Another Bush Fantasy Shattered

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 19, 2008; 1:44 PM

The notion that President Bush could serve as an honest broker between Israelis and Arabs has always been something of a fantasy.

Now it appears to be a fantasy the lame-duck Bush White House is no longer willing to put much effort into sustaining.

The Israeli portion of Bush's latest trip to the Middle East was a nearly nonstop love fest, with Bush enthusiastically celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, delivering a speech that imbued Israel with the same absolute moral authority that he claims for himself, and bathing in adulation that literally brought tears to his eyes. In all the excitement, Bush nearly forgot to even mention his lip-service devotion to a Palestinian state.

But in Egypt, when it came time to address an Arab audience, Bush was hectoring and remote. He not only chastised Arab leaders for failing to live up to his moral standards, but he held up occupied Iraq as one sign that "the light of liberty is beginning to shine" in the Middle East, and he urged Arab countries to wean themselves off oil revenues.

No wonder his reception was chilly at best.

The Coverage

Jeffrey Fleishman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In vivid contrast to his effusive stopover in Israel, President Bush ended a five-day Middle East trip on Sunday by criticizing Arab nations for political repression and urging them toward economic reforms and women's rights.

"The president's speech at the World Economic Forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik crystallized an approach that in Arab eyes stubbornly favors Israel over their own concerns and interests. . . .

"The mood was markedly different from that on Wednesday, when Bush began his tour of the region by celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary and receiving a standing ovation in the parliament, or Knesset, for uttering 'Happy Independence Day' in Hebrew. . . .

"The Bush administration has been blamed for such favoritism for years, and Sunday's comments appeared to underscore the president's misgivings about the Arab world while lauding its economic potential.

"'The president was himself, finally. Maybe because this is the end of his political career,' said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and now a lecturer at Birzeit University. 'This is actually him. This is George Bush the human being, not the politician. . . . I always thought he was a Christian Zionist and a fundamentalist ideologue.' . . .

"The president's calls for ending political repression and widening democracy strike many in the region as hypocrisy. . . .

"The Bush administration has relied on the support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- countries with poor human rights records that frequently jail political opponents -- to help contain Iran and bring stability to Iraq and Lebanon."

Hannah Allam writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Bush's "chiding speech to the Arabs -- only days after lavishing praise on Israel -- only hardened his image as a pro-Israeli president who's commanding wars in two Muslim nations, and possibly preparing for a third, with Iran. . . .

"The stern remarks -- in which Bush pointedly included his host, Egypt, as among Arab nations with a long way to go toward democratic reform -- was an abrupt departure from the glowing address the president made Thursday before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. . . .

"Bush also took the opportunity to lash out again at Iran, wagering that he'd find sympathetic ears in this audience of mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs, many of whom share the U.S. administration's concerns over the growing regional influence of the Persian, Shiite Muslim theocracy in Tehran."

But Allam writes that his "tough talk on Iran drew only scattered applause. While many Arab states are alarmed at Iran's sway in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, leaders have said they're even more fearful of a preemptive U.S. strike against Tehran that almost certainly would lead to an Iranian retaliation with the potential to ripple across the Middle East."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Bush arrived back in Washington late Sunday with little to show for the trip. Saudi Arabia rebuffed his plea for help with soaring oil prices, Egypt's leader questioned his seriousness about peacemaking and there was not enough progress in the peace talks to warrant a three-way meeting of Bush with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, did not conceal his disappointment over Bush's remarks to the Israeli parliament. The speech barely mentioned Palestinian hopes.

"'We do not want the Americans to negotiate on our behalf,' Abbas said Sunday after talks with [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. 'All that we want from them is to stand by (our) legitimacy and have a minimum of neutrality.' Abbas had dinner Saturday with Bush.

"'In principle, the Bush speech at the Knesset angered us, and we were not happy with it,' Abbas said Sunday. 'This is our position and we have a lot of remarks (about the speech) and I frankly, clearly and transparently asked him that the American position should be balanced.'"

