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Bad Reviews for Bush in the Mideast

5 minute read
Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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.”

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