The Opposite of a Victory Lap

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 13, 2008; 1:18 PM

President Bush heads off to the Middle East today for a five-day tour through a political landscape of false predictions and broken promises.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has a faulty calendar and questionable optimism when it comes to the Middle East. By his original reckoning, an elusive peace should have happened three years ago and a democratic Palestinian state should now be living in harmony with longtime enemy Israel.

"That was the hopeful timetable prescribed in the 2003 Mideast strategy known as the 'road map.'

"Of course, it did not happen.

"Instead of a historic reconciliation, tensions flared, more violence erupted and bloodshed brought grief and deepened generations-old hatreds, particularly on the Palestinian side, which suffered disproportionately heavy casualties.

"So, Bush reset his timetable and promised to get engaged in the tedious peacemaking process that he largely avoided during most of his presidency. Now, he leaves for the Mideast Tuesday to try again. Undaunted by the missed deadline, he already had set an ambitious target for an agreement about 250 days from now, reaching for a peace deal that has eluded other administrations that invested more time, energy and prestige than his administration has.

"Nearly six months after the new process was launched in Annapolis, Md., there is little sign of progress and widespread skepticism about reaching an accord."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "When Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed themselves to peace talks after meeting in Annapolis, Md., last November, Mr. Bush had hopes of ending his presidency on a foreign policy high note, with a deal for the contours of a Palestinian state. But with Mr. Bush headed to the region this week for the second time in five months, peace seems as elusive as ever -- and some are looking to his successor.

"'In some ways, this is the roadshow cast of "Waiting for Godot,"' said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said the trip would 'basically set a marker while everybody waits for the next president,' while other analysts predicted the most Mr. Bush could accomplish would be to hand over a working peace process to his successor. The five-day trip, which will begin Tuesday, will revolve around the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, but will also take Mr. Bush to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. For the White House, the timing is hardly ideal.

"Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is embroiled in a criminal investigation that threatens his job. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, left Washington disappointed after a recent meeting with Mr. Bush. Although the peace talks continue, the two sides are far apart on the core issues that divide them. . . .

"Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offered an especially bleak assessment.

"'It's hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now,' Mr. Alterman said. 'The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable. U.S. power and influence are at low ebb in the region. The Bush administration is beset by challenges -- the combination of a faltering economy, persistent difficulties in Iraq and a growing threat from Iran -- all at a time that the president's popularity is at a historical low, and his administration is settling more and more into lame duck status.'"

Dion Nissenbaum writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Combined with the Bush's diminishing influence over world events, the fissures running through the Middle East make any last-minute administration achievements unlikely, said Aaron David Miller, the author of 'The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.'

"'This is not an American story right now,' said Miller, who served as a Middle East negotiator for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. 'We are not feared in this region. We are not liked in this region. And we are not respected in this region, so there's not much leverage that we have.'"

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Rather than consolidating achievements or clearing a path for his successor, the president's tour of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will serve to illustrate how much has gone wrong in the region for the United States on his watch -- and how unlikely he is to reverse the tide in his final months. In Israel, Mr. Bush will face the crumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace process he attempted to launch last year; in Saudi Arabia, he will find a regime that has been deaf to his pleas to help with soaring oil prices or support the Iraqi government. In Egypt, Mr. Bush will meet a ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who not only defied the president's 'freedom agenda' but also forced the administration to retreat to its old policy of backing corrupt autocracies.

"Then there is Lebanon, where what was once one of the administration's clearest achievements is unraveling. Last week, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement launched an offensive against the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora, which came to power in an election after the United States helped to end Syria's military occupation of the country in 2005. By yesterday, Hezbollah had gained control over western Beirut and other key areas outside the capital and appeared close to establishing itself as the preeminent power in Lebanon -- in essence reversing what Mr. Bush hailed as the 'Cedar Revolution.' Mr. Siniora's government, in which the administration invested some $1.3 billion in aid over the past two years, has already meekly retreated from an attempt to curb Hezbollah's creeping takeover of the country's airport and telecommunications. The Lebanese army, which has received $400 million of the U.S. aid, has been facilitating Hezbollah's disarmament of pro-government militias and its destruction of pro-government television stations and political offices."

And yet John D. McKinnon writes for the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that "administration officials say there is quiet movement on the outlines of a future Palestinian state and that momentum is building on the economic-development front, particularly in the Palestinian West Bank. Even if Mr. Bush's 11th-hour push for a peace deal ultimately fails, growing investment in the area is pointing the way toward possible longer-term progress, officials say."

Optimism for Optimism's Sake

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "In November, when Bush convened nearly 50 countries in Annapolis, Md., for a Mideast peace conference that launched the first formal negotiations in years between Israelis and Palestinians, he repeatedly said a deal was doable by the time he leaves office next January.

