Bush ends 5-day Middle East trip with few concrete gains

McClatchy NewspapersMay 18, 2008 

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt_Wrapping up a five-day tour of the Middle East, President Bush on Sunday told his Arab allies that expanding democratic reforms and isolating the "spoilers" — Iran and Syria — were crucial steps to a secure and prosperous future for the region.

Bush spoke at the opening of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in this Red Sea resort town, where 1,500 policymakers have gathered. More lecture than rallying cry, Bush's speech stuck to familiar themes: Iran's nuclear program, more civil liberties, a bigger role for Arab women, free trade, and progress on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of the year.

Bush, however, heads home to Washington with few, if any, concrete gains on his largely ceremonial tour, his second trip to the Middle East in four months. He failed to win Saudi help with rising oil prices and didn't make any breakthroughs on groundwork for a Palestinian state.

Indeed, Bush's chiding speech to the Arabs — only days after lavishing praise on Israel — only hardened his image as a pro-Israeli president who's commanding wars in two Muslim nations, and possibly preparing for a third, with Iran.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said. "The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve."

The stern remarks — in which Bush pointedly included his host, Egypt, as among Arab nations with a long way to go toward democratic reform — was an abrupt departure from the glowing address the president made Thursday before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. After Israel, Egypt is the top recipient of U.S. aid, receiving an annual package of up to $2 billion, most of which goes to defense spending.

Bush also took the opportunity to lash out again at Iran, wagering that he'd find sympathetic ears in this audience of mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs, many of whom share the U.S. administration's concerns over the growing regional influence of the Persian, Shiite Muslim theocracy in Tehran.

Bush asked the Islamic world to stand by the United States in efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The Iranian government maintains that its burgeoning nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes such as generating electricity.

"To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations," Bush said. "For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

Bush's tough talk on Iran drew only scattered applause. While many Arab states are alarmed at Iran's sway in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, leaders have said they're even more fearful of a preemptive U.S. strike against Tehran that almost certainly would lead to an Iranian retaliation with the potential to ripple across the Middle East.

Many Gulf Arab states have significant Shiite communities that look to Iranian clerics for spiritual guidance; a U.S. attack on Iran could lead to heightened sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere. Also, some of Bush's key allies enjoy strong commercial, cultural or religious ties with Iran, from the Shiite- and Kurdish-led government of Iraq to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where Iran is a top investor and trade partner.

"This is an official attitude of President Bush. We have heard it many times," Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite who belongs to an Iranian-backed political party, told journalists after the speech. "The region needs more dialogue, more comprehension, more working together against terrorism. Working together also for peace."

Bush was supposed to have met with Lebanon's embattled Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, who was a no-show at the conference. The U.S.-backed premier gave no reason for the cancellation, but his weakened government is involved in crisis talks in Qatar with opposition figures and it could appear unseemly for Saniora to leave just days after a spasm of sectarian violence killed at least 60 people and injured some 200 others.

In his speech, Bush lumped the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and the Palestinian militants of Hamas — both of which receive Iranian support — under the same "terrorist" label as the al Qaida network. Hezbollah is a firmly entrenched part of the Lebanese establishment, with political and charitable arms. Palestinians voted Hamas leaders into office in elections that were praised as some of the most transparent in the Middle East.

Writing for the Cairo-based Ahram Weekly newspaper, Egyptian columnist Gamal Nkrumah took aim at the Bush administration's habit of supporting Middle Eastern democratic elections only when its allies win. Many ordinary Arabs share the demands Bush made of their leaders Sunday, but the message has been diluted by contradictory messages coming out of the White House.

"(The United States) has masqueraded as the champion of democracy and upholder of human rights at a time that many question its real motives. Washington has been discredited by its double standards," Nkrumah wrote in the state-backed weekly paper's latest edition, which focused on the gathering in Sharm el Sheik.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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