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The Soft Brigandry of Low Aspirations
Tim Francis-Wright

While the West Bank seethes with bullets, bombs, and bile, the United States government does little to broker a peace. In a world with more nuclear weapons states than ever, the United States government has renounced the ABM treaty, the treaty that was the basis for a slew of treaties on the 1980s and 1990s. It is ignoring decades of diplomatic successes in the Middle East and elsewhere, because its moral compass guides only its war on terrorism.

The Bush administration is more concerned with re-election and the standing of the president in opinion polls than with the proper use of diplomacy. In exchange for short-term popularity, it is squandering America's traditional role of mediator of last resort.

The Middle East

Peace in the Middle East has been a goal of American presidents from Truman through Clinton. For the Bush administration, the sense of urgency is absent. History, however, tells us that American urgency can and does translate into real peace. In 1978, only five years after full-fledged war between Israel and Egypt, Jimmy Carter convinced their leaders to forge a long-lasting peace. The cost to America of the Camp David accord includes billions of dollars of annual aid to Israel and Egypt, but the money is well spent. War between these former implacable enemies is almost unthinkable today.

The success of the Carter administration clearly inspired the Clinton administration. The United States had key roles in talks between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Palestine. At several points, most recently in February 2000, the Israeli government and the PLO were extremely close to agreements that would cede Israeli control of most of the West Bank in exchange for peace. But the Carter administration was not the only inspiration for Bill Clinton and his administration: George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, spent many months convincing Israel and the PLO to begin good-faith negotiations, negotiations that helped reduce the intensity of an undeclared war.

George W. Bush has turned his back not only on the activism of his predecessor, but also on the activism of his father. When Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer excoriated the Clinton administration for aspiring too hard for peace between Israel and Palestine, he spoke volumes about the Bush administration and its conduct of foreign policy. The leaders of the Bush administration prefer war between Israel and Palestine to the uncertain outcome of peace negotiations. They prefer to leave Ariel Sharon unfettered in his actions against the PLO. They prefer to abdicate the established American role as a respected (if not universally trusted) mediator.

Nuclear Weapons

The last several decades have seen a series of American presidents who have ultimately subscribed to the idea that controlling the spread and number of nuclear weapons is itself a worthy aim. From Kennedy through Clinton, each president sought to build on the successes of his predecessors. President Bush, however, has announced that the United States will withdraw from the ABM Treaty and may renounce its signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Bush is not the only president, of course, to find arms control agreements restrictive, or even annoying. He is the first, however, to renounce these treaties. Ronald Reagan, who dubbed the the Soviet Union an "evil empire," still signed, near the end of his presidency, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. That pact eliminated a whole category of weapons that strained Soviet-American relations. His successor, George H. W. Bush, built on these successes with the two START treaties, which imposed unprecedented limitations on the main nuclear arsenals of the two countries. Both Republican presidents realized the benefits of negotiating with their main adversaries about issues that transcended politics.

Even Richard Nixon, whose own words have revealed him to be as venal, bitter, and twisted as his harshest critics ever imagined, saw the need to defuse the arms race with the Soviet Union. The ABM Treaty and the first of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties in 1972 proved to the nations of the world that the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth cared about the consequences of their actions. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the nuclear weapons states are obligated to eventual disarmament. Nixon and his successors understood that the United States had an obligation to every country on the planet.

George W. Bush has declared nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, not just to be "evil" but also to be the reason for possible actions against Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. At the same time, however, his administration has proposed in its Nuclear Posture Review to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Such a proposal is inherently self-defeating. If these weapons have uses on most battlefields, then the countries that try to develop or acquire them can claim rational reasons for their aspirations. Furthermore, the actions of the administration since 11 September show an appalling lack of consistency with respect to weapons of mass destruction. The three most recent states to develop nuclear weapons—Israel, India, and Pakistan—are all military allies of the United States. Since the American military started bombing in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has removed sanctions that punished India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests in 1998. And China, the country that guided and supplied the Pakistani nuclear program, is nowhere to be found on the "axis of evil."

None of the countries in the axis of evil have any real affinity for the United States. But Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have little affinity for one another: they hardly make an axis. But expanding the focus of the war on terrorism from the shadowing visage of Osama bin Laden to three potential enemies of the United States offers George W. Bush a chance to further the country's war footing in ways that his father could not.

George W. Bush learned from his father that a wartime president facing an unpalatable enemy has a huge political advantage. Once his father was done prosecuting the Gulf War, his standing in the opinion polls declined. His moves for peace in Israel and his arms control treaties with the Soviet Union may have helped his historical standing, but they did not turn into votes in the 1992 election. Accordingly, Bush the Younger is not allowing his administration to be distracted by sideshows like a war in Palestine, or by needless constraints like multilateral arms control agreements.

Every president—liberal, moderate, and conservative—has committed the United States to act morally in times of crisis. But the Bush administration confines its moral imperative to its nebulous and open-ended war on terrorism. It has stolen the American resolve to adhere to international agreements, to prevent needless wars, and the mediate against conflicts. Most presidents have presidential egos: they aspire to greatness. When a president's aspirations match the needs of the country, its allies, and the world, then all benefit. When his aspirations stop with the next election, then the country, its allies, and the world are all poorer.

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