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White House Retracts Statement Criticizing Clinton's Middle East Policy - 2002-03-01

White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer has taken the unusual step of criticizing the foreign policy of a former U.S. president. He says the aggressive Middle East diplomacy pursued at the end of the Clinton administration may have done more harm than good.

Mr. Fleischer surprised White House reporters with his comments about Bill Clinton's Middle East policy. He was asked why the Bush administration was not interested in bringing all the parties together for Mideast peace talks much like President Clinton did in July 2000.

The White House spokesman said that sort of all-out approach led to over-expectations, which ultimately resulted in more violence in the region. He said they [the Clinton administration] pushed the parties too far, and ended up with nothing. In his words: "they shot for the moon."

The former president's office quickly responded to Ari Fleischer's comments which were made away from television cameras and radio microphones. Julia Payne, President Clinton's press secretary, accused Mr. Fleischer of passing blame, saying the Bush administration would be better off devoting its energies to the peace process.

White House officials tried to calm the waters. When the time came for his televised daily briefing, Mr. Fleischer cast his earlier comments in a somewhat different light. He said President Bush looks to the past for guidance when determining which course of action to pursue in the Middle East.

"The president's approach is to learn the lessons of all previous presidents. And that is something I think that all previous presidents, including President Clinton, tried valiantly to do: to achieve peace in the Middle East," said Mr. Fleischer. "No United States president is to blame for violence in the Middle East. The only people who are to blame are the terrorists who carry the violence."

But the political storm created by his original statement did not go away. Hours after the briefing, Ari Fleischer issued a rare formal apology. In a written statement, the White House spokesman said he mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was linked to the Clinton administration's failed diplomacy. He said that is not the position of the Bush administration, adding that President Bush supported President Clinton's efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace.