Richard Reeves

Only Bush Has the Power to Stop the Killing

PARIS -- Yo, Bush. You're not doing so well these days. Watch those open microphones.

With women and children being slaughtered one more time in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and Israel, the president of the United States, thinking no one could overhear him, thanked the prime minister of Great Britain for a birthday sweater and then said: "I felt like telling Kofi to call, to get on the phone to Assad and make something happen. ... Get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh..!"

Have Kofi Annan call? The same Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, that American officials usually mock? Now, in a single week, the United States has seemed ready to turn to the U.N. to solve the insoluble problems of the Middle East and Iran's race to develop nuclear weapons.

Perhaps this president is finally learning why other American presidents created and used the United Nations to advance a decent American agenda for decade after decade. Next, he may learn that there was a time when American presidents made their own telephone calls.

In August 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. That time they were trying to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization. This time it's Hezbollah. During 14 hours on Aug. 12, the Israelis flew 220 bombing sorties over Beirut and fired 44,000 artillery shells into the city. Americans, perhaps more innocent in those days, were horrified by what they saw on television. A Newsweek correspondent cabled home: "Watching the Israeli Air Force smashing Beirut to pieces was like having to watch a man slowly beating a sick dog to death."

The next morning, one of Reagan's longtime assistants, Michael Deaver, came into the Oval Office and told Reagan he was quitting: "I can't be part of this anymore, the bombings, the killing of children. It's wrong. You're the one person on the face of the Earth right now who can stop it. All you have to do is tell Begin you want it stopped."

Accounts of the incident differ slightly -- former Secretary of State George Shultz told me he felt Deaver exaggerated his own role -- but there is no disagreement about what happened that afternoon. Reagan called Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Working from notes, as usual, the American president said the future of relations between the two allies would be affected if the bombing and shelling were not stopped. Reagan used, deliberately, the word "Holocaust" to describe what Israel was doing.

Begin, who never had a good personal relationship with Reagan, was enraged, saying Israel was a sovereign country, not an American colony. Twenty minutes later, he called back the White House and said he was ordering an end to the attack on Beirut.

"Shalom, Menachem," said Reagan as he hung up. He turned to Deaver and said, "I didn't know I had that kind of power."

Why shouldn't we have that kind of power? Israel may be the good guys in a bad neighborhood -- and our guys -- but for most of its history it has been, in effect, an American protectorate. We pay the bills, more than $5,000 per capita each year in an endless aid stream to Israel.

So it is George W. Bush, not Kofi Annan or Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, who has the power. His use of that power has been pathetic, as if he intended to promote chaos rather than democracy in that bloody playground of devils. The single greatest impact Bush has had so far is to multiply Iran's ideological ambitions and temptations in the Muslim world -- and to weaken the two fragile democracies in the area, Lebanon and Palestine. Millions could die if the United States does not figure out sensible uses of its power and ambitions in that part of the world.

It seems obvious that the president's first instinct was to let Israel have its way, while the United States diddled around to give the Israeli military the time (and supplies) to marginalize Hezbollah -- and maybe Hamas in Palestine as well. That is not going to happen. Sooner or later, Bush is going to have to make the tough calls, including one to Israel. Or he can continue to sit by and hope things will work out. The rest of us can only hope someone gives him a history book to read.

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