Commentary

No Sunshine for Bush in Mideast

By Leon T. Hadar
This article appeared in the Hartford Courant on January 17, 2008.

Some U.S. presidents facing political and economic problems at home seemed to have embraced the political dictum, “If it rains in the Midwest, seek the sunshine in the Middle East.” Hence in June 1974, as he was drowning politically and personally in scandals that would lead eventually to a humiliating resignation from office, President Richard Nixon took a triumphant seven-day trip to four Arab states and Israel where, as Time put it, “the huzzas and the hosannas fell like sweet rain.”

President Bill Clinton, who was also beset by scandals in the last years of his term, was eager to salvage his legacy as a statesman by inviting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Camp David in July 2000 to negotiate a historic peace accord.

But neither Nixon nor Clinton could warm the political weather in Washington.

President George W. Bush seems to dismiss the lessons learned by his predecessors, fulfilling Santayana’s prophecy that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Bush continues to suffer low approval ratings, and there’s little hope that the televised images of his weeklong trip to the Middle East will rescue his legacy.

Bush’s Mideast tour is dominated by the grand geopolitical design du jour for the region now that the U.S. March to Freedom has been halted by free elections that brought radical Islamic movements to power in Iraq and Palestine: The threat of the rising power of radical Shiite Iran would supposedly make possible a “strategic consensus” between Israel and the moderate Arab-Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and create incentives for Israel and Palestine to make peace.

Not unlike the earlier Bush administration’s fantasy of establishing a liberated Iraq as a democratic model for the rest of the Middle East, the current strategy is based on illusions. The Arab-Sunni regimes recognize that it was the U.S. ousting of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing mess in Iraq that helped shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf toward Iran, and that Washington lacks the means to reverse the situation. That explains the recent moves by Arab Gulf states and Egypt toward detente with Iran, demonstrated by the surprising visit of Iran’s top national security adviser, Ali Larijani, to Egypt and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the 28th annual summit of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council.

At the same time, it’s the accepted wisdom in the Middle East that the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians over core existential issues (Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Arab refugees) is not bridgeable at this time, and that much of what the Bush administration continues to spin as the re-energized “peace process” is nothing more than a series of photo-ops staged in Annapolis, Jerusalem and Ramallah.

President George W. Bush seems to dismiss the lessons learned by his predecessors…”

In a way, although the Mideast excursions by Nixon and Clinton may not have improved their political standing at home, they were hailed in the Middle East for their diplomacy. Nixon helped negotiate the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and bring Cairo from the Soviet into the American fold. And Clinton has remained a popular figure in both Israel and the Arab world, where he is recalled as an “honest broker” of Mideast peace.

But President Bush’s failed policies in the region — in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine — have turned him into one of the most despised figures in the Middle East and brought American prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds to an all-time low. And in fact, the outcomes of Bush’s Middle East policies are responsible in part for his unpopularity among Americans.

It’s doubtful that the sun will shine again on Bush any time soon — in either Mideast or Midwest.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.