The meaning of Ari's blunder

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's attempt to blame Clinton for Middle East violence was short-lived -- but it shows what the Bush administration really thinks.

By Gary Kamiya

Published March 2, 2002 2:48AM (EST)

Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer had quite a Thursday. First, in his morning press briefing he blamed former president Bill Clinton's hyperactive diplomacy for the current violence in Israel and the occupied territories, saying "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon ... more violence resulted. That as a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go ... it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence."

At his afternoon press briefing, reporters asked Fleischer if he stood by his morning remarks. "Of course I stand by it," Fleischer replied.

It wasn't until after the second press briefing that somebody, possibly wearing chain mail and carrying a blowtorch, set Fleischer straight. In an unusual written statement, Fleischer said, "I mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were under way in 2000. No United States president, including President Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East. The only people to blame for violence are the terrorists who engage in it. I regret any implication to the contrary."

Press secretary blunders don't get much more colossal than that. Three baddies. Number 1, you don't criticize former presidents -- ever. It's bad form. Number 2, you don't blame peacemakers, even if they fail. Number 3, you don't blame Americans -- especially when there are objectionable foreigners available.

How could Fleischer, an apparently intelligent man, have screwed up so badly? The answer seems clear. Fleischer's statement has all the hallmarks of being what Bush officials actually believe, and say when they're in private. Fleischer had simply sat in on one too many briefings where Cheney or Condee or maybe even George himself had trashed Clinton's Middle East diplomacy in just those words, and he suddenly spouted out what he'd been hearing for months. Who can blame him? It must be intoxicating, that macho, high-approval-ratings atmosphere where pathological Clinton-hatred is understood and tough guys lay down the law 'bout evil 'n' stuff to a cowering world. Poor little Ari, who has to be responsible and never gets to have any fun, just couldn't resist going Rummy on us for a minute.

Bush and those who make his foreign-policy decisions for him blame Clinton for screwing up the Middle East because they're desperate to cover their butts over the administration's failure to get involved in the most crucial foreign-policy arena in the world -- and Clinton is a convenient scapegoat. But at some level, they really seem to believe it.

Why they believe it is a little harder to explain -- but historical myopia, and a politically expedient but short-sighted pro-Israel tilt, play large roles. (Note that in his clarification, Fleischer assigned all the blame for the violence to "terrorists" -- i.e. Palestinians -- as if there were no political context to this tragedy.) Yes, both sides were frustrated after the Camp David talks came to nothing, but frustration over failed peace overtures has been a constant practically since the Balfour Declaration -- as, tragically, has been violence, including terrorism on both sides and war. It's historically ridiculous to argue that the al-Aqsa intifada, which kicked off the bloody cycle the area is now trapped in, was triggered by collapsed high expectations. The real crisis stems from Israel's destructive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -- a crisis worsened by corrupt and incompetent Palestinian leadership, and the nihilistic reaction of Palestinians who see no hope in this world. Until that problem is addressed, violence will always be waiting to erupt.

As for Clinton, he isn't blameless, but Bush is blaming him for the wrong thing. Clinton's error, as William B. Quandt, the leading analyst of America's peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, writes in "Peace Process," was that he came to the table too late -- he should have seized opportunities to pursue Middle East peace earlier. And the opportunities were there. Indeed, as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim argues persuasively in "The Iron Wall," there have been far more opportunities for peace -- not just during Clinton's tenure, but throughout Israel's history -- than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

For Bush, who has done nothing at all so far except sign off on Ariel Sharon's failed hard-line policies, to blame Clinton for his tireless, 11th-hour efforts on behalf of peace is shameful. But the shameful, when it comes to the Bush administration's foreign policy, is becoming the expected.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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