A spectacular mess

‘This is not an exercise in diplomacy. This is a travelling road show for a failed Middle East policy.’

By Michael Boyle
The Guardian UK
January 16, 2008 7:30 PM

Does the United States have a policy in the Middle East? Anyone following President Bush's current visit to the region could be forgiven for thinking that the answer is no.

Let's review what the trip has accomplished so far. President Bush first visited Israel and the West Bank, in an attempt to "nudge" along the Annapolis peace conference. He spoke vaguely of his aspirations for a Palestinian state, saying that it needed to be contiguous and serve as a homeland for the Palestinian people. He also insisted that the Israeli occupation must end and that the Palestinians needed to confront terrorists in their midst.

All of this is perfectly fine as it goes. But President Bush does not want to invest the time and effort into making sure any of this actually happens. Rather like a corporate executive who wants to rally two under-performing units in his company, President Bush shows up, tells the locals that he is "on a timetable" for a Palestinian state before the end of his presidency, and leaves, expecting the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to simply deliver peace for him. How they will resolve the core issues is not of concern to him; nor does he appear to appreciate the difficulty of achieving a contiguous Palestinian state while the West Bank and Gaza remain under the control of two different Palestinian parties.

This is a shame, because President Bush's instincts here - that a Palestinian state is "long overdue" and that painful choices will have to be made by both parties - are good ones. But having a vision and exhorting the key players to act is not a policy. If President Bush hopes to move the Israeli and Palestinian leadership beyond a discussion of procedural issues surrounding final status, he will need to do more than show up and remind them that he's only got 12 months left in office.

Next, President Bush visited Kuwait and Bahrain, where he offered an optimistic appraisal of progress in Iraq. At the most basic level, the fact that the president cannot easily visit Iraq in 2008 - nearly five years after a war that he said would liberate the country within months - is embarrassing. But it is even worse that US policy in Iraq remains so deeply confused. In Abu Dhabi, President Bush applauded a new Iraqi measure to repeal de-Ba'athification, even though this law is by all accounts flawed and might exclude even low-ranking ex-Ba'athists - who form the backbone of the insurgency - from the interior, justice, foreign affairs and defence ministries.

It does not appear to have dawned on Bush that this law may make it harder to consolidate the gains of the surge, not easier.

He then faced the question of how long America will remain in Iraq. The American public are clear on this point: 50%, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, want the US to leave Iraq entirely within a year. But knowing full well that this war will last beyond his time in office, President Bush evaded the question of how long US troops would remain in Iraq. He mentioned that he might even consider slowing or stopping the drawdown of US troops, then backtracked and said the matter would depend on the judgment of General David Petraeus. Yet again this is a self-proclaimed war president who has no problem shifting responsibility for US policy in Iraq down to his top military commander.

At his next stop, President Bush returned to one of his favourite activities: sabre-rattling against Iran. During a speech in the United Arab Emirates, Bush said that Iran's nuclear activities threatened the stability of the world, and that he was "rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late". His speech was clearly intended to gather allies for an attempt to isolate Iran even further. But coming after his own National Intelligence Estimate said Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons programme, the speech had no effect on the Arab states, and handed the Iranian government another opportunity to paint the US as an avid war-monger. His attempt to rally the allies in the region only made him appear more out of touch.

Finally, Bush stopped in Saudi Arabia, where he continued to press his case for countering Iran. One way he did this was to offer an arms package, including precision-guided bomb technology, to Saudia Arabia and the other Gulf States, worth some $20bn.

That the US would consider selling such weaponry to Saudi Arabia, given its unimpressive record in fighting terrorism and its appalling human rights record, is disturbing. But what it reveals the utter bankruptcy of American strategic thought in this instance are the regional implications of the sale. Why, for instance, would President Bush reaffirm his guarantee of Israel's security and then deliver an arms package to a state that refuses to even recognise Israel? If the US is concerned with preventing a wider Middle Eastern war, why would President Bush threaten Shia Iran while arming Sunni Saudi Arabia? Is anyone on Air Force One thinking out the ramifications of this?

Finally, what did President Bush receive for his generous gift to the Saudis? His call for Opec to consider boosting production to help the US economy fell flat, as the Saudi oil minister quietly said afterwards that they would only raise production when the market demanded it. This is yet another indication of the extent to which American political capital has been diminished by Bush's presidency, for it is not the first time in recent months when he has found himself empty-handed after pressing allies for important concessions.

So to recap his trip: the president wants an Israeli-Palestinian peace, but won't work for it; he applauds the new de-Ba'athification laws without understanding it; he says he wants to leave Iraq, but wants to leave the decision to his subordinates; he wants to isolate Iran, but offers up bluster to an unmoved Arab public. He comes bearing billions in highly sophisticated weaponry, and leaves without any apparent concessions on oil production.

This is not an exercise in diplomacy. This is a travelling road show for a failed Middle East policy. What this trip has revealed is the extent to which President Bush's dreams of a democratic revolution in the Middle East have turned to dust. One can only hope that the next president will seize the opportunity to come up with a real strategy for the Middle East, and to begin to extricate America from President Bush's mess.