The Washington Times

The twists and turns of the Bush administration’s Middle East diplomacy are the product of the interaction of two basic truths: Everybody knows what the final status looks like, and nobody has the foggiest idea of how to get from here to there.

As for the final status, it goes something like this: Israel withdraws to something like the 1967 borders, with suitable adjustments and offsets, leaving the West Bank [along with Gaza] to become the state of Palestine. The Israeli West Bank settlers return to Israel proper. Jerusalem acquires some international status. The Palestinian “right to return” is established as a right to return to Palestine, not Israel. All Arab states open full diplomatic relations with Israel. An international peacekeeping force deploys in the area for a while.

Israelis and Palestinians get a chance to lead normal lives. For Palestinians, nation-building replaces resistance to occupation as the main event of local politics. For Israelis, a proper international border with a solid fence and a government on the other side brings the prospect of peace through strength and deterrence.

Now, to be sure, this final status is not to everyone’s liking. But it seems likely that if someone could just transport us all from where we are now to the final status described above, the result would be accepted with relief by majorities in Israel and Palestine and also by Americans, Europeans and others.

But there is, of course, no such mode of instantaneous transport. So instead, we seek the next best thing – a map showing a plausible route from here to there.

President Bush yesterday made a major speech trying to offer such a map because an earlier speech was derailed by yet another Palestinian suicide bombing. Israel, in response to the attack, moved more troops into the West Bank. There is a sense in which the Bush administration has been made to look foolish by events: What good is a speech in the context of another couple dozen dead civilians? But I don’t think the fumbling and false starts from the administration are the end of the story. And that’s because the fumbles actually serve a useful pedagogical purpose.

Ever since the Oslo process broke down – or, as I think what happened may more accurately be described, dissolved on its own contradictions – there has been a persistent cry for the United States to intervene and “solve” the problem once and for all. The former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, one of the leading proponents of this view, reiterated it in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post last week.

Because the United States is as powerful as it is, goes the argument, there is no reason the American government cannot insist on the terms of a settlement that both sides would be obliged to accept. Sometimes this argument gets prettied-up: The United States, by insisting, makes it possible to get the parties to agree to things they would never be able to accept otherwise. Thus, they might welcome the pressure, on the grounds that it enables them to get past an impasse unacceptable to either but likewise one from which they see no exit. But ultimately, the argument is about power: We have it, and we should use it. Mr. Vedrine, after all, is the one who coined the term “hyperpower” to describe the novel situation of the United States today.

As I’ve said before here and elsewhere, Mr. Vedrine’s notion of hyperpower is highly useful analytically. It is vitally important, however, to distinguish American hyperpower from the ability of a particular U.S. administration to do anything it pleases. It may be that there are few external constraints on American power, in the form of other powers balancing ours. But that is not to say that American power is unconstrained.

The greatest constraints are domestic and, specifically, they are political. The idea of imposing a solution presupposes the willingness of the American political system to tolerate such a thing. And there is no reason to think ours would. Israel’s cause is simply too popular, in American public opinion and the U.S. Congress. It is naive to leave unaddressed the matter of how the “imposing” gets done. That is precisely the question.

For all the unpleasantness of the spectacle, the fruitless travels to the region by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the on-again, off-again White House measures to address the problem have had the salutary effect of showing anybody who is paying attention that U.S. capacity is not unlimited. There is much we can do, but we can’t do everything.