Washington Note to those who have blamed, blasted or bewailed President Bush's disengagement from foreign policy and the Middle East: I think he got your message.
Or should that be "our" message? I confess to pointing up (OK, carping endlessly) in recent columns that the president has tolerated a badly divided national security system that works only when he intervenes and pulls together his disputatious 800-pound gorillas. He has done this too infrequently, said me.
Bush critics may now understand more clearly the dangers of getting what you pray for. The quarreling gorillas noticed the 1,500-pounder in their midst this week as Bush turned a long trip abroad into a tour de force by reshaping his foreign policy to make it more intensely personal and openly presidential.
To be fair, recent events and long-term trends count for more than the blasts of the critics in this growing centralization of foreign policy at the White House under Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. While careful not to upstage Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rice stepped out of Powell's shadow on this trip and set insiders buzzing about the meaning of her new official visibility.
"Everybody knows something important has happened, but it is hard to define beyond one very obvious fact -- you now have a national security adviser who is operational on foreign policy," said a senior official. "She has more responsibility to speak on behalf of and even cut deals for the president than anyone in that job since Henry Kissinger."
Bush, once ridiculed for lack of interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs, "now has the bit between his teeth," says one confidant. Victory in Iraq has thrust Bush center stage in the Middle East, and the wounding prewar diplomatic clashes with other nations have underlined the need for more and better personal communication with other world leaders -- starting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We agreed to expand our communication channels, including through our presidential administrations and other agencies," Putin said after meeting with Bush last weekend in St. Petersburg. This was immediately understood in Russia as a polite way of saying that the nonfunctional Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to some extent the State Department, would be bypassed in favor of regular meetings between Kremlin and White House foreign affairs staffers.
"We never expected to be in the position we found ourselves in with Russia on Iraq," admits one administration official. "We never communicated to each other the real boundaries we didn't want crossed. That shouldn't happen again."
Others say Moscow is only one of a growing number of foreign capitals where "only a few people know what is really going on in today's flood of instantaneous and complex information. It is important that those who do know have more direct contact."
Jerusalem is another case in point. Ariel Sharon has made his chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, Israel's point man on relations with Washington. That makes the Weissglass-Rice link the key connection in Israeli-U.S. relations. That hidden bureaucratic development was suggested when Rice was identified as U.S. "co-coordinator" for the peace process as she issued a curious joint statement with Powell discussing Israel's approach to the "road map" to peace.
Powell and Rice also combined on a joint coda for Bush's Middle East trip, appearing together at a news conference in Aqaba on Wednesday. Powell primarily handled the Arab side of the ledger while Rice dealt with Israel -- a division of labor that may persist in the diplomacy to come, as well as in public relations.
In any event, this is an era in which foreign ministers count for less and national security advisers count for more. Powell can get less done in part because his interlocutors are weak within their own systems.
Rice's ascendancy does not bespeak a pitched power struggle a la Kissinger-Rogers or Brzezinski-Vance. This is more the filling of a policy vacuum by a bright, disciplined NSC adviser with ideas and ambitions of her own. And Powell may even be happy to see others take on the Middle East tinderbox, which tops the list of problems on which he has not recorded resounding personal success.
Neither George W. Bush nor his critics could have imagined before 9-11 that his presidency would revolve so completely around foreign policy. That prospect now seems to energize the president as much as it horrifies those who once wept instead over his disengagement. Now both he and they will have to live with the results he achieves.