Bombs were exploding and innocents dying, from Beirut to Haifa to Baghdad, and yet George Bush managed to pose for yet another photo op, smiling as he gave the thumbs up at the close of the G-8 summit. Thanks to an unsuspected open mike, however, we could also glimpse the mindset of a leader unaccountably pleased with his ignorance of the world.
What seemed to interest him most at that farewell get together of leaders bitterly divided over a disintegrating Mideast was not some last-minute proposal for peace but rather the fact that it would take China President Hu Jintao eight hours to fly home from St. Petersburg to Beijing.
Bush had started the exchange by noting, absurdly, that, "This is your neighborhood, doesn't take you long to get home." Uh, yeah, incurious George, sure thing. Never mind that St. Petersburg is in Europe, on Russia's northwestern corner, due north of Turkey, and Beijing is on the eastern edge of mainland Asia.
"You, eight hours? Me too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country," he said when corrected, sounding for all the world like an earnest kindergartner, processing new information. "Russia's big and so is China."
Unfortunately, Bush's private remarks to British Prime Minister Tony Blair several minutes later also revealed a cluelessness about more important matters: Israel's bloody assault on Lebanon, its causes and possible solutions.
"See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over," he said, apparently referring to the guerilla force's firing of rockets into Israel. "I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with [Syrian leader Bashir] Assad and make something happen."
While it is refreshing to note that our President employs language that would earn a radio shock jock a fine from his own rabid obscenity-sniffers at the FCC, his profound ignorance is appalling. Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah all have their own hardcore agendas--Syria is just one player in the tortured region. Furthermore, Bush's complete disinterest in the Mideast peace process--especially as an "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians--since the Supreme Court handed him the job in 2000 has paved the way for this moment.
But should we be surprised at Bush's poor grasp of the world he supposedly leads? After all, the blundering of the Bush Administration has seriously undermined secular politics in the Mideast and boosted the religious zealots of groups like Hezbollah to positions of pre-eminence throughout the region, from savagely violent Iraq to the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza.
But what is truly "ironic" is that the Bush Administration, having overstretched our military and generated no foreign policy ideas beyond the willy-nilly "projection" of military force, has become a helpless bystander as the entire region threatens to burn.
Responding to Bush, Blair at least sounded somewhat constructive, offering to go directly to the Mideast and pave the way for a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In this, he seemed to be unwittingly aligned with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who expressed on Sunday frustration with her successor for not leaving the conference to engage in emergency shuttle diplomacy in the Mideast.
Where Albright was critical of the "disaster" in Iraq for distracting from the dormant Mideast peace process, Rice was shrilly defensive.
"For the last sixty years, American administrations of both stripes--Democrat, Republican--traded what they thought was security and stability and turned a blind eye to the absence of democratic forces, to the absence of pluralism in the region," she said Sunday. "That policy has changed."
While this is certainly a dramatic sound bite, the words have no logical meaning: The United States continues to embrace the dictatorships of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as has been the case for sixty years. In fact, Bush has added Libya to the "approved" list. Meanwhile, Israel is attacking elected governments in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon with US support.
As for the democracy in Iraq that Bush wants Russia to emulate, things haven't worked out as neocons like invasion architect Richard Perle had hoped when he fantasized about Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi leading Baghdad to recognize Israel. On Sunday, according to Reuters, the notoriously divided Iraqi parliament unanimously passed a motion condemning the Israeli offensive and urging the UN Security Council and Group of Eight leaders meeting to intervene "to stop the ... Israeli criminal aggression."
Instead of creating a malleable US-Israel ally, the overthrow of the secular Sunni leader Saddam Hussein has extended a fiery arc of Shiite-dominated religious fanaticism blazing across the Mideast skyline that betrays Bush's claim to be bringing democracy and stability to the region.