New York Times: The 2008 race for the White House is casting a long shadow over President Bush. So long, in fact, that it may extend all the way to the Middle East.
The New York Times
White House Memo
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
Published: May 11, 2008
WASHINGTON — The 2008 race for the White House is casting a long shadow over President Bush. So long, in fact, that it may extend all the way to the Middle East.
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, and the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, has said progress is “more halting” than Mr. Bush would like.
The talks are so tenuous that even Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s ever-optimistic national security adviser, conceded there was little reason for the three leaders to get together. Mr. Bush will meet Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem and see Mr. Abbas separately in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.
“This did not seem the time for a big high-level three-way event with the president and the prime minister and President Abbas,” Mr. Hadley said. “It just doesn’t feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations.”
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.”
Still, that will not keep the president from trying.
Mr. Hadley, the national security adviser, characterized the visit as “both symbolism and substance,” and said Mr. Bush would use his time in the region to try to prod the parties along. In Israel, in addition to meeting Mr. Olmert, Mr. Bush will deliver a speech to the Israeli Parliament and tour Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea.
There is little question that President Bush will get a warm reception. Few presidents have been as closely allied with Israel as Mr. Bush, and experts say many Israelis worry that the next president will not be nearly so sympathetic. The trip will be Mr. Bush’s second to Israel as president — he was there in January, on the heels of the Annapolis talks — and probably his last.
But Arabs across the region are looking past Mr. Bush with a hopeful eye — particularly if his successor is a Democrat, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Arab-Israeli peace negotiator who worked for the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. Mr. Miller said countries like Syria, which Mr. Bush has branded a state sponsor of terrorism, were hopeful that a new administration would be more willing to engage.
“If the Democrats come in after eight years, there will be a lot of new ideas, a lot of new enthusiasm to look at the Middle East in a different way, with more engagement, more diplomacy, ” Mr. Miller said, though he added that “there may be less of a change from Bush policies” than many Arabs think.
Like most second-term presidents in their final year in office, Mr. Bush is spending considerable time on the road; the Middle East trip is one of eight foreign trips on his agenda for 2008. With a Congress controlled by Democrats and his agenda on Capitol Hill reduced to issuing veto threats, it may be no wonder that he wants to get away. Historians say overseas travel can give presidents both a political and a psychological boost.
“They hope they can get some kind of significant advantage, emotionally, personally,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential biographer. “They want a sense of being in charge, of being in control, of having some impact on something.”
Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, said even the slightest bit of good news could be a plus for the president.
“He’s not going to turn around his presidency or anything like that,” Mr. Buchanan said. “But what he might do is bump his numbers a little bit and get people to acknowledge that this guy is trying to serve the public interest.”
One issue the American public has a keen interest in is the price of oil — a topic that created some embarrassment for Mr. Bush in January. At that time, with gas prices already on the rise, Mr. Bush appealed to the Saudi oil minister to give Americans some relief by increasing production — and was publicly rebuffed. He then made a private appeal to King Abdullah, with little result.
Mr. Hadley said he was confident Mr. Bush would try again.