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January 17, 2008

The President's Disastrous Mideast Trip - UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

This week both my blogmates Ilan Goldenberg and Patrick Barry have offered tepid praise for the President's recent trip to the Middle East. Forgive me for sounding a discordant note, but color me unimpressed. In fact, to paraphrase Ilan the trip was "an unmitigated disaster."

I think Hannah Allam at McClatchy sums it up best:

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.

Indeed, it should hardly seem surprising that a George W Bush visit to the Middle East would not go well. After all he's less popular there then he is in the United States (and that is saying something). But by his words and actions Bush has severely weakened American credibility in the region and thrown away genuine opportunities for progress.

On Iran, Bush's constant rhetorical attacks about their nuclear program went over like a lead balloon. Instead of shifting course after the publication of the Iran NIE, the President openly derided it and continued to pound the drumbeats of war even though no one in the region, outside of Israel, has any appetite for military action.

If anything, efforts to isolate Iran are having the opposite effect as Ahmadinejad is wisely reaching out to the Gulf states and others in order to counter American rhetoric. America seems embarrassingly impotent and out of touch in trying to move the region toward its point of view about the supposed threat posed by Tehran. If anything, our efforts to isolate Iran are backfiring.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, well I'll just recount the words of a Republican congressional staffer, "When people heard the president's pledge that he could help broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace by the end of his term, they laughed."  What's worse, at a time when the President seems to believe that there is a genuine opportunity for agreement between Olmert and Abbas he refuses to provide the political capital and direct involvement of a top US diplomat to make it happen, instead preferring to "nudge" the two sides toward peace. For all the President's nice words on the need for a Palestinian state and the creation of a compensation fund for Palestinian refugees it's hard to take them seriously when he refuses to put his money where his mouth is. I would imagine it's a view shared by many in the region.

But the President's worst performance may have come on the democracy front. In Egypt he actually praised Hosni Mubarek for "taking steps toward economic openness . . . and political reforms," all the while ignoring Egypt's many human rights violations, as well as the frequent efforts to stifle political openness. It's a far cry from the rhetorical calls for democracy in the region that one heard from Bush back in 2005 - and don't think political activists on the ground aren't noticing the change. According to the Washington Post:

Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political activist who last year received a U.S. National Endowment for Democracy award, was left dispirited by Bush's tour. The year 2005 "was the best year in my life, politically. . . . Our hopes were way up there," Kassem said. "But -- it was just another story." Anger grew in his voice. "Bush, as far as American foreign policy vis-a-vis democracy, civil rights, is right back to square one," Kassem added. "This trip marks it."

Instead of standing up for democracy we have undercut the region's democracy activists and destroyed any credibility we might have on the issue.

Finally, Bush wasn't even able to convince the Saudis to increase oil production in order to reduce oil prices. Honestly, what's the point of electing a former Texas oil man if he can't even lean on the Saudis?

What comes away from this trip is the extraordinary impotence of the United States in the region. Across the board, regimes (many of which rely on American largesse) are tuning out the United States and privately mocking our diplomatic efforts. Successful trip? Hardly. All the President has done is ensure that the next US President will have his work cut out for him in the Middle East.

UPDATE: In Time Magazine, Scott MacLeod describes the complete disaster that was Bush's trip. The link is here, but the graf below sums it up well his appraisal:

Seldom has an American President's visit left the region so underwhelmed, confirming Bush's huge unpopularity on the street and his sagging credibility among Arab leaders he counts as allies. Part of the problem was the Administration's increasingly mixed message, amplified by the intense media coverage of his trip. For example, in Dubai he gave what the White House billed as a landmark speech calling for "democratic freedom in the Middle East." But during his last stop in Sharm el-Sheikh Wednesday, he lauded President Hosni Mubarak as an experienced, valued strategic partner for regional peace and security and made no mention of Cairo's ongoing crackdown on opponents and critics — and the continuing imprisonment of Mubarak's main opponent in the 2005 presidential election.

Bush's efforts to rally an Arab coalition to isolate Iran in the Gulf seemed to fall flat. Only days after he visited Kuwait, liberated in 1991 by a coalition led by the President's father, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah was standing beside Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Tehran, declaring: "My country knows who is our friend and who is our enemy, and Iran is our friend."


