President Bush begins his seven-day tour of the Middle East
and the Gulf today. His itinerary includes Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait,
Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
And although he can look forward to a royal reception from
governments, his visit is security chiefs� worst nightmare, as, let�s face it,
Bush hardly ranks as one of the most popular US presidents on the streets of
this part of the world. And that�s an understatement.
In Jerusalem, where hundreds of American flags are being
hoisted, a contingent of 10,500 police and security personnel will ensure the
president�s safety. Together with his sizeable entourage he will stay in a
fortified hotel amid closed off streets and a secure air corridor. And he will
travel by helicopter as he did during his stay in London�s Buckingham Palace,
ruining the Queen�s flowerbeds in the process.
It�s a bubble but George W. Bush is used to it. It travels
with him wherever he goes, preventing him from seeing the sights or getting to
know real people with genuine grievances against US foreign policy. In fact,
the only people he is likely to meet are friendly leaders, many of whom he already
knows well, and US military, naval and diplomatic personnel.
We do know, for instance, that he is scheduled to powwow
with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on the subject of Iraq and plans to
address the US Navy 5th Fleet on his democratic vision.
But wait! How could I forget? He will of course enjoy a
reunion with his old friend the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with
whom he will discuss Palestinian self-governance. He may be in a bubble but
it�s certainly a cozy bubble.
One can only wonder whether Mr. Bush sometimes experiences a
tinge of envy for his European counterparts, such as Nicolas Sarkozy who was
recently able to enjoy a romantic private holiday in Luxor and the Red Sea
resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Official reactions to the proposed visit are varied.
There are those who believe it will offer a genuine boost to the post-Annapolis
peace talks. Others are skeptical, while Hamas, is openly hostile, dubbing it a
So what is it that Bush hopes to achieve apart from giving
an impetus to the peace process? Believe it or not, he is still pushing for
regional democracies even though he knows full well that ballot results are
unlikely to be to his liking.
It�s worth recalling that it was the US that pressurized the
Palestinians to hold fair and free elections, monitored by the international
community. They were stamped fair and free all right but what emerged was a
Hamas-led leadership, which the US promptly designated �terrorist.� It was a
similar story in Iraq, where a pro-Iranian government was initially sworn-in.
He is also set to warn Arab leaders of the threat he
believes is still posed by Iran�s nuclear ambitions, in spite of a National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published by US intelligence agencies to the contrary.
Bush is, no doubt, concerned about the warming of relations
between Tehran and its neighbors, including GCC countries and Egypt. Such a
warm and fuzzy ambience is hardly conducive to any thoughts Bush may still
harbor on striking Iranian facilities before he leaves office next January.
Thirdly, Bush will remind the region of �America�s
commitment to the security of our friends� and emphasize his support for
reformers within �Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran.�
�Prevailing in this struggle will not be easy,� he said,
�but we know from history that it can be done.� Fine words, rousing rhetoric
but, actually, we don�t know from history -- at least recent history -- that it
can be done. Or, to be more precise, that President Bush is the person to do it.
In the early days of his presidency, those sentiments may have held water but
given his failure to achieve anything he set out to do in the Middle East to
date, they are likely to be received today like a lead brick.
If you remember, he promised freedom and democracy to
Afghanistan and an improved standard of living for all, but that country
remains backward, impoverished and war torn.
And he promised to transform Iraq into a model state that
would be the envy of the entire region but, instead, it is still the most
violent place on the planet. Then there was his much-trumpeted �Roadmap,� which
turned out to be a path to nowhere and nothing. Whether Annapolis will go the
same way is yet to be seen. But given the fracture between Hamas and Fatah, the
almost daily Israeli strikes on Gaza and the seeming unwillingness of Israel to
quit settlement expansion, prospects look dim.
It�s true that the Israeli prime minister has said he will
dismantle outposts but at the same time he refuses to say where they are,
citing security reasons.
Nevertheless, Bush can look forward to warm smiles and
handshakes, along with unprecedented hospitality because that�s what the people
here do best. The streets will be spruced up; the flags will fly high; the
unflattering graffiti erased, and the crowds cherry-picked.
It�s a pity, though, that Mr. Bush will fly home next week
none the wiser.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.