cott MacLeod/ Time Magazine & Jonathan Steele / The Guardian – 2008-01-20 23:20:10
Bad Reviews for Bush in the Mideast
Scott MacLeod/ Time Magazine
CAIRO (January 16, 2008) — The disparaging of President Bush’s eight-day tour of the Middle East by America’s staunchest opponents in the region was hardly unexpected. Iran’s foreign minister claimed it was designed to give Israel a green light “to perpetrate new crimes” against Palestinians. Lebanon’s most senior Shi’ite cleric accused Bush of “war crimes.” A prominent jihadist web site called the President “this criminal, butcher and murderer of our blood.”
But Bush was also harshly criticized — albeit in more circumspect language — in countries with close ties to Washington, including some from the very countries that rolled out the red carpet for the visiting President. Commenting on the two main purposes of the tour, even the most liberal Arab press questioned the sincerity of Bush’s efforts to establish a Palestinian state and criticized his campaign to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.
On occasion, senior Arab officials contradicted or disputed Bush’s pronouncements even before he left their countries. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was an editorial in the Saudi Gazette, comparing back-to-back visits by Western leaders to Riyadh this week.
“It would be difficult to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to the Kingdom was not in almost every way a success,” the paper said, adding, with an unmistakable swipe at Bush: “It’s refreshing to see a Western leader come to the Kingdom speaking of peace rather than just issuing warnings on the state of affairs in the region.”
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.”
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.
“He is saying he supports the presidents and the governments in the Arab countries,” says Ghada Jamsheer, a women’s rights activist in Bahrain. “This is why people are angry. Why is he not putting pressure on these governments to push for human rights?”
The fact that Bush rarely ventured beyond the walls of heavily guarded royal palaces, embassies and hotels, though completely understandable given concerns for his security, nonetheless further prevented him from making much connection with the people whose liberty he says he sincerely seeks.
Bush received his warmest welcome in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud accorded him an honor reserved for special friends by inviting him to his horse farm outside Riyadh. But the Saudis didn’t hesitate when it came to publicly disagreeing with Bush’s views on various Middle East matters.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, standing beside Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice, pointedly declined to endorse her call for more Arab gestures toward Israel or her relatively rosy assessment of political reconciliation in Iraq. After Bush jawboned the Saudis about increasing oil production to bring down oil prices, the Saudi oil minister shot back, “We will raise production when the market justifies it.”
For Arabs, the biggest bone of contention, as it has been so often in the past, was Bush’s handling of the Palestinian issue. Arab commentators gave Bush little credit for being the first American President to publicly support an independent Palestinian state, focusing instead on what they regarded as his Administration’s failure to pressure Israel into allowing Palestinians to attain their rights.
The impression did not improve when just after Bush left Jerusalem after encouraging the two sides to make peace, Israel launched a ground attack and air strike on Palestinian militants in Gaza, prompting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the “massacre.”
“We ought to be celebrating President George Bush’s declaration that a Palestinian state is ‘long overdue,'” said the Arab News in Jidda. “It is impossible to feel any excitement about Bush’s words, because no Palestinian, no Arab believes he will, or can, deliver. We have the Bush record with its damning testimony of failure and disaster. That is the reason for the skepticism and the cynicism.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
Welcome, Mr President, to the Misery You’ve Created
Jonathan Steele / The Guardian
LONDON (January 11, 2008) — It is a well-deserved irony for George Bush that his first presidential visit to Israel coincided this week with the storm of excitement produced by the unexpected outcome of the two New Hampshire primaries. Nothing could better highlight the irrelevance of the final year of the Bush presidency.
The moment at which an incumbent becomes a lame duck fluctuates in every US administration, depending on circumstances. The day on which the first votes are cast is traditionally the symbolic date, even though the race has been under way in the media for months. This year’s riveting contests in New Hampshire certainly proved that true, overshadowing whatever interest there was in Bush’s plans for influencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even before the president left Washington, expectations for his visit were low. His much-trumpeted meeting of Middle Eastern leaders in Annapolis in November produced a predictably tinny follow-up. Little happened in the subsequent six weeks, and it was only courtesy to Bush that impelled Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to meet again in advance of the president’s touchdown in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and produce the blandest pretence of progress.
