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Fri Apr 19, 9:03 PM ET

By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- This was a day in the life of the president of the United States, Thursday, April 18, 2002:

The circumstances of endless savagery in the Middle East forced him to look into a television camera and tell the world that Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) is "a man of peace."

Halfway around the world, on the West Bank, the U.N. peace envoy to the Middle East, a Norwegian hardly given to flamboyant language, one of the first outsiders to inspect Mr. Sharon's recent work, looked into other cameras and said: "Horrifying, horrifying ... Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict."

In Kabul and Washington, members of the forces commanded by President Bush (news - web sites) had to face the cameras and apologize for the killing of Canadian soldiers, our best friends, by American bombs in yet another friendly-fire incident of the kind that punctuates long-distance, high-tech warfare.

On Capitol Hill, it was Democrats who commanded the cameras, exulting in easily defeating Bush's most important energy initiative, the drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Back on television, the president gave a lecture to the elected president of Venezuela, an incompetent, if charismatic, lefty named Hugo Chavez, who had been overthrown two days before with some help and cheers from the right-wingers running the middle levels of the Bush State Department. Bush warned Chavez that he better do more of what we consider the right things, or we'll get his army after him again.

Up the road in New Jersey, which happened to be one of the 13 original United States, the federal Justice Department (news - web sites) issued directives to prevent the state from releasing the names of hundreds of people who have been held in five Jersey jails without charges for as long as seven months. The order from "Justice" reads: "It would make little sense for the release of potentially sensitive information to be subject to the vagaries of the laws of various states within which these detainees are housed or maintained." Meaning no disrespect, I seem to remember we fought a revolution to protect the vagaries of state laws.

In England -- now I remember that's who we fought the revolution against -- the ambassador from our favorite oily medieval monarchy, Saudi Arabia, has published poems he wrote about "God's Martyrs," the killers of Americans and Israelis at the World Trade Center and in shopping malls and restaurants.

Back close to home, The Washington Post is beginning to publish photographs of Taliban prisoners in liberated Afghanistan (news - web sites). They are starving. Teen-agers are weighing in at less than 100 pounds. Are they bad guys? Probably. But they look like Auschwitz. What the hell is going on out there?

And meanwhile, the president's men and women are on the Hill testifying that such things as workplace injuries can more effectively be controlled by filing lawsuits than by rules and regulations. That may be true, but only if the injured are both rich and graduates of Harvard Law School.

That really is what it is like to be president of the United States. The job is so much more than one man can ever conceive of, much less "handle," because all of these things are happening at the same time. And in some way, George W. Bush, former slacker, will have to do something about each of them. You can already see that in his face. It is not blank anymore.

Take this. While the president and his secretary of state have tried (and failed) to talk some sense into the helmeted head of Prime Minister Sharon, a New York Times reporter named C.J. Chivers was out in an Israeli settlement overlooking the Palestinian city of Ramallah -- the better to snipe from -- and the Times guy asked one of the settlers about Colin Powell (news - web sites)'s mission impossible. "What Colin Powell says, I do not care," said Baruch Zekbas. "This is not Colin Powell's country."

It is not George Bush's either, but he will end up being held responsible for whether Zekbas kills or is killed. That is his job -- and I suspect he will end up giving it up or losing it in three years.

-- (very@poor.performance), April 20, 2002


Bush Stumbles With Mideast Rhetoric

Fri Apr 19, 4:15 PM ET

By RON FOURNIER, AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) - One day, President Bush (news - web sites) says he understands why Israel cracks down on Palestinians. Then he tells Israel to stop. Later still, he appears to give Israel the green light again.

The swings in Bush's Middle East rhetoric reflect the blunt-speaking style that served him well in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Dead or alive" is how he wanted Osama bin Laden (news - web sites). World leaders were "with us or against us." Americans liked what they heard; Bush's approval ratings climbed.

But the black-and-white language of the war against terrorism has not transferred well to the murky grays of Middle East policy. Once again this week, the administration's message was muddied by the president's own words.

