West Wing Story: More Than A War Of Words

People holding banners and signs are jockeying with tourists for the best position in front of the White House more often these days. Soon after George W. Bush took office, I'd occasionally see someone with a "Hail to the Thief" poster, referring to Election 2000. But during the height of the war in Afghanistan, I rarely saw any protesters outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Now, with war in the Middle East, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups are bringing their case to the White House.

This week the White House went to the protesters. Bush sent his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, to address tens of thousands of Israel supporters attending a rally on the Hill Monday. Wolfowitz, a pro-Israel hawk who is also Jewish, should have been a welcome messenger. But hecklers called out "no more Arafat" and booed when he spoke of "innocent Palestinians." "I think Secretary Wolfowitz did an excellent job delivering the President's message," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

But that message is unclear. As Wolfowitz was talking about Bush's "solidarity" with the protestors, Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduling another meeting with Yasir Arafat. That meeting provided no breakthrough either. Powell was preparing to head home without a cease-fire and with Israel only partially pulling out its troops. Pro-Palestinian protestors are descending on Washington this weekend. The two sides are as far apart in D.C. as they seem to be in the Middle East. Thankfully, here, it is a war of words. Any sense of public unity that Bush marshaled during the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has evaporated. In Afghanistan, the mission was clear. And so was Bush. Early on, when naysayers started talking about Afghanistan as the "next Vietnam," Bush stuck to his plan and the Taliban soon fell.

With the crisis in the Middle East, however, Bush's plan seems muddled. Even those who defend the president's approach, like Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard, acknowledge the confusion. The magazine ran a headline last week that said: "The Bush Strategy for the Middle East: Yes, He Has One." Part of the public relations problem for the White House is that the conflict itself is so complicated. But for a man whose specialty is simplifying problems for the public, Bush has been talking like a beltway bureaucrat lately.

One week he is talking about how he wants to get into "Tenet" before he gets into "Mitchell." The next week, Tenet and Mitchell are on a parallel track. I'm guessing many people don't even know what Tenet and Mitchell stand for let alone who they are. (Tenet, named for the CIA director, is a blueprint to stop the violence. Mitchell, named for the former Senator and Middle East negotiator under President Clinton, outlines steps for a political solution.)

Bush is usually not a jargony guy. He likes his briefings in plain English. He edits out those acronyms that Washington is so in love with. But lately, Bush has been throwing around "U.N. Resolution 1402"-yet another Middle East peace proposal. What's even more surprising about that is that Bush has never been one to throw himself behind the United Nations. Unfortunately, a few times he has transposed the numbers and touted U.N. Resolution 1042. A colleague of mine looked it up and it has something to do with Western Sahara.

Bush's usual black-and-white language has run up against a major gray area: the Middle East. Some people-not least of all the French-found Bush's plain-talking, "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric too simplistic anyway. Others thought that the so-called "Bush Doctrine" (that aiding terrorism makes you a terrorist) was the epitome of moral certitude. But now, in dealing with Yasir Arafat-who Bush privately believes is a terrorist-the president has had to water down his doctrine. And he has had to repeat his call for Ariel Sharon to immediately withdraw. "I meant what I said," the president had to say twice last week.

Plain talking just doesn't seem to work as well these days. Good and evil don't always seem like such clear labels either. The Israeli army is being blamed for many civilian deaths in the Jenin refugee camp. Pro-Palestinian groups want Bush to condemn what they call Israel's "state terrorism." Meanwhile, Palestinian suicide bombers keep targeting Israel's civilians. Pro-Israeli groups are happy the White House has started calling them "homicide bombers." The subtle change emphasizes the people murdered, not the murderer. While Bush may still be looking for the right language, he knows he has much more than a war of words on his hands.