Washington President Bush, who loves to deal in moral absolutes, has encountered in the Middle East a challenge that defies both dogma and deadlines. He is learning a painful lesson about the limits of a rhetorical approach to intractable problems.
Since Sept. 11, the president increasingly has divided the world into good and evil, contrasting the perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with the innocent victims of those assaults. That was appropriate for the circumstances, and helped rally the nation and the world to seek out and punish the al-Qaida terrorists.
But as a framework for dealing with the range of issues that engage this superpower, good-and-evil leaves far too many questions unanswered.
To be sure, Bush has acknowledged the need for ambivalence in dealing with some situations. Early on, he said that China was neither an adversary nor a strategic partner, but simply a large nation with whom the United States must engage on many levels. He has given trade relations priority over human rights, but has not sought to disguise the fact that he is seeking closer ties with a regime whose fundamental values are distasteful to our own.
But at heart, Bush likes to draw clear lines not just in policy but in moral terms. From the time he first entered the race for governor of Texas almost a decade ago, he has emphasized that "there are right and wrong choices in life." In rejecting the tolerant attitude toward different lifestyles that he attributed to many of his contemporaries, Bush argued that moral relativism was a threat to family and nation.
One reason for his strong, instinctive response to Sept. 11 was its lack of moral ambiguity. True, some of the countries he enlisted to help cleanse Afghanistan of the Taliban were not themselves exemplars of democracy and freedom. But the cause was one he could and did define in absolute moral terms.
He attempted in his State of the Union address to apply that same rhetoric to a wider circle of countries. But his effort to define Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" failed the plausibility test with most of those same allies, and even at home, puzzled many Bush supporters in Congress. So he revised his stance to make it clear that Saddam Hussein was his real target.
I suspect, but cannot prove, that part of his long reluctance to engage deeply in the ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians was recognition that there are legitimate grievances and abundant faults on both sides. Why step in and besmirch yourself in that kind of moral quagmire?
When events the worsening cycle of violence and the threat of a Muslim backlash that would make it impossible to move against Saddam forced his hand last week, Bush found his footing shaky.
Initially, he seemed to be flashing a green light to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, expressing sympathy for the Israelis' desire for retribution against Yasser Arafat after the Palestinian suicide bombing attacks. Five days later, after Israel had moved into the West Bank with troops and tanks, intensive discussions within the administration produced a new and more carefully crafted Bush statement.
He was harsh in his judgment of Arafat as a man who "has betrayed the hopes of the people he is supposed to lead," but he also called on Sharon to withdraw his armor and men from the West Bank and halt further Israeli settlements in that territory a major goal of the Palestinians.
When the Israelis continued scouring West Bank cities for terrorists and the casualties mounted, Bush told Sharon both publicly and privately: The attacks must stop now. In the space of a week, the tone had shifted from sympathetic to peremptory.
The Bush pirouette through the moral ambiguities of the Middle East has left others spinning. Conservatives in his own party, who thrive on high-principled rhetoric (the "Evil Empire" or the "axis of evil") were distraught. John McCain told ABC's Cokie Roberts that the United States should "not practice situational ethics, where we condemn an attack on the United States of America and somehow excuse an attack on innocent civilians ... carried out by the suicide bombers."
Even those closest to the president seem flummoxed by the situation. Secretary of State Colin Powell, just hours before he left for the region, told NBC's Tim Russert that what sounded like an ultimatum from Bush to Sharon was really a "kind of request" simply to get the violence "down to a level where the two sides can start talking to one another."
The real world turns out to be full of moral compromises.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.