Bush takes altered goals to Mideast
His trip includes Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush has vowed to transform the Middle East for the sake of American security. This week, Mr. Bush sets off on a nine-day tour of a region that, if anything, has transformed him.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The trip will showcase a president shifting his focus from the big idea of a free and democratic Middle East to more traditional US foreign-policy goals: an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, the containment of a threatening state – in this case Iran – and the assurance of US energy security at a time of $100-a-barrel oil. Whatever topic he discusses in meetings, Iraq is likely to be a key factor in the background.
Bush arrives Wednesday for his first-ever visit as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories, to be followed by stops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf states, and Egypt. He is less of a challenge to the region's order, some experts say, than its authoritarian rulers once feared.
"After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it, resorting to the sort of process-driven incremental diplomacy that previous administrations had pursued and that this administration had disdained," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "President Bush is no longer trying to transform the Middle East from afar. He's trying to manage it in incremental ways by arm-twisting and jawboning leaders in intimate, private sessions."
That does not mean Bush has given up on his vision for a transformed region, others add. Rather, they see Bush largely making this trip with the goal of solidifying gains made in Iraq – thereby securing the defining foreign-policy action of his presidency as a "plus" for his legacy.
"Almost all they [in the White House] are doing [on this trip] is because of Iraq or has an Iraq element to it," says Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They understand the president's legacy depends on it." Bush appears to be encouraging progress toward a Palestinian state for its own sake, Mr. Pollack adds, but what he's really doing is pushing the peace process as a quid pro quo for "garnering support all around the region on Iraq."
Of course another difficulty for Bush is that he makes his trip as the US presidential race grabs the headlines. Foreign leaders are increasingly preoccupied with what kind of American leadership will follow, rather than focusing on what Bush will be able to do in his remaining year in office.
White House officials bristle at suggestions that the president has waning relevance in the region – or that he has pulled back from the "freedom agenda" he laid out in his second inaugural address. They point out that he will make it the theme of what they say is a major speech in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
At a pretrip briefing with reporters last week, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said that the promotion of democracy and freedom as a "counterpoint" to the ideology of terrorism remains "the essence of [Bush's] strategy." It will be a highlight of his trip, Mr. Hadley said.
"It is integral to the president's strategy for how to bring stability and prosperity to the region and to make it a bulwark against terror, that there be progress in terms of freedom and democracy," Hadley said. "So no, I don't think he's pulled back."