Bush departs Mideast with few apparent gains, experts say

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 16, 2008 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — President Bush wraps up a weeklong tour of the Middle East Wednesday, leaving many Mideast political observers mystified as to the purpose of the visit and doubtful that the president made inroads on his twin campaigns for Arab-Israeli peace and isolation for Iran.

Bush is heading back to Washington mostly empty-handed, said several analysts and politicians throughout the region. Arab critics deemed Bush's peace efforts unrealistic, his anti-Iran tirades dangerous, his praise of authoritarian governments disappointing and his defense of civil liberties ironic.

"There is no credibility to his words after what the region saw during his presidency," said Mohamed Fayek, the Cairo, Egypt-based director of the nonprofit Arab Organization for Human Rights. He cited the war in Iraq, the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal. "American policy threw the region off-balance and destabilized it. The visit caused deep disappointment. I don't see any results."

The challenges were evident Tuesday. The Israeli military carried out an operation in Gaza that killed at least 18 Palestinians, including the 24-year-old son of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, in the most violent day since the militant group seized control last year. Separately, a Palestinian sniper killed a young farmer from Ecuador who was working on an Israeli kibbutz near the border with Gaza.

Palestinians warned that the military raid could sour their talks with Israelis and undermine the momentum from Bush's visit to lead both parties back to the negotiating table.

"Skepticism on all sides is enormous," said Nicholas Pelham, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

In Lebanon, an explosion targeting an armored U.S. embassy vehicle in Beirut killed four Lebanese and injured others in the first assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission there since the 1980s. An American bystander was among the wounded, according to news reports. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the incident "a terrorist attack."

In another potential setback, Bush received a noncommittal response from the Saudi government to his request for increased oil production to reduce world oil prices. Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi insisted production would increase only "when the market justifies it," according to news reports from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia, where Bush visited his close ally King Abdullah on Tuesday, boasts the world's largest oil supply, and other members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, typically fall in line with the kingdom in setting prices. This month, the price of oil climbed past the milestone $100 a barrel mark.

"I would like for them to realize that high energy prices affect the economies of consuming nations," Bush told reporters in Riyadh before his meeting with the king. "...And my point to His Majesty is going to be, when consumers have less purchasing power because of high prices of gasoline — in other words, when it affects their families — it could cause this economy to slow down."

Meanwhile, Bush didn't back down on his warnings to Iran, which he has lambasted at nearly every stop on his eight-day journey. He reiterated in Saudi Arabia that a military option wasn't out of the question, though he emphasized that he'd like to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's defiant pursuit of a nuclear program and alleged funding of militants in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

However, many gulf countries appear to be moving closer to Iran over Washington's objections. Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appeared at an important gulf summit recently, and Iranian investors play vital roles in the economies of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq.

"I guess the visit was just about making sure the gulf doesn't slip away toward Iran," said Ghanim al Najjar, the director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University. "All these issues will just stay on the surface because there is no environment to support action against Iran. Everything will stay on the level of rhetoric rather than reality."

The only time that won Bush kudos in the Arab press was his call for Israel to end "the occupation that began in 1967." But he quickly lost favor by holding up Israel as a regional example and defending embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The rest of the president's trip was tightly controlled and swathed in the opulence that's a hallmark of the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. Bush was feted in majestic palaces and at luxurious oases. He held a falcon during a nighttime desert picnic in the United Arab Emirates. He chatted about democracy with a group of Kuwaiti women and smiled as a stream of Saudi military officers saluted him at a red-carpet welcoming ceremony in Riyadh.

Security was incredibly tight at the president's destinations, often at great cost to the host countries and no small inconvenience to locals. The bustling Emirati city of Dubai was eerily empty as authorities declared a national holiday and cleared the streets on the day Bush arrived. While Arab anger over the visit was largely confined to the pages of newspapers and on Internet sites, modest demonstrations erupted in Bahrain, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

"We reject his visit. His hands are tainted with the blood of Palestinians and Iraqis. He's a war criminal," said Fatima al Wakeel, 21, a recent university graduate who joined a small anti-Bush protest in Cairo on Monday.

Bush's final order of business was a brief meeting this morning with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheik. Cairo newspapers reported that Egyptian officials were upset with Bush because he failed to mention Egypt when he gave a speech Sunday that praised several Arab countries for tentative democratic reforms.

(Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem and special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo, Egypt, contributed.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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