THE "compassionate" president could use a little compassion himself right now.
While George W. Bush masterfully rose to the occasion after Sept. 11 in launching America's war on terrorism, he's not faring as well on his quick and steep learning curve about the Israeli-Palestinian war.
The former Texas governor wasn't fully prepared for the historical details, moral ambiguities, and diplomatic nuances of America's longest, thorniest foreign dilemma.
He's suddenly discovered that all the differences and contradictions in American society about Israel and the Palestinians are reflected among his closest security advisers. He's faltered in his off-the-cuff comments on the situation, even as he's probably reached the point where he can't just read a speech written by others.
Mr. Bush is finding his way through this wilderness and must make some lonely, presidential choices. Otherwise, the peace train his father got rolling and Bill Clinton tried to accelerate will derail even more.
It's unfortunate that American presidents have been thrust into this role of always plucking peace out of Mideast fires. But Israel's protection and the Palestinians' plight are two causes now tightly woven into the domestic politics and foreign interests of the wealthiest, strongest nation.
A president ignores these two causes or stays ignorant of them at his peril, as Bush has discovered. And he must learn how to distinguish US interests from other peoples'.
An American leader must check an instinct to side with every Israeli action or to sympathize with all the Palestinian frustrations that compel even girls to become mobile bombs.
Bush's flip-flop on those instincts was made clear this week. At first he winked in approval at Israel's invasion of the West Bank to root out terrorists. But then his secretary of State decided that the Palestinians could not suffer the destruction of their cities and be expected to end their general support of the bombings. Mr. Powell wants to move to a political solution even before a truce is set.
That difficult choice reflects the subtle difference between Israel's war and America's. Up to now, Bush has seen them as strategically equal. But the difference is this: Israel will eventually need to live next to the millions of Palestinians it is now oppressing, while the United States must merely destroy Al Qaeda and shut down the governments that support it.
Like many Americans, Bush is climbing through the morass of Mideast details and shadings in search of peace.
He can use a kind but firm nudge.