George Bush's Suburban Superpower Shrugs off Israel's Crisis; President Bush's Standoffish Approach to the Current Turmoil in the Middle East Typifies His Glaring Indifference to Foreign Policy, Says Christopher Hitchens

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

AS Israeli jets wheel and dive over the West Bank, and Palestinian suicide bombers grimly gird themselves, and while Arab nations withdraw one by one from the relationships established at Camp David and Oslo, the Bush administration sends Colin Powell on a five-day trip to Africa to discuss the Aids crisis, while the President himself works on fine-tuning the tax cuts that he hopes to announce, with Congressional approval, by this upcoming holiday weekend.

Clinton would by now have hurled himself into the action, either by jetting off to Jerusalem or by inviting all the contending parties to a distraught summit in Washington. And this is one of the reasons why the new administration is giving the Middle East a good leaving-alone. In the decided but unspoken view of the Republicans, Clinton was far too ready to stake American prestige on an improvised agreement, patching up the last spat or reacting to the most recent atrocity.

In the view of the hardheaded new incumbents, there is little or no percentage in trying to substitute American goodwill for the goodwill that is evidently lacking between the regional foes. Why get involved? Grief is the only reward of the mediator. Moreover, superpower "initiatives" only encourage one side or another to believe that help - for them - is on the way.

Over the past few weeks, Colin Powell has taken it upon himself to address whichever side has perpetrated the most recent breach of good form and solemnly instructed them to desist. On very bad days, he has intoned this to both parties simultaneously. Yesterday - Secretary Powell being absent - it fell to Vice President Cheney to invite the Israelis to refrain from bombing the towns in the West Bank.

MORE is i n v o l v e d , h o w e v e r , than pseudo i m p a r t i a l tough love.

This is, to an extent not seen in decades, an oilman's regime in Washington. Practically every senior figure in the Bush administration has seen the inside of an energy-corporation boardroom at one time or another.

And the daily headlines are all about the supposed "energy gap" that has put California into the grip of rolling blackouts while setting the rest of the nation complaining about ever-rising prices at the petrol pump. Not, perhaps, the ideal moment to ride to the rescue of Ariel Sharon and generally upset the "Ay-rabs".

It seems obvious to me that the President's father exerts at least some influence on the conduct of foreign policy. For example, in the recent fiasco involving the expulsion of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, there was an instant growl of rage from the Republican right wing in Congress.

To hell with 'em, they can whistle for their membership dues ... a favourite conservative theme. Bush has on the whole been very conciliatory to his right wing, but on this occasion he counselled caution and prudence. …

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