George W. Bush took office intending to have a presidency focused on domestic policy. Instead, in his sixth year in the White House, Bush finds himself dealing with one international crisis after another, with escalating violence between Israel and its neighbors just his latest intractable problem overseas.
Even before the recent hostilities, of course, Bush's focus moved from trying to change the United States to trying to keep up with changing world events, some imposed upon him and some of his own making. Starting with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, through (on-going) wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror, and nuclear face-offs with Iran and North Korea, and the normal tendency of second-term presidents to shift their attention to the international realm in which they face less resistance from Congress - for all these reasons, Bush has had to turn his time and energy away from his original agenda of a robust domestic agenda towards one with a national security focus.
The current confluence of Middle East violence and the United Nations' grappling with last week's missile launch by North Korea, while Bush is in Europe meeting with the leaders of the world's industrial nations, only serves to remind those in the United States and elsewhere that the world is a dangerous and complicated place that no American leader can control, or ignore.
Bush is keenly aware of how difficult the Middle East has been for past presidents - both those who spent a great deal of time trying to make peace, and those who shied away from such efforts. Bush's father, the nation's 41st president, faced some of his toughest political moments on the international stage dealing with the region, including with Israel.
The current President Bush has sometimes been criticized for paying too little attention to the Middle East peace process, particularly early in his White House tenure. Now, even with no good options, Bush has little choice but to turn some of his focus to the immediate dilemma of the violence while still trying to solve the longer-term issues.
His options, however, are - as is usually the case when it comes to violence and Israel - limited.
Hezballah and Hamas in most ways are more difficult to deal with than even Syria and other Arab states, which used to represent the greatest threats to Israel. The United Nations has relatively little leverage in the region. Ditto for America's allies in Europe.
Bush is left to decry the violence (and hope it ends), denounce those propagating the violence (and hope they eventually lose power), and push to keep alive momentum towards a long-term consensus for peaceful co-existence despite the current unrest. As always, Bush must find a way to demonstrate balance and fairness while at the same time maintaining what many in the region see as a pronounced tilt towards Israel and a zero-tolerance of hostage-takers and terrorists.
In some ways, Iraq is at the root of many of Bush's troubles. The administration has long argued that a peaceful and democratic Iraq would tip a series of dominoes that would include the elimination of terrorist states and groups from the region. Instead, both Iran and North Korea are at least somewhat emboldened in their defiance of the United States and its allies by America's troubles in Iraq.
Middle East harmony has always been elusive, as every new hope for peace has been dashed by a new wave of violence. As Bush meets with his world colleagues in Russia this week, the sense of chaos coming from the Middle East will color not only their meeting but, if these conditions persist, the Bush presidency as well. That will make domestic achievements even more difficult to come by as Bush tries to build a legacy at home - and abroad.