Washington — Candidate George W. Bush ran a campaign virtually centered around bringing “honor” and “integrity” to the White House, assuring crowds that — apparently unlike other politicians — the American people could trust him when he gave us his word.
Yet less than two months into his presidency, we have already witnessed reversals of two highly-touted campaign pledges that many in the Jewish community paid special attention to.
Many American Jews wanted to believe Bush when he made one of his few environmental commitments during the campaign — to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Yet he has already unequivocally — and unapologetically — utterly reversed his campaign position on this issue, much to the embarrassment of his own Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Of greater concern to many American Jews, it’s already clear that Bush has not kept — and has no plans to keep — repeated campaign promises to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And his change in policy, in the face of protests by Iran and numerous Arab countries, sends a terrible message.
To be clear, the National Jewish Democratic Council did not argue for the immediate moving of the American embassy in Israel during the 2000 campaign. In fact, then-Vice President Al Gore was very clear in saying that while he was committed to such a move at the appropriate time, the moment — given the peace talks going on at the time — was not right.
But while he took a position based on what we all knew to be true at the time — that this could not happen overnight — Republicans took every opportunity before Jewish audiences to demagogue the issue and belittle Gore’s stand.
Bush repeatedly courted Jewish audiences by promising, “as soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital” (remarks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, May 22, 2000).
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency similarly reported on Dec. 2, 1999, “A Bush spokesman told JTA that the governor supports moving the embassy and Bush has said in the past that he ‘would start the process as soon as I got sworn in.’”
Politics as usual
In fact, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported on the following day, “George W. Bush, the front runner in the race for the Republican presidential candidacy, has declared that he will move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the day he is inaugurated as U.S. president.”
And we’re hardly playing “gotcha” with one misstatement President Bush may have made during the campaign. From December 1999 to October 2000, he repeated the same pledge to AIPAC, B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee and other major Jewish organizations.
So what has happened since? During congressional testimony in the first week of March, Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted, regarding the process of moving the embassy, that “The process is ongoing. We have not started any actions yet.” Then perhaps “inadvertently,” according to The Washington Post, he told members of Congress that Jerusalem was, in fact, Israel’s capital.
But after meeting with a group of Arab Americans at the State Department on March 13, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, emerged and told the Associated Press, “This guy came right out and acknowledged that was a mischaracterization of policy.”
And after a meeting the following day with Jewish leaders, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency seemed to confirm this new reality, reporting, “Jewish leaders were ‘frustrated’ by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s answers to questions about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sources told JTA. The leaders said Powell … was not forthcoming with details of Bush administration policy on moving the embassy, as Bush promised during the election campaign.”
Two months after Bush assumed office, the address of the American embassy in Israel — to nobody’s surprise — remains the same.
So regardless of one’s position on moving the embassy, what’s the harm of such a flip-flop? Why protest politics as usual, even from a president who promised to bring “integrity” and “honor” to the White House?
First, if there’s been a complete change from candidate Bush’s rhetoric to President Bush’s policy, there are right and a wrong ways to handle it. The right way would be for Bush to come out and say it clearly, without confusion, in the straightforward, plain-spoken style that he championed during his campaign.
The wrong way to deal with this, as we have witnessed, is for Bush to send various subordinates — the Secretary of State, the White House press secretary, State Department representatives — to make ever-changing, often-disagreeing statements day after day, leaving us to scratch our heads in confusion. In short, be a mensch and clearly own up to such a policy shift that so dramatically reverses your campaign promises.
Second, many news accounts — including some from The Washington Post and the Associated Press — noted that, as the AP put it, “Iran and several Arab countries were incensed over Powell’s testimony,” thus linking the criticism by Arab states with the reversal of the Secretary of State’s earlier words.
In another vein, the press accounts quoted noted that while Zogby walked out of the State Department claiming victory, Jewish leaders walked away visibly unhappy.
There is an appearance here, for all the world to see, that those who have played the least responsible roles regarding the current Middle East violence, either through word or deed, are rewarded, while American Jewish community leaders are penalized. To put it simply, Bush shouldn’t be rewarding — or appeasing — the wrong entities when flip-flopping.
Ira N. Forman is executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.