"'I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible,' he said at a Rose Garden send-off for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Bush was just as cheerful in January before, during and after a Mideast trip. 'There's a good chance for peace,' he said in Israel, his first visit there as president. 'When I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying,' Bush said in Egypt.

"He kept this stance into March, despite no visible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks that include bimonthly meetings between Olmert and Abbas. Bush declared that the 10 months left on his self-imposed peace clock was 'plenty of time.' 'I'm still as optimistic as I was after Annapolis,' Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

"The approach is classic Bush, for whom a favorite story is how the choice of an Oval Office rug with a sunburst pattern says 'optimistic person comes to work' to visitors. Truth be told, it's not so uncommon for most politicians and diplomats, said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"'The president is optimistic because he thinks his job is to be optimistic,' he said."

Not Even Good for Israel

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Few doubt the sincerity of Bush's passion [for Israel], which has translated into unprecedented backing for Israeli self-defense and the most clearly stated presidential commitment to protect Israel if it is attacked.

"But from left to right, Bush also faces criticism for pursuing Middle East policies that, many diplomats and analysts believe, have left Israel more threatened than when he assumed office in January 2001.

"'The sum total is that if you measure Israeli security at the beginning of this administration and at the end of the administration, based on things the president either could have done, should have done or failed to do, the report card is pretty negative,' said Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as Bush's first-term ambassador to Israel.

"Kurtzer, who now advises Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, cites, in part, what he sees as Bush's neglect of the peace process for most of his seven years in office. Despite the president's optimism that he can achieve a Palestinian-Israeli deal in his final year, Kurtzer and other analysts think Israel remains far from peace with its neighbors.

"Meanwhile, the Israeli defense establishment is having second thoughts about Bush's decision to remove Saddam Hussein and the botched occupation of Iraq. Those policies, some argue, have helped fuel the rise of Israel's nemesis, Iran, whose president has spoken openly of trying to wipe Israel off the map. The war has also threatened to destabilize neighboring Jordan with a flood of refugees."

Still Backing Olmert -- for Now

Corky Siemaszko writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush called embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert an 'honest man' Monday even as a corruption probe of the former Jerusalem mayor widened.

"With a new poll showing that most Israelis believe Olmert is a crook, the growing scandal threatened to overshadow Bush's visit Tuesday to mark the 60th birthday of the Jewish state and promote peacemaking with the Palestinians. . . .

"Last week, Olmert admitted he had accepted hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars in cash-stuffed envelopes from Long Island businessman Morris Talansky.

"But he denied any wrongdoing and said he'd resign if indicted."

Shmuel Rosner writes for Haaretz: "At a meeting with Israeli journalists at the White House Monday morning, Bush offered words of support for Olmert, [saying] that relations between the two leaders are 'nothing but excellent.' Yet, at the same time, he stressed that the peace process does not depend on Olmert, and even named two possible replacements for him."

Here's a partial transcript of Bush's interview with Rosner, Tal Schneider of Maariv, Amos Regev of Israel Hayom and David Horovitz of the Jerusalem Post.

No Regrets

Said Bush, in his interview with the Israeli journalists: "I'm not running for the Nobel Peace Prize; I'm just trying to be a guy to use the influence of the United States to move the process along."

And as usual, Bush refused to admit he's done anything wrong. Indeed, he insisted that he's the one seeing things clearly.

Q: "I have more of a general question. Looking back at your seven last years here, do you think there was a point of time that you have -- should have maybe made different decisions from the one you took, pertaining to the Israeli original conflict and other --"

Bush: "Yes, that's an interesting question. They always ask me, would you have done things different? I probably would have toned my rhetoric down at times. And I think it's important to speak clearly and then do what you say you're going to do. But in terms of the -- in terms of Israel, I would hope that history would say, from everybody's perspective, including the Israeli perspective, that this is a guy who clearly saw the world the way it is."

He explained: "You know, on all these issues, just so you know, there needs -- I'm going to say the word several times -- maybe this is like the word of the day -- clarity. In my time as President, it's easy to excuse people until there's just kind of moments where it's so obvious that the skeptics can't see reality."

Lebanon in Shatters

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "On the eve of his trip to the Middle East next week, President Bush faces the collapse of one of his three top priorities in the region -- stabilizing Lebanon, a rare Arab democracy -- amid new fighting that once again pits the United States against Iran and Syria through surrogates, according to Lebanese and U.S. analysts. . . .

"The Bush administration has spent $1.3 billion over the past two years to prop up Siniora's government, with about $400 million dedicated to boosting Lebanon's security forces. But Washington's assistance has been put in check by Hezbollah -- the Shiite militia trained, armed and financed by Iran and Syria -- which has the Siniora government under virtual siege. . . .

