George Bush’s tour of the Middle East was a decidedly low-key event, given that it is likely to be his last. Although Condoleeza Rice remarked that it will not be his final chance to meet the Middle Eastern leaders (‘Rice Press Briefing’,2008) raising the possibility that the President may undertake another whirlwind visit, we can probably expect even less of any future visits than we can of the most recent one.
The President’s sojourn to Masada, the hilltop mountain fortress in the Israeli desert where hundreds of Jewish rebels preferred to commit suicide rather than surrender to a besieging Roman army in 72 AD, was probably a little reminiscent of his own situation, seven months before the end of his presidency. Beleaguered by hostile critics, with little chance of outside assistance, and with supplies (in their case food and water – in his, political capital) running low, the chances of transforming the Middle East at this late juncture seem, as they did for the rebels, rather slim.
The tour was ‘largely a ceremonial nod’ (Levon 2008, para.4) to the 60th birthday of Israel and to 75 years of US-Saudi ties, although it also took in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Egypt. His speech to the Forum was a surprisingly forthright criticism of the Arab world’s shortcomings – political repression, death penalties for apostasy, the exclusion of women – and a panegyric to democracy. It is worth noting that on the same weekend, Islamist candidates were winning almost 50% of the available seats in Kuwaiti parliamentary elections, and crisis talks were being held in Qatar to shore up Lebanon’s fragile democracy, recently shaken by bouts of sectarian violence. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Arab leaders at the WEF took Mr. Bush’s talk of the benefits of democracy rather coolly.
Besides chastising the Arab world, the visit was also intended to provide a jolt to the stuttering Israel-Palestine peace process. Little seems to have come of it, especially as there were no trilateral meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians scheduled. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s accusation that Mr. Bush’s speech to the Knesset gave too little attention to the Palestinians (‘Israel Bias’, 2008) reflects a wider belief in the Arab world that George Bush has, throughout his presidency, failed to put sufficient pressure on Israel to make real progress on the peace process.
It is hard to disagree with that assessment. When pressed on why the President did not seem so pro-Palestine as pro-Israel, Rice simply replied that he was ‘committed to Palestinian statehood’. Although this is undoubtedly true, whilst the confrontation with Hamas drags on and Jewish settlements and roadblocks continue to spring up in the West Bank, President Bush’s influence over Israel seems either limited or inadequately applied. Little has changed on the ground since Mr Bush’s last regional visit in January. As the Economist notes, last November’s Annapolis peace plan (hailed at the time as a deal that could bring a conclusive peace agreement by the end of 2008) has already been modified into a ‘framework agreement’ by Israel, whilst Gaza has largely been ignored (‘Leaders United’, 2008). American policy towards Hamas seems to be that ignoring the group for long enough will eventually make it calm down and relent, like a disobedient child. But without leaning on the Israelis to provide tangible benefits to President Abbas’ Fatah stronghold in the West Bank, the benefits of co-operating with Israel for the Palestinians will be slight.
Another purpose of the visit was also similar to that of the earlier one – rally the Sunni Arab world against Shia Iran. As in January, when President Bush declared that Iran must be confronted ‘before it’s too late’, this tour saw an effort to persuade the Saudis to align themselves firmly against Tehran and its proxies in Lebanon. However, it seems unlikely that King Abdullah will make any sudden movements. Whilst Saudi Arabia has no desire for a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran, and is happy to get expensive US military kit accordingly (Moran, 2007), it is probably unwilling to confront Tehran directly. When the Saudis do act to balance Iran, as in its brokerage of peace talks between Hamas and Fatah, it will be on Riyadh’s terms, not Washington’s. As if to underline the point, King Abdullah rejected President Bush’s call for increased oil production, pointing out that the markets and the weak dollar were more responsible for high prices than a lack of output.
Finally, there is the small issue of Iraq. President Bush did not visit the country during his tour, although he did meet top Iraqi officials in Egypt. The relatively slight attention that Iraq received on this trip to some extent reflects the improved security situation there, but more generally it shows that Iraq is losing importance as a foreign-policy concern for the White House. With only a few months left in office, President Bush would rather try and force out some real progress, however slight, on the issue of Iran’s regional ambitions. But with Hezbollah still evidently a mortal danger to Lebanon’s Western-backed government, Iraqi security still largely dependent on Iran’s willingness and ability to rein in rogue militias, and the Iranian nuclear programme ticking along nicely, President Bush has few cards left to play.
Real, sustained effort towards Palestinian statehood could be the ace up his sleeve. But, as discussed, this is not likely. The answers that President Bush’s National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley gave to the press on May 18th reveal an unwillingness to commit the President to any more tangible American involvement in the peace process, arguing instead that ‘we can support the parties, but in the end of the day, the parties are the ones that need to sit down and work this through’ (Hadley Press Briefing, 2008, para. 51). But without pressure from Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – already bogged down in corruption scandals – will be unwilling to pour more of his scarce political capital into a process which, to many Israelis, seems to be unworkable at best and appeasement of terror at worst (Arens, 2008).
In Israel, the legacy of Masada is one of heroic and defiant resistance. President Bush would be wise to draw another lesson from it. Two women, deciding that they would rather live, hid in an underground cistern as the mass suicides were carried out, and emerged to tell the Roman forces the story. In the face of limited resources, sticking to a wilfully defiant path is not always necessary. A willingness to compromise can make all the difference.
Arens, Moshe (2008, May 19) ‘A cease-fire with terror?’ Haaretz, retrieved 20/1/08 from http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/985076.html
‘Bush’s ‘Israel Bias’Angers Abbas’ (2008, May 18) BBC News, retrieved 19/5/08 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7406868.stm
‘Leaders United In The Doldrums’ (2008, May 15) The Economist.
Loven, Jennifer (2008, May 15) ‘Bush Visits Masada, Will Speak To Knesset’, Associated Press, retrieved 20/5/08 from http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hkf--m78S6F3LZAcz4sVHGGCQSTgD90LUAMO0
Moran, Michael ‘Reinforcing the Sunnis (and Israel, too)’ (2007, August 7) Council on Foreign Relations Daily Analysis, retrieved 20/5/08 from http://www.cfr.org/publication/13999/reinforcing_the_sunnis_and_israel_too.html?breadcrumb=%2Fregion%2F413%2Fsaudi_arabia
‘Press Briefing By The National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley’ (2008, May 18) White House Press Briefing, retrieved 19/508 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/05/20080518-5.html
‘Press Briefing By Secretary Rice Aboard Air Force One’ (2008, May 18) US State Department Press Briefing, retrieved 20/5/08 from http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/05/104973.htm
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