Bush Mideast speech draws cool response

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2008 

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — President Bush on Sunday described Iran as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism and called on Arab allies to help his administration curb the threat "before it's too late."

In a speech at an opulent, palace-style resort here Sunday, Bush accused Iran's militant Shiite Muslim government of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to foment instability in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, while ordinary Iranians face economic hardships and political repression.

"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," Bush said. "So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf, and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it's too late."

But Bush appears unlikely, based on the regional reaction to his address, to find many Arabs to heed his alarms against Iran, a powerful neighbor and trading partner. Nor did many endorse his speech's other theme — a vision of "free and just society" featuring broad political participation and a voice for moderate Muslims in a region where money and family are common keys to leadership.

Even political analysts here who share Bush's democratic vision said that his speech painted over the daily reality for most inhabitants of the Middle East, an oil-rich region where power is largely inherited and human rights violations abound.

Whether chastising Iran or praising Palestinian elections, analysts said, Bush left out key facts that would have offered a messier — and more true-to-life — portrait of the modern Middle East.

"Iran is a neighbor, we have to deal with that," said Ambassador Ibrahim Mohieldin, director of the Arab League's Americas department. "The U.S. is thousands of miles away from Iran - it's OUR national security that will be affected" if leaders agree to keep Tehran isolated at Washington's request.

Bush heaped praise on his hosts, the rulers of the United Arab Emirates, for luring foreign investment and "building a prosperous society out of the desert." Left out, noted analyst Manar Shorbagy, an associate professor who teaches a course on U.S. politics at the American University in Cairo, was the ill-fitting fact that Iran is the country's No. 1 trade partner.

Also unmentioned was the UAE's role as an important conduit for Iranian imports in spite of U.S.-backed economic sanctions. Moreover, a large and thriving Iranian expatriate community is central to commerce and society in Abu Dhabi and its more glamorous sister city, the commercial hub of Dubai.

Bush, in elaborating on his theme of Middle Eastern democracy, also said he was encouraged by recent elections in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and other perennially troubled Arab lands. What he failed to mention, critics said: Iraqis elected an overwhelmingly Shiite Islamist government with close ties to Iran, the Lebanese still have no president because of a deepening political crisis and Palestinians voted the militant group Hamas into office. And Bush never once mentioned Syria, a close Iranian ally who plays a crucial role in regional politics.

"You have all types of contradictions," Shorbagy said. "Talking about freedom when you're occupying two countries in the region: Afghanistan and Iraq. Talking about justice while you're against the (Palestinian) right of return. Talking about democracy while you're against elected groups you don't like...Was he listening to himself?"

Abdul Karim al Dekhayel, a political science professor at King Fahd University in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, said Bush displayed a double standard by urging Arab nations to ease ties with Iran while U.S. officials hold talks with Iranians to discuss the bloodshed in Iraq.

"Instead of pushing Gulf countries to pressure Iran, they should rather encourage Iran to cooperate. We cannot always wave the stick — economic sanctions, severing of diplomatic ties," Dekhayel said. "Instead we could wave a prize — increased investment, trade relations."

In his remarks on democracy, Bush reaffirmed but only mildly his belief that Arab nations must expand civil liberties and allow nonviolent political opposition. He emphasized roles for academics and civil society, and urged Gulf countries to consider their "human capital" as important as their oil. He acknowledged "setbacks" to democracy, such as the arrests of dissidents, but pointedly omitted mentioning U.S.-friendly countries by name.

While Arab political commentators typically blame U.S. foreign policy for helping to prop up the region's monarchs and authoritarians, Bush said religious extremism exemplified by the Shiite theocracy in Tehran and the Sunni militants of al Qaida were to blame for the stagnation of democratic reforms.

"For decades, the people of this region saw their desire for liberty and justice denied at home and dismissed abroad in the name of stability," Bush said. "Today, your aspirations are threatened by violent extremists who murder the innocent in pursuit of power...They hate your government because it does not share their dark vision. They hate the United States because they know we stand with you in opposition to their brutal ambitions."

The president already has called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders and made pit stops in Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The remaining destinations on the eight-day tour are Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where Bush will visit in the first instance a king who inherited his throne and in the second a president who took power in 1981 and is widely regarded as grooming his son for succession.

( Special Correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed from Cairo.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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