In Tom Clancy’s novel, Executive Orders, a raw, new President, Jack Ryan, faces a deliberate provocation by the People’s Republic of China. The PRC shoots down a civilian airliner in a military exercise in the China Strait, then tries to pin the blame on the Republic of China, its bitter Taiwan-based rival. New Secretary of State Scott Adler finds himself shuttling back and forth between Taiwan and Beijing, sifting through the propaganda and the lies and trying to figure out what it all means.
On a secure telephone call to his Secretary, President Ryan gripes, “I’m inclined to support the ROC and tell the PRC to suck wind.”
“The world doesn’t work like that,” Secretary Adler replies, “and you know it.”
For the past month, ever since Secretary of State Colin Powell (the real one, remember) made his trip to the Middle East, conservative critics have been griping that the George W. Bush should stand up and tell his opponents to suck wind. The criticism ranges from measured, as when the lead editorial in National Review’s May 20 print edition calls the President’s foreign policy “disturbing” and assails its drift, to ironic and witty , in the Wall Street Journal’s widely quoted April 13 editorial, “The Bush Two-Step,” to vituperative, on the Rush Limbaugh show just about any day.
The arrows zip from other commentators, too. In the April 8 Newsweek, Howard Fineman wrote that Bush had become “Washingtonized…The administration isn’t foundering, but it has lost the laser focus its boss prefers.”
The Middle East situation certainly looks like it’s drifting. Colin Powell goes over, and gets greeted almost instantly with a suicide bomber. Yet he meets with Yasser Arafat and eats a piece of two-day-old Norwegian chocolate cake. Powell appears to find himself contradicted and undercut by statements from back home, even from the President himself. Ariel Sharon looks like he’s successfully flim-flamming the U.S., resisting “restraint” while he prosecutes his campaign against “the terrorist infrastructure.” The press worldwide keeps proclaiming Yasser Arafat a hero when in truth he looks like a complete buffoon. The President keeps saying that he will “take out” Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi regime, but nobody knows when.
Set against a recent background of galling domestic Presidential cave-ins — as it appears to the conservative wing — on such issues as campaign finance reform, steel tariffs, and the farm bill, Bush foreign policy actions look especially suspicious.
Two things need to be said here to the people who would like President Bush to tell his enemies to suck wind. First, get a grip. The world doesn’t work like that. Second, we know very little.
Truly, we know very little. We know that the administration is temporizing for some reason, vamping like a radio announcer with lots of time to fill. A number of possible reasons suggest themselves. For a while, I pursued the notion that the military needed to re-stock missiles and smart bombs. Col. David Hackworth assures me that this is not so. “Got enuff to take Iraq and Iran at the same time,” he wrote in one of his inimitable telegraphic e-mails. Col. Hackworth ascribes the apparent delay and drift to “Politics.. Palestine burning, threats of empty oil cans and Arab unity. Saddam is playing brilliant chess while Bush and dull, slow thinkers — less Rummy — are playing crude checkers.”
Views like that, absent the central figure of Saddam Hussein pulling all the strings, get expressed on all the nightly news shows. President Bush is supposedly pursuing “a political process” toward peace in the Middle East while calming down “moderate Arab allies” about a U.S. war against Iraq, which will take place “early next year.”
We know very little. Either the administration is playing a fantastically controlled Byzantine game, or it doesn’t know its heinie from a hole in the ground. Either course would look much the same.
But we can be assured of one thing: President Bush’s nature. When he thinks something is important enough, he will definitely tell his opponents to suck wind. He has already done so, in three remarkably solid and courageous decisions, what might be called “the three no’s” of Bush foreign policy: He has withdrawn the U.S. from the SALT treaty, from the Kyoto accords, and, most recently, from the International Criminal Court. These decisions mark out a sea change in the definition of U.S. sovereignty, and in the establishment of a new international position for American power.
It is also President Bush’s nature to avoid conflict whenever he can. Contrast the confirmation experiences of two cabinet nominees, John Ashcroft and Linda Chavez. Insulted and reviled (there is no other term) by his former Senate colleagues at his confirmation hearing, Ashcroft calmly turned the other cheek and talked in platitudes. He got confirmed. That’s the Bush way. Chavez held back a key piece of information about her life from the President, then stood up and fought about it, and Bush hung her out to dry. That’s the Bush way, too.
And there’s another Bush way, widely ignored: backstairs maneuvering. Example? The Republican National Committee just joined the suit filed against the Campaign Finance Reform legislation, the act the President signed to so much disappointment from his conservative backers. As Rush Limbaugh alone pointed out, the national committee of the President’s party is the President. “George Bush is suing himself!” Rush exclaimed.
We truly know very little. Unfortunately, the nature of the press is quotidian urgency. We have to write something every day. We often look foolish when we do.
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