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Bush should focus on Mideast, energy

At home and abroad, the headlines last week offered the same message: On issues of vital American interest, there's no substitute for presidential leadership.

Throughout his political career, President Bush has preferred to operate with a concentrated focus on a few priorities. That's served him well in organizing a systematic response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the world doesn't permit any president the luxury of tunnel vision. When a president doesn't engage a difficult problem, bad things usually happen. Which is the lesson of the past few days from disparate events in the Middle East and on Capitol Hill.

In the Middle East, the violence reached the point that Bush felt compelled to dramatically escalate his administration's involvement in the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. In rapid fire, Bush sent back his special envoy to the region after a 60-day hiatus, engineered passage of a U.N. resolution on the crisis and for the first time, condemned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for the bloodshed.

This flurry was equally welcome and overdue. When the Bush team first arrived, they appeared guided in the Middle East largely by a determination not to do whatever the Clinton administration had been doing. President Clinton immersed himself in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. So Bush came in cool and distant. Secretary of State Colin Powell even declared that American "overinvolvement . . . tends to keep people (in the region) from making the kinds of decisions they have to make."

It probably made sense for Bush initially to step back after the failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000 and Clinton's frenetic search for agreement in his final days in office. But the past year has demonstrated the danger of sustained U.S. disengagement. No American president can solve the Middle East problem (no leader anywhere may be able to solve the problem in terms of producing lasting harmony). But the horrifically escalating violence has validated the grim prediction of Dennis Ross, the special Middle East envoy for both Clinton and the administration of Bush's father, who last summer warned that if the United States leaves the two sides "to their own devices, things will (only) get worse."

It's taken Bush some time to reach that conclusion himself. But his latest moves suggest he now understands that allowing the conflict to spiral out of control threatens American interests (such as maintaining a secure coalition against terror). Close observers say the administration is still leery of assuming as much responsibility as Clinton did for brokering any deal. But Bush may have no choice but to plunge in more deeply than he wants, just to avoid all-out war. It turns out that keeping Israel and the Palestinians from each other's throats isn't an optional part of the president's job.

The stakes aren't as high, but the need for greater presidential engagement is just as great back at home in the faltering push for a comprehensive energy plan.

If anything, the turmoil in the Middle East should intensify our efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But in a lopsided vote last week, the Senate killed the energy bill's principal means of reducing domestic oil consumption: a mandate that auto companies significantly improve fuel economy in cars, trucks and SUVs. Instead, the Senate voted to let the Transportation Department set the standard. This week, in perfect parallel, the Senate will likely reject the bill's principal idea to increase domestic oil production: a measure to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration. While the bill still contains some worthwhile ideas _ like requiring government and utilities to buy more of their electricity from renewable sources such as solar _ it's not clear they will survive this week's debate. Even if they do, they wouldn't make much of a near-term dent in America's foreign oil habit.

This outcome was depressingly predictable. In 1992, the last time Congress tried to craft a comprehensive energy plan, that bill also passed only after the fuel economy and arctic drilling provisions were removed. The result was legislation that did nothing to reverse our growing reliance on foreign oil. In 1992, imports provided 46 percent of America's oil. Now it's up to 59 percent. If nothing changes, the Energy Department projects that the figure will near 66 percent by 2011. Even with better fuel economy and arctic drilling, experts say America's reliance on foreign oil would continue to grow. But it would grow much less quickly _ and sometimes, as in the Middle East, it's a genuine victory just to avoid the worst-case scenario.

Energy legislation has been derailed by a familiar syndrome in Washington: the all-or-nothing delusion. Democrats (joined by environmentalists) believe they can pass the fuel economy standards while blocking Arctic drilling. Republicans (working with the oil and auto industries) believe they can open the arctic while blocking tougher mileage standards. But the unavoidable lesson of the past decade is that neither side can impose its preference on the other. Demanding all, each gets nothing. "It's the same issues year after year," sighs Rachel Bronson, a national security analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Unfortunately, Bush so far has bought into the all-or-nothing delusion. He has pushed hard for arctic drilling and opposed the tougher fuel economy standard. That's the classic, head-down, pound-the-line legislative strategy Bush has employed on most issues.

But this is a moment that calls not so much for determination as imagination in the Oval Office. Even if Bush can restore arctic drilling when the energy bill reaches a House-Senate conference committee, Democrats would just filibuster the legislation when it returns to the Senate. A better option is a national security compromise: significantly improved fuel economy standards in return for increased domestic drilling.

Legislators in both parties have been unable to rise above the pull of their own constituency groups to envision such a breakthrough. Only the president could make it happen. Without a new presidential initiative, there's little hope of breaking the impasse on energy. Or, even more urgently, breaking the bloody impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.

+ Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the Los Angeles Times. +

Los Angeles Times