Charles Levinson writes in USA Today: "President Bush wrapped up his five-day Middle East tour Sunday with little visible progress on either of the main issues he highlighted: rising oil prices and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Instead, Bush was subjected to a wave of criticism as he delivered a lecture to the Arab world on the benefits of democracy.

"'This trip was an exclamation point on the fact that the mystique about American power is no longer there,' said Steve Clemons, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

"On the final leg of his trip, Bush came to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak greeted him with a half-dozen soldiers and none of the pomp given Bush on other state visits. Instead, Egypt's state-controlled newspapers slammed the U.S. president in stinging front-page editorials.

"'It was clear that America is neither loved nor feared,' said Hisham Qassem, a prominent Egyptian newspaper editor and democracy activist who won the National Endowment for Democracy's annual democracy award last fall and visited with Bush in the Oval Office."

The Missing Man

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "As he toured the Middle East over the past five days, President Bush tried to shore up support for his strategy of isolating Iran in meetings with the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. But the one session that did not take place laid bare the problems his administration faces as it tries to persuade its allies to keep the faith.

"Bush was supposed to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Sunday. But Siniora had to cancel to deal with a political crisis at home that has highlighted the commanding position the Shiite movement Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, has assumed in Lebanon.

Levinson notes in USA Today that as Siniora left for a meeting with Hezbollah on Saturday, "he criticized Bush for not doing enough to support Lebanon and called on him 'to pressure the Israelis to end their occupation.'

"According to Clemons, 'our Arab allies feel they've overinvested in us and we haven't delivered, so now these states are putting distance between themselves and the U.S.' "

The Spin

The best evidence Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could muster for reporters on Air Force One yesterday that Bush really did care about the Palestinians was that he added the words "I believe" into the speech written for him on Saturday. "[T]here was one line that he himself chose, that says, 'I believe that the Palestinian people will do this,' in effect, 'I believe in the Palestinian people; I believe they will build a democracy.' But it was really an expression of belief in the Palestinians," Rice said.

Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Speculation in Jerusalem was that Bush will return in October, this time to try to push the parties over the finish line, and the White House was not discouraging that view Sunday."

Appeasement Watch

Bush revisited his comments about appeasement in an interview with NBC's Richard Engel broadcast this morning on the Today Show. Here's the White House transcript.

In his speech to the Knesset, Bush likened those who support negotiating with our enemies to Nazi appeasers. As I wrote in Friday's column, although White House officials publicly denied that the remarks were aimed at Democratic front-runner Barack Obama -- who has been particularly critical of Bush's refusal to talk with leaders who disagree with him -- they privately acknowledged that Obama was a target.

Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro write for NBC News: "Of course, the Bush White House was all about trumpeting the hit on Obama pre-speech. It was only after when the political fallout seemed to hurt Bush more than hurt Obama that the White House backed off."

Asked directly what he intended, Bush dodged.

Engel: "In front of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, you said that negotiating with Iran is pointless and then you went further. You're saying--you said that it was appeasement. Were you referring to Senator Barack Obama? He certainly thought you were."

Bush: "You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. People need to read the speech. You didn't get it exactly right, either. What I said was is that we need to take the words of people seriously. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously. And if you don't take them seriously, then it hearkens back to a day when we didn't take other words seriously. It was fitting that I talked about not taking the words of a Adolf Hitler seriously on the floor of the Knesset. But I also talked about the need to defend Israel, the need to not negotiate with the likes of al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas, and the need to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon."

But in response to a follow-up later, Bush suggested that he didn't put talking with Iran in the same category as talking to leaders of terrorist organizations. Obama supports negotiations with Iran, but not Hamas or Hezbollah.

Engel: "Negotiations with Iran: Is that appeasement? Is that like negotiating with Adolf Hitler?"

