Now the Zinni mission itself is in dispute. "The Israelis accepted General Zinni's ideas; The Palestinians did not," Powell reported Tuesday. According to U.S. officials, Arafat is trying to "lawyer" the terms of Zinni's proposal. In other words, Arafat is negotiating the Zinni agreement to implement the Tenet agreement to implement the Mitchell agreement to implement the Oslo agreement. Bush and his aides, who used to talk about Mitchell as the road to peace, now talk about the road to Mitchell.
One problem with this backward road-building is that it fosters what Bush has called, in the context of education, the soft bigotry of low expectations. It makes it easy to say we're getting somewhere when in fact we're getting almost nowhere. For the past week, reporters have asked Bush and his spokesman Ari Fleischer what the Tenet and Mitchell plans have accomplished. Bush and Fleischer keep brushing aside these questions by talking about how close the Zinni mission has brought us to "getting a chance to get into Tenet." Getting that far, according to Fleischer, would constitute "success."
Another unfortunate consequence is that Bush and Powell have begun to fetishize the Mitchell and Tenet plans. They imagine that Palestinian terrorists and American citizens not only understand these plans, which they don't, but orient their thinking and behavior around them. "This great nation wants us to get into Mitchell as quickly as possible," Bush asserted two months ago. This week, Powell added that the bombers who have struck Israel in recent days "are trying to destroy the Tenet work plan and the Mitchell process." What Bush and Powell can't accept is that Mitchell and Tenet are neither loved nor hated; they're simply irrelevant.
The option to add new steps to the front end of the peace process also makes the viability of the process unfalsifiable. In an old joke, an economist, presented with the problem of opening a can of food on a desert island, begins his solution by stating, "Assume a can opener." The peace process works the same way: When the parties refuse to create the conditions for one stage of the process, you simply tack on a previous stage in which they agree to create those conditions. The Tenet plan, for instance, stipulates that the Palestinian Authority will prevent weapons-smuggling and that Israel won't attack the PA's police buildings. Both sides are thoroughly trampling those commitments. Does that mean the Tenet plan is dead? Not at all, says Powell. Like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, Tenet is just "waiting" to be revived by the Zinni plan.
The principal cost of adding stages to the current peace process is that it blocks out alternatives. Bush talks about Mitchell and Tenet not in conjunction with other steps, such as speaking to Arafat or detailing his proposal for a Palestinian state, but as a pre-emptive substitute for them. "The first step toward any political solution has got to be the Tenet plan," he says. Then, perhaps, the outline of a Palestinian state can be discussed, "if we ever get into the Mitchell process." Tenet and Mitchell, conceived as a means to peace, have become an obstacle to it.
Bush ran for office on a promise to focus on results. In the Middle East, he's lost that thread. "Our focus is to get the parties into a process that the world agrees is a good process," Bush said last month. That's a fine epitaph for Bill Clinton's Middle East policy. If Bush isn't careful, it'll be his as well.