Did you catch the following through-the-looking-glass exchange regarding President Bush's appeal to the Israelis to withdraw immediately from the West Bank?
"I don't think that he meant exactly to say, 'Just get out,' " said Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer on ABC this Sunday.
"But he said, 'without delay,'" replied an incredulous George Stephanopoulos.
"Yes, but I don't think that he meant that," insisted Ben-Eliezer.
This stunning refusal to take the president of the United States at his word prompted National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, on her own round of the Sunday talk shows, to admonish the world "not to parse the president's words." But that's precisely what the world is doing -- and with good reason. The president, after all, has been building quite a record of full-blooded rhetoric and anemic follow-through. One might even say it's starting to become his M.O.
For instance, after urgently declaring last Thursday that "The world finds itself at a critical moment," "the storms of violence cannot go on" and "enough is enough," he announced that he would be sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region sometime "next week." I could have sworn I heard him add "or whenever he can get around to it."
Next week? Why wasn't a helicopter waiting on the South Lawn to immediately whisk Powell off to start his peacekeeping mission? Was Air Force One all booked up? Or did Powell have more important plans for the weekend? Dinner and a movie with the Mrs., perhaps?
Indeed, Powell is scheduled to make stops in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Spain -- Spain? -- before finally heading to Jerusalem toward the end of this week.
The lackadaisical pace of Powell's departure was all the more unfortunate considering that what the president really needed was not Air Force One, but a time machine at the ready to send Powell to the Middle East a year ago, when he might have stood a fighting chance of heading off the grisly horrors of the moment.
Is the president hoping that the Israeli army kicks it into high gear and rounds up all the Palestinian bad guys before Powell touches down? Maybe the secretary can buy Mr. Sharon's forces a little extra time when he checks into his hotel -- y'know, throw some water on his face, check out the cable channels, the snacks in the minibar, that kind of thing.
Despite the efforts of his inner circle to paint the post-9/11 president as the rough-riding, straight-shooting second coming of Teddy Roosevelt, the events of the last six months have actually revealed him to be the anti-Teddy -- a politician who speaks very loudly while, more often than not, carrying a very small stick. Or having someone else carry it sometime "next week."
Take the Bush Doctrine, that marvel of philosophic and moral precision that has now been amended, parsed, redacted and clarified into a murky mush. The thing now has more footnotes than an annotated version of "Remembrance of Things Past," more clauses than a Donald Trump prenup and more exceptions than the desperate girl's edition of "The Rules."
"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," said Bush on Sept. 20. And as recently as two weeks ago, he reiterated the importance of sending an unambiguous message to the world: "I said that if you harbor a terrorist, you're just as guilty as the terrorist; if you feed one or hide one, you're just as guilty as those who came and murdered thousands of innocent Americans."
But then he kneecapped himself by giving Yasser Arafat a "get off our terrorist list free" card. According to the president, even though the Palestinian leader has done considerably more than feed or hide terrorists, he isn't one himself because, along with his involvement in numerous terrorist assaults -- including the 1983 bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Marines -- he had "negotiated with parties as to how to achieve peace." Oh, that changes everything.
Powell had a simpler explanation for the moral gymnastics: "It would not serve our purpose right now to brand him individually as a terrorist." So much for the black-and-white clarity of "with us or against us." It doesn't get much grayer than that realpolitik rationale -- although Condi Rice sure tried. "There are different approaches you have to take," she said. "But what is very clear is the president believes terrorism is wrong." Glad she cleared that up for us.
Bush's "follow-through gap" is made even more noticeable by the melodramatic nature of his pronouncements. If you whip out something as powerful as "the axis of evil," you've got to do more than just wag your finger at Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The same goes for his famed "Dead or Alive" vow: It raised certain expectations. His muscular language made it clear that winning the war on terror included the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Now we're being asked to settle for the trials of John Walker Lindh and Zacarias Moussaoui. We've gone from the original Broadway cast to the community theater production.
And while the president has repeatedly promised "to make sure Americans are more secure and more safe than ever before," are we really safer than we were on Sept. 10? Are our borders more secure? Are we more prepared to face biological warfare or dirty nukes? And how much better are our new and improved airport screeners, who are still failing to detect guns, knives and bombs at an alarming rate?
The president is also matching strong words with ineffectual action when it comes to the most elementary exercise of his power: failing to order the disparate agencies responsible for homeland security to end their petty turf wars and work together under one regulatory umbrella.
Yet the president's approval rating shows that he is not being held accountable for his actions, he's simply being given credit for his words.
When it comes to the war on terror, the world is divided into those who believe that the worst is behind us and those who think the worst is yet to come. The president is similarly torn: He talks like the worst is ahead but acts like it's behind.
"It's an important part of any foreign policy," said the president before his hairpin turn on the Middle East, "to do what you say you're going to do, and we did." If only that were true. Maybe it will be soon. Sometime next week.