Bush: "No -- my position Richard, all along, has been that if the Iranians verifiably suspend their enrichment -- which would be a key measure to stop them from gaining the know-how to build a weapon, then they can come to the table. . . . That's been a position of my administration for gosh I can't remember how many years. . . . But I've also said that if they choose not to do that -- verifiably suspend -- we will continue to rally the world to isolate the Iranians."

Fareed Zakaria writes in his Newsweek column that in dealing with such groups as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban "the Bush administration has adopted a macho, exclusively military approach. All three of these groups have a political base in their societies that is deep and enduring. Denouncing them as evil and promising to destroy them will not change that; in fact, doing so only adds to their mystique of resistance and struggle. What we need is a political strategy to combat, contest and weaken the appeal of these groups or to marginalize their violent factions. Such a policy would naturally involve some contact with their leaders, but as part of a much broader effort to engage all groups in these societies politically. . . .

"In fact, this administration's few successes have come when it's agreed to talk with its adversaries. Bush authorized negotiations with Libya and North Korea--both of which he regarded as terrorist states and one of which he placed in the Axis of Evil. As for Iran, we've talked with Iranian officials on several occasions over issues relating to Afghanistan and Iraq. James Dobbins, the administration's representative in the 2002 talks to form the government in Afghanistan, described the Iranians as 'straightforward, reliable and helpful. They were critical to our success.' President Bush's remarks on the solemn occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary may have been political. But much worse, they were dishonest."

Bush's Backfires

Engel's interview is worth watching or reading in its entirety. It's one of the more contentious Bush interviews I've seen in a long time.

What Engel did that seemed to increasingly annoy the president was assertively confront him with the legacy of his actions in the Middle East: Backfire upon backfire upon backfire.

Engel: "A lot of Iran's empowerment is a result of the war in Iraq. How do you feel --"

Bush: "Yeah."

Engel: " -- that Iran is -- its position in the world is rising because of your actions in Iraq?"

Bush: "See, I'm not so sure I agree with that. That's a premise I don't necessarily agree with. As a matter of fact, I think Iran is troubled by the fact that a young democracy is growing in Iraq. You know, this notion about somehow if Saddam Hussein were in power, everything would be fine in the Middle East is a ludicrous notion. . . ."

Engel: "In Iraq I recently met a soldier. He was medevaced out on his first tour. He's now back on his second tour, was already medevaced to the Green Zone. How many more tours do these soldiers have to do? Is there an exit strategy for Iraq?"

Bush: "Well, first of all, the fact that this person volunteered again speaks to the great bravery of our troops. And we need to honor them and will honor them. . . . The fact that you told me about a guy who got medevaced twice only tells me that we've got a courageous military. In terms of success, we're returning troops on success. You might remember I had to make a difficult choice to put more troops in. Those troops are coming home by July. . . ."

Engel: "So it doesn't sound like there's an end anytime soon -- it just sounds like we need to support them as much as we can, and keep them there as long as we can."

Bush: "I think the end, Richard, is, I told you, return on success. The more successful Iraq is, the fewer troops we'll need. And there's no question Iraq is becoming successful. The security situation has changed, the political situation is a lot better. The economic situation, unlike a lot of other parts of this world, is pretty strong. . . ."

Engel: "You still view Iraq as a success? Because on the ground it looks very bleak. People still want to leave the country, and people are -- "

Bush: "Well, that's interesting you said that. That's a -- that's a little different from the surveys I've seen and a little different from the attitude of the actual Iraqis I've talked to, but you're entitled to your opinion."

Engel: "The Iraqi government I think has one position, which is that it's seeing a lot of progress. But Sadr City has been up in revolt, there's major battles in Mosul, I was just in a major firefight in Sadr City, hit by an EFP. It's still very much a war zone."

Bush: "Richard, no question it's violent. But there's no question that the Iraqi government are dealing with a violent people. . . . What you're watching is an Iraqi government taking care of extremists in their midsts, so that democracy can survive."

Engel points out that Bush is leaving his successor a Middle East in great upheaval, then closes with the clincher:

Engel: "The war on terrorism has been the centerpiece of your presidency. Many people say that it has not made the world safer, that it has created more radicals. That there are more people in this part of the world who want to attack the United States."

