National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Bush Embarked On Personal Diplomacy

WASHINGTON — President Bush is desperately in search of a foreign policy success on his current journey to the volatile Middle East.

He has put his best hopes on resolving the 60-year-old Palestinian-Israeli territorial dispute before he leaves office next January.

Solving that problem was the same goal sought by former President Bill Clinton in his final months in office. Clinton ended up blaming the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for not accepting a proposed bifurcated Palestine surrounded by Israeli enclaves. No Arab leader could have approved such a plan.

Bush has been praised by Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as "consistently" supportive of Israel. Bush got other kudos last week when, in an interview with two reporters from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, one reporter told him: "We can assure you that in Israel, you can be elected for the third term."

Those sentiments are not shared by Arabs in the Middle East, who have been outraged by Bush's pro-Israeli stance throughout his presidency. This outrage is particularly vivid among those who have suffered from the unilateral, unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Bush has not only taken sides in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute — he also has taken sides in the competition between different Palestinian political factions.

The president has given full support to Mahmoud Abbas — the West Bank Palestinian leader — complete with financial and military aid to fight the other Palestinian faction, Hamas. This is the group that won a landslide election in Gaza.

Since the Hamas victory, the U.S. has done everything to undermine the elected victors. Abbas, on the other hand, is more aligned with the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

Bush dented America's once-revered reputation in the Middle East with his Wild West diplomacy and invasion of Iraq.

The State Department's vaunted public diplomacy program has failed miserably in its efforts to sell the greatness of America to the Arab people. After all, they have seen the slaughter in Iraq on the televised nightly news.

In his interview with the Israeli reporters, Bush refused to be pinned down about the possibility of military action if it turns out that Iran has nuclear weapons. He kept saying: "I believe we can solve this diplomatically. . ."

Hopefully, that means Bush has abandoned his usual muscular approach to Iran as he prepares to depart the world stage. But I wonder.

Bush waxed philosophical about how he will be viewed in history. He wisely took the long view.

"First of all, I'll be dead before the true history of the Bush administration is written," he told the interviewers. "My attitude is that it is going to take a while for objective historians to realize the contributions this administration made to peace."

"I would hope that people, when they look back at this administration, would say that President Bush and his administration worked diligently to protect the American people from harm; that he recognized the threats of the 21st century. . .When he needed to be tough, he acted strong, and when he needed to have vision he understood the power of freedom to be transformative."

Bush said he doesn't worry about how he will be viewed in history, saying it is an "honor" to be president and that you betray the office "if you get so caught up in your own personal standing."

The American people may have some advice for the history books. If his protracted poor standing in public opinion is any indication, future historians will rank the Bush administration among the worst.

 c.2007 Hearst Newspapers

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