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Like Father, Like Son?

By Carl Leubsdorf

In handling the latest Middle East crisis, President Bush has shown once again how different he is from his father.

He has sought to broker long-standing tensions while siding with one major player, Israel. He has refused to talk directly to its enemies, such as the Hezbollah terrorists responsible for starting the current conflict. He has talked in terms of bold strokes, rather than incremental progress.

Unlike his more pragmatic father, the president has placed this latest flare-up in a broader ideological framework, just as he tends to judge other leaders and countries in the context of the global war on terror.

In dealing with Israel, Mr. Bush has taken positions from the start of his presidency that jibe with the strong pro-Israeli sentiment in the United States, something his father was willing to challenge at some political risk.

In this crisis, the president delayed calling for a cease-fire to give Israel more time for its military operation in Lebanon, risking relations with allied Arab nations that had denounced Hezbollah.

With this week's respite, the White House claimed long-term progress. But, in fact, the president's approach consistently has failed to achieve significant results since he reversed the more evenhanded, "honest broker" approach of prior chief executives from both parties at the start of his term.

A telling indicator of the difference has been the refusal of top officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet with the Syrians, whom they rightly blame for stirring up trouble in Lebanon.

Indeed, the United States hasn't had an ambassador in Damascus for more than a year.

Contrast that with the fact that both former Presidents Bush and Clinton met with Hafez Assad, father of the current Syrian leader, Bashar Assad.

Neither was a big fan of the longtime Syrian leader. But they judged each issue on its own merits - and on the potential benefit to the United States.

So when the first President Bush built a global coalition to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, he met with Mr. Assad to enlist his help.

Mr. Clinton also met with him when he tried to broker peace between Syria and Israel, after the 1993 Oslo accords between the Israelis and Palestinians.

That effort ultimately failed, as did Mr. Clinton's last-ditch effort at the end of his presidency to forge a permanent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The main blame for that failure lies with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's refusal to accept a painstakingly negotiated compromise plan that would have led to Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and most of the occupied West Bank, creation of a Palestinian state and open status for Jerusalem.

But when Mr. Bush took over just days later, and Likud leader Ariel Sharon won Israeli elections, the new U.S. president refused to deal with Mr. Arafat and took a strong pro-Sharon stance.

Mr. Bush later reached out to Mr. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas. But when the hard-line Hamas faction won the 2005 Palestinian election, Mr. Bush refused to deal with its leaders.

The relationship between Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon began at a meeting between the two when both were out of office and grew into one of the closest ever between U.S. and Israeli leaders.

It provides another interesting contrast between the father and the son. The elder Mr. Bush had rocky relations with a prior Israeli government of Mr. Sharon's Likud party and was willing to risk domestic political damage in 1991 by withholding loan guarantees to Israel because of its refusal to curb settlements in the West Bank.

That was reportedly one of the events that spurred the younger Mr. Bush to avoid his father's problems.

Indeed, it has always seemed as if one of the son's motivations in seeking the White House and crafting his policies was to restore his father's reputation and succeed where he had failed.

Measured against that standard, he succeeded in winning a second term and in ousting Mr. Hussein. But the irony is that in succeeding where his father failed, he ultimately might have created so many problems that he will end up making his father's presidency look that much better.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is

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