Bush takes altered goals to Mideast
His trip includes Israel and the Palestinian territories.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
Although Bush may well talk about freedom, other pressing concerns are likely to crowd it out – such as Iran. Pointing up the potential for conflict with that country, the Pentagon reported Monday a confrontation between US Navy ships and Iranian boats in the Strait of Hormuz at the foot of the Persian Gulf on Sunday.
Over three days in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Bush will focus on the relaunched peace process and efforts to establish a Palestinian state before he leaves office. While some observers expect a dramatic announcement – perhaps on abolishing illegal Israeli settlements – the White House continues to dampen such expectations by saying the president is primarily looking to support the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some experts also suspect the president's agenda allows for a surprise side trip to Iraq, or even to Lebanon.
Back to Iran, Bush will be emphasizing to leaders in the region – who are more interested in avoiding conflict with Tehran – why they need to resist its rising influence. At the same time, he will have to explain to a confused audience why the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Tehran had stopped a nuclear weapons program in 2003, does not mean that the international community should relax efforts against Iran's progressing nuclear energy program.