WHO has done the most for Middle East peace, George Bush or Jimmy Carter? The Iraq war or the Camp David accords? This is unfair but instructive to ask.
Mr. Carter was advantaged by the readiness of two men, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, to reach an accord between Egypt and Isreal.
Bush's opportunity may not look like Carter's. Secretary of State James Baker, the world's most important emissary today, has been back to Israel. The Soviet Union is too tuckered out with internal problems to play an obstructionist role. Baker put together an international coalition to stop Iraq's Saddam, and a similar approach may or may not help arrange a West Bank accord. Syria's Assad uttered a loud "no" to the latest Baker inquiry. And Israel busily erects settlements in occupied territory. So wha t's new?
Eventually our most intractable problems do consent to progress. Note how over a very few years authoritarian rule has ebbed in Latin America, Africa, and the East bloc.
And what happened to the campus unrest of the '60s? It disappeared only to emerge in a new form. It focuses not on Vietnam or self-oriented expression but on mental and physical violation (rape, racism, drugs), job insecurity (today's graduates earn some 15 percent less on average than their parents with similar diplomas), and ethics (Stanford's and Harvard's government contract version of the Pentagon's $125 hammer).
Intractable public issues do not differ from intractable private issues. Seeing this makes it easier to deal with both.
The basic problem is the sheer obduracy of human thought, a stubbornness in the human race, a will to have one's way, the comic and tragic mortal blindness long recorded in literature.
Thought must be readied for change.
Time and again we have seen that a change of character must precede a change in conduct.
Is the Middle East ready for peace?
Baker need not mistake his mission. Why have another failed Middle East diplomat? Washington already has enough of them.
Baker should accept no false deadlines. To accept that he must act quickly to cash in on America's new stature after the war is a temptation. A false urgency would be exploited. Nor should he feel crowded by Israel's rush to erect settlements: What can be built quickly can be razed quickly. Threatening Israel or Syria also would not work. Attacking obduracy hardens it. Smashing it, as in war, can lead to worse conditions.
No, Baker needs a constructive goal. Something clearly superior to the chronic "no-ness" of the Middle East. This need only represent the conviction that the idea of democracy is the most powerful force in the world today. This idea says that right government is based on the consent of the individual, that government exists not for its own authority but to enable the citizen to stand with dignity among neighbors.
Another temptation is to think that change - good or bad - comes in an instant of time. Lucite, lore says, was discovered by an accident in a chemistry laboratory over one night. Or a tendon is torn during a basketball game. A chiropractor friend who works with athletes, and happens to be a Mr. Olympia physique champion, observes that people think their injuries result from immediate action when more often they reflect an accumulation of inefficient movements, faults in style, or overly aggressive form.
There is a principle here, whether we are talking about the body politic, the human body, or what we call the body of thought, individual and collective, in areas like the Middle East. All benefit from the same regimen. A mentality fortified by balance, good will, and intelligence must lead discussion, not preoccupation with details. Diplomatic results are the byproduct of right relations.
Washington is not really a party to the Middle East dispute, despite the impression that Washington is Israel's advocate. America's interest is to seek justice for the Palestinians while making sure that Israel does not get wiped off the map.
Is the Middle East safer than it was four months ago? Baker does not have to answer that question. To address the consciousness of the world's foreign-relations community is his task. He is suited to this. He can observe the admonition to shake dust from one's feet - to avoid wasting effort on mentalities self-sealed against progress. The no-sayers need him more than he needs them.