A Perfectly Strange Speech

James Zogby’s Column

It has been one week now since President George W. Bush delivered the long awaited speech outlining his vision of a future Middle East peace. The speech was troublesome and the world’s reaction to it has been troubled.

It was a strange speech. One we have been told went through twenty-eight revisions. The final product appeared to reflect two distinct and contradictory approaches. It was, one might say, a “compassionate [neo-]conservative” speech.

There were, for example, parts of the speech that spoke passionately about Palestinian suffering and Palestinian needs to be free of occupation and to have a state of their own. There was, however, also a neo-conservative ideological overlap on the speech that ignored Palestinian realities and made realization of their dreams nearly impossible to achieve.

At times listening to the speech and, then later reading it, it appeared to be two different speeches. For example, the first three paragraphs were balanced and straightforward. And then, out of nowhere, it seemed the ideologues added two paragraphs of their own. This shuffling of divergent themes and visions continued throughout.

There were other strange aspects to the speech. Most obvious was the stark absence of any criticism of Israel or Israeli practices. In this regard even the President’s April 4th speech was better, since it included at least a mild rebuke of Israel. In last week’s speech, all the blame for the absence of peace is placed on the Palestinians, their leadership, their violence, their lack of democracy and their “being held hostage to a comprehensive peace.”

And while others have noted that the speech presents no plan or roadmaps for implementation, it did include some perfectly strange hints of what at least some of the President’s speechwriters may have had in mind. These passages are especially important to consider:

“If the Palestinian people meet these goals [i.e. building a “practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty”], they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt [???] and Jordan [???] on security and other arrangements for independence;

“The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. This will require an externally supervised effort to rebuild and reformé”; and

“With a dedicated effort, this state could rise rapidly, as it comes to terms with Israel, Egypt [???] and Jordan [???] on practical issues such as security.”

While all of these strange hints need to be examined for their intent, some immediate questions do need to be asked. For example, since any forward movement (i.e. an end to the occupation and support for an improved economy) for the Palestinians is conditioned on their becoming a “practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty” (a noble, desired and deserved ambition of most Palestinians) how, one might reasonably ask, do the Palestinians form this democracy under military occupation, without any functioning economy and with their people seething in anger at the devastation of their lives, property and hopes brought to them by their “democratic” neighbor?

And in the absence of any immediate improvement in the daily life of Palestinians, how will it be possible to stop violence? With most Palestinian institutions having been destroyed or dismantled, how will it be possible to proceed? Finally, is the speechwriter suggesting an Egyptian and Jordanian “trusteeship” in the Palestinian lands? Is this the precondition to peace?

So many more questions can be asked, but, in fact, none of them can be answered. Alas the speech was not a roadmap. It was, in fact, an awkwardly made stew, that was the product of too many chefs. It probably needed a 29th or 30th revision to make sense.

The chefs chose from two schools. There were diplomats who wanted to build on the vision of Secretary Powell’s speech and the President’s April 4th effort, and there were also neo-conservative ideologues who have long sought to impose their vision on the US’s Middle East peace making efforts. It appears that diplomats wrote the first draft. The ideologues then fought to insert their own parts. Little effort was made to reconcile their irreconcilable visions. They simply rushed to get it out, after days of internal bickering over timing and content.

As a result of the strangeness of this final product, the State Department is making a noble effort to explain away and make sense out of the pieces that don’t fit.

European leaders are confused (probably a healthy sign). Israeli doves are depressed (a responsible sign). Arab public opinion is furious (a logical response) and Arab leaders who hoped against hope that the President would deliver, are now desperately trying to sort out the parts of the speech that are workable and acceptable (an understandable response).

If you too are confused, that’s a perfectly normal reaction. The contradictory parts of the speech didn’t fit into a clear picture, because they are irreconcilable and just don’t fit. And so, we are left to wait for the competing currents within the Administration to sort out their differences and write yet another speech.

The tragedy in all of this, of course, is while the world tries to make sense out of what just doesn’t make sense, more will die, more will suffer and hope will continue to become an increasingly rare commodity.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.