"'Clearly, Bush has a two-header now. He'll have to explain away the lack of progress on the peace process, and a crisis in Lebanon that could see the collapse of the Siniora government. It comes at a time when the news from Iraq is as gloomy as ever and oil prices have reached $126 a barrel,' said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration National Security Council staffer who worked on Lebanon during the Shiite takeover of West Beirut in 1984."

In a tough interview with the president yesterday, Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, a correspondent for Arab satellite TV network Al Arabiya, questioned his commitment to Lebanon. Here's the transcript.

Q: "You have been a strong supporter of Prime Minister Siniora. Yet when he came under attack, he seems to be abandoned -- not the U.S., not the U.N., not Arab countries came to his aid. How do you explain that?"

Bush: "Well, I don't think it's an accurate description that the United States hasn't stayed in contact with him, has listened to him, has listened to his requests. I mean, we're in contact with him a lot. . . . "

Q: "Just to follow up on that, during the fight with Fatah al-Islam, you have helped the Lebanese army, but in this particular case, it doesn't seem to be coming. So can you just give us some details --"

Bush: "Yes, we probably got some more work to do, Nadia. . . . "

Q: "Three of your closest allies, which is Saad al-Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and Prime Minister Siniora, are under siege, they're under house arrest. Is this any guarantee that you -- their life is safe or that they're not going to be attacked? And if they are attacked, what the United States can do?"

Bush: "Well, we're constantly looking at options, of course. . . ."

Q: "But you're confident that their safety is not going to be touched?"

Bush: "I hope so. I'm not confident. . . . "

Q: "You wanted to meet with Prime Minister Siniora in Sharm el Sheikh, but he's under siege. How he's going to get out of Lebanon?"

Bush: "I don't know, we'll see. I'd like to meet him. And we'll just have to deal with that when I get over there."

And here's an instant classic:

Q: "Sir, a former Israeli army -- (inaudible) -- said that it's better if Hezbollah is in control of Lebanon. It will make it easier for Israel to attack. Do you agree with this man?"

Bush: "I'm a peace man. I think -- I don't know who this guy is and I haven't read about it, but I will tell you that I would much rather have the Siniora government succeed and survive, and that there be peaceful -- a peaceful process. I think we ought to all work to prevent the necessity for armed conflict in order to solve problems."

Iran Watch

So who is to blame for all that's gone wrong? For Bush, the answer is clear: Iran.

AFP reports: "Bush on Monday called Iran the 'single biggest threat' to peace in the Middle East ahead of a visit to the region centered on celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary.

"'To me it's the single biggest threat to peace in the Middle East, the Iranian regime,' because of its nuclear programme and its support of groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, Bush told Israel's Channel 10."

In this video excerpt, Bush starts off as if speaking directly -- and provocatively -- to the Iranian leaders: "Your desire to have a nuclear weapon, coupled with your statements about the destruction of our close ally, has made it abundantly clear to everybody that we have got to work together to stop you from having a nuclear weapon."

I've found that it's sometimes worth ignoring whatever Bush says before the word "but." And applying that rule to what he said next makes it seem that he's seriously considering military action against Iran: "Stopping then enriching [uranium], the first choice is to do it diplomatically, of course. And that's why we're working on the sanction regime, and that's why we're trying to affect their money flows. But it's hard, because not everyone shares the same anxiety as Israel and the United States does. And, uh, but it's a tough issue and I fully understand it and I will continue to pressure as best I can."

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune: "With all his repeated talk of keeping military options 'on the table' when it comes to Iran, President Bush has fueled speculation in the region - and around the world - that the United States is gearing up for an assault inside Iran.

"'There's a real search for the underlying logic of it all,'' says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 'And the underlying logic has been that people think that we are taking steps to wage war against Iran. You can see the Admiral Fallon resignation and a whole range of other things.

"'So the U.S. has actually been trying to do a number of things over the last several years to reassure the Iranians in particular that we're not about to go off the deep end and there's something to work with,' he says. 'But the perception in the Gulf is that Vice President Cheney has a plan, the president has a plan, that it's all - you just have to watch Fox News enough and you'll understand it all.'"

Cheney's Reading Matter

William Douglas of McClatchy Newspapers calls attention to Cheney's latest choice of reading material. As the vice president left Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday for Philadelphia, he "had a thick hardcover book tucked under his arm as he got off Air Force Two at Willow Grove Naval Air Station. Aides said the book was 'Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45,' by the British historian Max Hastings. . . .

"The book's main premise, according to reviews, is that the United States was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Bush, the Saudis and the Price of Gas

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush said Monday that when he meets Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah later this week, he'll bring up the effect that high oil prices are having on the U.S. and global economies.

"'Of course I'll bring it up to him,' Bush said in a CBS News radio interview. However, he added that the capacity of the Saudis to raise production -- and thus help lower prices -- is limited.

