In any descent into folly, there is a tipping point. Before that happens, there's a chance to reverse course and avert disaster. But after the crucial moment arrives, failure is inevitable, and the only question is just how badly things will actually turn out.
No, I'm not talking about the Bush administration's Iraq policy, its hurricane recovery efforts or the fallout from the Valerie Plame leak case. Rather, the really bad mistake Washington is about to commit is one that has generated no outrage from the press or worries about declining poll numbers.
Ironically, it was at Bush's meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week - an event that provided a respite from bad press - at which the greatest administration blunder of the month occurred: Bush gave Abbas the green light to allow Hamas terrorists to keep their arms and run in next January's Palestinian elections.
Not only does this contradict Bush's own challenge to the world that it must choose between terror and democracy; it also gives the lie to the administration's position on what is acceptable in the efforts to establish a government in Iraq.
Terror and Politics Don't Mix
Some of the administration's defenders will claim that excluding Hamas or any other Islamist movement would undermine democracy.
But nothing could be further from the truth. A political party in a democracy does not need an army, let alone a terrorist wing.
Excluding armed gangs from the status of genuine democratic parties is simple common sense. How, we must ask Bush, can an election be considered fair when the contending parties can intimidate voters and the media at will?
Of course, would it be fair to exclude Hamas while including Fatah, which has its own "armed wing" - the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade - that murdered three Israeli teenagers in cold blood the day before the Washington meeting?
But to even ask such questions is to ponder issues that the administration is unwilling to face. The Bush team's approach to the Israel-Arab conflict has boiled down to a simple prayer that somehow Mahmoud Abbas can transform Palestinian politics and culture from one of terrorism and war to one of peace.
Needless to say, they're simply dreaming.
But rather than merely excoriate the administration and its cheerleaders in the press on the issue (often the same group that is screaming for Bush's head on every other topic), it would be more useful to ask why they're doing it, and what can possibly be done to rectify the situation.
What has made Abbas Bush's man in Ramallah?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that with the war in Iraq still hanging in the balance, the need to keep the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians calm has trumped the administration's ability to distinguish between fact and fiction about Abbas. Bush's team has apparently concluded that it must prop up Abbas no matter what he does - or doesn't do - to preserve any chance of peace. Since they see the choice as being between Abbas and the abyss, they choose the former.
In Bush's defense, it must be admitted that the Israeli government has come perilously close at times to the same position. Since it feels it must have someone on the other side to talk to, even if peace is impossible, the conclusion has been better Abbas than anyone else.
But here in the United States, this realpolitik approach has been transformed into a genuine cheering section for Abbas among the foreign-policy elite. It makes sense that those whose careers were sunk by belief in the Oslo disaster would say this, but what in heaven's name are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her boss, who presumably are free of the Oslo infection, doing?
The answer is that they're slowly being sucked into the same pattern that characterized American policy during the Oslo era. So convinced was the Clinton administration of the need to preserve Yasser Arafat as a peace partner that they preferred to deceive themselves and others in order to avoid facing the truth about him. The same is going on now with Abbas, whose meeting with Bush last week had all the earmarks of Clinton's endless romancing of Arafat.
True, Abbas plays his role as would-be peacemaker much better than his former chief. He dresses properly, and adopts the right tone of conciliation when called upon to do so.
But when he uses his Rose Garden photo op to push for the release of blood-stained terrorists - whom he had the chutzpah to call "prisoners of freedom" - it is clear that it's still the terror chiefs who call the shots, not any would-be democrats.
Abbas is, after all, a veteran bureaucrat of Palestinian terror. That would not be crucial if he had genuinely changed his - and his government's - position, but he hasn't.
No matter how much American and European money he gets (and haven't we all seen that movie before?), Abbas can no more ask Hamas to give up killing Jews than he could ask his own followers to do so. Nor can he possibly end the incitement to violence and hatred of Israel that is routine within the official Palestinian media without undermining his own legitimacy.
So much for the virtues of "moderation."
The Bush administration is right to say democracy should apply to everyone, including the Arabs. But if Palestinian politics is predicated on terrorism, then we have to ask what value is democratic competition between armed gangs?
And that's the box that the increasingly hapless administration is about to find itself in.
Having stiffed Ariel Sharon on Hamas and signaled Abbas that he's under no pressure to disarm, Bush is heading toward a moment when he'll be forced to make a hopeless choice between two equally unacceptable alternatives: Once the Palestinian electorate speaks, Bush will have to recognize a Fatah-Hamas coalition government and thereby giving the lie to its anti-terror strategy. Or he can tell the Palestinians at that point that relations with terrorists are impossible and undermine his otherwise exemplary Middle East democracy project.
Paying for Folly
Either way, the stage will be set for a renewed intifada, whenever the Palestinians decide that violence will again gain them more than talk. One can hope that then Bush will react properly and again back Israel, but by then it will be too late to avert the damage. Israel will pay for this folly in blood. The United States will pay in damaged credibility that will hurt the war effort in Iraq.
Bush could have laid it on the line to Abbas about Hamas and his own killers. But the belief that this particular Palestinian is indispensable appears to have overcome any sense of danger.
The tipping point is fast approaching. But it appears that few in the administration realize that they have already struck a devil's bargain with Abbas.
Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: email@example.com .