Posted on May 19, 2008 in Washington Watch

President George W. Bush may attempt to sound visionary, talk tough, and criticize opponents as naive, but the Middle East which he visited last week is in shambles, due in no small part to policies he has pursued or failed to pursue during his two terms in office.

The President ostensibly traveled to the Middle East to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the 75th anniversary of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and to deliver a keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh. This all might have sounded like a trip planner’s dream project, except for the fact that while in the region the President, despite his rhetoric, would have had hard time diverting attention from the fires burning all around.

The broader Middle East, in this the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, is more troubled, less secure, and less hopeful than it was at the beginning of his term in office. Our polling shows that favorable Arab attitudes toward the United States are lower today than they were at the start of millennium. Likewise, Arabs are less trusting of U.S. intentions, less confident in the U.S.’s ability to work for peace, and less optimistic about their own futures. One might reasonably ask, why should they feel any differently, given this administration’s record in the region?

Iraq, despite hollow rhetoric about the success of the “surge,” seems to be moving inexorably toward partition. The more than 4 million refugees and internally displaced persons stand witness to that, as do the barriers that now divide neighborhoods in Baghdad and the deepening divides which characterize Iraq’s polity.

After initial success in Afghanistan, the administration lost focus and drained resources needed to complete the job it had started. Today, the situation of women has deteriorated, President Karzai effectively rules only Kabul and only by day, warlords are back, drug production is up, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda have reemerged, threatening not only Afghanistan but Pakistan as well.

The situation in Lebanon also demonstrates the failure of a policy that preferred a victor/vanquished scenario, when reconciliation and reform were what was needed. Instead of being defeated by their own adventurous miscues, Hizbullah survived due to equally disastrous Israeli and U.S. policies. Hizbullah, capitalizing on the vacuum left by these failures, turned first to paralyzing the government and now to consolidating its position as the country’s preeminent military force – all of which poses great danger to the future of Lebanon.

In Palestine and Israel, a tragic scenario played out. There, President Bush’s vision of two states was suborned and subverted by his administration’s own ideology and policies, which have now made his stated and preferred solution all but impossible to realize.

I’ve noted before the hallmarks of this administration’s policies: neglect when they could have acted to make a difference; ignoring reality and favoring ideology when they do act; and when they inevitably fail, dumbing down the definition of success for PR purposes.

In Iraq, it was the purple fingers. In Afghanistan, it was the photo of girls sans burkas going to school, and the election, of sorts, of Karzai as President.

In Lebanon it was the March 14th rally. And in Palestine, a “fair and free election.” Yet none of these were, in fact, victories – anymore than hanging the “Mission Accomplished” banner in 2003 made it so.

The classic case Bush Administration failure is, of course, Palestine, where the President began his term by neglecting to implement the wise counsel of the Mitchell Report, allowing the Sharon government to subvert its recommendations. Bush then undercut the missions of his own envoys (Zinni and Powell), and in a letter that has come to haunt the peace process, pledged to accept Israel’s positions on critical final status issues while ignoring Israel’s unilateral push to impose its own solutions on Gaza and the West Bank

After all this, in 2007, with Palestine hopelessly divided, the Israeli government weakened by internal strife, the West Bank literally mauled by concrete barriers and ever-expanding roads and settlements, and Gaza strangling, the President resurrected his two-state vision by calling for a conference in Annapolis.

As initially framed, Annapolis was to cap an agreed-upon Israeli-Palestinian formula for peace, which they would then implement during the final year of Bush’s presidency. Despite the historic presence of 16 Arab states, and a host of European and other nations, the parties arrived at Annapolis with no such agreement, owing to the failure of the administration to engage in pre-summit planning. They left with only an agreement to negotiate.

Six months later, settlements continue to expand, quality of life in the Palestinian territories continues to deteriorate, Israeli confidence-building measures have yet to be implemented, and the Israelis have only now begrudgingly allowed an admittedly ill-equipped Palestinian police force to function in a few limited areas in the West Bank. Recognizing failure, but refusing to admit it, the administration has again dumbed down the definition of victory by suggesting that success in 2008 would be Israelis and Palestinians signing an agreement to “define” a vision of two states. (It should be noted that, since the Israelis even refuse to allow critical final status issues to be a part of this effort, the definition will be, at best, ill-defined.)

And so it is no wonder that the world into which George Bush comes will be wary of his presence and mistrustful of his words. Moderates have been weakened, extremists emboldened, Iran is threatening, and allies are feeling less secure. This, sadly, is the world George Bush has helped to create, and which he has visited for the last time as President.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby’s weekly Washington Watch by emailing jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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