Bush's Middle East mission gets tougher

05 August 2005
When the first 100 days of President Bush's second term ended in April, American Middle East policy had an encouraging look. Aggressive neo-conservatives such as former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz had been dispatched from the administration. Condoleezza Rice, who has the ear of the president, stepped up to become Secretary of State to replace Colin Powell, who certainly didn't. Talk of invading Iran ended and efforts to get European support for regional initiatives were started. Getting the Arab-Israel negotiating process back on track moved up the agenda.

Meeting

Soon after, Bush met Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at his Crawford retreat in a sign that the 50-year relationship between the US and the kingdom was back in business. Saudi Arabia has stepped up investment in oil production capacity, is welcoming American corporations and has acted to deal with violent Islamists at home. The US, for its part, has stopped criticising Riyadh about terror and is listening to Saudi views about the region's future.

Am I the only one to think that US Middle East policy in the nine months since Bush was elected for a second term looks like it did when his father was president in 1989-92?

In the first week of August, Bush's second term passes its 200th day. But sadly, the best US intentions are foundering on the rocks of Middle East realities. Israel's August Gaza pull-out, vital to America's credibility in the Arab world, is already proving a difficult process. Delays will boost the standing of Palestinian radicals and undermine the status of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in whom the US has invested much hope.

Simmering discontent with Hosni Mubarak's apparent determination to run again for the Egyptian presidency could yet boil over. In Lebanon, the assassins of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri have not been brought to justice, although Syria has withdrawn troops from the country. Questions about the future of Saudi Arabia after King Fahd have not been satisfactorily answered. And the deadlock continues between the Bahrain government and leading opposition parties about the future of the country's parliament. Its plan to sign a free trade agreement with the US continues to rankle in Saudi Arabia.

In Iran, hopes that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would be elected president were dashed by the overwhelming victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hitherto unknown anti-American with radical credentials. And in Iraq, the ghastly violence which is delaying economic reconstruction in most parts of the country has reached a new intensity.

The turn in Washington's Middle East policy since the start of the year was overdue and welcome. And it is too early to reach conclusions about its possible outcome. But the region's intractable refusal to bend to the will of outsiders, a fact expensively learned in the last century by Britain, France and the former Soviet Union, is not easily or quickly changed.

Friends of the region hope that President Bushs second-term approach to the Middle East will continue. But the prize of regional peace and prosperity is the work of more than one president. The fear is that domestic political pressures arising from American voters' romanticised view of Israel and distaste for a war in Iraq with no clear exit strategy may lead to knee-jerk reactions.

Mid-term elections are in little more than a year. The White House's capacity to keep focused on the priority of building consensus in Iraq and breaking the deadlock in Palestine will be tested to the limits when the political season resumes in September.

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