April has been a tough month for George W. Bush. With more than 100 American soldiers killed in Iraq, a rash of kidnappings, the mood of the Iraqi people becoming increasingly virulent and the 9/11 Commission second guessing the administration's handling of intelligence information, Americans are looking to their leader for answers. That's why President George W. Bush spent his Easter vacation in Crawford, Texas, preparing for an April 13 press conference, so he could provide some. But the answers he delivered last Tuesday left many unsatisfied.
One of the President's most unconvincing replies came when he was asked why he and Vice President Dick Cheney would appear before the 9/11 commission together, rather than separately, as the commission requested.
"Because it's a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us, and I'm looking forward to answering them," Bush replied.
Real answers were what the capacity crowd that turned out at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice last Thursday was looking for. The speaker was retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni.
As expected, the discussion quickly turned toward current events and by the end of the evening the general presented the audience with the equivalent of a golden egg-a clear and insightful analysis of America's role in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the future of American foreign policy.
Zinni, a former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command and a decorated veteran with 40 years of military experience around the globe, was outspoken on many of the issues surrounding the occupation of Iraq, as he has been since the U.S. invaded a year ago. Certainly, he wasn't under the sort of pressure facing the President, but the difference in command he had, compared to Bush's press conference, was striking.
During his question and answer, the President used his 17-minute opening address to sound familiar themes, including the evils of terrorism and the danger once posed by Saddam Hussein and again raise the specter of weapons of mass destruction. It was a message based largely on fear and exaggeration, critics have said.
"Above all, the defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people," Bush said. "The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable. Every friend of America and Iraq would be betrayed to prison and murder as a new tyranny arose. Every enemy of America and the world would celebrate, proclaiming our weakness and decadence, and using that victory to recruit a new generation of killers."
Zinni's message was one of hope. He spoke of concrete ways by which America could win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people-by providing them with jobs, security and political representation-and promote a lasting peace throughout the Middle East by leveling the playing field for Israelis and Palestinians.
He said he believes the best prospects for a successful resolution to the Iraq war no longer belongs to the American military or government.
"I think now we have two hopes left," he said. "One is named Ambassador Brahimi, and he is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to save our bacon."
Currently, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy charged with creating a government in Iraq, is the subject of many expectations. While the international community is looking to Brahimi to create order from chaos, President Bush made it clear last Tuesday that he too is pinning America's exit strategy on the 70-year-old diplomat.
"[Brahimi is] figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over [to]," said Bush, later reaffirming his commitment to adhere to the self-imposed June 30 transition-of-power deadline, despite not yet knowing to whom that power will be assigned.
The decision to give Brahimi the lead role in Iraq is a radical change for the President, who decided to go to war without the backing or approval of the U.N. Moreover, his support of Brahimi's proposal last week to scrap the administration's plans for a Governing Council seem to lend credence to the idea that as his Iraq occupation falters, Bush is scrambling to find any way out of an increasingly ugly situation.
Rooting for Brahimi's success but wary of the odds, Zinni said he is putting his faith in the Iraqi people.
"Hopefully they will come to the realization that we aren't providing any magic solutions-they are going to have to do this themselves," he said. "That is our last hope that they can pull this out."
Either way, Zinni said he doesn't see any quick resolution or easy answers in Iraq.
"We are going to be in there for a long while and we have broken a lot of china in this part of the world, not to mention Europe and other places where we have had allies, and putting this back together, this is going to get harder every day."
The President affirmed his intention to keep American forces engaged in Iraq well after the June 30 deadline and, despite expressing his disappointment in some of the Iraqi security forces, shifted a large portion of the peacekeeping responsibility to their hands.
"Iraqi authorities are now confronting the security challenge of the last several weeks," he said. "In Fallujah, coalition forces have suspended offensive operations, allowing members of the Iraqi Governing Council and local leaders to work on the restoration of central authority in that city. These leaders are communicating with the insurgents to ensure an orderly turnover of that city to Iraqi forces, so that the resumption of military action does not become necessary."
While the President sugarcoated the standoff, which has stymied American forces for more than a week, Zinni had three suggestions for the President.
"There is nothing magic that has to be done," he said. "One, you have got to get the U.N. involved and you have got to internationalize this as much as possible. Two, you have got to get the Iraqi security forces up and capable of handling the security situation. We have taken too long, moved too slow. We need effort put on the training and development and fielding of Iraqi security services.
"The third thing is jobs, jobs, jobs. If you want an Iraqi to fight and die for his country, give him something to fight and die for."
Zinni added that the administration's policy of subcontracting redevelopment roles to foreign firms has left Iraqis without an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding efforts, and "de-Baathification"-the removal of Baathist clerks, administrators and businessmen from their former positions-has left the nation without the skilled workforce necessary to provide services fundamental to that effort.
The day after his press conference, the President met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and announced his decision that Israel should not have to return to pre-1967 borders. He also said Palestinian refugees should settle in a Palestinian state not within Israeli borders, ruling out a Palestinian "right of return."
The President's decision, made without consulting Palestinian officials, was viewed by many observers as tainting Washington's supposed neutrality and jeopardizing future peace efforts. Moreover, the President's one-sided support of Sharon was later seen by many Arabs as a go-ahead for Saturday's assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, which has sparked outrage throughout the Middle East and fueled calls by Hamas leaders for an Arab-Muslim pact against the U.S. and Israel.
Zinni, named a Special Envoy to the Middle East in 2001 by Secretary of State Colin Powell, criticized Bush's move and stressed the importance of building up, not undermining, the weaker party in such a dispute.
"I think it is well intentioned, but this idea of sequentialism and this narrow path to peace, or road map, is the wrong way to go," he said, adding that there are three things that must happen before peace in the Middle East can be achieved.
"One is we have to stop the business of high-profile special envoys that do touch-and-gos out there," he said. "We need a large delegation on the ground. It needs to be international. It needs to work political, economic, social monitoring issues all at the same time, and it needs to stay there and have an address there. It needs to try to light a thousand fires instead of one fuse... that can be easily upset."
He continued by calling on President Bush to make a personal effort in the peace process.
"The President of the United States has to be directly involved," Zinni said. "You can't subcontract it out to the secretary of state, or a special envoy or anybody else. It takes the clout and the power of the office of the President of the United States, I think, to make these two parties negotiate in good faith and come to the point where they have to make the kind of compromises to live in peace for the long term."
Finally, Zinni stressed the need to include the voices of the Israeli and Palestinian people in the dialogue.
"The people have to become involved," he said. "Sometimes I think the politics by the parties involved misses the point and misses what the people want. I think we ought to poll the Israeli and Palestinian people to see what is acceptable in the long term. It is their peace."In the end, Zinni may have the upper hand-it's always easier to have all the answers if you never have to implement them. Of course, that could change. Of the two speakers, one seemed rather presidential and the other had many in his audience counting the weeks until Election Day.