By Beatrice Motamedi
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was George W. Bush's birthday.
Not his real birthday, of course that's July 6, 1946. His political birthday, the time for George Bush to join the world and become the president America needs him to be.
Ever since Election Night, Bush has been on one kind of retreat or another. First it was his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he waited for 37 days until the Supreme Court called the election in his favor. Then it was back to the ranch again, where he spent much of August on a "working" vacation after just eight months in the White House.
Early in his presidency, Bush began withdrawing from the world as well, stunning Europe and Japan by pulling out of the Kyoto environmental accords in March, later by announcing that America would unilaterally abandon the ABM treaty. With the U.S. departure from the U.N. conference on racism, America's estrangement seem-ed complete.
But most alarming of all was Bush's decision to retreat from the Middle East. Among the many stories told about Bill Clinton's final days as president was how he worked his phones late into the night, negotiating with Israel and the Palestinians. He was right to try: peace in the Middle East would have made up for Monica, White-water, even Mark Rich.
But a peace treaty didn't happen. And when Bush became president, he seemed to regard Clinton's midnight diplomacy the same way as Hillary's supposed furniture grab just another example of Clintonian excess. Bubba might sweat foreign policy, but Dubya wouldn't. If Israel and Palestine didn't want peace, he said, America wouldn't impose it on them.
And so, over the last several months, like children ignored by a careless parent, Israel and Palestine have been at each other's throats. Freed from even the pretense of peace talks, both sides waded in blood. Bush said little, waiting for someone to make the next move. This week, they did.
With the terrifying attacks on New York and Washington, the Middle East war came home. And as with Vietnam, our televisions reflect a new reality: Instead of Palestinian children dying in street attacks, or Israeli buses being bombed, we have the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the scarred earth of Pennsylvania.
No American alive today will ever forget the footage of the second hijacked plane, a dark shadow veering horribly into the crisp white lines of the World Trade Center. Few will ever step onto an elevator or board a plane without feeling fear. Our skies are silent. Our peace is gone.
How Bush handles the next few months will be his legacy. Some criticized the decision to remove Bush to a military bunker in Omaha during the first hours of the crisis. Yet this was one time when Bush really did have to take cover.
But now that time is over.
We Americans have always been inclined to isolationism. Whether or not to engage with the world or focus on work at home was the subject of the very first debates in Congress. John Adams, the New England farmer, argued with Thomas Jefferson, the Francophile. Even now, we like to think of ourselves as living on an enormous island, thousands of miles from Paris or Tokyo.
But our world is small. And hate anywhere, even in Iraq or Afghanistan, touches us all.
Bush said that we should "make no mistake" America will "pass this test." Yes, we will. But make no mistake what happened to us is, in part, about anger in the Arab world over America's unquestioning support of Israel, as well as about Desert Storm, a war that never really ended.
Being a peace broker is not easy. Sometimes we fail. But in trying, we accomplish more than any smart bomb or surgical strike. We listen, we argue, we lead if we can. We keep our ear to the ground. As Bush might say, that's a president's job.
Hundreds of fire fighters and rescue workers went bravely into the World Trade Center, an inferno that swallowed their lives. The risk was great, and yet they went in.
Returning to the peace table is the least we can do.
Beatrice Motamedi is a freelance writer living in Oakland.