Commentary: The Lone Ranger Returns

By Lee Walczak and Stan Crock

Not long ago, he seemed a Master of the Universe. But to the world's commentators, the decisive George W. Bush who emerged after September 11 to head the war on terrorism is no more. In his place: A hesitant leader who cites the intractability of ancient rivalries in rejecting pleas for a U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian war. On Apr. 2, Le Monde slammed the U.S. President's "policy of negligence" for causing "the tragedy of Ramallah."

No doubt about it, Bush is in a bind. His desire to fight terrorism leads him to embrace Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tough tactics against Palestinian radicals. At the same time, Bush knows the Mideast mess threatens to undermine the ambitious next phase of his anti-terror drive. That's why the White House may, over the next few weeks, direct Secretary of State Colin Powell to seek a ceasefire and resumption of diplomatic talks.

One thing is clear, though: The Mideast explosion will alter Bush's international policy focus. How? By jolting him back to the unilateralism he espoused as a candidate. The desire to boldly project U.S. power, derided as "Lone Ranger diplomacy," was briefly cloaked by the need to weave a multinational coalition that provided cover for the U.S. assault on Afghanistan. With that country semi-pacified, the U.S. will increasingly find itself flying solo as it tries to destroy terrorist lairs.

Would Bush prefer to be marching at the head of a parade of nations aligned against terrorists? Absolutely. But it is beginning to dawn on him that after the U.S. pounding of Afghanistan, many allies would just as soon sit out the war's next phase--hot pursuit of terrorists across national borders and a preemptive strike on Iraq. "We should be proud of being alone," contends Eliot A. Cohen, a Mideast expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "Bush will not be swayed by diplomatic squawking."

Yet to the European left and the Arab street, Bush the Lone Ranger and Sharon the Warrior are kindred spirits. Both favor bombs and bullets over diplomacy. Better, in this view, for the U.S. to impose a peace plan on Israel that forces Sharon to give up settlements in exchange for iffy security guarantees. But Bush is more determined than skeptics realize. A decade ago, he watched his father wait out the hard-line thrusts of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and knows he has to let an Israeli military spasm subside before peace can be discussed. To Bush, the choice in today's conflict is elemental. There is Yassir Arafat, who condones suicide bombings. And there is Sharon, who wants to destroy "terrorist infrastructure." That's the infrastructure Bush wants to destroy, too.

That brings us to the foreign-policy mandarins' next bit of wisdom: A U.S.-Israeli "axis of aggression" dooms Bush's plan to attack Iraq. This is only true if you think he won't hit Baghdad without broad international approval, which isn't the case. Even before Israeli armor rolled into Ramallah, Bush had no chance of getting much foreign backing on Iraq. When Vice-President Dick Cheney toured the region, the Turks said no, the Egyptians said no, and the Saudis floated a gossamer peace offer as a way of saying no. And Western Europe? Except for Tony Blair, thumbs down. Bush aides, however, make clear that removing Saddam Hussein is still on the agenda. It may be made trickier by the loss of some basing rights, but U.S. aircraft carriers and long-range bombers mean it's not impossible. And Kuwait could still be pressured to provide bases.

Of course, the growing U.S. isolation is a complication for Bush's foreign policy. But in reality, the notion of a broad anti-terror coalition was always a mirage. Like the bombing in Afghanistan, the anti-terror war will be led by U.S. forces, aided by some loyal Brits. When the next strikes are ordered from the Oval Office, the U.S. will be in familiar territory-- largely alone.

Walczak and Crock cover politics and policy in Washington.

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