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Bush in the Middle East: mission accomplished?

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Robin Lustig | 16:42 UK time, Thursday, 17 January 2008

I’m glad I’m not the hapless individual who has to prepare a digest of Middle East press comment for President Bush after his trip round the region. He wouldn’t like it much.

He’d like it even less if I pointed out to him that in most of the countries he visited, the newspapers are either controlled by, or are close to, those very same leaders who received him with such apparent warmth and showered him with gifts.

Just a couple of examples to give you a flavour: the Saudi Gazette, which undiplomatically contrasted Mr Bush’s visit with that of another guest dignitary – “It would be difficult to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the Kingdom was not in almost every way a success … It's refreshing to see a Western leader come to the Kingdom speaking of peace rather than just issuing warnings …” Ouch.

And the Jeddah-based Arab News: "It is impossible to feel any excitement about Bush's words, because no Palestinian, no Arab believes he will, or can, deliver.”

In Beirut, which was not on the President’s itinerary, a commentator in Al-Mustaqbal wrote: “No country in the world has been more successful than the United States in making itself hated by nations, especially among the poor classes, the marginalised, and the liberals …”

The bloggers were no kinder. In Bahrain, they complained bitterly about the disruption caused by the Presidential cavalcade. “Roads were blocked all over … George W simply screwed up our day. It’s amazing, just by being here he can screw things up! It's like he has an aura around him or something!”

In Israel, the complaint was exactly the same. “Jerusalem traffic has already slowed to about half its usual speed. Military choppers keep buzzing overhead in both Jerusalem and Ramallah ... People are avoiding making appointments for the next couple of days. This had better be good.”

The President had two priorities on this week-long tour: to persuade Arab leaders to take seriously his belief that there can be peace between Israelis and Palestinians before the end of the year, and to share his conviction that Iran remains the biggest threat in the region.

He seems to have made little headway on either. On Iran, the English-language Beirut-based Daily Star wrote: “Arab audiences still seem less worried today about the possibly nefarious aims of the Islamic Republic than they are about the US president's proven track record of stirring up chaos and instability in the region. Indeed, fears that another Iraq-style calamity will occur on their doorstep have prompted several Gulf Arab leaders to reach out to their Iranian neighbors like never before in a bid to ease regional tensions.”

As for his insistence that the US is promoting the spread of democracy in the region, critical commentators pointed to the countries he visited – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt – in all of which democracy is conspicuous mainly by its absence.

The New York Times, reporting on the President’s three-hour visit to Egypt, said: “President Bush lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt … emphasising the country’s role in regional security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while publicly avoiding mention of the government’s actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities.”

In a year from now, Mr Bush will be preparing to leave the White House at the end of his eight years in office. I have the distinct impression that those he met over the past week have already made a note in their diaries. “January 21, 2009: phone White House. Talk to new President.”


  1. At 10:29 PM on 20 Jan 2008, Mark wrote:

    Did President Bush accomplish his mission in the Middle East? Well that depends on what his REAL mission was and of course a lot of words and events related to that mission never got anywhere near the press. On the surface, based on what was reported the answer is clearly no. But what could he have really been after (President Bush is hardly an avid student of history, a legacy was not likely on his mind.) If all the Israelis have to complain about from the best friend they ever had in the White House is a day of snarled traffic, they should just shut up and forget about it. My hunch was that he gave Israel another green light to take whatever measures it felt necessary to defend itself against the Palestinians and that appears to be exactly what they are doing. The US government's secret position is probably the same as the Israeli government's secret position, divide and conquer and that there should never be a Palestinian state. And the Palestinians could hardly cooperate more with that goal if they tried. It looks bleak in Hamasland today and the forecast is for it to get bleaker still. Westbankia only looks better by comparison and the settlement go on.

    What about the other Arab states. Well none of them are democratic because there are no Arab democracies...except for Iraq. Is Lebanon a democracy? If it's a democracy at all it's a paralyzed weak one controlled largely by outside forces in Syria and Iran. It's barely on life support caught in the middle between the US and Israel on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. Did President Bush reassure his Arab friends that the US would protect them from Iran? Were they convinced? I'm sure nobody believes the headlines gleaned from the US National Intelligence report which said Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program several years ago because it publicly admits it is still enriching uranium, the critical step to making nuclear weapons, the rest is the easy part. President Bush has exactly one year left in office to prove himself capable of launching another war. With any luck, the lunatic of Teheran, Ah-MAD-inejad will give him all the pretext he needs. Saddam Hussein was no smarter and look where he wound up.

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  2. At 12:30 AM on 30 Jan 2008, Andy Dyer wrote:

    Keep reminding them - there are actually 3 (frail) democracies in the Arab Middle East, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran. Guess they're the places that Bush glad-handed?

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