians deserve better leaders than Arafat and called on Arab governments to denounce terrorism and bring pressure to bear on terrorist groups.
The decision to meet with Arafat does raise legitimate questions. If Arafat has the power to curb Palestinian terrorism he has chosen not to exercise it. This makes him complicit in the act of terror. If he doesn't and can't control the terrorists - why meet at all?
The new Bush approach could be seen as a bow toward moral equivalence - that the Israelis and the Palestinians are equally democratic, equally violent, or equally responsible for terror. It puts America's resolve and moral authority right there on the same level as that of, oh, France. The refreshing clarity of the Bush doctrine on terror is gone.
But let us not hear any of this from the American press. Their desire for a morally clear war on terrorism wherever it emerges is much, much weaker than the President's. While the Bush speech made demands on both sides, the press corps continues to focus only on Israel. They hector daily about Israeli "defiance." But they've all forgotten the call to Arabs to stop subsidizing and propagandizing the terrorist attacks.
Just catch the first ten minutes of a White House briefing. Helen Thomas should be wearing Yasser Arafat's hat as she screams about Ariel Sharon "laying siege" to Palestinian innocents. Terry Moran of ABC suggests the President should be embarrassed about his eroding credibility as Sharon makes him a patsy around the world. On April 10, a battalion of reporters insisted that foreign aid to Israel ought to insure obedience. Moran wondered what, short of America cutting off aid to Israel, "are the consequences, the real-world consequences, for Sharon and for the Israeli government in their defiance of the President's request?"
Spokesman Ari Fleischer is paid to be the sleepy sound of Sominex to these provocations, offering a calm but not too contentious defense. But someone ought to ask Moran and his colleagues if they can cite any other time when they've demanded that American foreign aid be followed by rigid behavior codes. Clearly, they never objected for decades as the U.S. doled out millions to corrupt little Third World regimes like the Seychelles Islands as they voted regularly against America at the United Nations. They're not demanding the Saudis or the Egyptians or the Kuwaitis bow today in obedience to their American benefactors. But Israel should.
Reporting on the Middle East today does not have enough context. If media figures and Palestinians detest Ariel Sharon, they should give some thought to who, and what brought him to power in the first place. It was Arafat and his intransigent anti-Israel position. While Tim Russert touted Bill Clinton for the Nobel Peace Prize and Ehud Barak handed Arafat a banana split of concessions, it was Arafat who threw the bowl in Barak's face and led Israeli voters to throw him out, and turn to hardline Sharon. Arafat not only rejected Clinton and Barak, he rejected the very idea of peace. How the media have already forgotten that one!
In the final analysis, America will have to choose between two policies. There's the Bush Doctrine, a war on terrorist groups and their infrastructure. Or there's the Peter Jennings Doctrine, which insists that we treat some terrorists as Nobel laureates carrying the inevitable burden of an earnest, desperate violence against civilians that must be somehow respected, not defeated. But however the media try to steer our ship of state, they cannot claim that appeasing Arafat in recent years has bought an end to terrorism.