Monday, May 19, 2008

Bush Returns With Little To Show

Bush Returns With Little To Show

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Winding up a five-day trip to the Middle East, President Bush delivered a speech on Sunday to the World Economic Forum, hosted by the Egyptian government at the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. Exhorting Middle East leaders to open up their political and economic systems, Bush said, "Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail." He added, "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." While the speech was a strident defense of liberal democratic ideas, in the seven years of his presidency, Bush has not shown any good strategy for encouraging them abroad. With Hamas in control of Gaza and surging in the West Bank, Hezbollah now dominant in Lebanon, and Iraq still mired in chaotic violence, most of the Middle East is further away today from the goal of political and economic reform than when George W. Bush originally unveiled his "democracy agenda" early in his presidency. According to a Freedom House report from last year, the march of democracy has stalled not only in the Middle East, but all over the world.

While in Israel to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Jewish State, Bush used his speech before the Israeli Knesset to attack his domestic political opponents. Condemning those who advocate "negotiation" with America's enemies, Bush claimed, "We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement." Many American legislators expressed shock and disgust at the President's comments. Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) called the speech "raw politics," saying it was "outrageous for the president of the United States to go to a foreign country...and make this kind of ridiculous statement." Bush's condemnation of "negotiation" cast a wide net over a broad section of American political leadership which advocates some kind of responsible diplomatic engagement with regimes such as Iran and Syria. The bipartisan 2006 Iraq Study Group report advocated just this kind of engagement in the hopes of producing cooperation from Iran and Syria in stabilizing Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has also advocated engagement with Iran, stating last year that "America's strategic 21st century regional policy for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today." Numerous officials in Bush's administration, including Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have regularly held meetings with Iranian diplomats. Last Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated, "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage...and then sit down and talk with them [Iran]."

INEFFECTIVE 'JAWBONING': After Israel, President Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he appealed to Saudi King Abdullah to increase oil production and help lower oil prices. Bush's appeal was rejected. "Supply and demand are in balance today...The fundamentals are sound," said Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush had criticized the Clinton administration for high fuel prices, saying that a president must "'jawbone' oil producing nations" and persuade them to drop rates. Back then, Bush promised that he would bring down gas prices by creating "political good will with oil-producing nations" stating that he would "work with our friends in OPEC…and convince them to open up the spigot." At that time, oil was nearing $28 a barrel. Last week oil hit $127 a barrel, with many analysts "seeing a medium-term rise…to $200 a barrel as a genuine prospect." It's unlikely, however, that even increasing oil flows would reduce the price of crude. The oil market is "well supplied," according to Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, who said that prices are being driven by "speculative flows," and not supply and demand.

SCOLDING ARAB REGIMES: Upon arriving in Egypt on Saturday for the World Economic Forum, Bush was attacked by Egypt's state-owned press. Bush's Knesset speech "raised question marks over the credibility of the U.S. role in the Middle East," wrote Mursi Atallah, the publisher of Al-Ahram, the flagship daily of the Egyptian state press. "Bush aims to do nothing but appease Israel." The New York Times added that Bush was perceived to be "insensitive to Palestinian concerns." After he notably avoided meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his Israel visit, Bush met with Abbas on Saturday. Abbas told reporters that he had "demanded an explanation from Mr. Bush" for his Knesset speech. "What the president said at the Knesset made us angry, and to be honest, we don't accept it," Mr. Abbas said. Although Bush has steadily maintained that a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is possible by the end of his term, he is virtually alone is this view. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that "we are not yet at the point" where the Israeli, Palestinian, and American leaders were going to meet "and declare a vision." Bush's keynote speech to the conference on Sunday was filled with exhortations to Arab political and economic reform, but the President's newly strident tone of advocacy served mostly to highlight the stark differences between his words and his administration's policies. These policies, especially the invasion of Iraq and the lack of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have seen the increase in power of radical movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas, a rise in influence by Iran, and an increasingly destabilized Middle East.

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