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Amateur Night in Ramallah
April 17, 2002
By Jeff Ritchie

As the past few weeks have plainly indicated, the grownups may be back in charge at the White House, but they are grownups who, at least on foreign policy matters, are a pack of gibbering idiots. From the Bush Administration's abandoning several important international treaties to its shocking ineptitude in dealing with Muslin nations, an unbiased observer can't help but wonder, "Who voted for this guy?"

First there came months of silence by the Bush Administration regarding the intensifying violence in the Middle East. As anyone with even a passing understanding of the region's politics would know, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem eighteen months ago was bound to incite a reaction - and a violent one at that - from Palestinian extremists who are beyond the control of Yassir Arafat.

Rather than continue the Clinton Administration's continuous diplomacy efforts to diffuse the situation, the Bush Administration simply walked away from the table. While the Vice President was meeting secretly with ambassadors from the oil industry, the largest oil-producing region in the world was about to be plunged into chaos. Stunning in its irresponsibility, this Administration's lack of a clear foreign policy continues to take on an impressive body count.

The nadir came when officials from the European Union announced in early April that the United States should "step aside" as the chief peace broker in the region, and that the Bush Administration's policies were no longer part of the solution. It was a historic and stunning rebuke, particularly considering the source: our closest allies were telling us to get lost.

In response, the President called a press conference where he announced that the Secretary of State Colin Powell would make a trip to Israel sometime the following week. What? When? Was there a really good episode of "Matlock" on TBS that week and Powell just couldn't pull himself away any sooner?

And when Powell finally arrived in Jerusalem (after side trips to Morocco and Spain), his meeting with Yassir Arafat came off only slightly less dignified than a slapstick comedy. Powell announced his intention to visit Arafat at his besieged compound in Ramallah, then retracted the announcement the next day, only to rescind the retraction the day after that.

Despite the constant burnishing of his reputation since the Gulf War, the fact remains that Colin Powell is nothing more than a career military bureaucrat and his chief accomplishment has been his ability to move up the chain of command at the Pentagon. More adept at chatting up star-struck congressmen than negotiating with grim combatants, Powell is quickly learning that the Middle East is not the best venue for on-the-job training.

In the end, Powell was able to get the Palestinian Authority to agree that they would end suicide bombings if the Israelis would withdraw from the West Bank. And the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority would stop suicide bombings. Powell could have achieved the same results from a five-minute telephone conversation and saved a whole planeload of jet fuel.

And then there's Venezuela which - for the benefit of George W. Bush - is a county in South America (that's the big land mass just south of Mexico) and which also happens to be the fourth-largest producer of crude oil in the world. After its democratically elected President was ousted by a military coup last week, the Bush Administration did what you would expect from the world's leading democracy.

They responded positively and praised the Venezuelan military for its actions.

It wasn't a coup, the Bush Administration explained, because then-former-President Hugo Chavez had voluntarily resigned his office. The fact that he volunteered because a bunch of men armed with automatic weapons made the request was simply not an issue for the Administration, which has never thought too highly of legal elections in the first place.

And then events conspired to overtake the Bush Administration's alleged "thinking" on the subject of Venezuela. Junior officers in the Venezuelan military pledged their support to the ousted President, and with 48 hours, Hugo Chavez was back in power. This will doubtless make for some sublimely uncomfortable moments for President Bush at the next meeting of the Organization of American States.

During the 2000 Election, Bush's handlers insisted that even though the candidate himself seemed like something of a dim bulb, that really wouldn't make any difference, because he would surround himself with top-notch advisors. Who serves as President, they seemed to be saying, is not nearly as important as who serves as the Assistant Under-Secretary for Middle Eastern Affairs or the Deputy National Security Advisor.

Fair enough. But it still begs the question: who voted for those guys?


Jeff Ritchie is a writer an Democratic activist living in Cincinnati, Ohio

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