St. Petersburg -- It was one of those rare moments in international diplomacy. President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were overheard having a private conversation about the Middle East. Although the comments have now been widely reported, few have pointed out how revealing the exchange is regarding the men's view of the region.
Having been in St. Petersburg as a commentator for Sky news, I was able to hear the tape, which provides even more insight than the transcript. There are three key points that struck me in the conversation.
First is Bush's disdain toward UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He talks about the UN as if it was some kind of alien organization and Kofi Annan as if he is naïve about the situation. He suggests that Annan doesn't understand that Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, are the real problem. Instead, he says dismissively, all Annan cares about is a ceasefire.
But perversely, when it comes time to try and rein in Hizbollah, Bush acts as if Annan is the man to solve the problem. He indicates that if the UN Secretary General would just get on the phone to Damascus, he could convince Syrian President Bashir Assad to persuade Hizbollah to release the prisoners, stop the shelling into Israel and agree to disarm and accept the authority of the weak Lebanese government.
Why Bush thinks Bashar Assad would respond so quickly to the U.N. is hard to fathom. Which brings us to the next key point.
Second, the United States has been so disengaged from the diplomacy in the region that it has little leverage with key players. Tony Blair ever so gingerly suggests that he could travel to the Middle East before Secretary of State Rice. And then, in his self-deprecating way, he says that his trip could just involve talking to the parties while Secretary Rice's trip would have to be a success.
The British are confirming what many have suspected. The United States is afraid to engage in Middle East diplomacy without a guarantee of success. That is a pretty high standard in this volatile region. The truth is everybody knows how hard it is to make progress in the Middle East. One of the sources of anti-Americanism is that Washington won't even accept its responsibility to try. And what Blair's comments show is that nobody even expects the U.S. to show leadership anymore.
The first President Bush and President Clinton understood that, like it or not, Syria has influence in the region. Since both wanted to help solve problems rather than simply bemoan them, they sent their Secretaries of State to deal with Hafez Assad. Often, when it came to situations like this, he responded. Think of the absurdity. President Bush has outsourced our role in this crucial area to an international diplomat - the UN Secretary General - who he thinks is naïve.
The third and final point relates to Bush and Blair's analysis of Syria's President Assad. They seem to think Assad shares Dick Cheney's view that Iraq is a successful democracy. And they say that Assad is worried that the Israelis and Palestinians are on the verge of clinching an historic peace agreement. Because of the success of democracy in Iraq and Palestine, Assad is afraid of being left out of the new Middle East. And that's why he is trying to mess things up through Hizbollah. So goes the Bush-Blair logic.
Syria is surely playing a pernicious role with Hizbollah, but probably not for the reasons that Bush and Blair suggest. More likely, he is looking to be taken seriously as an influential player.
But Assad's motivations notwithstanding, the most depressing aspect of the Bush-Blair conversation is that the two could be operating under these kinds of illusions. If they really think Iraq is going so well and that peace is about to break out between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then we shouldn't be surprised at why crisis after crisis is now coming to a boil around the world. Whether it is the near civil war in Iraq, the war between Israel and Lebanon, the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile tests, the Iranian nuclear program, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the latest taped threats from Osama Bin Ladin, the reversals of democracy in Russia, the world is desperate for wise and effective American leadership. But if that conversation between Bush and Blair really reflects their ability to assess problems in the world, we shouldn't expect much wisdom or much leadership from either Washington or London.