Editor's Notes: In the Oval Office, the sun is shining

The way Bush tells it, he's the trusted, powerful friend doggedly seeking to get us what we've told him we require.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Rain was pouring down on Washington, DC, on Monday morning. But as we walked through the corridors of the White House, from the press briefing room toward the Oval Office, it brightened outside. And by the time we were being greeted by George W. Bush, the sun was breaking through. Appropriately so, for this president. The Oval Office is a deliberately sunny place. The president drew our attention to the cheerful yellow circular rug chosen to dominate the small room. Although his wife, Laura, made the final decisions in these matters, he said lightly, the color reflected the optimism he brought to work each morning. It's heady to interview the leader of the free world in the room where much that will determine the current of global affairs takes shape. But Bush is a welcoming host, certainly possessed of a sunny disposition, and, indeed, an optimist too - defiantly so. Surprisingly, with time at a premium, the president chose to speak at considerable length off-the-record during our interview. More unusually still, the comments he then made were not the stuff of particular secrecy and sensitivity that he might understandably not want widely reported. Rather, he expounded on his world view, the moral imperatives that he said had driven his presidency. Many of these off-the-record comments were similar to remarks he has made publicly and that he restated in speeches during his visit to Israel this week, relating to the centrality in his outlook of the divinely bestowed gift of freedom, and the obligation of the president of the United States to protect and expand that freedom around the world. His critics would scoff, but Bush sees himself as a man of principle, a president who, as he said in remarks that were intended for publication during our interview, has resisted the impulse to pursue protectionism and isolationism and the better domestic popularity ratings that more insular and parochial policies might have achieved for his presidency. And, plainly, he wants this to be more widely appreciated. He claimed a few times that he wasn't bothered about his legacy, that he wasn't "running for the Nobel Peace Prize," and that he'd be "long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." Yet he also spoke of the way he hoped history would come to perceive him. He wanted to believe that Israelis, when they thought about his role, would conclude that "if vision accounts for anything, he has got a vision of how to deal with the extremists and radicals." And when that "smart person" finally did figure out the key achievements of his White House years, he said, "one of them has got to be, he clearly saw the threat and he did something about it." Bush insisted his presidency was far from over, that he'd be working right up until the last day, that there was no changing-of-the-guard mindset in his White House. But as his two-term tenure enters its final months, there's no escaping the question of how effectively Bush has furthered his principles - admirable principles, as regards the challenge of Islamic extremism - particularly given the familiar truism about Israel catching a cold when America sneezes. THE WAY leaders do, Bush has constructed an "everything's going just the way I planned it" conception. The trouble is that this serves to insulate him from the less gratifying global developments that he has failed to thwart or that have directly flowed from his sunny office. This in turn, one fears, produces a presidency stubbornly declaring that things aren't too bad, while not doing enough to make them better. Bush insisted in our interview that the United States is succeeding in Iraq. And that, he asserted, was only one of several reasons why Israel is much better off for the Bush years. Yet this and other assertions he made were sometimes difficult to reconcile with reality as we know it. For instance, he was adamant that the elections that gave Hamas its Palestinian parliamentary majority were a good thing, in principle, and that he had been right to impose the vote on a very unhappy Mahmoud Abbas and a deeply wary Israel. "One of the reasons I supported the elections in Gaza," said Bush, was "because there had to be a moment for everybody to be able to express themselves, and the [Palestinian voters'] expression, by the way, was, 'We're sick and tired of corrupt government. We were tired of Arafat's false promises; we want to live in peace.'" Certainly, much of the backing for Hamas was in protest against Fatah's Arafat-led corruption. But a "vote for peace"? Bush went on to acknowledge that "what they got was a government of war," and that "the truth is Hamas is not a passive political party trying to embetter people's lives; they are trying to destroy Israel." But then he again articulated a narrative somewhat at odds with the facts on the ground, declaring that "people now see the truth" about Hamas, and that, in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and amid the current Annapolis negotiations, "all of a sudden the Palestinians say, well, maybe there is a better future for us." He sounded abjectly, unpresidentially helpless on Lebanon, which is threatening to collapse before our eyes into a full-fledged Iranian client-state. "The Lebanese democracy is vital for a peaceful Middle East, it's a part of the vision," he declared ringingly. But what exactly is he planning to do to salvage that democracy and thwart Hizbullah? "I'd advise the world backing [Prime Minister] Saniora," said the president. "He's a good guy. He's tough and he's in a really tough situation. I admire him. And we're doing that by support of the Lebanese armed forces. We believe that he needs to have a modern force behind him that's capable of responding... See, I have found you can't make people have courage. It's a wellspring inside their soul. But you can support courageous people. And so that's our attitude." If you were the embattled Lebanese prime minister, with Hizbullah at your throat, would that constitute the reassurance you need? Most troubling, however, were the president's musings on Iran, which he described as "the biggest long-term threat to peace in the Middle East." It was the Israeli leadership's declared belief, until last year, that Bush would deal with Iran - one way or another, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was wont to say. But, no, Bush will not deal with