U.S. President George Bush says the Middle East is freer, more hopeful and more promising than it was when he took office eight years ago, despite what he called some frustrations and disappointments.
With fewer than seven weeks remaining in his presidency, Mr. Bush is looking back at what he considers his successes in the Middle East.
At the top of his list is the establishment of a democratic government in Iraq. "Iraq has gone from an enemy of America to a friend of America, from sponsoring terror to fighting terror, and from a brutal dictatorship to a multi-religious, multi-ethnic constitutional democracy."
At the Washington-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Mr. Bush admitted Friday that the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S.-led coalition deposed in 2003, was not connected to the September eleventh, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. But he said his decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam from power cannot be seen in isolation from the nine-eleven attacks.
"In a world where terrorists armed with box cutters had just killed nearly 3,000 people, America had to decide whether we could tolerate a sworn enemy that acted belligerently, that supported terror, and that intelligence agencies around the world believed had weapons of mass destruction."
The president called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "the most vexing problem in the region," but he said there is now greater international consensus about it than at any point in recent memory. Critics have said throughout Mr. Bush's term that he has not done enough to advance the Mideast peace process. He responded Friday that he was the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state, and that the summit he held in Annapolis, Maryland, last year moved the parties in the region closer to peace.
"Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs recognize that the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state is in their interests. And through the Annapolis process, they have started down a path that will end with two states living side-by-side in peace."
Mr. Bush says his administration reshaped U.S. policy toward the Middle East, resulting in these successes and others, including Libya abandoning its nuclear weapons and Syria ending its military occupation of Lebanon.
The president acknowledges that there are still serious challenges facing the Middle East, but he says great progress has been made. "Iran and Syria continue to sponsor terror, Iran's uranium enrichment remains a major threat to peace, and many in the region still live under oppression. Yet the changes of the past eight years herald the beginning of something historic and new."
Mr. Bush says that for the first time in generations, the Middle East represents something more than a set of problems to be solved, or the site of energy resources to be developed.