Lamb, cucumber and tomato salad, yogurt, baklava. That is what President George W. Bush ate in the White House, or at least read on the menu last Friday at the Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast, in the company of dozens of guests. In recent years continents have shifted from their positions, Europe has sunk and the Middle East has officially become central to American policy. Israel's expectation that it will concede to the Palestinians, in the avuncular-practical guise of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayad, stems from Bush's feeling that the long and exhausting war against terror and nuclear proliferation, which is liable to continue for decades, justifies a demand from members of the alliance of moderates to sacrifice a little for the sake of the major goal.
Bush is not ignoring internal politics, the voices of a minority that can be influential in close races, especially if it is canvassed. But in foreign affairs and defense, Islam is not just one topic among many, it's the main topic. Toward the end of his presidency, Bush is confronting one active enemy with many faces: extremist Islam. Sunni or Shi'ite, Iranian or Iraqi, Lebanese or Palestinian, everyone who is plotting against the Americans belongs to one extremist wing or another of the Islamic religion.
This picture will become even clearer if Bush succeeds in his efforts to promote reconciliation between the two Koreas. In the service of these efforts Bush pressured the Israeli government to play down North Korea's connections with its newfound nuclear surrogate, Syria. This reconciliation will also have a vital by-product. Since the end of the Cold War, America's center of gravity in Europe has moved from the west and north to the east and south, gaining a quick jump to new fronts. Germany has lost its importance and many American bases there have been closed. Its Asian parallel is South Korea. The tens of thousands of American soldiers who have been serving as a holding force there since the end of the war there 54 years ago, as living proof of Washington's commitment to defend Seoul from Pyongyang, are now very much lacking in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Russia and China are considered competitors and in the future perhaps rivals again - but not enemies - eliminating North Korea from active membership in the "axis of evil" will grant the Middle East almost exclusive attention in Washington. In essence, the division of the world according to Bush into good guys versus bad guys is worded as "moderate Muslims versus extremist Muslims," with the former group needing assistance to keep the latter in check.
Last week an important player joined the Washington arena, Admiral Michael Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) at the Pentagon. Without the support of the senior officer and main military adviser to the president and secretary of defense, the administration will find it difficult to market withdrawal from Iraq and an attack on Iran. Mullen will serve in his position under the next president as well. His appointment was confirmed in the Senate without difficulty because his views are acceptable to the Democrats. He now represents the consistent nature of American policy even more than the politicians who appointed him.
Already in his first document, "CJCS Guidance for 2007-2008," Mullen emphasizes the importance of the Middle East, which is crying out for stability. Among other things, he mentions the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as directly affecting the security of the United States.
The conclusion to be drawn from an analysis of the words of Bush, Mullen and others in the American leadership is that Israeli policy will be persuasive only if it is based on a compromise - far-reaching and involving a significant withdrawal - with moderate forces in the region. Extremists who oppose such a compromise should be presented in their religious rather than national context: confrontation with the ayatollahs, Hezbollah and Hamas, not with Iranians, Lebanese and Palestinians. A refusal to give in to the former, who are trying to destroy Israel, will be accepted with understanding.
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