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Assessing President Bush's Mideast Trip


President Bush's recent trip to the Middle East resulted in renewed promises to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But for many analysts, it fell short on some other objectives, including democracy promotion and lining up concrete Arab support against Iran. The trip was Mr. Bush's most extensive to the region, but it came in the final year of his administration.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions, and the promotion of democracy in the region were the principal topics raised by President Bush during his eight-day trip.

His first stop was Israel, where he sought to build on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that was re-launched in Annapolis, Maryland last November. He prodded the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories to make progress on the issues that divide them, such as Israeli settlement construction in disputed territory. He also raised the peace process in subsequent conversations with Arab leaders during his visit.

At his last stop in Egypt, Mr. Bush received strong public support from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his efforts to broker a peace treaty -- leading the American president to express optimism about the prospects for peace. "The leadership in Israel and the leadership of the Palestinians is committed to a two-state solution. And I know nations in the neighborhood are willing to help," said Mr. Bush.

Promoting Democracy

But while Mr. Bush may have made some progress on this issue, his efforts to once again promote democracy and freedom in the Middle East received a mixed response. In a speech billed as the centerpiece of his trip, President Bush spoke passionately about the importance of liberty and justice, and the need for free elections.

"You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison. You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government. And you cannot stand up as a modern confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms," said Mr. Bush.

The president's aides said those remarks were aimed at Egypt as well as other nations in the region. Yet democracy activists noted that Mr. Bush publicly avoided direct criticism of the leaders he met with, such as Hosni Mubarak, for undemocratic actions -- such as arresting and jailing political dissidents.

Middle East expert Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington adds that Mr. Bush undercut his own message by delivering his keynote speech from the United Arab Emirates.

"Whenever you deliver a message about democracy from an unfree country, it sends a message about your own seriousness. And I think the president made a mistake by delivering his message from the United Arab Emirates, which is not a tribune of democracy, even in the Middle East," says Pletka. "The president could have gone to Iraq, the president could have done it from Israel. There are other Arab countries. The president could have even done it from Lebanon, where they are struggling for their democracy. But he didn't. He chose to do it from the UAE. I think that was a big mistake."

But promoting democracy in the Middle East is always a hard sell in a region ruled largely by monarchies or autocratic governments. Scott Lasensky, who specializes in Middle East issues at the United States Institute of Peace, says Arab nations have to be convinced that democracy will not undermine stability.

"In the minds of a lot people in the region, Arabs in particular, reform seems to come at the cost of security and stability and it makes the democracy question, gives it sort of a bad name," says Lasensky. "And I think part of the challenge for the United States, part of the challenge for the president, is to make sure that we can convince leaders in the region and the publics that you don't have to compromise your security and stability in pressing forward with domestic reform."

Warnings About Iran

The other main issue raised by Mr. Bush was Iran. In his speech in the UAE, he warned about Tehran's support for extremists and its nuclear program. "Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. So the United States is strengthening our long-standing security commitments with our friends in the [Persian] Gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late," said President Bush.

His aim was to line up support of the Arab nations he visited. But it is unclear whether he received more than a polite reception from leaders such as Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Part of the reason may be that Arab leaders see the Iran issue intertwined with other regional problems, according to analyst Scott Lasensky.

"The Arab-Israeli question, stability in Lebanon -- you have to get those things right or else things will fall apart. And I think part of the conversation that the president encountered with Arab leaders is the very inter-connectedness of the different issues in the region," says Lasensky. "You can't talk about Iran and the nuclear issue by itself without thinking through Iraq, how to stabilize it and the Lebanese political crisis, and also making sure that Arab-Israeli peacekeeping doesn't go off track. Each issue, which sort of exists separately, needs to have some forward momentum for the Iran question to be addressed."

Lasting Results?

Even before Mr. Bush left Washington for his trip, there were no great expectations for major announcements or breakthroughs during his visit. And in the end, none materialized. And analyst Danielle Pletka is generally pessimistic that the Bush administration will be able to accomplish much in the Middle East in its remaining months.

"I think that what we can expect by the end of the president's term [in January 2009] is that Saudi Arabia will continue to support wahhabi extremism around the world, although they will be less tolerant of al-Qaida, that democracy will have made very few steps forward, that the Palestinian territories will remain, in large part, a host for terrorist organizations," says Pletka. "And that thanks to the American military, we will be doing better in Iraq. Last, of course, we can expect that the Iranian government will have made significant strides forward in its effort to attain nuclear weapons. Not a very good track record."

But other Mideast experts, such as Scott Lasensky, think otherwise. He says the Bush administration in its last months will make a concerted effort to move forward on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon and Iran.

In the end, President Bush's trip may have laid the groundwork for progress on those issues. But aside from the warm welcome from his hosts and the gifts he received, most analysts say Mr. Bush's Middle East tour seems to have had limited impact.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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