Washington: Easing up on the 'touchdowns'

Is the US administration shifting its weight from foreign to domestic affairs?

abbas and bush ap 298  (photo credit: AP)
abbas and bush ap 298
(photo credit: AP)
A glance at the passing week's calendar would not reveal any problem. The Bush administration's foreign policy seems to be in a business-as-usual mode: Taking on Syria at the UN Security Council, keeping the pressure on Iran, entertaining Israeli and Palestinian ministers and much more. If Bush is already a lame duck, as critics claim, it does not reflect on his foreign affairs schedule. But scheduling meetings and putting out fires are only a part of what constitutes the conducting of a successful foreign policy. More important is the advancing of a proactive agenda. And this is where things become more complicated for the administration. A year after being re-elected, George Bush and his administration are at an all-time low. The indictment of Lewis ("Scooter") Libby last Friday on charges related to the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent was only the last straw. The president also has had to struggle with a significant drop in public support for the war in Iraq, with the negative response to his administration's poor and late response to hurricane Katrina, with raising gas prices and with investigations of the conduct of Republican House and Senate leaders. Add to that the Supreme Court fiasco with Harriet Miers and the picture is one of an administration so busy with its daily survival that it is almost impossible to see how Bush or his aids could have the time or the energy actually to run the world. Yet diplomats dealing with the Middle East, who held meetings this week with US officials, say they did not sense any change in the commitment or level of engagement of the administration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US is working full-force to reach a resolution on the Rafah crossing, to push forward the humanitarian issue in the territories and to prevent any escalation that might occur as a result of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli targeted killings. The same is true where other aims of the administration are concerned - such as moving forward with the Iraq agenda, dealing with North Korea or marinating working relations with Europe. The short-term foreign policy of the administration is not affected in any sense by the internal crises the administration is undergoing, and the mid-level officials who run the show on a daily basis are keeping up their work just as they did before. But what will happen when the personal intervention of the president is required? What if there is a need for top-level diplomacy, for new initiatives? Is the Bush administration up to that? Recent history suggests that the answer is positive. Former president Bill Clinton, while he was up to his neck in the Monica Lewinsky affair, still led the US to one of it boldest peace initiatives in Camp David, and though critics may say that if he had paid more attention to the intricacy of the conflict he might have understood that his initiative was useless, it is proof that even a president under threat of impeachment can take the time to focus on a foreign policy issue. True, it might have been the case that taking on the Israeli-Palestinian issue was Clinton's way of avoiding the trouble inside his White House. In The New York Times this week, former Reagan aid Ken Duberstein, who worked on reviving the administration after the Iran-Contra crisis of the mid-1980s, offered a "prescription for change" that could save Bush's presidency. According to Duberstein, Bush should bring in new advisers, and more important, create a new agenda that addresses issues he hasn't dealt with before. If Bush adopts this advice, he might decide to shift his weight from foreign to domestic affairs. With 150,000 troops in Iraq, he will not be able to give up foreign policy altogether, but he may ease the pressure on democracy issues in the Arab world and on solving the Middle East conflict. A first signal that this has begun to happen could have been detected in Bush's first acknowledgment - during Mahmoud Abbas's visit to Washington - that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not reach a solution before he leaves office in three years. Even without making a strategic decision to shift the focus of the administration to the domestic arena, the current Bush administration is in many ways different from the one that came to power five years ago. The resignation of Scooter Libby last week symbolizes the weakening of the neoconservative hold on US foreign policy. While the first term was dominated by individuals such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith in the Pentagon and others, such as Libby himself in the White House, in the second term, many of the neocons are simply gone. Each went his own way, some willingly, some forced by circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that Bush is not surrounded any longer by advisers who believe in broadening America's role in the world and making it in charge of spreading democracy and of overthrowing dictatorships. Syria and Iran are cases in point. The variety of options that Bush of 2005 has in his arsenal to deal with these regimes is significantly poorer than that of Bush of 2001, when he set out to tackle Iraq, Afghanistan, the international community and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today's Bush is much more careful in dealing with overseas hotspots and is growing fonder of the old-fashioned approach that includes diplomacy, international cooperation and non-military pressure. He did not back down from the commitment to help democracy and fight despotism, but his way of executing this policy is now much more subtle. What does this mean for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? This week's meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and leaders of the Israel Policy Forum may help answer the question. When Rice was asked about the administration's expectations from the Israeli-Palestinian track, she drew an analogy from her favorite sport - football. "We are not looking for any touchdowns," she said. "We only want first-downs." In other words, the US administration is not aiming at any major breakthrough right now; all they want is incremental progress, step by step, in the right direction. With expectations set at such a low level, it is clear that the internal upheaval inside the administration will not have much of an effect on the region's issues. After all, the intervention of the president and his senior staff is needed only for touchdowns. The-first downs can be taken care of by the lower echelons.