Bush the Bystander

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 13, 2006; 1:32 PM

The Middle East is exploding and what is President Bush doing about it? Not much.

Here's the transcript of this morning's joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which Bush sounded more like a bystander on the world stage than the leader of its only superpower.

Other than definitively supporting Israel's right to defend itself, Bush was more timid and wishful than assertive. He spoke in unusually deferential terms about collaborating with other world leaders and pretty much ruled out military action against Iran. His comments about the current situation in Israel suggested a highly unrealistic notion of how well things were going there up until now, and a naiveté about the effect Israel's actions may have on Lebanon's embryonic democratic government.

Stopping off in Germany on his way to the G-8 summit in Russia, Bush reserved his greatest enthusiasm for tonight's pig roast -- technically, a wild-boar barbecue -- bringing it up three times. "I'm looking forward to that pig tonight," he gushed.

Describing the message he expects his fellow summiteers to deliver to Iran on abandoning its nuclear weapons program Bush said, almost whining: "We're not kidding."

One reporter asked Bush about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday mocked Vice President Cheney by likening Cheney's recent criticisms of Russia to his accidental shooting of a hunting buddy in February. Bush's reaction? He just giggled. "It was pretty clever. Actually, quite humorous -- not to dis my friend, the Vice President."

The president who for many years took pride in never deferring to other countries on matters of national security described his talks with Merkel today as "more than a discussion, it's really a strategy session, is the way I'd like to describe it. . . . It's an interesting conversation, you know, when you toss out what may seem to be a problem that's insoluble, and all of a sudden, two people start thinking about how to solve it, solve the problem. And that's what we're doing."

And the president who used to say he never takes options off the table seemed to be doing just that when it came to Iran: "There's no question that this issue can be solved diplomatically" he said.

His analysis of the Israeli peace process was at best odd. "We were headed toward the road map, things looked positive, and terrorists stepped up," he said.

Things looked positive? And the road map was alive and well? Not even close. As Greg Myre noted in the New York Times last month, "the internationally backed peace plan known as the road map . . . stalled almost immediately after it was introduced three years ago."

On Iran, Bush acknowledged his inability to say anything definitive: "Your question really is, how fast should the process move along? And my attitude is, the answer to that is, it should move as fast as necessary to make it effective, which is a non-answer, admittedly. But the truth of the matter is, diplomacy takes a lot of work, and there are different interests involved here."

And on Lebanon, Bush embraced what sounds like an improbable goal. "Whatever Israel does, though, should not weaken the Siniora government in Lebanon," he said. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon."

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