Bush heads to Mideast amid low expectations

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President Bush, who once had grand ambitions to transform the Middle East through democratic reform, begins his first extended presidential visit to the region Tuesday with his sights lowered and his ability to influence events fading fast.

From the Israeli prime minister's modest house in Jerusalem to the palace of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Bush can expect a polite welcome during the nine-day trip. But with the U.S. presidential campaign under way, governments in the region already appear to be looking past Bush to his successor. They're expecting no major breakthroughs.

The official Arab view of Bush was summed up inadvertently by a diplomat from a major Arab state, who indicated disbelief that the president will use the trip to renew his drive for Middle East democracy.

"Is that still on?" the Arab official replied sarcastically. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

The contrast between today and the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq could hardly be greater. Arab officials, whatever they thought of Bush, followed every nuance of U.S. policy and even appeared to accommodate Bush's demands for greater democracy.

But political liberalization in the Middle East has been in the deep freeze since the militant Islamist group Hamas' January 2006 victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

And Bush's new drive for Arab-Israeli peace, launched six weeks ago at an international conference in Annapolis, Md., is already flagging.

Even on Iran, where the United States, Israel and Persian Gulf nations share alarm, there's confusion following a November U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that reversed an earlier estimate and concluded that Iran abandoned a covert nuclear weapons program more than three years ago.

"The Bush administration has been mugged by reality. After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it," said Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right policy organization.

"Five years ago, there was a sense that things couldn't get any worse in the Middle East and we should push for change whatever the consequences," Alterman said. "Now, there is a keen appreciation of how many ways things could actually get much worse and how much better off we are working with people we know and with whom we share at least some interests."

In sum, Bush needs Middle East leaders — most of them autocrats — as much or more than they need him, to help contain Iran, provide oil and investment, and support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Bush nonetheless appears unlikely to alter his rhetoric during the trip, which is scheduled to take him to Israel, the Palestinian territories and five Arab countries — Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"I think this president thinks his record speaks for itself; his record will vindicate his presidency, and there's no need to remedy that," Alterman said.

Bush's major speech of the trip will come Jan. 13 in the gaudy and fast-growing Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi, where he'll declare that his "freedom agenda" for the Muslim world has produced results.

But Hamas' poll victory and sectarian gridlock in Iraq and Lebanon following elections there have shrunk the Arab world's appetite for political liberalization.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that the 2006 Palestinian elections "gave a number of countries pause as to where this (democratization) was heading."

"We would obviously like ... a little bit greater progress," Hadley said. "And I think that's one of the things you'll hear the president calling for."

The choice of Abu Dhabi as a venue is meant to channel attention toward changes in the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates. Dubai, which Bush also will visit, has become a major world financial center and more pluralistic in the process. Nearby states such as Kuwait and Bahrain have enacted modest political reforms.

But the focus on small Persian Gulf monarchies also underscores the shrinking ambitions of Bush's once-expansive Middle East democracy drive.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first announced it, in a speech in Cairo in June 2005, she called on Egypt — the most populous, and in some ways, most influential Arab country — to be "at the forefront of this great journey."

But political reform in Egypt is stalled. In the Arab world's other major power, Saudi Arabia, the monarchy has halted tentative political openings.

The United Arab Emirates, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, may be more forward-looking than some other Middle East nations, but it's still a tightly controlled monarchy dependent on foreign labor imported from South Asia.

"There are no democratically elected institutions or political parties," says the State Department's 2006 human rights report, the latest one available. "The government's respect for human rights remained problematic," it said, citing arbitrary detention, restrictions on the press and the Internet, and abuses of foreign workers.

Bush will begin his trip in Israel and the Palestinian areas, where he'll attempt to giving slow-moving peace talks a symbolic boost.

But the president won't engage in negotiations himself or announce any dramatic new proposals, aides said. "I think just his going there is going to advance the prospects," Hadley told reporters.

Hadley said there are no plans at this point for Bush to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together for a three-way meeting.

A second Arab diplomat, who also requested anonymity, said that indicates to Arab governments that "this is not a negotiating trip."

Bush's third goal will be to solidify the U.S. position in the strategic Persian Gulf, where American naval bases and airfields dot Arab countries across the seaway from Iran. Bush, in discussing the intelligence estimate, will argue that Iran remains a serious threat, Hadley said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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