Michael Winship: George Bush, at sea in the desert
President Bush’s recent speech before the Knesset, ostensibly to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, was not only a display of political cynicism at its worst — using a diplomatic occasion to perpetrate an unseemly attack on Barack Obama — but a microcosm for the disregard with which the president holds the rest of the world. And vice versa.
Events in the Middle East over the past two weeks are all the proof you need. Here’s what the president said: "Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.
"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
Although officially President Bush denied that he was talking about Obama — and the Democrat’s stated willingness to talk with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — John Yang at NBC News reported, "Privately, White House officials said the shoe fits the Democratic front-runner."
American historian Brian P. Murphy told the Boston Globe, "I can't imagine there's a precedent for a sitting president to go before the legislative body of a foreign government and launch a political attack on a major-party nominee running to succeed him."
It was a shabby performance in an improper, overseas forum. He didn’t care. Of course the reference to appeasement was an attempt to smear by making a comparison between Sen. Obama and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938. Last summer Bush read the book "Troublesome Young Men," an account of how Winston Churchill and fellow Conservatives fought back against Chamberlain’s submission to the Nazis.
But ironically, as the book’s author, Lynne Olson, pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, it’s the appeaser and Bush who have more in common than the president may care to know.
"Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders," she wrote. "... He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise."
President Bush’s own continuing heedlessness was again highlighted just a couple of days after the Knesset speech when he delivered a chastising lecture on democracy to Arab nations at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. "Obtuse" is how a Boston Globe editorial described it.
"Bush seemed oblivious to the loss of respect for the United States that his Mideast misadventures have caused in the region."
Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey echoed the Globe’s dismay: "Looking at Iraq, the peace process, Lebanon, the growing strength of Iran, the continued deterioration of Somalia, the potential disintegration of Sudan, not to mention the vast decline in the value of the dollar and the faltering global economy, the participants at the forum knew only too well they were halfway to hell on roads paved with George W. Bush's good intentions."
So as Bush thoughtlessly careens into the last months of his presidency, a good portion of the rest of the world has decided it can spin on quite well without him. Even Israel.
Almost as if everyone waited until President Bush had left the region and the coast was clear, there was immediately a surprise announcement of Turkey brokering indirect talks between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights. And now Qatar has brokered a political power-sharing deal between the Lebanese government and the Hezbollah Shiite militia that may keep the country from exploding in another war. The United
States has opposed both efforts.
Such defiance isn’t just because George Bush is a lame duck. So bereft is his administration’s Middle East policy of initiative or consistent purpose that the United States has lost what little credibility it had left.
It’s becoming clearer, as Egyptian newspaper editor and human rights activist Hisham Qassem says, "America is neither loved nor feared."
Instead, we’re the lumbering, addled giant, aimlessly kicking desert sand, irritating the world instead of leading it.
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal," which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.