Maybe U.S. foreign policy isn't always the most consistent. But how often do U.S. officials seem to contradict themselves in the very same day? This past Saturday, at 4:30 in the morning eastern time, the administration's delegate to the United Nations

Maybe U.S. foreign policy isn't always the most consistent. But how often do U.S. officials seem to contradict themselves in the very same day?

This past Saturday, at 4:30 in the morning eastern time, the administration's delegate to the United Nations voted in favor of Security Council Resolution 1402, a resolution calling for "the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah." Although the resolution does demand "an immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including all acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction," the vague wording seems to suggest that it is Israel -- not the Palestinians -- engaged in these actions. Indeed, the resolution makes no mention whatsoever of the repeated suicide bombings that precipitated Israeli troops to enter Ramallah. Meanwhile, the resolution also calls for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work toward "resuming negotiations on a political settlement" of the issues between them -- as if the Arabs have now finally accepted Israel's existence, leaving only the details of a settlement to be worked out.

But at 1:40 p.m. of the same day -- not even twelve hours later! -- President George W. Bush struck an entirely different tone during some informal remarks he made at his ranch in Texas. "I fully understand Israel's need to defend herself," he said. Then he launched into a critique of various Middle Eastern leaders. Yasir Arafat and his colleagues, Bush said, "have got to do a much better job of preventing people from coming into Israel to blow up innocent people." Bush said the Iranian government "must step up and stop sponsoring terrorism," and made sure to include the Syrians in that category, too.

Finally, in perhaps the most striking remark any American president has said on this subject in a very long time, he added that "in order for Israel to exist, terror must stop." This may not qualify as a policy statement, but it's important for two reasons. For most of the past decade, U.S. policy has embraced the same notion as Security Council resolution 1402: that the Arab states accept Israel's existence. Bush's statement suggests that Israel must still exert force to win such acceptance from the Arabs. Second, the longstanding premise of U.S. policy is that conventional war or weapons of mass destruction represent the primary threat to Israel's security. Lurking beneath the surface of Bush's statement is a belief that terrorism now occupies a vastly increased role.

Strange though it seems, these dueling positions actually make sense when you consider the two competing priorities of U.S. Middle East policy ever since September 11. One priority is protecting Israel, about which the president and many administration officials have spoken warmly. The other priority is prosecuting America's own war on terrorism. In the fall, that meant recruiting Middle Eastern members for the coalition against the Taliban; today, it means finding Arab support for the expected war against Saddam Hussein. In either case, it's meant appeasing Arab leaders by making votes and issuing statements critical of Israel -- with clenched teeth, if necessary.

Is this such a bad thing? The fact that Bush's support and sympathy for Israel seems genuine and deeply held -- on Saturday he was, surely, speaking from his heart and not his head -- points to the reality that, when it counts, the United States will be there for the Israelis. But this is no way to conduct foreign policy. When the administration sends out such inconsistent signals, other countries are left to wonder just what Washington really wants -- and whether, for that matter, it even has the resolve to fight for its interests.

The shame is, this inconsistency is not even necessary. Even if the support of states like Saudi Arabia is truly essential to the American war on terrorism, muddling U.S. foreign policy won't help win it. Rather than put mock-pressure on Israel to appease the Saudis and others who can help in the Iraq effort, the administration would do better to understand that, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it, "at the end of the day, the Saudis will support the United States in Iraq not because they like us, and not because we promise them a Palestinian state, but only because we leave them no choice." In the president's own words, the Saudis are either with us or against us; and they should know they will pay a very large price for choosing the latter option.