One of President George W. Bush’s major assets has been his doggedness and sense of self. Despite low approval ratings, George W. has remained consistent throughout most of his presidency in upholding his beliefs with regard to Iraq, democracy in the Middle East and combating Islamist terrorism. He has continuously resisted calls from his father’s former aides, including James Baker (Secretary of State 1989-1992), to initiate talks with Iran and Syria.
In recent months however, George W. it seems, succumbed to being what one might consider "his father’s son." George W. seems to have concluded that he has been "himself" for long enough and that he has left his own mark on the presidency. Now it appears that George W. is ready to take advice from his father (George H. Bush) and his father’s advisors. The recent meetings between Secretary of State Rice and the Syrian Foreign Minister, and last week’s meeting in Iraq with the Iranians, points to a reversal of George W. Bush’s policy.
Throughout most of his presidency, George W. Bush chartered a path that differed from his father’s policies. He was more conservative; he aligned himself more closely with the Christian Right, and his advisors consisted of the so-called neo-conservatives. Now in 2007, Donald Rumsfeld is gone, as are Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith - the core group that advocated democracy in the Middle East is out.
In August of last year, as the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah was underway, President Bush under pressure from U.S. politicians and the media to initiate talks with Syria, declared at a White House Press conference that "Syria knows what we think," and added:
The problem isn't us telling Syria what's on our mind, which is to stop harboring terror and to help the Iraqi democracy evolve. They know exactly what our position is. The problem is that their response hasn't been very positive. As a matter of fact, it hasn't been positive at all." Bush then concluded, "I appreciate people focusing on Syria and Iran, and we should, because Syria and Iran sponsor and promote Hezbollah activities — all aimed at creating chaos, all aimed at using terror to stop the advance of democracies.
The New York Times editorial that followed (August 8, 2006) asserted, "Bush has always seen talking, by itself, as a reward." In that same editorial the NYT attacked Bush:
As a result, American diplomats have been barred from any serious contact with a host of bad and dangerous characters from Pyongyang to Tehran to Damascus. That cold shoulder may have made Mr. Bush feel righteous, but it hasn't done anything to choke off nuclear programs in Iran or North Korea. And it's not likely to persuade Syria to cut off shipments of rockets to Hezbollah, or accept international monitors on its border, or oust Iraqi Baathist financiers from Damascus — or any of the other things the White House wants Syria to do but refuses even to discuss with its leaders.
Martin Indyk, the former US Ambassador to Israel appointed by President Bill Clinton, a liberal Democrat by orientation and not a fan of the Bush administration, said in an interview in early 2006: "The Syrians have to understand that they are in a dangerous situation. When you inflame fire, you don't know where it will spread." Indyk, currently the head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, piled hours of conversations with senior Syrian officials when he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs under President Bill Clinton. Indyk added, "I am a diplomat and a man who believes in dialogue, but at this stage I believe it is forbidden for the United States to hold direct talks with the Syrians."
On May 3, 2007, the Associated Press reported, "A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had taken action on stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq - a chief demand of the United States."
"There has been some movement by the Syrians," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told a news conference. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month." That same day, Secretary of State Rice met officially in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. According to the New York Times:
Ms. Rice asked Syria, with its porous border with Iraq, to do more to restrict the flow of foreign fighters. Bush administration officials said afterward that this may already be happening, because the number of foreign militants traveling over the Syrian border into Iraq has declined in the last month. Ms. Rice characterized her meeting with Mr. Moallem as "professional," adding that "I didn’t lecture him, and he didn’t lecture me.
Then, on Monday, May 28, 2007, CNN reported from Baghdad that Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq met officially with his Iranian counterpart.
In a May 8, 2007, message sent to the U.S. Congress, President Bush, however, continued the national emergency with respect to Syria. In sending this message, the President renewed his authorization of comprehensive sanctions on Syria that were imposed when he signed Executive Order 13338 on May 11, 2004, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The president stated that "The actions of the government of Syria in supporting terrorism, interfering in Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States."
Reacting to the meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem and Secretary of State Rice, Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly/Syria - the most serious opposition group to the Assad regime in Damascus said:
In our view, any meeting of U.S. officials with the Syrian officials sends the wrong message to the Middle East. The message the U.S. administration is imparting can only mean that the U.S. does not support democracy and human rights advocates and that the U.S. says one thing and does something else. Reformers and pro-Democracy advocates will now conclude that the administration is not serious about its democracy initiatives.
The inconsistency in the administration’s policy towards the terror sponsoring states of Iran and Syria begs the question: Which is the real George W. Bush? Is it the Bush committed to democracy in the Middle East and to combating Islamist terrorism, or is George W morphing into George H?