In an Oval Office appearance Thursday, Bush defended the slow pace of Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian cities and said he understood why Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) had laid siege to Yasser Arafat (news - web sites)'s headquarters.

"I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace," Bush said.

The remarks were widely viewed as a sign that he was endorsing Israel's military action and backing off demands for an Israeli withdrawal. White House aides scoffed at those interpretations.

"I think things can be over-nuanced," press secretary Ari Fleischer (news - web sites) said Friday.

But nuance is the lifeblood of diplomacy, particularly in a hotbed like the Middle East. Bush has had a difficult time since the crisis began trying to evenly measure his rhetoric without seeming to favor one side over the other or signaling a shift in policy.

The most jarring example came March 30, when Israel stormed Arafat's compound in Ramallah and Bush said, "I can understand why the Israeli government takes the actions they take." Hours later, his administration joined a U.N. resolution denouncing the Israeli action.

"He has an amazing ability to marry himself to his audience and he's a splendid user of simple words," said Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University. "But it may be that his how should I say this? his poverty of language gets in the way when he talks off the cuff about foreign affairs."

Bush retreated to the safe confines of a prepared text April 4 to announce a new Middle East policy: He told Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank, challenged Arab leaders to stop inciting terrorists and urged Arafat anew to crack down on terrorism.

He called Arafat a failed leader who "betrayed the hopes of his people," and has stuck to that stance ever since.

Much of what he said about Israel that day had a shorter shelf life, such as his admonition that the government "show a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people."

"He is not comfortable with nuance. Nuance is a lesson he missed at Yale. Nuance is what is handed to him" by a speechwriter, said political analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

Without a script, Bush can seem hostage to political pressures of the day or to media interpretation of his off-the-cuff remarks.

On some days, Bush has strongly supported Israel's fight against terrorist bombings. Aides say he considers Sharon's efforts akin to the anti-terrorism war waged by the United States. He also fears recrimination from conservative Republicans who fervently back Israel, GOP operatives say.

Every shift toward Israel complicated the mission of Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites), who tried in vain last week to convince Palestinians that the White House is evenhanded.

The president sometimes gets pulled the other way, in the direction of the outrage by Muslims over the Israeli offensive. "I meant what I said about withdrawal without delay," he snapped on April 8.

On Friday, one day after tilting toward Israel, Bush expressed sympathy with Palestinians by saying he was concerned about "the living conditions of people throughout the region."

Often, his efforts at rhetorical balance go unnoticed.

On March 30, for example, his expression of sympathy for the Israeli cause grabbed headlines while his gentle prodding of Sharon went unnoticed: "I urge that ... the Israeli government makes sure that there is a path to peace."

Analysts say Bush may have set himself up for failure by demanding an Israeli withdrawal.

"Sharon was not about to listen," said Richard W. Murphy, a Mideast expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. "Bush is now in a position not easily explained away."

-- (Bush@babbling.buffoon), April 20, 2002.

Israelis trashed or stole the records in Palestinian schools, records of children as young as five or six. They trashed or stole census records, police records, property records, and any other records a civilized society uses to keep track of its citizens.

Setting aside one moment the Freedom Fighter argument against extensive government records, consider this: the Palestinians say that hundreds of their citizens were butchered. Without records, it's going to be hard to prove who has disappeared.

Was that an accidental effect?

-- helen (butchers@on.both.sides), April 20, 2002.

Ha Ha - Dumbya will be in the welfare line next to very@poor.performance imagine the look on Dumbya's face when he smells v@p.p's body odor!

-- (dumbya@not.president), April 20, 2002.

-- yeeehaa! (dumbya@fratbrat.fuckup), April 21, 2002.

PEACE of shit.

-- (mobilization@spring.time), April 21, 2002.

Remember a couple a months ago reading Richard Reeves saying that it was his last piece and he was retiring. Did I misread? Was it a joke? Would miss poor Richard.

-- Carlos (riffraff@cybertime.net), April 22, 2002.

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