In that review, I say of Bush,
He has been out of office for the blink of an eye, historically, but, frankly, I had sort of forgotten about him: how impressive he was. How talented, how smart, how individualistic, how well-informed. (John Negroponte, the veteran diplomat who served as director of national intelligence, once told me, “It was kind of hard to tell Mr. Bush much that he didn’t know.”) Most impressive, I think, was Bush’s moral sense. At any rate, I doubt there has ever been a greater gap between the popular image of a public figure and the reality.
Remember this about Bush: He had Elliott Abrams in the White House when it was thought that Elliott was too damaged, by Iran-contra, to work in government again. John Bolton, too, was a controversial figure. Bush nominated him to be U.N. ambassador. The Senate refused to confirm him. Bush gave him a recess appointment — which was ballsy.
Abrams writes, “Bush never bought into the idea — promoted by Tony Blair and virtually the entire State Department, including, in the second term, Secretary of State Rice — that progress toward democracy in the Middle East was closely related to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his view, that was an excuse dictators used and behind which they hid.”
Before Sharon withdrew from Gaza (unilaterally), American officials asked the Egyptians what would happen if Hamas took over — took over in the “Strip,” as we used to call it. Don’t worry, said the Egyptians. We’ll never allow it to happen.
Life is funny, huh?
Bush had it exactly right, as usual: If Israel had withdrawn from Gaza with someone other than Sharon as PM, and someone other than Bush as U.S. president, the world would have shouted, “Hallelujah.” But the world had to be crabbed and sniffy . . .
In my recent history of the Nobel Peace Prize, I say that Blair uttered “one of the most stinging criticisms” of the Norwegian Nobel Committee ever recorded. As he embarked on a round of Middle East diplomacy, he said to Bush, “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.”
In Abrams’s book, we learn that Bush said something similar to Jordan’s king, Abdullah. He very, very much wanted a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Bush did. But he would not try to force a deal just to get a Nobel Peace Prize.
Good thing, too.
Here is Abrams on the State Department — one of his many true-ringing statements: “If Rice had any inclination to a big international conference on the Middle East, she was certainly going to get nothing but reinforcement from the career service. They remembered the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Camp David negotiations of 2000 as highlights of American diplomacy, not as failed efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
I love this about Bush: Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, writes Abrams, “began his account of the Annapolis conference by saying he admired the efforts of Dr. Rice. No you don’t, she pisses you off, the president replied.” Abrams reports that there was no squirming among the U.S. and Israeli delegations. Rather, “jaws seemed to hang open.”
Wish I had been there — but one can see it.
According to Abrams, there was a pattern in the final years of the second term: The secretary of state never had a bad meeting with the Palestinians and never had a good one with the Israelis. This was in part because she expected nothing from the Palestinians, Abrams muses. Any concession, any movement, would have to come from the Israelis. Abrams says he thought of an expression of Bush’s, concerning education: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
When Israel discovered in 2007 that Syria was building a nuclear reactor, Bush did not want to take military action: He wanted to go through the IAEA in Vienna, and the Security Council in New York, and so on. But the Israelis, led by Olmert, thought they had to bomb — so they did. Bush did nothing to hinder them. He remarked that Olmert had “guts.” And he made it clear that his administration was not to leak anything in advance of the raid.
In my NR review, I say that Bush was “unbothered” by the Israeli action as Reagan had been “unbothered” by the Israeli action in 1981 — when that nation took out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.
You may be interested in a piece by Reagan’s then-national security adviser, Richard V. Allen — a piece that is jovial and authoritative, like Allen himself. He informed Reagan what the Israelis had done, and the possible consequences of that action. Reagan absorbed all of this — then commented, “Well, you know what? Boys will be boys.”
All of Allen’s piece on that episode in 1981 is worth reading. And all of Elliott Abrams’s memoir is worth reading. Middle East policy is so very important. One can wish it weren’t — but it is. And the characters in Elliott’s book are so interesting! Bush, Ariel Sharon, Condi, the author himself . . .
You recall what I was saying at the top of this column, about the nature of this particular column? Consider it a piece dividend. And with that abominable groaner, I wish you a good weekend. Catch you soon.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.