According to Olmert’s spokesman, they agreed to ‘authorise their negotiating teams to conduct direct and ongoing negotiations on all the core issues’. Isn’t this tautological statement merely a repeat of what they had already launched in Annapolis?
Bush’s engagement in the world’s most intractable dispute is late, piecemeal and phoney. Above all, it is one-sided. As Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister, remarked this week: ‘Palestinians agree that in the history of the United States, Bush is more biased toward Israel than any other American president.’
In any conflict, responsibility for making the largest concessions always rests on the stronger party, especially when most of the wrong is on its side. But, despite his rhetoric yesterday, Bush has not used Washington’s enormous leverage over Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He has not even applied pressure for an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements or the dismantling of the spider’s web of roadblocks that make normal life for Palestinians impossible. A US plan for benchmarks by which to judge Israeli progress was quickly abandoned last spring at the first whiff of concern by Olmert’s government.
Occasional state department pronouncements disapproving of settlement expansion are not followed by measures to reflect US anger when – as happened in Jerusalem again on Wednesday – Olmert makes it clear he will continue the illegal construction of Israeli homes.
Any talk of dealing with ‘core issues’ is meaningless without measures to reduce the daily hardships of Palestinians and end the kidnapping of hundreds of Palestinian leaders. About 40 Palestinian MPs who were seized after Hamas’s election victory two years ago remain in Israeli prisons, uncharged and seemingly forgotten by Bush and other western governments. US and European policies towards Hamas remain hopelessly unjust and counterproductive.
In the first phase of the so-called roadmap that Bush boasts of having revived, Palestinians are supposed to build the institutions of a responsible state. Yet Israel and the US continue to do all they can to undermine this laudable goal by blatantly taking sides in the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas.
Bush’s comment yesterday in Ramallah about the situation in Gaza was one of history’s most extraordinary examples of tunnel vision. ‘Hamas has delivered nothing but misery for Palestinians,’ he declared. Had he said, ‘My reaction and that of my Israeli and European Union colleagues to the mandate given Hamas by Palestinian voters has delivered nothing but misery for Palestinians’, he would have been closer to the truth.
The human catastrophe deliberately inflicted on Gaza by western policies over the past two years is one of the great crimes of this century so far. It is especially unjustified since Hamas had been observing a truce in its attacks on Israelis for several months prior to winning the ‘free, fair and open elections’ that the roadmap asked for. Hamas was, and continues to be, punished not for its occasional use of violence but simply for being popular.
And, as often happens with sanctions, it is not the leaders who suffer, but the whole civilian population of the territory — deprived of medicine, adequate food, public services and jobs. Rather than pursuing the chimera of a final settlement that would mean nothing without Hamas’s endorsement, western policy should focus on more manageable humanitarian and political goals: lifting the boycott of Hamas, promoting Palestinian unity, and forcing Israel to end its brutal siege of Gaza.
Bush is not the first US president to take an interest in the Middle East in the last year of an eight-year period of office. Bill Clinton also applied his mind to it in the dying months of his second term. Yet his performance was very different: Clinton had endorsed the Oslo process early in his first term, and showed considerable energy in pushing it forward and supporting the new Palestinian Authority.
Later, in spite of being a lame duck by the year 2000, he tried hard to get agreement between Arafat and Barak at Camp David, on a final settlement that was not loaded overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour. It was a model of how American presidents can act more firmly when released from the pressures of seeking election. It only needs an effort of will for a lame duck to become the bald eagle of enlightened US power.
In contrast, Bush’s current visit to the region is nothing more than a display of partisan cynicism, coupled with the hope that if some sort of interim deal is signed this year between Olmert and Abbas, it would erase Washington’s failures in Iraq.
Where does that leave Palestinians as the gathering wave of US primaries prepares to reveal the last two candidates for the Bush succession? Will they have to wait as long as 2016 before President Clinton or President Obama is free enough to confront Israeli intransigence and to insist on concessions?
Neither candidate has yet given any sign of breaking away from traditional pro-Israeli views of the problem, so once again Palestinians may have to wait for the eighth-year miracle. Windows of opportunity open so rarely, yet the need for early action has never been more urgent.
(c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.