White House

Bush follows predecessors: When in trouble, become statesman

WASHINGTON — President Bush's effort this week to jump-start Mideast peace negotiations resembles other presidents' late-term bids to become peacemaking international statesmen.

Some of them have made progress on foreign-policy problems, as Bill Clinton did with his own 2000 Camp David Mideast summit, but the grand gestures usually fail to erase their domestic troubles. The low expectations surrounding this particular summit make it unlikely to earn Bush a sudden wave of domestic acclaim.

For one thing, he's shown limited interest in international diplomacy until now and arguably none in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. He's never visited Israel, has been reluctant to get directly involved in talks and spent only about four hours Tuesday at the conference in Annapolis, Md.

"This is a Hail Mary pass," said pollster John Zogby, using the football term for a desperation pass heaved into the air in the faint hope that someone will catch it, "and this president doesn't really even have control of the ball." (The Israelis, the Palestinians and their Arab partners do.)

Nevertheless, with Bush's job-approval ratings stuck all year between 31 and 36 percent, he's turned to statesmanship.

"I pledge to devote my effort during my time as president to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal," he told Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Tuesday's conference.

Later, back at the White House, the president told the Associated Press in an interview that, "I don't think it's a risk to try for peace. I think it's an obligation." He plans more meetings Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the Oval Office.

However sincere his commitment, it's unlikely to help much at home.

For one thing, people are likely to be skeptical of what seems like Bush's sudden interest in the issue, analysts said.

"The public's not going to buy this. They'll see it as too little too late," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of political science at Florida State University.

For another, nothing that happens at Annapolis is likely to overshadow the problems dogging Bush, notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stumbling American economy.

"Anything that happens (in Annapolis) will be overshadowed by the problems in Iraq," deHaven-Smith said.

There's one potential upside for Bush, though, said Patrick Basham, the director of the Democracy Institute, a Washington research group: "Any day foreign policy is not dominated by Iraq is a good day for the Bush administration."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino disputed any assertion that Bush has come lately — or expediently — to the Middle East issue.

"Take a step back and look at what the president has done," she said. "He was the first president to call for a Palestinian state; that was a big step."

She said Bush's efforts suffered a setback last year when war broke out in Lebanon.

Still, Bush's peace conference echoes his predecessors' efforts to ramp up global diplomacy when their popularity was sagging or their tarnished images needed polish.

In June 1974, the House Judiciary Committee was issuing subpoenas for White House tapes and hearing evidence on whether the president should be impeached. President Nixon took a five-day trip to five Mideast countries that month, becoming the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to go to Egypt, where he found cheering crowds.

Before the month was over, he traveled to Moscow for a weeklong summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

None of it helped back home. By the end of July, the committee had approved articles of impeachment, and the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over key tapes. He resigned Aug. 9.

President Reagan's job approval rating had sunk to around 45 percent in early 1987 as the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages controversy sizzled. After months of hearings, Congress' Iran-Contra Committee Democrats reported in November that the president had unleashed a "cabal of zealots," and even Republicans conceded that Reagan had stumbled.

A month later, Reagan was in full statesman mode, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington for a summit. Six months later, Reagan headed to Moscow for five days, the first trip to the Soviet Union for the veteran anti-communist.

"These are legacy-building efforts," deHaven-Smith said.

President Clinton tried a similar strategy in 2000. He didn't need the popularity boost — his approval numbers had hovered around 60 percent throughout his second term — but his resume had been scarred in 1998 when he became the first president in 130 years to be impeached. He was acquitted in early 1999 after a Senate trial.

Clinton spent two weeks in July 2000 hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders, prodding them to reach a peace accord. They wound up with a joint statement, but no deal.

That was the legacy Bush inherited, and critics argue that he's done little to push the process along until now. Perino disagreed, noting that "you no longer have (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat, who the president labeled a terrorist. You have a leader in (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas, who has denounced terror and violence."

So the message Tuesday was lofty, upbeat, forward-looking.

That may not reap big domestic gains, said Basham of the Democracy Institute, but he saw no reason for Bush not to try.

"There's no obvious downside," he said. "Everyone has agreed to negotiate and no more."