Bush: "Yeah, that theory says: By confronting the people that killed us, therefore there's going to be more, therefore we shouldn't confront them?"

At this point, Bush is leaning forward pugnaciously.

Engel: "We're creating more people who want to kill us, one could also say."

Bush: "Well, you could say that, but the truth of the matter is there's fewer al Qaeda leaders; their people are on the run; they're having more trouble recruiting in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, our partner, has gone after al Qaeda. People see al Qaeda for what it is, which is a group of extremists and radicals who preach nothing but hate. And I, uh, I just -- this is the beehive theory. We should have just let the beehive sit there and hope the bees don't come out of the hive. My attitude is the United States must stay on the offense against al Qaeda, two ways --"

Engel: "What happens if you smash the hive and let them spread?"

Bush: "Excuse me for a minute, Richard." Bush pauses to glare. "Two ways. One: Find 'em and bring 'em to justice, what we're doing. And two: Offer them freedom as an alternative to their vision. And somehow to suggest the bees would stay in the hive is naive. They didn't stay in the hive when they came and killed 3,000 of our citizens."

Engel, looking like he'd like to say something else: "Thank you very much for your time, Mr. President."

Iran Watch

Engel also asked Bush a key forward-looking question: "You talked about Iran being a major threat to American policies in the region, with Hamas, Hezbollah, militia groups in Iraq. Do you intend to finish your term in office with a military action of some kind against Iran?"

Bush didn't answer that one either: "Ah, Richard, that's highly speculative. I've always made it clear that options are on the table, but, you know, the biggest weapon we have against those who can't stand freedom is the advance of freedom. . .

"The best way to deal with the Iranians in the Middle East is to help the young democracy of Lebanon survive, is to stand up a Palestinian state, obviously subject to the road map, which we intend to do before my presidency, and succeed in Iraq."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Post that national security adviser Steven Hadley"said Bush discussed several ideas with his counterparts last week about how to confront Iran, but he would not provide details."

Oil Watch

Abramowitz writes in Saturday's Post: "Saudi leaders told President Bush on Friday that they are doing all they can to increase oil production, gently turning aside the president's efforts to bring down prices more rapidly.

"After a meeting with Bush and his advisers Friday afternoon, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi announced that the kingdom decided last week to increase production by about 300,000 barrels a day to meet increased demand from customers for June. That would take Saudi production to 9.4 million barrels a day. The kingdom's production capacity is 11.3 million barrels.

"The Saudi increase is modest and appears unlikely to have much effect on record crude oil prices. Despite the announcement, crude oil prices in New York climbed $2.17 to $126.29 a barrel. . . .

"Bush has invested enormously in improving his personal ties to King Abdullah, and administration officials say the effort has paid off in greater cooperation in fighting terrorism, confronting Iran and other shared concerns.

"But . . . [n]ot only did the Saudis resist efforts to boost production even more -- as many congressional leaders are demanding -- they also pointedly said that the extra output was a week-old response to commercial customers, not to the president. And they made clear their unhappiness with Bush's emotional speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Saturday that Saudi Arabia's decision to boost oil production by 300,000 barrels a day is 'something, but it doesn't solve our problem,' and he called again on Congress to approve legislation allowing more oil exploration at home."

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday halted purchases of crude oil for the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, reversing its policy on the emergency reserve three days after Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of suspending the purchases to ease the upward pressure on oil prices."

Torture Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A new Justice Department report praises the refusal of F.B.I. agents to take part in the military's abusive questioning of prisoners in Guant¿namo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also finds fault with the bureau's slow response to complaints about the tactics from its own agents, people with knowledge of the still-secret report said. . . .

"F.B.I. agents complained to superiors beginning in 2002 that the tactics they had seen yielded little actual intelligence, prevented them from establishing a rapport with detainees through more traditional means of questioning and might violate F.B.I. policy or American law.

