Once high, Arab hopes for Bush fall

Once seen as a hope for peace, the US leader has lost esteem in Arab eyes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In the Egyptian newspaper cartoon, President Bush, framed inside a TV set, shakes a bandaged, obviously overworked index finger. He says, "Well, I thought it was North Korea, but Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told me to say that Iraq is the greatest threat to global peace." In the corner of the sketch in the "Al-Ahali" weekly is a picture of a dove, an olive branch in its beak, shooting itself in the head with a pistol.

Another Arab political cartoon displays the US president riding high in a tank, about to run a red light on the road from Damascus to Baghdad.

The sketches reflect some of the many powerful and often negative images of the US leader that resonate in the Arab world two years after his election. Mr. Bush rose to power with Arab tongues wagging about new chances for peace and a US leader who understood the nuances of the oil business.

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But that mood has given way to disappointment and, sometimes, sharp recrimination, say Arab analysts.

"There is a sense here that President Bush knows well the oil beneath the sand, but understands little of our suffering," says Fouad Mardoud, the editor of Syria Times, the country's largest English-language daily. "We look at him as selfish and easily manipulated. We believe that hawks are making the policy in Washington; that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Condi Rice have persuaded Bush to use military might to dominate the region."

"We knew his father," adds Mardoud. "We knew the father had very constructive ideas, and we appreciated the work that Secretary of State James Baker had done in forming the coalition against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and talking about a road map for peace."

John Zogby, an Arab-American and a US pollster, says Mr. Bush's decline in popularity across the Middle East echoes an alarming drop in Arab confidence in US policies.

When he first launched his drive for the presidency, Bush embodied Arab hopes for a new era of peace, says Mr. Zogby. "In 2000, I made a tour of Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates," he says. "In every instance that I met with a head of state or his close associates, they said, 'Please tell us that George W. Bush will win the election.' They all had great respect for his father and believed that he had a fundamental understanding of the oil business."

Still others in the broader Arab population placed all their hopes in Bush simply because they did not trust his opponent, Al Gore, who had Joseph Lieberman, who is Jewish, as a running mate.

Much of the Arab optimism about Bush was based on President Bill Clinton's Camp David peace efforts, which made initial, unprecedented strides towards resolving some longstanding territorial issues.

"But there is a now a perception that Bush does not understand the region at all. You will hear leader after leader now talk of the potential catastrophe that looms because of Bush's policies," says Zogby.

Collectively, the Arab states have spoken against a potential war in Iraq. A resolution endorsed by the Arab League on Sunday urged its members to "refrain from offering any assistance or facilities to any military operation that might threaten the security, safety, and territorial integrity of Iraq."

All 22 members - except Kuwait - signed the statement.

Across the Arab world, talks about the looming war invariably return to doubts about US leadership. With the exception of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, Bush is the most visible target of Arab invective.

"Bush is as great of a threat to world peace as is Saddam Hussein," insists Osama Homsi, a prominent Damascene attorney. "When he first came to office, I liked him because he spoke about peace for the entire Middle East. Now we have seen his actions for two years, and he has produced no results. I think he just wants to control the world."

Over the weekend, a commentator in the Saudi Arab News wrote that, "This rift over Iraq is not about America against the world. It is about the White House against the world. Sadly, President Bush seems to think that everyone else is wrong and he alone is right. "

Saudi views are, however, some of the most skeptical. In a Gallup poll late last year, two-thirds of Saudis saw the United States as a country that pursues biased diplomatic policies, and 62 percent saw Americans as aggressive. Sixty-one percent saw them as conceited, and 54 percent viewed them as ruthless.

Arab views are not always as antagonistic.

Srour Sharash is a school inspector in Damascus, a 5,000-year-old city teeming with six million citizens. There are Orthodox Christian and Catholic churches, and Sunni and Shiite mosques. It is a city of diverse creeds and equally diverse views of Bush.

This weekend, Mr. Sharash marched for peace with 150,000 other Damascenes. "We are not against Bush personally," he says. "If an American leader is for peace, we are with him. We want George Bush to oblige both Saddam and Israel to disarm."

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