The Un-Decider

Pres­id­ent Bush meets with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ar­i­el Shar­on in the Oval Of­fice of the White House.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Im­ages
Zach C. Cohen
Add to Briefcase
Zach C. Cohen
Dec. 11, 2014, 6:31 a.m.

How do peace pro­cesses fail? In his new book, In­de­cision Points: George W. Bush and the Is­raeli-Palestini­an Con­flict (Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy Press, Decem­ber 2014), Daniel E. Zough­bie uses the former pres­id­ent’s un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to end the vi­ol­ence in the re­gion as a case study. Zough­bie is a postdoc­tor­al fel­low at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley), but he does not write this ac­count from an ivory tower. Through in­ter­views with more than 40 Amer­ic­an and for­eign dig­nit­ar­ies and thought lead­ers—in­clud­ing former Sec­ret­ar­ies of State Colin Pow­ell and Con­doleezza Rice, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, former Palestini­an Prime Min­is­ter Salam Fayy­ad, and former U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Kofi An­nan—Zough­bie me­tic­u­lously maps the White House’s chan­ging ap­proaches to­ward Is­rael and the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies, while ex­amin­ing the polit­ic­al cross­winds that buf­feted Pres­id­ent Bush. In the pro­cess, he finds a pat­tern of mis­takes that fu­ture ad­min­is­tra­tions would do well to avoid.

The fun­da­ment­al flaw in the Bush peace ini­ti­at­ives, Zough­bie ar­gues, was in­con­sist­ency. Over time, Bush went from a hands-off stance—which was a ma­jor change from the fe­ver­ish peace ef­forts of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s second term—to what Zough­bie calls the “se­quence” ap­proach, which de­man­ded that Palestini­ans meet pre­con­di­tions be­fore Is­rael would be ex­pec­ted to con­cede any ground. Then the strategy shif­ted again, from se­quen­tial­ism to “par­al­lel­ism,” which re­quired con­cur­rent com­prom­ises from both sides. These va­cil­la­tions con­tin­ued un­til the end of Bush’s pres­id­ency.

At first, Bush put little fo­cus on the con­flict. But Rice tells the au­thor that Bush’s opin­ion of Yasir Ara­fat quickly soured in 2001, as the Palestini­an Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­iz­a­tion chair­man be­haved more bel­li­ger­ently; that, she says, laid the ground­work for the pro-Is­rael policy that emerged after the 9/11 at­tacks changed the pres­id­ent’s world­view. (Bush gives his own ac­count of the pro­cess in his auto­bi­o­graphy, De­cision Points, the title of which ap­par­ently in­spired Zough­bie’s.) Along with Ir­aq, Is­rael and the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies would be­come part of the “free­dom agenda,” de­signed to bring peace to the wider Middle East through a demo­crat­ic dom­ino ef­fect. Bush would now pur­sue a se­quen­tial ap­proach: In a Rose Garden speech in June 2002, the pres­id­ent de­man­ded that Ara­fat resign, and that the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies hold elec­tions; un­til that happened, he de­clared, Is­rael should con­cede noth­ing.

Zough­bie ar­gues that this de­clar­a­tion doomed Bush’s ef­forts when he later ad­voc­ated par­al­lel re­con­cili­ation between Is­raeli and Palestini­an lead­ers. The much-touted “Road Map for Peace,” fi­nal­ized in April 2003, called on all in­volved parties—in­clud­ing the United States, Rus­sia, and oth­er peace brokers—to make cer­tain con­ces­sions sim­ul­tan­eously over the fol­low­ing few years. Palestini­ans would curb ter­ror­ism, and Is­rael­is would dis­mantle set­tle­ments in the West Bank. But Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ters Ar­i­el Shar­on and Ehud Olmert pushed back, con­stantly cit­ing Bush’s 2002 speech as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for delay­ing the Road Map’s im­ple­ment­a­tion; the Palestini­ans, they in­sisted, had to first do what Bush had said they must. Amer­ica lost its cred­ib­il­ity as a mod­er­at­or.

Zough­bie char­ac­ter­izes Bush’s second-term peace ef­forts as a series of mis­cal­cu­la­tions and missed op­por­tun­it­ies. The pres­id­ent, he writes, “con­tin­ued to va­cil­late back and forth between the Rose Garden vis­ion of se­quence and the Road Map’s vis­ion of par­al­lel­ism.” Be­cause Bush “con­fused” the two ap­proaches, Zough­bie says, and “failed to come down on one side or the oth­er, the situ­ation was left in ut­ter dis­ar­ray.”

Even without the stra­tegic con­fu­sion, however, Bush’s bids for peace faced con­sid­er­able obstacles. Ara­fat and Shar­on shared an un­dy­ing mu­tu­al dis­trust. Mean­while, at home, con­ser­vat­ives were deeply di­vided. There were real­ists like Pow­ell; neo­con­ser­vat­ives like Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld; and “theo­con­ser­vat­ives” who de­man­ded com­plete Is­raeli own­er­ship of the land in or­der to ful­fill bib­lic­al proph­ecy. Con­gress, for its part, was pres­sur­ing Bush to take more con­ser­vat­ive, or pro-Is­rael, po­s­i­tions.

Bush’s de­fend­ers can, and will, as­sert that peace was out of reach un­til the po­lar­iz­ing Ara­fat and Shar­on left the stage. Whatever the truth of that, this study of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eight years of fu­til­ity demon­strates how shifts in Amer­ic­an strategy can de­rail any chance of pro­gress in the Middle East. Pres­id­ent Obama’s suc­cessor will, ac­cord­ingly, have to take the cur­rent policy (which is akin to par­al­lel­ism) in­to ac­count as he or she de­cides on a stra­tegic ap­proach to a con­flict that of­ten seems un­resolv­able.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Says He Signed Order Recommending Ban on Bump Stocks
6 hours ago
Sessions Forms Cyber Task Force
7 hours ago
NCAA Strips Louisville of Basketball Championship
8 hours ago

The N.C.A.A. "upheld penalties against Louisville’s men’s basketball program related to a sex scandal involving players, recruits and prostitutes, and ordered the university to forfeit dozens of victories, including its 2013 national championship." Andre McGee, a former Louisville player serving on the basketball staff in 2013, solicited an escort service that he used to entertain recruits in an on-campus dormitory. Louisville officials called the decision "wrong." It is the first time the N.C.A.A. has stripped a program of the national championship.

Hiring of Deportation Officers Drops Under Trump
11 hours ago

"The Trump administration is failing to hire law enforcement personnel to enforce immigration laws despite a significant push to do so, according to new Homeland Security Department documents. The hiring of new deportation officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped in half to just 371 total in 2017, according to information provided to potential vendors for a contract to help ICE boost hiring."

Mueller Indicts Attorney for Making False Statements About Gates
12 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.