OUR NEW president has an aggressive agenda for his first days in office, but so far his major announcements have been in the area of domestic affairs. The U.S. is not Texas, however, and President Bush must immediately turn his focus outward as well. For one area of the world in particular, timing is essential. Bush must mimic some of the past administration's actions while avoiding some of its mistakes, all the while walking in the political minefield of the Middle East with little foreign policy experience.
Both Clinton and Bush had no practice in the global order when they arrived in Washington. Clinton unfortunately parlayed this inexperience into several mistakes during his first months, waiting three years to get involved in the situation. On the off chance that the "peace marathon" going on in Egypt right now accomplishes something, Bush must not make the same mistake Clinton did - he must engage the situation immediately and put the full force of the U.S. behind the progress.
If that progress doesn't happen, however, Bush will be facing an even stickier situation with greater challenges. The former figureheads of the peace process are in transition: Clinton is gone, and with him goes all his negotiating experience and savoir faire. Ehud Barak, now only acting prime minister, likely will be ousted by the hawkish conservative leader Ariel Sharon soon. That means Israel's policy will change again. Suddenly Palestine's Arafat won't be able to count on either one of his former negotiating partners. As the saying goes, the enemy you know is always better than the one you don't. Not only does Arafat have one new, mostly unknown, "enemy," he also has the second, external unknown of a new U.S. president who is untested and has no guarantees. Bush needs to become a "known" as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, Bush's current staff is ill-suited to handle the current Middle East situation. They are mostly old guard, Cold War students of foreign affairs, used to a more black and white view of us versus them than the current, more complicated world order. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice is a Russian policy analyst with little Middle East experience; Secretary of State Colin Powell is renowned for his conduct in war and peace, but is anti-interventionist and conservative. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney certainly are experienced, but in the theme of the Cold War. Bush could even out this listing ship heavy with old guard wisdom by hiring people experienced in different areas.
Bush won the election calling himself "a uniter, not a divider." If that's true, this is the perfect situation for him to prove it. He has the unique position of not owing anything to the Israeli lobby, yet still promising to act as their president, too. He and half his cabinet also have the unique perspective of oil men - they know in detail the intricacies of the oil market, the situation with OPEC and the other allies of the U.S. in the Middle East. This could help Arafat to trust the new president more than he did the old one - Palestinian Authority leadership always lamented the pro-Israeli bias by the U.S. and especially the Clinton administration. While no mediator can claim to be perfectly impartial, Bush could have the added benefit of mystery - Arafat might not make the same biased assumptions about the new administration.
The new president has homework to do. He should be ready to go at a moment's notice if, by some miracle, the marathon session explodes with potential. That would keep Barak in office a little longer, allowing for less destabilization of the peace process and stopping the violence. If the session breaks down, however, Bush must learn the nuances of international timing quickly. He should wait to make a splash until his context becomes more known not just to the Palestinians and Israelis, but also to him. Patience until after the Israeli elections would be both prudent and the most efficient path to accomplishing U.S. objectives.
Once re-engaged in the process, Bush should, ironically, mimic some of Clinton's behaviors. Clinton pushed the process too hard, but people close to him while he was negotiating insist that he had a certain charm and knack for his role. Bush may be interested in overturning many of Clinton's proposals in the first few days of his term, but the small steps taken towards peace should be not only respected, but followed. Clinton has set new high and low standards. The continuing peace process will depend on Bush being able to live them up - and down.
(Emily Harding's column normally appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)