Iran. He has not been able to galvanize concerted international economic pressure. And in case he was contemplating it, his own security chiefs' National Intelligence Estimate, by misrepresenting the status of the Iranian nuclear program, stripped him of any justification for military intervention. So while the president paid lip service to the notion that "all options are on the table," he twice avoided an unequivocal answer when I asked him whether the Iranian nuclear program would be thwarted by the time he stepped down. The best he could manage was to declare that "what definitely will be done" before the end of the presidency is to put in place "a structure on how to deal with this - to try to resolve this diplomatically; in other words, sanctions, pressures, financial sanctions; a history of pressure that will serve as a framework to make sure other countries are involved. As I told you, all options are on the table." The mullahs must be quaking. IN THE display of large color photographs of various visiting world leaders arrayed outside the presidential offices, a snap of Bush with Olmert is prominent - "an honest guy," according to the president - and below it, a picture of the president with Abbas. Before we went in for our interview, one of the escorts told us we'd find Bush to be highly charismatic. Perhaps such charisma, I briefly mused, held the key to unifying the two photographic images. Perhaps sheer force of presidential personality would bridge the relentlessly unresolvable differences between Israel, now with its police-preoccupied prime minister, and a Palestinian Authority that can barely govern its home city of Ramallah. His position obviously heightens the effect, but George W. Bush, if not exactly highly charismatic, is charming. Newly returned from his daughter's wedding, he exuded bonhomie, smiled, embraced, even winked at me a couple of times when he was saying something amusing. He took our questions seriously, and though he sometimes seemed to be grappling to find the right words, he was not the incoherent performer he can be at press conferences. He underlined his arguments with expansive gestures - spreading his hands wide, leaning forward with arms on knees, wagging a finger to make a point, running hands through grayed hair as he listened. The folksiness of his language was striking: "People say to me, aren't you a little slow on the draw? Where have you been, man?" he observed, when defending himself against the charge that his focus on our conflict has come too late. But that easy conversational style, too, carries a certain charm - the references to tough guys and honest guys (from a president who seems to want to be one of the guys), his remark that he was "fired up" answering our questions, the use of what he called an "old Texan phrase" about ensuring the key players "stay hitched" to the diplomatic process. "Hitched to the wagon," he explained. "Metaphorical." But as for the substance, he said nothing to back up his insistent optimism that the Palestinian leadership is ready and willing to take viable positions for an accommodation. He offered no basis for his conviction that a framework accord can be signed this year. If anything, he seemed to be focused on just one aspect of any accord - agreement on borders - in the apparent, improbable new hope that progress here will yield breakthroughs on everything from settlements, to Jerusalem, to the Israel-killing Palestinian demand for a refugee "right of return." Israel has rightly regarded Bush as a friend who fundamentally empathizes with the legitimacy of our sovereignty and our struggle to maintain it. His heart is emphatically in the right place. Acting on conviction, he broke international ranks when severing the US relationship with the despicable, duplicitous Yasser Arafat, he confronted Saddam Hussein, and he internalized the gravity of the threat to the free world embodied by Islamic extremism and its key state sponsor Iran. But ultimately, as he said himself, he will be judged not only by how clearly he saw the threats to human freedoms, but by how effectively he moved to protect those freedoms. And Israel's fate is inextricably entwined in the judgment. We ourselves, of course, must always bear the most direct responsibility for our destiny. And we can certainly not complain about being prodded by the Bush administration to make concessions for the sake of a negotiated compromise with the Palestinians. For it is our prime ministers who have told the president that we vitally need that accommodation to survive, our prime ministers who persuaded this willing friend of the imperative. As he put it during our interview, one of the "interesting" developments to have occurred during his presidency was "the emergence of thought in Israel that the only way to exist in the long term is for there to be a Palestinian state. And it's a powerful idea... I believe in powerful ideas, and I believe with US help that the negotiators can come up with the definition of a state." The way Bush tells it, he's the trusted, powerful friend doggedly seeking to get us what we've told him we require to maintain our sovereign Jewish existence. "All I tried to do is weigh in and add some legitimacy to the two-state solution, having been the first president to articulate it," he said. "I feel... it's the only solution. I don't see how, I just don't see how, the Middle East evolves without a Palestinian state that's free and democratic." But looming ever larger in the path of moderation and compromise is Iran. And Iran, now asserting increasing control and influence on our northern and southern borders, and waiting for its opportunity to do the same on the east, has been emboldened by America's handling of Iraq. And coming to regard Bush's America as a paper tiger, it has felt capable of shrugging off US-led objections to its steady, even serene, journey to a nuclear weapon. "I would hope that history would say, from everybody's perspective, including the Israeli perspective, that this is a guy who clearly saw the world the way it is," the president said at the tail end of our interview. "Ideological conflicts require a combination of force and vision in order to marginalize and defeat." Has George W. Bush managed to win people over to his self-imposed quest for a freer world? Can the 43rd US president fairly claim to have effectively marshalled America's extraordinary power and influence to marginalize those he called "the haters and the people of dark vision"? He'd like to think so. But when we left the White House, it was raining again.