Consistency and predictability are core strengths of George W. Bush as a politician. Be the issue domestic (taxes, education) or foreign (terrorism, Iraq), once he settles on a policy he sticks with it. There is no ambiguity, no guessing what his real position might be, no despair at interpreting contradictions. Even his detractors never complain about "Tricky George" or "Slick Bush."
But there is one exception to this pattern. And - couldn't you have predicted it? - the topic is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, Bush not only seems unable to make up his mind, but he oscillates between two quite contrary views.
For example, at the height of the Palestinian assault against Israel last April, the president delivered a major address that contained within it a flagrant contradiction.
* He began by slamming Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) for its terrorism against Israelis, and he fingered several groups, one of them (Al-Aqsa Brigades) under Arafat's control, attempting to destroy Israel. In this spirit, not surprisingly, Bush approved of Israeli efforts at self-protection, saying that "America recognizes Israel's right to defend itself from terror."
* Then, in concluding the speech, he drew policy conclusions at odds with this analysis. The president asked Palestinian leaders to make some nominal gestures to prove they are "truly on the side of peace," then demanded that Israel's government reciprocate with four giant steps (halt its military efforts, withdraw from areas it had recently occupied, cease civilian construction in the occupied territories and help build a viable Palestinian state).
In sum, Bush theoretically backed Israel and condemned Arafat while practically he backed Arafat and punished Israel. All this left most observers stumped.
Their puzzlement then grew, specifically about the requirements for a Palestinian state. In June 2002, amid much fanfare, the president unveiled a major initiative making this contingent on significant changes in Palestinian behavior: "When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors," he said, "the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state."
Three months later, the State Department furtively unveiled a contrary initiative, something it called the "concrete, three-phase implementation road map." This road map can plan on a Palestinian state by 2005 by dispensing with Bush's requirements of the PA and instead requesting only token assurances from it.
This duality leads to heartburn on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as no one can quite figure out U.S. policy. One thesis is that the White House and the State Department have separate plans. That appears to be what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thinks and explains why he has ignored the road map and focused on the president's June speech.
As though in reply to this, in a major address to the American Enterprise Institute last week, Bush signaled his endorsement of the road map: "It is the commitment of our government - and my personal commitment - to implement the road map," he said.
And yet, doubts persist.
When a politician acts inconsistently, it usually signals an attempt to please opposed constituencies. In this case, President Bush feels pressure from the Republican voters who put him in office to help Israel protect itself. A Gallup poll last month showed 80 percent of Republicans holding a favorable opinion of Israel, and no politician ignores a number like that.
But the pressure for a Palestinian state is no less impressive, coming from a wide range of influential forces, ranging from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Democrats in Congress and beyond them to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Arab leaders.
Observing these contradictions through two years of the Bush administration leads me to one main conclusion: In key ways - sympathy for Israel's plight, diplomatic support, providing arms - Bush tends to ignore his own Palestinian-state rhetoric and stand solidly with Israel. His statements demanding this from Israel and promising that to the Palestinians appear to be a sop to outside pressure, not operational policy.
In short, look at what President Bush does, not what he says, and you'll find his usual consistency, this time hiding under a veneer of apparent indecision.
If this is accurate, then the road map is for show, not true policy, and U.S. endorsement of a Palestinian state remains remote.