Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post
November 26, 2007 - 12:40pm

The opening of Tuesday's Middle East conference in Annapolis, seven years into the Bush administration, is a reminder of how little the traditional concept of brokering an Arab-Israeli settlement through an ongoing "peace process" has figured into President Bush's foreign policy.

Another is Bush's near-absence from the Middle East during his presidency. He has traveled to the region four times, but two of those visits were one-day trips to Iraq, and one was for a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The only time Bush traveled for the express purpose of trying to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace agreement came in 2003. He met Arab allies in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and then attended a three-way summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, then prime minister and now president of the Palestinian Authority.

Bush's record stands in contrast to that of former president Bill Clinton, who traveled to the Middle East seven times, all but one visit focused on the peace process in one form or another, according to records kept by Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS Radio correspondent. Of course, Bush and his advisers have been dismissive of the Clinton approach to peacekeeping, so that may not be a comparison the White House sees as significant.

One interesting fact is that Bush has never traveled to Israel as president. The country has not necessarily been a regular stop for U.S. presidents, although Clinton went three times, but Bush has been such an outspoken ally and defender of Israel that his lack of travel there seems curious.

Bush visited Israel once, as Texas governor in 1998, in a trip that proved significant in the evolution of his foreign-policy thinking. Sharon took Bush on a helicopter tour of Israel and the occupied territories, and the two seemed to bond. (By contrast, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat missed a chance, while in Washington for a visit, to meet the future president. Arafat would later be shunned by Bush in one of his first key Middle East diplomatic moves.)

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe says Bush "talks fondly of that visit," adding, "He stays in close and regular contact with Israeli officials and looks forward to going at some point."

The civil war in Bushworld over Michael Gerson does not appear to be over. Former White House speechwriter Matthew Scully made waves three months ago with his blistering portrait of Gerson in the Atlantic magazine, describing the former White House speechwriter as a self-promoter who stole credit for speech language from his lesser-known colleagues.

Now, David Frum, a former White House speechwriter and colleague of Gerson and Scully's, is out with his own account, and he sides with Scully.

"I worked closely with Gerson and Scully, and I know both men well, as I do the third member of that once-intimate band, John McConnell," Frum wrote in last week's issue of National Review. "I witnessed the events Scully chronicled, and I can attest to the accuracy of Scully's account."

In a review of Gerson's new book, "Heroic Conservatism," Frum offers several examples of what he terms the author's self-aggrandizement, saying that Gerson inflated his role in the development of the president's AIDS initiative in Africa and in writing a potential concession speech for George W. Bush on Election Day 2000.

Gerson, now a Washington Post columnist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, did not respond to requests for comment. He previously expressed shock over the criticism and said that he never sought to steal credit from colleagues.

The attack on Gerson has prompted a furious counterattack from many current and former White House aides, and it's hard for an outsider to know what to make of the competing versions of recent history. One thing is certain: Things may have been more tense and complex inside the White House than the gauzy picture of convivial teamwork commonly presented by many current and former officials.

The defeat Saturday of Australian Prime Minister John Howard means one more member of the White House's "Coalition of the Willing" has bitten the dust politically. Howard follows Spain's Jos¿ Mar¿a Aznar, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Tony Blair as leaders who either lost office or suffered politically from their close association with President Bush and the Iraq war.

But there's always an exception to the rule: Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, another close Bush pal and Iraq war supporter, rolled to victory in national elections Nov. 13. Perhaps another invite to Camp David is in the offing.

In an interview last week with ABC News, President Bush offered a few details of how his future son-in-law, Henry Hager, asked for Jenna Bush's hand in marriage. Hager approached Bush while on a visit to Camp David, saying he wanted to talk. Bush said that he knew what was up; he had already asked Jenna what she would do if Hager proposed, and she said she would accept enthusiastically.

"He came in and, and gave a very . . . adept presentation," Bush said, although he acknowledged he cut Hager off. "You got a deal," Bush said he told Hager, before his future son-in-law could get in all his "talking points."


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