Bush and the ‘bully pulpit’

If nothing else comes of it, the Annapolis initiative for Middle East peace has dramatically demonstrated that even a politically wounded president of the United States still has huge influence in world affairs.

George Bush’s approval ratings have been consistently low and his political enemies at home and abroad often have accused him of arrogantly ignoring global alliances in his Iraq and Afghanistan policy. But that skepticism about his foreign policy acumen didn’t deter the coming together of an implausible array of Middle Eastern leaders for an expression of at least hope for settling the seemingly eternal differences between Palestinians and Israelis.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid the groundwork for this rather extraordinary display of diplomatic legerdemain, but it was the power of what Theodore Roosevelt labeled the “bully pulpit” of the presidency that made it work. Few positions in modern world history have been as influential as the one Bush now holds. While success is not assured, that asset gives success a chance.

With the situation in Iraq, dare we say it, seemingly improving with the lessening of violence, Bush clearly wants his legacy to include what many think is unachievable — the establishment of a permanent, workable Palestinian state and the resolution of other thorny issues that allows that to happen. It is a dilemma that has kept the world on edge and the Holy Land in turmoil. It is a monumental task made more so by the approaching end of the president’s term. To accomplish this in the 13 months available to him, it will require diligent, almost full time attention from Rice with constant pressure on the parties by Bush himself.

Why — after seven years of virtually ignoring the pursuit of Palestinian/Israeli peace and with so little time left — the president has decided to give this issue his best shot is a matter of some conjecture. The legacy factor appears first and foremost in his decision. He wants his presidency to stand for more than fighting terrorism and invading Iraq, a cause that has damaged the nation abroad, severely reduced his approval at home and hurt his party’s chances in the next election.

Bringing about even an uneasy accord between the Jews and the Arabs would have enormous impact on the way he is regarded by history. It certainly did for Jimmy Carter, despite his other negatives. Furthermore, it might improve chances for the Republican presidential nominee next November.

There are so many ifs in all this that the immediate reaction after the meeting in Annapolis with Palestinian and Israeli leaders shaking hands cordially while representatives from Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations looked on was couched in skepticism. In the Palestinian territories and in Israel, hardliners demonstrated against the meeting and its potential. And, of course, the Iranian president denounced the entire business as a hoax and conspiracy led by the United States to deter Muslims intent on eliminating the outlaw Jewish state altogether.

That alone should reassure the rest of the world that this effort is on the right track. If anything, it seemed to indicate that radical forces on both sides are worried, perhaps even frightened, that because of the very nature of the attendance at Annapolis, a major accomplishment in itself, there might just be a chance of success. Let’s hope they are correct. It appears evident now that the world has become weary of the constant tension and seems willing to participate in bringing about some resolution.

The odds are against Bush and Rice bringing this off in the short time remaining. There are so many factors in the way. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Bush’s father all failed. In this brief moment, however, it is important to give credit where it is due. There should be applause here. Nothing is ever accomplished without a first step and that is exactly what has taken place. Now the follow up is what really matters and that will take all this president has to give.

It is unfortunate that this pursuit of peace by Bush did not come sooner, picking up where Clinton had left off. Finally he is using his bully pulpit for this most difficult task. It is the best way to use the enormous influence of the office. The world must wish him success.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)