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.
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."
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.
For months, leaders across the region feared that bellicose words out of Washington meant that the United States was on the brink of military strikes against Tehran – what for them would amount to the third war with an Islamic country of the Bush presidency. Then, last month's NIE was seen as quieting the war drums.
In an interview last week with Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest newspaper, Bush said one of the goals of his trip "is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat, and that the NIE in no way lessens the threat, but in fact clarifies the threat."
Bush repeated in the interview that while no options have been taken off the table, he continues to want to see the threat from Iran handled "diplomatically" and primarily through economic isolation by the international community.
While in Israel, Bush is expected to hear from officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, that Iran remains a threat because of its uranium enrichment program. Speculation is mounting that Mr. Barak will present options for strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the event that diplomatic pressures fail to halt Tehran's enrichment. The enrichment process could eventually deliver the fuel for a nuclear weapon.
But Bush's reception and what he hears on Iran will be quite different in the Arab countries he visits – in part because of suspicions raised by Washington's increasingly close ties to Israel over the course of the Bush administration. While the Arab countries continue to see Iran as a threat – and not just because of its nuclear ambitions, experts say – they also want to avoid another war on Muslims in the region.
"All of the Arab Gulf states have chosen accommodation and good relations with Iran for self-protection," says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at CSIS. "They fear Iran in terms of a nuclear threat that southern Gulf regimes still see as very real. They fear … a Shiite crescent … and Iran's potential ties to Shiites in Bahrain, Saudi, Yemen, and the UAE."
Bush will also take up with Arab leaders the $20 billion arms sale the administration proposes for the region. The Saudi portion of the package in particular is seen facing opposition from Congress.
Calling the defense agreements "a signal of long-term US commitment to the region" and "an important piece of our strategy in the region," Hadley says, "We think ultimately Congress will agree with that assessment."