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From its inception, this administration has been marked by embarrassingly public infighting over competing foreign policy goals. The problem is that Bush, being a complete ignoramus, never seems to realize that the various conflicting agendas do actually conflict. It all makes sense to him in his untutored, infant mind. When he is allowed to articulate American policy on his own, all these conflicting tendencies and agendas come gushing out at the same time, in a logical and diplomatic mess to which Bush is personally oblivious, but which is embarrassingly obvious to everyone else.

By taking a public dump on the NIE, Bush just ratcheted up the rhetoric on Iran - and might even be thought to have given the Israelis a green light for unilateral action. At the same time he's promising a year of peace and light in solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. How it is he thinks he can push the region in the direction of peace and the direction of conflict at the same time is mysterious. But it all seems based on the crackpot notion that Arab states and Arab peoples are so afraid of Iran, and so Shia-phobic, that they will be willing to help push Palestinians into making peace with Israel while the US and/or Israel are at the same time threatening to drop bombs, or actually dropping bombs, on fellow Muslims in the region. The whole outlook is manifestly ridiculous, and makes Americans look like fools in Middle East eyes.

And then, while he's trying to convince allies in the region to trust in the enormous influence and power of the US, he goes on an oil-begging mission to Saudi Arabia in which he might just as well have said "We're Saudi Arabia's bitch." It's hard to convince people you're in control of things when you're letting them know at the same time that you are utterly dependent on them.

Bush seems to think that he can get the oil, the Palestinian Peace and a rollback of Iran all at the same time by throwing a crazy Hail Mary pass in the general direction of a pan-Arab-and-Israeli Iran containment bloc, as if Perso-phobia is suddenly going to make Israelis and Arabs best buddies. What a boob.

Rashid Khalidi on the Charlie Rose show last night made some interesting comments about how isolated Bush is not only in the Arab world, but also in the United States. Khalidi also mentioned that during the Cold War, the American government would talk to the Soviets and should set the same example for the Iranians. What Khalidi fails to mention is that the current U.S.-Iranian realtionship has a lot in common with the U.S.-Chinese relatioship from the 1950s to about 1972 when the Americans did not have diplomatic relations with the Chinese. Like the current Middle East, East Asia was racked with instability until the Americans recognized the Communist Chinese government. It is a shame that the American foreign policy establishment and the Bush administration have ignored the lessons of history.

I thought Bush agreed to help Saudi Arabia build a nuclear reactor. Am searching for where I read that and hence found this blog. Agree with everything I've read above, so my calling Bush an idiot is redundant. The agreement to help build a reactor is exactly what Iran wants to do and is doing...which people have said would start a nuclear arms race. Seems Bush is willing to promote the race. Perhaps a MAD policy will prevail. I don't think so. I see the Middle East nuking themselves until they glow in 10 years.

i like it

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It was an odd, amusing exchange that justified the otherwise unpleasant experience of flying on EgyptAir.ugg boots clearance But it was a reminder of the fundamental lack of consensus in the Arab world over the boundaries and limits of the state. There are two groups – Islamists and secular elites – with worldviews which couldn’t be more different. They live parallel lives in parallel worlds, with parallel institutions. They rarely intersect.ugg boots clearance One group believes it has both history and the Egyptian people on its side. The other side, considerably smaller in number, likely has neither. It does, however, have the power.

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For a couple of years, the Middle East countries are an insecure area for the travelers around the world. It's too bad, because they have awesome places. I was planning to visit Syria trying to discover the old Damascus of One Thousand and One Nights stories, but I had to reschedule my agenda and go to England. I found here a cheap parking London area and many good facilities, but I can't still wait to take my trip in the Middle East.

I find it amazing that one can go to hotels on the beach in Hawaii and in the same, in the Middle East, people fight for their survival. These areas are awesome to visit, but in these days that means just assuming some undue risks. I'm looking forward to a safe Middle East eager to be visited.

Bush may have done nothing in the Middle East, but Obama has done its best there. He also reminded us to not forget those who made the attack on the Two Towers. I agree with that and I would have gone aboard the Carnival Cruises just to tel him myself that I won't forget those good citizens that have lost their life then.

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