- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

As a past Air National Guard pilot, President George W. Bush knows the term “check your six.” It is fighter pilot’s lingo drawn from the six o’clock position on a watch dial and means frequently checking directly astern for enemy aircraft. But there is also a political application checking the assumptions that form the foundations for policy.

The president deserves credit for boldness. From faith-based initiatives to slashing taxes, this White House is unafraid of taking aggressive and decisive action. And foreign policy is perhaps the best measure of that boldness.

After September 11, the president moved into Afghanistan to eliminate the terrorists responsible for those acts and the Taliban regime that provided them succor. His assumptions mirrored his father’s a dozen year’s earlier after Iraq invaded Kuwait. “This act of aggression shall not stand.” It did not.

Then, turning to Saddam Hussein, the president ordered military action for several reasons, the principal one being to end the danger of mass-destruction weapons in the wrong hands. The key assumption was that Iraq possessed these weapons in some number. Further, the administration assumed that the Iraqi public would “jubilantly” welcome the liberation and that a democracy would and could be established.

Now, with the war in Iraq won in stunning fashion and the peace underway, the administration is turning its attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It has, along with the members of the so-called Quartet the European Union, United Nations and Russia worked out a “roadmap” for peace. While the details have not been made fully public yet awaiting the approval of a new Palestinian prime minister and cabinet, much of the roadmap is understood. The Palestinians must renounce and cease terrorist acts against Israel in return for which an independent Palestinian state will be created.

Israel must cease establishing more settlements in the occupied territories and then begin dismantling them in accordance with a timetable to be agreed by all parties. That timetable will include reciprocal and concurrent actions to build confidence and good will. The overriding assumptions are that creation of a new state will motivate Palestinian cooperation and that the president’s close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will span the current intractable resistance on the part of Israel to exchange land for peace. Obviously, there are many other factors in play as well.

Regarding both Iraq and Israel, the Bush administration would do well to check its six. In Iraq, nationalism and pride, reflected among the Shi’a and Kurds, are far more powerful forces than the administration expected or even thought. Hence, liberation has a different context for Iraqis long abused and controlled by the old regime. And democracy is not something that can be easily or perhaps even overlaid on Iraqi society in the short-term. Perhaps pluralism and the rule of law are the better, and more practical aims to be set and achieved.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however, is the real issue that must be settled if there is to be a just and lasting peace in the region. For better or for worse, a practical and satisfactory solution has to involve a much more complicated and broader cast of characters. In that regard, there must be a combination of leverage and incentives to bring together a critical mass without causing a disastrously explosive chain reaction.

Israel, of course, needs absolute guarantees for its security, including the end to suicide bombers. Palestinians require political and financial support to build a functioning state. Neighbors, particularly Syria and Lebanon, must play a role first to end the violence of Hezbollah and to create secure borders. And Saudi Arabia must formally recognize Israel, as well as commit to supporting the new Palestinian state with financial aid. Reducing U.S. presence in the kingdom to bare levels will also alleviate much of the political backlash and is now possible because of the victory in Iraq.

Actually, the war in Iraq provides a unique opportunity to move the Middle East peace process forward. Ending the threat of Saddam relieves a great deal of danger in the region. Yet, the administration has not yet exploited this opening. That means changing assumptions about the value of multilateral actions.

The administration should convene international conferences, first on the future of Iraq and then on the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These conferences will provide the necessary legitimacy to achieve lasting peace, as well as broaden the span of responsibility away from the United States as principal guarantor.

But, for this to happen, there needs to be a reassessment of assumptions and expectations. Sixes must be rechecked. In that regard, ex-fighter pilot Bush should rely on another aviator truism. There are bold fighter pilots and there are old fighter pilots. But there are few bold, old ones a point not to be dismissed.

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