The Bush administration, famously inclined toward clarity and bluntness in foreign affairs, did something Friday that seemed almost . . . subtle. Or even obscuring. On the brink of war, with everyone in the world rushing to the radio and TV to see if the invasion had happened or the White House blinked or the Security Council vetoed or Blair cracked, Colin Powell and President Bush marched to a podium in the Rose Garden to announce they were going away. They were going to a sunny island in the middle of the Atlantic. There they would meet with our closest allies and confer at long meetings. And Mr. Bush would be attending those meetings having on his mind his strong convictions regarding a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
This was startling, and seemed at first a non sequitur. But it’s not really. It’s a shift, and a good one.
First, the Azores meeting. It appears to be a last minisummit before America and its allies move decisively toward invasion. It is a last chance for Mr. Bush to speak in person to our close friends about how far they will and can go in backing the U.S. in the case of a U.N. Security Council veto. The meeting gives the leaders of both Britain and Spain the prominence and respect they are due as hardy allies in a time when loyalty carries a price.
Anything that shows respect and support for Tony Blair in particular is appropriate, because he has done for America what few of its own leaders outside the White House have been willing to do the past year or so, and that is put his career on the line for it. And that is, still, amazing, and the most moving moment in the history of the special relationship since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stood together for the West and against the Soviets. A former U.S. government official summed up what might be called establishment Washington feeling about Mr. Blair the other day when he told me, “I never thought I’d live to have a socialist for a hero.”
Mr. Blair can only benefit from being shown to be a real and immediate partner of the American president. If photos of a windswept Mr. Blair and a furrow-browed Mr. Bush conferring as they walk side by side along the shore will help do that, then the traveling White House should call in the photographers as soon as they arrive.
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But Mr. Bush’s remarks Friday emphasizing a new and comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace were truly startling. The administration has for a long time shied away from giving lengthy and specific attention to Israel and the Palestinians, focusing instead and understandably on the Immediates: the war on terrorism, the fighting in Afghanistan, winning support for an Iraq invasion, military planning for that invasion.
The insertion of questions of broad Mideast peace at this point—on the brink of war—is surprising, but in a number of ways it also seems wise—in part because it murks things up a bit. This is the kind of shift that leaves one’s diplomatic foes mildly taken aback and scratching their heads. And when people are scratching their heads they can’t be sticking their fingers in your eye.
Mr. Bush’s move seems to acknowledge and bow to the vague desires of the world regarding a broad new peace plan, without doing anything to blunt his arguments for removal of Saddam Hussein. Calling for an end to Israeli settlement activity, and announcing increased international support for new Palestinian representatives, is probably meant in some degree as a palliative to Europeans, who feel the United States is harsh toward Palestinians and blindly loyal to Israel. And Mr. Bush’s remarks implicitly acknowledged that Iraq is not the only piece in the Mideast puzzle, that the administration has no illusions that once Iraq is settled peace will break out. All the parties in the Mideast have their claims, and the United States does itself no harm in reminding the world it is aware of this.
Maybe most important at the moment, references to future Mideast peace moves helps people—not only the major players in the area but others—think about the future. Because it reminds them there is a future. In a world in which half the people of half the countries on the planet seem to have constant upset stomachs from war tensions, the announcement of future plans for future moves for a future peace seems a relief. So is the fact that Mr. Bush in his remarks seemed to be reminding the world that no, his administration is not actually the Washington wing of the Likud Party.
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Mr. Bush, the chief executive who went to Harvard Business School, has since Sept. 11, 2001, been businesslike in focusing on and checking off the items on his daily international agenda. This has helped him produce obvious and orderly progress. The terrorists have been and are being removed, arrested and detained; the war in Afghanistan has been prosecuted; an Iraq invasion has been put forward and argued for in the world. The idea that Mr. Bush is now adding a comprehensive Mideast peace plan to the mix seems hopeful—not a widening of fronts but a broadening of focus. And a welcome acknowledgement of the need for a new activism, and a rejection of the idea of hopelessness, in the hottest and most dangerous part, ever, of the world.