"'When you analyze the capacity for countries to put oil on the market it's just not like it used to be,' Bush said. 'The demand for oil is so high relative to supply these days that there's just not a lot of excess capacity.'

"However, Saudi Arabia has considerable additional production capacity. It's pumping a little over 8.5 million barrels a day, compared with about 9.5 million barrels a day two years ago, and has acknowledged the ability to produce as much as 11 million barrels a day. . . .

"Bush also said that, while he was a 'big supporter' of energy conservation, he would not issue a specific appeal to the public to ease up on driving and not use as much fuel. 'I think they can figure out how to do that,' he told CBS. 'I mean, the market has a way of convincing people to drive less, depending on their ability to afford.'"

Here's audio of the interview with CBS Radio's Peter Maer and Mark Knoller. Here's Bush on the price of gas: "It's just high. It's very high. And, you know, it's just too darn bad because this economy was doing fine, and then we had the housing issue, and then this gasoline issue is making it harder for the economy to recover. It's growing--don't get me wrong, it's positive, but it could be a lot better with lower gasoline prices."

Bush, McCain and the Polls

Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Americans are gloomier about the direction of the country than they have been at any point in 15 years, and Democrats hold their biggest advantage since early 1993 as the party better able to deal with the nation's main problems, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"Sen. John McCain, the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee . . . continues to elude some of the anger aimed at his party and at President Bush, whose approval ratings dipped to an all-time low in Post-ABC polling. Maintaining a separate identity will be a key to McCain's chances of winning the White House in November. Overall, Democrats hold a 21-percentage-point advantage over Republicans as the party better equipped to handle the nation's problems. . . .

"Bush's approval has slipped to 31 percent, and has been lower than 50 percent for 38 consecutive months."

Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "Beyond the president's overall rating, intensity of sentiment is heavily against Bush. Fifty-two percent of Americans not only disapprove of his work but do so strongly, matching the high in ABC News/Washington Post polls set in July. Just 15 percent strongly approve.

"These views remain highly partisan: Sixty-nine percent of Republicans approve of Bush's job performance, while just 9 percent of Democrats agree. His ratings, on average, have been more partisan than any president's since ABC and the Post began polling in 1981.

"The swing group, as usual, is the third of Americans who define themselves as independents. Just 24 percent approve of the president's work, a career low.

"Republicans, while still behind the president, are less emphatically so: Just 39 percent strongly approve of his performance, while 56 percent of independents and 78 percent of Democrats strongly disapprove."

Gallup last week reported: "At a time when George W. Bush's job approval rating has fallen to 28%, just 6 in 10 Republicans approve of the job he is doing, the lowest of his administration."

Gallup further reports today that Bush may do more damage to McCain's chances of being elected than Rev. Jeremiah Wright does to Barack Obama's.

Wedding Watch

Yes, Jenna got married on Saturday.

Shelby Hodge writes for the Houston Chronicle: "It was a night of presidential mood swings Saturday when first daughter Jenna Bush wed Henry Hager.

"Walking Jenna down the aisle at the ranch in Crawford, President George Bush displayed the famous family emotions -- his tears visible as the two approached the limestone cross where the ceremony was held.

"Before the night was out, the president was on stage briefly whooping it up with Super T and his 10-piece show band from Nashville, Tenn."

Ronald Kessler writes for Newsmax: "Toasting his daughter Jenna Bush and Henry Hager after their wedding at his Crawford ranch Saturday night, President Bush began by confessing, 'I am an emotional wreck.'"

KHOU-TV in Houston scored an interview with Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, who performed the 35-minute ceremony. Caldwell said the president "was compassionate and emotional. Yeah, he cried. A couple of times."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush spent months joking about being a father of the bride, but on Sunday he was downright wistful about giving his daughter Jenna away to her longtime beau.

"'Our little girl, Jenna, married a really good guy, Henry Hager,' Bush said, standing next Mrs. Bush at an airport in Waco where he boarded Air Force One for his flight back to Washington. 'The wedding was spectacular. It's just -- it's all we could have hoped for.'"

More stories can be found here. And here are the official photos.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join me.

Late Night Humor

Via U.S. News:

David Letterman: "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. That's very nice of you. . . . Really, that makes up for not being invited to Jenna's wedding. . . . At the reception, President Bush danced with his lovely daughter. It's the first time he has led in eight years. . . .

"Bush danced with all the guests. And then Cheney shot the cake."

John Oliver explains to Jon Stewart that sometimes a wedding is just a wedding, not a commentary on politics and how the White House has handled the war.

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett on Bush's view of history; Tom Tomorrow on Bush in the future; Tom Toles on the missing White House e-mails; Tony Auth on the White House wedding.

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