More on Bush's trip in the Middle East
This is in the Guardian Online.
Take a president who rarely travels overseas and certainly not for extended periods of time. Add the region of the world most associated with this administration and most in turmoil. Throw in the president's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories after seven years in office. What do you get? Remarkably little, as it turns out.
President Bush's eight-day tour of the Middle East registered barely an above-the-fold headline in the major American and international newspapers. Perhaps the subject of greatest speculation was how a president, famous for maintaining a schoolboy's bedtime curfew, would cope with the late Arabian nights. But Bush's Middle East trip was of some importance - as much for what didn't happen, as for what did. Paradoxically, an administration guided by a transformational vision of the application of American power was now displaying the limitations of its role - limitations partially created by its own failures.
The presidential visit had precious little new to offer on the three most explosive and troubling crises currently afflicting the region: the Lebanese presidential stalemate, the escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza and the political impasse in Iraq. The president of course did not visit Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq (although secretary of state Condoleezza Rice did make a short side trip to the latter). On Lebanon, the US is acting as just another external power placing obstacles in the way of an internal political compromise that would allow for the election of Michel Suleiman to the presidency and the appointment of a new government of national reconciliation. The Arab League looks like a more effective broker and fixer than the US, and that in itself is quite an achievement of self-marginalisation by the Bush administration.
Accurately or not, the president's visit to Israel was interpreted as signalling a green light to an Israeli military escalation in the Gaza Strip. That is certainly what has happened in the last days with a Palestinian death toll of at least 25 and a barrage of rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot and neighbouring communities in response. The brakes that exist on a further deterioration in Gaza, and perhaps an extensive Israeli ground operation, are being generated locally out of a concern on both sides that escalation will achieve little. There is no visible Washington foot on that brake, and if anything it hovers closer to the accelerator. While certain Israeli ministers and former senior officials call for a ceasefire with Hamas (an option apparently also favoured by the Hamas leadership), President Bush still inhabits a Game Boy version of the Middle East, divided simply into black and white where you kill the bad guy to advance to the next level. In fact, Bush's insistence on confronting an undifferentiated green enemy of Islamists continues to miss the nuances that exist in reality, to miss opportunities for new alliances with Islamists against al-Qaida and to undermine the goal of restabilising the region.
Iraq was on the president's agenda, but missing was a concerted effort at working with the neighbours and key regional actors to advance a political platform of power-sharing and reconciliation. Remember, the surge and partial, temporary security improvement that it has produced was not a goal in itself, but rather was designed to create an atmosphere more conducive to progress on a new political dispensation. That has not happened. It is unlikely to happen while America continues to play Iraq's neighbours off against each other and refuses to build a serious contact group that would include Iran, Syria and the other neighbours as recommended over a year ago by the Iraq Study Group.
So, what of the items that were supposed to feature prominently on the president's agenda: democracy, Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? The democracy agenda was discounted in the region long before the president's visit and will not be taken anymore seriously as a consequence of meetings in UAE with young Arab leaders, in Saudi Arabia with entrepreneurs and in Kuwait with women activists.
The Bush administration's push for freedom has suffered from at least four basic flaws from the get-go. First, it has been obsessively election-centric and ill-attuned to local conditions. Second, it had no sensible, inclusive plan for dealing with the inevitable electoral successes of political Islamists. Third, touting freedom for everyone but denying it to the Palestinians under occupation was (somehow) perceived as hypocritical. And fourth, the Bush team had a special talent for delivering the message in the most patronizing, demeaning and unsympathetic way possible. Add to this list the real life experiences of post-election Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and one understands why the neoconservative designers of the policy should be laughed out of town, rather than feted on the op-ed pages of the New York Times (see William Kristol). Oh, and saying nothing about the Israeli imprisonment of 43 members of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform party elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council does not make the message sound any more credible.
On Iran, while the president's Gulf hosts share America's concerns over Iran's regional ambitions and nuclear policy, they clearly do not share his predilection for bellicose rhetoric and threatening postures, mainly because they understand that this only serves to strengthen the hardliners in Tehran and undermine the more pragmatic forces. There is a density of interaction (economic, trade and other) between Iran and the Gulf states. There are significant Shia and even Iranian communities in the Gulf states. And the Gulf Cooperation Council members have actually intensified their diplomatic interaction with Tehran in the last year. Especially after the National Intelligence Estimate report, most of the Middle East seems to have adopted the position of waiting out the Bush administration when it comes to Iran, and the president's visit seems to have done very little to have changed that.
And finally, Israel-Palestine. This is the one area where the president's visit hinted at a genuine intention to get something done in the coming year. During his trip the president seemed to convince some sceptics of his personal commitment to achieving a two-state solution, and he belatedly accepted some of the logic that links an end of the occupation to progress on other issues in the region, including efforts to marginalise radicalism and build regional alliances.
But even those impressed by the demonstration of political will were left scratching their heads as to whether this US administration has the political skill to constructively engage. The appointment of three different US generals to oversee various aspects of the process suggests that Washington is still competence-challenged, and there are real question marks regarding the depth of American understanding of what the content of a mutually acceptable two-state deal would look like.
Finally, there is the continued self-defeating approach to Hamas. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley outline a way forward in this Middle East triangle of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas in today's Guardian. They describe the need for Fatah and Hamas to reach a new agreement that Israel would not oppose, for Hamas and Israel to achieve a ceasefire and for Abbas and Olmert to negotiate a political deal (and have a mandate to do so from Hamas). "Synchronicity is key ... . The current mindset, in which each side considers deal-making by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing ... a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process." Wise advise and advise that the Bush administration would do well to adopt if it is to salvage anything from a Middle East nightmare that it has been so seminal in shaping - or maybe it was all just about oil and arms sales.
by Daniel Levy