Watching the president of the United States try to fulfill his responsibilities at an international summit is a sobering experience these days. To observe George W. Bush talking trash, chewing with his mouth open and demonstrating his ignorance of geography marks still another step down in the continuing decline of U.S. prestige. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of flag burning.

While Mr. Bush’s little misadventures make headlines, what they symbolize is a collapse of policy and a vacuum of competence that are far more troubling than mere cloddishness. Preoccupied from the beginning of his presidency with Iraq, alienated from our traditional allies and the United Nations, and neglectful of broader American interests in the Middle East, he and his team now confront a sudden crisis for which they seem woefully unprepared.

We are learning what happens when the leadership of “the indispensable nation” takes a mental vacation. We are also beginning to learn why regime change in Iraq, originally sold as the solution to every problem in the region, has proved to be such an enormous liability for us and for our allies.

Recall that when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq — on the pretext of disarming Saddam Hussein — a new era of peace and democracy was supposed to dawn. Making an example of the toppled Saddam would, according to neoconservative theory, persuade other despots in the region to reform and reconcile themselves to coexistence with Israel, and stimulate the “peace process,” too. (That same theory, of course, similarly predicted flower-strewn parades in Baghdad and enough oil revenues to finance the whole bloody enterprise.)

Indeed, when the weapons of mass destruction didn’t turn up, those anticipated dividends became the retrospective justification for the war.

The illusion of success through muscular statesmanship has given way to a grimmer reality. The Palestinians have elected a government led by the suicide-bombing terrorists of Hamas. The Syrians, after withdrawing from Lebanon, have cemented an alliance with Iran against the U.S. and Israel, and continue to be suspected of aiding the Iraqi insurgents as well as Hezbollah.

The Iranians, having elected a defiant Islamic radical, are pursuing their suspicious nuclear program, predicting the fiery destruction of the Jewish state and supporting proxy terror groups. Wielding unwholesome influence over Shiite forces in Iraq, Tehran is well aware of the constraints imposed on us by the occupation.

The overthrow of Saddam has emboldened the mullahs and spurred their quest for nuclear weapons rather than instilling fear in them. Instead of encouraging moderation and reconciliation, the debacle in Iraq has undermined those objectives.

The neoconservatives’ marvelous theory lies in gory ruins, but they are again banging the drums with as much gusto as if they had been vindicated. The missile barrages between Israel and Lebanon are actually the harbinger of World War III, they burble, and frankly they can’t wait for World War IV. Things haven’t worked out in Iraq, but why not take this opportunity to hit Iran and Syria?

Let us hope that Bush resists this mad counsel. While his performance so far has been dismal, especially in his reluctance to endorse an immediate cease-fire, at least he isn’t promoting a wider war. Yet while he dithers, the killing and destruction continue — which is exactly what Hezbollah and Hamas want.

The president’s disengagement from Israel and Palestine — combined with his strategic blunder in Iraq — created the conditions for the current crisis and the danger of global disaster. By abandoning the traditional American role in peacemaking followed by his father and by President Clinton, Bush permitted the enemies of peace to achieve their aims. Despite the Hamas electoral victory, there was the prospect of a revived peace process in the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the commitment by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a negotiated settlement, and the endorsement by prominent Palestinian prisoners of a two-state solution. It seems likely that the provocations ordered by the Hamas military chiefs abroad were intended to prevent any tacit recognition of Israel by the local elected officials.

Forced to respond to unprovoked aggression, the wiser Israelis know that they can never obtain security through military force alone. The only way forward for them and for us is to achieve a rapid cessation of hostilities — and to revive international initiative toward a political solution as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, that would require the American president to abandon his own illusions and step forward in a way that seems far beyond his feeble grasp.

To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website,

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