Warning Signals

"Do something!" That's the message President Bush was getting about the Middle East from friends, critics, members of Congress, Europeans, and Arabs—but not from the American public. A Gallup Poll taken the day before Bush announced his decision to send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region asked Americans whether they wanted the president to become more involved in the conflict. A majority (55 percent) did not. Did they want the United States to develop a peace plan of its own? Again, a majority (58 percent) didn't.

Do Americans even take sides in this conflict? By a huge margin (62 to 17 percent), the public says that Palestinian actions are not justified. But only a narrow plurality (44 to 34 percent) considers Israeli actions justified. Most Americans condemn the Palestinians but do not endorse Israel's response.

The American people favor one policy above all others in the Middle East: caution. Because there has been little public pressure, something else has to explain Bush's decision to become more engaged in the conflict.

There was a political struggle in Washington over his decision. On one side, a potent array of influential conservatives urged Bush to stand firmly with Israel. Thirty-two leading conservative intellectuals, including Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, and Richard Perle, wrote Bush a letter saying, "You have declared war on international terrorism, Mr. President. Israel is fighting the same war."

When Bush said on March 30, "I fully understand Israel's need to defend herself. I respect that," conservatives thought that they were winning. "He is standing solidly with Israel," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said on April 3. "And he is resisting the constant calls to force Israel back to the negotiating table, where they will be pressured to grant concessions to terrorists."

But there was an influential voice on the other side. Powell had said, "I am prepared to go anywhere, anytime, when it serves a useful purpose."

Bush has been extremely critical of Yasir Arafat. But when offered the opportunity to ostracize the Palestinian leader as a terrorist, the president declined, saying, "Chairman Arafat has agreed to a peace process." That's when U.S. conservatives began to worry. National Review Editor Rich Lowry charged that the Bush administration had "lost the clarity of the Bush doctrine, which is that if you harbor and encourage terrorism, you're a terrorist."

Powell begged to differ: "Chairman Arafat still has a legitimate role within the Palestinian movement, and we think at this point, it's best to deal with him in that role."

But conservatives warned Bush, "It is critical that negotiations not be the product of terrorism or conducted under the threat of terrorist attack." Again, Powell begged to differ, saying, "The Palestinian people have to see that there is a political process and not just a cease-fire and security process.... A political process that we will get involved in early on, through negotiations, which will lead quickly to a Palestinian state."

The next day, Bush sent a message to the Palestinians: "Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian case. To the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state." The implication: If you give up terror, you'll get your state. Is that negotiating with terrorists? Many Israelis and U.S. conservatives would say yes.

Bush called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian-controlled areas and halt settlement activity. What about the U.S. conservatives' argument that Israel is acting as a surrogate for this country, fighting terrorists on the Palestinian front just as the United States is fighting them in Afghanistan?

Most Americans don't see it that way. In the Gallup Poll, a majority (54 to 35 percent) said that Israel's actions were making it harder for the United States to win the war on terrorism. The public sees Israel as endangering the support of friendly Arab nations and provoking outrage all over the Muslim world.

So Bush declared a winner in the battle of Washington. He announced, "I have decided to send Secretary of State Powell to the region ... to seek broad international support for the vision that I've outlined." Why did Powell prevail over the conservatives? Start with the fact that he had the entire international community on his side, including Arab regimes—such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—whose support will be crucial when the United States decides to go after Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Plus, gasoline prices have been soaring in the last two weeks. Rising energy costs could provoke inflation, choke off the economic recovery, and bring the Middle East crisis home to Americans.

Right now, this country is in a standoff over Bush's energy policy. The administration argues that the only way the United States is going to achieve energy independence is with more production. Dig we must, even in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, goes that argument. Get serious, Democrats respond; there is no way that this country, with only 3 percent of the world's proven oil supplies, can produce enough oil to satisfy its needs.

Since the oil crises of 1970s, the United States has become more dependent on imported oil. Bush's skill in managing the Middle East conflict will be tested at home as well as overseas—first at the pumps here and eventually at the polls.