To the Washington establishment, George W. Bush’s arrival in the White House marked the “return of the grown-ups” to the running of American foreign policy. While that judgment upon President Bill Clinton was unfair, the implied endorsement of the first Bush administration was based on real achievement in the management of the Gulf War and the 1991 Madrid peace conference. But the second Bush White House has never come under adult supervision.

The president has rejected advice from the wise old heads who counseled his father and who repeatedly pleaded with this president for seriousness and maturity in dealing with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel and Palestine. Instead, as the Annapolis meeting suggests, his approach to those issues has been both ideological and inconsistent, with a vacillating quality that seems unlikely to encourage progress.

The president’s opening address to the diplomats gathered in Maryland did not exceed the low expectations surrounding the event. A hopeful and forceful speech was well beyond his grasp, perhaps because so many of those who grudgingly showed up to hear him harbored deep doubts about his sincerity. His tone was defensive as he sought to justify his administration’s late attempt to renew the moribund peace process.

With his usual flourish for the obvious, he noted that establishing peace between Israel and a new Palestinian state “will not be easy — if it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” and that eventual success will require “hard effort.”

Yet much as we must wish the president well in this critical endeavor, it is impossible not to wonder what he intends. Somehow the Annapolis effort must rise above the wreckage of his Mideast policy, including the vast damage inflicted on American power and prestige by the war in Iraq. The shadow of that deadly misadventure threatens to envelop every discussion of peace — by empowering the rejectionists in Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as well as by ruining America’s reputation in the Arab world.

It is difficult to imagine a worse coincidence than the Annapolis meeting and the announcement of an agreement between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for permanent U.S. bases on Iraq’s soil. The prospect of an endless occupation poses a severe embarrassment to any Arab leader who might dare to endorse or even tolerate the peace process.

Such blunders seem to be the hallmark of the Bush White House “grown-ups,” however, whose planning and preparations for Annapolis appear to have been insufficient at best. Whether the American president participates in a summit, a conference or a lowly meeting, the outcome should be fairly predictable, if not wholly arranged in advance. Despite the months of shuttling between Mideast capitals by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, there was no detailed plan for following up on this week’s events — let alone any agreement on what the Israelis, the Palestinians and the dozens of other conferees will actually do.

Uncertainty may have been inevitable under these circumstances, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives weakened by charges of corruption and military ineptitude; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has literally lost control of half his territory to Hamas. These men are not, as President Bush evidently thinks, the kind of strong and respected leaders who can make hard decisions stick.

Whatever the faults of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, American policy has been just as flawed in recent years. President Bush has done worse than merely neglect the peace process. He has abandoned the traditional American role as honest broker by preferring ideology to pragmatism and by pandering to his hawkish supporters on the right. That is why he encouraged the Israelis in their abortive war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and why he insisted that Palestinian elections precede any attempt to improve living conditions in the nascent Palestinian state. In both instances, the results of those policies have been damaging to the interests of both Arabs and Jews, perhaps permanently so.

Still, this president is often luckier than he deserves to be — and it must be fervently hoped that following Annapolis his luck will outweigh his incompetence. There were a few promising signs, including the presence of diplomats from Syria and Saudi Arabia, who showed up despite their reluctance to serve as props in a Bush legacy photo op. It is unlikely but not impossible that this tardy diplomacy will revive the peace process once more — and if it does, then the president will need much more than luck to achieve success before he leaves office.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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