US President Bush staunchly defended his administration’s policy in the Middle East on 19 November during a controversial state visit to the UK – the first by a serving American president since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. The president’s speech ranged over Iraq, the dormant peace process and more general questions about the UN and the use of force in international affairs. Outside, thousands of protesters made their opposition to the Bush doctrine loud and clear.

On Iraq, Bush both defended the decision to go to war and pledged to stay for the long haul. ‘In some cases the measured use of force is all that protects us from a chaotic world ruled by force,’ he told a gathering of guests and foreign policy experts, in defence of the pre-emptive strike doctrine that forms the hallmark of his administration’s neo-conservative foreign policy.

Bush’s insistence that the White House was not losing stomach for rebuilding Iraq’s political institutions was timely, given the announcement on 15 November of an accelerated timetable for a handover of power. ‘We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq to pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people, only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins,’ he assured his audience. The US military suffered their single biggest loss of life on 15 November when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed over the northern city of Mosul, killing 17 soldiers. Eyewitness reports said that a missile was fired from the ground at one of the aircraft.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer was in Washington at the time. Bush recalled his Iraq administrator for an urgent meeting on transferring power to Iraqis, ruffling the feather of the Polish Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, whose meeting with Bremer was cancelled at short notice. The outcome of the talks with the president and senior administration officials was the decision to hand power to a provisional national assembly by May 2004. The assembly would select a fully sovereign government in June, and national elections should take place in 2005. To the consternation of Shiite groups in particular, the national assembly will be appointed from among prominent ethnic, religious and tribal figures, rather than elected.

That Iraq’s interim governing council announced the timetable failed to quell accusations that Washington was staging a retreat in the face of the deteriorating security situation. Ironically, the White House is considering seeking UN approval for the accelerated power transfer long demanded by Bush’s international opponents. Discussions are under way on a UN resolution according international recognition to the new schedule.

Bush’s speech sought to shed his unilateralist tag, but questioned the effectiveness of the UN’s approach to global crises. ‘Like 11 presidents before me, I believe in international institutions. but it’s not enough to meet the dangers of the world with resolutions,’ he said, calling on his detractors in Europe to set aside differences over the Iraq war and assist in rebuilding the country.

Differences with Europe over Iraq are narrowing as memories fade of the bitter disputes leading up to war. However, the deep divisions that remain over the treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian question were made plain in the days leading up to Bush’s historic visit. EU external relations commissioner Chris Patten on 18 November issued a statement strongly criticising the Israeli security wall around the West Bank. ‘Thousands of Palestinians west of the fence are being cut off from essential services in the West Bank: Palestinians east of the fence will lose access to land and water resources,’ he said ahead of talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Bush did call for Israel to cease building ‘walls and fences’ but reiterated his disapproval of the EU for negotiating with Yasser Arafat. ‘Leaders in Europe should withdraw all favour and support from any Palestinian ruler who fails his people and betrays their cause,’ he said. The Israeli position is similar: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refuses to meet world leaders who also visit Arafat. Bush also echoed Tel Aviv’s stance – equating opposition to Israeli policies with anti-Semitism – by claiming that such prejudices were damaging hopes for Middle East peace.

The president went on to address broader US policy in the region with a warning that the 11 September terrorist attacks had changed Washington’s outlook. ‘We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East,’ Bush told his British audience. ‘Your nation and mine in the past have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Now we are pursuing a different course. As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard.’