"One F.B.I. memorandum spoke of 'torture techniques' used by military interrogators. Agents described seeing things like inmates handcuffed in a fetal position for up to 24 hours, left to defecate on themselves, intimidated by dogs, made to wear women's underwear and subjected to strobe lights and extreme heat and cold."

FEC Watch

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "A controversial Bush administration nominee to the Federal Election Commission withdrew from consideration yesterday, providing a likely breakthrough to an impasse that has sidelined the political watchdog agency at the height of the primary season.

"Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer whose nomination became entangled in allegations that political considerations influenced decisions by the agency's Civil Rights Division, sent President Bush a letter withdrawing his name."

Golf Watch

Rupert Cornwell writes in his opinion column for the Independent: "So 43 is doing his bit too. To show solidarity with the troops fighting and dying in his endless war in Iraq, and with their families, George W Bush has given up . . . golf. When I read that remark, in an interview with the online publication Politico last week, it seemed at first to sum up everything that was wrong with him, and with the Republican party, blindly following him into the miserable dead-end that is Bush's presidency in its final months.

"Giving up golf? Is that what the 43rd President means by sacrifice, when Americans -- apart, of course, from the soldiers and their families -- have been asked to sacrifice nothing in a war he likens to the struggle against Nazi Germany? . . .

"But then I began to think again about Bush's 'sacrifice'. Yes, it sounds small. But by the standards of his charmed, gilded life, and of the presidency in general, it is a pretty considerable deprivation. The Oval Office is a stressful place, and golf has been an important prop for the men who occupy it."

Here's Noah Adams of NPR trying to get a little context, from Don Van Natta of The New York Times, author of "First Off the Tee," a book about the history of golf and the presidency.

Adams: "Mr. Van Natta, any precedent here for - a president giving up golf during war time?"

Van Natta: "Surprisingly, no. The closest any president came was President Woodrow Wilson shortly after World War I gave it up for a short time and was concerned about how it would look to his constituents during war. But he had some medical issues, and his doctor advised him that he needed to get back out on the links to relieve the stress. And his wife agreed that that was a good idea, so President Wilson got back out there and played, and surprisingly, didn't take much criticism for it."

Bush and the GOP

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "The biggest gift President Bush has given his party this year was to keep his daughter's wedding nearly as private as Connie Corleone's. Now that his disapproval rating has reached the Nixon nadir of negativity, even a joyous familial ritual isn't enough to make the country glad to see him. The G.O.P.'s best hope would be for both the president and Dick Cheney to lock themselves in a closet until the morning after Election Day."

Karl Rove Watch

Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman says he believes that former White House political guru Karl Rove pressured prosecutors to pursue a criminal investigation against him. Siegelman spoke with Markeshia Ricks of the Anniston Star.

Q. "Why do you believe Rove hasn't agreed to testify under oath?"

Siegelman: "He doesn't want to run the risk of lying under oath and being prosecuted for perjury. . . .

"I think this will make Watergate look like child's play when it is fully investigated, not so much this case because certainly it's not about me. It's about restoring justice and protecting our democracy and, because this case shows the lengths to which those who are obsessed with power will go in order to gain power or retain power, it has attracted the attention of the national press. . . .

"This was not an isolated incident. This was a pernicious, political plan that was set in motion by Karl Rove to further his espoused dream of establishing a permanent Republican majority in this country, and what he left out was by any means necessary."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S News: "To give you an idea of how low President Bush's approval rating is, during the flight of Air Force One to the Middle East, they made him sit in the bathroom the entire way. . . . And while he was in Israel, President Bush launched a political attack on Barack Obama. I guess he attacked him over there, so he doesn't have to attack him over here."

Cartoon Watch

Steve Sack and John Cole on Bush's golf sacrifice; Jeff Danziger on the Bush brand; Jim Borgman on Bush's advice to Obama; Lee Judge on what Bush has in common with Clinton; David Horsey on Bush and the Saudis.

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