NEW YORK, April 12 (UPI) -- Jim Jeffords and Yasser Arafat are not names one normally uses in the same sentence, but they do have in common their effect on the presidency of George Bush. Just as Jeffords took away Bush's control of the domestic policy agenda last spring, so Arafat has taken away Bush's control of the foreign policy agenda this spring.
Every president comes to office thinking he will control the agenda, overlooking that what Harold MacMillan called "events, my dear boy, events," are what in fact will control them. And equally overlooking that even the most successful presidents have controlled their own agendas for, at best, a year at a time.
Ronald Reagan, for example, controlled the domestic agenda, with some unanticipated help from John Hinckley, only for the first year of his presidency. The tax bills of 1982 and 1986, in different ways, reflected ideas other than his own. In foreign policy, Reagan was always locked in struggle with the Democrats and finally lost control altogether in the Iran-Contra affair.
George Bush Senior never controlled the domestic agenda at all, and was in command of the foreign policy agenda only during the war with Iraq. Bill Clinton never had control of his foreign policy agenda, which was totally event-driven, and lost control of his domestic agenda shortly after he passed his tax bill. The successes of the rest of the Clinton presidency were successes of a Fabian policy of attrition and retreat.
The Bush dynasty restored came to power with contempt for Clinton and all his doings. Unlike the evil Bill and his minions, THEY would not be the world's firemen, dashing from blaze to blaze at other's calls, nor would they be the "good" boys of multilateralism, putting American interests in hock to an imaginary "world public opinion." One by one, they canceled the Clinton commitments to international agreements.
On the home front, too, the Bush people were proud of their single-minded discipline. They would pass, first, their tax bill, then the rest of their agenda, in lockstep with the narrow Republican congressional majorities.
Ironically, just like all their immediate predecessors, the passage of their tax bill was the sole big victory they would win. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the party, taking with him the Republican Senate majority and the ability of Republicans to control the congressional agenda. In their hubris, Bush's domestic policy team had overlooked the significance of the remaining liberal Republicans.
Well before Sept. 11, it was obvious that, on the stage of domestic policy, Tom Daschle was now as important a figure as George Bush.
Then came Sept. 11, which was, of course, the unexpected "event" which reshaped the Bush presidency. It shot the president's popularity ratings into the stratosphere.
Ironically, although his advisors thought this boost would help Bush carry out his unrelated domestic program, it has largely failed to do so, because no one is paying any attention to domestic affairs.
Nonetheless, since President Bush was getting his best reviews on terrorism and foreign policy, and was now bestriding the earth like a colossus, backed by America's unique combined status as the world's greatest military, economic, and cultural power, surely he now had the "free hand" which his advisors expected to use?
Well, yes and no.
There was one problem, of course, with the popularity of Bush's foreign policy: he didn't have one policy, he had too many. In the course of a single year in office, he has changed his foreign policy line at least four times.
By the last week, faced with a Middle East that seemed to be spinning out of control, it often seemed that the administration was trying out several different policies each day.
How could this have happened? Essentially it happened because when the superpower declared its intention to go after Iraq, it gave an opportunity to every mischief-maker in the world to interrupt its plans.
Leading the way was Arafat. Like Jim Jeffords, he seemed to be an overlooked figure from the past. But the one thing Arafat has been able to do, repeatedly, is not only to survive, but also to use violence in ways designed to force the world to pay attention to his cause.
By unleashing suicide bombers into Israel, he knew he would force Ariel Sharon into retaliation. Arafat played the high-risk strategy of risking his own life before Ariel Sharon's troops, counting on Sharon not to take the last step.
In this cold-blooded judgment Arafat was correct, as he was in his judgment that the mere existence of Sharon as his enemy would make most of the world his tacit allies in his anti-Israel campaign.
And, given the Bush administration's long service to Saudi Arabian interests and the links of the business community to the Saudis, Arafat knew that the one interest in the Bush administration that could be counted upon to override the Right was business.
His gamble came to fruition. Dick Cheney wandered through an unsuccessful mission with results so derisory that, in any other administration, the press would have been up in arms. This time, of course, the allegedly liberal press gave its nth pass to the Bushies. Plans to invade Iraq were stalled, while everyone started to talk about Palestine.
And now Colin Powell is in the Middle East. Getting Palestine off the stage, which was supposed to be the preliminary act to getting Saddam off the stage, now bids fair to be the only act.
Whatever happens next, President Bush is finding that American power doesn't free him from involvements, it sucks him in. It wasn't that Clinton wanted to do all that he did, either; it was just that nothing ever gets done unless America is involved.
The loss of control over events doesn't mean that the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world has suddenly become irrelevant, it simply means that it is functioning as usual. Despite the dreams of theoreticians, reporters, and politicians that presidential power makes one a "free actor," history has asserted itself once more.
Power doesn't give one the power to dictate, it simply gives one a better hand with which to negotiate (by the way, weakness is also not a bad negotiating hand). In this, as in so many other ways, the Bushies are rediscovering the reasons why the hated Clintonistas did the things they did.