YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bush's Mideast Flexibility Could Serve His Domestic Agenda Too


President Bush's decision to send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the Middle East last week has inspired both loud praise and quiet gloating. Most analysts welcome the initiative. But critics see it as a tacit admission that Bush's initial decision to disengage from the region was a mistake.

That's a common reflex in Washington--and a destructive one. When a politician changes position, the capital's general assumption is that there are only two possible explanations. One is political opportunism. The other is that the initial position was wrong to begin with. Measured against those yardsticks, change almost always looks like a sign of weakness.

It shouldn't be. Politicians can also change positions because they learn from experience. Or because they are confronting changing conditions. Indeed, of all the skills a president needs to succeed, the ability to adapt to new circumstances may be the most often overlooked.

Effective presidents have uniformly understood this. Franklin D. Roosevelt relentlessly reversed course in the search for a cure to the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan condemned the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," then seized the opportunities for new agreements Mikhail S. Gorbachev presented. After the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton revived his presidency and reshaped the domestic debate by embracing the balanced budget he had earlier resisted.

Maybe the best example of presidential flexibility is Abraham Lincoln. No one would accuse Lincoln of lacking conviction. But it was Lincoln, during the Civil War, who said: "I am controlled by events. My policy is to have no policy."

Lincoln didn't mean he had no goals. He was steered by a single overriding principle: preserving the Union while preventing the spread of slavery. But, as events demanded, he adjusted the tactics he employed toward that end, especially on the momentous decision of when and where to emancipate slaves.

Lincoln's brilliant improvisation was the paramount example of a persistent truth. "Anyone who is going to be even halfway effective in the presidency is going to have to be someone with a pragmatic outlook," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "That doesn't mean you should be unprincipled. But you have to understand that reality is always challenging whatever principles or preconceptions you bring to office. You can't sit back and wait until the world comes around to the way you would like it to look."

Which brings us back to Bush and the Middle East. Bush certainly arrived in office with a preconception: Under Clinton, the U.S. had been too heavily involved in mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians. It's reasonable to debate whether that was the right decision at the time.

In Bush's defense were signs Clinton's intervention had reached an impasse after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected the Camp David peace offer in 2000. (Even some former Clintonites share that view.) On the other side was the historical evidence that without sustained U.S. pressure, the two sides tend toward their worst instincts. On balance, historians are likely to side with Bush's critics.

But for Bush to change course now doesn't require him to agree he was wrong then. Whatever the merits of his original disengagement, his decision to dispatch Powell suggests that he is adjusting to changed circumstances--the radically increased level of violence in the conflict--and learning from experience, after watching how conditions deteriorated without American involvement. That should be exactly what America wants in a president.

"I don't think what he is doing now entails any act of self-repudiation; it is adapting to a new circumstance," says Will Marshall, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

It's hardly inconceivable that after dispatching Powell, events may again force Bush to tilt the dial back in support of Israeli military action. Or to vacillate between talking with Arafat and promoting other Palestinian leadership. Or even to reconsider his reluctance to deploy American troops as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to police any agreement that is ultimately reached. No one can realistically expect Bush today to have a road map that will take the parties all the way to peace (or just calm). What he needs is a commitment to stay with the journey, even if that means occasionally changing course.

If anything, America would probably be better off if Bush was willing to adapt to new circumstances more often. Especially on domestic issues, Bush usually resists changing his views until it is unavoidable, and sometimes he doesn't move then.

Los Angeles Times Articles